Portland man turns life over to investigating serial killer

The Oregonian

Nov. 28, 2000
By Margie Boule

Tom Voigt has devoted the last two years of his life to the investigation of a string of homicides that occurred a long time ago, in a place far away from his apartment in the Hollywood district of Portland. Tom is not a detective, not a police officer. Yet he has uncovered evidence that local, state and federal investigative agencies did not find in three decades of investigation. He has become close to original investigators, victims' family members, associates of leading suspects. His Web site is visited by more than 150,000 people every week.

Why would an Oregon man care so much about the serial killer in California who called himself the Zodiac Killer? "Maybe it was just my destiny," Tom says. Tom says he's always been drawn to unsolved mysteries. "Even when I was a kid I used to make my dad take me up to Mount St. Helens to look for Bigfoot."

Tom was born near Los Angeles, where his dad edited the Herald Examiner newspaper. A few years later the family moved to Oregon. "We actually moved because of the Manson murders. They freaked out my mom. She used to go to bed every night with a knife under her pillow. . . . I'll never forget how scared she was. When your mom gets scared, you get scared."

The son of a journalist read the paper often; he remembers reading about the San Francisco Bay Area Zodiac killer in the 1970s. "He used to kill people randomly, and then he would send letters to the big newspapers like the Chronicle and the Examiner, taunting the police." The killer claimed 37 victims; police definitely linked him to seven.

Tom knows the dates and contents of the letters the Zodiac sent. He can explain the Zodiac's symbol -- a circle with a cross inside. He knows the Zodiac was a film buff, a Gilbert and Sullivan fan. Tom has theories about the killer's personality. " If you take away his killing rage, he probably was a pretty interesting guy."

Tom remembers the day he decided to try to solve the case. March 20, 1998. He'd seen a story about the Zodiac killer on the TV show "Unsolved Mysteries" and had done a lot of reading on the case. "I felt like this case was definitely solvable, but the problem was each of his crimes were in different jurisdictions, so the police hadn't shared information with each other. I decided the best way was to start a Web site."

That March day Tom hired his 10-year-old nephew to put up a home page. "I had surfed the net briefly but never attempted graphic design or coding." His nephew taught him the basics, and then Tom took over. The Web site took off. Within six months he appeared on "America's Most Wanted." More important to Tom, he was receiving communication from the public about the Zodiac killer and making connections with others who had collected information. Tom tracked down Paul Avery, the reporter who'd received many of the Zodiac's letters, and an author who wrote a book about the Zodiac killer. "The author was a huge help. We've probably spent 400 or 500 hours on the phone."

Tom found retired detectives or their widows, who turned over files they'd kept for decades. He found FBI photos of evidence police agencies had misplaced. He got copies of still-classified police investigative files. And Tom did original research. He says his Web site has "things no one had ever seen before. A whole letter handwritten by the top suspect." And his employment records, showing an absence the day after an early homicide.

He's made repeated trips to the Bay Area and even interviewed the Zodiac's only surviving victim. He has copies of crime scene and autopsy photos, but he won't place them on the Web site. "There's nothing gruesome on my site. No blood. There's no need for that." He's also withheld a few critical, sensitive documents, for the sake of the investigation. "But the vast majority I have published on my site."

Tom loves the quest. He's won the respect of most investigators still working on the case. But he says he'd never want to be a police detective. "I'm not brave enough. They take their lives in their hands every day. I couldn't do that. Another thing is, you have to go to autopsies. I have a really weak stomach."

So why would a man spend "thousands of dollars and thousands of hours" pursuing a case from so long ago, so far away? Tom says perhaps it's the memory of his mother's fear and the connection with his dad's journalism career. "It's an amazing story, from an interesting time." He admits it's limited his social life. "I'm totally wrapped up in this. But my social life is getting better. For a while there, the women I knew best were all dead. I feel like I know the victims because of the background work I did."

But there have been benefits. He has a new career, designing commercial Web sites. He's talking to Seattle authorities about a Green River Killer Web site. And he's made good friends. "One detective, retired now, told me he thinks about it every day. He says he even dreams about it. He told me he's been chasing ghosts for 30 years. After I meet these people, I want to do something to bring them some resolution. To make sure their hard work is not in vain, and bring justice to the victims. I have people depending on me. It's exciting. And I strongly feel we'll have an answer."