40 years following America's most famous unsolved murders,a journalist and Columbia College grad student have uncovered new leads.
From 1966 to 1969, a bizarre, extremely intelligent black-hooded killer who called himself the Zodiac stalked and killed up to seven people in northern California, mostly young women, leaving a series of dauntingly complex cryptograms in letters, taunting post cards and phone calls to the police and press as evidence. The Zodiac himself claimed 37 victims, and some of his cryptograms are so complex they have yet to be solved.
He — from the two survivors' eyewitness accounts, crime scene boot marks and other evidence, criminologists are certain the killer was a he — has variously been claimed to be a highly respected academic, linguist, math whiz and genius; a marksman; a nobody; or an elementary school teacher.
Some say the killer died a natural death. Others say he's still out there and that he killed long after the officially recognized end of the murders in 1969. Still others say that still-living academic and his chief accuser are locked in such an intricate dance of accusation, innuendo and intrigue they may never find their way out –because they are not interested in revealing but concealing crucial evidence.
Columbia, Mo., science journalist Mike Martin and Kortnie Ford, a current Columbia College criminology graduate student who has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Central Missouri and also works in the college's financial aid office, definitely have theories on the Zodiac, too, but don't point fingers.
What they do point out, and presented to Dr. Barry Langford's criminology class on the main campus of Columbia College in early September, are three new elements they have discovered in the Zodiac killings. Martin, who was preparing an article on the Zodiac, began ploughing through the voluminous Zodiac files and was startled by the three similarities.
Martin then called his friend Langford, who is well known in criminologist and media circles, to ask Langford if he could recommend a student, especially a graduate student with criminology experience, to help confirm these findings. Langford immediately recommended Ford.
Martin didn't tell her what he had found; only asked that she too review the documents. In her sparse spare time, in evenings, on weekends, she confirmed the conclusions:
- Each of the Zodiac's four known or suspected female victims had broken off a relationship with a boyfriend or admirer
- Each breakup involved public, sometimes vehement arguments
- In the three male‐female couple murders, the female victim was the older woman in either her former or current relationship.
The diabolical, almost supernatural Zodiac (who at one point claimed to be killing to give him slaves in the afterlife) fueled by common teenage rejection? Yes, the two researchers say. Further, they say, he was a horrible shot: firing at point-blank range, he often missed his victims numerous times, suggesting substance abuse. That the two survivors were male also may be significant, they say. Further, they point out, the public nature of the arguments and the victims' youth suggest the killer worked in or around an institution that catered to young people.
"Whoever it was," says Martin, "he was probably quiet and unassuming, worked in a position of trust or authority with or near young people, like Dennis Rader [the BTK Wichita, Kan., killer]. Rader was a deacon of his church, worked in animal control, a Cub Scout leader, a pillar of the community who kept his secret life a strict secret from his wife and everybody else."
Martin, a former chemist, says that next to Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac killings are probably the world's most famous unsolved murders. "They have all the elements that capture the imagination," he says, "occult trappings, science, diabolical killings. Whoever this guy was, he was obviously very, very smart." He not only devised his own cryptograms, says Martin, he also rewrote portions of The Mikado (a Gilbert and Sullivan opera), to describe his killings and obsessions. "He was obviously a linguist, or someone who knew ancient languages far better than most."
Ford says that unraveling the Zodiac mystery is no different than any other scientific quest. "Criminology is just a search for the truth," she says. "Like any other scientific endeavor, it requires a theory, a hypothesis, and testing to prove or disprove that hypothesis."
Ford, a self-described profiler and serial killer buff, says her husband buys her DVDs on such notorious figures as Jeffery Dahmer, the Milwaukee serial killer and cannibal, "and I just love them!"
"I am just fascinated," she says. "What does it take to step over the line, and deliberately — not drunk or in the heat of the moment – take a life? And not just once, but again and again?"