Identity of The Zodiac Killer Revealed Nearly 50 Years Later

Image source: jenikirbyhistory.getarchive.net/

Contributing Writer, Mila Morgan, ’24

The serial killer The Zodiac Killer has been around for nearly 50 years, nicknaming himself this to conceal his identity from the public. While most killers would do anything to avoid the attention of the police, the Zodiac Killer was an exception. He called police on multiple occasions to report murders that he had committed. After terrorizing San Francisco, California in the late 60s and early 70s he has finally been identified. Gary Francis Poste is the man who is believed to be behind the infamous murders. Poste was a retired Air Force serviceman and house painter who died in 2018 at the age of 80.

David Faraday (17) and Betty Lou Jensen (16) are the Zodiac Killer’s first confirmed victims. Their plans were originally to go to a Christmas party, but instead decided to go down a remote lane near a lake, Lake Herman Road. At around 11:00 p.m. in the evening, the pair were ordered out of the car and Faraday was shot through the lower part of his ear with a .22 round bullet. Jensen was found shot in the back five times several feet from the car. Jensen was pronounced dead at the scene while Faraday was rushed to the hospital. He was pronounced dead an hour after the incident at 12:05 a.m.. 

Robert Domingos and his fiancé Linda Edwards were seniors at Lompoc Highschool in Santa Barbara County. The couple decided to use “Senior Ditch Day” to go sunbathing on the beach. When they didn’t return on Wednesday, Robert’s father went to the beach and discovered their bodies lying together inside of a crumbling shack. The victims were bound with rope and ligature marks imply they struggled while trying to escape. The two were soon shot and killed with a .22 caliber weapon. Robert had been shot 11 times and Linda had been shot nine times. Their bodies were dragged into the shack where The Zodiac Killer had failed to start a fire. 

However, there were two victims that survived two of his attacks. One of them was Michael Mageau. Darlene Ferrin was a popular waitress at the Vallejo restaurant, as well as a mother and a wife. On the night of July 4, she had picked up Michael and stopped in the parking lot of Blue Rock Springs Park. Michael had told police that another vehicle pulled into the parking lot at midnight then left, only to reappear minutes later. The driver had gotten out of the car, shining a bright light into Darlene’s car and shot into Darlene’s Chevrolet Corvair with a 9mm handgun. Michael was shot in the jaw, leg, and shoulder while Darlene was hit several times elsewhere. At 12:40 a.m. the Zodiac Killer called police and claimed responsibility for the shooting as well as the murders on Lake Herman Road. According to the dispatcher, he had said “I want to report a murder. If you will go one mile east on Columbus Parkway, you will find kids in a brown car. They were shot with a 9-millimeter Luger. I also killed those kids last year. Goodbye.” Darlene died upon arrival, but Michael miraculously survived. 

On August 1, 1969, the Zodiac killer sent his first letters, to the San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Chronicle, and Vallejo Times-Herald. These letters were sent in ciphers and in identical envelopes with no return address. It was one piece of a three part cipher. Once deciphered, investigators figured out that these letters stated, “Dear Editor: I am the killer of the 2 teenagers last Christmas at Lake Herman.” The letter went on to further explain details of the murders that only the killer would know. He went on to threaten further attacks if the letters were not posted on the front page of the newspapers. Each letter ended with a symbol of a circle with a cross through it, what would come to be known as the Zodiac Killer’s symbol. The letters were also accompanied by one of a three-part cipher that he claimed to have contained his identity. An increasing number of letters were being sent to the police, the Zodiac killer taunting them for not being able to crack his code. Several days later, a high school teacher, Donald Harden and his wife, Bettye, were able to decipher the letter. It read “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.” After further mocking the police for not having been able to catch him, the letters stopped in 1974.

The Zodiac had created his own alphabet with strange symbols. It is said that these symbols he used for his alphabet could represent something about his personality, such as his education or special interest. While there are many ciphers out there, these symbols only have some symbols in common and have been only merely inspirational in the creation of The Zodiac’s Alphabet. Circles with different portions shaded in are used in his alphabet and at the time police thought it may point to his occupation. These ideograms are believed to have been invented by Harvey Poppel of Booz Allen Hamilton. Booz Allen Hamilton is a management-consulting firm known for its defense and intelligence contracts. These symbols became known as Booz Balls and spread to other companies used in Consumer Reports product ratings. If the killer’s use of this symbol came from having seen Harvey Balls, he may have had a connection to Booz Allen Hamilton or a related company. 

In December of 2020, the FBI announced that the final cipher had at once been cracked. While it was not by professional law enforcement, but by an amatuer group of sleuths. This group included David Oranchak, a software developer located in Virginia, Sam Blake, an applied mathematician in Melbourne, Australia, and Jarl Van Eycke, a warehouse operator and computer programmer in Belgium. This 408 character cipher was his longest and read, “I HOPE YOU ARE HAVING LOTS OF FUN IN TRYING TO CATCH ME THAT WASN’T ME ON THE TV SHOW WHICH BRINGS UP A POINT ABOUT ME I AM NOT AFRAID OF THE GAS CHAMBER BECAUSE IT WILL SEND ME TO PARADICE ALL THE SOONER BECAUSE I NOW HAVE ENOUGH SLAVES TO WORK FOR ME WHERE EVERYONE ELSE HAS NOTHING WHEN THEY REACH PARADICE SO THEY ARE AFRAID OF DEATH I AM NOT AFRAID BECAUSE I KNOW THAT MY NEW LIFE WILL BE AN EASY ONE IN PARADICE LIFE IS DEATH.”

The Zodiac had sent another piece of his three part cipher to the San Francisco Chronicle on June 26, 1970, known as the “Map Code.” The cipher read “The Map coupled with this code will tell you where the bomb is set. You have until next Fall to dig it up.” He wrote of the location of a bomb he had set with the instructions “0 is to be set to Mag. N.” This is one of several indicators that the Zodiac’s intelligence was above average. Many people would not bother to distinguish north from magnetic north. 

The Zodiac Killer claimed credit for 37 murders, but the police were only able to prove seven attacks. Of these attacks, five were murdered. Two victims, Michael Mageau and Bryan Hartnell, managed to escape with injuries. While The Zodiac’s identity remained unknown for nearly five decades, the FBI is confident they’ve caught him now and can stop their searches. Though the real identity of The Zodiac Killer can never truly be proven without questioning and a trial which is impossible since the man they think committed the murders, Gary Francis Poste, passed away 3 years ago.

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