The Elusive Zodiac Killer

Artist's rendition of the Zodiac Killer in 1969

Artist’s rendition of the Zodiac Killer in 1969

In the late 1960s, the Zodiac Killer killed five people, severely injured two others in Northern California, and taunted newspapers with coded messages.

The still-unidentified killer attacked seven victims in Benicia, Vallejo, Lake Berryessa, and San Francisco, California, between December 1968 and October 1969. Four men and three women between the ages of 16 and 29 were targeted. However, in the killer’s letters to the Bay Area press, he would claim to have killed 37 people.

On December 20, 1968, he committed the first two murders, shooting and killing David Arthur Faraday, 17, and Betty Lou Jensen, 16, just inside the Benecia border. In his second attack on July 4, 1969, in Vallejo, he attempted to kill two people, Michael Renault Mageau, 19, and Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin, 22. However, Mageau survived despite gunshots to the head and neck. Just forty minutes after the shooting, the police received an anonymous phone call from a man claiming to be their killer and admitting to the murders of the previous two victims.

On August 1, 1969, the self-proclaimed “Zodiac Killer” sent local newspapers a three-part coded message explaining his motive for the killings. Six days later, he sent a separate letter to the editor, suggesting his identity was buried within one of these ciphered messages.

Of the four cryptograms sent, only one has been definitively solved. It reads:

“I like killing people because it is so much fun; it is more fun than killing wild game in the forest 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 it is thae when i die i will be reborn in paradice and thei have killed will become my slaves i will not give you my name because you will try to sloi down or atop my collectiog of slaves for my afterlife ebeorietemethhpiti”

Zodiac Killer Letter

Zodiac Killer Letter

The last 18 letters have not been decrypted.

After sending the letters, the killing continued. On September 27, 1969, Bryan Calvin Hartnell, 20, and Cecelia Ann Shepard, 22, were stabbed at Lake Berryessa in Napa County. Hartnell survived eight stab wounds to the back, but Shepard died due to her injuries on September 29, 1969. In the Presidio Heights neighborhood of San Francisco, he shot and killed 29-year-old Paul Stine.

Four other murder victims are suspected to be victims of Zodiac, though these have not been confirmed. The killer himself claimed to have killed 37 people.

The murders did not fall under federal jurisdiction, so the FBI never opened an investigation. However, local law enforcement agencies called on the FBI’s expertise in handwriting analysis, cryptanalysis, and fingerprints to aid their investigations.

In the Zodiac Killer case, correspondence between law enforcement agencies in Northern California and forensic experts at the FBI’s Laboratory shows that the FBI tried to analyze handwriting samples and lift latent fingerprints from the letters and envelopes sent by the purported killer. FBI cryptanalysts, or code-breakers, were also enlisted to unravel a complex cipher that used more than 50 shapes and symbols to represent the 26 letters of the alphabet. Ultimately, the code was made public and broken by two university professors.

Law enforcement and amateur investigators have named numerous suspects, but no conclusive evidence has surfaced. In April 2004, the San Francisco Police Department marked the case “inactive” yet re-opened the case at some point before March 2007. The case also remains open in the city of Vallejo, as well as in Napa County and Solano County. The California Department of Justice has maintained an open case file on the Zodiac murders since 1969.

The unsolved nature of the murders and the Zodiac Killer’s elaborate methods of communicating with the public and his pursuers still capture the imaginations of screenwriters, authors, true-crime buffs, forensic scientists, and law enforcement.

Compiled by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated October 2023.

Also See:

American History

American Mysteries

Legends, Ghosts, Myths & Mysteries

Who’s Who in American History

Sources: FBI