Was Tahoe disappearance linked to Zodiac killer?

Tahoe Daily-Tribune

Nov. 15, 2000
By Gregory Crofton

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. - Her bathroom light was left on and there were no signs of a struggle. Piles of clothes lay neatly folded in her new apartment, but 25-year-old Donna Lass never came home to put them away. Lass disappeared in 1970 working a late-night shift at a Stateline casino nursing station.

Thirty years later little progress has been made in solving the mystery, but South Shore detectives have been investigating Lass' case since August thinking she might have been a victim of a serial killer who called himself the Zodiac.

The killer sent dozens of letters to several California newspapers that began with the words, "This is the Zodiac speaking." They also were filled with astrologic-type coded messages and threats written in capital letter English. In the letters the Zodiac took credit for five murders, two attempted murders and a kidnapping; all in California in 1969 and 1970. The self-proclaimed murderer made phone calls, too.

On Sept. 27, 1969, a man was audacious enough to call Napa Police Department around 7 p.m. and claim that 45 minutes earlier he stabbed to death two people. One victim survived. But did this terrifying murderer ever come to South Lake Tahoe?

Since August, South Lake Tahoe Police Detective Tom Conner has been reviewing a report compiled by Harvey Hines, a 66-year-old investigator from Groveland, Calif., who claims Donna Lass was kidnapped and murdered by the Zodiac. Hines, a retired policeman who has been investigating the case since 1973, became interested in South Shore after the Zodiac sent a postcard to media that stated he had claimed his 12th victim in the Tahoe area. He soon found two supplemental South Lake Tahoe Police reports filed March 25, 1970, that piqued his interest.

In the reports, a woman claimed she met a strange man at the International House of Pancakes on U.S. Highway 50 who wanted to read her astrological chart. Later that day the man came to her house to read the chart he prepared. He eventually left her house without incident, but the description she gave police is similar to that of others who encountered the Zodiac.

By 1976, Hines identified a man he believes is the serial killer, a person who is still alive. "I was doing this on my own," Hines said. "Why didn't the other agencies take it and run? Because they had all their own suspects. There was so much departmental jealousy it was thick enough to cut with a knife."

In late August, as part of a 30-year-memorial push by the Lass family to solve the case, the investigator presented an 80-page report to South Shore law enforcement agencies. Conner took an interest in the case, as did a Douglas County investigator, and together they began working on it. Conner has gone over Hines' report four times, but has found holes in it that he said he needs to review with the investigator.

The report aside, last week Conner collected a blood sample from Lass' older sister, Mary Pilker, 66, and ran a check on Lass' Social Security card and nursing license. The blood sample was taken with hopes of finding a genetic match through the database maintained by the Department of Justice.

"There is the possibility that her remains have already been found and entered into the data bank," Conner said. "If we get a match at least we'll know where she was found. Hopefully that would be some kind of closure for the family." Conner also received from the FBI a psychological profile of the Zodiac that he plans to study.

While the work being done by Conner is appreciated, family members said they are not satisfied with the investigation. "I haven't heard from anyone," Mary Pilker said. "It is quite a disappointment. Conner seems to be doing as much as he can and he seems to be doing it all on his own time." Mary's son, Don, said most frustrating to him is that two women are alive who he thinks can identify the Zodiac but who have not been interviewed by law enforcement.

One woman, Kathleen Johns, says she was a victim of the Zodiac on March 22, 1970. Johns told police she and her infant daughter escaped his grasp when they jumped from his car and ran into a field near Patterson, Calif. When she got to the Patterson Police Station, Johns saw a sketch of the killer on the wall and yelled, "That's him."

Years later Hines presented a number of photographs to Johns. The man she picked out immediately as her abductor is the same man Hines has suspected for the past 24 years to be the Zodiac Killer.