Inkblots, Riddles, & Rabbit Holes: Why the Zodiac Killer remains unknown 50 years later
More than a half-century after the first killings: What we know, where the investigations faltered, and how the case can still be solved.
Ten years ago the San Francisco Examiner slugged one of their Friday morning editions with the blaring front page headline: “Zodiac Killer to Be Named.”
That was no small statement in a city that once assigned police escorts to school buses after the Zodiac declared “…children make nice targets” in the midst of his murder spree. So it wasn’t surprising when throngs of media, amateur sleuths, longtime residents, and assorted weirdos gathered into a tidy circus along Mission Street that afternoon for a press conference outside of the Chronicle building. Expectations were mostly calibrated to farce, even as an unspoken hope lingered on the long-shot prospect of closure.
Deborah Perez, a 47-year-old real estate agent from Los Angeles, soon stepped forward into a barrage of microphones and explained how an episode of “America’s Most Wanted” got her thinking about her adoptive father: “I researched the Zodiac killer, and to my surprise I found cards and letters that were in police custody that were written by my father…or myself.”
Perez asserted that she was tucked away in the backseat as a seven-year-old while her father drove around Northern California on his murderous prowls. She said she was present for some of his killings: “I would hear shots and he would state that they were firecrackers.”
While Perez and her lawyers presented this colorful narrative, the press conference increasingly gave way to jeers and sideshow debates. As a disjointed chant of “bullshit” fizzled out among the spectators, TV cameramen hustled about the scene wholly oblivious to the fact that Perez’s story would soon prove embarrassing to their editors (especially after it was learned that her head lawyer was disbarred in the state of California).
Watching this all play out on a San Francisco street corner — the frantic media, the can’t-look-away spectators, the emotionally scarred woman, the shady lawyers — it wasn’t hard for me to conclude that the Zodiac would love every moment of such a deranged shit show.
The Bay Area’s most famous unsolved criminal mystery turned 50 this past year.
Yes, it’s been half a century since two teens were first murdered at gunpoint along a dark backroad in Vallejo. Soon after, the perpetrator would publicly brand himself the Zodiac in a series of provocative letters to local media outlets. In the five decades since, there have been seemingly countless investigations, theories, articles, chat room debates, best-selling books, and feature films. Yet the now globally infamous murder spree remains as murky and confusing today as when it all first played out, and for every detail that should be a well-established certainty, there exits an inverse alternate possibility: five confirmed victims (but perhaps as many as 40, depending on who you ask), a series of cryptic puzzles (some of which have never been solved and might not have any real answer), all perpetrated by a killer that is most likely deceased by now (or maybe still alive here in the Bay Area today). It’s depressing to admit, but five decades later we appear to know as little about the killer now as we knew back then.
So in addition to a body count and a lingering uncertainty surrounding exactly where the crimes begin and end, we have a messy 50 years of ensuing fallout and mania.
Law enforcement investigators assigned to the case have retired in frustration, often rewarded with an ulcer or albatross for their efforts. Physical evidence has been lost, mishandled, or (as one veteran criminal justice reporter alleged) “taken home as souvenirs.” Over time, as official investigations have languished, a culture of amateur Zodiac sleuths has emerged to give us myriad theories and suspects, incurring ridicule, book deals, and divorces for their obsessive hobby. And in recent years (just to put some icing on this bizarre legacy) the “Zodiac was my dad” claim seems to have become a fad of sorts.
Even worse, a thorough DNA testing of the evidence has never been completed, despite many other high profile cold cases having been recently solved in this manner. The Green River Killer, the BTK Strangler, the Golden State Killer, they were all still out there. And then they got caught. So why not Zodiac?
Like a fair number before me, I came to the Zodiac as one of the case’s core groups of participants — a member of the media. In 2007, during the run-up to the release of David Fincher’s film “Zodiac,” I had written a lengthy investigative feature story for San Francisco Magazine about the S.F.P.D.’s derailed DNA investigation into the murders. So for about three months, I talked to as many relevant sources as possible and then boiled it all down to a not-so-tiny 4,500 words. Now, 12 years later, I still receive about four or five Zodiac-related emails each year; theories mostly, pointing to different suspects every time.
Yet these few messages I receive annually are nothing when it comes to Zodiac. The current SF Chronicle crime reporter in charge of the case recently told me that he has amassed hundreds of correspondences on the topic (which then factor into the thousands amassed and stored in-house at the Chronicle from over the years).
I can only imagine how many tips, theories, and other hallucinations Bay Area law enforcement have fielded for the past five decades.
Even still, it’s interesting to assess what even my smaller sample size of correspondences have in common. They come to me from all over the country, tend to be very long-winded, and almost always include theories that point towards wayward fathers, abusive ex-husbands, or some kind of traumatic relationship in the writer’s life. Much like Deborah Perez’s gonzo press conference, these perspectives speak to one of the more twisted yet highly overlooked trends embedded in the case’s legacy. Just as Perez had applied the mystery to herself, there have been an abundance of people over the years who embrace the Zodiac as a personal Rorschach test, rather than a highly complex murder mystery. As a result, the inkblot is far too often seen for what one needs it to be rather than what it is (hence all the Zodiac dads out there).
But this Rorschach trend also applies to how many investigators — from professionals to amateurs — have approached the case. Harry Philips, the same journalist who clued me in to the horrible state of Zodiac evidence at S.F.P.D., argued that “…past investigations always fell victim to the most basic mistakes an investigator can make, which is they were looking at suspects and not the evidence.”
With this in mind, suppose for a second that one of the countless theories out there is in fact 100 percent correct. The inverse arithmetic tells us that there are a vast multitude of people who have been completely wrong. That the hours and energy sunk into their theories have been devoted to phantoms. That the best-selling books about particular suspects were just straight up incorrect and that the many people who embraced the inkblot instead of a therapist (or, for that matter, a peyote session) were seeking peace of mind through delusion.
I doubt many people remember it, but the tagline on the poster for Fincher’s movie was — “There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer.”
When it comes to the Zodiac, most people have heard or read about a particular suspect whom they believe to be the killer.
Yet few people have heard of the phenomenon known as “Zychronicity.” It’s a fascinating and kind of perfect term that the Zodiac research community devised to reference the peculiar synchronicities that surround so many of the suspects: highly compelling circumstantial evidence and other types of that-can’t-be-just-a-coincidence details.
Zychronicity surfaces a lot, and it’s where the case begins to seem less like a homicide investigation and more like an M.C. Escher woodcut.
Take longtime Zodiac suspect Arthur Allen Leigh, for example. He was an ex-con that lived in Vallejo close to one of the murder victims. Despite extensive investigations, he just never lined up to the hard forensic evidence. But he did have a Zodiac brand wristwatch. He also had the model of typewriter that was tied to a suspected Zodiac letter. Yet his fingerprints and DNA never matched. Weird, right? Well, that’s Zynchronicity: it’s like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that fits perfectly into one place, but never connects anywhere else. Or maybe, Zynchroncity speaks to the inkblot nature of circumstantial evidence — look closely enough at a particular person or situation, and something there is likely to fit what you want to find. As one forensic scientist told me, “It’s sort of like the UFO thing; people see what they want to see.”
That article I published back in 2007 had put me in close touch with Michael Maloney, the retired S.F.P.D. homicide inspector who spearheaded the 2002 Zodiac killer DNA investigation. Maloney was entirely evidence-oriented and had little interest in the endless circumstantial speculation that surrounds the case. Once when I asked him about a particular theory in Robert Graysmith’s famous best-selling book on the Zodiac, he quickly waved the question off. Why? “If we ever had to go to court on the Zodiac case,” he explained, “I didn’t think bringing up a cartoonist’s book would help me.” (And, for that matter, neither would a particular brand of wristwatch.)
When the Golden State Killer was finally apprehended in 2018, the Sacramento District Attorney stated at the press conference: “The answer was — and always was going to be — in the DNA.” Maloney and his partner realized more than a decade earlier that they could apply the latest technology towards the best evidence surrounding the Zodiac case in the hopes of finally reaching a plausible conclusion. Yet in one of the more infuriating developments surrounding the case, Maloney’s DNA investigation was derailed by bullshit office politics and a petty clash of egos from within S.F.P.D. It was hard to fathom, but a case that was essentially America’s equivalent of Jack the Ripper was made inactive by top brass within San Francisco law enforcement right as real progress was being made towards solving it.
Over the next 15 years, as numerous high profile cold case murders were solved through DNA, the legend of the Zodiac killer only grew larger.
“One day men will say I gave birth to the 20th century.”
Speaking of Jack the Ripper, you’ve got to hand it to Alan Moore for giving him that line in From Hell. After all, it boils down the big picture of the killer’s legacy: barbaric human violence in the face of a modern era of progress and technology. What could be more 20th century than that?
Zodiac has always been a great modern American comparison to Jack the Ripper — only five confirmed murders, a terror streak predicated on a media campaign, an obsessive sleuth culture that may likely never get an answer — but it’s that (fictional) line that I always come back to for the quintessential parallel. Was Zodiac, in a similar way, a harbinger of the 21st century? A precursor to the senseless random violence that can take place today at any time, within the “safety” of the suburbs as much as the insanity of the city? Was he an early example of our now-pervasive narcissistic promotion of ourselves as a brand? All of those threads are very timely here in 2019, but his greatest relevance is that the Zodiac appears to have foretold a society that — even in a robust age of information — would embrace “alternative facts” and see only what it wants the truth to be, rather than what it is.
My most savvy sources saw this back in 2007, and warned about how facts and evidence had become secondary within the legacy of the murders, much to the Zodiac’s advantage.
So yes, it’s been 50 years now.
And this essay would have been a lot simpler (and more fun) if I just sold you on some of the compelling theories and spooky possibilities. Maybe the Radian Theory (in which the murder locations are part of a satanic ritual encircling Mount Diablo) or the possibility of Zodiac as a construction (merely a few separate crimes all claimed by one mischievous bystander). Indeed, it’s all very captivating. But distracting too, because at this half-century milestone the case badly needs more of Inspector Maloney’s “just the facts” approach and less of Deborah Perez’s legal team charlatanism, more hard analysis of the forensic evidence and less internet theories. Because that long-shot prospect of closure still exists and it resides in the evidence, which most likely means that it is there in the DNA.
So don’t buy into the latest theory. Don’t read into the inkblot, don’t get seduced by the riddles, do not go down the Zodiac rabbit holes. And seriously — stop saying he’s your dad.
Author’s Note & Update: This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of The San Franciscan. There were two interesting Zodiac developments later that year which strongly resonate with the ideas in this article. First, the excellent documentary The Most Dangerous Animal of All provided a telling case study of the “My dad was the Zodiac” trend by closely examining the claims of Gary L. Stewart, who had written a best-selling book which asserted his father was the Zodiac. The documentary careful examines his arguments before (spoiler alert) utterly dismantling them and providing a much more plausible explanation by conveying Stewart’s lingering childhood anguish over his wayward father.
Later in the year, the Zodiac Killer’s 340 Cipher—which was unsolved for 51 years—was finally cracked. Far from revealing the killer’s identity, it read: “I hope you are having lots of fun in trying to catch 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.” Consider the massive amount of collective hours that had been dedicated towards solving the cipher for the past half-century, only to have it reveal yet another meaningless boast by the killer, which ultimately had zero impact on moving the case forward towards closure.
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Charles Russo is a San Francisco based journalist. He is a former editor at the White House Photo Office and is the author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America, which chronicles Lee’s time in San Francisco Bay during the 1960s. Charles is currently the editor for The Six Fifty, an online magazine that covers life and culture around Silicon Valley.