It’s one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century, and in this post, we’ll take a closer look at some interesting facts about the Zodiac Killer, the nickname of an unidentified serial killer in the United States.
1. His identity remains unknown until today
The Zodiac Killer referred to himself as “the Zodiac” and is a serial killer who has murdered at least 5 people and seriously injured 2 more. He was active in the late 1960s and probably the early 1970s, and just like for example Jack the Ripper, his identity remains unknown.
The death toll is most probably a lot higher as he has been linked to dozens of other cases, but none of these can be confirmed.
2. He was active in Northern California
His 5 confirmed murders all happened in the area around San Francisco in Northern California. The attacks happened in Benicia, Vallejo, Napa County, and San Francisco.
All confirmed murders took place in 1968 and 1969.
3. Who are the 5 victims of the Zodiac Killer?
The killer used both a gun and a knife to murder his victims. These are the victims of his confirmed attacks:
- David Arthur Faraday, 17, and Betty Lou Jensen, 16 – December 20, 1968 – Lake Herman Road in Benicia.
- Michael Renault Mageau, 19, and Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin, 22 – July 4, 1969 – Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo.
- Bryan Calvin Hartnell, 20, and Cecelia Ann Shepard, 22 – September 27, 1969 – Lake Berryessa in Napa County.
- Paul Lee Stine, 29 – October 11, 1969 – Presidio Heights neighborhood in San Francisco.
Of these victims, only Michael Renault Mageau and Bryan Calvin Hartnell survived the attacks and were able to provide a detailed description of the suspect.
He was described as between 25 and 35 years old, slightly overweight and estimated up to 200 lbs (91 kilos), not very tall at about 5’8″ (1.73 m), and a white male with short, brown, curly hair.
4. He targeted young couples but also killed a taxi driver
One of the most intriguing facts about the Zodiac Killer is that he mostly targeted young couples, but also ended up killing a taxi driver in San Francisco. This proves the killer is clearly a deranged individual who simply enjoys killing.
On October 11, 1969, a cab driven by Paul Stine picked up the killer and apparently drove a block too far, resulting in the Zodiac Killer shooting him in the head.
5. He got his name because he sent cryptograms to the press
The Zodiac Killer is most famously known for his cryptic messages and extensive letters he sent to the press in the San Francisco Bay Area. He signed these letters as “The Zodiac.”
He also frequently included a crosshair-like symbol which together with the cryptograms made his letters even more intriguing.
6. The first disturbing letter arrived on August 1, 1969
The first letter of the Zodiac Killer was sent to members of the press on August 1, 1969. 3 almost identical letters were sent to the Vallejo Times Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The San Francisco Examiner.
The letters included a confession of the Lake Herman Road and Blue Rock Springs shootings, and the killer also demanded the letters were to be printed on the front page of the 3 newspapers or he would start killing 12 random people the next weekend, something that eventually didn’t happen.
He also included a cryptogram that would reveal his identity. This is the only cryptogram that has been solved and even though it didn’t reveal his identity, the text is quite disturbing:
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 dangeroue 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 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 collectiog of slaves for my afterlife ebeorietemethhpiti.Solution of the Zodiac’s first cryptogram.
7. He claimed to have killed 37 people
As the letters kept on coming, the demands were getting bolder and the cryptograms even more sophisticated to the point nobody was able to solve them. This was clearly a man with too much time on his hands to deploy his evil schemes.
One of the most remarkable facts about the Zodiac Killer is that in his final letter, he claimed the body count was set at 37 and frequently bragged about the murders he committed.
8. He confessed after the second attack by calling the police
Writing letters wasn’t the only way that he communicated with the police though, he also called them from phone booths. To make this even more astounding, he actually called them from phone booths located just a few blocks away from the police station!
The first phone call came just after the second attack on July 5, 1969, at around 12:40 a.m., a few blocks from the Vallejo Police Department.
During this phone call, he confessed to both the second and first attack, which had happened about 6 and a half months earlier.
9. He left a weird inscription on the door of another victim’s car
During the Lake Berryessa murder, the Zodiac Killer wore a hood and sunglasses and tied up the victims, two young lovers who were having a picnic near the lake.
After they were tied up he repeatedly stabbed them, killing the woman and seriously injuring the man. He again called the police and mentioned that he wanted to “report a murder – no, a double murder.” The phone call was made just a block from the Sheriffs’ office and at the Napa Car Wash on Main Street in Napa.
Shortly after the attack he also left a cryptic message on the door of the victim’s car which read “Vallejo/12-20-68/7-4-69/Sept 27–69–6:30/by knife.”
10. The police could have apprehended the Zodiac Killer if not for a crucial mistake
Shortly after the Zodiac Killer had shot the taxi driver in the head, killing him on the spot, he left the murder scene on foot. 3 teenagers saw the incident and called the police who arrived there quickly.
As they were approaching the murder scene, they had actually seen the Zodiac Killer walking by. In an attempt to hide the fact that he was fleeing the murder scene, he approached the door of a house by entering the driveway.
It was late at night, around 9:55 P.M. so there weren’t many people walking around. The crucial mistake was that the suspect was identified as a black male on the police radio which is the reason why the cops didn’t stop the killer as they passed by.
The killer referred to this in one of his letters shortly after the incident.
11. The final Zodiac letter praised a famous horror movie
The final letter of the Zodiac Killer was dated January 29, 1974, which was 3 years after the previous letter had arrived.
To prove that it was written around this time, he referred to a famous horror movie that came out on December 26, 1973, called “The Exorcist.”
It was signed with another cryptic message that reads “Me = 37, SFPD = 0.” The 37 is presumed to be referring to the number of murders he committed, even though this hasn’t been verified.
12. DNA analysis might eventually solve the case
Even though the murders apparently stopped after this letter, the letters kept on coming in. Most of these, however, were fake letters sent by desperate individuals as most of them have been declared hoaxes.
After decades of trying to solve the mystery, the police still aren’t any closer to finding the Zodiac Killer. Until May 2018, when the Vallejo Police Department announced that they started an attempt to collect the Zodiac Killer’s DNA from the back of the stamps he used to send his letters.
Until now, however, nothing has come of this investigation and we are still eagerly waiting to hear the results.
13. The most likely suspect most probably isn’t the Zodiac Killer
Robert Graysmith wrote a book in 1986 titled “Zodiac,” in which he put forward a suspect who had been on the police’s radar since the early days of the murders and was actually the prime suspect for many years.
This man was named Arthur Leigh Allen (1933-1992) and his house was searched numerous times over a 20-year period.
The main detective on the case, Dave Toschi, mentioned that all the evidence against the suspect eventually turned out negative, something confirmed by handwriting expert Lloyd Cunningham who said that the Zodiac’s handwriting and Allen’s weren’t even remotely similar.
14. Countless potential suspects have been put forward
The Zodiac Killer case has intrigued people for over 5 decades now and numerous potential suspects have been put forward apart from Arthur Leigh Allen.
None of them have been confirmed, nor have all the other cryptograms been conclusively resolved, including the one containing 340 characters that were sent on November 8, 1969.
UPDATE: The 340 Cipher was solved in December 2020, 51 years after it was sent to the San Francisco Chronicle!
15. The villain and cop of a famous cop movie were based on the Zodiac Killer case
One of the most fascinating facts about the Zodiac Killer is that multiple elements of the case have been incorporated in Dirty Harry, one of the best movies starring Clint Eastwood as the cop investigating the case of a ruthless murderer in San Francisco.
Harry Callahan was based on investigator Dave Toschi, the deranged criminal was based on the Zodiac Killer, and parts of the plot of the movie were things mentioned by the Zodiac Killer in his letter such as the murder of schoolchildren on a bus!