The Zodiac is back … but did he ever leave?
As a major motion picture hits theaters, no one really knows the identity of Northern California’s most notorious serial killer—but not for a lack of trying
On the big screen: The mystery begins on a lonely stretch of road a few miles outside Vallejo where, five nights before Christmas 1968, a cold-blooded killer gunned down a teenage couple parked on lover’s lane on their first date. The unknown assailant struck again on the Fourth of July 1969, killing a young woman and seriously wounding her male passenger in a golf course parking lot not far from the first crime scene. Locals began locking their doors at night, concerned a homicidal maniac was on the loose.
In August, their worst fears were realized. In letters sent to the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner and the Vallejo Times Herald, the killer bragged about the crimes, vowing to kill more people if the newspapers didn’t print a cryptogram he’d included in the letters. Several days later, in a second missive sent to the Vallejo Times Herald, the killer introduced himself by the name that still sends chills up spines today.
“This is the Zodiac speaking,” he wrote.
Nearly four decades later, Dennis Kaufman stood in the gravel turnout on Lake Herman Road where the Zodiac killed his first two victims. Light rain drizzled from a somber gray sky. Tract homes have spread like fungus in the hills east of Vallejo, but the lover’s lane where 17-year-old David Faraday and 16-year-old Betty Lou Jensen were murdered remains relatively isolated.
“The place pretty much looks the same now as it did back then,” he said. “It hasn’t changed a whole lot.”
Kaufman, a 40-year-old Pollock Pines resident with a barrel chest and short, dark hair slicked back in a spiky mullet, stalked through the gravel, waving his thick arms about like an exuberant airport ground controller as he recreated the crime scene.
Here’s where Faraday’s Rambler station wagon was parked.
Here’s where the Zodiac pulled into the turnout.
Here’s where the killer got out of his car and circled the station wagon, carrying a .22-caliber pistol with a flashlight fastened to the barrel.
Pop! Here’s where he shot Faraday point blank in the left ear.
Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Here’s where he shot Jensen five times in the back as she fled.
Here’s where the Zodiac sped away from the scene of the crime and into the deepest, darkest corner of the American psyche.
With only five known murders to his credit, the Zodiac’s body count is modest by contemporary standards. Ted Bundy, for whom the phrase “serial killer” was first coined, confessed to killing 30 women before his execution in 1989. Gary Ridgway, a.k.a. the “Green River Killer,” pled guilty to murdering 48 women, for which he is currently serving life without parole.
But the Zodiac, who chose his victims at random, wore a frightening executioner’s hood during one of his crimes and openly taunted police via macabre, coded letters sent to local newspapers. He achieved a synthesis of terror that transcends more prolific serial killers such as Ridgway and Bundy.
Numerous true-crime books have been written about the case, most notably Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked. The first celluloid serial killer patterned after the Zodiac appeared in 1971’s Dirty Harry. There have been literally dozens of renditions since, from episodes of television programs, such as the X-Files and CSI, to films such as David Fincher’s Se7en.
On March 2, Fincher’s Zodiac, based on Graysmith’s books and starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Graysmith, premiered nationwide. It already has achieved significant box-office buzz (see Film review).
The new film’s tagline—"There’s more than one way to lose your life to a serial killer"—points to a lesser-known phenomenon surrounding the Zodiac mystery: the propensity for those who become acquainted with the case to become obsessed with it.
Graysmith’s experience was prototypical. As the Chronicle’s editorial cartoonist, he was among the first to see the killer’s complex ciphers, messages written in a code that combined altered alphanumeric symbols with hieroglyphics. As a graphic artist, Graysmith instantly became obsessed with cracking the code. The Zodiac demanded that the cryptogram be printed in the paper and claimed it would reveal his identify when solved. But when a Bay Area couple solved the puzzle, the only thing that was revealed was the killer’s demented motivation.
“I like killing people because it is so much fun,” the Zodiac informed.
Graysmith was hooked, and he spent a vast portion of his life trying to unlock the mystery of the Zodiac’s identity.
“When you’re in the midst of any obsession, you’re not really aware of it,” he said via telephone from San Francisco. When Fincher first approached him about making Zodiac, the filmmaker was amazed at Graysmith’s involvement with the case during its heyday. “He said, ‘You make it seem like everybody puts a day in at the Chronicle then goes and sits outside [the prime suspect’s] house in Vallejo at two in the morning.’ “
In Zodiac Unmasked, published in 2002, Graysmith claimed to have solved the mystery. Despite subsequent forensic evidence to the contrary, he’s convinced that Arthur Leigh Allen, a resident of Vallejo who died in 1992, was the Zodiac. Many law-enforcement officials who worked on the case agree.
But no one has definitively proved Allen was the killer, and key forensic evidence failed to match the suspect. Graysmith says he’s open to any new evidence that might develop in the case, whether or not it proves Allen was the Zodiac: “That’s why they make last chapters.”
Graysmith says he originally wrote Zodiac, published in 1986, with the hope that it might coax readers to help catch a deadly criminal who continued to elude police. He has perhaps been more successful than he desired. Thousands of people have called him over the years, many of them more obsessed with solving the mystery than he is.
Count Kaufman among them. He belongs to a relatively small, select group of otherwise ordinary citizens addicted to solving the riddle.
“For some reason, this case seems to draw people from all parts of the world, all walks of life,” Kaufman said. Web sites dedicated to discovering the Zodiac’s identity abound. Amateur sleuths visit crime scenes, pore over old police files and newspaper clippings, track down surviving witnesses and bicker over their own pet whodunit theories.
Police, for the most part, discount the work of these wannabe detectives, preferring to leave the heavy lifting to the professionals. Nevertheless, the attraction of unraveling one of the 20th century’s greatest unsolved mysteries proves irresistible for some.
For Kaufman, the quest is personal, as well. Since 1999, he’s been ranting and raving that the Zodiac was the man who raised him from the age of five, Jack Tarrance, his late stepfather.
“Personally, myself, I don’t think I would have ever had an interest in it if I didn’t believe Jack was the Zodiac,” Kaufman vehemently insisted. “This isn’t my thing. That’s not me. The reason I was drawn into it is because I fully believe it was my stepdad. How could someone not be drawn into it if they really believed it was someone close to them like that? It was like I had no choice, no matter what.”
It sounds crazy, particularly coming from Kaufman, a fulminating fanatic who never goes anywhere without an aluminum suitcase stuffed with the evidence he’s gathered over the past eight years. But other people who knew Tarrance say he was a cruel, violent man who quite possibly could have been the Zodiac.
“Today, the Zodiac wouldn’t last five seconds with all the task forces and modern technology we have,” Graysmith said. It was a different story in the 1970s and 1980s, before the widespread use of DNA testing and other modern forensic methods depicted on true-crime TV series such as Cold Case Files.
Graysmith’s first book, Zodiac, successfully captures the paranoia of a population rudely awakened from the slumbering Summer of Love by a ruthless, calculating killer with a diabolical flair for public relations. Though he was barely out of diapers at the time, Tom Voigt, Webmaster of www.zodiackiller.com, vividly recalls the fear of the era.
“I was born in the Los Angeles area in the late ‘60s,” he recounted via telephone from Portland, Ore. “My dad was a newspaper man, and my earliest memories are of the Manson Family and the Zodiac. We actually moved to Oregon in part because of the Manson Family. That left an impression on me. I can remember seeing Zodiac on the news. At an early age I got exposed to this stuff, and I’ve always had an interest in mysteries.”
In 1996, Voigt was reintroduced to the Zodiac case, and this time it sank its hooks into him for good. “I felt like it could be solved, and the answer was to put a Web site together,” he said, and the first version launched on March 20, 1998.
Voigt has assembled the most extensive collection of Zodiac artifacts outside of Graysmith’s 17-foot–by-17-foot room. The Zodiac’s gruesome letters and graphic cyphers are rendered in exquisite detail. Voigt and colleagues Ed Neil and Angela Avey have collected the police reports from each crime scene, converted them to PDFs and uploaded them to the site. Police photographs and sketches also are included. For the true-crime aficionado, it’s like manna from heaven.
Consider the site’s presentation of the Zodiac’s third attack, which took place at Lake Berryessa on Sept. 27, 1969. Photographs of Cecilia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell depict young, attractive Pacific Union College classmates. Shepard, the site informs, was stabbed 10 times, five times in the front, five times in the back. Hartnell was stabbed six times in the front. The knife’s blade was 10 to 12 inches long. Shepard died two days later.
Hartnell survived and provided police with a description of the assailant; the sketch is on the site. There’s a photograph of a footprint left at the crime scene, an overhead shot of the narrow peninsula on which the couple was attacked and the entire 35-page police report.
There’s more: Transcripts from TV and radio broadcasts, an MP3 of Hartnell speaking, and, at the top of the page, a prompt to e-mail or call Voigt “if you have any information about this case.”
On Oct. 12, 1969, the Zodiac shot San Francisco cab driver Paul Stine point-blank in the head with a 9mm pistol near the corner of Washington and Cherry streets in the city. He died instantly, and the killer fled the scene after taking time to cut out a large swatch of Stine’s blood-soaked shirt, a piece of which he included in a letter mailed to the Chronicle the next day. Several witnesses saw the killer and provided police enough detail to form a composite sketch of the suspect, a Caucasian man with close-cropped hair and thick-rimmed glasses.
Stine is the last known official Zodiac victim, but many of those familiar with the case, including Graysmith, count the killer’s suspected victims in the dozens.
Kaufman’s Zodiac obsession began nine months after his mother, Nora Tarrance, died of complications from diabetes in February 1999. Depressed and out of work, Kaufman drove to Lacey, Wash., where his sister, Mary Larson, had promised to help him get a job as a prison guard. It was a somewhat strained reunion because Kaufman had never gotten along well with his sister’s husband, Rick Larson.
One night while watching TV with his brother-in-law, Kaufman’s life was irrevocably altered. They saw a documentary, Case Reopened, that tracked the killer’s trail through Northern California, recounting the known Zodiac murders in Vallejo, Lake Berryessa and San Francisco—areas Jack Tarrance frequented at the time. The program also mentioned other suspected Zodiac crimes, including the murder of a nurse, Donna Lass, at Lake Tahoe, where Kaufman’s family lived at the time. The clincher was the wanted poster. In 1969, Tarrance was a dead-ringer for the man with close-cropped hair and thick-rimmed glasses.
“Doesn’t that remind you of Jack?” his brother-in-law asked.
“Oh my god, you’re right!” Kaufman exclaimed.
Rick Larson explained that the documentary jibed with stories Tarrance had been telling him for years: “He told me he had killed several people. You can place him at almost every single Zodiac killing.”
“He was a really mean, angry person,” added Mary Larson. “All three of us—my sister, my brother [Dennis] and I—took severe abuse from that man. He was just a really violent person. He talked about killing people before, and you heard it, and you just think that you’re not really hearing it, or maybe you don’t want to believe it. It’s hard on you to believe at that age that your dad can be a murderer.”
But despite his violent, abusive behavior, Mary and Rick Larson say they were fond of Tarrance, who passed away last summer at the age of 78. “Understand, Jack wasn’t just my father-in-law,” Rick explained. “I loved him very dearly, like a father, and he was my very best friend. So what I’m telling you comes from a man who cares about this man, not from someone who thinks he’s just a horrible monster.”
After seeing the documentary, Rick and Kaufman decided to investigate the matter on their own. Larson provided the bankroll; Kaufman returned to California to begin searching for clues. The search included trips to Arizona and Texas, where Tarrance had left photographs, documents and other personal effects in storage.
What they found was a startling number of coincidences between Tarrance and the killer’s profile developed by police, and they began presenting them to the various law-enforcement agencies that had worked the Zodiac case. At least two agencies, the FBI and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department, took an interest in Tarrance as a suspect, but their investigations went nowhere. Kaufman says the small amount of Tarrance’s DNA that was available was sent to the SFPD to be tested, but despite his persistent pestering, no results ever were returned to him.
Frustrated with the lack of progress, Larson confronted Tarrance with the evidence.
“I told Jack to his face that I believed he was the Zodiac killer, and I begged him to tell me I was wrong, and he wouldn’t do it,” he said. “And I’m probably the closest friend he ever had. If I was sworn in and someone had to ask me, I’d have to say, ‘Yes, I believe Jack Tarrance was the Zodiac killer.’ “
Kaufman, a rock guitarist with an animated, hyper personality, can seem besotted at times, particular when he’s discussing the Zodiac case. He’s prone to exaggeration and occasionally makes connections between the killer and his late stepfather that are either dubious or impossible to substantiate. When it was pointed out that it would be easy to backtrack and fill in the blanks using the readily accessible volumes of information on the case, he agreed it’s a reasonable assertion. “It could happen that way,” he points out. “But that’s why I try not to bring up stuff I don’t have proof for.”
Sometimes, he added, he’s just thinking out loud and not for the record. Kaufman has assembled what he considers his hardest evidence in a self-published book, The Man Behind the Mask!, and on a Web site that can be viewed at www.thezodiackiller.digitalzones.com. There, users can listen to an MP3 of Kaufman asking Tarrance if he’s the Zodiac. Kaufman insists the recording is an admission of guilt, but his stepfather hedges his answers enough to make any definitive interpretation difficult.
Some law-enforcement officials have taken Kaufman’s claims seriously. Sonoma County Sheriff Sgt. Steve Brown, who helped investigate a series of unsolved murders of young women in the Santa Rosa area in the early 1970s, found Kaufman’s evidence compelling but was unable to establish a connection between Tarrance and the murders.
“The problem with our case is that the collection of evidence was just no good back then,” he said. “I did some investigation of his father, but I couldn’t find anything that said he did it.”
Voigt, the Webmaster for www.zodiackiller.com, is unimpressed with Kaufman’s evidence. “The stuff that Dennis comes up with is the product of poor research,” he said, and because Kaufman has such strong convictions about his findings, “he’s not interested in anything that indicates otherwise.”
That’s a charge some law-enforcement officials level at most of the amateur sleuths investigating the case.
“Dennis Kaufman and his ilk will become more and more excited as we approach the release date of the Hollywood movie,” said Inspector Kelly Carroll, one of two SFPD officers assigned to the Zodiac case before the department shut the investigation down in 2004.
Former FBI agent Ken Hittmeier worked in the bureau’s Sacramento office for 18 years before retiring in 2004. He handled four cases of individuals claiming to know the identity of the Zodiac during his tenure, including Kaufman’s.
“He makes a good case. Most of them made pretty good cases,” he said via telephone from Olympia, Wash., where he’s established a private detective agency. “When you have a high-profile case, you’re going to have a lot of people bringing in information. When we come across things that go against their case, they kind of forget to mention that. We put Dennis in touch with the SFPD, but apparently, they were unimpressed. I think they’re convinced that they know who it was and that he died a long time ago.”
Hittmeier is referring to Arthur Leigh Allen, who remains the prime Zodiac suspect 15 years after his death. Graysmith names Allen as the killer in Zodiac Unmasked—a feat made legally feasible by the suspect’s demise. Certainly there’s an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence that points to Allen as the killer. Like Tarrance, he served in the Navy, owned the same type of automobiles spotted at crime scenes, was familiar with codes and fit the Zodiac’s paunchy physical profile. In addition, he kept one residence in Vallejo, epicenter of the killer’s activities, and often tried to hide his whereabouts by moving around to various trailers situated throughout the North Bay. Allen had a prior conviction for child molestation, and he was known to abuse small animals—a serial-killer hallmark. He owned an expensive Zodiac watch that featured a circle-with-crosshairs insignia similar to the killer’s chosen symbol.
“You add it all up, and it’s just about impossible that it wasn’t him,” Graysmith said. “There are a couple of glitches, but in the end, he almost has to be Allen.”
Yet those couple of glitches are significant. For example, Allen’s DNA and fingerprints don’t match samples from the crime scene. Although Allen remains Voigt’s favorite suspect, he’s not convinced that anyone can say for certain who the Zodiac was—or is, considering the very real possibility that the killer might still be alive.
Kaufman and Rick Larson remain convinced that Jack Tarrance was the Zodiac. Kaufman says until someone proves otherwise, he will continue to press his case. If it turns out he’s wrong, he has “a lot of apologies to make.”
Tarrance spent his final years fending off charges that he was the Zodiac. The Larsons and their children were the only people in attendance at his funeral last summer.
“I had him cremated on purpose,” Rick said. “People may hate me for that, but as I sat there looking at this dead, old, old, old man, all I could see was people cutting off his fingers and his hair to get DNA samples.”