Between 1966 and 1969, a serial murderer known as the Zodiac killer terrorized California. Despite intense law enforcement and media scrutiny, few clues to the killer’s identity or motives have ever emerged.
Now, old police reports may shed new light on characteristics common to the victims.
Collected for nearly a decade at a unique online repository for information about the case, Zodiackiller.com, the reports -- from Napa, Vallejo, and Solano County police and sheriff departments -- reveal that before they were murdered, sometimes within days or weeks, each of the Zodiac's four known or suspected female victims had broken off a relationship or rebuffed the advances of a male admirer in favor of another male partner, and each breakup involved public arguments or witnessed threats.
What's more, in the three murders involving male-female couples, the female victim was the “older woman” in either her former or current relationship.
Experts say the similarities suggest the killer may have known more about his victims than has previously been assumed, and may not have chosen them entirely at random.
"The similarities are very intriguing and worth taking a second look at," said Sheryl McCollum, founder and director of the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute at Bauder College in Atlanta. "Similarities between victims are often telling about the killer. I do not believe in coincidences—much less four of them. Therefore, the victims all having had a breakup or male stalker becomes something that may need to be re-investigated."
Discovered during research for a story about the first public allegations in the Zodiac murders -- when, beginning in 1981, retired government librarian and true crime author Gareth S. Penn accused U.C. Berkeley public policy professor Michael H. O'Hare of the crimes in a series of articles and two books -- the findings were presented at the Midwest Criminal Justice Association annual conference in Chicago and the Southern Criminal Justice Association annual conference in Charleston, South Carolina this September.
Motivated to murder
The author of a warning/confession letter to both the Riverside (Calif.) police department and the editor of the Riverside Press-Enterprise newspaper suggested that a lover's jilting drove him to kill.
Written one month after the Oct. 1966 Riverside, Calif. murder of suspected Zodiac victim Cheri Josephine Bates (left), the author repeatedly claimed that he was motivated to murder by young women who had rejected him in high school and the "brush offs" Bates had given him "in the years prior."
Betty, David -- and Ricky
Striking on Dec. 20, 1968, the Zodiac killer murdered two young high school students in the Vallejo-Benicia area, Betty Lou Jensen, 16, and David Arthur Faraday, 17.
Within two weeks of her death, Jensen had broken off a relationship with Richard (Ricky) Allen Burton, 14, who witnesses say threatened both her and Faraday. Jensen "went steady" with Burton, 13, from Dec. 1 to Dec 14, 1968 according to a Solano County Sheriff report.
Jensen's parents said Burton “bugged Betty Lou at school, " and police officials found a handwritten note in Jensen's school locker, referring to Faraday:
Do you know a kid named Richard Burton? I was going with him until two days before the installation. He still phones me and is threatening me to keep away from Dave. He said if he is ever close enough to Dave he would punch him one in the teeth. I told him to leave me alone, if he knows what’s good for him.
Authorities briefly investigated Burton for the murders of Jensen and Faraday, but never considered him a suspect.
Darlene, Mike, Dean, Jim -- and George
The Zodiac killer struck again on Independence Day, 1969, killing Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin, 22, and injuring Michael Renault Mageau, 19, at Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo.
Married at the time, Ferrin was romantically involved with other men, including Vallejo police officer Howard "Buzz" Gordon. Authorities considered Ferrin's current husband Dean, and former husband, Jim Phillips suspects in her murder, but later cleared both men.
According to the Vallejo Police Report on her death, another man, George William Waters, 29, (right) appeared to be stalking Ferrin for "turning him down" in the months before her murder.
Waters tried to date her many times and after several refusals, walked into her apartment and threatened to rape her or "get her into bed one way or the other."
"She was deathly afraid of George Waters,” the report states.
Cecelia, Bryan -- and Gary
When the Zodiac killer stabbed Cecelia Shepard, 22, and Bryan Hartnell, 20, in late September, 1969 at Lake Berryessa near Napa, Hartnell was a student at Pacific Union College in nearby Angwin.
Shepard's parents told the Napa County Sheriff that “a former male friend of victim, Gary (last name redacted), age 21 (22 in 1969) a senior at Pacific Union College, threatened Cecelia when she started going with Hartnell. This occurred sometime in 1968."
Cheri Jo, her fiance -- and "Bob Barnett"
About a month after the Oct. 1966 stabbing of Riverside (Ca.) City College (RCC) student Cheri Jo Bates, 18, someone sent an unsigned "confession letter" to both the Riverside Police Department and the Riverside Press-Enterprise newspaper.
"I lay awake nights thinking about my next victim," the person wrote. "Maybe she will be the shapely, blue-eyed brownett who said no when I asked her for a date in high school."
Graphically describing Bates' murder, the writer said only one thing was on his mind. "Making her pay for the brush offs that she had given me during the years prior."
In a 1999 interview with an anonymous source, Zodiackiller.com publisher Tom Voigt continued the theme. The source told Voigt that Bates had returned from a trip to visit her "steady boyfriend" in San Francisco, where she had accepted his wedding proposal. Bates told another man she'd been dating -- Bob Barnett, a pseudonym -- that they could no longer date less than a week prior to her murder.
"Barnett and Cheri engaged in a very public argument on the RCC campus just days before her murder," Voigt writes. "During the argument, Barnett allegedly slapped Cheri. A passerby heard Barnett say, 'Have you changed your mind yet?'"
Playing basketball with friends the night Bates died, Barnett left the game after Bates called him "for unknown reasons." "That bitch is going to the library," Barnett allegedly told his friends.
Police subsequently cleared Barnett of her murder, but remain unwilling to release official police reports about the 43-year-old case.
"Per the Office of the Chief of Police, this case is still an OPEN criminal case," Riverside Police Department sergeant Jaybee Brennan wrote in an email. "Therefore, there will be no release of information."
Other information may be lacking as well, including evidence that law enforcement officials either missed the victim similarities or failed to share them, Sheryl McCollum says. "We don’t know that they did miss these similarities. They may have discussed these events and facts and never shared it with the public."
For now, though, she reminds, "There is no harm in taking a second look at all aspects of a cold case."
Science journalist Michael Martin, and Kortnie Ford, a graduate student in the Department of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri presented the findings at the Midwest Criminal Justice Association annual conference in Chicago and the Southern Criminal Justice Association annual conference in Charleston, South Carolina.