The Zodiac is back
Who was Northern California’s most notorious serial killer? Despite what a new major motion picture suggests, no one really knows.
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 openly bragged about the crimes, vowing to kill more people if the newspapers didn’t print a complex 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 the spines of Northern Californians today.
“This is the Zodiac speaking,” he wrote.
Nearly four decades later, Dennis Kaufman stands in the gravel turnout on Lake Herman Road where the Zodiac killed his first two victims. Light rain drizzles from a somber gray sky. Tract homes have spread like fungus in the hills east of Vallejo, but the lover’s lane where David Faraday, 17, and Betty Lou Jensen, 16, were murdered remains relatively isolated.
“The place pretty much looks the same now as it did back then,” he says. “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, stalks through the gravel, waving his thick arms about like an exuberant airport ground controller as he recreates 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,” plead 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. Next week, Fincher’s Zodiac, based on Graysmith’s books and starring Brokeback Mountain’s Jake Gyllenhaal as Graysmith, premieres nationally. It already has achieved significant box-office buzz.
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 identity 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 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 says 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,” he says.
Graysmith says he originally wrote Zodiac, published in 1986, with the hopes 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 says. Web sites dedicated to discovering the Zodiac’s identity abound. Amateur sleuths visit crime scenes, pour over old police files and newspaper clippings, track down surviving witnesses and bicker over their own pet theories of whodunnit.
Police for the most part discount the work of these wannabe detectives, preferring to leave the heavy lifting to the true 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 insists. “This isn’t my thing. That’s not me. The reason I was drawn into it is because I fully believe it was my step dad. 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.
Surfing with the Zodiac
“Today, the Zodiac wouldn’t last five seconds with all the task forces and modern technology we have,” Graysmith says. 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 recounts 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 sunk its hooks into him for good.
“I felt like it could be solved and the answer was to put a Web site together, put all the known information on the Web site so everyone could see it, and that’s how the case would be solved,” he says. “Then finally—I’d been practicing how to do HTML because I couldn’t stand it anymore; I had to have a Zodiac site—I launched the first version 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 September 27, 1969. On the home page, a click on “the victims” tab calls up a list of known and suspected Zodiac victims. Cecelia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell, the victims of the Zodiac’s third attack, are third on the list. Click on their names and the page documenting the attack fills the screen. Photographs of Shepard and 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. A click on “unusual costume” calls up a police sketch of the Zodiac wearing a homemade black executioner’s hood with the killer’s trademark circle-with-crosshairs symbol. 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 October 12, 1969, the Zodiac shot San Francisco cab driver Paul Stine point-blank in the head with a 9-mm 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. A month after the cabbie’s death, the Chronicle received another letter from the killer. Although there were only five known fatalities, the Zodiac claimed he’d killed seven and he promised to kill more, including a school bus full of children (later dramatized in Dirty Harry). Chillingly, he also announced he’d be changing his tactics in the future.
“I have grown rather angry with the police for their telling of lies about me,” the Zodiac wrote. “I shall no longer announce [my crimes] to anyone. When I commit my murders, they shall look like routine robberies, killings of anger, & a few fake accidents, etc. The police will never catch me, because I have been too clever for them.”
The police never did catch the Zodiac, and even though there are only five official victims, many of those familiar with the case, including Graysmith, count the killer’s suspected victims in the dozens.
You don’t know Jack
Kaufman’s Zodiac obsession began nine months after his mother, Nora Tarrance, died of complications from diabetes in February of 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.
“A show came on TV, a documentary by Lawrence Block called Case Reopened,” he recalls. “It was about the Zodiac killer.”
The show tracked the killer’s trail through Northern California, recounting the known Zodiac murders in Vallejo, Lake Berryessa and San Francisco—areas Jack frequented at the time. The program also mentioned other suspected Zodiac crimes, including a murder in Lake Tahoe, where Kaufman’s family had lived at the time. The clincher was the wanted poster. In 1969, Jack 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.
“Everybody in the house said oh my god,” Rick explains via telephone from Lacey. For Rick, the documentary jibed with stories Jack had been telling him for years. “He told me he had killed several people,” he says. “You can place him at almost every single Zodiac killing.”
“He was a really mean, angry person,” adds Mary. “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 say they were fond of Jack, who passed away last summer at the age of 78. “Understand, Jack wasn’t just my father-in-law,” Rick explains. “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.”
It was on camping trips and other long excursions over the years that Jack began confiding his dark, hidden past, Rick says. Besides the killings he alluded to, there were other atrocities. “He told me of a girl he had kidnapped. She was about 14 years old, he had just got out of the Navy,” Rick says. “He took her, tied her up, left her in his tool shed for two weeks, did what he wanted with her, then gave her $20 and let her go.”
After seeing the documentary and connecting what they knew about Jack to the Zodiac, Rick and Kaufman decided to investigate the matter on their own. Rick provided the bankroll, Kaufman returned to California to begin searching for clues. The search included trips to Arizona and Texas, where Jack had left photographs, documents and other personal effects in storage.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into, no clue,” Kaufman says. “I didn’t realize that people call in every day and say, ‘I think my uncle is the Zodiac.’ I realized that I couldn’t just say that. I had to prove it. We spent every minute of every day digging for evidence, anything we could find related to the case. The more we dug, the more we knew it was him.”
What they found was a startling number of coincidences between Jack and the killer’s profile developed by police. The Zodiac was approximately 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed 220 pounds with a paunch. Jack had a similar build. The killer had been seen leaving crime scenes in both a brown Ford Falcon and an ice blue Chevy Impala. Jack had owned both automobiles. Police suspected the Zodiac had served in the Navy. Jack served in the Navy and the Air Force. The Zodiac may have learned code as a HAM radio operator. Jack possessed a HAM radio license. In his later letters, the Zodiac made frequent references to The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan’s comedic opera. Jack was familiar with the opera and often hummed a tune from it referenced by the killer in his letters, according to Rick.
Not that the entire family is in agreement. Despite the fact that she says her stepfather abused her verbally, physically and sexually, Mary refuses to believe he could have been the Zodiac.
“I won’t accept it,” she says. “It’s too hard for me to accept. He married my mom when I was three, so he’s the only dad I ever knew.”
Nevertheless, her husband and brother compiled a large amount of circumstantial evidence and began presenting it 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 Jack as a suspect, but their investigations went nowhere. Kaufman says the small amount of Jack’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, Rick confronted Jack 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 says. “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 superb 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’s 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 agrees it’s a reasonable assertion.
“It could happen that way,” he says. “But that’s why I try not to bring up stuff I don’t have proof for.”
Sometimes, he adds, 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 Jack 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 Jack and the murders.
“The problem with our case is that the collection of evidence was just no good back then,” he says. “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 says, citing a March 1971 court document posted on Kaufman’s site that purports to prove Jack was in Pleasanton on the same day the Zodiac mailed the “Peaking through the Pines” postcard to the Chronicle. “There are two letters mentioned in Graysmith’s book from March, 1971. One is the letter from March 13, which was a real Zodiac letter sent to the Los Angeles Times. It was postmarked from Pleasanton. The other one mentioned in Graysmith’s book was a postcard that was received at the San Francisco Chronicle on March 22, but no one knows where it was from or when it was mailed because there’s no postmark on it. Kaufman’s thumbed through Graysmith’s book and he’s got the two confused. 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,” says Inspector Kelly Carroll, one of two SFPD officers assigned to the Zodiac case before the department shut the investigation down in 2004. He recommends avoiding what he calls the Zodiac subculture. “Once you’re contaminated, once you dip your toe into the River Styx, you are the lightning rod. When you poke holes in their theory of the crime, you’re going to get all sorts of ad hominem attacks.”
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 says 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, the sequel to Zodiac—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 Jack, 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 says. “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. No doubt the film will be subject to controversy among the Zodiac subculture if it adheres tightly to Graysmith’s books, as has been hinted by those who’ve seen it. 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.
“If it’s possible to totally exonerate someone via modern investigative methods, then [Arthur] Leigh Allen is not the Zodiac,” Voigt says. “His fingerprints didn’t match the Zodiac’s. His palm print didn’t match the Zodiac’s. His handwriting didn’t match the Zodiac’s, and his DNA didn’t match the Zodiacs. The people who are going to go see this movie have seen Prime Time Thursday on ABC, they’ve seen Cold Case Files, and they know the DNA didn’t match. They know if the DNA didn’t match, then the guy’s not guilty. Until they can test all the stamps and envelopes and make sure they match each other, we won’t know. I think they probably have enough DNA, it’s just a question of whether they have the motivation to do it.”
For now, the SFPD lacks that motivation.
“The case has been mothballed,” Carroll says. “It is not being actively worked in San Francisco. I did not agree with the decision. I’ve been directed not to speak about the case.”
Meanwhile, Kaufman and Rick remain convinced that Jack 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.”
Jack 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 says. “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.”