San Francisco’s Zodiac Killer is one of the most infamous – and most elusive – serial killers of all time.
The Zodiac’s deeds have been compared to those of Jack the Ripper himself.
“I like killing people because it’s fun,” reads one of his taunting letters to the Bay Area press.
But who is the Zodiac Killer, really? How did he murder his victims? And why is he so hard to catch? Keep reading to find out!
The short answer: nobody knows.
The identity of the Zodiac Killer remains a mystery to this day.
All we know is that he was a serial killer who operated in Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
He actually gave himself the title “Zodiac” in the cryptic letters he sent to the press during his murder spree.
The letters often began with the words “This is the Zodiac speaking,” and contained various cryptograms and taunts alluding to his planned murders.
Most of the cryptograms remain unsolved to this day.
The letters were also accompanied by the now-infamous “signature” of the Zodiac Killer: a circle with a cross running through it.
While the investigators agree on 7 confirmed victims (two of whom survived), the Zodiac has taken responsibility for no less than 37 murders.
Some people have even suggested that a few more recent murders in the San Francisco area could be the work of the Zodiac.
Others think that the mystery of the Zodiac Killer was just an elaborate hoax… But how can we know for sure?
Back in the 1960s, the Zodiac’s weapon of choice was a simple handgun.
He killed his first victims, David Faraday and Betty Jensen, using a 0.22 semi-automatic pistol.
Both were just teenagers – a high-school couple on their first date, planning to attend a Christmas concert just a couple of blocks from Betty’s home.
There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason behind the killings, which makes them all the scarier.
However, it seems that the Zodiac Killer may have held a grudge against couples.
In July 1969, he shot another young couple, Michael Mageau and Darlene Ferrin, with a 9mm handgun.
In September 1969, the Zodiac changed up his modus operandi.
He, once again, targeted a young, college-age couple – Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shephard – who were simply enjoying a picnic at Lake Berryessa.
However, instead of simply shooting them, he made Cecelia tie up Bryan before tying her up. Then, he drew a knife and stabbed them both repeatedly.
Miraculously, Bryan managed to survive despite eight stab wounds to the back. Cecelia wasn’t so lucky.
The final confirmed Zodiac victim was a taxi driver named Paul Stine, who was shot in the head by a passenger.
Three days after Paul Stine’s murder, the San Francisco Chronicle received a letter from the Zodiac claiming responsibility for the crime.
At the end of the letter, the killer suggested he was going to shoot out a tire of a school bus, and “pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.”
Two of the Zodiac’s victims managed to survive, giving the police plenty of evidence to go on.
Plus, the Zodiac didn’t exactly hide from the spotlight. He sent at least 18 letters to both newspapers and private citizens during his murder spree.
Despite the amount of available evidence, the police had no luck in discovering the killer’s identity during the initial investigation.
In March 2004, the police marked the case as “inactive,” then reopened it again in 2008 – but to no avail.
Inspired by the success of the DNA investigation in the decades-old Golden State Killer case, the police renewed their investigation efforts at the end of 2018.
They say that DNA technology has finally evolved enough to give the police – and the victims’ families – a new hope.
There’s a chance something could be extracted from the DNA samples which were not considered viable before – for example, flaps of envelopes or stamps which were licked by the Zodiac Killer.
The Zodiac Killer has managed to evade the authorities to this day.
Decades have passed since his murder spree, and the case still has thousands of potential suspects.
All police departments have limited resources, both in terms of manpower and money that can be allocated to forensic research.
Plus, the somewhat careless way in which genetic materials were handled before the evolution of DNA technology does not help the investigators move forward.
However, the Zodiac enthusiasts remain convinced that the killer is not only alive but that he can still be brought to justice.
Are they right? Only time will tell!
The Zodiac Killer may be one of the scariest murderers in San Francisco’s history – but he’s far from the only one.
If learning about unsolved murders and bloodthirsty killers sounds like your idea of a fun night, check out our Haunted San Francisco Ghost Tour.
It will take you on an unforgettable journey through the streets of San Francisco to show you a different, darker side of our beloved city.
Ready to discover the dark side of San Francisco?