This is The Zodiac Killer. He is inexorably linked with the summer and tumultuous autumn of 1969, but his legacy is decades of anxiety that he’d return, decades of frustration that a killer escaped justice; not just a killer, but the most boastful, pompous killer in the annals of crime. He threw the gauntlet down and challenged both public and police to catch him. “The police shall never catch me, because I have been too clever for them.” He won. He got away. The faded ink of his bragging rubs this fact into our nose even today just as surely as he gleefully paraphrased the refrains of the executioner in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado when it came to selecting his victims. “I’ve got a little list, I’ve got a little list, of society offenders who might well be underground and who would never be missed who would never be missed. There is the pestulentual nucences who whrite for autographs, all people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs. All children who are up in dates and implore with implatt. All people who are shakeing hands shake hands like that. And all third persons who with unspoiling take thoes who insist. They’d none of them be missed. They’d none of them be missed.”
All serial killers are arrogant. Murder is the height of strutting egoism. One may catalog these killers according to some other factor that becomes evident in their signature— sex killer, thrill killer or spree killer— but anybody who thinks it is their place to snuff out life for will, whim, convenience or pleasure has many more disturbing attributes predominant in their character before one gets to their perverse kink. They are arrogant.
The Zodiac’s greater arrogance, however, is seen in how he marketed his murder. In this he differed from other serial killers. He gave himself the name above all names that signifies control of life and events— The ZODIAC— the master controller of the game. It was a fitting handle for the most arrogant of serial killers. And it must be underscored that The Zodiac is the only serial killer to ever give himself his own handle. The moniker doesn’t reflect press sensationalism or witty police typecasting. It reflects his own megalomania. Each new poison pen pal letter he sent to the press was introduced as an oracle: “This is the Zodiac Speaking.” Each in turn was signed by the symbol of the celestial Zodiac— a circle with a cross hair through it. It looked little different from a gun sight, and the double meaning was no doubt intended.
Zodiac also mixed dark humor with his marketing, above and beyond his unique adaptation of The Mikado. He even made a joke of his sacred symbol. Peace symbols were popular, he said; others wore “black power” or “Melvin eats bluber.” He wanted to see the Bay Area wear his Zodiac buttons. It would cheer him up and this would keep him from striking again. “Please no nasty ones like melvin’s. Thank you.”
Newspapers rancorously condemned him as the “Boastful Slayer,” “Astrological Assassin,” and “The Cipher Slayer.” All of this was true, but none of the appellations captured the all-controlling aura he wished to convey. They had only one thing in common with his own handle— they were all false. In substance, he was the antithesis of what he marketed. He declared man to be the ultimate—“the most dangerous”— game and that he enjoyed hunting him. Yet he was hardly the great white hunter in the bush. He was essentially a stalker of lover’s lanes. His level of courage, if that word can even be used, only rose to pump full of holes unarmed teens and young couples distracted by what one would expect youths to be distracted by at lover’s lanes. As killers go, he wasn’t even very adroit. Three of his victims lingered before expiring. Two survived to go on with life as best they could. There was no mystery in his method. Nor was he particularly ingenious. The reality of The Zodiac Killer was shot up cars and kids at remote petting spots.
This does not minimize The Zodiac’s crime spree. On the contrary, it confirms his arrogance. He remained essentially a drive-by shooter because his victims were important to him only insofar as they were another ante in his game of death. He may have started for the joy of killing, but his game soon came to consume him. He paid far more attention to his boastful letters than to the commission of his crimes, arrogantly adding to his claims that his victims would be his slaves in the afterlife. This, aside from “I like killing people,” was his motive. He first called his murder spree his “good times in Vallejo” and then it became his “collecting of slaves.”
By whatever jubilant or pompous name he gave his game, it so obviously evolved before investigators’ eyes it was plain to see he had developed it according to each new thrill he had achieved. For instance, he had not bothered to boast about his first killings until 6 months later with his next murder. Nor had he bothered to call himself The Zodiac in his first letters to the press and police. The identity as The Zodiac, the “master controller,” came later. Then, and only then, did each new letter begin with the grand preamble: “This is the Zodiac Speaking” and end with his signature circle and cross hair.
Yet The Zodiac’s game did not become all “show” for the press. For one slaying, and one slaying only, he noticeably switched MO. This was his attack on a couple at a remote area at Lake Berryessa. Here he wore an elaborate and homemade black hood that hung down over his shoulders and chest like a bib. Thereon was neatly sewed his white cross hair symbol, symbol of the celestial Zodiac. Since the victims were by no means meant to survive (one was stabbed 6 times, the other 21), we were never to know he had dressed like this. Obviously, this outfit meant something purely to him. But once again he botched his attack. The girl survived for a day and a half and the male survived to give his account.
The Zodiac’s crime spree clearly was a bit more complex than merely a means to publicity. Time has therefore revealed something ponderous. He stopped after his next victim. This gave him only 7 attacked, 5 killed. One is obviously too many, but as killers go this was not a large number, especially for one who so boasted about it and then made such a publicity campaign out of “collecting slaves.” He didn’t stop from penitence. He didn’t reform. For years his letters continued to brag of victims. He warned of more. He demanded compliance. He taunted with ciphers. “If I do not see this note in your paper, I will do something nasty, which you know I’m capable of doing.” His taunting letters continued to up the score. His last letter finally claimed he had 37 victims. San Francisco Police had 0— meaning he got away Scott free.
Sadly that is the truth of it. He not only escaped, he covered his trail beyond even his wildest dreams. Whether he intended it or not, his game evolved so inconsistently that he covered his trail effectively. One thing, however, has covered his trail more than anything. Despite only having attacked 7 and killed 5, Zodiac succeeded in creating a personality cult of crime, far more successfully than he ever could have hoped or have even foreseen.
Excerpted from the Foreword of HorrorScope