Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Profile of the Zodiac Killer

Taking Over

Paul Stine
Paul Stine

The San Francisco Chronicle received a letter in mid-October 1969, in an envelope with excess postage, that contained a piece torn from Stine's shirt and that issued a threat against school children. It was an arrogant missive, criticizing the police. It was also similar to the "Dear Boss" letter sent in 1888 by Jack the Ripper that contained part of a victim's kidney. It seems that the Zodiac had a prior inspiration and perhaps hoped to become just as famous as the nineteenth-century killer.

Melvin Belli
Melvin Belli

In this note, Zodiac demanded to speak to a renowned area attorney, Melvin Belli, and a meeting by phone was arranged, but while calls came in they were not necessarily from the Zodiac. Perhaps he decided it was too risky or perhaps it was all part of his game.

Until 1984, the Zodiac (or someone using his style) kept in contact with the police and the Chronicle, but despite claiming 37 victims, his killing spree seemed to end with five or six.There were records, between 1966 and 1984, of 26 letters attributed to the Zodiac, although experts disagree over whether he was the author of all of them. Yet from those that do appear to originate from this offender, we can tell a few things.

It appeared that the killer had some degree of training in explosive devices, cryptography, chemistry, and guns. He was also a fan of astrology, popular movies, and the musicals of Gilbert and Sullivan. His letters usually had a taunting quality, as did his phone calls. Two letters contained diagrams of devices he said he planned to use but then didn't. It was commonly thought at the beginning that the letters were in the Zodiac's own handwriting. Later, the theory was that he was using samples of alphabet letters taken from other people. He then used a tracing and enlarging device to reprint them.

In certain letters, he gave the impression of being an uneducated man: misspelling common words and using poor grammar. Yet it was clear that he was well-read and did research. Besides Zodiac, the letters were also signed as "a friend," "a citizen," "Z," and "Red Phantom." These were possibly diversions or a means to make the game more interesting to him.

In November 1969, the San Francisco Chronicle received more letters with more pieces of Stine's shirt, and in December, Zodiac sent a Christmas greeting to Melvin Belli, also with a piece of Stine's shirt. Clearly, he sought attention, although it's also possible that he was seeking help, as he claimed.

A letter in June 1970 contained another cipher which promised yet another important clue. The writer said that "something interesting" would be found if the police placed a radian on Mount Diablo, a San Francisco Bay area landmark. A month later he said, "The Mount Diablo Code concerns radians & # inches along the radians." He'd earlier said that a bomb was buried along the radian. (A radian is a unit of angular measure used by engineers and mathematicians.) Apparently, this offender enjoyed mathematical calculations. But he seemed to end his spate of killings with Stine. Perhaps the killings failed to satisfy him in the manner he claimed, or perhaps he was arrested for something else. It's not clear whether he was related to a few other incidents.

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