I’m one of those weirdos who has a favorite serial killer. I’ve actually got a top ten list of favorites and toward the top of that list is The Zodiac Killer. Even before I learned a bunch about him, I was intrigued. He developed ciphers that have never been cracked, he taunted police relentlessly, and he’s never been caught. Chances are, we’ll never know the name of the Zodiac and that just adds to the mystique and propelled him to the top of my list.
As far as prolific serial killers go, Zodiac doesn’t have that impressive of a body count. There were only seven confirmed victims, five of which died. He was also suspected of up to 11 others, including the Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders, none of which were ever conclusively linked to the Zodiac. He left taunting notes at some of the crime scenes claiming the bodies on site as well as several others. It seems to me that he would have specifically claimed the other victims if they were his; but we will probably never know.
A third victim was said to have escaped the clutches of the Zodiac as well. As the story goes, she and her infant child were picked up by a man who fit the description of the Zodiac killer and instead of taking her where she wanted to go, he spent an hour and a half driving around with them in the car on back roads. He taunted and threatened the woman. The man reportedly told her that he was the Zodiac Killer and that she and her child would be his next victims. When he slowed down to merge onto the highway, she leapt from the car with her baby and ran like hell. This was never confirmed to be the Zodiac but it seems pretty solid to me.
Even with a pretty unimpressive body count, the Zodiac has managed to be one of the most talked about serial killers in American history. The interest around him wasn’t based in the number of his victims but in the mind games he played with the press and police.
It’s easy to half ass dismiss the Zodiac’s body count from my comfortable chair all the way across the country and damned near fifty years in the future. Living in the Bay Area between the late sixties and early seventies would have been a hell of a lot different. The Zodiac wasn’t just killing, he was actively striking fear into the populace.
He regularly sent letters to both police and members of the press, some of which contained pieces of victim’s clothing and other evidence that could have only been obtained from the crime scenes. He also sent the famous ciphers, demanding that they be printed lest he kill more. He expertly spread panic across the state of California. He wasn’t just a killer. He was a like some kind of fucked up comic book villain.
One of the most notable moments in his campaign of terror was when he told police and the press that his next victims would be school children. He claimed that he planned to rig a bomb to explode in order to disable the bus and then pick the kids off from a distance while they filed off the bus. He went as far as to send diagrams of the bombs he would use. These diagrams, according to explosives experts, would have been highly effective. This prompted unprecedented security for school busses. The community and law enforcement pulled together to do all that they could to ensure the safety of the kids. Thankfully, this was just a super effective scare tactic.
The Zodiac’s string of killings stopped decades ago but his presence can still be felt in the world. There are several documentaries, a horror movie, and a ton of writing dedicated to him. He has intrigued and baffled law enforcement and civilian sleuths for as long as his case has been open. He has even spawned two copycat killers. One was in New York in the early 90s who caught after taking a handful of victims and sending taunting letters nad ciphers of his own to police. The other surfaced in the mid 90s in Kobe Japan. The killer left a note reminiscent of the Zodiac’s one deciphered cryptogram stuffed in the mouth of one of his victims. I do not think that we have seen the last of Zodiac’s influence in the world.
The Zodiac Killer wasn’t just another murderer in a time period where serial killers were prominent. He was a phantom who took pleasure in death and suffering. He was a merchant of fear and we will most likely never know his true name.
As usual, I’ve only scratched the surface of this case. If you find it interesting, I urge you to dig deeper into it. There’s plenty of great fiction out there but sometimes the true stories are the scariest.