The Mystery of the Zodiac Killer

By Rhiannon Kinnear

After more than 50 years, a team of cold case investigators may have found evidence of a new suspect which could potentially solve one of the world’s most infamous cold cases… The Zodiac Killer.  

4 July 1969 – Blue Rock Springs Park, Vallejo, California 

A young couple, 22-year-old Darlene Ferrin and 19-year-old Michael Mageau, go to a secluded car park within a park in California, presumably for privacy as Ferrin is in fact a married woman at the time and wishes to tell Mageau something but, she will never get the chance. 

A car parks alongside the couple, driving away almost immediately afterwards and after around 10 minutes, it parks once again but this time, directly behind the couple. The driver approaches Ferrin’s car, shining a flashlight at them before shooting multiple times at close range. The killer begins to walk away but hears Mageau moaning and returns to the scene to shoot the couple again before finally driving away. When the police arrive both are alive however it is only Mageau who lives to give a description of his attacker and Ferrin’s killer- a young white man, between 26 and 30 years old, with a stocky build, around 5’8” with light brown curly hair. 

Shortly after this attack, the police would receive an eerie call from an anonymous source claiming this murder, as well as the murder of another young couple, were his work.

 A handwritten letter would soon be received by three Californian newspapers in August 1969, with the author claiming to be the killer. The letter provided details only known by the police, as well as the notorious mark of the zodiac and the taunting demands that it must be printed, or more murders would be committed. From this would commence what has come to be known as one of the most infamous strings of letters connected to a cold case. 

The Zodiac Killer went on to continue writing taunting letters to the police until 1971, when the letters stopped for a period, until the final letter was received in 1974. 

Throughout this time, the killer claimed to have taken the lives of 37 people, of which the authorities have confirmed five, (the Case Breakers believe the number to be closer to 10), one of which being 22-year-old Cecelia Shepard and the other, taxi driver, 29-year-old Paul Stine. On 27 September 1969 at Lake Berryessa, Napa in California, Shepard and 20-year-old Bryan Hartnell saw a man hiding behind a tree during their picnic. He later emerged with an executioner’s hood and the notorious mark of the zodiac (the symbol he would sign on the message he painted on Hartnell’s car, sadistically detailing the three murders) to restrain and then stab them. 

Not long after this, on 11 October 1969 in San Francisco, the killer struck again, posing as a passenger, before shooting taxi driver Paul Stine in the head,This murder was witnessed by several people, with their depscriptions matching others, but this time with a reddish-brown crew cut, and heavy rimmed glasse. The infamous image that would go on to become a composite sketch on one of the most famous wanted posters of all time. 

Over the years, evidence has been discovered and then dismissed, a long list of suspects spanning decades questioned, and re-questioned, and hope for closing the case generally lost. A bloody fingerprint was found at the scene of one of his victims however in a letter, the killer himself, claimed the fingerprint was planted to throw the authorities off their trail. In 2002, one of the latest developments in the case, a genetic profile was made using saliva found on the stamps of one of the killer’s letters and whilst there was not enough to create a full genetic profile to identify, it has been used to narrow the long list of suspects, including, most famously, Arthur Leigh Allen (a suspect once identified by Mageau in a line-up) as well as Lawrence ‘Kane’ Kaye and Earl Van Best JR.

Recently, there has been a new buzz about the case due to a team of volunteer investigators who call themselves the Case Breakers. The Case Breakers are a team of more than 40 former law enforcement investigators, military intelligence officers and journalists who devote their time to solving cold cases- most recently, the Zodiac Killer cold case, from which they claim to have found evidence which implicates Gary Francis Poste, a former US Air Force Veteran and House Painter who died aged 80 in 2018, of being the Zodiac Killer and attributes several more murders to the serial killer. 

Some of this evidence includes- 

  • A paint-splattered Timex watch found by police at the scene of a murder which was purchased at a military base- this would link to Poste’s job as a painter at the time and him being a former US Air Force Veteran.
  • Brown hair found in a suspected victim’s hand matched that of Poste’s hair at the time.
  • Poste was in a car crash in 1959 which left him with forehead scars like those in the composite sketch of the Zodiac Killer from the San Francisco Police Department. 
  • Poste’s name is said to fit the cypher from the Zodiac Killer which is supposed to reveal his identity.
  • The Case Breakers have collected statements from those who knew Poste such as family, friends and those who worked alongside him in the military who claim he had hurt animals and was known to be aggressive and threatening. 

The Case Breakers say that the Zodiac Killer was likely to have committed the murder of Cheri Jo Bates on 30 October 1966. Bates was an 18-year-old student in Riverside, California, stabbed to death outside of Riverside City College. The Case Breakers claim that their theory could be quickly confirmed by simply comparing DNA from Bate’s killer. 

Responding to the claims, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) told CNN that the Zodiac Killer case remains an open investigation.

“We are unable to speak to potential suspects as this is still an open investigation,” the SFPD said in a statement.

The FBI, in support of the SFPD, did not acknowledge the claims.

“The Zodiac Killer case remains open. We have no new information to share at the moment,” the FBI stated in a statement to CNN. 

The media and the internet, particularly True Crime communities, have aided in widely spreading the suspicions and evidence given by the Case Breakers, believing Poste to be a “very strong suspect” in the case despite the teenager’s death being hundreds of miles away and never being linked to the Zodiac Killer; with the first confirmed Zodiac murder being in 1968. 

The involvement of not only the Case Breakers but the internet questions whether it is a good idea to spread theories, even more so, unconfirmed theories in the digital age. The sheer power of a community of motivated people, enthralled by true crime, moving in unison to research and solve cases is an incredible attribute and without a doubt can be, and has been used, as an asset in solving both recent and cold cases. The Zodiac Killer case, however, does beg the question whether the authorities should be careful what they wish for.

In stark contrast to years gone by, many are so willing to aid the investigation that as a consequence, theories can be imagined up on little evidence and the lines between truth and fantasy blurred. It is at this point vital investigations get disrupted, and lives and careers can be jeopardised, if not totally destroyed. 

Is it, therefore, time to reconsider and ask ourselves, where should the internet and the world draw the line?