“I like killing people because it is so much fun it is more fun than killing wild game in the forest because man is the most dangerous animal of all to kill…” - Zodiac
Appearing deceptively simple, the Zodiac’s cryptic ciphers were intricate at their core and caused ample frustration in those trying to crack them. One cipher was solved in as little as three days. Another wasn’t solved until the 2000s. But each allows us to glimpse into the disturbed mind of an infamous serial killer.
While the description Cecelia Shepard gave to Ranger Sergeant William White of the Zodiac put a face to his ciphers and murderous activities, it unfortunately was not enough to uncover his true identity or shed light on why he targeted the people he did.
Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy Mackenzie delve into the litany of suspects and theories surrounding the Zodiac’s identity.
Picnicking at Napa County’s Lake Berryessa, Cecelia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell enjoy the sunshine and each other’s company. Cecelia becomes nervous when she notices someone hiding in the trees. She suggests they leave but Bryan doesn’t think they are in danger until it’s too late. Cecelia cries out at the sight of the Zodiac coming towards them with a gun in his hand – he threatens shooting them if they run.
The Zodiac demands the keys to Bryan’s car and their money, which the two readily give. Hoping that cooperation will spare their lives, Cecelia ties Bryan up and allows herself to also be tied. They lay on the grass begging the Zodiac to take the car, their money and go. He stabs them both instead.
A passing boater named Ronald Fong hears Cecelia’s screams and comes to their aide. Both victims are still alive when he arrives but there is no sign of the Zodiac. Ranger Sergeant William White arrives next at the crime scene and Cecelia gives him a description that becomes the basis for the famous police sketch of the Zodiac.
Bryan survives but Cecelia lapses into a coma and dies at the hospital.
The episode then flashes back to a similar murder three years prior in Riverside. Cheri Jo Bates stays late at the Riverside City College campus library to finish a paper due the next day. The librarian is the last to see her alive. On her way back to her dorm, Cheri is beaten and stabbed to death. Soon after, the Riverside police and local newspaper Riverside Press-Enterprise are mailed a typewritten letter titled “The Confession.” A graphic poem detailing Cheri’s stabbing is also found carved into one of the desks at the college.
Six months after Cheri’s death, the police, her family and the newspaper receive a handwritten note promising more deaths. It is signed “Z” and the writing is similar to the Zodiac’s later letters.
Police like Arthur Leigh Allen for the crime and question him hard about his proximity to Riverside and his work absence two days after Cheri was murdered. Furthermore, the Zodiac calls “man the most dangerous animal” in his first published cipher, which is a major theme in a short story Allen is said to be obsessed with – “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell.
Allen’s friend Don Cheney goes to the police when a murder literature book he is working on becomes increasingly elaborate. Many of the tactics Allen describes to Cheney are suspiciously also used by the Zodiac right down to the crosshairs symbol. Cheney tells police that he’s never actually seen a manuscript, but that Allen tells him about the book he’s writing all the time.
Police get a search warrant and find a match between the bullets used in the Lake Herman Road killings and the ammunition in Allen’s trailer. Michael Mageau, the first victim to survive a Zodiac attack, picks Allen out of a lineup. However, DNA evidence on the envelops of Zodiac letters does not match.
In a book published in 2009, Steve Hodel claims his father Dr. George Hill Hodel is the Zodiac and the man who gruesomely murdered Elizabeth Short, the “Black Dahlia.” While the claim that Dr. Hodel is the Black Dahlia’s murderer is plausible, there is no evidence tying him to the Zodiac killings. Hodel’s theory is dismissed.
In 2014, Gary L. Stewart also publishes a book theorizing that his father is the Zodiac, but it receives far more attention. His father, Earl Van Best, Jr., is 28 years old when he meets Stewart’s 14-year-old mother Judy Chandler in an ice cream shop. They flirt and talk about Elvis Presley. That same year, they get married but Van Best is soon arrested and thrown in prison for statutory rape. Articles written by Paul Avery at the San Francisco Chronicle blows up the scandal and labels the affair as the “Ice Cream Romance.” This infuriates Van Best, but he ends up leaving Judy and their baby anyways.
Years later, Stewart compares a picture of his father to the Zodiac police sketch and believes they are one and the same. A distinctive scar on his father’s thumb sort of matches a thumbprint found at Paul Stine’s crime scene, and his name allegedly is spelled out in one of the ciphers.
Shortly after the attacks on Cecelia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell, publicist Chris Harris comes to Napa, California to work on a documentary about the Zodiac. Having lunch at a diner, Harris notices someone shooting glances at him and quickly leaves when the fellow diner says “you have no idea what it’s like to kill.” It’s not until he sees Earl Van Best, Jr.’s photo on the cover of Stewart’s book years later that he recognizes the strange diner and realizes he may have met the Zodiac.
Before launching into the final scenes of the episode, Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter and Wenndy tease listeners about the jokes circulating the internet about Ted Cruz being the Zodiac. Since Cruz wasn’t born until 1970, the joke is just that – a joke.
With a bit more commentary mixed in, listeners are left with Detectives Toschi and Armstrong slapping down the Zodiac case files in exasperation and Arthur Leigh Allen asking his friend Don Cheney to lick an envelope for him.