Ultimate puzzle: The world of Zodiology

Police sketches of the Zodiac.

The Zodiac Killer case is the most famous murder mystery of modern times. No case has inspired as many articles, theories and wild speculation.

The case contains all the elements of a best-selling detective thriller: A series of random killings occurs. The killer sends threatening and bizarre letters to the newspapers. The letters contain mysterious ciphers, which may identify the killer. The City is crippled with fear, and the police are helpless. All that is needed is a Kay Scarpetta, a Harry Bosch or a “Dirty” Harry Callahan to find the clues, break the code and solve the case.

But real life is different. There was no magic detective, and the killer is still at-large.

Between 1966 and 1971, Zodiac killed at least seven people in California. The killings began on the evening of Dec. 20, 1968, when two Vallejo teenagers were shot to death in a lovers’ lane in Solano County. In July 1969, another Vallejo couple was shot at a golf course parking lot. The killer called the police and reported the crime. Four weeks later, the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner and Vallejo newspapers received letters from the killer containing details of the murder, along with a cipher that the writer claimed contained clues to his identity.   

On Sept. 29, 1969, a couple picnicking at Lake Berryessa was attacked and stabbed numerous times by a large man wearing a strange hood and wearing a Zodiac symbol. On Oct. 11, 1969, a man entered a cab driven by Paul Stine in San Francisco and requested to be taken to Presidio Heights. When the car stopped on Cherry and Washington streets, the man shot Stine once in the head and left the car. A police car, responding to a call from witnesses, noticed a heavy-set white man walking two blocks away, but did not detain him because the radio dispatcher had described the shooting suspect as a black man.

The white man was the Zodiac killer. Unconscious racism might have saved the Zodiac from capture.

Three days later, the Chronicle received another letter from the Zodiac, this time containing a swatch of Stine’s shirttail as proof that he was the killer.

Between 1969 and 1974, the Zodiac killer sent 15 letters and four ciphers to newspapers and police.

The Zodiac letters contained descriptions of his crimes, taunts aimed at the police, threats of future crimes and other assorted boasts. The first cipher was solved but
contained no clue to the Zodiac’s identity. The other three ciphers remain mysteries.  

Although police investigated more than 2,500 people, no one was ever arrested. The identity of the Zodiac killer continues to fascinate people, and more than 50 websites are devoted to this case. Thousands of people, known as Zodiologists, have been working to find a solution. Many new suspects have emerged, though there is little evidence that connects any of these suspects to the murders.

In response, Zodiologists have developed a kind of flexible logic in which the evidence is stretched in order to “prove” a particular suspect’s guilt. The ciphers, in particular, have been a major source of evidence for Zodiologists and have been interpreted in more ways than Nostradamus’ predictions.

The Zodiology world contains competing groups, each with the belief that their suspect is the real Zodiac killer. In a way, these groups resemble religious sects. Some of the more prominent sects are:

Orthodox Zodiology is headed by Robert Graysmith, Zodiology’s first prophet. Graysmith, who wrote the 1986 best-seller “Zodiac,” which is the basis for the 2007 movie by the same name, believes Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac killer. Allen, a convicted child molester, lived in Vallejo, made incriminating statements to acquaintances and wore a Zodiac watch. Vallejo police searched his trailer but found nothing incriminating. Additionally, neither Allen’s DNA nor his handwriting matched samples from the Zodiac letters. Allen died in 2002.

Reform Zodiology is led by Tom Voight, who runs the popular Zodiackiller.com website with more than 10 million hits each month. Voight believes Richard Gaikowski, a writer and newspaper editor, was Zodiac. There is little evidence against Gaikowski other than the accusations of a former friend, a number of random coincidences and voice identification by a former police dispatcher. Gaikowski died in 2004.

Zodiologists.com is a website that believes none of the current suspects are the Zodiac Killer. They put strong emphasis on decoding the Zodiac ciphers and are developing a new Zodiac Killer profile that is “based on scientific method and deductive reasoning.”

Filial Zodiologists believe their deceased relatives were the Zodiac killer. The latest member, Gary Stewart, claims his father, Earl Van Best, was the Zodiac. Stewart’s key piece of evidence is a handwriting analyst’s claim, based on Earl’s marriage certificate. Earl’s handwriting is reportedly identical to the Zodiac’s. Subsequent investigation has revealed this certificate was written by the minister who officiated at the marriage.

There are even Zodiac Deniers, the atheists of Zodiology. In “The Myth of the Zodiac Killer,” Thomas Horan claims that Zodiac committed none of the murders. He believes the Zodiac character was a literary hoax designed to sell more papers. The author claims the piece of Stine’s shirt that was received by the Chronicle had been stolen from the morgue, presumably by a rogue reporter.

The Zodiac killings occurred almost 50 years ago, yet interest remains high. Each year, new suspects are revealed and debunked. On crime anniversaries, hundreds of Zodiologists descend on the murder site for meetings that are part crime seminar, part high school reunion.

The fascination is understandable. The Zodiac case is the ultimate puzzle. And the person who puts the pieces together — the one who finds the clues, breaks the code and solves the case — becomes a modern-day Sherlock Holmes.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, www.crookstour.com.

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