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February 20, 2007

By Mary Anne Ostrom, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

Feb. 20–It’s the Bay Area’s hottest cold case. Who was the Zodiac killer? Nearly four decades after the serial murderer held the region hostage with a bloody spree punctuated by a morbid cat-and-mouse game with police, newspapers and the public, fascination with that question only grows.

Consider that the last known public communication from the enigmatic murderer came in 1978. Yet Hollywood, independent filmmakers, writers and an entire Zodiac Web subculture are keeping the Bay Area’s most notorious unsolved case alive.

Next week, “Zodiac,” an $80 million Hollywood film with marquee stars, will premiere, and dozens of amateur Zodiac sleuths will convene in San Francisco to discuss a case that many investigators have given up on. The case is on YouTube and eBay; the killer’s wanted posters are on T-shirts and mouse pads; his crime scenes are in tour books.

“I’m afraid of the case,” admitted San Francisco true-crime author Robert Graysmith. “It is so obsessive, once you get into it, you find it hard to get out.” He should know: he penned the two Zodiac books the new movie is based on.

To this day, Bay Area residents of the time immediately recognize the hooded police sketch of the Zodiac, a name he coined in letters, signed with his distinctive, bulls-eye-like insignia.

Almost anyone who was living in the Bay Area at the time recalls the regionwide panic created by the killer’s cryptic messages and ciphers and the bloody evidence delivered by mail to newspapers. There were his blunt threats to blow up school buses and “pick off the kiddies as they go bouncing out.”

“That threat touched an entire generation in the Bay Area,” said John Mikulenka, who is making a documentary about amateur Web-based detectives who refuse to let the case die.

Parents kept their children home, police tailed school buses with cruisers and helicopters, and several North Bay counties imposed curfews.

The killings were only the first of several bizarre and bloody crimes that rocked the Bay Area in the 1970s. Among them: the Zebra killings, the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, the mass suicides at Jonestown and the murder of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. The difference was, those cases were solved.

By the official police count, the Zodiac shot or stabbed seven Bay Area residents from December 1968 through October 1969, mostly young couples in secluded locations near Vallejo and at Lake Berryessa in Napa County. He killed five, including a San Francisco cab driver shot in the head at point-blank range.

He also caught Hollywood’s imagination early. He and the San Francisco cop on his tail inspired the first Dirty Harry movie in 1971, even as he still terrorized. As Harry Callahan’s (played by Clint Eastwood) nemesis, he was known as Scorpio.

The new movie, “Zodiac,” set for release March 2, reflects the ongoing fascination of those who lived through the scare. Graysmith, who worked as a San Francisco Chronicle editorial cartoonist when the story broke, found a common bond with “Zodiac” director David Fincher, who was captivated by the murder spree as child growing up in Marin County.

For more than four years, Fincher worked to bring the film to the big screen with A-list actors. Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Jake Gyllenhaal star. Fincher hired retired case investigators, and even a survivor of a Zodiac attack, as consultants, and for authenticity he shot re-enactments at the original crime scenes.

Devotees from around the world fill the Web with theories, while the advent of DNA testing and popular crime-solving television shows has reignited interest in the case. Debates rage over likely suspects. A DNA test in 2002 seemed to clear a suspect — petty criminal Arthur Leigh Allen of Vallejo — favored by author Graysmith and key investigators. Allen died in 1992; the test was done on saliva gathered from a stamp on one of the Zodiac’s letters.

Some urge still more DNA analysis, but in 2004 San Francisco police closed the case. The investigations in Vallejo and Napa County remain open.

One person with mixed feelings about the upcoming movie release is Dean Ferrin, who was married to Darlene Ferrin, the Zodiac’s second victim. He expected the renewed attention with the film’s upcoming release, just as he braces himself every time a reality crime show highlights the case.

Ferrin long ago remarried, and he doubts the Zodiac killer will ever be found or his identity confirmed. Of the ongoing interest in the case, he added: “Maybe if something comes of it that would be good, but I don’t expect it.”

Others find it hard to leave the case behind, even nearly four decades later.

Dave Toschi, San Francisco’s lead detective on the case, visits the lone San Francisco crime scene in Presidio Heights every anniversary of the murder of Paul Stine, the cab driver. He developed ulcers he blames on the investigation.

Between 1969 and 1974, the Zodiac communicated with several newspapers and demanded that his letters and complex ciphers be printed, or there would be more killings. The San Francisco Chronicle’s lead reporter on the case, Paul Avery, was among those threatened. Avery, who is played by Downey Jr., has since died.

Nobodies became heroes. Three newspapers ran one of the Zodiac’s ciphers after code-breaker specialists failed. Don Harden, a Salinas high school teacher, and his wife Bettye solved one after five days of nearly non-stop work. The Hardens suspected a killer with such an ego would start his cipher with “I” and that the word “kill” would appear.

They were right. The first sentence read: “I like killing people because it is so much fun.”

But the enduring question remains: What happened to him? While some, including Graysmith, believe the Zodiac was the dead Vallejo suspect, others theorize he may have grown out of his murderous mood.

“I get contacted all the time by people who are really sure they know who the Zodiac is,” said David Van Nuys, a Sonoma State University professor emeritus of psychology and co-author of a Zodiac book. “Did he die, did he go to jail, did he just go away? My tentative, tenuous conclusion is that he suffered from multiple personalities and got better.”

But no one knows.

One Zodiac mystery is cleared up in the new film. In 1978, the Zodiac wrote: “I am waiting for a good movie about me. Who will play me.”

The stars play Avery, Toschi and Graysmith. And who did Fincher cast as the Zodiac for his few shadowy appearances? Unknown actors.

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IF YOU’RE INTERESTED

See a trailer of Mikulenka’s documentary online (http://one.revver .com/watch/170634).

Contact Mary Anne Ostrom at mostrom@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5574.

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Copyright (c) 2007, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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