|Amateurs Stir Embers Of Notorious Zodiac Case 30 years after 5 slayings,
killer remains unknown
San Francisco Chronicle
Oct. 2, 2000
By Tom Zoellner
He was Northern California's Jack the Ripper, murdering young people on lovers lanes and at picnics and threatening to shoot children on a school bus. ``This is the Zodiac speaking,'' he would begin in letters to newspapers that gave details only the killer would know. Police never identified the enigmatic killer of five people in the late 1960s, and 30 years later, have effectively given up hope of unmasking him. But the cold case is kept warm by freelancers who sift through stale evidence in hopes of finding the tiny crack that will pry the mystery apart.
More than half a dozen Web sites, at least one with an active chat board, are devoted to the crimes. One police investigator says he still gets letters from a Louisiana man who is determined to decipher a coded message that the killer sent to The Chronicle in 1969. Another Zodiac freelancer, Mike Rodelli, an unemployed advertising copywriter from New Jersey, wrote to Napa County sheriff's detectives in March with a 15-page report laying out circumstantial evidence that he believes connects an elderly San Francisco man with the five Zodiac killings. Napa County investigators were impressed enough with Rodelli's work to run a fingerprint check on the man but have not interviewed him. The results of the fingerprint check reportedly are pending.
``They told me this was the best suspect they had ever seen,'' said Rodelli, 44. ``One of the first things they said was, `Please don't give this to any other jurisdiction. We want to work on this exclusively.' '' The theory is still under investigation, said Lt. Brian Banducci, who heads the Napa County sheriff's homicide unit. ``There are a lot of coincidences there, and we haven't ruled him out completely, but I don't think we can prove he was the Zodiac,'' he said.
The Bay Area police agencies with Zodiac victims in their jurisdictions usually regard armchair Zodiac detectives as cranks and pests. ``I've heard so many theories, they tend to all run together,'' said San Francisco Police Lt. Tom Bruton. ``The 100th time you pick up the phone on one of these calls, it's just another wacko who is pulling something out of thin air.'' The continuing pressure put on the police by these freelancers is emblematic of the enduring public fascination with the Zodiac.
His first confirmed killing was Dec. 20, 1968, when he shot two Vallejo teenagers who were on their first date. He killed two other people before his final homicide, the execution-style slaying of a cabdriver in San Francisco's Presidio Heights on Oct. 11, 1969. Almost the only physical evidence he left were 21 letters to The Chronicle and other newspapers, filled with misspellings, most of them opening with the phrase ``This is the Zodiac speaking'' and signed with a cross within a circle.
``This guy put a new brush stroke on what were really some pretty run-of-the-mill serial murders,'' said Mike Kelleher, a Sonoma County criminologist and author of a forthcoming book about the case, ``Zodiac: Thirty Years in Darkness.'' ``He used the media. He used cryptograms and had a passion for using his words in the newspapers to great effect,'' Kelleher said. ``In no way was he a genius, other than maybe a marketing genius.''
It was through the literary style of the letters that Rodelli found his suspect. Figuring that somebody who loved to write anonymous letters to the paper probably did so under his real name as well, Rodelli searched back issues of The Chronicle until he found a signed letter that, he said, paralleled the killer's high-handed tone. Rodelli then began looking into the background of the author and discovered an old magazine photograph that, he said, shows that his suspect was an ``absolute dead ringer'' for a San Francisco police sketch of the killer. Several key dates in the man's life also match the dates of the Zodiac killings, which is noteworthy because the killer was known to commemorate anniversaries through letters to the newspapers.
``Rodelli has raised a lot of good points -- maybe they're coincidences, but maybe not,'' said retired Napa County Sheriff's Lt. Ken Narlow, the department's lead Zodiac investigator until his retirement seven years ago. ``It frustrates me that there's so much there, but nobody will go knock on the guy's door. I think the San Francisco police are shy of him because of his status, but if I was still working this case, I would sure go down and talk to the guy.''
In a conversation with The Chronicle, the man identified by Rodelli as the suspect laughed loudly and shook his head when told that the Napa County Sheriff's Office had been checking his fingerprints. ``You can't find anybody in this city that's less likely to be the Zodiac killer than me,'' said the 81-year-old businessman. ``I haven't hit anybody since I was a kid. It's goofy. ``He has nothing,'' he said of Rodelli. ``This is all circumstantial nonsense in his eyes. I have a lot of assets to bring to bear, and that son of a bitch is going to be sorry he did it.''
The San Francisco Police Department has also looked at Rodelli's circumstantial case -- and is not impressed. ``There's just not enough there,'' said Bruton, who acknowledged that his role as San Francisco's lead Zodiac detective is mostly an ``extracurricular activity'' in which he takes a call or two every week from somebody with a new theory on the killer's identity.
Since the Zodiac's first confirmed killings, police have checked out an estimated 2,500 suspects without making an arrest. The man considered by some investigators to be the best suspect, former Vallejo teacher and trailer park resident Arthur Leigh Allen, took his secrets to the grave when he died of a heart attack in 1992. Vallejo police have never talked about the evidence they confiscated the year before Allen's death from his home, which reportedly included a long-bladed knife.
Lt. JoAnn West of the Vallejo Police Department said she is ``getting frustrated'' with a Web site operator in Portland named Tom Voigt who has accused the department of bungling the Allen investigation. Voigt says new DNA technology would allow police to determine whether Allen was tied to the Zodiac killings by comparing Allen's tissue with saliva recovered from the envelopes and postage stamps of Zodiac's old letters to The Chronicle. ``All I can tell you is that all of the evidence we've recovered is being studied,'' West said. ``I can't get into specifics of what that evidence is. We have sent it to a lab, and we are awaiting results.''
``After nine years? Why didn't they do it at the time?'' said Voigt, who posts new developments on the old case on his Web site, www.zodiackiller.com. ``They aren't doing anything.''
He also wonders whether the knife recovered from Allen's house has blood traces caught in the surface of the blade. A DNA match with the victims could end the mystery and close the case, he said. ``I'm not going to talk about what DNA we have and don't have,'' West responded. ``It's still an open case.'' An interagency Zodiac task force still meets occasionally to review old evidence, she said. The last meeting was four months ago. The Zodiac case has recently been given to two new caretakers in San Francisco, Inspectors Kelly Carroll and Mike Maloney, who hope to conduct fresh DNA tests on the aging Zodiac relics in the department's evidence locker, said Capt. Roy Sullivan.
With so many other urgent cases to work on, Bay Area police cannot be blamed for not devoting a great deal of attention to a 30-year-old homicide, said Bill White Jr., an investigator for the Napa County district attorney's office who has looked into Rodelli's theory on the San Francisco man. ``Working in law enforcement is like working in a hospital,'' he said. ``You have to triage. You have to pick up the hottest thing going and run with it.'' White said he thinks, nevertheless, that the killer is still alive and will one day be captured. ``I truly believe it's a solvable case,'' he said. ``I don't believe the Zodiac is gone. I think people are capable of stopping their madness and then covering their tracks.''
TRAIL OF THE ZODIAC