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A new docu-series focusing on a man who believes his absentee father was actually the Zodiac Killer leaves more questions than answers by its end, casting doubt on Gary Stewart's unshakable belief that his father was responsible for a series of slayings that terrorized California in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Warning: Spoilers below
The back end of the FX series "The Most Dangerous Animal of All" is trained on the entire culture of armchair Zodiac sleuths and the pitfalls of trying to solve a case when you've already arrived at a predetermined conclusion — like Stewart has seemingly done by setting out to prove his theory that his father Earl Van Best Jr. was the Zodiac Killer.
The documentary interviews a number of evidentiary experts to knock down Stewart's claims one by one; for example, interviewing a cipher expert who contends Stewart took "liberties" with his investigation and that thousands of different names could be extrapolated by his methods of researching Zodiac ciphers (The Zodiac infamously sent four ciphers, or cryptograms, to the public — a type of puzzle that he alleged contained his identity. Only one has been solved.)
Even Stewart's co-author Susan Mustafa declares in the series that Van Best wasn't the Zodiac Killer when confronted with evidence of inaccuracies in the book, "The Most Dangerous Animal of All: Searching for My Father ... and Finding the Zodiac Killer."
Still, Stewart has apparently found some measure of closure after filming "The Most Dangerous Animal of All."
“I think my book ended [by saying] ‘My father abandoned me so many years ago, maybe now I can abandon him and walk away.’ And that was six years ago. And I have not abandoned him. We spent the last year and a half filming this documentary … but this time, I’m over it. I’m done with it," he told The New York Post.
But the Zodiac case remains open and a number of other names continue to be put forward as possible suspects in the Zodiac case, some serious and some deliberately unserious, like the internet meme that U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer (despite the fact that he hadn't even been born at the time of the slayings).
But a few of these purportedly serious guesses seem truly outlandish.
If true, this would be one of the biggest developments in the history of crime: one of the United States' most infamous domestic terrorists turning out to also be one of its most infamous serial killers.
Kaczynski, better known by the moniker The Unabomber, conducted a bombing campaign between 1978 until 1995 when he was identified and arrested after killing three people and injuring 23 more.
The main crux of the amateur investigators' arguments centered on the fact that Ted Kaczynski lived in Bay Area around the time the Zodiac killings took place, and that he sent taunting letters to authorities during his Unabomber spree — much like the Zodiac.
Sleuths managed to even have San Francisco police open an investigation into the possibility, according to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996.
However a number of other Zodiac sleuths have cautioned that any perceived similarities between the Unabomber and the Zodiac may be purely coincidental. Robert Graysmith, who wrote the book "Zodiac: The Shocking True Story of the Hunt for the Nation's Most Elusive Serial Killer," argues against the theory by pointing to the fact that while Kaczynski and Zodiac both sent letters to the authorities investigating them, their writing styles did not match up at all — though he did note some of the other similarities the two shared are "fascinating," referring to the fact that Kaczynski just happened to live so close to the area of the Zodiac Killer's crime spree.
The Zodiac letters frequently referenced pop culture and jumped around in thought, Graysmith said. By contrast, Kaczynski favored "terse, dry prose," he said.
Another argument against the Kaczynski theory points out the completely different methods of killing: the Zodiac used nothing more complex than a gun or a knife in his murders, while Kaczynski built incredibly complex bombs triggered to go off when opened by its intended target.
Yet another one would be the people targeted: the Zodiac's identified victims were all young people in Northern California, while Kaczynski targeted people all around the country by sending bombs through the mail. Furthermore, all of Kaczynski's victims were connected to technology, major industrial companies, airlines or institutes of higher learning in some way.
Ultimately the 1996 investigation did not produce sufficient evidence to implicate Kaczynski as a Zodiac Killer suspect, according to the UPI news agency. However, the theory has continued to circulate and popped up in an ABC News article discussing the Zodiac killings in 2010.
Kaczynski is currently serving a life sentence at a super-maximum security prison in Colorado with no possibility of parole.
Bruce Davis, a member of Charles Manson's Family
Charles Manson and his murderous family already play a surprising role in "The Most Dangerous Animal of All." Gary Stewart mentions his father's friendship with Manson family member Bobby Beausoleil, whose killing of fellow musician Gary Hinman set the Manson Family down a path that eventually led to the slaying of actress Sharon Tate and six others in a two-day reign of terror. Beausoleil himself is interviewed from prison in the docu-series as well.
Some theorists argue that another member of the Manson Family may in fact be responsible for the Zodiac killings. Bruce Davis, who was also convicted in the death of Hinman and stuntman Donald "Shorty" Shea, has been floated as a possible Zodiac suspect — given Davis' residency in the Bay Area during the time of the murders and the fact that he was only caught by police in 1970.
Sharon Tate's sister Debra also referenced the Zodiac Killer while alleging during an interview with People in 2019 that the Manson Family was responsible for a number of unsolved fatal stabbings in California at around the same time.
"There was nobody else at that time — other than the Zodiac Killer — who was prevalent at wielding a knife like these people,” Debra Tate said.
However, Davis has denied he had anything to do with the killings. He purportedly even wrote a letter to a pen pal debunking the claims in 2006, which was posted in full on a true crime blog dedicated to the Manson murders in 2016.
"I made the corrections not because I think it will affect the internet sites, but just to let you know what is put there is unregulated by the facts. You are smarter than to be influenced by this kind of bogus storytelling," Davis wrote in freehand on a typed letter containing allegations that he was the Zodiac Killer. Davis also provided line edits of the letter fact-checking his location at the time mentioned.
Additionally, a 1970 report from the California Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification stated "All male members of the Manson family have been investigated and eliminated as Zodiac suspects," according to the 2004 book "The Encyclopedia of Unsolved Crimes" by true crime writer and historian Michael Newton.
Davis is currently serving two life sentences in a California prison for his involvement in the Manson murders. He was recommended for parole in 2017, but then-Gov. Jerry Brown quashed the bid, according to the Associated Press.
George Hodel, alleged suspect in the "Black Dahlia" murder
Retired police officer Steve Hodel already made waves in the true crime world by alleging his father, the physician George Hodel, was responsible for the 1947 murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short — more infamously known as the "Black Dahlia" — in his 2003 book "Black Dahlia Avenger."
Hodel claimed that after years researching his theory that his father was Short's murderer, a Los Angeles prosecutor agreed with him and told him Hodel would be prosecuted if he was still alive, according to a 2016 profile from The Guardian. But he soon claimed to see connections to his father in multiple unsolved murder cases across the world — including the Zodiac.
While Hodel received considerable interest in his first book linking his father to the Black Dahlia, a follow-up book – "Most Evil" – that claimed his father was also the Zodiac Killer received "middling" interest and "all of his investigations have produced precious little in the way of real results," The Guardian reported.
"I was struck, in reading the book, by the fact that Hodel never sealed the deal,” Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez told The Guardian. “I thought he offered mostly circumstantial evidence, then acted as if the case was closed.”
Hodel's theory that his father was the Zodiac Killer is also apparently only one node in a network of crimes he claims his father was responsible for. "Hodel also claims his father was the Black Dahlia murderer and the Lipstick Killer. Oh, and the Jigsaw Murderer in the Philippines," The Atlantic wrote in 2014 of Hodel.
"For anyone who knows anything about historic crimes, this book is a joke. If 'Black Dahlia Avenger' was seeing the face of Jesus on a tortilla, then 'Most Evil' is the whole enchilada — with rice and beans," The Los Angeles Times' Daily Mirror blog wrote in 2009 about Hodel's book arguing his father was also the Zodiac Killer.
"The book evidently relies heavily on handwriting analysis. Several of what 'Most Evil' claims are samples of George Hodel's handwriting are actually the handwriting of Elizabeth Short. (Unless you think a grown man dots his "I's" with little circles)," The Los Angeles Times' Daily Mirror blog noted in a different post in 2009.
George Hodel died in 1999 at the age of 91 and Steve Hodel said he didn't begin investigating his father's past until after his death, he told The New York Post.
The identity of the Zodiac Killer remains unknown to this day, but the theories about the murderer's true identity continue to proliferate — with police having looked at more than 2,500 persons of interest in the case over the decades-long investigation, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. About 1,200 people have come forward to claim they know the Zodiac Killer's identity, though little, if anything, has come from those claims, The Los Angeles Times noted.
"The Most Dangerous Animal of All premiered Friday, March 6 on FX. It is available to stream on Hulu.
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