Zodiac Killer case: Police taking another look at DNA evidence
Posted May 3, 2018 6:35 p.m. EDT
SAN FRANCISCO -- Inspired by the apparent success of DNA searches in the Golden State Killer case, detectives at the Vallejo Police Department have sent decades-old letters from the infamous Zodiac Killer to a forensics laboratory with the hope of getting a genetic profile they can use to identify a suspect, investigators said.
Detectives in San Francisco and Napa counties, where the Zodiac also killed during his macabre murder spree in 1968 and 1969, are also re-evaluating their evidence to see if it's worth making a new try at getting DNA profiles.
The Zodiac sent letters with cryptograms and taunts to newspapers, including The Chronicle, as he attacked seven people, killing five, throughout the Bay Area in one of the most notorious unsolved murder cases in American history. The letters often opened with, ``This is the Zodiac speaking,'' and as the killings continued, and the letters got more sadistically boastful, dread spread across the region.
Long after the slayings stopped, investigators over the years have tried to extract DNA from the Zodiac's letters and items from the crime scenes, but had little success. The genetic material had been handled so much in those pre-DNA times, or compromised in other ways, that it has long been considered all but useless.
However, DNA technology has improved to the point that investigators believe there may now be a chance something could be extracted from the flaps of envelopes or the inside of stamps where they were licked by the killer -- or from items not considered viable before.
The hope is to get a good profile, and then try to match it to the expanded DNA files now available through open-source databases, such as public genealogy sites, or to government files that contain ever-expanding logs of criminals and their DNA. Even if the Zodiac is dead, his relatives might make a match, and the case can finally be closed.
``We actually sent these samples in a few months ago, just as a matter of due diligence in the case,'' said Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan, who also is a former homicide investigator in the Vallejo Police Department. ``I can't encourage that enough. It's the right thing to do. The data base gets larger and larger every year, and technology improves, so there is always a possibility of something coming up.''
The Vallejo department has sent two envelopes, with their stamps, from letters the Zodiac mailed July 31, 1969, to The San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. The stamps and adhesive areas of the envelopes were also tested about 10 years ago, but the DNA indicators were too small to be considered useful. The new hope is that improved techniques for separating glue from saliva will yield better samples.
The Zodiac gunned down his first victims, David Faraday and Betty Jensen, in Benicia -- which is next to Vallejo -- as they sat in a parked car on a date nearly 50 years ago in December 1968. His next attack came in July 1969 in Vallejo when he shot Michael Mageau and Darlene Ferrin. Mageau survived his wounds.
Police believe the killer's spree ended with the shooting of a San Francisco cab driver two months later, although the Zodiac continued to send letters for several more years.
The investigators' renewed enthusiasm for digging into the mystery got a boost last month by the example set in the Golden State Killer case.
The Golden State Killer, also known as the East Area Rapist, committed at least 12 slayings and 45 rapes in California from 1976-86, mostly in the Sacramento area, and decades went by with no true leads until investigators ran DNA samples from crime scene evidence through a genealogical website. They got a hit leading them to Joseph James DeAngelo. The 72-year-old former cop was arrested April 24 at his home in a quiet Sacramento suburb, and prosecutors are now assembling cases up and down the state to take him to trial.
The main items being re-evaluated by investigators in the Zodiac case include the door of a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia used by a couple that the Zodiac attacked at Lake Berryessa in Napa County in September 1969. The killer stabbed Cecelia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell, killing Shepard, then wrote with a pen on the car door afterward, giving dates of his attacks and scrawling his symbol, a circle with a cross in it. Investigators were able to lift what may have been at least parts of the killer's fingerprints from the door.
Also still in storage is a bloody glove retrieved from the scene of the one confirmed San Francisco killing, and the last authoritatively attributed to the Zodiac -- the shooting of cab driver Paul Stine in October 1969.
Earlier tests on both the car door and the glove were unproductive, investigators have told The Chronicle.
``Back in the day, when these Zodiac crimes occurred, nobody had even heard of DNA,'' said Napa County Sheriff's Sgt. Pat McMahon, who has worked the Zodiac case. ``Things weren't preserved with that in mind.''
He said his department's evidence was sent in 2010 to the state Department of Justice DNA lab in Richmond using a federal cold-case grant. ``They were unable to get any really usable DNA off any of that stuff,'' McMahon said.
The items included the clotheslines used to tie up Shepard and Hartnell, and a green glass bottle found at the murder scene.
``I'm not sure testing the door, and the rest, again would yield much, but science changes and it's constantly developing, so you never know,'' McMahon said. ``It's always worth thinking about.''
The main suspect in the case has long been considered to be Arthur Leigh Allen of Vallejo, a convicted child molester and former elementary school teacher who died in 1992 at age 58. However, the list of potential suspects veers into the hundreds, and tips on them as well as other possible victims continue to pour in annually to all three police departments and The Chronicle.
A partial DNA sample tested by investigators from envelopes in 2002 did not match Allen's DNA. But the sample was so thin, with few markers able to be extracted, that it was considered inconclusive.
``There is no reason in the world why they shouldn't make another run at all the DNA in this case, especially considering what has happened in the Golden State Killer case,'' said longtime amateur Zodiac expert Tom Voigt, who personally believes the Zodiac was probably a now-dead, former Bay Area newspaperman. ``There were more than 20 letters sent, and lots of other stuff on file. Just send it all to a lab.''
Those who have investigated the Zodiac case in the past, including current Contra Costa Sheriff's forensics chief Pamela Hofsass, have advocated for new testing as well.
``It just makes sense,'' Hofsass said.
Skepticism remains strong.
``I've been following the Golden State Killer case with some interest, and I'm taking a close look at what they did with the DNA,'' said San Francisco police Inspector Edward Wynkoop, who is assigned to the Zodiac case. ``I'll certainly take a look at it, but most of what I have probably wouldn't hold up too well in the way of DNA.
''A lot of what we have is partials, and it's hard to do anything with them.``