Monday, September 11, 2006

Zodiac Unmasked, by Robert Graysmith

(pb; 2002: non-fiction)

From the back cover

“In the 'provocative' (San Francisco Chronicle) true-crime classic, Zodiac, Robert Graysmith tracked the violent path of a sadistic sex killer whose true identity was shrouded in mystery. Now, after twenty-five years, Graysmith unmasks the killer...

“Between December 1968 and October 1969 a hooded serial killer called Zodiac terrorized San Francisco. He claimed responsibility for thirty-seven murders. His actual death toll may have reached fifty. All the while, he manipulated the media with depraved cunning, inundating the San Francisco Chronicle with warnings, dares, and tantalizing cryptograms that baffled the brightest FBI code-breakers. But as suddenly as the murders began, they stopped. Zodiac disappeared into the Bay Area fog forever and was never brought to justice.

“Now, through painstaking research and exclusive interviews, Robert Graysmith closes the last chapter on America's greatest unsolved mystery. Accumulating overwhelming evidence, Graysmith, who was on the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle when Zodiac's first letter arrived, finally exposes the elusive killer's true identity, reveals the twisted private life that led to the crimes, and provides startling theories as to why they stopped.

“With never-before-published photos, a complete reproduction of Zodiac's letters, incriminating envelopes, confidential notes, secret messages, and puzzles, Zodiac Unmasked is an important and fascinating coda to one of the most notorious crime sprees of the twentieth century.”


Author Graysmith concludes the real-life Zodiac drama in his follow-up to Zodiac.

Robert (“Bob”) Hall Starr, not the man's real name, had been named as the prime suspect in the Zodiac killings near the end of Zodiac. Many cops “liked” him for the murders, but there was that can't-match-his-handwriting-with-Zodiac's snag they couldn't get around.

Graysmith, armed with a plethora of new leads, proves that Starr, whose real name was Arthur Leigh Allen, was the killer. It was a teenage boy who led the authorities (and Graysmith) to Allen in 1987.

Everything matches. The dates of Zodiac “inactivity” (the lapse in murders and letters) stem from a prison stint Allen was serving for molesting two prepubescent boys (1974-1978); the murders declined about the same time that Allen started encountering health problems; Allen was a cineaste, particularly obsessed by the movies A Game of Death (1945) and Run for the Sun (1956), as well as the story that spawned those movies, Richard Connell's “The Most Dangerous Game.”

Also, Allen's hobbies coincided with the Zodiac's: skin-diving (explaining why Zodiac utilized the Zodiac SeaWolf watch logo as his own); Allen hated women, especially his mother, and was a pedophile; like many serial killers, Allen had applied to a police academy, only to be rebuffed, therefore fueling his hatred of cops; like his father, Allen had been in the Navy (Zodiac displayed Navy knowledge and references in his techniques and cryptograms); Allen was hyperthymic (highly emotional), as was Zodiac in his letters; Allen was a mechanic (Zodiac, in trying to lure his victims to him, had tinkered with their cars); Allen knew a hippie named Robert Emmett Rodifer, which linked him to the “ROBERT EMMETT THE HIPPIE” cryptogram in one of Zodiac's early media letters; Allen intentionally misspelled words in letters to friends, many of the misspellings similar to Zodiac's (e.g., eggs = “aigs”); Allen's birthday (December 18) coincides with Zodiac's, as well as one of the Zodiac's victims, S.F. cabbie Paul Stine (who was shot in the back of the head).

As for the handwriting snag, Allen's handwriting, both real and altered (he was ambidextrous), was also matched to the Zodiac's, as was his DNA (though the DNA evidence was kind of sketchy).

Before the cops and Graysmith could prove Allen's guilt, Allen died of a heart attack on August 26, 1992.

Zodiac, along with Jack the Ripper, has the distinction of spawning stylistic, stated copycats.

In 1990 (and later in 1994), Zodiac II (as he was called by the press) appeared in New York, shooting people with a zip gun. Heriberto “Eddie” Seda, whom the cops had also dubbed “The Vampire,” was arrested on June 18, 1996, after a shoot-out with New York's finest, and subsequently revealed to be Zodiac II via Seda's confession, and numerous Zodiac II-consistent weapons in his apartment.

Zodiac III (as he was called the press) struck in Kobe, Japan in March 1997, beheading a retarded neighborhood boy. On June 28, 1997, a fifteen-year old boy was arrested and convicted of attacking five kids, two of whom died.

This teenager, Zodiac III, had been emulating a murder he'd seen in the 1990 film, The Exorcist III, which was based on William Peter Blatty's 1983 novel, Legion (book sequel to Blatty's novel, The Exorcist). In one of his 1972 media letters, the original Zodiac had found the (1973 wide-release) film to be “the best saterical comidy that I have ever seen.” [misspellings intentional]. Eleven years later, in a nod at Zodiac's mention of the film version of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty modeled his Gemini (originally called Zodiac) killer in Legion after the original, real-life Zodiac.

Author Graysmith ends his two-book serial-killer odyssey in dovetail fashion by mentioning new evidence linking Allen to the first stated Zodiac casualty, Darlene Ferrin. (Zodiac had killed two people before Ferrin, but only later took credit for their deaths.) It's a fitting finish, bringing the real-life drama back to the Ferrin murder, which began the first book, Zodiac.

As necessary as its predecessor, this is as perfect a close as one could hope for. Definitely worth reading.


Zodiac Unmasked, along with Zodiac, is the basis the film Zodiac. Released stateside on March 2, 2007, it was directed by David Fincher. James Vanderbilt wrote the screenplay.

Jake Gyllenhall played reporter/author Robert Graysmith. Robert Downey Jr. played Paul Avery. Mark Ruffalo played Dave Toschi. Anthony Edwards played Bill Armstrong. Brian Cox played Melvin Belli. Clea DuVall played Linda Ferrin. Donal Logue played Ken Narlow. Dermot Mulroney played Captain Lee. Chloë Sevigny played Melanie.

Other films inspired by the Zodiac murders include: The Zodiac (2005); Dirty Harry (1971); Zodiac Killer (2005 – most reviews I've read about this film have said this film was horrible, as in badly-made).

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