Fifty years ago, a murderer caused panic and hysteria in the San Francisco Bay Area. Five people, whose ages ranged from 16 to 29 years old, were killed between 1968 to 1974, confirmed victims of the man who became known as the Zodiac killer. Only two people — Michael Mageau and Bryan Hartnell — survived the attacks.
The Zodiac, who used this term in letters he sent to local news outlets such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Vallejo Times-Herald and the San Francisco Examiner, has never been identified. Since then, dozens of people have been suspected to be the Zodiac, by both law enforcement and those with a hunch of their own.
Part of the mystery surrounding the Zodiac stems from his interactions with police and media. The series of letters he sent to news outlets with cryptic messages, allegedly containing his identity, taunted law enforcement. In some ways, it was as though the killer was asking to be caught.
The closest encounter with the killer occurred on the night of Oct. 11, 1969, in the Presidio Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. Two officers responding to report of a shooting stopped and questioned a man who fit the description of the murderer, except for his ethnicity.
According to the responding officers, they were told the suspect was a “Negro male” instead of “White male,” a mistake that ultimately allowed the killer to disappear into the Presidio, according to his own account.
Two days after the murder, the San Francisco Chronicle received a letter from the Zodiac with the following message: “The S.F. Police could have caught me last night if they had searched the park properly instead of holding road races with their motorcicles (sic) seeing who could make the most noise. The car drivers should have just parked their cars and sat there quietly waiting for me to come out of cover.”
While forensic technologies and precinct communication protocols have certainly improved over time, it is unclear the degree to which discriminatory policing tactics have as well.
A 2017 report on wrongful convictions from the University of Michigan found that African-Americans are only 13 percent of the U.S. population, but constitute 47 percent of the 1,900 exonerations as of October 2016. Convictions that led to murder exonerations with black defendants were 22 percent more likely to include misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants.
According to the Murder Accountability Project, an organization that uses data to find patterns in homicides to identify potential serial killers, each year more than 5,000 people get away with murder in the United States. Despite advancements in DNA analysis and forensic science, police fail to make an arrest for one-third of homicides. And the majority of homicides now go unsolved at big-city police departments, like that of San Francisco.
Though the case has been reopened by several law enforcement agencies, it is unclear if the true identity of the Zodiac will ever be revealed. And now, fifty years after the first confirmed killings, investigators say it’s unlikely that he’s still alive and would ever face justice.
Many of the factors that allowed the Zodiac to evade arrest are likely not applicable with today’s investigative tactics and technologies. And yet, the percentage of unsolved murders has been slowly increasing since the 1960s. The Zodiac’s methods for staying ahead of the police may be outdated, but getting away with murder is not.