By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
As recently as 2020, the hunt for the Zodiac killer continued. The nature of the Zodiac killings is so contradictory to most serial killings that the case remains open. This week on Wondrium Shorts, consider that the killer was actually several people.
One of the biggest trademarks in serial killings is that the killer often acts in a uniform manner from murder to murder. The killer usually leaves a calling card, attacks victims who have a common trait among them, uses the same weapon each time, or follows other patterns. The string of murders associated with the Zodiac killer, who targeted the Bay Area and sent encoded notes to the press, defy almost every expectation, except for the letters he mailed to the media taking responsibility for each kill.
Wondrium’s new series True Crime: Decoding the Evidence tasks several experts in forensics, history, and criminal behavior with taking a fresh look at some of the most notorious and bizarre murders in history. Their opinions about the Zodiac murders include the possibility that the perpetrator may have been several people.
Setting the Scene
“So, late ’60s, early ’70s in the Bay Area, you had quite a cultural revolution going on—a lot of movement into the area,” said Dr. Raychelle Burks, Associate Professor of Chemistry at American University. “It was quite popular—kind of like [the] Haight-Ashbury era of things, but you also had the Vietnam War. So you had all of the things that were going on—activists and protests, the Civil Rights movement—and it all kind of came together at this moment in time.”
Dr. Richard B. Spence, Professor of History at the University of Idaho, agreed. Dr. Spence added that the setting was a “field day” for unsolved murders, serial killings, and sex crimes if there ever was one. He even compared it to a kind of hunting ground for serial killers.
The confirmed Zodiac killings were four incidents that left five dead and two wounded, but in different locations and with different weapons used. However, they were all connected.
Coded Language and a Talkative Killer
The Zodiac killings made quick headlines for two related reasons: The murderer’s frequent phone calls to police and the press, describing his motives and the letters that he sent to the press in mysterious ciphers.
In the summer of 1969, two incidents of double killings in cars occurred and went unsolved. On August 1, three San Francisco-area newspapers received letters with accompanying notes in code. The letters said if the papers didn’t print the ciphers on the front page by that Friday, the killer would strike again. He also gave proof of his identity.
“There’s symbols and there’s riddles, and this constant contact with the media and law enforcement—the calls of […] ‘There’s been a murder and I did it,” Dr. Burks said. “So all that kind of communication, the clues and the tips and the riddles that were sent in, […] they seemed to be playing a game.”
Multiple Victims, Multiple Killers?
The first three incidents partially followed a pattern. According to Dr. Spence, they involved couples who sat in parked cars in rural areas known to be necking spots. They also seemed relatively quick and they took place at night. However, there were considerable differences already: The killer—or killers—used different weapons and eventually added a costume to their routine.
The fourth case was a drastic departure.
“The fourth crime was unusual because it was a single person—it was a cab driver named Paul Stein and the cab was absolutely bloody after the attack,” said Dr. Elizabeth Murray, forensic anthropologist.
Stein’s murder took place in broad daylight in downtown San Francisco, with witnesses and fingerprints left behind.
“The thing about this is that it brings up that possibility again that Zodiac isn’t one person,” Dr. Spence said. “This is why there are different caliber firearms, slightly different variations, why one guy has a costume and the others don’t. And when one guy ends up killing a cab driver in San Francisco in a sloppy fashion, where the others are fairly meticulous, their job is to commit a murder.
“But it’s different people doing it.”