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6 unbelievable facts about the Zodiac Killer

Composite sketch of the Zodiac Killer overlayed on one of the letters he sent to the press
Image: Public Domain

He wasn’t active for long and his confirmed victim list is relatively small compared to other serial killers. And yet, the Zodiac Killer might be the most famous unsolved case in history, one that has been puzzled over by armchair detectives and amateur sleuths.

Five murders have been attributed to the Zodiac in 1960s San Francisco, with only two of his intended victims surviving the attacks. But he managed to instil fear in the community, thanks to threatening letters and cyphers, that have kept people guessing to this day.

And then, he simply stopped. Nothing more was heard from him.

Despite several people claiming to have cracked the case, to this day, we are no closer to knowing who he was, which might be one of the most chilling parts of a case that is frustratingly filled with mysterious details.

1. The true number of victims may be unknown

In total, five murders are confirmed to have been by the Zodiac: 17-year-old David Arthur Farraday; 16-year-old Betty Lou Jensen; 22-year-old Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin; 22-year-old Cecelia Ann Shepard; and 29-year-old Paul Lee Stine. Bryan Hartnell and Michael Mageau were also victims of the killer, but both survived the attacks.

But that might not be the full extent of the people he murdered. The killer himself once referenced having 37 victims and the list of people that it’s suspected are linked to the Zodiac includes numerous others. Some even suggest the Santa Rosa hitchhiker murders are connected, which means, much like the Golden State Killer, the Zodiac could be responsible for far more crimes than we know.

2. He communicated with the press and police

In many ways, the Zodiac didn’t keep a low profile. He constantly toyed with the police and press, calling in to report his murders. He also sent numerous letters, threatening more deaths if they weren’t printed in the papers. In them, he confessed to his known murders, with details of how the victims had been killed as proof.

He even announced himself as the Zodiac in his letters, along with a symbol that was printed at crime scenes.

One of the most chilling letters, though, might have been that which was sent to the reporter Paul Avery, who had been chronicling the case. It came in the form of a Halloween card; the message inside: ‘Peek a boo! You’re doomed. From your secret pal.’

The letters provided a handwriting sample, fingerprints and with modern testing, it’s possible there could be trace DNA lifted from a stamp or an envelope. And yet, the constant communication hasn’t helped solve the case, only ruling out suspects.

Aside from the letters, the killer left very little physical evidence, claiming he coated his fingers with airplane cement to prevent him from leaving fingerprints. Partial prints were found at the Paul Stine crime scene, though, which investigators believe are from the Zodiac.

3. One victim reported stalking

Darlene Ferrin had told a co-worker at the coffee shop where she was a waitress that she thought she was being watched by a man in a white car.

On the night of her death, Mageau reported that a car had driven up behind them while they were driving, following them. When they then reached a remote spot named Lover’s Lane, the driver parked close by, before speeding off. He returned later, which was when the couple was attacked.

Ferrin knew other victims David Arthur Farraday and Betty Lou Jensen and reportedly talked about it to her customers.

4. His cyphers were so cryptic, some remain unsolved

Along with the letters, the Zodiac also wrote cryptograms, which he claimed held the secret of his identity. While one was cracked early on, others were so complex that decades later, one has only just been solved— over 50 years after it was sent. Neither of the solved puzzles contained his identity, though.

He was able to write such cryptic puzzles, but the ones that have been solved contained terrible grammar and spelling. He described killing because he liked it and going to ‘paradice’ where his victims would become his slaves.

5. He was seen

Even though the Zodiac covered his face when committing his crimes, he was seen. Two known victims survived the attacks: Bryan Hartnell and Michael Margeau. Both were able to give descriptions to the police. Witnesses also spotted him after he killed Paul Stine. One officer may have even seen him, but thanks to an error over the radio identifying the suspect as a black man, he let him pass by.

In fact, Michael Mageau and Kathleen Johns (a woman who was picked up in a car by a man some believe to be the Zodiac, although she isn’t a confirmed victim) both identified police suspects as the killer. The problem is, they identified different people. Mageau picked Arthur Leigh Allen out of a police photo lineup. Johns, on the other hand, identified Lawrence Kane.

6. It's been cold for decades

The Zodiac might be the ultimate cold case. The killer could be alive or dead, in prison for another crime, or still free. Technically, it might not even be one person; there are theories it was multiple people whose crimes were grouped together. The problem is, we may never know for sure, which is one of the scariest details about the case.

Plenty of evidence has already been lost, with fewer than half of the original envelopes that were sent remaining. Many of the various named suspects are already dead. The longer it remains unsolved, the less likely it becomes the killer will be found alive.