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Zodiac and The Art of Letting Go

Summer of ’69

July 4th,1969. Two years after the Summer of Love. An idyllic location outside of San Francisco, the smell of barbecues and the sound of fireworks fill the night air. Darlene Ferrin and Michael Mageau sit in their car, Michael is nervous as Darlene is married, but there is obviously an attraction between them. Little did they know they were about to go down in history and kick off the case of the Zodiac killer. A car drives by and Darlene is alarmed as if she expected it. A dark clothed man walks up to the car and opens fire, killing Darlene and seriously wounding Michael.

A man calls the Vallejo Police Department to report and claim responsibility for the attack and then claims responsibility for the murders of Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday some six and a half months earlier just inside Benicia city limits. The police would later trace the call to a phone booth located some distance between the locations of both incidents.

On August 1st three letters were received by the Vallejo Times Herald, The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner. The letters were all almost identical and claimed to be written by the killer. They contained a 408 symbol cryptogram which the killer claimed contained his identity. The letter demanded that this be printed on the front page of each newspaper, or he would cruise around all weekend killing people at random.

August 7th,1969 and another letter is received at The San Francisco Examiner. In this letter, the writer identified themselves as “The Zodiac” and provided details not released to the public that would confirm he was the man responsible for the two attacks and confirmed that if the police cracked his code they would be able to identify him. On August 8th Donald and Betty Harden cracked the code and said it contained a message in which the killer claimed he was collecting slaves for the afterlife. No identity appears, however, and the killer said he would not give this away as this would slow down the collection of his slaves.

An artists impression of the Zodiac killer in his executioners costume as witnessed in September 1969.

Bad Moon Rising

After scaring the people of the west coast with his claims, and the knowledge that the killer is out there free somewhere, there was a relatively quiet period as fear gripped the city of San Francisco. Then on September 27th college students Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard were having a picnic at Twin Oak Ridge when a heavyset man wearing an executioners costume approached them with a gun. The man claimed to have escaped from prison and tied them both up as he needed their car and money to make his escape. The man then proceeded to stab the pair several times. When he was done he went to the couples car, drew the Zodiac symbol on it with the dates of his three crimes, and the fact that this last atrocity had been committed with a knife. The police received a similar phone call from the perpetrator taking credit for the attack and Bryan Hartnell would survive the ordeal and recount the story to the police.

The evening of October 11th, taxi driver Paul Stine was shot in the back of the head on Cherry Street inside the city of San Francisco. The killer took a torn sample of Stine’s blood-stained shirt with him, and there were some witnesses this time around, a search was conducted but no suspect was found. This is where detectives Bill Armstrong and Dave Toschi were assigned to the case and it is estimated that the San Francisco Police department investigated around 2,500 suspects over the coming years.

The next letter was received by the San Francisco Chronicle a few days later. It contained a sample of Stine’s shirt and also made the alarming threat that the Zodiac’s next target may well be a school bus containing several innocent children. A couple of days after this someone claiming to be the killer then called the Oakland Police Department and demanded that prominent lawyers F.Lee Bailey or Melvin Belli appear on a morning television show hosted by Jim Dunbar. Belli appeared on the show and someone called in several times claiming to be the Zodiac and identifying himself as “Sam.” Belli agreed to meet in person with the caller, but the person who called never showed up at the agreed location.

Following this, on November 8th a further cryptogram on a card was received but has never been deciphered. Then the next day a letter was received which claimed that on the night of Stine’s murder, the police actually stopped and spoke to the killer a mere three minutes after the killing. Then on December 20th, a sample of Stine’s shirt was mailed to Belli from the Zodiac asking for further help.

As the sixties came to an alarming end with both the Zodiac paranoia and the fallout from the Manson family murders, the summer of love was a distant faded memory. In March of 1970, Kathleen Johns was driving from San Bernadino to Petaluma to visit a relative. She was heavily pregnant and had her ten-month-old daughter in the car next to her. A car behind her began to flash its lights and honk its horn, so Kathleen pulled over to the side of the road. The man in the car behind her approached her and claimed her back wheel was wobbling and offered to tighten it. After he had finished, the man drove away and almost immediately as Kathleen pulled on to the road again the wheel fell off. The man then returned and offered to drive her to the nearest gas station for assistance. During the 90 minute ride, the man would pass by several gas stations and not stop. Instead, he drove Kathleen around the backroads and would always change the subject when asked why he wasn’t stopping. Eventually, Kathleen managed to escape with her daughter when the driver would stop at a field.

Kathleen Johns would later provide a statement to police and noticed a police sketch of Paul Stine’s killer, and recognised the supposed good Samaritan who had sabotaged her car and then driven her around.

Suspicious Minds

Throughout the remainder of 1970, several more letters were sent from the Zodiac to both the police and the media. They denied responsibility for the recent bombing of a police station but further threatened the children of the city by threatening to bomb a school bus. Zodiac also seemed upset that the public was not wearing his symbol as some kind of fandom like the popular peace button, and claimed responsibility for several murders. He eventually also took responsibility for Kathleen Johns abduction. Journalist Paul Avery at the SF Chronicle also became personally involved when he was sent a Halloween greeting card threatening his life, and then an anonymous letter directing him to the unsolved murder of Cheri Jo Bates four years earlier in Los Angeles. Avery would receive further correspondence in 1971 also claiming a connection to another disappearance the previous September. The media and the police then made connections to several previous unsolved murders which had all the hallmarks of being the responsibility of the Zodiac.

After this, the Zodiac remained silent for almost three years. The Chronicle then received a letter praising The Exorcist (1973) for its satirical comedy and bragging about 37 crimes of which he had not been convicted. Several other letters were received as time went on but had been studied by handwriting and language experts and debunked as not being the work of the same author as the original letters. Despite the letters, the witness testimony and forensics available at the time, no suspect was ever arrested and charged with the crimes perpetrated by the Zodiac.

The police composite sketch of the Zodiac killer on a wanted poster from the time.

The suspect that the police pinned most of their hopes on was a man named Arthur Leigh Allen. Allen was a former US Navy man who had been fired as an elementary school teacher after claims of sexual misconduct. He had several connections with the area in which Hartnell and Shepard had been attacked in September 1969. Allen had a Zodiac brand wristwatch, which shared the killer’s symbol, and was described as a loner who was angry at women and children and lived not far from where one of the first killings took place. Allen was later arrested and imprisoned in 1974 for molestation where he served two years in prison. The police were never able to match DNA collected from envelopes of the letters or the handwriting in the letters definitively to Allen.

As of April 2004, the San Francisco Police Department had marked the Zodiac case as “Inactive.” In May 2018 the Vallejo Police Department announced their intention to attempt collection of the Zodiac’s DNA from the back of stamps he used to mail his letters using new techniques. The results of this profile have so far not been released.

More today than yesterday

Following Panic Room (2002) there was an agonising five-year wait until David Fincher’s next project. He decided to tackle the Zodiac case from a screenplay by Spider-Man 3 (2007) writer James Vanderbilt which in turn was based on SF Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith’s eventual novel, the genesis of which is covered in the film. The film was released in March 2007. Zodiac has frequently been compared to All The Presidents Men (1976), but possibly a greater comparison and companion piece would be Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). Both films deal with obsession, facts, and events in an unfussy manner, and both films are endlessly compelling for their lengthy run times.

Robert Downey Jr and Jake Gyllenhaal standing against a desk in the police offices in Zodiac

Fincher casts the film perfectly, the film is hung on three central figures in the case. Jake Gyllenhaal has the suitable wide-eyed innocence combined with the air of being borderline weird required for Robert Graysmith. It’s believable that this cartoonist could easily tip over into an obsessive chronicler of an American mystery, and that is mostly thanks to what Gyllenhaal brings to the role with his slightly off-kilter presence. A year removed from Iron Man (2008) Robert Downey Jr is perhaps predictable as Paul Avery, especially when it comes to his slide into drugs and alcohol. Nevertheless, his air of arrogance and being his own worst enemy works perfectly, and this was the last time you could point to typecasting with Downey Jr’s booming career. Finally, Mark Ruffalo as Dave Toschi is marvelous. Grizzled, jaded, but perhaps still with a spark of humanity that keeps him empathetic, Ruffalo here was between the stardom that Marvel would bring him, and still being an actors actor thanks to acclaimed independent roles and theatre work. These three are backed up wonderfully by actors such as Anthony Edwards (ER), Brian Cox (Manhunter 1986), Chloe Sevigny (American Psycho 2000) and John Carroll Lynch (Fargo 1996) in small but pivotal roles.

Between them, David Fincher and James Vanderbilt have created a film that lets the facts speak for themselves and the script do what it needs to. Although recognisably a David Fincher film in terms of its cinematography and lighting, apart from two occasions, Fincher doesn’t use his showy gliding camera swoop through kettle handles and behind the fridge the way he did in his last two movies. There is no need for this excess style in this tale, truth is stranger than fiction, and the important thing is to let it play out and let the writing and performances bring it to the wider world. Any of the tricks he previously employed would have distracted from any of this, and brought you out of the absorbing nature of the story. Kudos to Fincher for showing the restraint that was necessary. At barely 30 when he wrote the script, Zodiac seems like the work of a mature writer, and yet Vanderbilt managed to somehow get all of this into a workable screenplay that plays like a masterclass in adapting real life to the screen. It’s all the more puzzling when you consider Vanderbilt also wrote the recent Adam Sandler Netflix vehicle Murder Mystery (2019) and White House Down (2013).

The film does a great job of showing us how building a case against a suspect works, and as it begins to wind down, how the search for justice can often consume the lives it touches. Arthur Leigh Allen, it feels, probably was the Zodiac killer. The problem was he was very clever, he did not make mistakes, was cautious and cleaned up after himself, something the forensics of the time could not get around. The film makes it very clear that as painful as it is, a police case has to be airtight in order to place someone on trial for a crime. In this respect the film is to be applauded, It’s very rare that a film goes to these lengths to show you the painstaking process of building a case and subsequent personal pain it can cause you when it doesn’t work out.

2007 was a great year for cinema. Aside from Zodiac, we also got No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood – two films that would walk away with most of the awards nearly a year after Zodiac’s release. Like many of Zodiac’s victims, It was perhaps a case of wrong place wrong time for Fincher’s film. Released just after the last awards season had wrapped up and too early to be remembered in time for the next awards cycle. As a result, the film was largely not included in all the self-congratulating the following winter and forgotten thanks to the March release and middling box office. Nonetheless, in 2016 Zodiac was ranked number 12 in a poll of 117 film critics voting on the best of the 21st century thus far.

Robert Graysmith makes a frantic late night phone call when he makes a connection in the Zodiac killer case.

My Whole World Ended

In December 1971 the movie Dirty Harry was released. Directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood, this was the first in a franchise that spanned four movies. The plot is interesting in that it takes a Zodiac like killer and renames him “Scorpio” and has him indiscriminately attack people on the streets on San Francisco, plunging the streets into terror. Scorpio sends several letters to the police with demands and later hijacks a school bus when trying to escape the law. The film ultimately concludes with Clint Eastwood’s character throwing due process out of the window and executing the Scorpio killer. This movie was ultimately the closest the public ever got to any kind of catharsis over the Zodiac killings. Harry Callahan fired the bullet that represented any lingering public outrage, and that was that.

There is a need for justice when something barbaric and senseless occurs. People look for all kinds of increasingly outlandish reasons when an obvious explanation and conclusion is not forthcoming. We see this happen time and time again throughout history. People still come up with theories about the assassination of John F.Kennedy every week. In the United Kingdom people (not least of all the parents) want a straight-up explanation of how three-year-old Madeleine McCann could just vanish from a holiday resort in Portugal never to be found, and the loss of Princess Diana kept conspiracy nuts busy for a decade. Although it was fairly cut and dried who was responsible, people still look to assign blame for 9/11, an event that changed the world forever. It’s difficult to comprehend but justice, fate, answers, and even karma, are all concepts we as human beings have placed on the world around us. These are human wants and needs, an attempt by a species to make this mystery called life make sense. It’s easy to lose yourself looking for answers in a world which has none to give beyond all events, no matter how senseless, being symptoms of the human condition.

As time has gone on, several people have claimed to be the Zodiac on their deathbed and further suspects have been hinted at due to vague connections with the victims. None of these leads have ever gone anywhere, and now fifty years on from the murders, it feels unlikely this will ever be given the closure it needs. It is essentially the modern equivalent of the Jack The Ripper murders. As the film and short story (The Most Dangerous Game) that possibly gave the Zodiac killer his inspiration teaches us—Man is the most dangerous animal alive. It can be difficult, it can be heartbreaking and devastating, but sometimes we just need to accept.

Written by Christopher Holt

Christopher Holt currently fights hypocrisy and evil on the fringes of reality whilst producing and co-hosting the Lunch Hour Geek Out podcast. He has spent twenty years writing a novel which will do nothing less than change the world...when it's finished.

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