An Anonymous Mystery – The Story of the Zodiac Killer

During the late 60s and the 70s, San Francisco faced the terror of the unknown Zodiac Killer, who terrorized not only the common man but also the police from whose arms the criminal always managed to slip away. His threats were also read by all of San Francisco through his letters to the publishing houses of local newspapers of San Francisco, where his dangerous and arrogant nature can be seen. To this date, one cannot put a name or a face to the Zodiac Killer as this criminal mastermind was never caught. 




Victims of the Zodiac Killer


David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen


The terror of the Zodiac began in December 1968, just a few days before Christmas, at Lake Herman Road. High school students David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen were out on their first date and decided to park their car in a rather secluded area also called the lovers’ lane. Little did they know what was waiting for them at the moment they deemed to a happy one. Another car was parked beside the couples from where a car came out and began shooting at them. While Betty Lou Jenson was able to exit the car first, David Faraday was shot in the head mid-escape, after which the killer managed to get to Betty and shot her five times. While the victim’s bodies were discovered later, the killer, who then drove off in his car could not be tracked. 


Michael Mageau  and Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin


Half a year after the murder of David and Betty, in July 1969 another couple Michael Mageau and Darlene Ferrin became victims to the killer during their date. The pattern was similar to the previous murder. Michael and Darlene parked their car near the Blue Rock Springs Park where another driver parked his car behind them. After flashing the flashlight he was carrying, he opened fire on the couple. When the police found their bodies, both of them were still alive. However, only Michael survived and Darlene died due to her injuries on the way to the hospital. What was different about this murder was that the killer called the police station himself and reported a double murder and took the responsibility for the previous murder as well. As this attack had a survivor, a witness had emerged to this crime. 


Bryan Calvin Hartnell and Cecelia Ann Shephard


The dangerous Zodiac Killer emerged to claim the lives of yet another couple, Bryan Hartnell and Cecilia Shepherd, in September 1969 during their picnic in the shores of Lake Berryessa. The couple noticed a black silhouette approaching them at first but remained indifferent to the danger coming for them. The black silhouette turned out to be a man armed with a gun as well as a pistol. The man forced Cecelia to tie her partner Bryan which gave the impression of a robbery. On checking the ties, the man discovered that Bryan’s hands were loosely tied. The man then resorted to stabbing them both, as opposed to killing his victims with a gun like before. While Bryce was 8 times, Cecilia was inflicted with 24 stabs. This crime was also reported to the Sheriff who were already looking for the criminal but to no avail, and he took responsibility for this crime also. He also drew the circle cross and left the inscription “Vallejo/12-20-68/7-4-69/Sept 27–69–6:30/by knife” (dates of previous murders, date of the day murder committed and the weapon used) on the victims’ car. Cecelia was conscious when the couple was found by the Sheriff’s deputies and was able to provide a detailed description of the killer. However, she died after succumbing to a coma while Bryan survived and lived to tell the tale, where emerged a second witness. 


Paul Stein 


The next murder of the Zodiac Killer was two weeks after the previous one and was out of the general pattern where he went after couples in a secluded place. The victim of his next crime was an unknowing taxi driver Paul Stein, whose taxi the Zodiac Killer took and then shot him in the head, took his wallet and tore a part of his blood-stained shirt. Three teenagers stood witness to this murder who saw it across the street. The police officers on the look-out for the killer are said to have actually come across the Zodiac Killer himself, but as they were looking out for a black suspect due to misinformation, the Zodiac Killer was able to escape the arms of law and justice once again. Initially, the police were not sure if this is a crime by the infamous criminal due to the pattern being different and was only confirmed to be the Zodiac Killer’s work through a letter sent to the San Francisco Chronicle which had a piece of Paul’s bloodied shirt attached and took credit for this murder. Paul Stein was the Zodiac Killer’s last “official” kill. 


Kathleen Johns 


This case of 1970 is a rather different case where the Zodiac Killer fails to kill his victim. Kathleen Johns, along with her ten-month-old daughter was driving to her mother’s house where another car driving behind her, later explaining to Kathleen that it was because he saw a lose tire in her car and offered to fix it up. After the tire was fixed, she proceeded to drive but the tire came out and was clearly not fixed. The same man offered to give her a ride to the nearest repair shop. However, even after crossing multiple repair shops, the man did not stop the car, which made her suspicious and when he did stop at an intersection, she made the run for her life in a thick forest nearby with her daughter. The killer tried to find her but was unable to do so and this frustration was taken out by torching Kathleen’s car. She hitchhiked to the nearest police station and was put under safety in a restaurant. She confirmed that the man was indeed the Zodiac Killer after recognizing her abductor from a sketch of Paul Stein’s murderer.

Letters and cryptograms 

zodiac killer - Letters and cryptograms - biography

While the Zodiac Killer appreciated his anonymity, he also did not shy away from communicating with the press. After his murder of Bryce and Darlene, strange letters from the killer began to arrive at various newspaper offices in San Francisco about the murders he had committed and his future murders with a cryptogram. It is in these letters that he referred to himself as the “Zodiac” and signed it with a circular cross symbol. He demanded that these letters and cryptograms are published on the front page of the newspaper or he would commit more murders. He claimed that solving his cryptograms would lead to uncovering his identity. Only one cryptograph was solved which had no leads to the identity of the Zodiac Killer. 

The purpose of his killings was revealed in the cryptogram solved by a mathematics teacher, Donald Harden and his wife. For him, killing humans was more about fun. He considered taking human life more enjoyable than hunting as he considered a man to be the most ferocious beast. He believed that the people he killed would become his slaves in afterlife, and therefore he considered his crimes as collecting slaves for his paradise. 

He also liked to mock the police and society in general for not being able to catch him. His letters also expressed his arrogance over the fact he was never caught and it was evident that he liked the attention and validation he got for being a sinister mastermind. He referred to the police as “pigs” on multiple occasions in his correspondence with the local newspapers of San Francisco, and was very sure of himself of being too clever for the police to catch him.  He later began to mention a score at the end of his letters, the number indicating the number of murders he had committed. He also scoffed at them for passing by him during the murder of Paul Stein, but never arresting him or even being suspicious of him. 

He also mentioned in his letters that he wished for people of San Francisco to wear pretty buttons of his circle cross symbol, which is something that did not happen and he expressed anger and disappointment over this, even threatening to kill children in a school bus and torture his collected slaves in afterlife. It is also another example of how this criminal had agreed for some sort of validation. An analysis of his writings has led to the possibility that the Zodiac Killer might be dyslexic. 

After three years of silence and no correspondence, the last letter from the Zodiac Killer arrived at the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial office which expressed depression over the police’s stupidity and inability to capture him and because of this, he saw no reason to play with them anymore. This letter was signed with a final score, “Me – 37, SFPD (San Francisco Police Department) – 0”, indicating that he had committed 37 murders by then. Another fascinating thing about his last letter is his curiosity over the possibility of a movie made on him. 


Descriptions of the Zodiac Killer 


As the Zodiac Killer did his absolute best to stay invisible to the common eye, there emerged various descriptions of him. Michael Mageau, the first survivor of his attack describe him as 5 feet 8 inches tall white man, weighing between 88 to 91 kilograms with short brown hair. A more accurate description of the killer was given by Cecelia Shepherd who saw the man more closely. She described him as a white person, 5 feet 11 inches tall, wearing all black clothing and a black mask with sunglasses and his signature circle cross in his chest was visible. His hair was described as brown and greasy. Both these descriptions established that the mystery killer was white and had brown hair, while other things may have been disputable. The officers looking for the killer during Paul Stein’s murder described him as 5 feet 10 inches and being around 35-45 years old, while the teenage witnesses of Stein’s case described him being between 5 feet 8 and 9 inches tall and being of 25-30 years of age, which makes his estimated also by disputed by a great extent. 


Suspects and speculations


Arthur Leigh Allen 


Arthur Leigh Allen was the primary suspect for being the Zodiac Killer. He was suspected by the cartoonist of the San Francisco Chronicle, Robert Graysmith, who conducted 15 years of independent investigation into the Zodiac Killer. The suspecting of Arthur Allen was supported by his strange behavior, him talking about murders of humans, testimonies given by acquaintances and the discovery of weapons and similar clothing in his house. This suspicion was further strengthened by a survivor, Michael Mageau, who identified Arthur as the criminal when asked to identify the killer from a bunch of pictures of suspects. However, he could not be convicted of being the Zodiac Killer due to DNA and other evidence such as handwriting proved to be inconclusive of this suspicion. 


“How The Zodiac Killer Was Hidden”


Robert Graysmith was not the only one independently looking into the case of the Zodiac Killer. Another investigation was conducted by a man called Lyndon Lafferty, who was a former police offer. In his book, “How the Zodiac Killer Was Hidden”, he provided convincing evidence for convicting a man who became insane after his wife had an affair with a judge who covered up his crimes to make amends but did not reveal whole details of the case stating that the Zodiac Killer is alive, well and hidden. He claims that the killer is 93 years old and lives in California and that it is likely that his criminal endeavors were continued, but he stopped contacting the local newspapers and police due to his frustration with them as stated in his earlier letters. 


Current status of the Zodiac Killer case 


All possible evidence collected with the hope of being one step closer to the identity of the Zodiac Killer effectively failed and the case was declared inactive in 2004 citing extreme pressure and personnel and resources. However, the case was reopened in 2007 in Napa County and in 2018, it was aimed to extract the DNA of the Zodiac Killer from the stamp glue of his letters using an advanced form of technology. However, no results have been reported yet. Till now, the killer has not been caught and it cannot be determined whether he is still at large or not. 



Know More about:

Nostradamus : Renaissance Astrologer Who Predicted The World Wars

Eva Ekeblad – Everything You Need To Know About The Swedish Agronomist

Silent Parade of 1917:  Silent March of About 10,000 African Americans

Charles Dickens: Early Life, Family, Journey As a Writer

Charles Manson: The Story of an American Criminal Serial Killer

Choose A Format
Formatted Text with Embeds and Visuals
Photo or GIF