S A N F R A N C I S C O, July 24, 2003 -- The Zodiac Killer who terrorized San Francisco three decades ago with coded messages and taunts to police has never been found. But now new technology — DNA testing techniques he could not have imagined in 1969 — could be the killer's undoing.
No physical evidence identifying the Zodiac Killer was found at the scenes of his crimes, but the 20 or so letters and cards he sent to the press raise the possibility that he did leave some trace of himself: Today's highly sensitive DNA tests can extract a genetic fingerprint from saliva used to lick a stamp or seal an envelope.
In the three decades since the killings, the San Francisco Police Department has amassed enough evidence and leads to fill an entire filing cabinet. Today, fewer than half of the envelopes sent by the killer remain, the rest having disappeared during years of handling by hundreds of local, state and federal investigators.
The department's DNA testing unit is testing the envelopes using a DNA technique known as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, which can develop a genetic profile from as few as 50 human cells. A genetic profile would allow investigators to search for a match among the hundreds of thousands of genetic profiles of known criminals in national databases — as well as among the possible suspects listed in the department's Zodiac files.
The lab has found a partial DNA "fingerprint" on one of the envelopes, but not enough for definitive matching. However, a Primetime investigation prompted the discovery of three envelopes that offer new hope. The envelopes were thought to have been lost, but an anonymous Primetime source — a long-retired investigator — found them, in mint condition, during a search of his personal files and turned them over to the San Francisco police.
"The potential is exciting," said Dr. Cydne Holt, supervisor of the San Francisco Police Department's DNA lab. "If there are cells on those envelopes, we will get the DNA from them and get an answer. … The prospect of being able to contribute to the story is exciting."
Letters and Coded Ciphers
The Zodiac Killer hit the headlines in the summer of 1969, at the height of the hippie era, when San Francisco was an epicenter for the counterculture movement.
On July 31, 1969, the killer mailed letters to three area newspapers claiming responsibility for two attacks on young courting couples, one earlier that month and one the previous December. Both victims died in the first attack; in the second, the woman died but the man survived.
Click here to read some of the letters.
"Dear Editor, This is the murderer of the 2 teenagers last Christmass at Lake Herman & the girl on the 4th 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," read one of the letters, to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The letters, written with a blue felt-tip pen, described the exact numbers of shots fired, what the victims were wearing and in what position they died, and even the brand of ammunition used in both attacks — information that had not been publicly released.
In each letter, the killer enclosed one part of a coded message, or cipher. He said that if the code — a series of letters and strange symbols — were broken and the three pages read together, they would reveal his identity. He demanded that the newspapers print the cipher on their front pages the next day, warning that if they did not he would go on a "kill rampage" that weekend. The newspapers printed the cipher, and area residents were terrified.
Killing Is ‘So Much Fun’
When the complex cipher was finally decoded weeks later, it made it clear that the writer was killing for sport. "I like killing people because it is so much fun," the cipher began. "It is more fun than killing wild game in the forest, because man is the most dangerous animal of all."
The cipher did not, however, reveal the killer's identity. "I will not give you my name because you will try to slow down or stop my collecting of slaves," the message read.
The killer's next attack came in September, when he stabbed a couple on the shore of Lake Berryessa in Napa Valley. As his victims lay bleeding, the killer used a black felt marker to write the dates of his three attacks on the door of the couple's car. Once again, the female victim died but the man survived.
A New Type of Crime, and a Narrow Escape
Then, in October, the killer flagged down a taxi in downtown San Francisco, rode to the exclusive Presidio Heights neighborhood, and executed the driver with a bullet to the head. The attack, on a single victim on a city street, was markedly different from his previous crimes.
And for the first time, the killer took trophies: the cab driver's wallet and ID — and the tail of his bloodstained shirt. He seemed to be proving he could kill whomever he wanted, wherever he wanted.
Later, as he calmly walked away, the killer ran into a police car. Police had found the taxi driver's body, and the officer inside the car, Don Fouke, had just heard a bulletin describing the suspect as black.
"When the headlights hit him I took a look at him. It was a white male, and [I] continued on," Fouke told Primetime. "He came down … the north side of the street and turned and went up a flight of stairs into a courtyard."
Moments later, the dispatcher corrected the description to say it was a white male, but by then it was too late.
Three days later, on Oct. 13, 1969, the killer mailed a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle that contained a swatch from the taxi driver's shirttail. "This is the Zodiac speaking. I am the murderer of the taxi driver … To prove this here is a bloodstained piece of his shirt," he wrote, later sending two more swatches to other papers.
The killer also made a chilling new threat: "School children make nice targets. I think I shall wipe out a school bus some morning. Just shoot out the front tire and then pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out."
In a Nov. 9 letter, he sent a detailed description of a bomb he said he had already assembled for a school-bus attack, complete with diagrams and a list of components. He also confirmed he was spotted by Officer Fouke: "Hey pig! Doesn't it rile you up to have your nose rubbed in your booboos?"
Click here to read the Nov. 9 letter
The Zodiac continued to send letters, claiming new victims and exaggerating his past crimes. But the attack on the school bus never came, and there were no new murders.
Michael Kelleher, a criminologist who profiled the killer for his book This Is the Zodiac Speaking: Into the Mind of a Serial Killer, believes the taxi driver killing was the Zodiac's last, and that he was paralyzed by one major fear.
"He had an obvious fear of male power," Kelleher told Primetime. "He had left two male victims behind alive. He had only managed to murder his last victim … in a cowardly, execution-style way."
Kelleher believes the killer was probably a regular person who working a regular job. "He would be maybe a little gruff. Maybe he wouldn't socialize a lot — but wouldn't stand out in a crowd."
Police released a composite sketch of the killer based on a description by a teenager who witnessed the taxi driver's death. The sketch depicted a white male aged 35 to 45, with a stocky build and thick-rimmed glasses, and hair that was said to be possibly reddish-brown.
Figure No. 1: The Schoolteacher
Over the years, the Zodiac killings have intrigued a legion of amateur sleuths, who fill Web sites and discussion groups with theories about his identity, some logical, some outlandish, ranging from Charles Manson to the Unabomber. Some of the most dedicated amateurs make pilgrimages to the Zodiac's crime scenes on the anniversaries of his attacks.
One amateur investigator, former newspaper staffer Robert Graysmith, has spent 30 years gathering a mountain of circumstantial evidence on the man he believes is the Zodiac: a former Bay Area schoolteacher named Arthur Leigh Allen. Among the evidence Graysmith says supports his theory are:
Witness accounts placing Allen at or near the scene of every Zodiac killing. A complaint in which one of the Zodiac victims, Darlene Ferrin, said she was being stalked by a man who called himself "Lee." Allen went by his middle name. Information that Allen owned a watch with the brand name Zodiac and a logo identical to the symbol the Zodiac drew on his letters. Footprint impressions at Lake Berryessa from a rare military shoe, sized 10 ½ — Allen's size.
Graysmith also has a July 1971 police report in which a friend said Allen had told him in 1968 or earlier — before the first Zodiac killings — that he planned to:
Kill couples in lover's lanes. Attach a flashlight to his gun and shoot people in the dark. Write letters to harass police. Call himself Zodiac.
Allen did not look anything like the composite sketch, but the Zodiac had said in the Nov. 9 letter "I look like the description passed out only when I do my thing. The rest of the time I look entirely different."
Click here to read the Nov. 9 letter
Allen died in 1992, but brain tissue preserved from his autopsy is still available for DNA testing.
Figure No. 2: The Businessman
Mike Rodelli of New Jersey believes another man is the Zodiac Killer. Believing the Zodiac had a compulsion to write letters and commemorate dates and anniversaries, Rodelli started scouring the letters sections of old newspapers for traces of the Zodiac's writing style.
He found a letter written to a California newspaper precisely six months after the first Zodiac killing warning of "a bloody confrontation" and "young people lying dead and wounded in the street." The letter was signed by a wealthy San Francisco businessman who is well-known in the city to this day. Rodelli learned that in 1969 the businessman had lived in Presidio Heights, the neighborhood where the taxi driver was killed. His home was near the location where Officer Fouke says he saw the Zodiac killer go up the stairs.
The businessman, who is still living and working in San Francisco, told Primetime that Rodelli's theory is "insane," and agreed to provide a DNA sample that could prove it.
Figure No. 3: The Father
William Collins, a journalism graduate student in New York, has a theory about someone ke knew well. "My father, Charles Clifton Collins, may be the Zodiac Killer," he told Primetime. Collins made the connection when he saw the Zodiac's handwriting in a book a few years ago. "I thought, 'Oh my God, that's my dad's handwriting,'" he says.
As he read the book, he found more coincidences:
His father, who died in 1993, looked like the composite sketch. The father wore military-style shoes, size 10 ½. He lived in San Francisco only during the time of the killings. His initials, CCC, appeared on a card sent by the Zodiac to rile police.
Collins gave Primetime an envelope sealed — and licked — by his father a decade ago, as well as a sample of his own DNA for verification.
"I need to know if Charles Clifton Collins, my father, the guy who held me when I was a baby … was a serial killer," he said. "I have to know. I have to know."
Possible DNA Trace Found
In initial tests on the three Zodiac envelopes provided by Primetime's source, Holt, the San Francisco police lab supervisor, found a possible trace of genetic material behind one of the stamps. "I can tell you that there's an indication that there may be DNA from one of the stamps," she said.
Holt and her colleagues are conducting further tests to see whether the material can provide sufficient DNA information to enable them to compare it with the database of known criminals — and with the men identified by the three amateur sleuths.
To learn the outcome, click here.
This report originally aired on Primetime on Oct. 17, 2002.