Zodiac Killer Essay, Research Paper
In the late sixties and early seventies, California was haunted by dozens of unsolved
murders. The offender remains unknown to this day. The murderer, who referred to himself as
“the Zodiac,” made contact with the police and area newspapers throughout his reign of terror
through a series of menacing notes. Although the police were never able to apprehend Zodiac,
they were able to gather information about him via the letters. Zodiac boasted of killing up to
forty victims, however, police estimated he may have killed over 50.
Due to the nature of Zodiac’s letters and from witnesses police have a good idea of what
Zodiac is like even though he remains at large. Given what is known about serial killers in general,
and Zodiac in particular, authorities estimate he was born between 1938 and 1943, making him in
his mid-twenties to early thirties at the time of his first murder in 1966. The estimation is also
supported by witness statements. It is common for serial killers to first begin his career around
this age. (Weis)
Zodiac was believed to be a stocky man, but not overweight. (Graysmith, 316) Multiple
witnesses described him as having a “paunch” belly. He was a white male with light brown, curly
hair, was of average height, and wore dark rimmed glasses held to his head with a black band. He
was also reported to dress in a “military” fashion. He often wore a navy windbreaker and military
issued “wing walker” boots. Most witnesses described him as calm and clean-cut. (Graysmith,
There have been many psychological profiles of Zodiac, perhaps because his true identity
and motives have never been revealed. Graysmith, the author of the best selling novel Zodiac,
also created a profile of the killer. Graysmith described Zodiac as having “delusions of grandeur,
of being a psychotic and a sexual sadist.” ( Graysmith, 321) He hypothesized, like many other
profilers, that Zodiac had an overwhelming and domineering mother and a weak or absent father.
It is speculated that a violent relationship with his mother may have lead to his apparent hatred of
Zodiac’s first victim was Cherri Jo Bates. Although the murder was not attributed to
Zodiac until 1970, she was murdered one day before Halloween in 1966. Like Zodiac’s other
victims Cherri Jo was a student. She lived with her father in Riverside, California and attended
Riverside City College. She was a petite blond with blue eyes, although she was tan at the time of
her death she had a light complexion. (Graysmith, 164)
On the night of October 30th, Cherri Jo had gone to the school library to study.
Authorities estimate that Bates arrived at the RCC library at about six o’clock PM. While Cherri
Jo was studying the perpetrator removed the distributor coil from her engine, causing it to go
dead. Police theorize when Bates found her battery dead, Zodiac offered her a ride. He drove her
approximately seventy – five yards east at her car. He began choking her but Bates fought back.
She scratched his face and was able to rip his watch off, which was later found by authorities.
Between 10:15 an 10:30 PM a neighbor reported hearing a scream. Autopsies revealed that
Bates had been kicked in the head. She had also been stabbed twice. She had cuts on her face and
her jugular had been slashed. When she was found she was nearly decapitated. (Graysmith, 165)
The second murder committed by Zodiac occurred on December 20, 1968. His victims
were David Faraday, 17, and Betty Lou Jensen, 16. Once again the victims were young and
students. David was a Varsity athlete at Vallejo High School were he was one of the top students.
Betty Lou was pretty and described as “hardworking, studious, and had a spotless reputation.”
(Graysmith, 2) The couple were last seen at a friend’s house earlier in the evening. Although they
didn’t say where they were headed next, they drove to Lover’s Lane.
The victims initially made contact with the killer when he pulled his car up ten feet away
from where Betty Lou and David were parked. Graysmith hypothesizes what may have occurred
next. Zodiac may have asked David and Betty Lou to exit the car. When the couple refused the
killer got out of his car, pulled a gun out of his windbreaker and circled the car. He shot a bullet at
the right window sending the couple scrambling to the other side of the vehicle. Zodiac shot one
bullet at close range into David’s head. Betty Lou attempted to flee but was shot five times in her
upper back. No evidence of the killer’s identity was left at the scene. (Graysmith, 6-8)
The nature in which David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen were killed is consistent with
Zodiac’s other murders. Although the murder weapons varied from knives to different makes of
guns, to strangulation, the basic approach seemed to be the same. Betty Lou and David were
killed on a weekend, near a body of water. Zodiac routinely attempted to kill couples. The victims
were always young students and they attacks generally happened at night. Victims were not
acquainted with the killer. Cars were usually involved and the killer regularly kills in lovers’ lanes.
As with all confirmed Zodiac killings, a letter was sent bragging about the act. However, one
murder breaks the pattern; this is the murder of Darlene Ferrin.
Darlene Ferrin was a twenty-two year old white female. She had short blond hair and
bright blue eyes. She weighed about 130 pounds. She was described as being happy, laughing and
very outgoing. She was married to her second husband Dean and had a baby girl named Dena.
(Graysmith, 14) What makes the murder of Darlene stand out from the other Zodiac murders was
the fact that she appeared to actually know the killer.
In late February in 1969 Karen, Darlene’s baby-sitter, noticed an American make sedan
parked outside Darlene’s apartment. When Darlene returned from work the distressed baby-sitter
told Darlene what had happened. Darlene told her that he was checking up on her, and that she
saw him murder someone. (Graysmith, 15) Zodiac apparently left two different packages for
Darlene. Upon receiving the seemingly harmless gifts, a purse and some fabric, Darlene became
visibly shaken. For the next few months Zodiac appeared in Darlene’s life. Friends became
concerned but Darlene warned them to stay clear. He showed up at her work and even to a party
at her house. Darlene’s friends remember seeing the man on numerous occasions and were able
to give accurate descriptions for police.
On the Fourth of July Darlene telephoned her friend Mike Mageau and made plans to
attend a movies in nearby San Francisco. Although Darlene was married, she had a reputation for
dating men on the side. Mike was thought to be one of Darlene’s boyfriends. Darlene left the
house, ran some errands and returned home. She was about to take the sitters home, when she
received a phone call. She explained she needed to run out and grab fireworks and she would take
them home when she returned. The girls agreed and Darlene left.
Darlene picked up Mike and he rushed into the car, leaving all his house lights on and the
door open. The couple noticed they were being followed by a bronze Corvair at about 11:55 PM.
Darlene attempted to lose the car but they was being chased to the outskirts of the city.
(Graysmith, 26) The couple was herded into a golf course parking lot approximately two miles
from where Betty Lou and David were killed. As Darlene pulled into the lot, her car stalled. A
few minutes later the other car caught up to them . The driver parked the car eight feet away from
Darlene and Mike. Darlene told Mike not to worry about the driver. Mike couldn’t tell if Darlene
knew the driver or not, but he could tell the driver was male. The other car drove off and the
couple felt relieved. In less than five minutes the driver returned and this time parked his car close
to Darlene’s. He parked to the left and in back of their vehicle, a cut-off techniques used by
police. (Graysmith, 26) The driver exited his vehicle and shinned a bright light into the couple’s
Without warning the driver shined the light directly into Mike’s eyes to blind him. The
driver of the other car began firing at the pair. Both Darlene and Mike were hit in the fusillade of
bullets. Darlene was wounded nine times. She had been hit twice in her right arm and twice in her
left. Five shots hit her in her back, piercing her lungs and heart. Mike was hit in the left leg, right
arm and neck. The driver returned to his car and drove away. Darlene and Mike were found three
teenagers setting off fireworks. Although Mike survived the attack, Darlene was fatally wounded.
When Mike gave a description of the attacker it matched the description Darlene’s friends gave of
the strange man following her. They were the same man. When a letter was received on Friday
August 11, 1969, police found out the truth; Darlene may have been the only one to know the
Zodiac remains at large over thirty years after his first murder. There are many reasons
why police were unable to close the case. In the beginning of Zodiac’s career he communicated
with the police (via newspapers) routinely. He would alert the police how many victims he had
and tell details of his crimes. From the information Zodiac revealed they were able to get a
detailed idea of what sort of person he was. They were able to estimate where he might live, what
sort of profession he was in and other details about his life. Police knew more about a killer they
had never seen than many criminals they had behind bars.
Police were able to narrow down thousands of suspects to a handful. However, they never
made any sort of arrests. This is because the killer never left any sort of physical evidence. All the
police had to go off was Zodiac’s handwriting, (from the letters) and a bloody palm print found in
one of his victim’s car. This proved troubling to police. Some investigators felt the bloody palm
print may have not even belonged to Zodiac. They theorized that the meticulous killer would have
not made such a careless mistake; perhaps it was just to lead police down the wrong trail. Prints
of the main suspects were compared to the palm print and there was never a match. Therefore, the
real Zodiac may have been in the presence of police and gone free.
The second piece of evidence authorities used in narrowing suspects were handwriting
analysis, since the majority of Zodiac’s letters were handwritten ( a few were typed.) The suspect
whose writing was a closest match was Robert Hall Starr (this name has been changed) Police
were able to obtain a sample of his writing from his place of employment. (Graysmith, 282)
However, when police received a search warrant to search his house and demanded a handwriting
sample the writings were not a match. It was not until later that authorities learned that a sexual
sadists handwriting may change under stressful conditions. (Graysmith, 267) At this time they
were also not aware that Zodiac may have used a tracing device to write the letters. This would
assure that if he was captured his natural handwriting would not match the notes. Starr had
multiple residences, but only one was searched. It might have been possible that one of these
machines or other evidence would have been found at his other homes. Graysmith gave the
impression he felt Starr was, in fact, Zodiac. (Graysmith, 304)
Although Zodiac is one of the most baffling cases in recent American history, it has many
similarities to other serial killer cases. For example, it is not usual for serial killers to leave a
signature or trademark. (Weis, Keppel, 403) Zodiac wrote letters to police taking credit for his
crimes but other killers, for example, might leave something at the crime scene. Robbery is seldom
a motive in these sort of murders. Zodiac’s victims were found with there wallets or purses.
According to Deitz, most serial killers murder their victims by means of strangulation,
beating them or stabbing them. (Weis, Keppel 157) Zodiac did use these methods but he also used
firearms. Deitz argued that most serial killers are sexual sadists are therefore the pleasure of
killing comes from the sexual gratification achieved with close contact. Nevertheless, when
Zodiac used firearms he used them at close range, perhaps in order to satisfy this sexual need.
Zodiacs victims were also typical of the majority of homicide victims. According, to Weis
fifty-four percent of homicide victims are between the ages of eighteen and thirty six. The victims
are usually white and single. This also fits with the bulk of Zodiacs victims.
Zodiac is perhaps the most elusive criminal in American history. After his last letter to the
Chronicle in 1978 he was never heard from again. Although the case is still technically open, it
receives little attention. Graysmith theorizes Zodiac may have been arrested for another crime,
died in an accident, or even possible killed by an intended victim. (Graysmith, 303) He also may
have committed suicide. However, the trouble with any of these speculations is that almost
certainly evidence of his identity would have been found. he might have begun to feel guilt and
remorse for his action. He may have simply stopped killing. When Zodiac started writing letters,
he may have been fueled by the publicity he received. At the end of his career he received less and
less publicity, maybe since the fame was dwindling so was his need to kill. The most frightening
possibility is that he still may be killing.