Freaky Friday: Zodiac Unmasked?
Hello to all of my fellow cold case enthusiasts and conspiracy theory analyzers; it’s been a while! Since I’ve been gone for so long, I figured I’d give you all a longer article to peruse through this week. Nearly every American with an interest in true crime has heard of the Zodiac Killer, the man who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s. The killer was never identified and the case went cold for decades. Recently, however, headlines from all sorts of news outlets have been stuffed with news of the killer finally having a name and identity. Is it true? Has the Zodiac Killer really been unmasked after all these years? Let’s start from the very beginning; there’s an insane amount of information on this case and I think it would make the most sense to explain things in the order they happened.
January 28, 2022
November 29, 1966. Riverside City College, California.
The Los Angeles Times received a letter claiming that the Zodiac Killer had killed Cheri Josephine Bates, an 18-year-old college student, on October 30, 1966. Cheri’s body was found between two houses near Riverside City College shortly after with a handful of hair clutched in her hand. The Zodiac Killer has not been officially linked to her murder, though. Sixth months after October 30, Bate’s father, the Riverside Police, and the Riverside Press Enterprise all received similar handwritten letters signed with a “z.” A fingerprint was retrieved from one of the letters, though; keep that in mind for later on.
The three letters sent after Cheri Josephine Bate’s murder – Credit: Riverside Police
December 20, 1968. Benicia, California.
Betty Lou Jensen, 16, and David Faraday, 17, were on their first date. It was a brisk evening, the holidays were on the horizon, and David’s dandelion-colored station wagon was cruising down the road towards the town’s “Lover’s Lane.” Around 11:00, the couple was parked near a small pump station along Lake Hermann Road. Twenty minutes passed.
Stella Borges, her daughter, and her mother were on their way to pick up Stella’s son from a show when they passed “Lover’s Lane.” As she turned onto Lake Hermann Road, Stella noticed a yellow station wagon parked outside the pump station, but the driver’s side door was wide open. As she got closer, she noticed something even more strange: a young man was hanging out of the car, bleeding profusely. There was blood all over the car and a young woman was lying on the ground a few feet away from the road.
With it being the sixties, Stella didn’t have a cell phone, so she decided to drive to the nearest police station. On her way there, she flagged down a police officer driving down the same road and told him about the horrific scene. Multiple officers arrived at the scene at 11:28, the first thing they saw being Betty Lou’s body lying 28 feet from the station wagon. She had been shot five times, including in her heart, liver, and right kidney, and had no pulse when officers got to her. David was lying face up, hanging out of the car, but he was still alive. He was quickly transported to a hospital but died before the ambulance could get there.
With both of the victims dying as a result of their injuries, police had to figure things out on their own. Investigators soon determined that someone had shot at the couple through the right passenger side windows, back window, and roof of the station wagon. Using shell casings and other evidence, they discovered that a twenty-two caliber gun loaded with Winchester Western Super X ammunition was used; the gun was most likely a JC Higgins Model 80 semi-automatic pistol. Police and investigators also believed another person in a vehicle pulled up next to Betty Lou and David and began firing without hesitation.
Composite images of David’s station wagon at the crime scene – Credit: Benicia Police Department
The local police had no clue on how to handle a situation like this, as there had been no murders in Benicia for over 5 years. They needed to know if the murders of Betty Lou and David were predetermined, so family and friends of the victims were interviewed extensively. Betty Lou’s ex-boyfriend soon became a person of interest; however, he was promptly ruled out with his rock-solid alibi. James Owen, a witness whom the police interviewed, claimed that he had driven by the pump station at 11:14 P.M. and saw David’s station wagon parked along the road with two people sitting inside. He also saw a second vehicle, a mid-sized dark car, parked alongside David’s vehicle. The woman who initially discovered the crime scene, Stella, hadn’t seen the dark car James Owen did, which meant that the crime most likely happened at some time between 11:14 and 11:20 P.M.
Investigators weren’t able to find a motive for these murders; they just seemed like a random act of violence. None of the couple’s family or friends knew of their plans for that night, so it was unlikely that someone close to Betty Lou and David had been stalking them. There were no suspects or persons of interest, which terrified the residents of Benecia. Six months passed with no other acts of violence or homicides, and the community was finally starting to relax a bit.
July 4, 1969. Vallejo, California.
As the atmosphere in Benicia returned to normal, residents looked forward to celebrating Independence Day; teenagers and young adults in the town were excited to see fireworks and enjoy summer festivities. As night settled in, Darlene Farrin, 22, left her house driving her brown Chevrolet Corvair around 11:30 P.M. She picked up Mike Mageau, 19, and the two headed off to Blue Rock Springs Park, another well-known “Lover’s Lane” area. The couple was chatting in Darlene’s car, enjoying the summer night when a car pulled up behind them. It was only there for a minute or so before it drove off. Five minutes passed.
The unknown car pulled up behind Darlene and Mike again, but this time, someone got out of it and began approaching Darlene’s car whilst holding a very bright flashlight. The person strolled up to the passenger side window, shined the flashlight at the couple, and opened fire. Thinking on his feet, Mike scrambled into the back seat to avoid the gunman while he continued to shoot Darlene. When the gunman was satisfied, he started walking back to his car but was interrupted by Michael screaming in pain. The gunman stormed back to the brown Corvair to finish the job, shooting both Michael and Darlene an additional two times. He then calmly got back in his car and fled the scene as if nothing had happened.
Several people living near the park called the police after hearing the gunshots. Officers arrived at 12:10 A.M. to a haunting crime scene; Darlene’s car, parked close to the road, had its headlights shining, turn signal on, and music still playing from the radio. Darlene was found slumped over the steering wheel, barely alive with three gunshot wounds. Mike was found in the back seat, also shot three times, but he was alive, conscious, and very aware of his surroundings. He described the man that shot him and Darlene to the officers as a white man in a brown car, but couldn’t go into further detail because of how much pain he was in. The couple was rushed to the hospital; Mike survived but Darlene was pronounced dead en route. Investigators determined that the gun used was a nine-millimeter Luger pistol; despite the uncanny similarities to the events of six months ago, they didn’t connect this murder to the earlier double homicide on Lake Hermann Road. The murders didn’t remain separate for long, though.
At 12:40 A.M., the police received a phone call from someone confessing to not only that night’s murders but also the murders on Lake Hermann Road. Unfortunately, the call was not recorded, but according to the emergency dispatcher, Nancy Slover, the caller said the following in a cold and flat voice:
Police were able to trace the phone call back to a phone booth outside of a gas station but when they arrived in the area, the caller was long gone. Thankfully, after multiple surgeries and over time, Michael began to remember more details about the fateful night. He said the killer was a young white male, about twenty-five to thirty years old, quite short, with curly light brown hair and a beefy build.
August 1-4, 1969. Central California.
A few weeks after the second murders, on August 1, three local newspapers got strange letters delivered to them. The Vallejo Times-Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, and San Francisco Examiner all received a nearly identical letter that contained a cipher – a message that requires one to solve a code in order to read it properly. The author of the letters, the person who committed the double homicides, demanded that they be published; if they weren’t, he would kill more people. All of the newspapers complied with the demand.
A week after the letters were released, a schoolteacher named Donald Harden and his wife Bettye, figured out that the letters weren’t meant to be separate letters; they were merely pieces of a puzzle. When put together, the three small letters were actually one larger letter. This letter became known as the 408 Cipher because it consisted of four hundred and eight characters. The Harden couple not only figured out the structure of the cipher; they also solved it within a week.
408 Cipher in its original form (left) and in its solved form (right)
The contents of this letter bear a striking resemblance to the short story “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell.
A second letter arrived at the San Francisco Examiner three days later, on August 4. In it, the killer identified himself for the first time as “The Zodiac.” News of the killer’s pseudonym spread like wildfire; soon enough, everyone was talking about the Zodiac and discussing when they thought he would strike again.
September 27, 1969. Napa County, California.
Two students attending Pacific Union College drove out to Lake Berryessa on a sunny afternoon. Brian Hartnell, 20, and Cecelia Shepard, 22, settled down near the lake for a picnic, excited to spend a nice day outside together.
Something didn’t feel right to Cecelia, though; a few minutes after she and Brian arrived, she noticed a creepy figure hanging around the lake that seemed to be watching them from afar. A few moments passed.
As the couple was trying to relax and enjoy their time, the man Cecelia saw earlier suddenly appeared from behind a tree and approached them. It was the Zodiac, wearing an executioner-style hood that covered his face, clip-on sunglasses, gloves, and military-style boots. A white circle with a cross in the middle was stitched to the front of the hood;this symbol soon became notorious with the Zodiac.
Brain and Cecelia began to scream in terror as the strange figure approached them, wielding a gun. He ordered them to follow his directions, tied them up by their hands and feet, and began to speak. The man told the couple that he had recently escaped from prison; all he wanted was money and a car. Eventually, he put away his gun and returned with a knife, saying that he had to kill Brian and Cecelia. Knowing that this was how he was going to die, Brian begged to be killed first; he couldn’t bear to see Cecelia be killed in front of him. The Zodiac complied, stabbing Brian a total of six times in the back before moving onto Cecelia, whom he stabbed a total of ten times in the back and chest.
Before fleeing the scene, the killer left a note written in pen on one of the doors of Brian’s car:
Cecelia died in the hospital two days after the attack, but Brian managed to survive. He was able to give investigators his description of the attacker: a man who was about five foot eleven, over one hundred and seventy pounds, and had brown slicked back hair. In an interview with CBS News, Brain said “I originally thought he was a robber; I had absolutely no thought that he was anything but that… I didn’t consider any real threat to my life.”
At 7:40 P.M. that day, the police received a familiar phone call; the same killer reported, “a murder – no, a double murder” at Lake Berryessa from a payphone. The caller was gone by the time the police got to the phone, but detectives did manage to lift a palm print from the phone; however, they couldn’t match it to anyone. Two weeks passed.
October 11, 1969. San Francisco, California.
Paul Lee Stine, 28, was working as a cab driver downtown when he picked up a white male passenger requesting to be taken to Presidio Heights. Ten minutes into the ride, the passenger requested that Paul pull over at a corner. Without another word, he shot Paul in the back of the head with a nine-millimeter handgun. Before leaving, the passenger took a piece of Paul’s bloodstained shirt, car keys, and wallet.
A small group of teenagers witnessed the crime as it was being committed and called the police at 9:55 P.M. They also saw the killer wiping up blood from the seat before fleeing. Police soon arrived at the grisly scene, but there was a huge mix-up in the investigation: the emergency dispatcher was under the impression that the killer was a black male, but in reality, he was white.
After lots of confusion, police officers stopped a white man who was briskly walking away in the opposite direction of the crime scene. He told them that he had seen someone running away from the scene, pointed them in the direction of Presidio Heights, and the police took off. What these officers didn’t know was that they had actually been deceived by the true killer and left him without further questioning.
Investigators were eventually able to lift prints from the blood at the crime scene and also formulated a composite sketch of the suspect from witness reports.
The murder of Paul Stine wasn’t initially linked to the Zodiac until a few days after the murder when the San Francisco Chronicle received another letter confessing to it. Along with the confession, the Zodiac also said that he had been wearing a disguise, making the composite sketch useless. In order to prove that the letter was truly from the Zodiac, he mailed a piece of Paul’s bloodied shirt along with it.
One month later, another piece of fabric from Paul’s shirt was mailed to the San Francisco Chronicle. The newspaper also received a greeting card and a three hundred and forty character cipher, which is now known as the 340 Cipher. There was also a note that said “Des July Aug Sept Oct = 7,” which suggested that there had been another murder that hadn’t been uncovered. The next day, the Chronicle received another letter, but this one was seven pages long and contained instructions for a homemade bomb.
Fast forward to 2020, fifty-one years later; the 340 Cipher still hadn’t been solved. December 5 arrived, bringing a huge discovery. Three computer programmers and codebreakers, Jarl Van Eycke of Belgium, David Oranchak of the United States, and Sam Blake of Australia cracked the seemingly unsolvable cipher.
The attack on October 11 was the last murder of the Zodiac to be confirmed by police, although there are several other attacks that many people believe to be connected to the original four. The newspapers continued to receive letters from the Zodiac, for years after the last kill. In December of 1969, lawyer Melvin Belley was sent a Zodiac letter in which the killer asked him for assistance. The Zodiac wrote, “I cannot reach out for help because of this thing inside me won’t let me… I am afraid I will loose control again and take my nineth + posibly tenth victom.”
Over the course of the warmer months of 1970, the San Francisco Chronicle received five more letters from the Zodiac, one of which contained a cipher and instructions for bombing a school bus full of children: “I think I shall wipe out a school bus some morning just shoot out the front tire and then pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.” Citizens began to view the symbol of the Zodiac as one of terror and were quite unsettled by the contents of the letter. Thankfully, this attack never happened.
In the other letters, the Zodiac claimed to have committed several other crimes, one of which was kidnapping a pregnant woman named Kathleen Johnson on March 22, 1970. Police were able to confirm this after bringing Kathleen into the station; she identified a sketch of the Zodiac as the man who attempted to abduct her and her baby.
A five-page letter from the Zodiac was received in July of 1970; the main focus of it was how the killer enjoyed torturing his victims. He also talked about how to solve one of his previous ciphers and requested that both the police and the public wear Zodiac buttons to show their respect to him. If they didn’t comply, he would “torture all thirteen of [his] slaves that [he has] waiting for [him] in paradice.”
In October of 1970, two more letters were sent. The first was a Halloween card sent to a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Paul Avery:
Spring of 1971 arrived and the Los Angeles Times received a letter from the Zodiac talking about more of his victims. One was sent to Paul Avery in San Francisco as well: “Like I have always said I am crack proof. If the Blue Meannies are evere going to catch me, they had best get off their fat ***** + do something. Because the longer they fiddle + fart around, the more slaves I will collect for my after life.”
The Albany Times Union Newspaper received a letter in August of 1973 of the Zodiac threatening to kill once again. He also included a cipher that would supposedly reveal the name and exact location of the victim.
FBI cryptologists cracked the cipher and released the message partially redacted. “Albany Medical Center this is only the beginning.”
In 1974, the San Francisco Chronicle received four more letters that claimed the Zodiac had a total of thirty-seven victims. The last letter in the series was signed “the Red Phantom (red with rage).
On May 2, 1978, the final Zodiac letter came in, containing racist insults and murder threats. It read, “You people in LA are in for a treat. In the next three weeks you are finally gona have something good to report. I have decided to begin killing again – PLEASE hold the applause. Nothing is going to happen until I do. You people just won’t let me have it any other way. I plan to kill five people over the next three weeks (1) Chief piggy Darrel Gates (2) Ex Chief piggy Ed Davis (3) Pat Boone – his theocratic crap is a obscenity to the rest of the world! (4) Also Eldridge Cleaver – these ******* gotta get their 20% quota after all. And Susan atkins – the Judas of the Manson Family. She’s gona get hers now. Hey – you actors – this is your lucky break. Remember – whoever plays me has his work cut out for him. See you in the News!” The letter was signed with the original Zodiac symbol.
The prime suspect in Cheri Bate’s murder was the campus library worker, Ross Sullivan, mainly because he looked very similar to a sketch of the Zodiac. Even though the police confirmed his alibi and ruled him out as a suspect, the community didn’t.
Sullivan wrote very dark poetry and even carved a poem about the violent attack of a woman into a library desk. Plus, just a few days after Cheri was killed, he just… disappeared and was never seen again. He died in 1977.
Arthur Leigh Allen
Robert Graysmith, the author of the bestselling book Zodiac, believes that a man named Arthur Leigh “Lee” Allen was the Zodiac killer. Allen was the only person to ever be named as an official suspect.
On September 27, 1969, Allen, who was thirty-six at the time, told his family that he was going scuba diving at Lake Berryessa. This was the same day and location of the attack on Brian Hartnell and Cecelia Shepherd. When Allen came home that day, his clothes were covered in blood and he had a bloody knife in his car. When questioned by the police, he told them that he was scuba diving in the ocean instead of the lake. He said that he and his friends decided to cut up a chicken and barbecue it for lunch, which, according to him, is why he was covered in blood when he got home. Police also discovered that Allen was a gun enthusiast who owned a 22 caliber rifle, wore a Zodiac brand watch, was incredibly intelligent with a high IQ, and used to be a teacher before he was fired for sexual misconduct.
Two years after the Lake Berryessa attack, a man named Don Chaney, a friend of Allen’s, came forward with some information. Chaney claimed that Allen knew Darlene Ferrin, the woman killed in the Blue Rock Springs Park attack, and that Allen had plans to write a novel in which the main antagonist hunts and kills people with a flashlight and gun. To put the cherry on top of things, according to Chaney, Allen had nicknamed himself “the Zodiac” long before the killings happened. Arthur Lee Allen was also ambidextrous, so if he was indeed the Zodiac, it would explain why the handwriting on the letters tended to vary.
When questioned by the police a second time, Allen told police about his favorite story, “The Most Dangerous Game.” This could explain the 408 Cipher’s focus on the short story. After hearing this, investigators got a warrant to search Allen’s home.
His humble abode was home to several bloody knives as well as a handful of dissected animals in the freezer. However, Allen’s fingerprints didn’t match with the prints found at a few of the crime scenes and his handwriting didn’t line up with that of the letters, so police released him.
Fast forward to 1991, a police informant claimed that Arthur Lee Allen worked as a security guard in a nightclub and had bragged to his coworkers about killing a cab driver in San Francisco. Witnesses from the murder of Paul Stine didn’t identify Allen as the killer, though. However, Mike Mageau, the survivor of the Blue Rock Springs Park attack, identified Allen as his attacker immediately when presented with a lineup of men. After this, Allen’s house was searched once more. This time, police discovered homemade bombs and instructions on how to make them that bore a striking resemblance to the instructions the Zodiac wrote.
He died in 1992 of a heart attack, but investigators took samples of his DNA for future testing. In 2000, detective Kelly Carroll and forensic document examiner Susan Morton started working on creating a DNA profile for the Zodiac killer using the letters, envelopes, and stamps. By 2002, a partial DNA profile had been constructed. This can be used to rule people out as suspects but cannot be used to fully identify someone as the killer. Arthur Lee Allen’s DNA didn’t match this profile, so he was officially ruled out as a suspect.
Many people surprisingly suspected their fathers of being the Zodiac killer. A few of them brought evidence to the police, but none of the claims were ever proven as the evidence was purely circumstantial.
Paul Stein’s sister said that a “strange man” showed up at his funeral that nobody seemed to know. His name was Richard Gaikowski. During the five confirmed Zodiac killings, Gaikowski worked for an underground San Francisco newspaper called Good Times. This paper would publish short stories that described violent attacks with details eerily similar to the Zodiac murders.
One of Gaikowski’s coworkers accused him of being the killer; they would send letters to investigators claiming that Gaikowski tried to make him an accomplice. He would also often shorten his last name to Gike and Gyke and both of these spellings were found in Zodiac ciphers. Another smaller but suspicious detail is the way the fabric on Paul Stine’s shirt was ripped – like it was torn off to make a tourniquet. Gaikowski was a trained army medic, so he’d know how to tear fabric in such a manner. Police never found any concrete evidence that he was guilty, though, and he died in 2004.
Identifying the Killer?
Decades passed with the mystery of this case lingering in the air… until October 6, 2021. An independent national task force made up of cold case investigators with law enforcement backgrounds called Case Breakers sent out a lengthy, complicated press release. The group claimed that they had successfully identified the Zodiac Killer as a man named Gary Francis Poste. Their press release was picked up by TMZ, Fox News, and other media outlets before spreading all across the world. The way the article was written caused many people to believe that the killer really had been identified and the case was solved for good; however, Case Breakers had no connections to the actual Zodiac investigation.
Gary Francis Poste was born on November 8, 1937, in New York, New York. He served in the US Air Force and went on to work as a house painter in Groveland, California. Poste was also married and had at least one son. On February 22, 2016, at 78 years old, he was arrested for domestic battery against his wife and was sent to a state-run nursing facility about a year later. While there, he was diagnosed with dementia and deemed “incompetent to stand trial” for the domestic battery charges. Poste gained media attention after several people pointed out the similarities between him and sketches of the killer.
In 2017, a journalist named Dale Julin claimed that he had sworn statements from a man who had heard a confession from Poste that he was the Zodiac Killer. This man also claimed that Poste had threatened to kill him – twice. Two of Poste’s former cellmates had similar testimonies, too; he had confessed to the Zodiac murders. Unfortunately, these statements couldn’t be verified, so there was nothing more anyone could do. The case was
brought to Case Breakers after one of their members had read Dale Julen’s copyrighted book manuscript that argued that Gary Poste was the infamous killer. The Case Breakers team was “won over” by Julin’s decoding of one of the Zodiac ciphers using Poste’s full name.
While the Case Breakers do have lots of evidence, most of it is circumstantial; there’s no hard evidence that proves Gary Poste is the Zodiac Killer. The operator of zodiackiller.com, Tom Voigt, even went so far as to say the group’s claims are “hot garbage” and “completely bogus” Some media outlets have categorized the release as a publicity stunt.
San Francisco police had scheduled an interview with Poste while he was incarcerated but because this case is still classified as open, no information from the interview has been released to the public. However, he is supposedly linked to the murder of Cheri Josephine Bates through forensic evidence. Remember the fingerprint found on one of the letters that I mentioned earlier? It was never compared to Gary Poste’s fingerprints. Moreover, the Case Breakers also asked the police to test the hair for Gary Poste’s DNA, but investigators have not responded to them.
Gary Francis Poste died at the age of 80 in 2018 of vascular dementia sepsis. Since none of the information provided by the Case Breakers has been verified, the Zodiac Killer investigation still remains open and the FBI has confirmed that the case has not been solved.
So… what now?
As for my thoughts, I honestly don’t know what to think. It could have been just one person, but it also could’ve been multiple. Let me explain. Evidence points to Arthur Lee Allen being responsible for the first three attacks: the murders at Lake Herman Road, Blue Rock Springs Park, and Lake Berryessa. I think he could also be the author behind most of the letters; since he’s ambidextrous, he would have no problem making his handwriting look different to the police. But his DNA didn’t match, right? Correct, but the Zodiac Killer’s DNA profile was only partially constructed when it was compared to Arthur’s; if it was fully constructed and still wasn’t a match, I might change my opinion, though. As for the murder of Paul Stine, I think Richard Gaikowski was the shooter. I mean, the guy showed up to Stine’s funeral, nobody recognized him, and his behavior was off the whole time. What about Gary Poste, though? Well, I believe that he killed Cheri Bates and also sent the letters signed with a “z” instead of the Zodiac symbol. Since the fingerprint on one of the letters was never tested with Gary’s DNA, it could potentially be a match.
Setting all conspiracy theories aside, it’s important to remember that this all happened in real life. People were murdered, cities were terrorized, families were stricken with grief… I am in no way trying to glorify or romanticize anything behind this case. This article was written purely for entertainment and does not represent the views or opinions of Breaking Blue as a whole. Thank you for reading this far if you have!