Who Was The Zodiac Killer? What We Know About His Brutal Slayings And Disturbing Ciphers

In the late 1960s and early '70s, he terrorized Northern California with five murders.

The Zodiac Killer is one of the most infamous unidentified serial killers in the US. Though many have speculated about the killer’s identity, it remains a mystery to this day. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the killer terrorized Northern California with five brutal murders. Police initially believed the slayings were random, but local newspapers later received coded letters from someone calling themself the “Zodiac Killer,” who took credit for the murders.

The First Murder

On December 20, 1968, a young couple — David Faraday, 17, and Betty Lou Jensen, 16 — took a drive to the outskirts of Benicia, California. The couple parked on a gravel turn-out, which was a well-known lovers’ lane.

The two were found by passing motorists hours later, who immediately called police after discovering their lifeless bodies on the side of the road. Betty Lou had been shot five times, and she was announced dead on the scene. David was found still breathing when police arrived, but he died shortly after from a single bullet to head.

The crimes scene was gruesome, and, according to The San Francisco Chronicle, an ambulance attendant said at the time, "I never saw so much blood on the side of the road in my life.”

[Photo: Getty Images}

The Second Murder

Nearly seven months later, the Zodiac struck again. On July 4, 1969, another young man and woman were attacked in Vallejo, California, just a few miles from the first murder site. Darlene Ferrin, 22, was a mother and popular waitress at a local restaurant. She picked up her friend, 19-year-old Mike Mageau, and parked in the lot of a nearby park and golf course.

According to The San Francisco Chronicle, a man approached the couple and opened fire on the car. Darlene was killed instantly in the shooting. Mike, who was shot in the jaw, shoulder and leg, survived.

Less than an hour after the attack, a man called police from a pay phone.

He said, "I want to report a double murder. If you go one mile east on Columbus Parkway to the public park, you will find kids in a brown car. They were shot with a 9mm Luger. I also killed those kids last year. Goodbye."

Mike gave a description of the shooter, saying he was “WMA, short, possible 5’8”, was real heavy set, beefy build... not blubbery fat, but real beefy, possibly 195 to 200 [lbs] or maybe even larger... short curly hair, light brown almost blond... with a large face.”

The Ciphers

On July 31, 1969, the Zodiac Killer sent out letters to three local publications: The San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner and the Vallejo Times-Herald.

They started, “This is the murderer of the 2 teenagers last Christmass at Lake Herman + the girl on the 4th of July near the golf course in Vallejo[.]”

In each letter, he also gave one-third of a cipher, explaining that he sent the two other parts of the same cipher to the editors of the other papers.

He wrote, “I want you to print this cipheron the front page of your paper. In this cipher is my idenity. If you do not print this cipher by the afternoon of Fry.1st of Aug 69, I will go on a kill ram-Page Fry. night. I will cruse around all weekend killing lone people in the night then move on to kill again, untill I end up with a dozen people over the weekend.”

Each of the three letters sent to the publications were signed with a symbol: a circle with a cross through it.

Though the meaning behind the symbol has never been explained, there are many theories surrounding its origin. According to the book “America’s Jack The Ripper,” the author believes the symbol was stolen from a Swiss watch brand named Zodiac. The face of the Zodiac watches contain the crosshair symbol, and ads for Zodiac watches ran in the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle at the time of the Zodiac’s first murders.

[Photo: Getty Images]

After the ciphers were printed in all three newspapers, a pair of readers cracked the code, according to the Chronicle.  

High school teacher Donald Harden and his wife, Bettye, were able to decode the message, which read:  “I LIKE KILLING PEOPLE BECAUSE IT IS SO MUCH FUN IT IS MORE FUN THAN KILLING WILD GAME IN THE FORREST BECAUSE MAN IS THE MOST DANGEROUE ANAMAL OF ALL TO KILL SOMETHING GIVES ME THE MOST THRILLING EXPERENCE IT IS EVEN BETTER THAN GETTING YOUR ROCKS OFF WITH A GIRL THE BEST PART OF IT IS THAE WHEN I DIE I WILL BE REBORN IN PARADICE AND ALL THEI HAVE KILLED WILL BECOME MY SLAVES I WILL NOT GIVE YOU MY NAME BECAUSE YOU WILL TRY TO SLOI DOWN OR ATOP MY COLLECTIOG OF SLAVES FOR MY AFTERLIFE. EBEORIETEMETHHPITI.”

The last “word” was leftover letters from cracking the cipher, and they have never been successfully decoded.

Donald Harden cracking Zodiac cipher.

[Photo: Getty Images]

The Third Murder

In the early evening of September 27, 1969, another young couple was attacked. Bryan Hartnell, 20, and Cecelia Ann Shepard, 22, were having a picnic on an isolated lake about 20 miles north of Napa.

The two were approached by a man wearing a dark blue hood with large slits for his eyes. On the front of his hood, over his chest, the Zodiac symbol was drawn in white paint, reported the Los Angeles Times. He wore thick eye glasses with flipped-up, clip-on sunglasses attached. The man held a gun and told them he needed to tie them up, and he bound their arms and legs with plastic clothesline.

Bryan told a park ranger after the attack, “The man said, ‘I’m going to have to stab you people.’”

Bryan had been stabbed 8 to 10 times. Cecelia had been stabbed 10 to 24 times, depending on what reports you read.

According to the Los Angeles Times, as Cecelia was being knifed in the back, she rolled over in pain. The killer then stabbed her in each breast, in the stomach and in the groin, in the pattern of a cross.

Then, he left them for dead. But before abandoning the scene entirely, the killer wrote a message for police on the couple’s car. In a felt-tip pen, he drew his Zodiac symbol above the dates and locations of the murders he took credit for.

The Zodiac then called police to report the attack.

He said, “I want to report a murder — no, a double murder. They are two miles north of park headquarters. They were in a white Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. And I’m the one that did it.”

When police arrived, the couple was still alive, but in critical condition. Cecelia died two days later in the hospital. Bryan survived. He described the man as white, middle-aged, about 6 feet tall and around 200 pounds.

[Photo: Getty Images]

The Fourth Murder

On October 11, 1969, San Francisco cab driver Paul Stine, 29, picked up a customer who was later believed to be the Zodiac Killer. After reaching his destination, the Zodiac waited for Paul to put the car in park, according to CNN. Then, he fired one shot into the back of Paul’s head. He stole Paul’s wallet and glasses and cut off a piece of Paul’s bloody shirt.

Witnesses called 911 to report the murder. According to CNN, for some reason, the first report that came over the police radio was that the shooter was a black male. Because of this mistake, two officers ignored a white man who crossed their paths as they were pulling up to the crime scene.

The Zodiac soon mocked police for that mistake. A few days later, The San Francisco Chronicle received another letter from the Zodiac. Inside the envelope, he mailed a piece of Paul’s blood-stained shirt, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The letter began, “This is the Zodiac speaking. I am the murderer of the taxi driver over by Washington St + Maple St last night, to prove this here is a blood stained piece of his shirt. I am the same man who did in the people in the north bay area.”

He also mocked police, saying, “The S.F. Police could have caught me last night if they had searched the park properly instead of holding road races with their motorcicles seeing who could make the most noise. The car drivers should have just parked their cars and sat there quietly waiting for me to come out of cover.”

[Photo: Getty Images]

In the decades since Zodiac’s final accredited murder of Paul the cab driver, a number of killings have been linked to the Zodiac, but none have been confirmed. At one point, the Zodiac had claimed to have killed 37 people, according to CNN. That number has never been verified. Though police believe the killings stopped in 1969, the letters continued until 1974.

To hear about the Zodiac killer suspects and more, listen to episode 59 of “Martinis & Murder,” “Slayings in San Francisco.”

[Photo: Getty Images]