Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Zodiac Killer

Highway 132

San Joaquin County Sheriff's patch
San Joaquin County Sheriff's patch

San Joaquin County Sheriff-Coroner's Office Case #70-7475 

Early in the evening of Sunday, March 22, 1970, Kathleen Johns, 23, was driving with her infant daughter Jennifer on Highway 132 in San Joaquin County, several miles west of Modesto, when a man in a light-colored American car started honking his horn and blinking his lights at her.  Driving alongside her car, he said that one of her wheels was wobbling and volunteered to fix it.  He followed her as she pulled over at Bird Road, a turn-off just west of Interstate 5, then got out with a lug wrench and pretended to tighten the nuts on her right rear wheel.  In fact, he removed them, and when Johns tried to drive off, the whole wheel spun loose.  Again, the man offered help, this time in the form of a ride to a nearby service station.

She accepted, and they continued in the man's car westward on 132 until he pulled into a Richfield station at Chrisman Road.  It was closed, and there followed an hour and a half or more of silent and apparently aimless driving through the city of Tracy and its rural environs.  As they passed occasional other service stations, she asked a few times "What's wrong with this station," or "Why can't we go in that station," to which he replied that it was not the right one.  A police report states, "she said she was very scared of this man, did want to get out, but did not tell him to stop the vehicle or let her out". 1

Ms. Johns soon realized that the stranger wasn't taking her to any service station, and asked him if he always went around helping people like this.  The man responded, "By the time I get through with them, they won't need my help". 2 From time to time he would slow down, as if he were about to pull over, and then would speed up again. Finally, he stopped the car short at a stop sign, and Johns took the opportunity to escape.  She held her baby tightly and jumped from the car, running across a nearby field and up an embankment where she hid in the shadows.  The man turned his headlights off, moved his car a few feet, and waited silently without leaving the car.  After about five minutes, he turned his lights back on and drove away.

The Zodiac wanted poster
The Zodiac wanted poster

Ms. Johns was soon picked up by a passing Samaritan.  When she made it to the local police station in Patterson, Ms Johns recognized the man who had sabotaged her wheel as the man in the composite sketch of the Zodiac, which appeared in a Wanted poster that hung prominently in the office. The desk sergeant, perhaps terrified at the prospect of a confrontation with a villain on the level of Dr. Octopus or the Joker, had Johns wait alone in a nearby cafe for several hours until her car could be returned.  The sergeant broadcast the car's last known location, and a Stanislaus County Sheriff's Deputy found it thoroughly burned and still smoldering -- the abductor had returned to the car and set it on fire, destroying everything inside.  Some sources report that Johns' car was moved to another location before being torched.  However, the car's hubcap was found nearby, meaning that if the car had been moved then the man responsible had gone to the unlikely trouble of bringing it with him, if not reattaching the hubcap, driving to the new location, removing the hubcap again, and discarding it before igniting the car.  Given that the police reports make no mention of any trouble finding the car near the Interstate intersection, it seems safe to assume that the car was never moved.

Ms. Johns' accounts of the night's events have varied over the years, and differ from interview to interview.  The most dramatic version, and the most familiar, is the one recounted in a San Francisco Chronicle article by Paul Avery that appeared eight months after the incident, 3 which has the man overtly threatening both the woman and her baby, and getting out of his car with a flashlight after her escape.  This version of the story is the one that appears in Robert Graysmith's ZODIAC.  It should be remembered that Ms. Johns told two seperate police officers shortly after her abduction that the man simply closed the car door and drove away. 4  Moreover, articles published in the Modesto Bee and San Francisco Examiner in the days after the incident match the police reports.  In the late 1990s, after identifying two different and dissimilar men as her abductor, Johns admitted that she couldn't even remember if she had been legally married at the time, and that her memory could not be trusted to make a case against any particular suspect.


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