These Zodiac Killer letters & creepy cipher hints have frustrated the world since 1968

Zodiac killer letters and creepy cipher hints

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Few mysteries in American crime history have captivated and frustrated the public’s imagination quite like the enigma of the Zodiac Killer. Active in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Zodiac Killer is suspected of at least five murders in the San Francisco Bay Area, although he claimed as many as 37 in his cryptic letters sent to local newspapers.

The Zodiac Killer letters are a puzzle no one has been able to solve

The case is infamous not just for its chilling brutality, but also for the unsettling communique from the killer himself, who taunted law enforcement and the media with coded messages, complex ciphers, and chilling threats. The Zodiac Killer letters and cryptograms, combined with his propensity for leaving behind clues at crime scenes, turned the case into an intricate puzzle that has both fascinated and confounded investigators for over half a century.

Despite the tireless efforts of investigators, both professional and amateur, the Zodiac Killer’s identity remains unknown, his crimes unsolved. Theories and speculations continue to emerge over time, but none have conclusively proven the killer’s identity (yet).

His reign of terror is a chilling reminder of the unsolvable darkness that can linger at the heart of our society, ensuring his place as one of the most infamous unidentified serial killers in history.

Zodiac killer summary from 1969
Zodiac killer summary from 1969
Zodiac Killer letter: Code clue by Vallejo ‘Killer’ sent Examiner

From The San Francisco Examiner (California) August 1, 1969

A man saying he is the killer of three persons in Vallejo has written newspapers in the Bay Area offering them a clue in code.

To prove his authenticity the anonymous letter writer offered what he said were facts known only to him and to the police in the unsolved slayings of Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin, 22, of 930 Monterey St., and Thomas Faraday and Bettilou Jensen, both students at Vallejo High School.

Zodiac Killer letters - 7 people
Original caption with the letters: The “Zodiac” killer broke his silence yesterday to boast in letters and cryptograms that he has now murdered seven persons. Two letters and a cryptogram to the San Francisco Chronicle starting with the now familiar salutation “This Is the Zodiac speaking,” said, “Up to the end of Oct. I have killed 7 people.”

Vallejo police said that the details in the letter could have been known to persons other than the murderer, although the officers confirmed that some of the details were not made public. The slaying of the two high school students occurred Dec. 20.

Zodiac Killer letter: In cipher

The letter named the brand of ammunition — Super X — although this was not disclosed by investigators at the time. He also said that 10 shots were fired and detailed the positions of the body.

1969 Zodiac Killer letters with murder insights
1969 Zodiac Killer letter

Police said that this information, although not made public, was available to anyone who had been at the scene of the crime on Lake Herman Road. The letter writer also detailed the brand of ammunition used in the Ferrin slaying.

He then offered a clue written in an elaborate cipher with the message split into three parts — one sent to the Vallejo Times, one to the San Francisco Chronicle, and one to The Examiner.

Zodiac killer's 3 part cipher from August 1969

Police are working on the cipher but they said that they would not be convinced it had been sent by the murderer unless the letter writer could come up with more details which were not generally known.

Call made

The letter to the Examiner was mailed yesterday in San Francisco. One reason the police are taking the letter more seriously than the usual crank note is that following the Ferrin slaying July 5, a caller notified police of the killing. The anonymous caller confessed to shooting the woman and said he also had killed the teenagers the preceding Christmas.

The call was made 30 minutes after the slaying and before it had become generally known in Vallejo. Police said that this call seem to fit with the personality of the letter writer. They said they would believe in the authenticity of the letters if more details were disclosed.

Zodiac letter October 17 1969
Zodiac letter October 17 1969

Zodiac killer breaks silence via cryptograms (1969)

From The Columbia Record (Columbia, South Carolina) November 12, 1969

[ORIGINAL] EDITOR’S NOTE: The spelling and grammar errors in the following on the Zodiac killer from San Francisco are faithful reproductions of the letter sent to the San Francisco Chronicle.

San Francisco — The “Zodiac” killer broke a month-long silence Tuesday to announce by letters and cryptograms to a newspaper he will “no longer announced to anyone when I comitt my murders.

The boasting slayer, previously connected with five killings in the San Francisco Bay area since last December, claimed seven victims.

In occasionally misspelled correspondence to the San Francisco Chronicle, Zodiac said his future murders “shall look like routine robberies, killings of anger, & a few fake accidents, etc.”

Zodiac Killer puzzle as of November 12, 1969

A postscript to one of his letters indicated he was displeased by a dwindling of public attention since he included a piece of a slain cab driver’s blood-stained shirt in a letter one month ago.

“Could you print this new cipher on your front page?” he asked. “I get awfully lonely when I am ignored, so lonely I could do my thing!!!!!!”

MORE: H H Holmes: America’s first serial killer: Who he murdered, the way he operated, and how he was caught

Latest correspondence

The latest correspondence included a page filled with strange ciphers, a rambling letter, a note on a comic greeting card — and another piece of the cab driver’s shirt.

“I though you would need a good laugh before you hear the bad news,” he wrote. He began the two letters with the usual, “This is the Zodiac speaking.”

“Up to the end of Oct. I have killed 7 people.” he said. “I have grown rather angry with the police for their telling lies about me. So I will change the way the collection of slaves.”

The passage about collecting slaves, which was followed by his statement there would be no future announcements, apparently was a reference to one of his previous cryptograms which said souls of his victims would be his slaves in the afterworld.

At the bottom of his message on the greeting card, Zodiac printed, “Des July Aug Sept Oct equals 7.”

Old Zodiac killer greeting card clue letter - Published Nov 12, 1969

He previously had claimed responsibility for the killings of Betty Lou Jensen. 16. and her boyfriend, David Faraday, 17, near Vallejo last Dec. 20; Darlene Ferrin. 22, near Vallejo. July 5; Cecilia Ann Shepard. 22. in Napa County Sept. 27, and San Francisco cab driver Paul Stein. 29. Oct. 11.

Zodiac serial killer victims as of November 2, 1969

Zodiac Killer letters did not specify additional killings

The letters did not specify the two additional killings but the “Aug” reference corresponded with the deaths of two San Jose teenage girls Aug. 3. They died of multiple stab wounds.

Four of Zodiac’s alleged victims were shot and one was stabbed numerous times, but the San Jose slayings had not previously been attributed to him.

San Jose Chief of Detectives Barton Collins said he doubted they were the work of Zodiac, because the boasting slayer would have wanted to take “credit” for stabbings of Deborah Gay Furlong, 14, and Kathleen Snoozy, 15, earlier.

ALSO SEE: How the Manson murders shocked the nation when Sharon Tate & 6 others were killed in 1969

In one of his previous notes, Zodiac warned that “school children are nice targets.” “I think I shall wipe out a school bus some morning.” he wrote. “Just shoot out the front tires and then pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.”

School buses throughout the area were under armed guard for weeks following the threat. “The police shall never catch me,” Zodiac said in his latest letter, “because I have been too clever for them.”

Zodiac Killer wanted poster with drawing from 1969

Zodiac Killer letter, April 1970

This is the Zodiac Speaking By the way have you cracked the last cipher I sent you?  My name is — 

I am mildly cerous as to how much money you have on my head now.  I hope you do not think that I was the one who wiped out that blue meannie with a bomb at the cop station…

Zodiac Killer letter, April 1970

Zodiac Killer letter, June 1970

This is the Zodiac Speaking

I have become very angry with the people of the San Fran Bay Area.  They have not complied with my wishes for them to wear some nice [Zodiac icon] buttons. I promiced to punish them if they did not comply, by anilating a full School Buss. But now school is out for the summer, so I punished them in another way.  I shot a man sitting in a parked car with a .38.

The Map coupled with this code will tell you where the bomb is set.  You have untill next Fall to dig it up. 

Zodiac Killer letter, June 26 1970

Zodiac boasts of 13 victims in 2 new notes (1970)


By Dave Smith, Times Staff Writer – Los Angeles Times (California) October 12, 1970

San Francisco’s frustrated man-hunt for the elusive Zodiac killer rounded the one-year mark today on a score of zero, but with disclosure of two more contacts from the taunting madman.

Zodiac headline - Los Angeles Times newspaper - Oct 12 1970

One — withheld more than two months — gives rise to speculation that the Zodiac, may once have played the role of Ito-1<o, the Lord high Executioner in the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta “The Mikado.” The other — a note received only Wednesday — boasts of 13 victims, adding, “Some of them fought. It was horrible.”

The note — letters and words cut from newspapers and pasted on a by-5-inch filing card — ends with the word “Zodiac,” the by-now familiar crossed-circle mark he uses for a signature, and a Christian cross, neatly drawn in what appears to the human blood. The Zodiac also warned — although his last proven killing was just a year ago, and his last published letter dates from June 29 — that “the pace isn’t any slower!”

Zodiac boasts of 13 victims in 2 new notes (1970)

Police say they can definitely attribute only five murders to the Zodiac, who now claims 13. This was the new total he claimed In two letters received July 27 by the San Francisco Chronicle and kept secret until now by agreement with police while the letters’ contents were analyzed…

Zodiac killer letter – March 1971

Zodiac killer letter - March 2, 1971

Zodiac killer envelope – March 16, 1971

Zodiac killer envelope - March 16, 1971

Zodiac still on the loose: The search for a brutal killer continues (1976)

From the Berkeley Gazette (California) September 15, 1976

For seven years, Police Det. Dave Toschi has been looking for one particular pot-bellied man, about 6 feet tall, 200 pounds, with short reddish brown hair and glasses on his round face.

The man appears intelligent and may have learned cryptography in the military. He sometimes wears pleated pants over size 11 shoes.

On weekdays, he may work at a menial job where he is looked upon as little more than a name and number. On weekends. he takes pleasure in killing unarmed strangers.

He calls himself Zodiac. In boastful, taunting, sometimes coded communications, Zodiac has claimed 37 murders — a figure put much lower by police — and Toschi wants to halt the deadly tally by putting him behind bars.

Zodiac killer summary from 1973
Zodiac killer summary from 1973

“He has a personal boxscore of 37,” the homicide detective says. “We know for sure he killed at least six and wounded two in the late 1960s, but there are many unsolved homicides. He hasn’t taken credit for any specific killings in the last few years, yet whenever we get a new letter or postcard from him, the score goes up.”

Zodiac has not issued a direct statement in 32 months, but that’s not unprecedented. In January 1974, after a silence of 34 months, he wrote to update his murder count and to pan the gut-wrenching movie, The Exorcist, as bad comedy.

Zodiac letter about The Exorcist - 1974
Zodiac Killer letter about The Exorcist – 1974

Then, in July 1974, he wrote a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, decrying ads for the movie “Badlands” as murder glorification.”

“Why don’t you show some concern for public sensibilities and cut this ad?” printed the man who terrorized the area with grisly murders and unconsummated threats against busloads of children. The letter was signed, “A Citizen,” but alert mail room workers recognized his printing, which was then verified by handwriting experts.

“When we get intervals of silence, it’s possible he’s in the hospital or in prison where he wouldn’t dare send a letter,” Toschi says. But this is only supposition.”

Zodiac is a personal nemesis for Toschi, now the only San Francisco Police Department officer assigned to the case. His case files fill seven large drawers — one for each frustrating year on Zodiac’s trail. He carries a copy of Zodiac’s last letter at all times, a reminder that the killer may still be at large.

Zodiac case - Detective Dave Toschi of the San Francisco Police Department (1976)

“To be honest, I’m no closer now to solving the case,” the dapper, curly-haired detective says with a tug at his bow tie. “It’s been a paper chase for me. My files are getting larger, but I doubt I’ll get him unless he makes a Mistake or strikes again. I don’t know who or where he is.”

Toschi says this after running down 2,000 possible suspects whose names were provided by concerned citizens, police officers, prison officials and others.

“I’ve even had wives come in and tell me they suspect their husband because he wears female attire, acts strangely and wears glasses,” he says. “But I never joke about the Zodiac. I’ll talk to anybody about the case on the chance they know something.”

Toschi considers the Zodiac case the most important of his nine-year career in the homicide division.

“Zodiac is a fascinating case,” he explains. “He has been compared with Jack the Ripper, who wrote the London Times about his crimes. Zodiac writes to the San Francisco Chronicle for some reason.”

Zodiac Killer envelope addressed to the San Francisco Chronicle

Zodiac has claimed responsibility for a host of murders, several of which police say he definitely did not commit. But they are certain the following attacks belong in his “boxscore”:

On Oct. 30 1966, a man slashed the throat of a University of California coed Cheri Jo Bates in a Riverside parking lot.

On Dec. 20, 1968, a man used a pencil flashlight taped to the barrel of a .22 caliber pistol to find and kill David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen on a dark lover’s lane near Vallejo

On July 5, 1969, less than two miles from the double murder, a man repeatedly fired a 9 mm pistol into another parked car, killing Mrs. Darleen Ferriri, 22, and wounding Michael Mageau, 19.

On Sept. 27, 1969, a black-hooded man tied up and repeatedly stabbed Bryan Hartnell. 20, and Cecelia Ann Shepard, 22, at Lake Berryessa Park, about 20 miles north of Napa. The woman died with 24 stab wounds, but Hartnell recovered from 10 stab wounds.

On Oct. 11, 1969, a man pumped a 9mm bullet into the head of taxi driver Paul Stine, 29, in a posh San Francisco neighborhood.

The first known slaying and the last known slaying are considered particularly strange. Zodiac did not boast about the first, the only slaying outside the San Francisco Bay area. And the last did not fit his pattern.

“The other killings were in remote areas and no money was taken,” Toschi observed. “This last one was a sloppy holdup. He had to have gotten blood on his hands and clothing. Maybe he got a total of $20.”

Did Zodiac need money or was he merely carrying out his chilling promise to conceal the slayings which he says are means of collecting “slaves” for afterlife? “I shall no longer announce to any when I commit murders, they shall look like routine robberies, killings of anger & a few fake accidents, etc.,” he wrote about the time of Stine’s slaying.

Unlike many mass murderers, Zodiac has been clever enough to constantly change his techniques, never using the same weapon twice. He concealed his face during his only daylight murder, and he used a knife rather than gun when shots would attract attention.

He has written bizarre letters detailing his murders, announcing his plans, goading police, and at least pre-tending to reveal bits of information about himself. One of his cryptograms could not be decoded even by the best experts in Washington, who concluded it either was nonsensical or too complex to be deciphered. Just what do police know about the mystery killer? They have partial fingerprints but not enough to make an identification. They have an admittedly weak physical description based on accounts of survivors and witnesses.

They are almost certain he wears glasses, since he even wore them under his black hood at Lake Berryessa. They believe he lives in the San Francisco Bay area because his communications were mailed from this area during the week, and the killings occurred on weekends.

“He’s a weekend killer,” Toschi says. “Why can’t he get away Monday through Thursday? Does his job keep him close to home? It’s easier to mail a letter than to get in a car and kill someone.”

Judging from Zodiac’s physical description, his unfashionable pleated pants, his use of dated jargon, Toschi estimates that he may 35 to 45 years old.

“I would speculate he maybe has a menial job, is well thought of and blends into the crowd,” he said. “He might be a room clerk or work for a big insurance company. A name and a number.” After reading and rereading all of Zodiac’s letters and having them analyzed by technical and psychological experts, Toschi has come to the conclusion that Zodiac’s communications are prompted in large part by a huge ego within an obscure body.

Zodiac murderer cryptogram from 1969

“I think he’s quite intelligent and better educated than someone who misspells words as frequently as he does in his letters,” the detective said. “He’ll often misspell a word at the top of a letter, then spell it correctly at the bottom. It’s his ego game.”

What drives Zodiac to kill? In his own decoded words, Zodiac said, “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 danger-ous animal of all; to kill something gives me the most thrilling experience… The best part of it is that when I die I will be reborn in paradice, and all I have killed will become my slaves.”

Toschi tends to dismiss the witchcraft-Satanic implications. “He was trying to be dramatic. If he had such an interest in the occult, he never would have misspelled paradise as ‘paradice.’ I think the letters are a screen, not a real clue.”

Is Zodiac a perverse sex killer? “There’s no evidence he ever molested any of his victims, nor did he do any fondling or use filthy language,” Toschi says. “Some psychiatrists will tell you he’s a latent homosexual or he hates women. I think he gets sexual gratification or pleasure from killing unarmed people. One victim said he was laughing loudly and hideously while stabbing a woman victim.”

Old Zodiac Killer puzzle cipher

Not a day goes by that Toschi doesn’t think about Zodiac. Not a month goes by that doesn’t bring another tip or two. A newspaper article will prompt a rash of tips. He has consulted psychics and astrologers for clues.

Four men considered likely suspects were placed under surveillance, fingerprinted and questioned extensively. But nothing has panned out.

“In 1969, I felt we’d solve the case, Zodiac would make a mistake or he’d come in and surrender,” Toschi says. “I never thought then that I’d still be working on the case now… Dammit, I hope I can solve it. I have seven or eight years before I’m eligible for retirement.”

ALSO SEE: The Black Dahlia murder: Find out all about this mysterious and brutal unsolved crime from 1947

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