|Files shut on Zodiac's deadly trail
SFPD caseload renders 35-year mystery inactive
San Francisco Chronicle
April 7, 2004
By Charlie Goodyear
It has been one of the longest, most famous and frustrating homicide investigations in San Francisco, haunting detectives for more than 35 years. Now, just two years after DNA evidence suggested that a break might come soon, police have "deactivated" the case of the Zodiac killer.
"The case is being placed inactive," said San Francisco police Lt. John Hennessey, who heads the department's homicide unit. "Given the pressure of our existing caseload and the amount of cases that remain open at this time, we need to be most efficient at using our resources.''
Homicide inspectors have been under increasing pressure to solve a rash of gang- and drug-related killings in the city. Mayor Gavin Newsom has shown up at some crime scenes and recently suggested that the department's success rate needed serious improvement.
The move to shut down the case means that, for the first time, no inspector will be assigned to actively investigate the case or follow up leads unless an extraordinary tip comes in.
As a result, the trail of the Zodiac -- who is blamed for committing at least five brazen murders in 1968 and 1969 that terrified the Bay Area and who reveled in sending taunting letters to police and newspapers -- appears colder than ever.
"The police shall never catch me, because I have been too clever for them, " the Zodiac predicted almost 35 years ago in a letter sent to The Chronicle. "I enjoy needling the blue pigs,'' he wrote later in the same letter.
According to Hennessey, the case had been put on hold several times over the past few decades. Now, however, three decades' worth of evidence has been locked away in a battered gray file cabinet kept in a closet across from the department's cramped homicide office. There are no plans to unlock it.
"If we believed that there was a significant lead that hadn't been followed, we certainly wouldn't be doing this,'' Hennessy said. "The case has taken on a cultlike fascination around the world. Basically, we've had hundreds of people call that think their former husbands or neighbors were the Zodiac killer.
"It really is hard to justify to the families of homicide victims from more recent cases -- who you meet with every two months -- the expenditures and use of resources for this case," he added.
One of the last detectives to handle the case, Inspector Kelly Carroll, no longer works in the homicide unit. Carroll, along with Inspector Michael Maloney, was assigned to investigate the Zodiac case four years ago.
In 2002, Carroll revealed that a partial DNA profile had been extracted from genetic material found on the envelopes holding letters written by the Zodiac and sent to newspapers, including The Chronicle. The DNA results seemed to clear Arthur Leigh Allen of Vallejo, the only suspect ever named by police. Allen, who was never charged, died of a heart attack in 1992 at age 58.
Even though the Zodiac is believed to have committed just one homicide in San Francisco, police here may hold the best evidence with which to catch him.
Carroll said San Francisco police still have untested DNA evidence -- with no immediate plans to analyze it because of an overworked crime lab -- that finally could unmask the Zodiac.
"Our hope is that from that evidence a DNA profile will be developed,'' Carroll said. "I completely understand the demand of current cases. But the Zodiac always stood to me as symbolic of SFPD's commitment not to give up on unsolved homicides. If there's any realistic hope of solving the case, it would be from the physical evidence that we have."
Hennessey said that if a promising lead does come in, Carroll will be made available to work it. "It's not like this case is going to fall off the face of the Earth for us," he said.
Debate still rages
If San Francisco police are giving up, for now, on the Zodiac, there is little chance the case will fade from public imagination. In books, magazines and Internet chat rooms, the debate rages on over the true identity of the shadowy, masked killer and his coded and threatening messages.
Mike Rodelli, an amateur investigator from New Jersey, still holds stubbornly to one of the more intriguing theories -- that the true suspect is a certain well-known elderly San Francisco businessman still living in Pacific Heights along the Presidio.
That's where the Zodiac gunned down cabbie Paul Stine on Oct. 11, 1969, and cut away a piece of the victim's shirt, which he later mailed to The Chronicle to ensure that he was credited with the slaying.
Despite a wide search of the area, the Zodiac eluded police after a dispatcher broadcast a mistaken description of the suspect and an officer let a man go, possibly the killer, who was walking near the scene of the crime.
The next month, the Zodiac sent a taunting letter describing the manhunt in such detail that it suggested he had stayed in the area and observed the police from a safe vantage point.
Rodelli believes that if the killer lived in the neighborhood, he could have simply walked home and watched investigators comb the area from his own house.
The businessman, who is not being named by The Chronicle and still lives two blocks from where Stine was shot, heatedly denied any involvement four years ago. Since then a DNA test -- using the partial genetic profile developed by San Francisco police -- appears to have ruled him out as a suspect, too.
But Rodelli has refused to give up, assembling more than 30 pages worth of circumstantial evidence and amazing coincidences to support his theory.
Police in Napa and Solano counties -- where the Zodiac also killed -- have expressed interest in pursuing the theory, but not the San Francisco Police Department, where investigators have said the evidence is just too thin.
Rodelli was disappointed to hear San Francisco police are shutting down their portion of the case, even if inspectors weren't relying on his investigation.
"It's always had a custodian, always somebody assigned to work it,'' Rodelli said, noting that police could still retrieve DNA from other Zodiac letters and a small hair found behind a stamp. "This would be the first time it's completely deactivated.''
Paul Holes is a criminalist in Contra Costa County who has tested evidence held by Vallejo police from three homicides attributed to the Zodiac in that city in 1968 and 1969.
Holes said he thinks the best chance to solve the mystery of the Zodiac might come from a loose-knit group of retired detectives and other investigators who have never let go of the case and continue to puzzle over it.
If police are to solve it, they need to set aside any rivalries and work more closely together, Holes said.
"I strongly feel that, ultimately, for this case to be solved the agencies involved are going to have to share this information as openly as possible,'' he said. "It's one of those cases that has the potential to be solved.''
Trail of the Zodiac
Dec. 20, 1968: Two teenagers on their first date, David Farraday and Betty Lou Jensen, are shot to death in a parked car outside Vallejo.
July 5, 1969: A man with a flashlight approaches a car parked at the Blue Springs Golf Club in Vallejo and, without a word, opens fire on the occupants. Darlene Ferrin, 22, is killed instantly; her companion, Michael Mageau, 19, survives. Less than an hour later, a man calls Vallejo police from a pay phone and says: "I want to report a double murder. If you go one mile east on Columbus Parkway to the public park, you will find kids in a brown car. They were shot with a 9mm Luger. I also killed those kids last year. Goodbye."
July 31, 1969: The Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner and the Vallejo Times-Herald each receive a copy of a letter, signed only with a simple crossed-circle design, in which the author takes responsibility for the July 5 shootings.
Sept. 27, 1969: Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard, both college students, are picnicking at Lake Berryessa in Napa County when a tall man wearing a hooded costume ties them up with rope and stabs them with a foot-long knife. Shepard dies, Hartnell survives. The killer uses a magic marker to draw his cross-circle design on the door of Hartnell's Volkswagen.
Oct. 11, 1969: San Francisco cab driver Paul Stine, 29, is fatally shot by a fare at Cherry and Washington streets in Presidio Heights. A dispatcher mistakenly broadcasts a lookout for a black suspect, and two police officers stop a white man who may have been the killer on a nearby street before letting him go.
Oct. 13, 1969: The Chronicle receives a letter containing a bloody swath of Stine's shirt and a threat to shoot children on a school bus.
Nov. 10, 1969: The Chronicle receives another letter from the Zodiac containing detailed plans for a "death machine" to blow up a school bus. .
March 22, 1970: Kathleen Johns, 22, and her newborn daughter are traveling on Highway 132 west of Modesto when a man in a car offers to help them tighten the nuts on a loose tire. Instead, he disables their vehicle and gives them a ride under the guise of driving them to a service station. The man then drives them around for several hours without stopping. Johns escapes by jumping out the door with her infant and later identifies her kidnapper as the man depicted in a wanted poster for the Zodiac.
July 26, 1970: The Chronicle receives another letter from the Zodiac in which he makes an unsubstantiated claim of killing 13 people.
July 8, 1974: In his last verified letter to The Chronicle, the Zodiac complains about the columnist Count Marco, who he says "always needs to feel superior to everyone."