Who Was the Zodiac Killer?

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Photo: DailyMail.com

According to Biography, the self-proclaimed Zodiac Killer was directly linked to at least five murders in Northern California in 1968 and 1969 and may have been responsible for more. His first three targets were couples in secluded areas; two of these people survived. His last known victim was a taxi driver killed on October 11, 1969, in San Francisco. During and after his killing spree, Zodiac received attention and spread fear as he shared ciphers, letters, information and threats with authorities and the public. No murder has been officially linked to the Zodiac Killer since October 1969, but the unsolved case continues to fascinate. Despite intensive investigations, no one was ever arrested for the crimes and the case remains open. The mystery surrounding the murders has been the subject of numerous books and movies, including director David Fincher's acclaimed 2007 feature Zodiac.

The Zodiac Killer murdered five people in under a year

Though the Zodiac Killer may also be responsible for other crimes, there are the five murders and two attempted murders officially attributed to him.

On December 20, 1968, in Benicia, California, 17-year-old David Faraday and 16-year-old Betty Lou Jensen were shot while parked on a lovers' lane during their first date.

Police initially had no idea a serial killer was responsible for these deaths. Therefore the investigation followed more standard steps, such as checking out Jensen's ex-boyfriend. Jensen's best friend later told SF Weekly, "All the detectives thought it had to be because of drugs. They refused to hear anything else."

Less than seven months later in the early morning hours of July 5, 1969, Darlene Ferrin, 22, and Mike Mageau, 19, were shot multiple times while sitting in Ferrin's car at the Blue Rock Springs Golf Club in Vallejo, California. Ferrin was killed, but Mageau survived the wounds to his jaw, shoulder and leg.

Less than an hour following the attack, Zodiac phoned the Vallejo police department to report the crime. During the call, he stated: "I also killed those kids last year," a reference to Faraday and Jensen.

On September 27, 1969, 22-year-old Cecilia Shepard and 20-year-old Bryan Hartnell were having a picnic at Lake Berryessa in Napa County. They were approached by a man wearing a hood that bore a symbol of two intersecting lines in a circle. The man used a gun to threaten Shepard and Hartnell, tied them up, then stabbed the pair.

Both Shepard and Hartnell were alive when help arrived. Shepard ended up succumbing to her wounds, but Hartnell recovered.

On October 11, 1969, in San Francisco, Zodiac entered the cab of Paul Stine, 29, as a passenger. While in the taxi, Zodiac shot Stine in the head.

Witnesses saw Stine's murder, so police were soon on the scene. The witnesses had described the murderer as white, around 25 to 30 years old, wearing glasses and sporting a crew cut. Police, who assumed the killing was a robbery, spotted a man matching this description — but a dispatcher had mistakenly told them the suspect was a Black person. The man was allowed to leave, and the Zodiac Killer was not caught.

Zodiac Killer Letters, Symbol & Cipher

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Photo: nytimes.com

On August 1, 1969, the San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Chronicle and Vallejo Times-Herald each received an identical handwritten letter in an envelope without a return address. Beginning, “Dear Editor: I am the killer of the 2 teenagers last Christmas at Lake Herman,” the letters contained details from the Zodiac Killer’s murders that only the killer could have known. The killer went on to threaten further attacks if the letters weren’t printed on the front page of the papers.

Each letter closed with a symbol consisting of a circle with a cross through it, in what would come to be known as the Zodiac Killer’s symbol. The letters were also each accompanied by one part of a three-part cipher that he claimed contained his identity.

While Bay Area police departments, with the support of the FBI, worked feverishly to track down the killer, another letter soon arrived at the San Francisco Examiner. Beginning, “Dear Editor: This is the Zodiac speaking,” it also described the murders in detail and taunted police for not having been able to crack his code or catch him.

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Photo: LADbible.com

Several days later, high school teacher Donald Harden and his wife, Bettye, were able to solve the cipher. "I like killing people because it is so much fun," it read. "It is more fun than killing wild game in the forest because man is the most dangerous animal of all."

Three days after the fourth known Zodiac killing, the 1969 murder of taxi driver Paul Stine, the San Francisco Chronicle received a letter claiming the crime. Written in the same erratic print as the Zodiac's previous letters, it gave the details of Stine’s murder and was accompanied by a bloody scrap of Stine’s shirt.