The seven confirmed Californian Zodiac victims
Four men and three women between the ages of 16 and 29 were targeted by the Zodiac between December 1968 and October 1969. Of the seven attacked, five died in the Californian cities of Benicia, Vallejo, Lake Berryessa and San Francisco.
On 20 December 1968, a local resident, Stella Borges, found a young couple next to their parked car on a gravel area next to Lake Herman Road, Benicia, California, a few moments after they had been killed. They were Betty Lou Jensen, 16, and her boyfriend, David Faraday, 17. Jensen had been shot in the back as she was trying to escape, and Faraday had been shot once in the head and died before regaining consciousness. It later emerged that a witness had seen two cars parked on the gravel area but had not noticed any occupants.
The next murders linked to the Zodiac Killer occurred around midnight on 4 July 1969 in the parking lot of the Blue Rock Springs Golf Course, Vallejo, California. Only four miles from the Lake Herman murder site, the killer pulled up next to the couple in their parked car and shot them with a 9mm Luger handgun. The victims were 19-year-old Michael Renault Mageau, who survived gunshot wounds to the face, neck and chest; and his girlfriend Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin, 22, who was pronounced Dead On Arrival at the hospital.
A mere 40 minutes later, on 5 July 1969 at 12:40am, Vallejo Sheriff’s Department received an anonymous phone call from a man claiming responsibility for the Blue Rock Springs shooting, as well as for the Lake Harman Road murders six months earlier. The call was traced to a public phone booth at a petrol station close to both Ferrin’s home and the Vallejo Sheriff’s Department.
Taunting the Police
A month later, on 1 August 1969, three local newspapers received almost identical letters regarding the shootings. The letters gave details of the ammunition used and the wounds and positions of the victims, information which had never been officially released. The letters were signed with a symbol of a circle overlaid/intersected by a cross. Each letter also had a separate sheet, with a message of 360 characters, printed in cipher, in which the author of the letter claimed his identity was hidden. Each editor received only a third of the message.
“Dear Editor, I am the killer of the 2 teenagers at Christmas at Lake Herman and the Girl last 4th of July. To prove this I shall state some facts which only I & police know.
1. Brand name of ammo Super-X
2. 10 shots fired
3. Boy was on back, feet to car
4. Girl was lying on right side, feet to West
4th of July
1. Girl was wearing patterned pants
2. Boy was also shot in knee
3. Brand name of ammo was Western.”
The letters contained the demand to be printed on the front page of the newspapers, with the threat of further killings the next weekend if this was not heeded. The weekend killing spree did not take place and the letters were eventually printed, in the hope that they may help the police investigation of the murders.
Shortly afterwards, on 4 August 1969, another letter was received by the San Francisco Examiner newspaper, in which the author began, “Dear Editor, This is the Zodiac speaking”. The press and the police pounced on the name. The reign of the Zodiac Killer had begun.
Californian code experts, Donald and Betty Harden, cracked the code, except for the last string of 18 letters, on 8 August 1969, a week after the cipher had been sent with the first letters. Disappointingly, the cipher did not contain the Zodiac’s identity, as he had promised, but instead, an explanation of why he killed.
The de-coded cipher read (with original misspellings) :
"I LIKE KILLING PEOPLE BECAUSE IT IS SO MUCH FUN IT IS MORE FUN THAN KILLING WILD GAME IN THE FORREST BECAUSE MAN IS THE MOST DANGEROUS 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 THAT WHEN I DIE I WILL BE REBORN IN PARADICE AND ALL THE I HAVE KILLED WILL BECOME MY SLAVES I WILL NOT GIVE YOU MY NAME BECAUSE YOU WILL TRY TO SLOI DOWN OR STOP MY COLLECTING OF SLAVES FOR MY AFTERLIFE EBEORIETEMETHHPITI."
On 27 September 1969, Bryan Calvin Hartnell, 20, and Cecelia Ann Shepard, 22, were enjoying a picnic on the shores of Lake Berryessa when they were approached by a man wearing an executioner-type hood, sunglasses to hide his eyes, and a symbol on his chest bearing a circle intersected by a cross. The man pointed a gun at them and, explaining he was an escaped convict, demanded money and their car. Using pre-cut strips of clothesline, the man forced Shephard to tie up her boyfriend and then he bound her wrists. The man then drew out a knife, stabbed the couple and left. He walked back to where the couple had parked their car and drew the circle and cross symbol on the car door, writing below it “Vallejo 12-20-68, 7-4-69, Sept 27-69 6:30 by knife”.
A local resident and his son were fishing nearby, heard the couple’s screams for help and alerted the park rangers. Shephard was still conscious when County Sheriff Deputies arrived at the scene and was able to give them a detailed description of the man who had attacked them. Both Shephard and Hartnell were taken immediately to hospital. Shephard lapsed into a coma in the ambulance and died two days later, whilst Hartnell survived the brutal attack.
The Napa County Sheriff’s office received a call at 7:30 pm, from a man admitting to the Lake Berryessa attack. The call was traced to a public telephone at a local car wash. When police arrived, they found the receiver still off the hook and were able to lift fresh fingerprints, but these were never matched to a suspect. Napa County Sheriff Detective Ken Narlow was assigned to the case and worked on it until his retirement in 1987.
On 11 October 1969, cab driver Paul Lee Stine, 29, was at an intersection in San Francisco, when a man got into his cab and asked to be taken to Presidio Heights. Once at the destination, and without preamble, the man drew out a 9mm firearm and shot Stine once in the head, killing him instantly. He took Stine’s wallet and car keys, and tore off a piece of Stine’s shirt. With the fabric, he calmly proceeded to wipe his fingerprints off the cab and then walked off towards the Presidio base.
At 9:55 pm, whilst the crime was in progress, three teenage witnesses, who were across the street, called police. Officers arrived minutes later and conducted a thorough search of the surrounding area, but to no avail. The Zodiac had struck again and vanished. However, a police artist worked with the teenage witnesses to create an identikit of the killer, who was a white male, estimated to be 35 to 45 years old. Detectives Dave Toschi and Bill Armstrong of the San Francisco Police Department were assigned to the case.
Three days after the Stine murder, on 14 October 1969, the Chronicle newspaper received a letter from the Zodiac, with a threat of shooting school children. In the envelope, as proof that he was the killer, was a piece of the fabric that had been torn from Stine’s shirt.
At 2:00 am on 22 October 1969, the Oakland Police Department was called by a man claiming to be the Zodiac and demanding that one of two high profile lawyers appear on Jim Dunbar’s television talk show later that morning. Not wanting to take any risks, police arranged for one of the lawyers, Melvin Belli, to appear on the show. Dunbar requested that viewers keep the lines open and someone claiming to be the Zodiac, and saying his name was Sam, called a number of times. Belli agreed to meet the man, who never showed up at the determined time and venue. Police eventually traced subsequent calls made to Belli, to the Napa State Hospital, where they had a mental patient named Sam.
On 22 October 1969, the Zodiac sent a second cryptogram, this time consisting of 340 characters. On 9 November 1969, the Zodiac sent a seven-page letter claiming that he had been stopped and spoken to by two police officers a mere three minutes after he had shot Stine. He continued to literally ‘get away with murder’ and seemed to enjoy taunting the police with this fact. On 20 December 1969, Belli received a letter from the Zodiac, asking for his legal help. Included with the letter was another piece of the fabric torn from Stine’s shirt.
The five suspected Californian Zodiac victims
On the night of 22 March 1970, Kathleen Johns, 22, was going to visit her mother in Petaluma, California. Johns was seven months pregnant and had her ten-month-old daughter in the car with her. On Highway 132, near Modesto, Johns noticed the car behind her flashing its lights and sounding its horn. Worried, she pulled off the road and the car behind her followed suit. The man told Johns that one of her rear tyres was wobbling but that he could tighten it. She gladly allowed the man to help her and he drove off. When Johns pulled back onto the highway, the tyre came off completely and Johns veered to a halt. The man reversed back to her and offered to drive her and her daughter to the nearest service station.
Little suspecting that the man had in fact loosened her tyre and caused the whole calamity in the first place, Johns once again accepted his offer of help, and climbed into his car. The first service station was closed but then the man kept making excuses that the other service stations they passed were the wrong ones. Johns began to fear him and nervously sat in his car whilst he drove around the back streets of the rural area for nearly three hours.
Eventually Johns managed to escape when the man stopped at an intersection. Clutching her baby daughter, she leaped out of the car, ran into a nearby field and hid. The man turned off his headlights and waited silently in the car for about five minutes. He then turned his lights back on and drove away.
Johns managed to stop a passing motorist, who took her and her daughter to the Patterson police station. Here she saw the identikit of the Zodiac and confirmed him to be the man who had abducted her. The Patterson police went in search of Johns’ car and they found it completely burned out and still smouldering. The Zodiac had returned to destroy any evidence of his presence.
It transpired that this was the last time anyone saw the Zodiac killer in person, but his letter writing continued for quite some time after that. On 20 April 1970, the Chronicle newspaper received a letter, which included a 13-character piece of code as well as the plans for a bus bomb. It began “This is the Zodiac speaking. By the way have you cracked the last cipher I sent you? My name is --“ followed by a 13-character code, and was signed off with the crossed-circle symbol. In the letter, the Zodiac claimed to have killed 10 people to date. On 28 April 1970, the Chronicle received a greeting card from the Zodiac threatening to place a bomb on a bus and also asking for Zodiac buttons to be made. “I would like to see some nice Zodiac butons [sic] wandering about town. Every one else has these buttons like [peace symbol], black power,… etc. Well it would cheer me up considerably if I saw a lot of people wearing my buton [sic].”
A letter to the Chronicle on 26 June 1970 contained another code and a road map of the Bay Area, with a stylised clock face, incorporating the crossed circle Zodiac symbol, drawn on the summit of Mount Diablo. The Zodiac stated in the letter that he was becoming increasingly angry with the people of the San Francisco Bay Area, as they had not complied with his wish to have them wear Zodiac buttons. He threatened to kill a busload of school children in retaliation for his wishes not being met. The map and the clock were clues to where the bomb was being stored.
On 24 July 1970, a short note was sent to the Chronicle, referring to the abduction of Johns and the burning of her car, signed with a very large crossed-circle. On 26 July 1970 a letter arrived about the tortures the Zodiac’s slaves would endure in the afterlife. On 5 October 1970, the Chronicle received a postcard with a collage of pictures, through which had been punched 13 holes, representing the 13 lives the Zodiac claimed to have taken. In this communication, he warned police that he had not slowed down his ‘pace’ of killing and bragged that they would never catch him.
On 27 October 1970, a Halloween greeting card addressed to Paul Avery, arrived at the Chronicle, in which the Zodiac apologised for not sending another cipher. It was signed with the crossed circle and a large ‘Z’ but in addition there was a creepy symbol made of 13 eyes and the words ‘Peek-a-boo, you are doomed’. Around this time, Kathleen Johns received a similar card from the Zodiac. Taken as a direct threat, the card sent to Avery made front-page news in the Chronicle on 31 October 1970. As a direct result of this, an anonymous letter was sent to the Chronicle, urging police to investigate a murder in Riverside, a few years before, which had many similarities to the other Zodiac killings.
Avery took action and visited the Riverside police to read through their evidence on the case, including the letters sent after the murder. He arranged for a meeting of the detectives from Napa and San Francisco counties to compare the details of the crimes and the possible Zodiac link. Handwriting experts confirmed the handwriting to be the same in all the letters but police investigators remained sceptical. When Avery’s story was printed in the Chronicle on 16 November 1970, the Riverside murder made the news four years after the crime had been committed. The Riverside Police Department’s official position, as of 1998, was that Bates was not a Zodiac victim.
On Sunday 30 October 1966, Cheri Jo Bates, an 18-year-old student, was murdered near the library parking lot of the Riverside Community College, San Francisco. The killer had disabled her lime green Volkswagon by removing the distributor coil and condenser, and disconnecting some wires. He had waited for Bates to return to her car from the library, shortly before it closed at 9:00 pm. When Bates’ car would not start, the man went over to offer her help. He tinkered with the engine for a while and then, saying he couldn’t fix it, offered her a lift.
He managed to lure her into a dark driveway between two empty houses, owned by the College. Here they spent approximately an hour and a half, during which time no one is certain what happened. Bates’ dead body was later found, covered with large knife slashes, three across her chest, one across her back, and seven across her throat. Police determined the murder weapon to be a small knife with a blade approximately 3.5 inches long and 0.5 inches wide. The neck wounds were so brutal that they had severed her larynx, carotid artery and jugular vein, and nearly caused her decapitation. Bates had also been beaten, choked and slashed about the face but she had not been raped or robbed.
Two separate witnesses had heard a terrible scream at around 10.30pm, and then a more muted scream, immediately followed by the sound of a car starting. This matches the coroner’s estimated time of death as around 10.30pm. The fact that Bates had spent over an hour in a dark driveway before she was heard screaming, suggested to police that she knew her attacker. They surmised he might have been an ex-boyfriend, a spurned suitor or someone connected to Bates.
A month later, on 29 November 1966, Riverside police and the Riverside Press-Enterprise were posted carbon copies of an anonymous typed letter. It was entitled ‘The Confession’, with a by-line of the word ‘BY’ followed by 12 underscores, and claimed responsibility for the Bates murder, warning that she was not the first and would not be the last. At least one of the details in the letter had not been made public, leading police to believe it was genuinely from the Bates’ killer. They found a single fingerprint on the envelope but it was never matched to a suspect. It could have been from the author of the letter or a postman or a policeman. Opinion regarding the author of the letter changed over time, with some doubting it was from the Zodiac Killer.
“I am not sick. I am insane. But that will not stop the game. This letter should be published for all to read it. It just might save that girl in the alley. But that’s up to you. It will be on your conscience. Not mine. Yes I did make that call to you also. It was just a warning. Beware… I am stalking your girls now.” - Anonymous 'confession'
On 30 April 1967, exactly six months after her death, Cheri Jo’s father, Joseph Bates, as well as the Riverside police and the Riverside Press-Enterprise were sent nearly identical copies of another letter. Two of the letters were signed with a symbol resembling a ‘Z’, joined with a ‘3’. The letters read as follows, “Bates had to die. There will be more.” Once again, one fingerprint was found on the letter, but it was never matched to a suspect.
Four months after Avery’s article in the Chronicle about the Bates murder, another Zodiac letter was sent to the Los Angeles Times on 13 March 1971. In it, he credited the police for making the link with the Bates killing but reminded them that “they are only finding the easy ones, there are a hell of a lot more down there”.
On 22 March 1971, Avery received another Zodiac letter, this time taking credit for the disappearance of Donna Lass, 25, a nurse from Lake Tahoe, California. She had been missing since 26 September 1970, when she left work around 2:00 am.
The following morning her uniform and shoes, covered in dirt, were found in a paper bag in her office. Her apartment was clean and tidy and her car was found parked outside. Her body has never been found. The letter was made of a collage of lettering and adverts and seemed to give clues to the crime scene. However, when police investigated, they discovered what appeared to be a grave but all they found in it was a pair of sunglasses.
On 13 November 1972 the Vallejo Times-Herald ran a story that said the murders of a young couple nearly a decade earlier had been the work of the Zodiac. On 4 June 1963, high school seniors Robert Domingos, 18, and Linda Edwards, 17, were shot and killed on a beach near Lompoc, California. It seemed to investigators that the couple had initially been bound but had managed to free themselves and the killer had shot them in the back and chest as they were trying to flee. He had then placed their bodies in a nearby shack and set it alight, although it did not burn down.
Following the letter to Avery in March 1971, the Zodiac kept silent for almost three years. On 29 January 1974, the Chronicle received a letter in which the Zodiac signed off “Me = 37, SFPD = 0”, indicating that his murder count had reached 37 and the San Francisco police still had not caught him. A further three letters were sent to the Chronicle, on 14 February 1974, 8 May 1974, and 8 July 1974 but it was debated that the author had been the Zodiac. A further four years passed until a letter arrived on 24 April 1978, which was first thought to be from the Zodiac but three months later experts declared it as a hoax.
Amongst all the suspects over the years, police only seriously investigated one of them, Arthur Leigh Allen (18 December 1933 – 26 August 1992), who maintained his innocence throughout. A friend of Allen’s had suspicions about him and reported this to the Manhattan Beach Police Department in July 1971. Allen was a convicted sex offender and police had enough circumstantial evidence against him to justify three search warrants. On 14 September 1972, they searched his home and found weapons and explosive components. They searched his home again on 14 February 1991 and on 28 August 1992, two days after his death. None of Allen’s handwriting, fingerprints or DNA testing on the letters, matched that of the Zodiac but he was never ruled out as a suspect.
The San Francisco Police Department declared its Zodiac investigation inactive in April 2004. The reasons given were an overbearing caseload pressure and limited resources to dedicate to the Zodiac, but the case remained open in other jurisdictions.
The New York Zodiac crimes
At 3:00 am on 9 March 1990, New York restaurant worker Mario Orozco, 49, was on his way home through Brooklyn. He was followed by a young man in a maroon beret, who suddenly appeared from the shadows of a cemetery and shot Orozco in the back with a 9mm zip gun (a crude, improvised handgun). The man wrapped a note, which read “This is the Zodiac”, around the gun and left it on the pavement next to Orozco, who survived the shooting.
At 3:00 am on 29 March 1990, German Montenesdro, 34, was drunk and wandering the streets of East New York, on his way home. A young man started following him and without warning, fired at him. Whilst Montenesdro lay wounded, the young man searched his pockets, leaving the money but taking the passport.
On 31 May 1990, World War II veteran Joseph Proce, 78, was enjoying a late night stroll in the Queens area of East New York. At around 1:30 am, he was approached by a man wanting water. Being cautious, Proce refused and the man shot him, leaving a disconcerting handwritten note next to the body before leaving. Proce died in hospital on 24 June 1990.
These murders had been preceded by a letter to East New York’s 17th Precinct, on 17 November 1989. It contained a large hand-drawn circle, divided into sections representing the signs of the zodiac. The letter read:
“This is the Zodiac.
The First Sign is dead.
The Zodiac will Kill the twelve signs in the Belt
When the Zodiacal light is seen?
The Zodiac will spread fear
I have seen a lot of police in
Jamaica Ave and Elden Lane but
you are no good and will not get
Orion is the one that can stop
Zodiac and the Seven Sister.”
The murders were followed up with letters, in the same style as the previous Zodiac communications, but these ones said ‘All shot in Brooklyn’. NYPD officers tried checking open cases to see if any were connected to the new Zodiac letters. However, this proved a difficult task.
Chief of Detectives, Joseph Borelli, called together detectives from different New York precincts, in order to share information on the cases. Borelli’s team worked on ‘Operation Watchdog’, confident they would finally catch the Zodiac killer. The story leaked to the press and once more, members of the public were worried about the Zodiac killer in their midst.
On 21 June 1990, Larry Parham, a homeless man was sleeping on a bench in Central Park, New York City. Waking up, he saw a man standing over him, who, without saying a word, shot him in the torso with a .38 pistol and walked off into the park. The following day, the New York Post newspaper received a letter, filled with symbolism, astrological references, a list of victims and details of their deaths.
It seemed that whilst there were many similarities between these crimes and the Zodiac killings years before, police were never convinced they were the same man. However, copycat or not, New York was still in the grips of a series of crimes committed by someone claiming to be the Zodiac. The New York police immediately began a manhunt for the killer.
Heriberto ‘Eddie’ Seda, 22, lived with his mother and half sister, Gladys ‘Chachi’ Reyes, in East New York. Somewhat of an enigma, outwardly Seda was handsome, neat and tidy but he didn’t work, had no friends, and didn’t date girls. He had dropped out of high school at age 16, after being suspended for carrying a weapon. He would get money by putting plastic bags into the coin slots of vending machines and pay phones, returning a few days later to extract the coin-filled bags.
Deeply religious, Seda regularly attended church, devoting his life to God and making his mother proud. It turned out however that he hated his sister, who was everything he wasn’t, and he regularly abused her, both mentally and physically. The abuse only stopped around 1989. Seda spent most of his time in his bedroom, pursuing his hobbies, which included reading about violence, guns and serial killers. He idolised Ted Bundy but his ultimate hero was the Zodiac killer because he had outwitted the police and never been caught. Seda had compiled scrapbooks of his favourites and his latest project was the New York Zodiac.
In his bedroom, Seda kept a substantial collection of ammunition and homemade explosives and weapons. Included were several zip guns, which enable the changing of barrels, and therefore the ability to use different calibre bullets, thus complicating the matching of ballistics. In his twisted mind, Seda felt untouchable and protected by ‘the magic’ but he also felt that he was pushing his luck and he would have to be careful. His fingerprints were on police file and if he were arrested for anything else, police would know he was the New York Zodiac. He decided to stop killing.
After a number of months with no Zodiac attacks, NYPD’s Operation Watchdog Zodiac task force was reduced from 50 to 18 police officers. Seda waited a year before he attacked again and concentrated his attacks to the Highland Park area, New York.
On 10 August 1992 Patricia Fonti, 39, met a good-looking man near the Highland Park reservoir and they began chatting. After a while, they walked down to the shore of the reservoir, where at 1:30am the man shot Fonti with a .22 zip gun. She put up a fight, which resulted in the Zodiac stabbing her over 100 times. Fonti died at the scene.
On 4 June 1992 Jim Weber, 42, an unemployed construction worker was shot in the buttocks in Highland Park. On 20 July 1992 mental patient Joseph Diacone, 40, was shot outside Highland Park at 11:35 am and died from his wounds. On 2 October 1992 Diane Ballard, 40, was shot whilst sitting on a bench in Highland Park. She survived. The NYPD did not connect these crimes as they were busy dealing with so many random acts of violence in their city.
On 10 March 1994 police arrested Seda outside his apartment building, after finding him in possession of an illegal zip gun. He was polite and cooperated with the police. The evidence laboratory incorrectly labelled his gun, enabling Seda to walk free a week later.
On 10 June 1994 a white man was shot in Highland Park with a .22 calibre zip gun but the incident went unreported. On 1 August 1994 the New York Post received another Zodiac letter. It had a list of new victims, an odd totem pole code and the line “sleep my little dead how we loathe them”. When the New York Post printed the story, New Yorkers were once more in the grip of fear about the Zodiac killer.