Getting Solved: The Mysterious Identity of the Zodiac Killer

In 1968 and ’69, the Zodiac Killer shook Northern California after attacking seven people there. His first three victims were couples hanging out in secluded areas, and only two of these people survived. On October 11, 1969, the Zodiac killer found his last known victim when he killed a taxi driver in San Francisco.

Zodiac Wanted Poster / Zodiac Note / Zodiac Signature.
Source: Getty Images

During his killing spree, the Zodiac Killer received nationwide attention, spreading fear as he shared ciphers, information, and eerie letters, threatening law enforcement and the public. There has been no murder connected to him since October 1969, but the unsolved mystery surrounding the Zodiac Killer continues to fascinate the world all these decades later.

Let’s try and crack the code!

He Killed Five People in One Year

Although it is believed that the Zodiac Killer is responsible for many more crimes, there are five murders and two attempted murders officially attributed to the mysterious monster. It was December 20, 1968, when 17-year-old David Faraday and 16-year-old Betty Lou Jenson when out on their first date.

A wanted poster of the Zodiac Killer.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

They were having a good time until, suddenly, the pair was shot while they were parked on a lovers’ lane. Initially, police had no clue who murdered this young couple, so a formal investigation was conducted, with police looking into people like Jenson’s ex-boyfriend.

Police Didn’t Connect the Murders

Apparently, detectives didn’t even consider the idea of there being a serial killer on the loose. Jenson’s best friend later told SF Weekly, “All the detectives thought it had to be because of drugs. They refused to hear anything else.”

Images of the Zodiac killer victims.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

But in the early hours on July 5, 1969, less than seven months after Faraday and Jenson were killed, 22-year-old Darlene Ferrin and 19-year-old Mike Mageau were sitting in Ferrin’s car at the Blue Rock Spring Golf Club in Vallejo, California, when they were shot multiple times.

Who was the Zodiac Killer?

Ferrin died of her injuries, but Mageau miraculously survived the severe wounds to his jaw, shoulder, and leg. Less than an hour after the attack, the Vallejo police department received a call from Zodiac to report the crime. He eerily stated, “I also killed those kids last year,” which references Faraday and Jenson.

A sketch of the Zodiac Killer.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was now clear to law enforcement that these murders were connected, and they did, in fact, have a serial killer on their hands. Police were ready to hunt this guy down, but on September 27, 1969, the Zodiac killer struck again.

The Zodiac Symbol

It was a beautiful fall day when 22-year-old Cecelia Shepard and 20-year-old Bryan Hartnell enjoyed a picnic at Lake Berryessa in Napa Country. The pair were approached by a man who wore a hood with a strange symbol on it: two intersecting lines in a circle.

A graphologist examines the signature of the Zodiac.
Charles Hamilton. Photo by Rick Maiman/Sygma/Getty Images

The man threatened Shepard and Hartnell with a gun and then tied them up and stabbed them. When help arrived at the scene, both victims were still alive. Sadly, Shepard ended up dying of her injuries, but Hartnell recovered.

His Last (Known) Victim

On October 11, 1969, 29-year-old taxi driver Paul Stine was looking to pick up passengers in San Francisco when the Zodiac Killer entered his cab. While in the car, Zodiac shot Stine in the head. Since witnesses saw this heinous murder, police were called and arrived at the scene shortly after.

A photo of the taxi / A portrait of Paul Stine.
Paul Stine. Source: Pinterest / Imgarcade

People described this man as white, around 25-30 years old, wearing glasses, with a crew cut. Police, who thought the killing was a robbery, spotted someone matching this description – but the dispatcher accidentally told them the suspect was a Black man. They let the other guy (and possible killer) leave. The Zodiac Killer wasn’t caught.

His Cryptic Letters

After his vicious attack in 1969, the Zodiac Killer started contacting newspapers, sending letters with details only the killer would know. Not only did he call the police after the July murders, but he made a phone call to the police department in September.

A photo of the letters sent by Zodiac.
Source: YouTube

In a letter postmarked October 13, 1969, the Zodiac Killer took responsibility for Stine’s death by including a piece of the driver’s bloodied clothing. He continued to reach out to law enforcement by phone calls in the days following that crime.

This Is the Zodiac Speaking

The San Francisco Examiner received a letter from the killer on August 4, 1969. He wrote: “This is the Zodiac speaking,” which was the first time he used the name “Zodiac.” He would go on and repeat this opening salutation in many more letters.

A photo of the letter.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

His cryptic messages usually included a crosshairs symbol, which resembled the sight on a rifle – the same symbol that was on the hood he was wearing during the attack on September 1969. The identity of the Zodiac Killer was still a mystery, but one thing was clear: he enjoyed the publicity he received.

He Enjoyed the Fame and Media Attention

If you know a thing or two about true crime, you probably already know that some of these deranged killers love the attention and media frenzy surrounding them. Zodiac made sure his messages were widely spread by threatening to go in a “kill rampage” unless a cipher was published in The San Francisco Examiner.

An image of an officer working on the case.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

In a note postmarked November 9, 1969, he taunted law enforcement, saying, “The police shall never catch me because I have been too clever for them.”

The First Cipher Was Solved

Obviously, the Zodiac Killer wanted everyone to see his messages so that his fame and notoriety for committing these vicious crimes didn’t die down. Out of his four coded messages, a married couple solved the first cipher revealing that he had written, “I like killing people because it is so much fun,” among other things.

A photo of the man who broke the Zodiac code.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

However, his messages and puzzles were so challenging to crack; no other Zodiac cipher has been officially solved, despite decades of trying.

Three Years of Silence

In the letter Zodiac sent confessing to Stine’s murder, he also declared, “School children make nice targets. I think I shall wipe out a school bus some morning. Just shoot out the front tire + then pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.”

An image of a coded diagram from Zodiac.
Photo by Bettmann/Corbis/Getty Images

On October 17, 1969, the threat was published, and unsurprisingly, it led to heightened fear and greater police presence. Officers were guarding busses, and helicopters watched from above. Several counties even put curfews into effect, and some parents went as far as to pull their kids out of school entirely.

Front Page News

Just as he had hoped, the attention surrounding the Zodiac killer wasn’t dying down. In 1969, the Zodiac Killer dominated front-page news, and the knowledge of a serial killer on the loose continued to terrify the public. With everyone rushing to call tip lines with the slightest information, the police were completely overwhelmed.

An image of a school bus with the Zodiac sign illustrated on top.
Source: Pinterest

Among other Zodiac letters that came in 1970 were threats to bomb a school bus and orders for residents of San Francisco to wear buttons with the crosshairs Zodiac symbol.

People Were Terrified

If you thought parents were too scared to send their children to school was bad, things only worsened. Zodiac letters and notes continue to arrive. One of these messages said that each new victim meant “more slaves I will collect for my afterlife.” But then, in March 1971, the letters suddenly stopped coming.

An image of the letter sent by the Zodiac.
Source: Pinterest

The Zodiac killer went silent for about three years. Then, on January 29, 1974, he sent a new letter saying, “Me – 37, SFPD – 0.” This was widely believed to be a confession that he had taken 37 lives in total. A few more postcards and letters arrived that year.

The Questionable Letter

The Zodiac Killer went silent yet again until 1978, when a letter from the Zodiac killer was reportedly sent to the San Francisco Chronicle. However, the letter’s legitimacy was suspect, as the handwriting and tone of the note didn’t match up with the Zodiac’s previous messages.

A photo of an envelope sent by Zodiac.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

To add to the speculation, it was discovered that year that a detective in San Francisco faked letters to the editor praising his work on a case. It made people wonder if he also falsified this Zodiac letter, which the detective and San Francisco police denied. Nevertheless, the authenticity of the 1978 letter has never been confirmed.

Was the Zodiac Killer Ever Caught?

Although he admitted to being responsible for 37 deaths, no Zodiac victims have been found since 1969, which begs the question: Did he stop killing? Serial killers are depicted in pop culture as individuals who operate under irresistible compulsions, yet they can refrain from murder under certain circumstances.

A picture of a former reporter.
Rita Williams. Photo by Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

It was noted by the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime that serial killers may stop if something in their life changes. Perhaps, almost getting caught on the night of Stine’s murder may have scared the killer to be more cautious. It’s also possible that the terror he caused the public was just as thrilling and became a substitute for the killings.

Is the Zodiac Killer Still Alive?

But maybe it’s much simpler than that. Another theory is that the Zodiac Killer just grew old, which dampened his predatory impulses. It also could affect his strength to carry out these vicious crimes. A psychology professor wrote about a book about Zodiac, suggesting another fascinating theory.

A portrait of the woman who claims to be Zodiac's daughter.
Deborah Perez. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The book explained how the murderer may have had and recovered from dissociative identity disorder, otherwise known as multiple personalities. His desire to kill ended with his recovery. It is also very possible that the killer stopped for reasons out of his control, like institutionalization, incarceration, or his own death.

Maybe He’s Still Out There

Honestly, anything is possible. Another plausible theory is that the Zodiac Killer never stopped. He continued to hunt victims, just in a different way. Among his many letters, in one postmarked November 12, 1969, Zodiac threatened:

A handwritten note from the Zodiac Killer.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

“I shall no longer announce to anymore when I commit my murders; they shall look like routine robberies, killings of anger, & a few fake accidents, etc.” Since we have no idea who the killer actually is, it’s not impossible that he continued his murdering career with crimes that have never been linked to him.

Zodiac Has Never Been Identified

Law enforcement continues to try and discover who the Zodiac Killer is. Amateur sleuths have also joined in on the investigation, analyzing all the cryptic notes and hidden messages. They base their research on the original investigation handled by law enforcement in Vallejo, Napa County, and San Francisco.

An illustration of the Zodiac Killer.
Source: Pinterest

The case was not under federal jurisdiction, but the FBI provided support for analyzing handwriting, fingerprints, and decoding Zodiac’s messages. The combined forces didn’t solve the case, but it certainly helped with finding possible suspects.

Over 2,500 Suspects

Throughout the years, over 2,500 suspects were considered, including the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. A search warrant was executed to prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. However, no definitive proof was discovered.

A portrait of Arthur Leigh Allen at home.
Arthur Leigh Allen. Source: Pinterest

But Allen’s fingerprints didn’t match the ones from Stine’s taxi. Additionally, in 2002, DNA pulled from a Zodiac-sent stamp didn’t match Allen’s. It was a small sample, and it should be noted that the results were somewhat inconclusive. Also, people said Allen had other people lick his stamps for him.

Today’s DNA Technology

With all the advanced DNA technology we have today, we have a chance to get closer to discovering the ongoing mystery of who the Zodiac Killer is or was. But the police working the case in the ‘60s and ‘70s didn’t know that DNA evidence would arrive on the scene.

An image of a DNA Research holding a plate with DNA samples.
Photo by Andrew Brookes/Getty Images

The investigation was a mess. Some of the evidence was certainly mishandled, or the chain of custody was broken. Pieces of evidence remain scattered across several law enforcement agencies. So, basically, very few things are available to analyze.

Will He Ever Be Identified?

But in 2018, the Vallejo police department announced plans to submit some of the evidence they have for up-to-date DNA testing. A full DNA profile would be possible to search all open-search genealogy databases for a match. This approach helped catch another California murderer, the Golden State Killer, who was apprehended in 2018.

A former reporter during an interview.
Rita Williams. Photo by Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

Unfortunately, no results have been reported when it comes to the Zodiac Killer. But in 2020, three code-breakers might have been able to solve one of Zodiac’s ciphers, bringing further evidence to help reveal the killer’s identity. But as of right now, we may have to accept the fact that this case will likely never be solved. Meanwhile, let’s look at some theories!

The Zodiac Killer May Actually Be Two People

With a mysterious monster on the loose, everyone was trying to identify the Zodiac killer. This meant that anything was possible, and with so much attention surrounding the murderer, people started putting evidence together and coming up with theories of their own.

A representation of the Zodiac Killer.
Source: YouTube

Over the years, many people began to believe that the Zodiac killings may have been committed by the original Zodiac Killer and a copycat. Considering the way the killer was able to evade police for years, it wouldn’t be surprising if he was actually two people.

One of His Victims Got Away

On March 22, 1970, over a year after the Zodiac Killer began his murder spree, 22-year-old Kathleen Johns and her baby daughter escaped unharmed after being kidnapped near Modesto, California.

A photo of 22-year-old Kathleen Johns.
Source: YouTube

Kathleen entered the police station frantically to report the abduction. While at the station, she noticed a sketch of the Zodiac Killer and immediately identified him as her kidnapper. They were lucky to get away alive. Kidnapping wasn’t part of his MO, but it makes you wonder about other abductions connected to the Zodiac Killer that were never linked to him.

Two of His Victims Survived

As we previously mentioned, two of Zodiac’s victims were lucky enough to survive. 19-year-old Michael Renault Mageau and 20-year-old Bryan Calvin Hartnell miraculously survived after being attacked by the Zodiac Killer.

A photo of Bryan Calvin Hartnell in a hospital bed.
Source: YouTube

They helped the police by giving statements and descriptions of the suspect. Bryan, who is now a probate attorney in California, discussed the attack on CNN. He told his story honestly and openly. He described the tragedy he witnessed that night, but he was never able to see the face of his attacker.

Criminal Minds Inspiration

The story of the Zodiac killer has been depicted all over pop culture, and the 2007 movie Zodiac, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo, really popularized it. If you’re a fan of true crime, chances are you were obsessed with Criminal Minds. As true crime television shows go, many of them are based on or inspired by real-life events.

Jake Gyllenhaal in a scene from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Paramount Pictures

In 2012, my all-time favorite crime show, Criminal Minds, aired True Genius, an episode that was loosely based on the Zodiac case. In the televised version, a Zodiac Killer copycat resurfaces in San Francisco.

The Main Suspect

When the Zodiac murders were going on, Don Cheney contacted the police and suggested they check out Arthur Leigh Allen, a possible suspect. Don claimed that Arthur told him that he wanted to “murder random couples” and asked questions about disguising his handwriting.

A picture of Arthur Leigh Allen.
Source: Tumblr

With further investigation, police discovered several other pieces of circumstantial evidence to support this claim, including a Zodiac watch engraved with the infamous crosshair symbol and a Royal typewriter – one similar to the one used to write the coded letters. Ultimately, police couldn’t prove anything, and Allen died a free man in 1992.

A Couple Decoded His First Letter

As the Zodiac killer was eating up the media attention he was getting, he sent a three-part coded message to local newspapers in 1969, demanding that they publish it on the front page or else he would kill more people. The papers listened to him, and it took a week to crack the code.

A picture of Donald G. Harden.
Source: Pinterest

But police weren’t the ones to solve the puzzle. It was a schoolteacher from Salinas named Donald G. Harden and his wife who figured it out. Although the message didn’t give clues toward his identity, it did reveal that he thinks murdering people will make them his slaves in the afterlife.

His Other Letters Remain a Mystery

Investigators exhausted the case, and they were lucky a couple could look at one of these cryptic messages and figure out what it meant. However, they weren’t able to crack the meanings of the other letters.

A photo of one of Zodiac’s letters.
Source: Pinterest

Of the four letters the Zodiac Killer sent to media outlets, that was the only one that was decoded. Although the true meaning of one was revealed, the other three are still undeciphered to this day. Do you think if they are ever decoded, we will find out the identity of the Zodiac Killer?

He Signed His Name in Code

Well, it’s very possible. The Zodiac Killer was no stranger to pranks and loved to play games with law enforcement. In April 1970, in an attempt to taunt the media and police, the Zodiac Killer sent a letter to The San Francisco Chronicle asking them if they’d cracked his last code and gave them another hint to unravel it – his name.

An image of the letter.
Source: YouTube

It remains unsolved. Is it possible that he only left a code in one letter on purpose? To throw investigators off? To keep them looking for hidden messages that don’t exist? Or do you think they were just too complicated for the police to figure out?

He Claims to Have Killed 37 People

In a letter from January 29, 1974, sent to The San Francisco Chronicle, the Zodiac Killer claimed to have killed a total of 37 people. Police only connected five murders and two attempted murders to the Zodiac. Many people believe he lied about the number of victims he had to gain more notoriety.

A still from a documentary of the Zodiac Killer.
Source: YouTube

However, others think he probably did kill that many people. Professionals believe that if he were trying to brag about his crimes, he probably would have gone higher, admitting to at least 50 killings. Plus, 37 is a pretty exact number, which makes this whole thing even more chilling.

The Case Is Still Open

As we know, the true identity of the Zodiac Killer remains a mystery that has been confusing law enforcement and the public for decades. In April 2004, the San Francisco Police Department marked the case as “inactive,” but it has been reopened since. It remains open in various cities and counties in California.

One of the victims speaks during an interview.
Kathleen Johns. Source: YouTube

Although we may never know who the Zodiac Killer really is, there is still a chance. With fresh eyes looking into these cryptic letters every day and huge technological advancement in DNA testing, hopefully, the real person behind the Zodiac Killings will be revealed.

The Big Conspiracy Theory

I love a good conspiracy as much as the next guy, but there was one in particular that I have to debunk: the myth that the Zodiac crimes were linked to the Manson family. Charles Manson and his “family” gained fame after the brutal murders they committed in Southern California.

A picture of Charles Manson at a medical facility.
Charles Manson. Photo by Albert Foster/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

The family wrote cryptic messages of their own; only they left them behind at the crime scenes – written in blood. Since the Mason family spent time in the San Francisco Bay Area, people began speculating that they were connected to the Zodiac murders.

Manson Family Connection

Department of Justice Special Agent Mel Nicolai stated in a report that the Zodiac investigation included an examination of “all-male members of the Charles Manson family.” SFPD Inspector went to Los Angeles to look into the possible Zodiac/Manson connection but found no evidence to support the theory.

A photo of the Manson family murder suspects.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Conspiracy radio host Mae Brussell also speculated that the Manson murders were part of a CIA government plot involving brainwashing/mind-control and satanic cults. Brussell theorized that the same group was responsible for the Zodiac killings in California and the “Son of Sam” shootings in New York.

Government Cover-Up?

Zodiac/Manson conspiracy theorist Howard Davis claimed that one of a Mason victim’s relatives had hired private investigators who found evidence proving that the Manson family were indeed behind the Zodiac crimes.

District Attorneys are talking to the media.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

David also claimed that a “pristine source” from the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office told him that the original investigation into the Manson murders found evidence linking Manson to the Zodiac. This evidence apparently included the hoodie that the Zodiac wore during the stabbing at Lake Berryessa. Davis claimed that the source states that authorities in South California conspired to hide this significant evidence.

Does the Theory Hold Up?

The alleged Zodiac/Manson suspect, Bruce Davis, was convicted of the murders of music teacher Gary Hinman and ranch hand Shorty Shea. Howard Davis claimed that the people behind this cover-up were worried about another trial that could possibly jeopardize the previous convictions.

A broadcasting image of Manson.
Manson. Photo by Ernst Haas/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nonetheless, a Zodiac prosecution would in no way undo Bruce Davis’s other murder convictions. This conspiracy doesn’t sound too crazy. I mean, these events happened around the same time; plus, we all know the government has been involved in cover-ups in the past. But like any theory, there are some holes in this one.

“It Makes No Sense”

Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi shot down these conspiracy claims and dismissed them as “preposterous on its face and obviously 100% wrong.” Wow! Tell me what you really think. He added, “I reject it completely out of hand. Clearly, he strongly opposes this idea calling it an illogical scenario.

Vincent Bugliosi speaks to the media.
Vincent Bugliosi. Photo by Fotos International/Getty Images

“If Manson committed more murder than the Manson murders, why would anyone want to protect him on that?… it makes no sense… what you’re talking about is a crime, obstruction of justice… a massive conspiracy of many, many people being involved, for no believable reason,” he continued.

Howard Davis Said That Vincent Bugliosi Endorsed the Zodiac/Manson Theory

Howard Davis even claimed that Vincent Bugliosi endorsed the Zodiac/Manson theory, which Bugliosi firmly denied. He said he never entertained the theory and that he’s “never heard of anything to support that allegation. I doubt it very much. I think it would have come out by now.”

Reporters are surrounding Vincent Bugliosi.
Vincent Bugliosi. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Then, the “pristine source” from the L.A. DA’s office was identified and denied making such statements to Howard Davis. He also called the conspiracy absurd and said, “I can’t believe that whoever suggested it has any credibility whatsoever.”

He Called Davis a “Nutjob”

He went on to describe Davis as a “nutjob” known for “some extraordinarily bizarre and fanciful so-called investigative insight into the Mormon church.” In 1997, Davis and a few others got together and published a book entitled “Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon Book?” which suggested the Book of Mormon was plagiarized.

A photo of the book.
Source: Pinterest

Davis explained that he and his co-authors got so many death threats and that the Mormon Church was trying to gain control of the U.S. economy. “I’m dead serious about this… but our lives are definitely in danger… Please don’t think we’re afraid… We’re not afraid… trying to fight a multi-billion-dollar organization that is trying to take over the economy of the United States.

I’m Not Convinced

Okay, even that is a lot for me. As someone who loves looking at things from all different angles, this one seems rather insane. I mean, the Mormons are after us? Have you ever met a Mormon? They are literally the nicest people in the world. I doubt they are trying to seize control of the economy.

A photo of a Mormon temple.
Photo by George Frey/Bloomberg/Getty Images

I mean, I’ve heard crazier. This theory hasn’t reached flat-earth conspiracy level yet. It’s the CIA government cover-up that makes it sound far-fetched. As a matter of fact, there is a slight possibility they are connected, but frankly, there is very little to zero evidence supporting the claim.

Latest Development

Detectives say the man who terrorized San Francisco and called himself the Zodiac is actually a man named Gary Francis Poste. Police never caught him, and he actually died in 2018. Poste successfully managed to get away with his crimes not only in the Bay area but also committed a murder hundreds of miles away (a killing that wasn’t linked to previously).

A mugshot of Gary Francis Poste (left), police sketch of possible likeness from the late 1960s on the right
A mugshot of Gary Francis Poste (left), police sketch of possible likeness from the late 1960s on the right. Source: uniondemocrat.com

According to Fox News, a team of over 40 detectives, journalists, and military intelligence officers known as the Case Breakers, believe that Poste is responsible for a murder committed in the SoCal city of Riverside in 1966.

Case Breakers

As we know, the Zodiac killer is connected to 5 murders and messed with authorities by sending coded letters to the police department and to the San Francisco Chronicle. So, I’m sure you’re wondering how the Case Breakers solve this decades-old mystery.

Gary Francis Poste
Source: junkee.com

Reportedly, the team spent years digging through new forensic evidence and photos from Poste’s darkroom. The team found a photo where you could see scars on Poste’s forehead that match the scars on the sketch of the Zodiac killer.

Finally Solved?

But that wasn’t the only clue. The team was supposedly able to decipher the letters that the Zodiac sent, which revealed that his identity is Gary Francis Poste. The team stated that there was one note where the letters of Poste’s full name were taken out to reveal an alternate message.

gary poste zodiac killer
Source: Twitter

A former Army counterintelligence agent who worked with the Case Breakers team said, “So you’ve got to know Gary’s full name in order to decipher these anagrams. I just don’t think there’s any other way anybody would have figured it out.”
The case is still officially open.