'The Most Dangerous Animal of All': Revisiting the Zodiac Killer, the infamous serial murderer shrouded in mystery
For much of the 1960s and later, America became the den that housed wanted criminals and serial killers. One of the most notorious among them was the Zodiac Killer, a psychopathic killer whose identity is still a perplexing mystery.
Even 50 years later, the killer that committed a total of seven known murders, is yet to be named. Over the years umpteen theories have surfaced regarding his identity, and many people have claimed to ahve known who he was. However, the clues never added up.
In May 2014, Louisiana-based engineer Gary Stewart published his memoir 'The Most Dangerous Animal of All'. In the book, he details the search for his biological father, which ultimately renders him some shocking revelations, conjuring a possible link to the serial killer. FX is adapting Stewart's book into a four-hour episode documentary.
It will deduce his claims and rummage through known information of the Zodiac Killer. Here is the true story of the murderer who petrified the nation with his crimes.
Master of the zodiac, symbols, and ciphers
In the 1960s, a murderer on the loose began to terrorize Northern California. It wasn't until 1969, that the murderer was baptized as the 'Zodiac Killer'.
On August 1 of that year, San Fransisco Examiner, San Fransisco Chronicle and Vallejo Times-Herald (local Californian bulletins) received an identical handwritten letter, each with no return address on the back. Addressed to the editor, the writer said, "I am the killer of the 2 teenagers last Christmas at Lake Herman", and proceeded to describe the murders elaborately - details only the murderer could have known. He also dared the newspapers to publish the letters on the front page.
The letter and those that arrived so forth, all brandished a bizarre symbol - a circle encasing an 'x' mark. At the end of every letter was a kind of anagram that he asserted had his identity. This later came to be known as the Zodiac Killer's official signature.
All Bay Area police departments worked together with the FBI to carry out murder investigations, using the letter as key evidence. The next few letters that arrived began with the salutation, "Dear Editor: This is the Zodiac speaking", followed by the precise description of a recent murder scene. He also taunted the police for failing to decipher the codes and catch him. A high school teacher and his wife, several days later, managed to solve the cipher that said, "I like killing people because it is so much fun. It is more fun than killing wild game in the forest because man is the most dangerous animal of all."
It was his ploy to taunt the Bay Area newspapers and the police through his letter, soon after committing a murder. In 1974, the letters abruptly stopped arriving, but the hunt for the deranged Zodiac Killer never ceased.
While investigations have concluded that the Zodiac Killer is guilty of five murders and two attempted murders. But through his letters, he hinted at having carried out at least 37 killings. The first of his verified offenses is the twin murder of 17-year-old David Faraday and his 16-year-old girlfriend Betty Lou Jensen. Their bodies were found in a car in a remote spot on Lake Herman Road, Vallejo, California on the night of December 20, 1968. The police were befuddled, failing to determine a reason for the murder or pinpoint a suspect.
On the morning of July 5, 1969, the body of 22-year-old Darlene Ferrin and her injured 19-year-old boyfriend, Mike Mageau, were found in a parked car. It was a similar setting as the first known murder and in a remote Vallejo location. Mageau told the police that a figure approached their vehicle with a flashlight and open fired on them, killing Ferrin. He also managed to give a vague description of the figure, but despite finding fingerprints, the police were unable to track the culprit. An hour after the incident took place, a man called the Vallejo Police Department, claiming to be the killer and described the murder in vivid details. He also mentioned the murders of Faraday and Jensen.
He struck again on the evening of September 27, 1969. Adorned in a hooded shirt, bearing his circle-cross signature. He approached Cecelia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell, while they relaxed in an isolated area at Lake Berryessa, Napa County, tied them up and brutally stabbed them. He'd also etched a message on their car door for the police, before hightailing from the scene. Again, he contacted the Napa Police Department as the culprit. While both victims had been in a critical condition when help arrived, only Hartnell survived the attack.
Paul Stine, a 29-year-old taxi driver was next to be killed. On October 11, 1969, his body was found in his taxi, in Presidio Heights, San Fransisco. Just as the previous murders, the San Fransico Chronicle received an anonymous letter that claimed responsibility for the crime.
The 1963 murder of Robert Domingos and his fiancée Linda Edwards on a beach near Gaviota State Park has also been tentatively linked to the Zodiac Killer. Their bodies were discovered bound in ropes, lying together inside a dilapidated shack. There were signs of struggle and each of them was shot multiple times. In 1974, the police drew similarities to this case from the Shepard/Hartnell incident in 1969 and presumed it was the Zodiac Killer's doing.
Another possible Zodiac Killer murder is that of 18-year-old Cheri Bates on October 30, 1966, in Riverside, California. Her abandoned Volkswagen beetle was found in the library parking lot of her college, and her body was recovered from between two houses.
She'd succumbed to several stabs and a slashing to her throat. A month later, the local police department and newspaper received identical typewritten letters. Titled "The Confession", the letter claimed responsibility for Bates' murder. “Miss Bates was stupid. She went to the slaughter like a lamb,” it said, “I am not sick. I am insane.” Joseph Bates, Cheri's father received a similar letter in April 1967, that read “Bates had to die. There will be more", and was signed with a scrawl that resembled the letter “Z.”
The most dangerous animal of all
The Zodiac Killer was last heard from in 1974, after which he vanished leaving no trace behind. Since then several investigations have been carried, with some still persisting to this day. Many people have come forward with theories as to who the Zodiac Killer could be.
Unabomber Ted Kacznyski and cult murderer Charles Manson were among the ones to be suspected as well.
Gary Stewart, an engineer, while on the hunt to track down his biological father found uncanny details that seemed to connect him to the Zodiac Killer. Concrete evidence that Stewart had gathered over a period of a decade had convinced him that his birth father, was, in fact, the Zodiac Killer.
Earl Van Best Jr. a warranted rapist, resembled the 40-year-old viral police sketch of the suspected killer. Stewart concluded that his father was infamous cryptic killer that stirred the nation with his brutal murders.
He published his findings in his 2014 book 'The Most Dangerous Animal of All', which encompasses his personal research, interviews with family friends and the law enforcement authorities. He also examines and compares handwriting samples of the killer, to his fathers and the police sketches to some photographs of his father.
Stewart claims that they all bear strong resemblances to every existing piece of information and recorded documentation from the Zodiac Killer file.
FX has produced an eponymous scripted documentary based on Stewart's memoir. It comprises a four-episode marathon of one hour each. 'The Most Dangerous Animal of All' will premiere back-to-back on Friday, 6 March, 8/7c p.m. ET.