Zodiac killer subject of upcoming TV show, film

Fairfield Daily-Republic

Aug. 3, 2003
By Amy Maginnis-Honey

FAIRFIELD - When Tom Balmer arrived on the scene of what was first thought to be a murder-suicide, he didn't know he'd be photographing the first killing claimed by the now infamous Zodiac. It was Friday, Dec. 20, 1968, when Balmer, a contract photographer for the Daily Republic, heard the news of two bodies being discovered along Lake Herman Road on the outskirts of Benicia.

"I'd already done one thing," he recalled of that evening. A gambler's bus had been hijacked going down Interstate 80 toward Reno and pulled off at the Travis Boulevard exit. The passengers were robbed before the suspects took off in a waiting car. "That was pretty exciting," Balmer recalled.

Then, he heard the dispatch of another crime scene. "I didn't know where Lake Herman Road was. I had to check my map," he recalled. When he arrived, law enforcement officers were on the scene. A young couple had been shot. Only the female's body was there, covered by a blanket. The male victim has been transported to Vallejo General Hospital via an ambulance but died enroute. Balmer was told to stay back until the sheriff's investigator arrived. When he did, Balmer set about doing his job and quickly snapped off what he remembers as two frames of film.

"I got the shot I needed," he said. Then, he was informed by one of the officers on scene it was illegal to photograph a dead body and that he must turn over his film. "I was still naive," Balmer said. "They told me I'd spend the night in jail. I took it out of the camera and gave it to him."

Balmer, who graduated from Armijo High School in 1966, returned to Fairfield and reported what had happened to then Daily Republic editor Al Donner. Donner called the appropriate officials and Balmer's film was returned to him the next morning. One photo of three men, standing by a patrol car, looking at a body covered by a blanket, ran on page one of the Sunday, Dec. 22, 1968, newspaper. It was the only newspaper photograph of the actual crime scene.

Balmer didn't give the homicides much thought after that. He had a few prints made that he would share with friends. However, the negatives were property of the newspaper since the newspaper provided the film. (The negatives have apparently been discarded since then.)

The serial killer will be profiled on Tuesday's "Cold Case Files" on A&E cable network. The program airs in Fairfield at 9 p.m. on Channel 47. Balmer is among those interviewed for the show.

On Jan. 2, 1969, he left for a four-year stint in the United States Air Force. While he was in basic training, a Solano County Sheriff's deputy contacted his parents. Balmer answered their questions when he returned to the area.

"I think they were looking for a clue. But there was nothing I could provide them with they didn't know," he recalled. Balmer now teaches photography and videography at Hogan High School in Vallejo. "What I'm doing now is the most awesome thing," he said.

Three of the Zodiac murders took place in Solano County. On Friday, July 4, 1969, the Zodiac claimed responsibility for two shootings that happened in a secluded parking lot in Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo. One victim survived. On Saturday, Sept. 27, 1969, a couple was attacked at Lake Berryessa. One victim survived. The last murder tied to the Zodiac was a San Francisco cab driver in October 1969. The Zodiac claimed to have 37 victims in the San Francisco Bay Area over five years. He was never caught, though various suspects, including mail bomber Ted Kaczynski, have been named.

The Zodiac case hasn't been featured on "Cold Case Files" before, said Lisa Huffman, a freelance producer who contracts with A&E.

"We usually do things with a lower profile," she explained. "But with the San Francisco Police Department working on DNA profiles (from the killings) we thought it was a good time to do it." In mid-June, Huffman and a film crew visited Vallejo and Fairfield for taping. Balmer was interviewed at the Daily Republic office.

Vallejo is the setting for an independent feature film, "In Control of All Things," a 1960s period piece about the Zodiac crimes. A release date has yet not been scheduled. Filming took place at Blue Rocks Springs Park and Lake Herman Road, in addition to downtown locations and residential areas.

Huffman, who grew up in Chicago, but now lives in the Bay Area, never heard of the Zodiac until the Internet age.

"I realized then that everyone from California knows about it," she said.

"In Control of All Things" producer Corey Campodonico told her why he thinks the legacy lives on.

"There are so many intriguing parts, so many bizarre parts," Huffman said. "This was not your average serial killer. He was the first person to try and scare the public."

The Zodiac penned more than 20 communications to police officials and newspapers. On July 31, 1969, he mailed letters to the Vallejo Times-Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner newspapers, revealing details of the first two murders that had not been released. In a later letter, he threatened to "wipe out" kids on a school bus. The last communication with the Zodiac was a letter mailed to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1974.

Yet, the story continues to draw worldwide attention. ABC's "Primetime Thursday" re-aired a broadcast on the Zodiac on July 24. And for the past two years, the Zodiac Killer Task Force, a group of amateur sleuths organized by Tom Voigt, who launched the Web site zodiackiller.com, has gathered in Vallejo. The goal is to share ideas and information on the murders. Among those at the 2001 meeting was Ed Neil, a massage therapist. He read a book on the serial killer and was hooked.

"The Zodiac is very interesting because he's like Jack the Ripper of the Bay Area," Neil told the Daily Republic then. "Anything is solvable and I believe there are missing pieces out there. That's why this event is important because it may shed some light on something new."

While Balmer will watch himself on A&E, he doesn't often turn on the TV, so he missed the ABC broadcast which claimed to have eliminated some of the Zodiac suspects. In fact, Balmer, 56, hasn't followed the case at all and was intrigued by the fact a TV crew was interested in interviewing him. He said he'd never visited a Zodiac Web Site until he sat down with this reporter while waiting for the A&E crew. Balmer isn't sure why the Zodiac fascination endures.

"But if they were to catch him and put him in prison, there would be a woman wanting to marrying him," he said.

He can't name any of the suspects but does remember the names Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday, the Lake Herman Road victims. He looks back on the experience as just part of his job.

"I think of the fact I was there, but I wasn't a part of it. I got a little closer glimpse than most people did."