By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
The chilling crimes of the Zodiac Killer were never solved. Many theories have come to light, but the murderer—or murderers—eluded capture. Relive the events that shook the Bay Area, with Wondrium.
Over 50 years after the Zodiac Killer first made headlines, the San Francisco-based murderer is still in the news. In December 2020, news broke that one of Zodiac’s toughest ciphers had finally been cracked. Meanwhile, in April, families of the victims of the Monster of Florence killer began calling for the case to be reopened when four, new double homicides occurred that matched the Monster’s MO—and Zodiac’s—reigniting theories that the Monster of Florence and the Zodiac Killer were the same person or persons.
In Wondrium’s series Crimes of the Century: A Selective History of Infamy, Dr. Richard B. Spence, Professor of History at the University of Idaho, offers a well-rounded look at some of the most infamous crimes in modern history, from the Son of Sam to the assassination of the Romanov family. One episode devotes itself to examining theories about the Zodiac Killer, including the possibility that Zodiac was more than one person.
A New Kind of Calling Card
Beginning in December 1968 and continuing the summer of 1969, multiple incidents of slayings 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.
The Zodiac killings made quick headlines for two related reasons: the letters that he sent to the press in mysterious ciphers and the murderer’s frequent phone calls to police and the press, describing his motives.
The murders also began during a major cultural moment in American history. In the late 1960s in the Bay Area, the hippie movement was in full swing, but the Vietnam War and protests against it, as well as the Civil Rights movement, were also happening. A spree of brutal, unsolved killings—teased, no less, by a series of encoded messages and riddles from a sadistic perpetrator—only added to the furor of the time.
The American Jack the Ripper
“The Zodiac has sometimes been called ‘The American Jack the Ripper,’ and there are some similarities,” Dr. Spence said. “Both are credited with five canonical murder victims, those that everybody can agree on, but both are also widely assumed to have killed more. Zodiac, for instance, ultimately claimed 37 victims.”
Additionally, Zodiac and the Ripper both taunted authorities with cryptic letters and bloody trophies of their crimes. Finally, both killers’ identities remain a mystery to this day. Each killer has spawned an almost impossible amount of theories about their identities and motives.
“The Zodiac killings have been attributed to everyone from the Manson family to the Unabomber to Satanic cultists,” Dr. Spence said. “Yet even the most serious suspects never yielded enough evidence for an arrest, much less conviction. The fascination remains, too, as does the nagging fear that the Zodiac might still be out there.”
Crimes of the Century: A Selective History of Infamy is now available to stream on Wondrium.