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Inside the Insidious Mind of the Zodiac Killer

Venture into the encrypted taunts and horrific crimes of one of America's most disturbing serial killers.

Black background of handwriting that says "This is the Zodiac speaking."
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  • Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

“I like killing people because it is so much fun.”

So begins a message, written in cipher, appended to one of the eeriest and most infamous letters ever sent by a serial killer to the authorities—in this case, the so-called Zodiac Killer via newspapers in San Francisco and Vallejo, California in 1969. By then, the unknown assailant had already killed at least three people, and severely injured a fourth. Before he was done, he would claim at least two more lives—and take credit for many more.

Even while the crimes were playing out, the Zodiac became one of the most notorious serial slayers in American history—within just a couple of years, the killings provided the inspiration for the Clint Eastwood vehicle, Dirty Harry. Yet, for all the publicity the crimes generated as they were happening and in the years since, we still don’t know for certain how many victims the Zodiac Killer claimed—or even who he really was.

What did the Zodiac Killer do? 

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  • The Zodiac in disguise as described by Bryan Hartnell.

    Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

So what do we know about the Zodiac—aside from that he probably wasn’t actually Ted Cruz, given that Cruz wasn’t born until a year after the Zodiac’s crimes were committed? That story begins on the night of December 20, 1968, in a lovers’ lane in the small California town of Benicia, where two high schoolers, David Faraday and Betty Jensen were parked. Before the night was over, Faraday had been shot in the head, Jensen five times in the back as she tried to flee. Neither victim survived.

These were the first murders widely attributed to the Zodiac Killer, though months would pass before another killing, and it would be almost an entire year before the killer took on the name “Zodiac.” More than half-a-year later, shortly before midnight on the Fourth of July, 19-year-old Michael Mageau and 22-year-old Darlene Ferrin parked at Blue Rock Springs in Vallejo, California, only about four miles from where the Zodiac’s previous murders had taken place.

What followed would have been eerily familiar, had the young couple known to connect the two events. A second car pulled into the lot and parked behind them, its occupant getting out and shining a flashlight directly into their eyes to blind them before opening fire with a 9mm Luger.

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  • Survivor Michael Mageau in 2007.

    Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Ferrin was pronounced dead upon her arrival at the hospital but, despite his injuries—which included being shot in the face, neck, and chest at close range—Mageau survived. The next day, a man phoned the Vallejo Police Department and claimed responsibility for both attacks. It was the first time the authorities had heard from the killer who would later begin calling himself the Zodiac—but it wouldn’t be the last.

On August 1, 1969, three nearly identical letters arrived at area newspapers. These letters not only took credit for the killings, the writer demanded that they be published on the front page of the paper, or he would kill a dozen more people over the weekend. While the papers eventually published the letters, including a 408-character cipher, they did not do so according to his demands, yet no murder spree accompanied the following weekend.

Why do they call him the Zodiac Killer?

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  • One of the Zodiac's letters to the San Francisco Chronicle. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By August 8, the cipher had been cracked, but no information about the killer’s identity was contained within. Instead, it presented a heavily misspelled mission statement in which the killer claimed to kill for the fun of it—and because he believed his victims would become his slaves in the afterlife. He also said he would not tell the authorities his identity, because then they try to “slow down or stop” his collecting of slaves.

Yet, by the time the cipher had been decoded, the authorities at least had something to call the killer, provided by another letter, this one sent only to The San Francisco Examiner. “Dear Editor,” it began, “This is the Zodiac speaking.” It was the first time the killer had used the unique sobriquet that would soon become so familiar.

Related: 16 Unsolved True Crime Cases that Haunt Our Readers

How many people did the Zodiac kill? 

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  • Note from the Zodiac on Bryan Hartnell's car listing his murders up to that point.

    Photo Credit: Public Domain

On September 27, two college students were picnicking at Lake Berryessa when they were approached by an armed man wearing an executioner-style hood with clip-on sunglasses and a black bib on his chest with a white, crosshair-like symbol on it. He forced Cecelia Shepard to tie up Bryan Hartnell before tying up Shepard himself. Then he produced a knife and stabbed the couple repeatedly.

Despite the severity of their wounds—Hartnell was stabbed six times, Shepard ten—Hartnell survived, providing the authorities with their second, albeit incomplete due to the hood, description of the killer who had, within two weeks, claimed his final known victim. On October 11, a cab driver named Paul Stine picked up a passenger in San Francisco. The passenger then shot Stine once in the head, taking his wallet, keys, and part of his bloodstained shirt.

It was this last that would tie the crime to the Zodiac, as subsequent letters from the killer contained pieces of the shirt to prove his connection. In fact, within just a few days, the San Francisco Chronicle received a letter, complete with bloody shirt piece, in which the Zodiac threatened a busload of school children, suggesting that he would “just shoot out the front tire & then pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.”

Over the next few years, the Zodiac would continue to send taunting letters to the authorities, often including additional ciphers, some of which have still not been solved. By April 20, 1970, he began “keeping score” at the bottom of these letters. By the time the Chronicle received what is believed to have been the final Zodiac letter in January of 1974, in which he praised The Exorcist as the “best satirical comidy [sic] that I have ever seen,” his claimed “score” was up to 37.

While the Zodiac has been linked by speculation to a wide range of crimes over the years, however, those listed here are the only ones with which he has ever been officially connected. Therefore, the exact number of this brutal killer’s victims is, as yet, unknown.

Related: 29 Unsolved Murders That Will Send Shivers Down Your Spine

Who was the Zodiac Killer?

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Though San Francisco Police Department investigated more than 2,500 individuals over the course of decades, only one official suspect was ever named, a former school teacher and convicted sex offender named Arthur Leigh Allen.

Allen was the favored suspect of Robert Graysmith, the political cartoonist who became obsessed with the case and whose 1986 book Zodiac became the basis for David Fincher’s 2007 film of the same name. Actor Mark Ruffalo played police inspector Dave Toschi in Zodiac, and later claimed that Toschi told him, speaking of Allen, “As soon as that guy walked in the door, I knew it was him.”

Was the Zodiac Killer caught?

Allen died in 1992, without ever being charged with the Zodiac killings. Over the years, countless private individuals have attempted to crack the case. On October 6, 2021, an independent team of 40 “Case Breakers” claimed to have identified the killer, but the authorities did not seem to agree with their findings. “The Zodiac Killer case remains open,” the FBI told news outlets. “We have no new information to share at the moment.”

Featured still from "This is the Zodiac Speaking" via Warner Bros.