Murder mystery | 

Has the mysterious Zodiac Killer really been identified?

In October, a cold case team claimed to have solved the half-century old mystery
Clodagh Meaney

In late the 1960s, the Zodiac Killer terrorised Northern California, and for years the FBI, Police in California, and citizen detectives alike have all tried to uncover the identity of the elusive killer.

During his crime spree, the unnamed murderer created a mysterious persona for himself by contacting authorities in taunting letters to lay a claim on his killings, only referring to himself as the moniker ‘Zodiac’.

The Zodiac also sent four complex ciphers to authorities and to journalist Paul Avery. Only two of the killer’s riddles are solved.

One, known as the Z-340 cipher, was solved in December 2020 but it did not provide the FBI with any further clues about Zodiac’s real identity.

The Zodiac used this symbol as his signature on letters

The Zodiac used this symbol as his signature on letters

Described by eyewitness as a white adult male, approximately 5’8, between 25 and 40 years old with short, light curly hair and glasses, the Zodiac killer was responsible for five known murders, but he has claimed to be behind 37.

The Murders

He first struck on December 20th 1968 when he shot David Arthur Faraday (17) and Betty Lou Jensen (16) on Lake Herman Road. The Zodiac waited almost seven months before he killed again, shooting Michael Renault Mageau (19), and Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin (22) on July 4, 1969 in a car park in Vallejo.

While Mageau survived and was able to give an eyewitness description to the police, Darlene was dead before she reached the hospital.

Continuing his MO of attacking couples, but changing his choice of weapon, the Zodiac opted for a more personal style of murder for his next attack. On September 27th 1969, he stabbed Bryan Calvin Hartnell (20) and Cecelia Ann Shepard (22) at Lake Berryessa.

Hartnell survived eight stab wounds to the back and provided police with a description of his attacker, which led to one of the most haunting composite sketches of the cold blooded killer, depicting him wearing a hood marked with his signature. His partner Shepard died as a result of her injuries two days later.

Sketch depicting the Zodiac in 1969 as described to San Francisco Police by survivor Bryan Calvin Hartnell.

Sketch depicting the Zodiac in 1969 as described to San Francisco Police by survivor Bryan Calvin Hartnell.

The final murder attributed to the Zodiac was that of taxi driver Paul Lee Stine. He shot and killed the 29-year-old in San Francisco on October 11, 1969, less than two weeks following his previous attack at Lake Berryessa.

Police officer Donald Fouke claims to have seen the killer flee the scene.

After this murder, no more slayings are officially attributed to Zodiac, but his final correspondence was in January 1974, where he wrote: “Me = 37, SFPD = 0.”

The unsolved case still gets lots of attention to this day. The case has been the subject of many documentaries as well as the 2007 film Zodiac, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr.

Identity

Despite continued investigations, and many people claiming to know who the Zodiac Killer is, over 50 years later, the case continues to fascinate. While many believe a man named Arthur Leigh Allen is behind the murders, based on circumstantial evidence, he was officially cleared in 2002 using DNA.

Arthur Leigh Allen was a suspect in the case.

Arthur Leigh Allen was a suspect in the case.

In early October of this year, news broke across the world that the infamous Zodiac Killer had finally been identified. It came after a group of citizen sleuths and former detectives came together in a bid to uncover the truth behind one one of true crime's most enduring mysteries.

After spending years gathering and analysing evidence, the group who call themselves the Casebreakers announced that they had solved the case.

In a press release, they revealed that the Zodiac Killer was a man named Gary Francis Poste who died in 2018.

Casebreakers believe they can prove Gary Francis Poste is the infamous killer.

Casebreakers believe they can prove Gary Francis Poste is the infamous killer.

“Subsequent collaborative eyewitnesses, court affidavits, dozens of the killer’s personal photos and a possible DNA match-up are among the astonishing new evidence uncovered by the Casebreakers,” they said, further claiming that the former FBI members in their ranks have said that their evidence is “irrefutable.”

The Casebreakers are a team made up of over 40 volunteers including private investigators, forensic experts, former FBI agents, US army officers, detectives and more.

The Evidence

The group claims the key to proving that Poste was the Zodiac Killer is the remote location where he buried the guns he used in the murders.

Casebreakers say that the weapons will provide ballistics, fingerprints and DNA. They also believe that they have uncovered a series of other murders that can be atrributed to the killer based on signatures found at the scene of various unsolved crimes.

A man in his 50s who claims he was groomed by Poste during his youth and turned into a “killing machine”, tipped the team off to the location of the guns and the other supposed killings.

While there has been more than one account of Gary Poste being a violent thug, that is not enough evidence to prove he was a serial killer.

Gary Francis Poste was jailed in 2016 for domestic abuse after reportedly pushing his wife Mary down the stairs

Gary Francis Poste was jailed in 2016 for domestic abuse after reportedly pushing his wife Mary down the stairs

Casebreakers have claimed that photographs from Poste’s darkroom, including a snap of him wearing the famous Zodiac hood, will prove that he is the infamous killer. Further to this the group say that by removing the letters of his name from one of his ciphers, the cryptogram reveals an alternative message. However, they have not revealed what this message is.

The Casebreakers also point to scars on Poste’s forehead which they say match similar scars depicted in police sketches of the Zodiac Killer. However, no eyewitness mentioned forehead scarring, and the depiction of line’s on the killer’s forehead are more likely to be expression lines.

When they finalised their evidence, the group said they approached five police and state agencies who would not cooperate with them.

FBI Evidence

When it comes to the known evidence in the possession of the FBI, who is currently handling the case, they have few tools at their disposal including handwriting samples, eyewitness accounts, composite sketches and ballistics.

The Vallejo Police Department in California have all of the Zodiac's original letters and ciphers.

The Vallejo Police Department in California have all of the Zodiac's original letters and ciphers.

They also have a partial DNA sample obtained from stamps licked by the killer, which can only be used to rule suspects out.

They also have a physical and a psychological profile of their killer, as well as finger and palm prints lifted from his letters, as well as from Paul Stine’s taxicab.

At the Lake Berryessa crime scene, police found footprints from a military style wing walker boot, leading investigators to believe that their suspect was in the military.

In 2018 they sent a sample of the partial DNA to online DNA database GEDmatch - which was used to identify the Golden State Killer as Joseph De Angelo. Despite stating that results would be available within weeks, three years later no results have been reported.

It is likely that the FBI may have more evidence or information that they have kept under wraps to protect the integrity of their investigation.

Is it solved?

So, has the identity of the Zodiac Killer been revealed? Is the circumstantial evidence provided by the Casebreakers enough to close the case?

While Gary Francis Poste could be the Zodiac killer, it's also possible that he's not.

Circumstantial evidence can be a useful tool in the investigation, yet the case is unlikely to be solved until authorities are able to make a definitive and undeniable DNA match between a suspect and the killer’s known DNA and/or fingerprints.

(L-R) David Faraday, Betty Lou Jensen, Darlene Ferrin, Cecelia Ann Shepard and Paul Stine.

(L-R) David Faraday, Betty Lou Jensen, Darlene Ferrin, Cecelia Ann Shepard and Paul Stine.

With new and ever emerging forensic technology, it is likely that one day the world will know who took the lives of the five victims whose names often get lost in the story.

We can only hope that soon the families of David Faraday, Betty Lou Jensen, Darlene Ferrin, Cecelia Ann Shepard and Paul Stine get the closure they deserve.

As of December 2021, the case is still open and active.


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