09: Zodiac

In 2007, director David Fincher helmed the movie simply entitled, Zodiac, which tells the thrilling story of a rash of killings in the 1960s and 70s.

The film, as far as Hollywood is concerned, was not a success. Especially considering some of Fincher’s other films, like Fight Club, Se7en and The Social Network that became cult classics for many.

Fincher’s Zodiac cost about $65 million to make and only earned half that, despite starring some of Hollywood’s hottest talent, including Jake Gyllenhaal and pre-Marvel superheroes Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo.

Despite the film’s failure at the box office, the subject is one that seems to pique the public’s interest whenever it’s mentioned.

Perhaps it’s because, to this day, it’s still unexplained.

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Episode Transcript

In 2007, director David Fincher helmed the movie simply entitled, Zodiac, which tells the thrilling story of a rash of killings in the 60s and 70s.

The film, as far as Hollywood is concerned, was not a success. Especially considering some of Fincher’s other films, like Fight Club, Se7en and The Social Network that became cult classics for many.

Fincher’s Zodiac cost about $65 million to make and only earned half that, despite starring some of Hollywood’s hottest talent, including Jake Gyllenhaal and pre-Marvel superheroes Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo.

Despite the film’s failure at the box office, the subject is one that seems to pique the public’s interest whenever it’s mentioned.

In fact, it was just a few months ago during this year’s presidential race in the United States when an internet meme led to a conspiracy that Republican Senator Ted Cruz was compared to an infamous serial killer known only as the Zodiac Killer.

The conspiracy grew enough attention that Cruz’s wife even replied to the comments, and of course she denied the claim.

And while it’s silly to assume Cruz, who was born in 1970, is a serial killer who has murders attributed to them going back as far as the late 1960s, the Zodiac Killer is one of those mysteries that keeps people wondering.

Perhaps it’s because, to this day, it’s still unexplained.

The true story behind Zodiac

Seventeen-year-old David Faraday turned the heat up a little more. His car took a while to warm up, but he didn’t mind. Any heat his trusty Rambler could provide would help against the chill as the evening turned into night. David glanced over to the passenger seat and couldn’t help but smile.

He was ecstatic. He’d finally convinced Betty to go out with him. She was only a year younger, and he’d tried numerous times to catch her attention. Finally, she’d agreed.

It was their first date. In fact, it was Betty’s first date with anyone. Ever.

Of course, this wasn’t exactly what she’d agreed to. She’d agreed to go to the Christmas concert at their school — Hogan High. An innocent enough first date. Instead, they decided to get a bite to eat. So they went to went to one of the local places, Mr. Ed’s. It was a popular joint, and David and Betty certainly didn’t stand out from the rest of the teenagers chowing down.

They got caught up talking, and before they knew it the sun had started to set. It was too late to go to the concert. But they didn’t want the night to end. They enjoyed each other’s company.

So they decided to go somewhere away from the crowds. Everyone knew of the secluded area near Lake Herman. Lover’s Lane. That’s what the kids called it. Really, though, it was Lake Herman Road in Vallejo – right next to what’s now the Blue Rock Springs Golf Course.

As they turned off toward the lake, David put his hand out. Betty cautiously put her hand in his and he gave a little squeeze as he smiled at her.

They arrived at a turnoff, parked and took in the silence for a moment. It didn’t take long for the two teenagers to lose track of time.

It was 11:00 PM.

At 11:28 PM, Captain Daniel Pitta of the Vallejo Police Department pulled his own car behind David’s Rambler. He winced.

David was laying on the ground about ninety degrees to the right rear passenger side wheel. He had sustained a gunshot wound just behind his left ear, but he was still alive.

Betty had been shot multiple times. She was dead.

An ambulance rushed David to the nearby Vallejo Hospital, but it was too late. At 12:05 AM on December 21, 1968, David Faraday was pronounced dead.

Back at the crime scene, Captain Pitta was stumped.

Because it was so cold, about 22 degrees, the ground was too cold to leave any tire tracks or footprints. The police had to rely on the recollection of those who passed by, the placement of the nine bullet casings left at the scene and, of course, the two bodies of David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen.

To the north, closest to the road, was David’s Rambler. It was parked on a turnoff just in front of a bank, providing a nice overlook of the city. It was almost parallel to the bend in the road. To the right, just south of David’s car, is where the killer’s car was most likely parked. It was parallel to David’s car, also parked with the front to the slope.

There weren’t any other cars parked there at the time, although it was a popular spot for teenager’s to park so it’s possible that others may have been there at the time. We’ll never know for sure.

Actually, we don’t know for sure what happened at all.

What we do know is that there were nine bullet casings found south of David’s car. Another clue was that five bullets hit Betty, one hit David and two bullets were recovered from the car. That’s eight bullets, but there were nine casings. So police concluded one shot must’ve been made in the air as an initial warning shot. That was likely the first shot, freezing the couple in place.

Terrified, both David and Betty exited the car on the passenger side. Since this is the same side that the killer’s car was parked, it’s likely they were asked to do so.

That’s when the second shot, most likely, hit David in his head, just by his left ear.

Terrified, Betty ran west along the road. She didn’t make it as she was hit five times. Some have speculated the killer chased her, but all of the casings were found in one place so it’s not likely he actually chased her. Instead, he most likely stood over David and shot Betty in the back as she ran.

David was helpless as he lay bleeding, just to the south of the right rear passenger-side wheel of his car.

None of this was depicted in the movie.
As they often do, this horrific act would start to drift away from the public’s eye until a little over six months later. On July 5th, 1969, a police dispatcher named Nancy Slover received a phone call that’d bring it back into the public’s eye.

In the call, a calm and monotone voice said:

“I wish to report a double murder. If you will go one mile east on Columbus Parkway to a public park, you will find the kids in a brown car. They have been shot by a 9 mm Luger. I also killed those kids last year…. Goodbye”.

When police traced the call, they found it had been made just a few blocks from the police department, and although they didn’t know who she was at the time — less than a mile from Darlene Ferrin’s home.

And just like that, there was a connection between David and Betty’s death and a new crime at Blue Rock Springs Park – just a couple miles from where David and Betty were attacked.

As the caller indicated, the new crime was also a double murder. The victims were also very young, Michael Mageau being only 19 and Darlene Ferrin only 22. The couple was shot just before midnight on July 4th, 1969 — or about 40 minutes before Nancy received the 911 call.

And it was this murder where the movie starts – not with the murders of David and Betty. Just like in the movie, Michael Mageau actually survived the attack despite being shot multiple times. Darlene did not.

He was able to describe the killer — well, about as well as can be expected for someone who was shot and didn’t see much to begin with. One of the reasons he didn’t see much is because the killer used a high powered flashlight to shine right into their faces. Very similar to what we saw in the movie.

About a month after Michael and Darlene were attacked, on July 31, 1969, three newspapers in the area, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Vallejo Times-Herald all received letters from someone claiming to be the killer.

There was no name on the letters, only a crossed circle.

The letters weren’t exactly the same, though, and instead were meant to be combined together – each newspaper received only one third of the message. To make things even more strange, the message was encoded.

The only part of the letter that wasn’t encoded was enough details about the murders to believe the claim to be real as well as a demand to the newspapers that they print the encoded cipher, or else there’d be more killings.

Before jumping to print the ciphers, the police called in Navy cryptographers. No success. Then they called the FBI to see if they could break the code. No success.

Finally, with time running out on when the killer expected the ciphers to show up in the paper, and out of fear that there’d be more bloodshed, the papers did as they were asked and printed the ciphers.

Just like in the movie, all three newspapers printed the cipher and simultaneously terrified the public.

Now the movie mostly centers around Robert Graysmith, who’s played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and is a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle. And just like in the movie, Mr. Graysmith became obsessed with the killer’s encoded messages. So much so that after the events in the movie, he’d go on to write a dozen books as he shifted his career away from cartoonist to true crime author.

The police didn’t have much to go off of, so they made public statements that they doubted the authenticity of the letters. In truth, they didn’t, but they wanted the killer to contact them again in hopes they’d get more information.

It worked.

Four days later, on August 4th, 1969, and exactly one month after a man made a 911 call to Nancy to claim credit for the murders of David Faraday, Betty Lou Jensen and Darlene Ferrin as well as the attempted murder of Michael Mageau, another letter was sent to the Examiner.

This time, the killer started the letter by saying, “This is the Zodiac speaking”, and in so doing gave himself a name.

Zodiac.

Along with his new name, Zodiac also gave some more information about the murders to prove he was there and also added that his identity was included in the ciphers.

Again, four days later, a man by the name of Donald Harden, along with his wife Bettye, called the San Francisco Police Department with what they claimed was the solution to the cipher in the three newspapers.

At first the police were suspicious. Had Donald, a high school teacher, really cracked the code the police, Navy and FBI couldn’t? Donald explained how he and his wife had cracked the code. They assumed the person who submitted the code was egotistical – so they just guessed the first letter would be an “I”.
After that, they also assumed the word “kill” would be in the message, so they looked for the symbol they assumed was “I” in a word with two “L’s” next to each other. After that, it didn’t take long to start breaking the rest of the code.

The Navy’s cryptographers verified the solution, and two of the newspapers, the San Francisco Chronicle and Vallejo Times-Herald published the solution. Here’s what the de-coded cipher said:

“I LIKE KILLING PEOPLE BECAUSE IT IS SO MUCH FUN IT IS MORE FUN THAN KILLING WILD GAME IN THE FORREST BECAUSE MAN IS THE MOST DANGERTUE ANAMAL OF ALL TO KILL SOMETHING GIVES ME THE MOST THRILLING EXPERENCE IT IS EVEN BETTER THAN GETTING YOUR ROCKS OFF WITH A GIRL THE BEST PART OF IT IS THAE WHEN I DIE I WILL BE REBORN IN PARADICE AND ALL THE I HAVE KILLED WILL BECOME MY SLAVES I WILL NOT GIVE YOU MY NAME BECAUSE YOU WILL TRY TO SLOI DOWN OR ATOP MY COLLECTING OF SLAVES FOR MY AFTERLIFE EBEORIETEMETHHPITI.”

Needless to say, it was a chilling message. It’s still a chilling message decades later.

And at the end, there’s 18 characters that no one could ever decipher. They were E B E O R I E T E M E T H H P I T I.

Could this be the killer’s name? After all, the Zodiac had said his identity was in the cipher. But it wasn’t. And we don’t know what those last 18 characters stand for. The closest anyone’s come to is an anagram for “Robert Emmet the Hippie”. But even then you’d need to add three extra letters.

Hardly enough information to be conclusive.

Now this wasn’t mentioned in the movie but at the time the police, who were looking into just about everyone as a potential suspect, thought that perhaps Donald Harden could be the killer. Not only because of the ability to decipher something the police, Navy and FBI couldn’t do but also because of some random facts that seemed to tie them together.

For example, the Zodiac’s cipher was called 408 and had 54 unique symbols. The Hardens’ used to live in the 408 area code in California on 54 Chestnut Street.

But this was circumstantial. The police were grabbing at anything they could.

In the movie, the next killings took place at another lake, this time about 60 miles from Lake Herman where the first three murders took place. The events in the movie are fairly accurate, and in truth the attack took place at Lake Berryessa in Napa County.

Perhaps one of the reasons why the events for this killing are more accurate in the movie is because one of the people attacked did actually survive to recount it to the police.

Again it was a couple that was attacked. This time it was 22-year-old Cecilia Shephard and 20-year-old Bryan Hartnell. The couple, which were both students at the nearby Pacific Union College, a Christian liberal arts college in Napa Valley, had traveled to the lake to enjoy the beautiful lake and picnic on the shore.

Just like in the movie, while they were enjoying a sunny California day on the lake’s secluded beach, they were approached by a man wearing a hooded costume with the crossed circle symbol – the same symbol used by the Zodiac in his letters.

As he neared the frightened couple, the man in the hood pulled a gun and explained he intended to rob them. To make his escape, he said they’d have to tie each other up. So just like in the movie, the couple tied each other up so, as they thought, the man could make an escape with their possessions.

Instead, just as they thought the ordeal was over, the Zodiac viciously stabbed the couple in the back. Then he simply walked away and left them writhing in agony.

In the movie, we see markings on the couple’s car. In truth, the couple’s car was about 500 yards from where they were attacked, up an embankment, by Knoxville Road. So the killer had to have hiked back up there to leave the markings on the car. And this actually happened. Since the other Zodiac killings were done with a gun, the writing on the car is how the police knew the Zodiac was responsible for this knife attack.

The writing said:

“Vallejo/12-20-68/7-4-69/Sept-27-69-6:30/by knife”

About an hour after the attack, at 7:40 PM, the Napa County Police Department received a call from a phone booth just a few blocks from the department. It was an officer named David Slaight who took this call and listened to someone in a low, monotone voice say, “I want to report a murder … no, a double murder. They are two miles north of park headquarters. They were in a white Volkswagen Karmen Ghia.”

When Officer Slaight asked for the man to provide his location the voice replied, “I’m the one who did it.”

Then, the line went dead.
After this attack, the movie jumps to what is the final murder attributed to the Zodiac. In the movie, it’s a cab driver on the corner of Washington and Cherry streets in San Francisco – just one block from Madison Elementary School, which is now named Claire Lilienthal Elementary.

This is true, and it was one that baffled police because it breaks a number of molds for the Zodiac.

Up to this point, Zodiac had attacked couples and mostly in secluded areas. This time, it was a 29-year-old cab driver by the name of Paul Stine who was shot once, from point-blank range, in the head.

Even though it happened pretty late, at about 9:55 PM, being in the busy Presidio district, there were three people who witnessed the attack. When they called police, their description was that of a white male, 25 to 30 years old, about 5′ 8″ and with a stocky build, reddish-brown hair in a crew cut, wearing heavy-rimmed glasses and dark clothes. The witnesses reported last seeing the attacker casually walking north on Cherry Street.

That’s when a major mistake was made by the police dispatcher. When they relayed this information to the officers, they described the attacker as a black male adult.

Because of this botched description two officers, Donald Fouke and Eric Zelms, let a man who fit the description perfectly go. They saw him walking east on Jackson Street, just one block north of Washington Street.

This case was assigned to inspectors Dave Tosci and Bill Armstrong, who in the movie are played by Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, respectively.

And at first, they didn’t think it had anything to do with the Zodiac killer. It didn’t fit the mold. Stine’s wallet and keys were taken by the killer, and a large portion of his shirt was missing. But it wasn’t just ripped haphazardly, it was very carefully torn.

They just thought it was a robbery gone wrong.

Two days after the killing, the San Francisco Chronicle received a letter from Zodiac. In the letter, which claimed responsibility for Stine’s killing, was a portion of Stine’s shirt as proof. The Zodiac also went on to claim he talked to officers Fouke and Zelms, although he didn’t know their names, saying he led them in a different direction.

This is something Fouke and Zelms both denied, saying they never talked to the man they saw on Jefferson Street.

Just about everything that happens after this in the movie is circumstantial. That is to say, there’s no proof of any of being linked to the Zodiac — or to each other. The mother who got in the car with a stranger who said he was going to kill her after he offered to help with her car’s wheel. The calls to the lawyer, Melvin Belli, who’s played by Brian Cox in the movie.

These events all happened. Someone did call into the Jim Dunbar talk show with Melvin Belli, saying a few words and hanging up over 50 times in a two hour period. But the police have never been able to prove that the person who called was the Zodiac.
The conclusions in the movie are largely based on those from Robert Graysmith’s book. It’s in this book that Graysmith draws the conclusion that the Zodiac killer was a man by the name of Arthur Leigh Allen, who’s played by John Carroll Lynch in the movie.

In truth, there are thousands of suspects in the Zodiac killer case. And it’s a case that, to this day, is still officially unsolved. That said, Arthur Leigh Allen is widely believed to be one of those at the top of the list of suspects.

Allen’s connection to the Zodiac started with a murder that was suspected to be the Zodiac, but never officially tied to the case. In truth, the seven victims, five of whom died, are the only ones officially attributed to Zodiac.

David Faraday, Betty Lou Jensen, Darlene Ferrin, Cecelia Shepard and Paul Stine are the murder victims.

Michael Mageau and Bryan Hartnell being the two that survived attacks from Zodiac.

But the Zodiac killer claimed to have 37 murder victims. Police have never been able to confirm the others.

So when trying to identify the Zodiac killer it’d make sense that there would be ties to other deaths, perhaps one of the other 37 the Zodiac claimed to have killed.

And that’s where Arthur Leigh Allen’s connection to the Zodiac killer started. It was a murder that wasn’t in the movie, and one we haven’t really talked about — Cheri Jo Bates, who was stabbed to death at Riverside City College in Riverside, California on October 30th, 1966. That’s two years before David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen’s murders.

The day after Cheri’s murder, November 1st, Allen was out of work on a “sick day”. Or did he skip the next day at work because of the facial wounds the FBI believed that Cheri would’ve left on her attacker?

When Cheri was killed, Allen would’ve been 32 years old. He lived at 32 Fresno Street in Vallejo, and a few years later the Zodiac cipher would contain 32 symbols.

Just like in the movie, Allen did have a watch from the Zodiac brand. It was given to him by his mother as a Christmas gift in 1967, or so his brother Ron says. That watch did have the crossed circle symbol that the Zodiac killer used.

One of Allen’s friends, Don Cheney, also made the claim that he had a conversation on New Years Day in 1969 with Allen about a novel Allen was going to write. According to Cheney, Allen said the novel would be about a killer.

“He would like to kill couples at random. He would taunt police with letters detailing his crimes. He would sign the letters with a cross-circle symbol from his watch. He would call himself ‘Zodiac’. He would wear make-up to change his appearance. He would attach a flashlight to the barrel of his gun in order to shoot at night. He would fool women into stopping their cars in rural areas by claiming they had problems with their tires, then loosen their lug nuts and eventually take them captive.”
When Cheney took this to the police, they issued a search of Allen’s home at 32 Fresno Street in Vallejo, but found nothing that could connect Allen to the murders.

In 1992, any hopes of a confession from Allen disappeared when he passed away from a combination of diabetes and heart problems. He was 58.

There certainly are some connections between Arthur Leigh Allen and the Zodiac killings … and those are just a few of the connections.

But it’s never been proven.

And there’s similar connections with some of the other suspects.

Another suspect, Richard Gaikowski, was the editor of an anti-police and pro-violence newspaper in San Francisco called the Good Times which ran works of fiction in 1969 that were almost an exact blueprint for the Zodiac’s killings before they ever actually happened.

Some of Gaikowski’s published works in his paper would include a shortening of his name to “Gike” or “Gaik”. In the three-part cipher sent to the San Francisco Chronicle, Examiner and Vallejo Times-Herald, you can clearly see the letters “GYKE” in them. And that’s without decrypting them.

Gaikowski was also identified as having attended Paul Stine’s funeral by Paul’s sister, Carol. And what’s more, Nancy Slover, the 911 dispatcher who was the first to receive the call from the Zodiac after the murders of David Faraday and Betty Lou Jenson, identified Gaikowski’s voice as the one she heard on the phone.

And there’s more suspects.

Lawrence Kane was identified by Darlene Ferrin’s sister as following Darlene for months before her murder. Kane was diagnosed in 1965 by a psychologist as “losing the ability to control self-gratification”.

Or there’s Rick Marshall, an engineer at San Francisco’s KTIM radio station, who lived near both Cheri Jo Bates at the time of her murder in Riverside, California, and just a few miles from the murder scene of Paul Stine in San Francisco. KTIM’s symbols are eerily similar to some of the symbols from one of the Zodiac’s ciphers.

Some have even suspected the convicted Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, since he lived in San Francisco at the time and was known to have communicated with the newspapers and media after committing murder.

But who was the actual Zodiac killer? We want to connect the dots. We want to find connections. Some suspects have a lot of dots that connect. Others have a few.

There’s even a number of suspects that come out of the woodwork with no seeming connection.

For example, there’s Gary Stewart, who was adopted at an early age. When he began looking for his biological father, his search ended in a man named Earl Van Best, Jr., who Gary claims to be the Zodiac killer. Is there a connection? Perhaps. Although it does look suspicious that this connection pops up in a book, so there’s obvious financial benefits for Gary’s search.

In other words, no one would buy the book if Earl Van Best, Jr., had just been another bad father who’d given up his son for adoption.

It’s human nature to want to find a connection. As much as we may want to connect the dots, and as many dots as some suspects seem to have that do connect to what we know about the Zodiac killer…to this day, we don’t know.

The final, confirmed communication from the Zodiac came on November 8th, 1969. It was the fourth cipher sent to the Chronicle from the Zodiac and it contained 340 symbols. No matter how hard they tried, no one was able to crack it.

After the movie was released, the Zodiac’s unsolved cipher came back into the public’s spotlight. Since the first three-part Zodiac cipher had been cracked by amateurs, why not the last? It was because of the movie that Corey Starliper’s hobby of cracking codes paid off. In 2011, he claimed to have solved the Zodiac’s final cipher.

It took Starliper nine hours to crack what he believes is the final message from the Zodiac. Like the other Zodiac ciphers, it’s not cohesive writing. It reads:

KILL SLF DR HELP ME KILL MYSELF GAS CHAMBER AEIOUR DAYS QUESTIONSABLE EVERY WAKING MOMENT IM ALIVE MY PRIDE LOST I CANT GO ON LIVING IN THIS WAY KILLING PEOPLE I HAV KILLED SO MANY PEOPLE CANT HELP MYSELF IM SO ANGRY I COULD DO MY THING IM ALONE IN THIS WORLD MY WHOLE LIFE FUL O LIES IM UNABLE TO STOP BY THE TIME YOU SOLVE THIS I WILL HAV KILLD ELEVEN PEOPLE PLEASE HELP ME STOP KILLING PEOPLE PLEASE MY NAME IS LEIGH ALLEN

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