One of the most infamous crime sprees in United States history, the man who would be known as the Zodiac terrified the sleepy Northern California community in the late sixties. Taunting police with letters and coded messages, the Zodiac has never been caught.
A topic that was one of my first listener requests, I thought it fitting to discuss the details of this case and review why the Zodiac continues to fascinate people over fifty years later. Thanks to Amanda for making the request and I hope you all enjoy part one!
Alexandra, Rae. “5 Other Times We Learned the Zodiac Killer’s ‘True’ Identity.” KQED. October 7, 2021. (LINK)
Biography.com Editors. “Zodiac Killer Biography.” The Biography.com Website. October 8, 2021. (LINK)
Graysmith, Robert. Zodiac: The Shocking True Story of the Hunt for the Nation's Most Elusive Serial Killer. United States: Berkley, 2020.
Map of Lake Berryessa Murder. Zodiac Ciphers Website. (LINK)
McEvoy, George. “Friends Quizzed in Slaying of Teen Pair Near Vallejo.” San Francisco Examiner. December 22, 1968. (LINK)
Newspaper Report of David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen Murder. (LINK)
Police Reports & Victim Interview Transcripts. Zodiac Killer Facts Website. (LINK)
Russo, Charles. “Zodiac: The killer who will not die.” San Francisco Magazine. March 2007. (LINK)
Zodiac Letters. Zodiac Killer Website. (LINK)
“This is the Zodiac speaking. I am the murderer of the taxi driver over by Washington Street and Maple Street last night. To prove this here is a blood stained piece of his shirt. I am the same man who did in the people in the north bay area. The SF police could have caught me last night if they had searched the park properly, instead of holding road races with their motorcycles seeing who could make the most noise. The car drivers should have just parked their cars and sat there quietly waiting for me to come out of cover.” The Zodiac, October 13rth, 1969.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey, peeps. Welcome back.
In the late 1960’s, Californian’s - and the Bay Area specifically - was taunted by a serial killer who was known as the Zodiac. These series of murders are one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in American history and remains a point of fascination throughout the country.
These slayings - which are gruesome and terrible - were literally in my backyard and I remember growing up hearing about the crazed madman, though by the time I was born he had been dormant for a number of years. As a California - and Bay Area - native, this case has always fascinated me in ways no other cold case has.
Originally requested by long time listener of the pod and super supportive friend Amanda, I thought since we are in the midst of spooky season, it was time to dive into one of the most infamous true crime stories in history. There is a lot to this story and as such, you will be getting a two part series on the Zodiac.
So - when did the murders begin? Who called him the Zodiac? And how did he become so infamous?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
Before I dive into the story, I want to take a moment to recognize the victims and their families. There are five individuals officially tied to the serial killer known as the Zodiac and their families were never the same as the result of these heinous acts. While I think it’s natural for people to be curious about the details and want to know as much about these murders as possible, to do so means potentially impacting any surviving family members. So, to start, I want to extend my heartfelt sympathies and condolences to the families of David Arthur Faraday, Betty Lou Jensen, Cecelia Ann Shepard, Paul Lee Stine, and Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin. As this remains officially an unsolved murder, I cannot begin to imagine the immense pain they’ve gone through and my heart goes out to them.
WIth that in mind, let’s begin.
It was a cool night in Benicia on December 20th, 1968. Just a week shy of Christmas, the northern california navy town was enjoying a mild climate of low 40 degree weather. Two teens, David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen parked David's mother's 1961 Rambler station wagon along a known lover’s lane off of Lake Herman Road. Faraday, only 17, was an Eagle Scout and a member of Vallejo High School’s wrestling team. Jensen, just 16, was apparently on her first official date. The two were supposed to be attending a Christmas concert at the local high school. Instead, the couple popped into a local restaurant before journeying out to the deserted road.
The exact movements and order of events can only be guessed at given the lack of survivors and scant evidence remaining at the scene. However, it is believed that at some point during their evening, an unknown assailant parked alongside the brown-beige wagon. He exited the vehicle and made his way over to the couple. At some point during their exchange, the assailant successfully forced young Faraday and Jensen to scramble outside of the passenger side of the vehicle. Based on bullet holes found in the vehicle after the attack, it is thought the killer shot at the young couple from the driver’s side of the car in order to get them to try to escape on the passenger side. His plan, if that was it, worked. As Jensen attempted to flee, the figure aimed his gun at David and, at point blank range, fired a single bullet into his head. He then turned his sights to Jensen and fired at the young girl, successfully hitting her in the back five times.
The young couple were discovered by a passing motorist around 11:30 who immediately called the police. For the small military community, the murders were a shock. Benicia had very little crime in the sixties with most of their citations being for drunk in public. Investigators initially thought the young couple was followed after attending the Christmas concert, and they knew their killer. But as they recreated the couple’s evening, they began to wonder if the individual responsible was a stranger and this violent act the work of a quote, “maniac,” unquote. While we know and study serial killers today, the term serial killer was not part of the normal law enforcement vernacular. Their investigations usually produced a perpetrator who knew their victims; they were unprepared for someone who killed people at random and with no discernable motive.
Making matters worse was the fact that there were minimal clues at the scene - with only boot prints and a few shell casings to recreate what happened. The one thing that stood out to the police was the precision with which Jensen was hit. Given how dark the area was and the fact that Betty was likely running, the police believed the individual responsible was quite the marksman. However, without much evidence and unable to identify any persons of interest, the investigation into their murder went cold. What they didn’t know - and what no one could have guessed - was that this double murder was just the beginning of a nearly year’s worth of terror.
Nearly seven months later on July 4th, 1969 the mysterious killer would strike again just a few miles from the events of the previous December. This time it was Darlene Ferrin and Mike Mageau who became his targets. Darlene, just 22, worked as a waitress at a local diner. Mike, and his twin brother David, were frequent patrons of the restaurant. Darlene was known as gregarious and friendly, often chatting customers up and made friends easily. The Mageau brothers were smitten with the young waitress and often vied for her attention. Come the evening of July 4th, Darlene had gone out to Mare Island with her sister to enjoy the fireworks. Her husband Dean was busy working a shift at a restaurant and the couple made plans to have some friends over later in the evening.
Around 11:30, Darlene picked up her friend Mike and the two drove out to Blue Rock Springs Park. After sitting for a few minutes, a mysterious driver pulled up towards the rear of where the two friends were sitting. Michael reported later to police that he asked Darlene if she knew the person behind them and her only response was quote, “Oh nevermind,” end quote. After sitting idle for a few minutes, the car apparently left only to return several minutes later. This time, though, the car parked facing the passenger side and kept its headlights on. A figure emerged from the vehicle, believed to be a Corvair like the model Darlene was driving, and was carrying a large flashlight.
The young duo assumed the individual was law enforcement and began to reach for their identification. Upon his approach, the figure pulled out a gun and shot Michael, then Darlene. It was determined later that Darlene was shot upwards of nine times. As the killer was preparing to leave, Michael cried out in pain. This caused the shadowy figure to return to the injured pair and shoot each one two more times. Michael eventually made his way out of the vehicle and several minutes later were discovered by a small group of teenagers.
While Robert Graysmith, the true crime author made famous for his investigations into the Zodiac, would later write that Mike and Darlene were followed throughout town and led to the outskirts by Zodiac, this was never part of Mike’s original statement to police. Additionally, since Graysmith’s original book’s publication in 1986, there have been some serious accusations that he either did not accurately portray evidence or perhaps spun a narrative that was less than accurate. So while I did read the book to help provide a foundation, I tried to cross check some of the wilder claims against available police records and other interviews and have omitted parts of the story where I was unable to get secondary confirmation.
As police and emergency personnel were arriving on scene, Vallejo Police Department dispatcher Nancy Slover received an anonymous phone call. The man on the other end of the line spoke calmly and without emotion, quote: “I want to report a murder. If you will go one mile east on Columbus Parkway you will find kids in a brown car. They were shot with a nine millimeter Luger. I also killed those kids last year. Goodbye,” end quote.
The two murders, though seven months apart, held striking similarities. Both occurred on known lovers lanes and the murders took place only a few short miles apart. The distance between Blue Rock Springs Golf Course and Lake Herman road could be traveled in under ten minutes by car. While police conducted the standard homicide investigation by looking into individuals known to Darlene and Michael, they also could not ignore the suspected killer’s phone call. He seemed to be chasing attention and sought to antagonize law enforcement to demonstrate how much smarter he was. Despite their investigations, the police also knew both homicides appeared to have no obvious motive and suspects, and investigators in both Benicia and Vallejo began to worry their communities may have more violence in their future.
Just a few weeks after Ferrin was murdered, three newspapers received a letter to the editor. On July 31st, 1969, the Vallejo Times Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner received both a letter and one third of a cipher. The first letter said quote: “Dear Editor - This is the murderer of the two teenagers last Christmas at Lake Herman and the girl on the fourth of July near the golf course in Vallejo. To prove I killed them I shall state some facts which only I and the police know. Christmas - one: brand name of ammo Super X; two: ten shots were fired; three: the boy was on his back with his feet to the car; four: the girl was on her right side, feet to the west. 4th July: one: girl was wearing patterned slacks; two: the boy was also shot in the knee; three: brand name of ammo was western. Here is part of a cipher the other two parts of this cipher are being mailed to the edits of the Vallejo Times and SF Examiner. I want you to print this cipher on the front page of your paper. In this cipher is my identity. If you do not print this cipher by the afternoon of Fry, first of august 69, I will go on a kill rampage Fry night. I will cruise around all weekend killing lone people in the night then move on to kill again, until I end up with a dozen people over the week,” end quote.
Unsure of whether to comply with the request, the three newspaper organizations discussed the issue. Ultimately, they decided to go ahead and publish the cipher, along with the unknown assailant’s threat of ongoing violence. On Saturday, August 2nd, 1969 the coded messages were published. While the messages were sent to naval intelligence out on Mare Island for decoding, the papers encouraged the public to make contact should they have success in cracking the code. Along with the messages was published reports by Vallejo investigators questioning the legitimacy of the letters. To provide further evidence, they suggested the individual in question provide more details.
The stories caught the killer's attention. Perhaps a little irritated that the police dared to question his original message, the perpetrator reached out again on August 4th. This time, he gave himself a name: the Zodiac. In this second letter, Zodiac provided even more details about each killing and shared his displeasure that the paper’s had refused to put his message on the front page. Meanwhile, a young teacher and his wife who lived just over a hundred miles south of San Francisco in Salinas, decided they would try their hand at cracking the code. Donald and Bettye Harden worked in tandem as they poured over the coded messages, trying to ascertain clues as to what the message might say.
Days after sitting down to put the puzzle together, the Harden’s believed they’d cracked most of the message. Following the instructions to make contact, Harden reached out and provided their cipher key to the authorities. Despite promising otherwise, there was no identification of the fame seeking killer. The message was haunting and served to further terrify the surrounding community. The letter said in part quote, “I like killing people because it is so much fun. It is more fun than killing wild game in the forest because man is the most dangerous animal of all,” end quote. And what of his previous promise that his cipher contained his identity? Well, the Zodiac said, he wasn’t going to tell the police who he was because they would just quote, “slow down or stop my collection of slaves for the after life,” end quote.
And on that note, dear listeners - we will pause. Be sure to come back next week as I wrap up the story of Zodiac, including his remaining confirmed victims, the long suspect list and why he remains such a fascinating mystery to the general public.
If you’ve been enjoying the podcast, please consider a rate and review. Goodpods, podchaser, apple podcasts - your options are endless. And if you ever want me to cover a topic, just let me know. You can find me on all the socials - facebook, instagram, twitter or on the website at www dot civics and coffee dot com.
Thanks, peeps. I’ll see you next week.
Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.
Not sure where to begin? Take a listen to some fan favorites.
One of the most notorious horror writers in history, Edgar Allan Poe produced a voluminous collection of work before his untimely death at the age of forty. His life was a series of sad events and lost opportunities. From being …
The topic of reparations has been a contentious debate since the end of the Civil War over a century ago. But in the immediate aftermath of the war, one woman successfully sued a man she claimed illegally kidnapped her and …
This week is a continuation of the series on Andrew Jackson and this time I am welcoming a special guest, Jerry from the Presidencies of the United States Podcast. Andrew Jackson has a complicated and nuanced legacy. He was the …