Voigt claims unique data, adds 80 megabytes of details in four years

The Oregonian

July 28, 2002
By Margie Boule

Tom Voigt threw a party on the Fourth of July. Some might think the party was odd, or gruesome or fascinating.

The media flocked to Tom's party. A New York crew from a network newsmagazine showed up; their story will air in prime time in a few weeks. A documentary maker shot all day in the park where the party was held. Most people at the party had never met one another. There was a nephrologist, a doctor who specializes in kidney disease, whose most notorious client died in 1992. There was the head of a government criminal research lab, giving interviews to reporters. There were relatives and friends and co-workers of murder victims. There was a former member of the Charles Manson family, "an old burnt-out hippie from the Haight," Tom Voigt calls him, talking about bodies buried in the California desert. All these people and more than 100 more from Georgia, Colorado, Texas, New York, California and the Northwest could have spent the Fourth of July at family barbecues or hometown picnics. Instead they showed up in Vallejo, Calif., for the first Task Force Meeting sponsored by the spectacularly successful Web site that Tom Voigt runs right here in Portland: zodiackiller.com.

It's the serial murder case that just won't die. No media outlet has received a bizarre letter from the Zodiac killer, who terrorized California in the late 1960s and early '70s, for 28 years. Despite circumstantial evidence that seemed to indicate a schoolteacher named Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac, Allen died in 1992 without ever having been arrested. But the case captivated the public. And it continues to be an obsession for large numbers of people who can't seem to get enough information about the killer who sent letters to California newspapers with encoded messages, crime details and claims he'd killed more than 100 people. The letters stopped in 1974.

Other serial killers have eluded capture. Why does the Zodiac still fascinate? "The fact is," says Tom, whose Web site got more than 900,000 hits in May, "this guy turned himself into a super-villain through his own doing. He was like a villain out of the Batman comics. He gave himself his own nickname, he taunted not only the police but the public, sending letters that included physical evidence. Just his handwriting was evidence, and he knew it. He would say, 'Here is everything you need to catch me, and I'll bet you still can't do it.' "And guess what: He was right."

So on this year's all-American holiday, amateur detectives, police investigators, former neighbors of key suspects and others made their way to Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo, where the Zodiac Killer murdered two people on July 4, 1969. They brought old stories and pet theories and trunkloads of files. "The idea was to get together and bring materials they've collected over the years, and over the course of nine or 10 hours really be able to make some headway," Tom says. "If the police had done this from the beginning, sharing information from different jurisdictions, who knows? Maybe the case would have been solved."

So how did a Portland man become ringleader of this motley band of amateurs and professionals? Tom Voigt was just a toddler when the Zodiac was on his spree. But Tom's dad was the editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner newspaper; Tom remembers hearing his dad talk about the Zodiac when he was a kid. But Tom's personal fascination began in 1995, after he saw the case featured on the TV show "Unsolved Mysteries." Tom says it had been so long since people had heard about the Zodiac that "many people were starved for information. I did a few years' research and started the Web site in March 1998." There were other Zodiac sites, but Tom says his "had content people hadn't seen before. That made it a must-see, a place people visited daily."

In the past four years, Tom has added 80 megabytes of material to his Web site; law enforcement officials contact him regularly. In time, Tom knew enough about the case to be considered an expert. "America's Most Wanted" hired him to produce re-enactments of the Zodiac's crimes for a TV special that got high ratings. So the show paid Tom to pursue his investigation, talking to police departments, witnesses, investigators. "It was pretty cool to be able to say, 'John Walsh sent me,' " Tom says of the show's host. People who had held their tongues for years began sending Tom e-mails, telling him things. "They'd say, 'I should have come forward before; I've been tortured by this for years.' "

At the meeting July 4, Tom heard more stories. A doctor described Arthur Allen's demeanor in a clinic one day, when he saw another patient die. Allen just kept eating an apple. "And Allen said, 'It must be that Vallejo water.' The Zodiac was always talking about water in his letters," Tom says. The roommate of a victim said the dead woman had recently dated an older military man who loved Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. "The Zodiac quoted Gilbert and Sullivan," Tom says. New leads? Old blind alleys? Tom is sure Arthur Allen was, in fact, the Zodiac. "He actually confessed to several people," he says. "He told the psychiatrist he was seeing . . . in the mid-'70s, 'I am the Zodiac, but it's your word against mine, and I'll deny it.' The psychiatrist is scared, even though Allen is dead. He thinks Allen might have had an accomplice."

In this era of high-tech criminal investigation, why hasn't the physical evidence produced new leads? A year ago, newspapers carried a story that DNA from the Zodiac's envelopes was being tested in government criminal research lab in Berkeley, Calif. "One of the most interesting guests at the task force meeting was the woman who is the head of that DNA facility," Tom says. "She said there's absolutely no testing going on." Why not, if the case still generates so much interest? Authorities have told Tom that "every time you process the evidence, you lose something. When they initially got these letters from the Zodiac, they used methods available at the time to check fingerprints. This put wear and tear on these letters. And when they tested for DNA in the late 1990s, they still had kind of primitive methods" and got no new information.

Still, thousands of people are still looking for clues and developing suspects. Tom is planning another gathering next year of professionals and self-appointed experts on the case. He has no intention of giving up the investigation. "I'm not a big fiction fan," he says. "But this is more interesting than fiction, and it actually happened. That's what captivates me. And I'm not alone."