Zodiac Killer: the story of “the most dangerous animal of all”

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This is the story of one of the most controversial serial killers ever identified. A cold and highly intelligent killer that terrorized California. The Zodiac is a case discussed at great length in the past and still to this day, due to the letters left by the murderer in which he disclosed his plans.

The murders

It all starts on December 20, 1968, in Vallejo, California. The young couple David Faraday (17) and Betty Lou Jensen (16) decide to stop his station wagon in a parking lot. From the darkness arrives a person with a gun. He fires a shot in the head of David and 5 shots in the back on Betty killing them both.

The authorities are notified. The killer used a semi-automatic .22 caliber pistol with Winchester Western “Super X” bullets.

These are the only ascertained facts. For the rest, nobody can explain what happened. The most likely hypothesis that this is the work of a madman will be confirmed in the following months.

July 4, 1969. Darlene Ferrin, 22, and Mike Mageau, 19, are gunned down inside their car. Darlene, reached by 5 shots, dies. Mike is injured but eventually survives

The similarities with the case of a few months earlier are immediately evident with the difference that the attacker this time changed the weapon using a Luger Caliber 9.

Mike states that the stranger approached them with a flashlight and then started firing. He was able to see his features: 1.75m tall, dark hair, about thirty years old, white.

On July 31, 1969, three different newspapers receive a letter each where the author takes responsibility for both attacks. He describes some details of the crime scenes and threatens to continue killing in the following days.

Attached to the messages there is also a cypher code which is decrypted after a few days.

The message says:

I LIKE KILLING PEOPLE BECAUSE IT IS SO MUCH FUN. IT IS MORE FUN THAN KILLING WILD GAME IN THE FOREST BECAUSE MAN IS THE MOST DANGEROUS ANIMAL OF ALL. TO KILL SOMETHING GIVES ME THE MOST THRILLING EXPERIENCE. IT IS EVEN BETTER THAN GETTING YOUR ROCKS OFF WITH A GIRL. THE BEST PART OF IT IS THAT WHEN I DIE, I’LL BE REBORN IN PARADISE, AND ALL THAT I HAVE KILLED WILL BECOME MY SLAVES. I WILL NOT GIVE YOU MY NAME BECAUSE YOU WILL TRY TO SLOW DOWN, OR STOP MY COLLECTION OF SLAVES FOR MY AFTERLIFE
EBEORIETEMETHHPITI

The meaning of the last letters remains obscure.

The 408 Cipher

September 27, 1969. Bryan Calvin Hartnell (20) and Cecilia Ann Shepard (22) parked the car near Lake Berryessa. At some point a stranger gets close. He is dressed in a black tunic, a hood covering his face marked by a crossed circle. He is holding a gun.

He says he is an escaped prisoner and needs money. Bryan hands him the wallet but not enough to satisfy this character as he ties up and stabs both.

Cecilia, hit 10 times, loses her life. Hartnell instead, gets stabbed 6 times but luckily manages to survive.

The killer also leaves a sign before disappearing, written with chalk on the Vallejo car door:

12-20-68, 7-4-69, Sept 27-69-6: 30 , by Knife

Those were the dates of all previous attacks and the weapon used in the last one.

October 11, 1969. Presidio Heights, San Francisco. The body of taxi driver Paul Stine is found killed with a gunshot to the head. Witnesses report of a white man between 25 and 30 years old, 1.75 meter tall, with black hair.

A few days later a letter arrives at the editorial staff of the San Francisco Chronicle containing a flap of Paul Stine’s shirt. In the letter, the killer expresses his intention to blow up a school bus in the near future.

The whole area is in danger and held hostage of a sadistic serial killer that enjoys terrorizing and challenging the investigators.

In the following days more letters keep coming in which the author signs himself as Zodiac. His mark is a circle with a cross. The letters are written with a tone of contempt and superiority towards the authorities that are chasing him. On December 27 he even writes to a lawyer asking for help.

During 1970 Zodiac continues to communicate with the press. His missives contain encrypted messages, a bomb pattern, greeting cards and various threats.

At a certain point the communications, as well as the murders, seem to stop.

However in 1974 the letters arrive again and will keep coming until 1978. At this point it is not clear yet whether they can all be attributed to the killer.

The investigations

Many suspects entered the spotlight of the investigation.

Rick Marshall draws the attention of investigators as he lived near the Paul Stine murder area and according to some experts his handwriting looks like Zodiac’s one.

Apart from these circumstantial elements there is no concrete evidence against him. His fingerprints do not match those found on letters and crime scenes.

Other suspects follow one another during the investigations and one in particular arouse many suspicions, his name is Arthur Leigh Allen.

Born in 1933, Allen is an elementary school teacher. According to the statements of his brother, in 1967 he had given a Zodiac brand watch by his mother, the symbol of which is the same circle with a cross in the center used by the serial killer.

In 1971 a friend tells the police that Arthur confessed to him the desire to kill, revealing details that would later be found in the crimes and in his letters.

Allen is interrogated but denies any involvement in the affair. Subsequently over the years he will be searched several times by the authorities.

In 1991, cartridges of the same type as those used by Zodiac in the Faraday / Jensen murder are found in his home. In the house there is also a knife compatible with that of the attack on Lake Berryessa as well as schemes of explosive devices, similar to those that the killer was planning to use according to the letters.

However, the analysis on the handwriting and the imprints of the letters do not match Allen’s.

Arthur Leigh Allen dies of a heart attack on August 26, 1992 at 58 years old. His figure will be shrouded in mystery for the years to come. Is he the Zodiac? Or are the clues gathered just coincidences?

Arthur Leigh Allen

The investigations continued over the years, through numerous theories and tracks but never reaching a decisive turning point.

In 2007 a film was made, entitled Zodiac, directed by David Fincher, inspired by the story and based on the investigations of the writer Robert Graysmith.

Even today the case remains unresolved. The investigation is still open and continues to be followed by the whole world. The last act dates back to December 2020, when the encrypted message sent by Zodiac to the San Francisco Chronicle on November 8, 1969 was decrypted by three researchers. This is the text of the so-called 340 cipher:

“I HOPE YOU ARE HAVING LOTS OF FUN IN TRYING TO CATCH ME. THAT WASN’T ME ON THE TV SHOW WHICH BRINGS UP A POINT ABOUT ME. I AM NOT AFRAID OF THE GAS CHAMBER BECAUSE IT WILL SEND ME TO PARADISE ALL THE SOONER. BECAUSE I NOW HAVE ENOUGH SLAVES TO WORK FOR ME WHERE EVERYONE ELSE HAS NOTHING WHEN THEY REACH PARADISE SO THEY ARE AFRAID OF DEATH. I AM NOT AFRAID BECAUSE I KNOW THAT MY NEW LIFE WILL BE AN EASY ONE IN PARADISE DEATH.”

The 340 Cipher

The focus on the case remains high and further developments in the future can not be excluded in search of a truth that can be found.