Famous Criminals: The Zodiac Killer

The Zodiac Killer is one of the elusive serial killers of all time. His methods and his murders have wracked the minds of law enforcement since their origins in the 1960s. The Zodiac Killers spree began in the late 1960s and since then the killer himself has remained a mystery, even to present day. Attempting to discover the identity of this killer has led cult followings, copycats, and questionable claims. The most recent copycat killer coming to light as recently as 2008.

SPREE The killing spree of the Zodiac Killer lasted from the 1960s, with his first murders in 1968, into the 1970s. During his spree, the Zodiac Killer definitively claimed the lives of 5 people, and injured at least two more, although he claimed in his letters to have around 37 victims. When it came to analyzing his attacks, he tended to attack couples and his attacks on the women were much more vicious than his attacks on the men. There were very few commonalities with his victims and attacks. The only factors that stayed the same were: 1- he always seemed to attack young couples, 2- they were always in secluded areas, and 3- they were always around the holiday season. He used guns or knives, varying from attack to attack. In one of his letters, he indicated that, to him, killing was like a sport. He did it for the thrill it gave him and for the notoriety, even though the killer himself was never found, tried or accused.

WHO The Zodiac Killer was not always referred to as by that name. Originally, after his first killings, the police dubbed him the “Vallejo Killer” because of the location of the murders. He was then renamed the “Cipher Killer” as after his next attack he sent a ciphered letter that used arcane symbols to local San Francisco newspapers. He then began sending letters with demands that attacks be printed in the paper so that he could revel in reliving the murders as they were sensationalized in the press. Some of these ciphers were quickly and easily deciphered. Others, however, remain unsolved even in present day. Academics challenge themselves to crack the “unsolvable” cipher, and continue to work on it for theses and projects in their research. He finally named himself the “Zodiac Killer”, using it as a signature from the letters sent to the San Francisco papers and police. He enjoyed taunting the police through his letters, and even would call after committing the crimes to let them know where to find the bodies.

EVIDENCE Since the investigation took place during a time where criminology was not as advanced as it is today, the evidence they acquired over the course of the investigation did not yield much success. From the letters they had a handwriting sample, fingerprints and DNA; beyond that the Zodiac Killer left very little physical evidence. The FBI never formally opened their own investigation, but they did consult with the San Francisco Police with the forensic evidence. Criminological behavioral profiling was also still in its early stages during this time, so it also yielded very little results. Over time, other cases and criminals demanded more and more of the attention of the officers handling the case, and it was left unsolved.

SUSPECTS Over the course of the investigation, there were many suspects, but the most closely investigated, and the most notable suspect was Arthur Leigh Allen. He was the only suspect that the police obtained a search warrant for. The police started focusing on Allen because his friend Don Cheney reported having suspicious conversations about killing couples at random or referring to himself as “Zodiac”. He also owned a Zodiac watch that had been given to him by his mother in 1967 and owned the same type of typewriter that the cipher letters were submitted to the press were typed on. The only evidence linking him to any of the crimes was circumstantial, as neither the DNA nor the fingerprints obtained from the crime scenes or letters ever conclusively matched with his. While the sheer amount of circumstantial evidence was suspicious, there was never enough to do more than obtain and serve the search warrants. After Allen was cleared, the case remained open and unsolved and the criminal was never caught.

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