Join me this week as I wrap up the story of the infamous serial killer who terrorized the Bay Area in late sixties.
In this episode, I discuss the crimes against Cecelia Ann Shephard, Bryan Hartnell and Paul Stine. I also discuss the ongoing desire for media attention by the Zodiac and the other crimes he may be linked to.
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)
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)
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, everyone. Welcome back.
Last week we began the story of the notorious unsolved series of murders conducted at the hands of a man known only as the Zodiac. After murdering two young couples parked along deserted lover’s lanes, the horrifying henchmen decided to extend his terror to the general public by writing to the press and further taunting investigators.
But if you have even the most basic of Zodiac knowledge, then you know the story is only just beginning. So this week, I am going to wrap up the history of the Zodiac. Why did he decide to write to the newspapers? And how many suspects exactly were there?
Grab your cup of coffee peeps, let’s do this.
“I want to report a murder - no a double murder.” These were the words uttered by the menacing voice on the other line on the evening of September 27, 1969. After laying dormant for over two months, the Zodiac struck again, this time in the remote and idyllic Lake Berryessa.
The killer, who had taken on the moniker the Zodiac, hadn’t written to the press since the beginning of August and many hoped he had moved on. Those hopes were dashed when a young couple were discovered, suffering from massive blood loss as the result of multiple stab wounds.
The victims, Cecelia Ann Shepard, 22 and her friend Bryan Calvin Hartnell, 20 had spent the day together helping Cecelia pack for an upcoming move. Students of Pacific Union College, Bryan had returned from visiting his parents to help Cecelia load up as she was transferring to UC Riverside. As the two finished up, Bryan suggested they spend the afternoon together, perhaps a ride out to San Francisco. By the time they had decided, the timing didn’t work for San Francisco and so Bryan suggested a ride out to Lake Berryessa. As he told investigators later on, there was a spot he enjoyed and wanted to share with Cecelia.
He parked his vehicle at the edge of the lake and the two walked about a quarter mile towards the water’s edge. They sat enjoying each other’s company, Bryan laying on his back and Cecelia on her stomach. Suddenly, Cecelia noticed a man in the distance walking towards them. She mentioned the figure to Bryan, who seemed unconcerned, despite the quiet afternoon and lack of other patrons on the lake. He asked Cecelia to keep an eye out and let him know if anything looked weird.
Before they knew it, the figure had disappeared behind a tree, only to resurface and continue his march towards the couple. As he got closer, Cecelia could see the man was dressed in some sort of costume, with his face hidden. Even more menacing? He was holding a gun. Cecelia alerted Bryan, who assumed the man was simply planning to rob them. Carrying limited cash, he ironically thought the money would be worth the experience. Little did he know who was behind the mask.
The towering figure was donned in all black, with a squared hood and a homemade patch of sorts emblazoned on his chest; a white square cross placed over a circle, similar to the symbol he’d used in signing off his letters to the press. He claimed to be an escaped prisoner who needed money and Bryan’s car to flee to Mexico. The hooded menace explained he would need to have them tied up so he could flee. At this, Bryan apparently became irritated and tried to reason with him. He later told author Robert Graysmith quote, “I became really annoyed at the thought of being hogtied. Just really annoyed, and I argued with him about it and thought, not really sensibly, but more in the neighborhood of cops and robbers, about getting the gun away,” end quote.
Despite his pleas to the contrary, the masked man instructed Cecelia to tie Bryan up. Once Cecelia had completed her task, the assailant ordered her on the ground so he could hogtie her. The Zodiac either noticed or otherwise suspected Bryan’s ties would be loose and so he checked them himself; finding them looser than he wanted, the Zodiac tightened the restraints. Once the couple was secured, the man behind the mask bent over to Cecelia to whisper something and before he knew it, Bryan was being stabbed. The attacker then turned his attention to Cecelia; she suffered between ten and twelve stab wounds, almost double that of her male companion. Pleased with his work, the Zodiac slowly walked away from the couple, stopping briefly by Bryan’s car before taking off. They were now alone. On a remote lake. With no way to get help. While suffering massive blood loss from their wounds, the couple tried to free themselves from their restraints. Bryan estimated the work took almost an hour.
A passing fisherman noticed the stranded couple and seeing their distress, left to get help. While the police and ambulance were making their way to the victims, the Zodiac couldn’t help himself and had to make contact with law enforcement. It wasn’t enough that he’d tagged Bryan’s car taking credit for the attack, leaving his notorious symbol on the door as his calling card; no, he wanted to make sure the bodies were discovered quickly. Again speaking in a slow, monotone voice the zodiac told police about the double murder and directed them to the bodies.
Upon their arrival, police discovered Bryan’s car, parked alongside Knoxville road. Written into the door was the place and dates of the previous Zodiac crimes and the date of the latest attack, topped off with his now infamous symbol, lest anyone be confused about just who was responsible.
Transferred to the local hospital, both Cecelia and Bryan were initially alive. Cecelia remained in critical condition and fought for survival, only to succumb to her injuries two days later on September 29th, 1969. Bryan survived his attack and was able to give a detailed account of events. Though it was pretty clear from the available evidence this was a Zodiac attack, there were several pieces of the crime that deviated from his previously established pattern. While he’d carried a gun with him, he elected to use a knife to murder his victims, a much more personal method of murder. And why was he in costume? If the plan was to murder the couple on the lake, there would be no reason to disguise himself. It seemed Zodiac was escalating and getting bolder in his manner of attack.
And though Bryan and Cecelia ended up as the victims of the Zodiac attack, they may not have been his first choice. Earlier in the day, a man who is believed to be the Zodiac was spotted by two separate groups; a trio of young girls and a man with his son. Were they being stalked as potential prey? If so, what was it about them that caused him to decide against attacking? These are just some of the many questions that remain unanswered in these crimes.
Just a couple of weeks later, Zodiac would strike once more - this time in the middle of the bustling metropolis San Francisco. Despite his first series of murders taking place in remote northern california communities, Zodiac seemed obsessed with what coverage he was getting from the San Francisco Chronicle, addressing most of his letters to the periodical. Perhaps feeling they were not taking him seriously enough, the Zodiac would switch up his pattern again when he murdered taxi driver Paul Stine on the evening of October 11th.
The twenty nine year old husband and father had just signed on to his shift when he received a call for a pick up outside of a theater on Geary Street with the destination being the upscale neighborhood of Presidio Heights on the corner of Washington and Maple streets. For an unknown reason, Stine drove further west, stopping at the corner of Washington and Cherry. At this point, the Zodiac pulled a gun and fired a shot to the back of Stine’s head. Across the street, a group of kids heard the shot and went to the window to see what happened. They saw a tall, stocky white man hovering over the taxi driver’s dead body and then move to the driver’s side of the cab and wipe the area with a cloth.
They called the police and described the man they saw: a white male, between the ages of 25 and 30, roughly 5’8 or 5’9 with reddish brown hair in a crew cut. The call went out to the units in the area immediately, however with one fatal mistake. The man was described as black. While it was corrected shortly after the mistake was made, this initial error may have proved critical as it is believed two uniformed officers may have come across the killer just minutes after the crime.
Initially, San Francisco homicide detectives assumed the murder to be the result of a robbery gone wrong. After all, Stine had been relieved of his wallet and keys and as a single male individual in a busy city, was far from the established pattern of victims the Zodiac claimed so far. That all changed just two days later when the Chronicle received yet another message from the mysterious perpetrator. This letter also came with a macabre gift; a piece of the deceased’s bloody shirt.
No longer content with just claiming credit for the murder, Zodiac decided to rib the cops, claiming he could have been caught had the cops quote, “searched the park properly,” end quote. Growing bolder in his taunts, the Zodiac also included a warning to the editor, indicating he’d like to murder a school bus full of children as they made quote “nice targets,” end quote. This threat was taken very seriously and for months school buses were followed by law enforcement, each hoping to avoid being the targeted vehicle. And it was this threat that helped, in part, put Zodiac on another level in terms of notoriety and terror.
Perhaps energized from the publicity given to him by the San Francisco Chronicle, Zodiac wrote a flurry of letters in succession. After his letter in October, the Zodiac would write another three letters before the end of the year before going quiet for several months. His next contact was a greeting card sent on November 8th where he included another cipher and requested the paper to print it on their front page. If they failed to do so, he may be inclined to quote, “do my thing,” end quote.
This letter was followed immediately with another note mailed on November 9th. In it, the Zodiac expressed his irritation at the cops spreading supposed lies about him and claimed the cops could have caught him the night of Stine’s murder, as he was supposedly stopped by two patrolmen and asked about any suspicious activity just minutes after he left the scene. Though two patrolmen did later report seeing a suspect matching the description of the Zodiac, they disputed they ever spoke with the man. This letter also contained a recipe to make a bomb and he demanded that a certain portion of his letter be printed in the paper, or else.
Finally, on the year anniversary of the murder of David Farraday and Betty Lou Jensen, flamboyant attorney Melvin Belli received a note requesting his assistance as he felt he could not stop himself much longer. He would lay dormant for four months, before reaching back in April of 1970.
Though Stine is considered the last confirmed victim of the Zodiac, the mysterious killer would spend the next several years peppering the public with letters, taking credit for certain attacks and requesting the public do things like wear zodiac buttons. His letters became ever more bizarre and, eventually, infrequent.
However, despite his apparent silence, the hunt for the masked killer continued. During their investigations, a 1966 homicide in Riverside cropped up to the surface as a potential victim of the Zodiac. Though it’s never been officially confirmed as the work of Zodiac, many investigators believe the murder of Cheri Jo Bates was his work. Though her murder was outside of the pattern he’d established, the police, newspaper and the victim’s father all received taunting letters from someone claiming credit for her murder. Published in the paper as a potential Zodiac crime, the mysterious criminal would later send a note to the periodical to confirm the claim.
The other potential victim was a young woman, Kathleen Johns, who had a harrowing experience in 1970 when she accepted a ride from a stranger who she later claimed to match the Zodiac’s description. While possible, it is still considered unconfirmed by most involved in the investigation.
The last confirmed letter received by the man who went by Zodiac arrived in July of 1974. Since then, investigators and amateur sleuths have poured over the available evidence to try to identify a credible suspect. Throughout the course of the investigation there were hundreds, if not thousands, of people reviewed and cleared as potential Zodiac suspects. If you’ve watched the 2007 David Fincher film based on these events then you likely know of at least one prominent suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen. Unfortunately what the movie failed to address is though he was interviewed multiple times and by various law enforcement agencies, Allen was cleared each and every time.
There remain so many unanswered questions related to the ten month span between 1968 and 1969. Why did he kill? How did he choose his victims? What prompted him to give himself a moniker? Why did he write to the newspapers to boast? And why did he just top?
In my non law enforcement informed opinion, I think the Zodiac enjoyed the publicity he received with the printing of his letters. He craved and relished in the attention and this prompted him to try to continue to stay relevant in the years after his confirmed crimes. As for the rest of the outstanding questions? I have no idea, but I do know one thing: the story of the Zodiac continues to haunt people every day.
A big thanks again to Amanda for requesting I dive into the Zodiac. I always love fielding your requests and this was a topic I had wanted to cover for quite some time. If you ever want to request a topic, let me know. You can find me on the social media over at Instagram at Civics and Coffee, the facebook at Civics and Coffee and on Twitter at CivicsPod. You can also always reach me through the website at www dot civics and coffee dot com.
Thanks, peeps. I will see you next week.
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