Farmer isn’t the only investigator to finger Penn, who says Napa County sheriff’s detective Ken Narlow considered him an “official suspect,” a claim Narlow (right) denies. “We were too busy to give Penn or O’Hare much thought,” says Narlow, who led Napa’s efforts to apprehend the killer.
But Penn has written and recited the same story for nearly 30 years. “On 29 December 1980 at precisely 8:00 a.m., I waltzed into Ken Narlow’s office to talk about a word I wasn't supposed to know.”
The word was radian.
“I had learned about it from my father Hugh, who saw it in one of Zodiac’s letters.” Hugh Penn tried to solve the Zodiac ciphers when he came across the case files, his son said. The former cryptographer had become a statistician with the California Department of Justice, where he studied traffic accidents for the California Highway Patrol and profiled a serial rapist.
“He thought it passing strange, since all of the psychological evaluations typed the Zodiac as a near-moron,” Penn explained. “Radian is something you find in the vocabulary of someone trained as an engineer—or an architect.”
Penn said Narlow “thanked me profusely” for calling his attention to the word, adding that for the last ten years he’d been wondering what radian meant.
“My figurative jaw hit the figurative floor,” Penn exclaimed. “Here was a man charged with the arrest of a criminal whose letter contained a word he was unfamiliar with, and he spent over a decade not looking it up.”
Penn said Narlow ultimately ruled him out as a suspect after “inquiries to the Department of Defense had shown I was stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma” when Cheri Jo Bates (left) was murdered in Riverside, Calif.
But that was premature, and to illustrate, Penn ginned up a scenario in Times 17 to nullify his alibi. Shortly before the murder, “I was in charge of preparing my unit’s Morning Report, which accounts for the whereabouts and duty status of everyone in the unit,” Penn wrote. “It would not have been hard for me to falsify an entry or…to get a military hop to March AFB [near Riverside] from Oklahoma for a three-day pass.”
Penn told me he was indeed in California the month Bates was murdered—October 1966—but in San Francisco, meeting his second wife-to-be at a going away party for David McCann, the Korean languages scholar. McCann did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Penn also wrote, in Times 17, that authorities had cleared him of the Zodiac crimes "on the basis of my fingerprints." That surprised Narlow, who said he never took Penn's prints or checked them against any national databases or Zodiac evidence. "We had no reason to," he said.
What's more, police officials in San Francisco, Vallejo, Benicia, Napa have no records of ever fingerprinting anyone in connection with the Zodiac case named Gareth Penn, Gareth S. Penn, or Gareth Sewell Penn.
He said, He said
Two weeks after chewing me out for rehashing Penn’s claims, Michael O’Hare emailed: “Do you have a publication date/journal for this story yet?”
A month later, he broke his thirty-year silence in an unusual venue—the May/June 2009 issue of the left-leaning Washington Monthly.
Confessions of a Non–Serial Killer didn’t confess much, but it did use witty repartee to dismiss Penn’s allegations and bolster O’Hare’s position that he’d never been harmed enough to consider litigation.
“My contact with Penn has died down to three or four letters a year that he sends me at my office, where I drop them unopened in the folder with the others,” O’Hare writes. “I wish I could say I’ve learned a lot from this disagreeable experience, but about all I’ve gleaned is how hard the subconscious mind tries to make sense of irrational circumstances.”
Penn, of course, wasted no time responding: O'Hare won't sue because he knows the allegations are true, not because he can't prove damages.
“Any first-year law student will be happy to tell you that anyone falsely accused of the commission of a felony is exempted from the requirement to prove that he has been damaged,” Penn wrote in a 7-page letter to the Washington Monthly. He also added his own witty rejoinder, openly wondering why O’Hare should address his claims now, after so many years of silence.
“While I hesitate to compare myself with my betters, I note that his bulletin comes around the same time as the latest from Osama bin Laden criticizing Barack Obama for his speech in Cairo,” Penn concludes. “I think there’s something in the air.”
The Third Knife
Partly about the murders, David Fincher’s Zodiac is mostly about the unraveling of Robert Graysmith’s once tidy life. Call it the curse of Ahab—the obsessive pursuit that ultimately destroys the obsessed pursuer.
As Penn would readily admit, his own life has never been tidy. But the strange and isolating circumstances within which he now finds himself raise the question: Has chasing Michael O’Hare all these years really been worth it?
With his Dorian Gray good looks and hyperbolic intellect, Penn never had problems attracting women before Zodiac. But now, “it’s very difficult to find someone to date, let alone maintain a relationship,” he says.
And forget real employment. “A few years ago, I was a shoe-in for a great job. Then they Googled me.” Google has also encouraged phone calls from “nutcases who want to talk to a real live serial killer while they jack off,” says Penn (pictured below circa 1980).
Nevertheless, he remains undeterred. He’s tackling the Zodiac/O’Hare connection from a new angle these days, largely disavowing his previous attempts as “sophomoric and juvenile.”
“I don’t think there’s much worth reading,” he says of Times 17 and The Second Power. “That’s why I don’t reprint them.”
He has a new book, he tells me over the phone, while coaxing a manuscript from the sound effect of an opening desk drawer. “It’s the real deal,” it being The Third Knife, his magnum opus, the culmination of his life’s work.
Where Penn earlier sought to identify a killer, The Third Knife dispenses with the “whodunit” and instead seeks appreciation—of both “the brightest person who ever stalked the Earth” and the “incredibly ingenious way Mike O’Hare communicated the pain and anguish he suffered at the hands of his father. ”
Penn’s sotto voce tone lost its flatness just long enough to beam. “I’m torn by disapproval of the means he chose to express himself and utter admiration. What a mind!”
Recalling the cool December morning nearly 30 years ago “when Gareth Penn showed up in my office,” Ken Narlow said “he was a strange, fascinating guy without a shred of real evidence who wanted to spend half the day going over why he thought O'Hare did it.”
Looking back, Narlow -- who passed away in December 2010 -- wondered if he was too quick to dismiss Penn -- as both accuser and accused. “I probably should have checked out Penn a lot better than I did,” he said. “I didn't know what I do now. I had no idea about any of it.”
As for O'Hare, “maybe Dr. O’Hare has something to hide and he’s trying to ignore all this because he doesn’t want anyone digging too deep," Narlow said. "Maybe I should talk to him sometime, ask him a few questions.”
Ask him a few questions, but what exactly? Why has Gareth Penn haunted you all these years? What did you ever do to him? Slight him somehow? Have an affair with his wife? Was he the guy you cut off on the Bay Bridge that day?
Or are you really the Zodiac killer?
“I think the statement in James O’Brien’s Boston Now story covers it pretty well,” O’Hare told me when I first inquired. “I had nothing to do with the Zodiac or Webster murders.”
But if not O’Hare, then whom? Perhaps one of Mary Ann Winterrowd’s students knows something.
|Faraday/Jensen car on Lake Herman Rd.|
Gareth Penn’s wife—and the student who rated her—apparently knew that story well.
Ms. Winterrowd taught us plot structure and sentence construction by using my all time favorite short story, The Most Dangerous Game.
*The author wishes to acknowledge the expert assistance of Amanda Clifton, a Danville, Calif.-based legal researcher, and thank her for locating, analyzing, and copying legal records, military records, and other public but hard-to-find information.