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Zodiac Killer Essay, Research Paper

In the late sixties and early seventies, California was haunted by dozens of unsolved

murders. The offender remains unknown to this day. The murderer, who referred to himself as

“the Zodiac,” made contact with the police and area newspapers throughout his reign of terror

through a series of menacing notes. Although the police were never able to apprehend Zodiac,

they were able to gather information about him via the letters. Zodiac boasted of killing up to

forty victims, however, police estimated he may have killed over 50.

Due to the nature of Zodiac’s letters and from witnesses police have a good idea of what

Zodiac is like even though he remains at large. Given what is known about serial killers in general,

and Zodiac in particular, authorities estimate he was born between 1938 and 1943, making him in

his mid-twenties to early thirties at the time of his first murder in 1966. The estimation is also

supported by witness statements. It is common for serial killers to first begin his career around

this age. (Weis)

Zodiac was believed to be a stocky man, but not overweight. (Graysmith, 316) Multiple

witnesses described him as having a “paunch” belly. He was a white male with light brown, curly

hair, was of average height, and wore dark rimmed glasses held to his head with a black band. He

was also reported to dress in a “military” fashion. He often wore a navy windbreaker and military

issued “wing walker” boots. Most witnesses described him as calm and clean-cut. (Graysmith,


There have been many psychological profiles of Zodiac, perhaps because his true identity

and motives have never been revealed. Graysmith, the author of the best selling novel Zodiac,

also created a profile of the killer. Graysmith described Zodiac as having “delusions of grandeur,

of being a psychotic and a sexual sadist.” ( Graysmith, 321) He hypothesized, like many other

profilers, that Zodiac had an overwhelming and domineering mother and a weak or absent father.

It is speculated that a violent relationship with his mother may have lead to his apparent hatred of


Zodiac’s first victim was Cherri Jo Bates. Although the murder was not attributed to

Zodiac until 1970, she was murdered one day before Halloween in 1966. Like Zodiac’s other

victims Cherri Jo was a student. She lived with her father in Riverside, California and attended

Riverside City College. She was a petite blond with blue eyes, although she was tan at the time of

her death she had a light complexion. (Graysmith, 164)

On the night of October 30th, Cherri Jo had gone to the school library to study.

Authorities estimate that Bates arrived at the RCC library at about six o’clock PM. While Cherri

Jo was studying the perpetrator removed the distributor coil from her engine, causing it to go

dead. Police theorize when Bates found her battery dead, Zodiac offered her a ride. He drove her

approximately seventy – five yards east at her car. He began choking her but Bates fought back.

She scratched his face and was able to rip his watch off, which was later found by authorities.

Between 10:15 an 10:30 PM a neighbor reported hearing a scream. Autopsies revealed that

Bates had been kicked in the head. She had also been stabbed twice. She had cuts on her face and

her jugular had been slashed. When she was found she was nearly decapitated. (Graysmith, 165)

The second murder committed by Zodiac occurred on December 20, 1968. His victims

were David Faraday, 17, and Betty Lou Jensen, 16. Once again the victims were young and

students. David was a Varsity athlete at Vallejo High School were he was one of the top students.

Betty Lou was pretty and described as “hardworking, studious, and had a spotless reputation.”

(Graysmith, 2) The couple were last seen at a friend’s house earlier in the evening. Although they

didn’t say where they were headed next, they drove to Lover’s Lane.

The victims initially made contact with the killer when he pulled his car up ten feet away

from where Betty Lou and David were parked. Graysmith hypothesizes what may have occurred

next. Zodiac may have asked David and Betty Lou to exit the car. When the couple refused the

killer got out of his car, pulled a gun out of his windbreaker and circled the car. He shot a bullet at

the right window sending the couple scrambling to the other side of the vehicle. Zodiac shot one

bullet at close range into David’s head. Betty Lou attempted to flee but was shot five times in her

upper back. No evidence of the killer’s identity was left at the scene. (Graysmith, 6-8)

The nature in which David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen were killed is consistent with

Zodiac’s other murders. Although the murder weapons varied from knives to different makes of

guns, to strangulation, the basic approach seemed to be the same. Betty Lou and David were

killed on a weekend, near a body of water. Zodiac routinely attempted to kill couples. The victims

were always young students and they attacks generally happened at night. Victims were not

acquainted with the killer. Cars were usually involved and the killer regularly kills in lovers’ lanes.

As with all confirmed Zodiac killings, a letter was sent bragging about the act. However, one

murder breaks the pattern; this is the murder of Darlene Ferrin.

Darlene Ferrin was a twenty-two year old white female. She had short blond hair and

bright blue eyes. She weighed about 130 pounds. She was described as being happy, laughing and

very outgoing. She was married to her second husband Dean and had a baby girl named Dena.

(Graysmith, 14) What makes the murder of Darlene stand out from the other Zodiac murders was

the fact that she appeared to actually know the killer.

In late February in 1969 Karen, Darlene’s baby-sitter, noticed an American make sedan

parked outside Darlene’s apartment. When Darlene returned from work the distressed baby-sitter

told Darlene what had happened. Darlene told her that he was checking up on her, and that she

saw him murder someone. (Graysmith, 15) Zodiac apparently left two different packages for

Darlene. Upon receiving the seemingly harmless gifts, a purse and some fabric, Darlene became

visibly shaken. For the next few months Zodiac appeared in Darlene’s life. Friends became

concerned but Darlene warned them to stay clear. He showed up at her work and even to a party

at her house. Darlene’s friends remember seeing the man on numerous occasions and were able

to give accurate descriptions for police.

On the Fourth of July Darlene telephoned her friend Mike Mageau and made plans to

attend a movies in nearby San Francisco. Although Darlene was married, she had a reputation for

dating men on the side. Mike was thought to be one of Darlene’s boyfriends. Darlene left the

house, ran some errands and returned home. She was about to take the sitters home, when she

received a phone call. She explained she needed to run out and grab fireworks and she would take

them home when she returned. The girls agreed and Darlene left.

Darlene picked up Mike and he rushed into the car, leaving all his house lights on and the

door open. The couple noticed they were being followed by a bronze Corvair at about 11:55 PM.

Darlene attempted to lose the car but they was being chased to the outskirts of the city.

(Graysmith, 26) The couple was herded into a golf course parking lot approximately two miles

from where Betty Lou and David were killed. As Darlene pulled into the lot, her car stalled. A

few minutes later the other car caught up to them . The driver parked the car eight feet away from

Darlene and Mike. Darlene told Mike not to worry about the driver. Mike couldn’t tell if Darlene

knew the driver or not, but he could tell the driver was male. The other car drove off and the

couple felt relieved. In less than five minutes the driver returned and this time parked his car close

to Darlene’s. He parked to the left and in back of their vehicle, a cut-off techniques used by

police. (Graysmith, 26) The driver exited his vehicle and shinned a bright light into the couple’s


Without warning the driver shined the light directly into Mike’s eyes to blind him. The

driver of the other car began firing at the pair. Both Darlene and Mike were hit in the fusillade of

bullets. Darlene was wounded nine times. She had been hit twice in her right arm and twice in her

left. Five shots hit her in her back, piercing her lungs and heart. Mike was hit in the left leg, right

arm and neck. The driver returned to his car and drove away. Darlene and Mike were found three

teenagers setting off fireworks. Although Mike survived the attack, Darlene was fatally wounded.

When Mike gave a description of the attacker it matched the description Darlene’s friends gave of

the strange man following her. They were the same man. When a letter was received on Friday

August 11, 1969, police found out the truth; Darlene may have been the only one to know the

Zodiac’s identity.

Zodiac remains at large over thirty years after his first murder. There are many reasons

why police were unable to close the case. In the beginning of Zodiac’s career he communicated

with the police (via newspapers) routinely. He would alert the police how many victims he had

and tell details of his crimes. From the information Zodiac revealed they were able to get a

detailed idea of what sort of person he was. They were able to estimate where he might live, what

sort of profession he was in and other details about his life. Police knew more about a killer they

had never seen than many criminals they had behind bars.

Police were able to narrow down thousands of suspects to a handful. However, they never

made any sort of arrests. This is because the killer never left any sort of physical evidence. All the

police had to go off was Zodiac’s handwriting, (from the letters) and a bloody palm print found in

one of his victim’s car. This proved troubling to police. Some investigators felt the bloody palm

print may have not even belonged to Zodiac. They theorized that the meticulous killer would have

not made such a careless mistake; perhaps it was just to lead police down the wrong trail. Prints

of the main suspects were compared to the palm print and there was never a match. Therefore, the

real Zodiac may have been in the presence of police and gone free.

The second piece of evidence authorities used in narrowing suspects were handwriting

analysis, since the majority of Zodiac’s letters were handwritten ( a few were typed.) The suspect

whose writing was a closest match was Robert Hall Starr (this name has been changed) Police

were able to obtain a sample of his writing from his place of employment. (Graysmith, 282)

However, when police received a search warrant to search his house and demanded a handwriting

sample the writings were not a match. It was not until later that authorities learned that a sexual

sadists handwriting may change under stressful conditions. (Graysmith, 267) At this time they

were also not aware that Zodiac may have used a tracing device to write the letters. This would

assure that if he was captured his natural handwriting would not match the notes. Starr had

multiple residences, but only one was searched. It might have been possible that one of these

machines or other evidence would have been found at his other homes. Graysmith gave the

impression he felt Starr was, in fact, Zodiac. (Graysmith, 304)

Although Zodiac is one of the most baffling cases in recent American history, it has many

similarities to other serial killer cases. For example, it is not usual for serial killers to leave a

signature or trademark. (Weis, Keppel, 403) Zodiac wrote letters to police taking credit for his

crimes but other killers, for example, might leave something at the crime scene. Robbery is seldom

a motive in these sort of murders. Zodiac’s victims were found with there wallets or purses.

According to Deitz, most serial killers murder their victims by means of strangulation,

beating them or stabbing them. (Weis, Keppel 157) Zodiac did use these methods but he also used

firearms. Deitz argued that most serial killers are sexual sadists are therefore the pleasure of

killing comes from the sexual gratification achieved with close contact. Nevertheless, when

Zodiac used firearms he used them at close range, perhaps in order to satisfy this sexual need.

Zodiacs victims were also typical of the majority of homicide victims. According, to Weis

fifty-four percent of homicide victims are between the ages of eighteen and thirty six. The victims

are usually white and single. This also fits with the bulk of Zodiacs victims.

Zodiac is perhaps the most elusive criminal in American history. After his last letter to the

Chronicle in 1978 he was never heard from again. Although the case is still technically open, it

receives little attention. Graysmith theorizes Zodiac may have been arrested for another crime,

died in an accident, or even possible killed by an intended victim. (Graysmith, 303) He also may

have committed suicide. However, the trouble with any of these speculations is that almost

certainly evidence of his identity would have been found. he might have begun to feel guilt and

remorse for his action. He may have simply stopped killing. When Zodiac started writing letters,

he may have been fueled by the publicity he received. At the end of his career he received less and

less publicity, maybe since the fame was dwindling so was his need to kill. The most frightening

possibility is that he still may be killing.

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