Books

The Collected Works of the Zodiac

Was the 1960s serial killer a frustrated author, desperate for his voice to be heard?

A collage of Zodiac Killer files
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images.

As serial killers go, the Zodiac is pretty run-of-the-mill. His official victim count is seven: three couples and a San Francisco cab driver, all attacked within a one-year period in the late 1960s. Two of those victims, both men, survived. The murders themselves, although shockingly random, weren’t especially gruesome or freakish, even though one of the survivors described his attacker as wearing an executioner’s hood.

What made the Zodiac case a perfect rabbit hole, the stuff that obsessions are made of, were his letters and postcards, more than 15 of them, sent to local newspapers. Filled with sinister allusions to additional crimes, taunts aimed at the police, threats made against the public, weird collages, and above all, enigmatic cryptograms and clues, these communications have provided inexhaustible fodder for amateur sleuths and self-styled experts for decades.

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And, of course, Zodiac was never caught. That generated a cottage industry in suspect development that has flourished on the internet and spawned countless feuds among the proponents of scores of different perps. People have argued that everyone from Ted Bundy to Theodore Kaczynski to stray members of the Manson Family were responsible for the crimes. At least three men have presented exhaustive cases accusing their own fathers of being Zodiac, one of which became a bestselling book and documentary miniseries on the FX network. Last year, the Case Breakers, an organization of volunteers with “law enforcement, military, forensic, academic, legal and investigative skill sets,” claimed to have conclusively identified a previously unnamed suspect as the killer. And earlier this year, writer Jarett Kobek published How to Find Zodiac, an impressively complex and unique attempt to identify the murderer by using the many cultural references in Zodiac’s correspondence.

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Kobek argues that, unlike Bundy and most other serial killers, Zodiac did not “kill for the sake of killing.” Rather, his crimes were the “necessary spark” Zodiac needed to become famous—more specifically, “to be published.” Zodiac’s letters—which outnumber his confirmed victims and were mailed through the 1970s, long after he arguably had ceased attacking victims—contained references to comic books, science fiction, and other subcultural preoccupations of the day. Kobek further speculates that anyone who craved media attention as much as Zodiac would not have limited himself to only these attempts to publish. He was likely to have made a habit of writing letters to the editors of various publications. As a matter of fact, Kobek figures, wouldn’t someone with those interests and an overpowering itch to see his words in print have leapt into the robust fanzine culture of the time, even produced fanzines of his own? Kobek typed the words fanzines and Vallejo (a Bay Area suburb near where most of Zodiac’s crimes occurred and where Kobek assumed the killer lived) into a Google search bar and eventually found a man named Paul Doerr.

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An obscure figure otherwise lost to history, Doerr, who died in 2007, was a madly prolific zine publisher and contributor of letters to other people’s zines, on subjects ranging from Tolkien and hollow earth theories to back-to-the-land projects, free love, paganism, and gun rights. Zine publishers typically sent out their mimeographed issues for free, swapping copies with other publishers and forming amateur publishing associations that bundled up copies of multiple zines to mail out to members. Most published letters, and some zines consisted of little more than letters from readers. “Fanzines were the Internet before the Internet,” Kobek writes.

What little Kobek can establish about Doerr’s life is that he grew up in Pennsylvania, married in 1949, moved to California in the early ’60s, worked at the Mare Island Naval Base, and lived with his wife in Fairfield, California, until his death. But the letters, articles, and countless classified ads Doerr published in zines, newspapers, professional magazines, alternative newspapers, trade publications, and such periodicals as American Pigeon Journal stand in extravagant contrast with this banal suburban existence. The Doerr of those writings claims to have sailed a boat from Lake Erie to San Francisco, to have established an off-the-grid homestead where he hoped to be joined by multiple female ex-cons interested in communal living, to have bought another boat that he planned to sail to Mexico after finding suitable female companions for the trip, to have been a member of the Akwesasne tribe, to have built hobbit-style dwellings called smials, to have found a ruby on Mount Shasta, and to have resolved a dispute extrajuridically in such a way that “there are fewer people here because of it now.” Kobek interprets the last of these as a “confession” to having committed murder, though to my ear it sounds like self-important bluster.

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How to Find Zodiac is a kind of Venn diagram in which Kobek attributes aspects of Zodiac’s crimes or correspondence to certain subcultures, then establishes that Doerr participated in each of those subcultures. The hood Zodiac wore when attacking two college students at a lake in Napa County in 1969 he links to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire held all that month in Marin County and Doerr’s involvement with the Society for Creative Anachronism, whose members dress up in medieval garb. In 2013, an amateur Zodiac researcher discovered a 1952 comic book whose cover seems likely to have inspired a Halloween card that Zodiac sent to a reporter. Kobek then finds a notice Doerr published in a fantasy zine seeking to get in touch with comic book collectors. Kobek deems the crosshairs symbol that Zodiac used in his letters to the media to be the emblem of the Minutemen, a right-wing group that urged its members to paint or draw the symbol “everywhere possible that it will be seen by the public” to intimidate communists. Doerr’s name appeared on a list of Minutemen members obtained when authorities arrested the group’s founder. Furthermore, a Minutemen bulletin included the formula for an explosive that Zodiac also claimed to have used in a threatened attempt to blow up a school bus.

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What are the odds that a man living in or near Vallejo would be part of the Society for Creative Anachronism and a comic book collector and a member of the Minutemen? What are the odds that the same man would advertise his interest in obtaining a copy of a book that, Kobek discovered, contained the phrase “slaves in the afterlife,” which Zodiac used in multiple communications? How to Find Zodiac is replete with correspondences like these, none of which seems meaningful on its own but in aggregate seem to conclusively pinpoint Doerr.

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However, skepticism is in order whenever someone says “what are the odds?” in assessing a Zodiac suspect. The quintessential example of this is the 2020 FX documentary series The Most Dangerous Animal of All, a slow burn with a twist in its tail based on the bestselling book of the same title by Gary Stewart. The first three parts of the series build an impressive-looking case for Stewart’s theory that his biological father (whom he never met), Earl Van Best, was Zodiac. There is a remarkable similarity between the handwriting on Van Best’s wedding certificate and the Zodiac letters; a scar on Van Best’s fingerprint looks just like one on the partial handprint left by Zodiac; Van Best even has a background in code-breaking. Then, in the fourth episode, Stewart’s case falls apart. The wedding certificate turns out to have been written by the pastor who performed the ceremony, the scar was on a different finger, and so on. The series concludes with Stewart defiantly sticking to his father’s guilt while his co-author, Susan Mustafa—an experienced true crime writer whom Stewart deceived on multiple occasions—talks of her plans to burn a copy of the book they co-wrote.

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Stewart first became convinced that his father was Zodiac while watching a TV documentary about the killer. He was electrified upon seeing the police sketch of Zodiac, a composite based on multiple eyewitness descriptions. The sketch is so iconic that Kobek, who doesn’t seem to have any useful images of Doerr, digs up some old photographs taken at an SCA tournament in 1968. In them, he pinpoints a man he judges to be Doerr because he’s carrying a camera and has a prominent chin. The man also has a mustache, but presumably Kobek thinks Doerr shaved it off before commencing his crime spree three months later. And the man doesn’t wear glasses, either, so I guess Kobek considers those to have been a disguise. He erases the glasses from the Zodiac police sketch, draws on a mustache and voila!—yeah, it looks kind of like the guy in the SCA photos. What are the odds?

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The odds are not that low, actually. The Zodiac police sketch, with its crew cut and thick-framed spectacles, is a generic image of 1960s white manhood. It looks like a vast number of middle-class, midlevel professionals of the time—an engineer for IBM, perhaps, or an insurance salesman or even a junior exec from Mad Men. My own father looked a lot like that sketch for a certain stretch of the 1960s, a fact that I don’t find remotely ominous. My dad wouldn’t hurt a fly. But I’m not Gary Stewart, whose biological father was a controlling pedophile who seduced his 14-year-old mother and eventually did a stint in a mental hospital. And I’m not Dennis Kaufman, another sleuth who became convinced his dad was Zodiac after seeing that police sketch on a TV documentary. Kaufman’s stepfather, Jack Tarrance, was an abuser who—like a lot of deeply unpleasant men—liked to hint around about his capacity for homicidal violence and refused to deny being Zodiac when confronted. Each man’s instantaneous conviction that the sketch depicted his own father says more about the fathers than it does about any man’s conclusive resemblance to Zodiac.

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I don’t find Kobek’s case for Doerr as Zodiac to be convincing. It’s an argument rife with confirmation bias and the dubious elision of such details as the Zodiac-brand watch found in possession of the San Francisco Police Department’s prime suspect, the face of which prominently features a crosshairs logo. But I still found How to Find Zodiac a fascinating portrait of a certain milieu and the people who populated it, hovering awkwardly between the establishment and the counterculture, attracted to the latter by tawdry fantasies of “free love” but resentful of political change and any other perceived diminishment of their own status. Doerr was perfectly capable of railing against both the government and flag burners. Guys like him were everywhere, not nearly as rare as Kobek seems to think.

How to Find Zodiac

By Jerrett Kobek. We Heard You Like Books.

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Speculation about Zodiac suspects, taken all together, amounts to a bestiary of the seemingly countless creepy men of late ’60s Northern California. Along the way, How to Find Zodiac unearths a few nonsuspects of the same ilk, like the writer Walter Breen, husband of the prominent fantasy and science fiction novelist Marion Zimmer Bradley, who was well aware of his penchant for molesting young boys and provided him with cover. (Bradley would later be accused of sexually abusing their daughter. Doerr seems to have known both Bradley and Breen.) Kobek views this nasty history as indicative of “all the worst things that science fiction people believed about themselves,” that they were exceptional and therefore not obliged to abide by the mere conventions that restrained outsiders. And perhaps there was some of that in Doerr as well, although it’s unclear whether he ever did, or even truly intended to do, any of the sketchy stuff he professed to be involved with. It’s one thing to write cranky articles about burning hippies in an Edgar Rice Burroughs fanzine; it’s something utterly different to walk up to two 16-year-old strangers sitting in a parked car and shoot them to death. Doerr, after all, has no official history of violence.

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And perhaps there’s more that caught Kobek’s eye in Doerr. How to Find Zodiac is self-published, and its author describes how, in the past, he did an event at the Strand Bookstore in New York City, “a dismal affair in support of a work destined for failure.” Does he see something of himself in Doerr, a writer forever struggling to be heard? I’ll confess to seeing a bit of myself—a critic—in Kobek, who offers something a lot like literary criticism as an alternative to forensics: nail down someone with tastes, influences, and interests identical to Zodiac’s, and you’ve got Zodiac. I think that’s one reason why the Zodiac case still exerts such an enduring fascination. He got away with his crimes, leaving the world with a sparse collection of clues—an oeuvre of sorts, one we polish and polish until it presents us with a reflection of our communities, our fathers, ourselves.