With apologies to Jack the Ripper, now that the Golden State Killer has been caught, California’s the Zodiac Killer is the most compelling unsolved serial murder case of our time. Zodiac has four confirmed murder victims (there were three others who survived those attacks) and is suspected in several others (he claimed even more).
Like Jack the Ripper and Son of Sam, Zodiac taunted police and media with letters outlining details of his past and future crimes. To add to his creepy mystique, he sent coded messages in bizarre ciphers and committed one attack while dressed in a bizarre hood with his signature crosshairs symbol emblazoned across his chest, like a comic book supervillain come to life.
The case remains unsolved to this day, and his identity remains a mystery.
But in the wake of the recent capture of the Golden State Killer thanks to DNA evidence, investigators are hoping for a similar break in the long cold Zodiac case. Vallejo PD has sent two envelopes that contained confirmed letters from the Zodiac Killer to a DNA lab. “They were confident they would be able to get something off it,” Vallejo police Detective Terry Poyser told The Sacramento Bee. The hope is that a match can be found via submissions to various public genealogy sites like Ancestry.com.
The hope is that there’s a solid enough DNA sample on the envelope that would allow the police to start narrowing their search. “If we get a good profile, then you start tracking back,” Poyser told The Bee. “It really comes down to DNA. Without it, you have nothing. It’s a 50-years-old case.”
It’s possible they will have their results back in the next few weeks. If so, it’s possible that investigators will have their first real break in the case in decades.
There have been several books written about the Zodiac Killer (some more credible than others), and his crimes were mirrored in the movies, notably in the original Dirty Harry film, which focuses on a killer named Scorpio terrorizing San Francisco and sending letters to the police. David Fincher’s 2007 Zodiac movie starring Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. is an absolute masterpiece, too.
Fincher’s Zodiac is based on the writings of Robert Graysmith, a San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who found himself obsessed with the case as it unfolded. Graysmith, who is portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film, wrote two books on the case, Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked. While Graysmith spotlights several suspects in the course of his work (and to be sure, there are problems with the case he builds in his books), the one who gets the most attention is Arthur Leigh Allen, who had a significant amount of circumstantial evidence pointing his way. There was never anything conrete enough for authorities to bring charges against Allen, who died in 1992.
Allen appeared to be ruled out as a suspect when DNA was collected from the envelope of one of the Zodiac letters in 2002, which was the subject of an ABC TV special. The DNA profile created from that genetic material was not a match for Allen or several other suspects.
The best, most complete resource for Zodiac Killer information around is ZodiacKiller.com. Its webmaster, Tom Voigt, has kept Zodiac sleuths up to date on every new development in the case for over 15 years. In a post to the site’s message board back in January, Mr. Voigt confirmed that the material collected from the envelope in 2002 to create the Zodiac DNA profile wasn’t collected in a manner that could guarantee it came from the killer.
“The partial DNA profile that was obtained back in 2002 by Dr. Cydne Holt for the ABC television show ‘Primetime Thursday’ was collected from the outside of the stamp,” Mr. Voigt wrote in January. “No genetic material was obtained from behind the stamp, or the seal of the envelope, or anywhere else that would have most certainly belonged to the Zodiac.” (emphasis his)
Voigt got the news from “a retired SFPD inspector,” and he then confirmed the information with Dr. Holt. Apparently Dr. Holt was clear about which parts of the envelope the DNA was collected from, but that was lost in the editing process for the ABC special. The DNA profile built from that genetic material could have been from a postal employee or anyone else who handled the envelope in its journey, not necessarily the killer.
Of the more recent developments, Voigt shed more light on the DNA currently being analyzed on his website, indicating that these are envelopes and stamps that were tested 10 years ago, and failed to provide a match for Arthur Leigh Allen. But with the renewed interest in DNA testing for cases such as these, there’s still hope. “There are numerous other Zodiac stamps available to test with the new equipment, which can apparently separate DNA from the old glue found on stamps and envelopes, and thus yield better results,” Voigt wrote this week. “All additional possible DNA evidence is held at the San Francisco Police Dept., including Zodiac stamps, envelopes, gloves, etc.”
It would now appear that Arthur Leigh Allen and other suspects thought to be disqualified can once again be considered viable suspects. Allen in particular remains one of the most intriguing. Keep an eye on happenings at ZodiacKiller.com for more updates on this.