A serial killer that operated in Northern California during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Zodiac Killer named himself in a series of taunting letters sent to the local press. Authorities have attributed seven confirmed victims to the unknown murderer, which includes two survivors. In his letters, however, the killer claimed to have been responsible for 37 deaths. The confirmed victims were both male and female, all shot or stabbed, and ranging in age from 16 to 29. Survivor and witness descriptions vary slightly, but authorities have concluded that the Zodiac Killer is a white male, between 5’8” and 5’11”, with brown hair and in his mid-to-late twenties.
The killer’s first victims were high school students, Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday, who were shot just inside the Benecia city limits, on December 20, 1968. Evidence showed where a vehicle drove up beside the couple’s shortly before 11:00 pm, from which the killer alighted and shot them. The teenagers’ bodies were found by a nearby resident, who alerted the police.
On July 4, 1969, Darlene Ferrin and Michael Mageau were parked four miles away, from the first murder scene, when a car drove up behind them. The driver approached their vehicle with a flashlight and a gun. He shined the light in their faces, before shooting each several times. At 12:40 am on July 5, 1969, the Vallejo Police Department received a phone call from a man who reported the incident and claimed to be the shooter. The caller also accepted responsibility for the murders of Jensen and Faraday. Police dispatched an emergency team, and traced the call to a phone booth a few blocks from the station. Ferrin was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital, but Mageau survived, despite being shot in the face, chest and neck.
Several newspapers received letters, on August 1, 1969, from somebody calling himself the Zodiac Killer, and taking credit for the murders. The letters were signed with a cross circle symbol, and included four cryptograms. These would reveal the identity of the serial killer whenever they were solved. They were published in the local papers, and Donald and Bettye Harden managed to solve the first. In the misspelled solution, the killer revealed his intentions of preparing for the afterlife where the souls of those he killed would return as his slaves. The other three cryptograms have never been solved.
On September 27, 1969, while Bryan Hartnell and Cecilia Shepard were having a picnic, they were approached by a man claiming to be an escaped convict. After telling them he needed their car to fuel his escape, the man drew a knife and repeatedly stabbed them. He then hiked back to their vehicle, where he drew the signature cross circle symbol of the Zodiac Killer. The Napa County Sheriff’s Office received a call from a pay phone reporting the crime. The phone was found off the hook, with a wet palm print which detectives were never able to match. Hartnell survived and told his full story to the press.
Two weeks later the killer struck again, posing as a passenger and shooting taxi driver, Paul Stine, in the head. The incident was witnessed by a group of teenagers who reported it to the police. The murderer stole Stine’s wallet, as well as a piece of his shirt. Correspondence with the press continued and the killer began to send swatches of Stine’s shirts in some of his letters, which often included threats to blow up a school bus. His final letter was received in 1974, after three years of silence. The case remains open and in May 2018, detectives revealed intentions of trying to match the saliva from the stamps in another effort to identify the killer and attain some justice for the victims’ families.