Crime

Notorious American Crime Chronicles: The Zodiac Killer

Has this serial killer finally been identified?

This article is the second in our CleverJourneys ongoing series exploring American history from a perspective that burrows deep into criminal profiles, the penal system, victim’s stories, crime prevention, forensic science, law enforcement and our justice system.

Preface: My father, Walter Dennis, was a police officer and homicide detective for the San Antonio Police Department from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s. Later he was a U.S. Marshal and worked on the assassination of federal Judge John Woods.

Dad would often take me to the locations of some of his cases. He’d explain what happened, pointing me to the clues, structures and surroundings of the crime scenes.

It’s no wonder I later became the youngest licensed private investigator in Texas in 1976, and worked on many crime cases.

The Zodiac Killer

Growing up in the 1960s, our childhoods were often troubled by the nightly news of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.

Nightly news was filled with horrible combat news–especially about our fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins and loved ones serving–of war in Vietnam.

However, the stories that kept us up at night and alert of our surroundings during daylight, were the serial killers. The Boston Strangled, Charles Manson Murders, and Richard Speck. Later we would hear about Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Henry Lee Lucas and Jeffrey Dahmer.

One in particular, for many of us, began with mysterious words scrawled in a letter written to the San Francisco Examiner in 1969. It simply read:

“Dear Editor: This is the Zodiac speaking.” 

The letter described in detail the murders of two teenagers at Lake Herman. This was the start of a harrowing investigation into a rash of murders from 1968 to 1969 that continued to span decades.

Even though there were letters containing confessions, witness statements, and sketches of the killer, police never found the Zodiac. 

We soon learned that the Zodiac Killer was directly linked to at least five murders in a single year.

He taunted law enforcement through letters sent to Bay Area newspapers. Each letter contained a circle symbol with a cross and one part of a three-part cipher that allegedly contained his identity.

Most recently, in October 2021, after a half century has passed, a group of investigators may have answered the impossible question: Who was the Zodiac killer?

Police officials attributed four definitive Zodiac killings.

🔹On December 20th, 1968, David Faraday & Betty Lou Jensen were shot and killed in their car. There were no motives that could be determined, and the police could not nail down a suspect. 

🔹On July 5th, 1969, Darlene Ferrin and her boyfriend, Mike Mageau, were sitting in their car in a remote area on the outskirts of Vallejo, California. A stranger approached them with a flashlight before firing multiple shots into the vehicle. Ferrin died as a result of her wounds, while Mageau survived the attack. A phone call to the police within an hour of the incident claimed responsibility for both crimes. 

🔹On September 27th, 1969, the Zodiac killer approached a young couple on a beach on the shore of Lake Berryessa in Napa County. He wore a hood with his circle & cross symbol and tied them up, brutally stabbing them.

Before leaving the scene, he scribbled a message to the police in the car door. Once again, the female victim, Cecelia Shepard, died of her wounds while the male victim, Bryan Hartnell, survived.

🔹On October 11th, 1969, the Zodiac killer shot a twenty-nine-year-old taxi driver, Paul Stine. Even though this crime didn’t fit the pattern of the Zodiac, eyewitnesses gave a description that matched Mageau’s early description of the killer, and the San Francisco Chronicle received a letter claiming responsibility for the crime. Even with the accounts, the police couldn’t answer who the Zodiac killer was.

The Zodiac letters

On August 1st, 1969, the San Francisco ExaminerSan Francisco Chronicle, and Vallejo Times-Herald received an identical handwritten letter with no return address. The writer indicated he was the killer in the Faraday-Jensen murders the previous Christmas. He also threatened further murders if his letters were not published on the front page of the papers. 

When the FBI and area police were working feverishly to track down the killer, the San Francisco Examiner received a letter that first referred to the murderer by his new name, saying those chilling words, “Dear Editor: This is the Zodiac speaking.” 

Several days later, high school teacher Donald Harden and his wife, Bettye, solved 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 Stine murder, the San Francisco Chronicle received another letter detailing the killing, along with a scrap of Stine’s shirt. The Zodiac threatened to shoot out the tires of a bus and “pick off the little kiddies as they come bouncing out.”

Enter The Case Breakers

The Zodiac letters ceased being sent in 1974. Theories were revealed in the press that perhaps the murdered was now in jail for a different crime or that he had died.

In any event, the case eventually appeared destined to remain a cold case forever. We would never know who the Zodiac killer was. 

Enter The Case Breakers, a team of more than forty former law enforcement officers, journalists, and military intelligence officers who have tackled such cases as D.B. Cooper and Jimmy Hoffa. They believe they have answered the decades-old question: Who was the Zodiac killer?

They identified Gary Francis Poste, who died in 2018, as the man behind the circle and cross. Using new forensic evidence linking to him and a telling scar on his forehead that matches the infamous police sketch, the team believes that Poste committed the Zodiac killings and a previously unrelated killing in 1966 near Riverside, CA, hundreds of miles away.

Poste’s full name has also been used to decipher the letters, identifying him as the Zodiac.

One member of the Case Breakers and former army intelligence agent Jen Bucholtz says, “So you have to know Gary’s full name in order to decipher these anagrams. I just don’t think there’s any other way anybody would have figured it out.”

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From award-winning Texas author Cynthia Leal Massey.

5 replies »

  1. I remember these crimes as well as one serial killer closer to home: David Berkowitz, The Son of Sam.
    Hunting for serial criminals, killers or rapists, often depends on finding the smallest of clues and being able to put it together. As you get deeper into these cases there is a sense of pure evil that just permeates everything. You feel the terror of the victims and the need to put an end to it. For many cops it is a soul-killing job. I thank God everyday for the protection given me.

    Liked by 1 person

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