15 Oct

Based On A True Story: Zodiac

Posted by Bryan White | Saturday October 15, 2011 | Based On A True Story

ZodiacWhen I was a kid I had what many would consider an unhealthy fascination with serial killers that bordered on the obsessive. What’s funny is that I totally didn’t fit the stereotype. By all accounts, I was your average teenager. I stayed up late. I partied on the weekends. I played a lot of video games. I hated homework. There was nothing overt about me that drew me to the dark side of horror movies and heavy metal. My family was kind of fucked up but whose wasn’t? The only thing remarkable about us was that my parents were still married and by all accounts still loved each other. I had a good support system, too. Must be a symptom of growing up in a small town where nothing ever happens. The only things to do are smoke weed and and watch movies.

I was probably 16 years old when I found a box of True Crime trading cards at the store that I bought my comics at. Chris’ Cards and Comics down in Seabrook, New Hampshire for the longest time was the only place within a reasonable distance to buy books. Chris’ place was sort of dingy, located in a rotting strip mall next to a fireworks store, a shitty tattoo shop and a porno store. Between my friends and I, he moved a lot of comics but I think his bread and butter was buying and selling baseball card collections and other assortments of trading cards. This was the early 90’s, though, and speculation trading was ramping up in comic book circles, so publishers sprang to life cranking out anything that looked like a collectible. I never fell for it. That was my brother’s scene. He’d buy anything with a foil embossed variant cover as long as it was on clearance and because of that he wound up with a lot of comics nobody has ever heard of and a shit ton of collectibles nobody wanted. The only strain of this disease that I ever fell for were True Crime Trading Cards.  The first one I ever pulled from the first package I bought was Charles Whitman. I remember this. The last one I pulled from the pack was The Zodiac. I was hooked, immediately. I bought the book. I had other favorites, too, but none of them taunted the cops with homebrew encrypted messages. It turned out that The Zodiac’s cypher wasn’t that hard to break but come on! How many serial killers do that? His entire routine had an air of evil murderous mastermind behind it.

Zodiac composite sketchFincher’s flick is based on the same book that I read, Zodiac, and it pretty much sticks to the facts. You probably already realize this but The Zodiac killer was real. He falls into a hotspot in American history when serial killers were publicized in the media and given cute names by the people investigating the crimes. Zodiac made his hunting grounds in the San Francisco Bay Area between 1968 and 1972 where he killed a confirmed five people out an attempted seven. His first victims were Betty Jensen and David Faraday who were killed near their parked car one night when Zodiac pulled up next to them in his car and ordered them out. They were both shot to death. His second pair of victims, Michael Mageau and Darlene Ferrin, were killed in a similar fashion. Zodiac pulled his car up behind them to block them in, walked up to the window with a flashlight and a pistol and shot them both through the window. As he left the scene, Zodiac heard Mageau moaning from the car and returned to shoot them both twice more. Following this killing, Zodiac called the police from a pay phone to report the killing and at the same time, took credit for the shooting of Faraday and Jensen. Despite being shot all over the place, Michael Mageau managed to survive the encounter. Darlene Ferrin wasn’t so lucky.

Following the second attack, Zodiac begins sending letters to Bay Area newspapers, introducing himself and taking credit for the murders. As well, Zodiac threatened that he would drive around, killing whoever he found by themselves if the four parts of his cryptogram weren’t published in the newspapers who received the letters. The cypher was eventually broken by a married couple who were crypto-enthusiasts. The decoded message read:

I like killing because it so much fun it is more fun than killing wild game in the forrest because man is the most dangerous animal of all to kill something gives me the most thrilling experience it is even better than getting your rocks off with a girl the best part of it is thae when I die I will be reborn in paradice and thei have killed will become my slaves I will not give you my name because you will try to sloi down and atop my collecting of slaves for my afterlife ebeoreitemethhpiti

Zodiac hoodFollowing this in 1969, Zodiac struck again. This time he presented himself to Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard while they picnicked at Lake Berryessa. He approached them holding a pistol and wearing an executioner’s style hood with a bib displaying the cross/circle symbol that would eventually come to represent the Zodiac. He would start using it in his letters to the police and the media. He held Hartnell and Shepard at gunpoint and ordered Shepard to tie up Hartnell, telling them that he wanted their money and their car but wound up stabbing them both repeatedly where they lay. Both Hartnell and Shepard would survive the attack for a time. Shepard eventually slipped into a coma and died a couple of days later but Hartnell was survived and provided the first detailed description of the killer that the police had.

Finally, cab driver Paul Stine was shot to death in his cab and a piece of his shirt was sent with a letter from Zodiac to The San Francisco Chronicle. The death of Stine would be the last confirmed murder by Zodiac but this letter contained a claim of a detailed plan to attack and kill a school bus full of children but it never happened.

A second cypher was sent to the papers but remains as unsolved as this mystery. There were also more attacks and deaths but conclusively linking them to Zodiac is not possible at this time since the MO changes and the only thing to go on are letters from the killer, including details only the killer would know, claiming to be the Zodiac. The chronicle received these letters right up to 1990. There have also been numerous suspects in the killing but no evidence could conclusively link any of them to the killings. The Zodiac murders remain unsolved to this day and most likely will never be solved.


  1. October 17, 2011 11:54 pm

    Christine Hadden

    I just wanted to tell you I have truly enjoyed this series of ‘Based on a True Story’ – you put so much work into it and they have really been a pleasure to read!

    Oh, and I have a huge obsession with serial killers as well, have had since I was a teen. I also grew up in a mediocre small town with nothing to do and hey, my grandfather was a minister…but I was still drawn to the dark and macabre. Who knows why we turn out this way??

    Anyway, great stuff!

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