Letters From A Murderer: The Unsolved Mystery Of The Zodiac Killer

Committing at least five murders and taking credit for several more, the psychopath who called himself the Zodiac Killer terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s.

He was never caught.

For the curious, here’s a brief account of his grisly crimes – the horrific killings and the disturbing letters, the bizarre ciphers and the demented demands made by a man whose identity, to this day, remains unknown.

Our story begins on the night of July 4th, 1969, at 12:40 p.m., when the Vallejo Police received a call from a man who spoke in a low, monotonous voice.

He said, “I want to report a murder. If you will go one mile east on Columbus Parkway, you will find kids in a brown car. They were shot with a 9-millimetre Luger. I also killed those kids last year. Goodbye.”

That was the first of the many taunting messages the world would receive from the Zodiac Killer.

When they arrived at the scene, sure enough, the police found 22-year-old Darlene Ferrin and 19-year-old Michael Mageau bleeding to death in the car.

Mageau and Ferrin, a popular waitress in Vallejo, had driven over to the Blue Rock Springs Park earlier that evening when sometime around midnight another car came into the secluded parking lot and left, only to return minutes later.

According to Mageau, the driver got out of the car, shined a bright light and fired at the pair with a handgun, killing Ferrin and seriously wounding Mageau.

Mageau did not know yet how lucky he was – he’d stared into the face of the Zodiac Killer, and lived to tell the tale.

About a month later, on August 1st, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Vallejo Times-Herald each received an identical handwritten letter that referred to the December 1968 murders of 17-year-old David Faraday and his 16-year-old girlfriend, Betty Lou Jensen.

The teenagers had been shot to death near their car at a remote spot on Lake Herman Road, on the outskirts of Vallejo, California.

 It began with, “Dear Editor, This is the murderer of the 2 teenagers last Christmas at Lake Herman”, and went out to give details about the gruesome murders that only the killer could have known.

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Included was the first of a three-part cipher that he claimed contained his identity, and a threat to kill again if the letters weren’t printed on the front page of the papers like he wanted.

He signed off each of them with a symbol consisting of a circle with a cross through it, that later would come to be known as the Zodiac killer’s symbol.

Several days later, the 408 cipher was broken by Donald Harden, a high school teacher and his wife, Bettye.

“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.”

On September 27th, he killed again.

The victims were Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard, who were out on a picnic near Lake Berryessa when they were bound, stabbed and left for dead by the Zodiac Killer.

He then scrawled a message for the police on their car door and in his usual fashion, called in to report the crime and claim responsibility for the double murders.

Hartnell, however, survived.

On October 11th, taxi driver Paul Stine was found murdered in his car, and three days later, the San Francisco Chronicle received another letter from the Zodiac Killer.

Written in the same erratic print, the letter once again gave gory details of the murder, only this time, it was accompanied by evidence that backed its claims – a bloody scrap of Stine’s shirt.

The letter ended with the killer musing that he would next shoot out the tire of a school bus and “pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.”

On June 26th, 1970, the killer sent his strangest cipher yet – Z 32, also known as the “Map Code,” because it came with a map of the San Francisco Bay area.

A sign closely resembling the now familiar cross-hair symbol appeared as a compass, and in the letter he wrote, “The map coupled with this code will tell you where the bomb is set.”

For 5 years, the self-proclaimed Zodiac Killer continued his bizarre correspondence with the Bay Area newspapers.

The letters that came in all described murders which he claimed to have committed, included more ciphers and threats, and taunted the police for not having been able to crack his code or catch him.

In one, the killer even wrote, “Me = 37, San Francisco Police Department = 0.”

Then in 1974, the letters suddenly stopped.

For years, experts and amateurs alike have poured over the Zodiac’s baffling code in hopes that it would give us clues to his identity.

But the difficulty arises in the fact that an amateur, the Zodiac made quite a few mistakes when enciphering.

He made frequent spelling mistakes even when wrote in plain English, so converting his words to cipher made room for a lot more error. Naturally, this complicated things for experts working to break the code and despite intensive investigations, no arrests were made.

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Decades later, the Zodiac Killer is yet to be definitively identified.

In his statement, Mageau described him as a white male, 5’8″ to 5’9″, in his late 20s to early 30s, with a stocky build, round face and brown hair.

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Though the list of suspects is by no means short, one name has the highest evidence against it: Arthur Leigh Allen.

When Allen’s trailer was searched, the police found a number of incriminating objects like bloody knives and homemade bombs. A friend of his even said that he’d heard Allen refer to himself as “Zodiac.”

Adding to that, Allen was jailed for child molestation in 1974, which is around the same time the Zodiac letters stopped.
The case, however, still remains open.

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Posted by

Amanda Francesca Mendonça

After spending pretty much all of my teen years waiting for a Hogwarts letter that never came, I gave up and settled for being a wizard with words instead. A hopeless romantic, when I’m not penning down short stories, I’m busy imagining my own happily ever after.

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