Who Is The Zodiac Killer?

They were spooked. Was it a bored patrolman wanting to bust teens getting frisky? Like a police vehicle, the car, described later as either a light-brown Corvair or Ford Mustang, had rocked up and parked at an angle (to the left and rear of a Corvair driven by 22-year-old Darlene Ferrin), its headlights on full beam. Blue Rock Springs was well known as a lovers’ lane in the Bay Area navy town of Vallejo, California. No doubt this jobsworth Officer Donuts would step out, amble over, ask them what they were up to at this late hour (as if he didn’t know) and tell them to skedaddle on home. They might even know him. Ferrin was a diner waitress popular with local enforcement officers. She was friendly with a lot of folk in town. Vallejo residents would later say she was too friendly, too trusting, and quite the flirt. She and her

Ferrin and Mageau thought they were being approached by a police officer until he shot at them

companion, 19-year-old Mike Mageau, were sat talking and listening to the radio on a sultry California night at the end of a long day of Independence Day celebrations. The cop would check their IDs and leave.

But that isn’t what happened. The bulky shadow exited the vehicle and proceeded to walk over at a steady pace, a spotlight swinging its unnerving attention between the occupants. Ferrin and Mageau fished out their identification, ready to show. The window on Mageau’s passenger side was wound down. Illuminated briefly by the interior light of Ferrin’s car, Mageau caught a glimpse of a solidly built man with short, curly light-brown hair. Without any warning whatsoever, this individual walked toward the passenger door, shone the light directly into Mageau’s face and fired into the car.


Nine bullets did the job, in all. Several passed straight through Mageau and struck Ferrin, contributing to her fatal wounding. Ferrin, slumped over the steering wheel, was pretty much a goner. Leaving momentarily, the killer about turned and blasted away four more times, two for each victim. Mageau attempted to get out of the line of fire and pushed his way into the rear of the car. With the execution over, the killer hightailed it out of Blue Rock Springs. It was minutes after midnight. The witching hour had conjured a phantom whose deadly deeds and cosmic-sounding moniker (revealed to the world via the press the following month) would haunt the annals of real crime history for decades to come.


At 12.40am on 5 July 1969, switchboard operator Nancy Slover received a call. By then, it was already known two kids had been attacked at Blue Rock Springs. Right after the shooting, a trio of teens out searching for a pal came across the gruesome scene. They’d noticed Ferrin’s car and thought, at least for a second, it was their missing buddy. Mageau had by this time managed to crawl out of the Corvair and was lying in roaring agony on the ground. He informed the teens, through mouthfuls of streaming warm blood (a bullet entered his right check and exited the left, punching a hole in his jawbone and tongue), that he’d been shot and needed a doctor. It was the call at 12.40, however, that changed things significantly. Ferrin was barely alive; her soft moans sounded to Detective Sergeant John Lynch like “the wind”. Ferrin was put in an ambulance and pronounced DOA (dead on arrival) at 12.38am.

Mike Mageau and Darlene Ferrin were attacked around midnight on 5 July 1969. Fern died from multiple gunshot wounds. Mageau survived

”I want to report a double murder. If you go one mile east on Columbus Parkway to the public park you’ll find the kids in a brown car. They were shot with a 9mm luger. I also killed those kids last year. Goodbye.”


The way he’d said “goodbye” gave Slover the creeps. It was described in a filed police report as “taunting”. She also stated the message was rattled off as if the caller was reading from a piece of paper or was memorising what he’d set out to say. Any attempt by Slover to get further details caused the mystery caller to raise his voice. It’s described in the report as “soft but forceful” and there was no hint of a local or regional accent.

Up until then, the double homicide on 20 December 1968 had left the police and townsfolk baffled. The murder rate at this end of the Bay Area was very low. And why would anybody want to kill two high school students out on their first date? It made no sense. The phone call to Vallejo PD potentially broke the case or gave them a new avenue of inquiry. They knew, too, if what the caller said was the truth, they had a maniac on the loose. Little did they realise what was about to come.


The Lake Herman Road double murder may be considered the outlier. Upon first look, the killing of cab driver Paul Stine, on 11 October 1969, appears to be the odd one out, but the deaths of high schoolers Betty Lou Jensen, 16, and David Faraday, 17, left no eyewitnesses. That’s what makes it markedly different from all the other accredited slayings.

Unlike the attack at Blue Rock Springs, the bizarre encounter at Lake Berryessa in September 1969 or the Stine episode, the Lake Herman Road crime scene was simply discovered, and there was very little to go on forensically. Two teenagers just went out on a date to a remote stretch of country road (another local lovers’ lane) and never came back. They were found expired by passing driver Stella Borges, on her way into Benicia; the headlights of her car illuminated the bodies lying on the roadside at Gate 10, a short path leading to a pumping house station, about a mile east of Lake Herman Cottage.

When David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen were gunned down on a remote stretch of country road on 20 December 1968, the cops were baffled

Faraday had been shot at point blank range behind the left ear. When the police arrived he was, somehow, still breathing. Was this the last, faint flickers of life igniting reserves of energy and telling the body to hang in there, or the final, soft ebbing toward the kingdom of death? If there was a sign of life, there was hope. The ambulance raced hell for leather to Vallejo General Hospital. But it was not to be. David Faraday was pronounced DOA at 12.05 a.m. The bullet exploded part of his cranium and simply caused too much damage. Nothing could be done.

Jensen had made a plucky run for it, and was gunned down 8.5 metres from the rear of the two-tone Nash Rambler Station Wagon. Bullets had struck her upper torso and it looked like the work of an expert marksman; there was nothing but moonlight and headlights to go on out there in the sticks. The accuracy was eerie. Jensen was pronounced dead on scene. The police investigated the area and found no signs of struggle and no other car tyre tracks. The hard winter ground had worked in Zodiac’s favour. Police were able to recover nine Super X copper-coated casings fired from a .22 calibre weapon.


Bryan Hartnell and Cecilia Ann Shepard met Zodiac in a remote spot on Lake Berryessa, They were stabbed repeatedly. Shepard died in hospital

They weren’t even supposed to be there. 20-year-old Bryan Hartnell and Cecilia Ann Shepard, 22, students at Pacific Union College, a liberal arts institute in Napa County, had intended to drive across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco for the day. The friends – soon to be parting ways, with Shepard moving down to Riverside, California – decided to spend the weekend together. (It should be noted that, like Jack the Ripper, Zodiac only struck at weekends.) Deciding it was too late to get there and back in sufficient time, they headed out to a local beauty spot: Lake Berryessa. A former reservoir with an unusual irregular shoreline, it wasn’t entirely deserted on the early evening of 27 September, but it was very, very quiet. A few people were dotted here and there fishing on the lake. At 38 kilometres in length and almost five kilometres miles wide, Berryessa is a big old place. The only thing folk would usually need to look out for here, though, were western rattlesnakes, not psycho killers.


Parking on Knoxville Road and walking down 450 metres to a little island connected by a sand spit to a peninsula, Hartnell and Shepard laid down their blankets by the water and chatted about all sorts of things. Neither of them saw the peculiar figure lurking by the cluster of oak trees until it was too late.

It was Shepard who first spied the stranger. Hartnell dismissed the girl’s mild concern and assumed it was a guy answering the call of nature, the oak trees used discreetly to cover up his action. Shepard saw the man disappear momentarily, but he re-emerged, much closer now.

“He’s got a gun, oh my god.” Shepard’s words startled her friend. He’d been stretched out facing toward the water, so hadn’t seen the guy until he approached. What they saw was both comical and frightening. The bulky man approached wearing what looked like a homemade Halloween costume. Based on subsequent sketches, Zodiac was dressed like a Medieval executioner with a black hood doubled as a tunic. There was a ten-centimetre circle-and-crosshair symbol embroidered at the centre. He wore sunglasses over the eyeholes (Hartnell even suspected he was wearing two pairs of glasses), dark trousers, black boots, a utility belt with a gun holster (left hip), a sheath to hold a homemade knife (right hip) and pieces of cut plastic taken from a clothesline.

Zodiac wore a strange costume when he attacked Hartnell and Shepard

The man spun them a tale about how he was an escaped convict from Montana. He was on the lam and needed a car to drive down to Mexico. He also required the contents of Bryan’s wallet. If this was so, Hartnell thought, the fella was shit out of luck. All he had on him was 75 cents. As a sociology student and not quite realising who he was dealing with, Hartnell asked Zodiac all kinds of questions, but answers were not forthcoming.

The pair were hog-tied with pieces of clothesline. Hartnell asked the man if the gun was really loaded. The man obliged him, pulling out the clip. This was for real. Yet the gun was never used. It was a tool to inspire fear and the promise of a dreadful situation. Zodiac began stabbing Hartnell in the back with the 30-centimetre bayonet-like knife. He was stabbed six times. Shepard, reacting on pure survival instinct, attempted to roll away. Zodiac walked over and stabbed her repeatedly, too. Job done, he headed back up to Knoxville Road.

“I want to report a murder, no, a double murder.” Officer David Spaight, covering for a colleague on a break, took the message. When he attempted to get further information regarding the homicide, the caller simply stated: “I’m the one that did it.” He dropped the receiver and left it dangling. The phone call had come in from a phone booth in the city of Napa, 43 kilometres from the crime scene. The biggest surprise, however, was left for the cops to find along with the bodies of Hartnell and Shepard. Written on Hartnell’s white 1956 Karmann Ghia Coupé with a black marker pen was a message and a score to date:


“Vallejo, 12-20-68


Sept 27-69-6:30

by knife”



How Zodiac entered Paul Stine’s cab is a mystery and quite possibly down to nothing more than random selection and sheer bad luck (for the victim). What is known, based on the cab logbook, is that 29-year-old Stine picked up his murderer at Mason and Geary and drove to Maple Street before continuing on a block or so to Washington and Cherry. Was Maple Street too well-lit and busy for him to plug the guy? W&C was a quiet residential area in an affluent neighbourhood. The lack of adequate street lighting made the situation almost perfect. Zodiac asked Stine to park up, then he placed a gun against the driver’s head and pulled the trigger.

In the vicinity of W&C, Officers Foukes and Zelms stopped a gentleman out walking. They asked if he’d seen anything suspicious. Thanks to a bizarre (and to this day unaccountable) blunder by the radio dispatcher, they were on the lookout for an NMA (Negro Male Adult). The stocky guy, described as ‘lumbering’ up Jackson Street, replied he’d seen a guy waving a gun around on Washington Street. Foukes and Zelms cannot be blamed for their error. They were responding to what was then currently relayed about the perpetrator.


Although police may have stopped Zodiac in the aftermath of Stine’s death, he did not look like the man they were searching for


Zodiac openly mocked the police in their efforts to catch him and created a jurisdictional headache for them. 

“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 its thae when they die I will be reborn in paradice and thei have killed will become my slaves I will not give my name because will you try to sloi me down or atop my collectiog of slaves for my afterlife ebeorietemethhpiti”


The message by Zodiac was encoded in a three-part 408 cipher sent to three Bay Area newspapers – Vallejo Times Herald, The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner– on 1 August 1969. If it was solved, he informed editors, his identity would be revealed. If they failed to publish the three-part cryptogram, more people would end up dead, he threatened.

After the Blue Rock Springs attack, Zodiac began the next phase of his game plan: taunt the police, the media and, through those channels, the wider population. Editorial staff debated whether this was an elaborate hoax by a loon attempting to jump on the bandwagon. The ciphers were printed but one newspaper included quotes from Vallejo Police Chief, Jack Stilitz, in which he demanded more info from the killer… only things he would know and that hadn’t yet been made public. Zodiac dutifully replied with information pertaining to the crime that only he would know. This was for real. As he wrote on 7 August 1969, “This is the Zodiac speaking…” It really was.

Donald G. Harden, a school teacher from Salinas, California, was the first person to crack Zodiac’s cipher

The three-part cryptogram stumped near enough everyone. It would be solved not by FBI experts or naval intelligence, but by a high school teacher and his wife. Donald and Betty Harden, of Salinas, California, worked the code obsessively, in one day. Zodiac’s use of coded messages is unique in the annals of real crime history. There is nothing else like it. Other ciphers sent by Zodiac have never been solved.

When Stine was executed on the San Francisco police department’s home turf and Zodiac took credit for the slaying, the investigation became a massive affair. Homicide Inspectors Bill Armstrong and Dave Toschi, a cop whose unusual upside down gun holster was copied by Steve McQueen in the San Francisco-set Bullitt (1968), were assigned to lead the investigation.

Based on witness testimonies this sketch of the Zodiac killer was drawn up

But Zodiac was a very crafty individual. By virtue of choosing different locations across the Bay Area, in different counties, he created a jurisdictional headache. Not only that, the various offices weren’t so hot on sharing information, leads or suspects. The guys from Vallejo and Napa thought Toschi and Armstrong were muscling in, trying to dominate and generally acting like Big Time Charlies. Meetings between SFPD, Napa County and Vallejo were fraught with misunderstandings and petty grievances grew into, on occasion, outright hostility. Zodiac would have loved it. It took major efforts to agree on anything and there was plenty of to-ing and fro-ing going on. The wheels of justice turn slowly, but in the Zodiac case, which was massively complex, the wheels ground to a halt and only budged in fits and starts.

A lack of cohesion, camaraderie and mutual respect between investigators only helped Zodiac remain at large. Police, too, were inundated with tip-offs about potential suspects. Toschi would share Robert Graysmith’s conviction that Arthur Leigh Allen was Zodiac. He became a local suspect ten days after the Blue Rock Springs incident, when Detective Sergeant John Lynch, Vallejo PD, questioned him about his whereabouts. A couple of years later, in August 1971, his name cropping up again, Armstrong and Toschi interviewed him at his work place at the Pinola oil refinery, where Allen was employed as a chemist. Yet the list of suspects grew and grew into the thousands. Every single one could be him, and so had to be followed up. Cranks and false leads ruled the days, the months and years.


Stine’s assassination marked the end of the canonical murders. The official tally is: five dead from seven targeted. Until we know otherwise, that’s the definitive score. Zodiac’s rampage lasted barely a year.

So, why did he stop? There is only speculation. Zodiac fully intended to kill Mike Mageau and Bryan Hartnell, but the men survived. That wasn’t in the script. Although he bragged to the press, about how he’d laughed at police incompetence in apprehending him on the night of the Stine murder (he claimed he was hiding in bushes in the Presidio), was Zodiac genuinely frightened by the prospect of getting pinched?

“The confession”

The investigation amplified and the media’s coverage remained at fever pitch for a good while after. Zodiac never killed again, but he wrote to newspaper editors with his latest threats and reflections upon the state-wide panic he had orchestrated singlehandedly like a master of puppets. Bay Area police had tens of thousands of suspects to sift through, but nothing would ever stick. Each developed a favourite suspect, but they all lacked the vital piece of evidence to clinch the deal. Years went by and there were long silences, which then became complete silence. The phantom finally vanished into the air like a mid-morning fog rolling in off the bay and the world moved on. The last authenticated letter was received in January 1974. In it, Zodiac praised William Friedkin’s The Exorcist as the “best satirecal comidy I have ever seen.” Zodiac signed off with the tally “Me – 37 SFPD – 0”. Had Zodiac really killed 37 people? We don’t know, but it seems unlikely. Detectives leafed through old cold cases for potential links to Zodiac, but nothing solid turned up. It was another joke at the expense of the police, the killer enjoying the uncertainty he weaved by mere suggestion.

Other letters pertaining to be from the maniac turned up once in a while, but experts dismissed them as hoaxes. The current layout of the case is this: SFPD closed their files in 2004 but re-opened it in 2007, the same year David Fincher’s masterpiece examination of the case was released worldwide, a film that painstakingly recreated the murders, after new info came in. SFPD remained resolutely tight-lipped on recent developments, however. Maybe it was just more hooey and not worth getting excited about. In Napa County and Riverside, the search for Zodiac is still on. It’s doubtful now, though, there will be ever be an arrest made. Zodiac will remain one of the greatest fiends never caught.


Discover the curious case of the Zodiac killer in issue 12 of Real Crime. Why not subscribe to the magazine and keep up to date on the world’s most compelling unsolved cases?