The Zodiac Killer (Serial Killer Biography)

"I hope you are having lots of fun in trying to catch me. I am not afraid of the gas chamber because it will send me to paradice (sic) all the sooner because I now have enough slaves to work for me.” 

This message was revealed after 51 years. Three code-breakers from three different countries (the United States, Belgium, and Australia) did what the FBI couldn’t do for five decades. Why was this message so important to crack? It came from the Zodiac Killer, one of the most notorious serial killers in modern history. To this day, the Zodiac Killer hasn’t been caught - and he might never be. 

So what did the Zodiac Killer do, and how has he managed to stay out of prison? Even these answers aren’t exactly available to police departments or true crime experts. As you learn more about the Zodiac Killer, maybe you can crack the code. 

Zodiac Killer Murders 

On December 20, 1968, the bodies of Betty Lou Jensen and David Arthur were found around a lovers’ lane close to Benicia. (Benicia is located in the Bay Area.) The 16- and 17-year-old, respectively, were on a first date. They had both been shot multiple times. 

Less than seven months later, Darlene Ferrin and Michael Mageau were shot. 22-year-old Ferrin did not survive the shooting, but Mageau, 19, did. He described the incident by saying that a man, possibly between the ages of 26 and 30, approached the car and shined a flashlight in the couples’ faces before shooting them. Mageau was shot multiple times, and the killer even came back a second time to shoot him again. 

This second shooting took place less than five miles away from the Jensen and Arthur murders. The day after, a connection between these two incidents was made as a man called the police department and claimed that he was responsible for both. 

Three months later, yet another couple was approached by this same perpetrator. Instead of a gun, the murderer used a knife to stab Bryan Calvin Hartnell and Cecelia Ann Shepard. Oddly enough, the man did have a gun with him when he first approached Hartnell and Shepard - we know this because while Shepard did not survive, Hartnell did. Hartnell had been stabbed six times. The description Hartnell made was similar to Mageau’s, although the killer wore a black hood, sunglasses, and a strange cross-circle symbol. The killer made this same symbol on the couple’s car before he sped away, also listing his other crimes. The wet palm print on the couple’s car was the first piece of DNA evidence that police have been able to obtain from this killer, but it has not been very helpful in recent years of the investigation. 

Two weeks later, cab driver Paul Lee Stine was killed in San Francisco. Although the call was originally made to SFPD that an African-American man was responsible for the murder, eyewitnesses described the man as a white man - other pieces of the description seemed to match previous descriptions of the Zodiac Killer. The killer may have gotten caught if it were not for the mistake made by SFPD - police weren’t looking for a white male immediately after the shooting. To clear up the confusion, the Zodiac Killer later called in to take responsibility for this murder.

The Zodiac Killer allegedly left behind bloodied fingerprints on the door of Stine’s cab, but police were not able to get a good print to match the killer’s fingers with anyone in their database. In letters to police, the Zodiac Killer also claimed to put airplane cement on his fingers to make him harder to catch. 

The murder of Paul Lee Stine is the last confirmed murder by the Zodiac Killer, but there is a lot more to the case than just these five murders. Did the Zodiac Killer take more victims? We might never know. He told police that he would, even describing that these killings would look like “routine robberies,” but none of these incidents over the past 50 years have been tied to the Zodiac Killer.

Coded Messages 

The murder of Paul Lee Stine is the last alleged murder by the Zodiac Killer. Five murders in the span of a year does qualify the Zodiac Killer to be a serial killer, but he is hardly the most prolific serial killer out there. So why are people so fascinated by him?

On one hand, the man has never been caught. On the other hand, his coded messages have added a wild twist to this story. Between the murders of Ferrin and Shepard, the alleged killer sent in letters to various newspapers around the San Francisco area. The letters contained two parts. First was a letter that listed various details from the two previous murders that only the killer and the police knew. Second was a cryptogram. The killer wrote in the letter that the cryptogram would reveal the killer’s identity. 

The killer wanted this cryptogram to go in the papers, and threatened to go on an intense killing spree if the letters were not published. The letters were also signed with a cross-circle symbol that has come to be associated with the Zodiac Killer. 

The letters were published, and the killer did not follow through with the murders he had threatened. He wouldn’t kill for another month. 

The letters were in code, and it took a week for citizens to solve and roughly translate most of the letter. It didn’t reveal the identity of the killer, but it did read: 

“​​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 dangeroue 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 thae 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 atop my collectiog of slaves for my afterlife ebeorietemethhpiti"

One interesting reference in this letter is to The Most Dangerous Game, a classic short story about a hunter who becomes hunted by a wealthy man who enjoys the thrill of killing humans, as they are the “most dangerous game.” 

Another letter was sent to newspapers a week later in which the killer called himself The Zodiac. 

Shortly after the murder of Paul Lee Stine, more letters were sent to the police. One letter included a bloodied scrap of Stine’s shirt. Shortly after, the Zodiac Killer sent the cryptogram that hadn’t been solved for 51 years. A few weeks after that, Zodiac sent in a letter describing some of the events that took place during Stine’s murder, including the claim that police had spoken with him shortly after he shot Stine. 

It’s important to note that while the Zodiac Killer was the most notorious serial killer at the time and every police officer in the area was trying to solve the case, the Zodiac Killer had killed in multiple jurisdictions. As you will hear in many serial killer cases, police had hesitations about sharing information about the case. Unfortunately, this just made the investigation harder to solve in the 1970s and beyond. 

Sending Police on a Goose Chase

Letters would trickle in to various police departments, journalists, and newspapers for years until 1974. Before this last letter, Zodiac was quiet for three years. In 1974, he sent a short letter to the San Francisco Chronicle that mentioned The Exorcist and ended with “Me = 37, SFPD = 0”. 

Does this mean that the Zodiac Killer took the lives of 37 people? Authorities cannot be sure. With so little DNA evidence left behind at crime scenes, it was not easy for police to link crimes back to the Zodiac Killer. False confessions and letters from copycats around the San Francisco area also made it hard for the police to know who was really behind certain murders. There are at least five murders that could be linked to the Zodiac Killer - these took place between 1963 and 1970. But without more evidence to link the murders, only the murders of Betty Lou Jensen, David Arthur, Darlene Ferrin, Cecelia Ann Shepard, and Paul Lee Stine have been confirmed. 

Is the Case Still Open? 

It’s not unusual for cases to be solved decades later. The Golden State Killer was caught over 30 years after his last kill, thanks to DNA evidence and relentless investigative journalism. But the Zodiac Killer hasn’t had the same fate. 

Between 2004-2007, the San Francisco Police Department closed the Zodiac Killer case. But the case remains open to this day in the SFPD and various other police departments around the area. Three years ago, the Vallejo Police Department believed that they would be able to catch the Zodiac Killer using DNA collected from stamps on the letters he sent to police. But the results of these efforts haven’t surfaced.

Some of the most recent news regarding the case came in December 2020, when one of the last letters from the Zodiac Killer was deciphered. 

Did the Zodiac Killer Have a Son? 

In 2014, Gary Stewart published a book called The Most Dangerous Animal of All. Stewart, who was adopted as a child, discovered the story of the Zodiac Killer while on a journey to discover who his birth father was. On that journey, he believes that his father, Earl Van Best Jr., was the Zodiac Killer. 

There are some striking coincidences and facts that link Best to the Zodiac Killer. Best was a pedophile who had been arrested many times for kidnapping Gary’s mother. Best’s father was a codebreaker in the war, and Best spent many years of his childhood learning how to break codes from his father. A scar on both Best’s and the Zodiac Killer’s fingerprints also point to Best as the killer. The eyewitness sketch is similar to photos of Best from that time, but eyewitness sketches are notoriously not that helpful. The police believe there is no conclusive evidence that ties Best to the Zodiac Killer. 

Plus, Earl Van Best Jr. is one of over a dozen suspects who were investigated by the San Francisco Police Department over the years. These suspects have ranged from relatively unknown men in the San Francisco area to members of the Manson Family and the Unabomber. There are coincidences present with some of these suspects, too. 

Will the Case Ever Get Solved? 

Even with the news of codebreakers solving the Zodiac Killer’s cryptogram, it’s hard to say that the Zodiac Killer case will ever get solved. It’s been over 50 years since the Zodiac Killer took his last victim. Even if you try to gather evidence from 37 killings that took place during that time in Northern California, it’s next to impossible to guarantee that you can link all of the cases together. The sketches given by eyewitnesses are not perfect, as you can see from the sketches made of the Golden State Killer and other serial killers. The science behind DNA identification will become more and more advanced, but time will continue to pass and the Zodiac Killer, if not dead already, is more and more likely to die. 

Still, there are people out there who are determined to contribute to this case - we know that from the codebreakers around the world who tirelessly worked to break the 51-year-old message. And as this case goes on, the stories of the people trying to identify the Zodiac Killer become just as fascinating as the Zodiac Killer himself. You can read about and watch Gary Stewart’s journey in cracking the Zodiac Killer case by reading his book or watching the FX documentary of the same name. Not only does this story take a deep diver into the Zodiac Killer, but also Gary Stewart’s father and Gary Stewart himself. 

Is it possible that this case will close for good? Who knows!

About the author 

Theodore

Theodore created PracticalPsychology while in college and has transformed the educational online space of psychology. His goal is to help people improve their lives by understanding how their brains work. 1,700,000 Youtube subscribers and a growing team of psychologists, the dream continues strong!

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