DNA tests to search for Zodiac case clues
Police still are trying to solve the 30-year-old Bay Area murders

Contra Costa Times

April 15, 2001
By Corey Lyons

He was the Bay Area's hooded bogeyman, a cunning killer who taunted police with mysterious ciphers, leaving behind a trail of unsolved homicides from Vallejo to San Francisco.

Three decades after his string of slayings rattled nerves around the region, the Zodiac killer continues to frustrate and haunt scores of investigators and armchair sleuths. Nobody ever has been arrested in connection with the crimes.

Now, authorities are banking on technology not available during the notorious murderer's reign: DNA analysis.

Recently, an interagency Zodiac task force forwarded evidence from the crime scenes to the state Department of Justice DNA lab in Berkeley.

While awaiting results, authorities are keeping their mouths shut and their fingers crossed.

Vallejo police Lt. JoAnn West, who refused to disclose what evidence had been sent to the lab, is hopeful that results will be available later this month or next.

"They prioritize things, and I understand that," West said of the lab, which collects, analyzes and stores thousands of DNA samples. "When you don't have somebody in custody -- or nobody is in imminent danger of somebody else -- it gets put to the back of the pile."

West refused to discuss any specifics of the case, citing the sensitivity of the investigation.

"I don't know if the person is still out there," she said. "And we don't want a person to know that we know they may be involved and what information -- or evidence -- we have."

The Zodiac killer ravaged the Bay Area in the late 1960s, using guns and knives to hunt down young adults.

In one particularly brutal assault in September 1969, he emerged from a wooded area in Napa County wearing an executioner's mask and wielding a foot-long knife.

Cecelia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell, who were lounging near the shores of Lake Berryessa, were tied up and stabbed repeatedly. Shepard died; Hartnell survived.

So far, the Zodiac is linked to five murders and two attempted murders in the Bay Area. Still, many believe his spree reached far beyond the region and continued for many years.

With a renewed sense of optimism, local police began looking into the case in 1998.

The Zodiac task force was formed by police agencies in Vallejo, Napa, Solano County and San Francisco.

Because crime technology has advanced rapidly since the Zodiac killings, police figure DNA testing may finally illuminate one of the 2,500 suspects who have been queried over the years.

The samples were shipped to the Berkeley lab, where DNA is identified and entered into a growing database.

Information in the database is available to police throughout the state to compare with DNA from blood, semen or other leftover traces of evidence at crime scenes.

The tests may determine whether Arthur Leigh Allen, a former Vallejo schoolteacher, was involved in the crimes. Allen, long considered the most promising suspect, died of natural causes in 1992.

In several police interviews, Allen willingly divulged bizarre details about himself, including a bloody knife he owned that appeared to match the one used in the Berryessa stabbings. He even told detectives that he had enjoyed a book called "The Most Dangerous Game," in which a man hunts another man on an island.

Police searched Allen's home three times, hauling away boxes of intriguing evidence, including a Zodiac watch and an extensive weapons collection.

Two days after Allen's death, police scoured his house for more clues. Among the items taken, according to police reports, was a video labeled with a "Z," the contents of which have never been revealed.

Critics, meanwhile, continue to blast police for never taking Allen into custody when they had the chance.

"They didn't even issue him a citation," said Tom Voigt, a Web operator from Oregon whose site, www.zodiackiller.com, attracts 150,000 visitors each month. "If he were the pastor of a local church, maybe you can let some things slide.

"But he was a bad dude ... you'd think if he spit on a sidewalk, they'd arrest him."