Welcome to Tell-Tale Crimes, the crime column of the QC. Tell-Tale Crimes will aim to provide a look at both local and national crimes and cases that are sometimes interesting, sometimes relevant, and sometimes both, from perspective of a true crime enthusiast.
Trigger warning: this piece contains mentions of gun violence and gore.
The past 120 years of U.S. history have been . . . tumultuous, to say the least. We’ve dealt with disease, wars, (several) economic collapses, and more. But, that is besides the point. Over the past 120 years, the U.S. has seen a drastic rise and then relatively abrupt fall in a horrifying phenomenon: serial killers.
When organized into decades, the first half of the 1900s saw little variation in known serial killers. From there, the American public experienced a terrifying rise in the act of serial murders, most notably in the ‘60s and ‘70s with America’s most prolific serial killers, totalling in 102 known offenders. This period between those two decades introduced the California Bay Area to a man that we only know as the Zodiac Killer.
The Zodiac Killer began his string of murders on Dec. 20, 1968. That night, David Faraday (17) and his date Betty-Lou Jensen (16) were having a romantic evening on a lovers lane in Benicia, Calif. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, a man carrying a .22-caliber semi-automatic pistol snuck up on their car, and, before they knew it, they were scrambling for their lives as he shot at them. Neither teen survived.
Police were at a loss as to motive or suspect until a year later, when three identical letters were received by the San Francisco Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Vallejo Times-Herald. According to biography.com, the letter began “Dear Editor: I am the killer of 2 teenagers last Christmas at Lake Herman.” The letter then went on to describe details of the crime that only the killer could have known.
Letters and calls, like the famous “This is the Zodiac speaking” call, continued as the Zodiac Killer murdered more victims. According to the San Francisco Chronicle and biography.com, after the Zodiac murdered Faraday and Jensen in 1968, his next victims were Michael Mageau (19) and Darlene Ferrin (22) on July 5, 1969.
In a similar manner to the murders of Faraday and Jensen, a man approached Mageau and Ferrin in their car and shined a flashlight into the window. He then shot them both; Ferrin was killed, while Mageau survived the attack.
The Zodiac Killer struck again on Sept. 27 of that same year. He approached Cecelia Shepard (22) and Bryan Hartnell (20) as they were relaxing on a secluded part of the shore along Lake Berryessa. Wearing a hood and a shirt bearing the circle and cross logo the killer signed his letters with, he stabbed both of them after tying them up, scrawled a message for police in their blood on their car door, and then left the scene. Hartnell survived the attack, while Shepard died. In both attacks, the Zodiac Killer informed authorities of his actions within hours of their occurrence; in both attacks, the surviving victims gave as best of a description of their attacker as they could. No suspects came from those descriptions.
The final murder credited to the Zodiac Killer was that of 29-year-old cab driver Paul Stine, shot to death in his cab on Oct. 11, 1969.
The most fascinating part of the Zodiac Killer case is probably the ciphers and letters that he sent to the press. There have been recorded instances of killers sending taunting letters to the press and authorities, such as the BTK (“Blind, Torture, Kill”) Strangler, but those letters usually ended up playing a key role in the killers’ capture. The Zodiac’s letters and ciphers never led to that — usually only more confusion.
According to history.com, the first ciphers were sent along with the first letters penned by the Zodiac. Named the “Z 408” cipher, it was sent in three parts to the three newspapers that letters were sent to. Within a week of their publishing, a high school teacher and his wife came to the San Francisco Chronicle with a solution.
The wife, Bettye Harden, is credited with identifying two cribs, or possible words or letters suspected, in the code. She believed that the cipher would probably start with an “I” and include variations on the word “kill,” such as “killing” or “I like to kill.” The translation of this cipher revealed that the Zodiac Killer’s motivation behind the murders was that he liked “killing people because it is so much fun . . . because man is the most dangerous animal of all to kill.”
There were many more letters and ciphers sent to the press even after the Zodiac Killer apparently became inactive. He claimed to have killed 37 people, but authorities could only confirm the ones listed above. In the end, he has never been found, and suspects have come and gone. The most probable suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen, died in 1992 at the age of 58.
Still, people across the country still call in tips and possible suspects, ranging from their neighbors to their own fathers. I personally like to believe that he’s dead, gone, and not able to revel in the mystery around his crimes. The Zodiac Killer will no longer be speaking.