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Zodiac ()

On December 20, 1968, two teenagers, David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen, were shot to death in their parked car on Lake Herman Road in Vallejo. On July 4, 1969, again in Vallejo, Darlene Ferrin was shot and killed, Michael Mageau shot and badly injured by a man who approached their parked car and began firing at them. A half hour later the shooter called police and said: "I want to report a double murder. I also killed those kids last year. Goodbye." Later that month the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner and the Vallejo Times-Herald received the first of what would be a series of communications--cards, letters, phone calls--to them, their staff, the police, maybe even celebrity attorney Melvin Belli, etc., from the man who became know as the Zodiac Killer. Included with the distinctively written, worded, and stamped letter was a homemade cypher that was cracked by a school teacher and his wife, despite the fact that professionals and various government agencies were all struggling with it.

On Sept. 27, 1969, two college students out for a picnic lunch at Lake Berryessa, Napa County, were approached by a hooded man dressed in black, he showed them a gun, forced Cecilia Shepard to tie up Bryan Hartnell and then tied her up himself. While he stabbed both repeatedly, she died but Hartnell survived. Then, on Oct. 11, 1969, a taxi driver, Paul Lee Stine, was shot and killed by a passenger at Cherry and Washington streets in Presidio Heights. Communications continued to come from the Zodiac killer for years, but these five deaths are the only ones that are attributed to him with some certainty. He claimed a casualty count of 37 and several other thwarted attacks a that time seemed like they might have been his work. The identity of the killer has never been proved and the last (disputed) letter was sent to the SF Chronicle on April 24, 1978.

Even setting aside the basic mystery of how someone could get away with this killing spree, the taunting letters, the proximity of the crimes to water, geographically and holidays, chronologically, and innumerable other elements make it easy to see why the case would haunt those involved. Just to cite two other bizarre sidelight: his costume at the Lake Berryessa stabbing appears to have been based on that of Count Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game, the 1932 film based on a story we all used to read in school, by Richard Connell; and, one of the letters was a deranged parody of The Mikado. Weirdness piled upon weirdness...

When the first letter came to the SF Chronicle, Robert Graysmith was the paper's political cartoonist and so was at the editorial board meeting where it was read. He was particularly intrigued by the cipher. Thus began what would become a forty-year obsession that was the basis for not only two books and a movie but a ruined marriage.

Also present at that meeting was the Chronicle's police reporter, Paul Avery, who would become the journalist most closely associated with the story. He eventually tracked down earlier murders that he attributed to Zodiac and the killer began sending him threatening correspondence, leading fellow reporters to don buttons that read "I am not Paul Avery." Avery's career at the Chronicle was cut short by alcohol and drugs. He died of pulmonary emphysema at age 66.

The two main homicide investigators from the SFPD were David Toschi, upon whom Steve McQueen's character in Bullitt was based, and William Armstrong. Armstrong eventually moved from homicide to the bunko squad. Toschi, locked in a political battle within the department and previously caught writing fan letters about himself to then Chronicle columnist Armistead Maupin (a Toschi-like character featured in his original Tales of the City), was accused of forging the April 1978 letter himself, in order to revive interest in the case. The head of California's questioned documents department in Sacramento, Sherwood Morrill, used by the SFPD throughout the case, defended Toschi against the accusation.

As the case appeared to be dying off into obscurity in the mid-70s, Robert Graysmith set to work on it himself. He spent the next ten years, leaving the Chronicle in 1983, gathering literally a ton of evidence, re-interviewing witnesses, studying old reports and so on and so forth. His 1986 book, Zodiac, in which he revealed who he thought the Zodiac was, became a bestseller, though he didn't use the suspect's real name, In the follow-up, Zodiac Unmasked, he did reveal the true identity and apparently--I've not read that one--went into greater detail about his personal pursuit of the story. Reviews suggest that the greater detail only obscures the narrative drive and relative concision of the original, but Zodiac is itself a strangely structured book. Mr. Graysmith is necessarily present in various scenes, but keeps himself sufficiently in the background that he's a ghostly presence. Likewise, the need to present a controllable amount of information in this first effort--before anyone knew how it would sell--leads to a fair bit of jumping around and storylines being dropped or introduced precipitously. It's a fascinating story, but the telling is frustrating. David Fincher's film version draws upon both books, the filmmaker's own re-investigation of the case, and employs fictional devices and takes considerable liberty in order to present a coherent account of the case, character studies of the men whose lives were changed by it, and a reasonably compelling argument in favor of Robert Graysmith's preferred conclusion. The film is, to begin with, a visual wonder. It looks more like the 60s and 70s than anything you're likely to see anytime soon. In fact, the production values are so high, that it looks more like the period than the movies made during that time do. I just saw The Laughing Policeman [1973] and while it has the grit of reality down it also has that cheesy 70s feel that never lets you forget it's just a movie.

The casting in the film is also superb. Jake Gyllenhaal is appropriately squirrely as Robert Graysmith. Robert Downey Jr's initially cocky Paul Avery descends into cigarettes, drugs and alcohol. Brian Cox--coincidentally the original Hannibal Lecter on-screen--has a nice star turn as Belli. Anthony Edwards is an earnest and often frustrated Inspector William Armstrong. And Mark Ruffalo is a Toschi magnetic enough that you can understand him being the model for two movie archetypes, Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry being the second, the first of that series heavily based on the Zodiac case. Finally, John Carroll Lynch is just unfamiliar enough and just frightening enough to make Arthur Leigh Allen a plausible candidate for the Zodiac. Smaller parts are filled ably by the likes of Elias Koteas, Sgt. Jack Mulanax of the Vallejo police, and Donal Logue, Captain Ken Narlow, from the Napa County Sheriff's Department.

While the movie opens with grueling re-enactments of the July 4th shooting, the Lake Berryessa stabbings, the taxi cab shooting, and an incident where a woman and her baby were abducted, perhaps by the Zodiac, but escaped, things soon settle down into the investigation phase and there are only a couple more scary scenes until the end. The tension in the film comes less from the physical danger presented by the killer than by the psychological and emotional danger that accompanied tracking him. If two things seem particularly ill-suited to the medium of the movies, they are the task of writing and the drudgery of a real-life investigation. David Fincher turns both into compelling drama. One of the real curiosities attending the film are reviews that praise him for the unique glimpse that the movie provides of both, but then complain that he follows the case down the dead-ends that reporters and cops did. Huh? It is because the viewer feels so deflated after the various leads end up not panning out that we get some sense of the toll the unsolved mystery exacted. That is risky story-telling, but it is quite brilliantly done. In the end, so comprehensible has the obsession been rendered that even as Graysmith's behavior tips over into the frantic and we watch him alienate friends and lose his family, we can't imagine him quitting before he answers the mystery to at least his own satisfaction. We are become almost participants in the mania, no longer mere observers.


Grade: (B)


See also:

Robert Graysmith Links:

    -Robert Graysmith (Wikipedia)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Robert Graysmith (IMDB)
    -ESSAY: Failure to catch the Zodiac killer was a sign of the times: David Fincher's new film is based on my books about the San Fran serial killer. With today's technology he would have been caught long ago. (Robert Graysmith, 5/01/07, The Guardian)
    -PROFILE: A Killer Obsession: Robert Graysmith Was a Cartoonist Until the Zodiac Case Drew Him In (William Booth, 3/01/07, Washington Post)
The Zodiac shot Stine in the head at the intersection of Cherry and Washington in the posh Presidio Heights neighborhood. Oct. 11, 1969. "That's Columbus Day," Graysmith says. "Hey, I never thought of that before. Another holiday." Zodiac murdered two teenagers on the Fourth of July. Another teenage girl right before Christmas. Hmmmm.

Careful. You are in danger of falling down the rabbit hole with Graysmith on perhaps the greatest cold case ever, the bizarre and theatrical and still-unsolved serial murders by a real-life ghoul who called himself Zodiac, who claimed in letters to have killed 37 people (though police have focused on five homicides and two attempted murders in the greater Bay Area in 1968 and 1969).

How bizarre? He wrote taunting letters to the police, like Jack the Ripper. He claimed his victims would be his slaves in paradise. He mailed a Happy Halloween card to the Chronicle reporter covering the case. He sent cryptograms to the newspapers. The FBI could not crack them; a high school teacher did.

Creepy? He wore a costume. In broad daylight, at Lake Berryessa in Napa County, Zodiac stabbed a couple while wearing a medieval executioner's outfit, all in black, with a hood and his trademark insignia -- a circle with a cross -- neatly sewn onto his chest. The woman died.

Graysmith was a new editorial cartoonist working at the San Francisco Chronicle when the first Zodiac letter arrived at the paper in Aug. 1, 1969, and Graysmith just happened to be in the meeting when the envelope was handed to the editor. The letter accurately described two murder scenes and promised more if the cipher was not published.

"I looked at the small printing on the letter," Graysmith wrote in "Zodiac." "Primarily, I felt rage at the coldness, arrogance and insanity of the murderer." Rage -- and fascination. "Irretrievably hooked, immediately obsessed, I wanted to solve what I felt was to become one of the great mysteries."

Obsessed? Boy, he is not kidding. In the beginning, Graysmith was only peripherally involved with the Zodiac case. The story belonged to veteran crime reporter Paul Avery, played in the movie with flamboyant verve as a hard-drinking, drug-snorting hotshot by Downey. Zodiac sent him a card, "PEEK-A-BOO -- YOU ARE DOOMED!," and his colleagues at the paper donned campaign-style buttons that read "I Am Not Paul Avery." You can't make this stuff up.

The San Francisco investigator assigned to the case was already famous: Dave Toschi (Ruffalo), with his .38 Cobra in its quick-release shoulder holster and his black turtlenecks, was the model for Steve McQueen in "Bullitt."

But Graysmith? He really went deep into the Zodiac wormhole. The cartoonist spent a decade researching and writing his first (of two) Zodiac books. He kept his job at the Chronicle until 1983 -- he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize six times by the paper for un-Zodiac-related cartooning -- but Zodiac consumed him. He'd sit in the front window of the Owl and the Monkey cafe. "They let me sit there for 10 years," Graysmith recalls. When the place closed (it's now a health food joint), the owners gave him his table, chair, coffee cup and tray, as mementos. [...]

Between 1973 and 1983, Graysmith interviewed hundreds of people about the case, and reviewed their police statements, including two of the survivors of Zodiac, one who had repeatedly been shot (and became a vagabond) and the other repeatedly stabbed (who became a lawyer). By the late 1970s the Zodiac case had gone cold. There were 2,500 suspects. Eventually his studio apartment contained more than one ton of material. Boxes to the ceiling. The police let him examine files, he says, hoping that he would turn something up, that he could do things as a private citizen that they couldn't do without probable cause and warrants.

Among his investigative techniques? Pure will. Once, Graysmith came across a phone number in a victim's handwriting. Instead of just dialing the number, wary of tipping off whoever would answer, Graysmith went through the Vallejo phone book. The entire phone book. Number by number.

    -PROFILE: Intrigue and obsession: the life of Robert Graysmith (Jennifer Vazquez, 4/20/07, The Flyer)
    -INTERVIEW: Robert Graysmith Is Still Obsessed with Zodiac (Evan Jacobs, 7/23/07, MovieWeb)
    -INTERVIEW: ‘The Most Cerebral Murder Case of All Time’: An expert on the 40-year-long fascination with the 'Zodiac' serial killer—and why the mystery may never be solved. (Karen Breslau, Mar 2, 2007, Newsweek)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview: 'Zodiac' Author Robert Graysmith (Kim Voynar, Mar 2nd 2007, Cinematical)
    -INTERVIEW: Robert Graysmith - Zodiac Interview (Troy Rogers, UGO)
    -PROFILE: Author believes he knows Zodiac Killer's identity (Drake Rossiter, Mar 1, 2007, SF Examiner)
    -PROFILE: Graysmith finds big screen fulfillment for his 30-year obsession with the Zodiac killer (WILLIAM ARNOLD, 3/03/07, Seattle PI)
“One thing I got out of the Zodiac experience, besides a couple of books, is a great friend, (former San Francisco homicide) inspector Dave Toschi, who was the model for ‘Dirty Harry’ and Steve McQueen in ‘Bullitt,’” Graysmith says. “Dave and George Bawart of the Vallejo police and his boss, Roy Conway, they’re convinced (the Zodiac) is Arthur Leigh Allen, the same man I believe was the killer. Other people believe it was someone else. All I can say is, there were 2,500 suspects, and it took me 10 years to get it down to six.”

    -REVIEW: of Zodiac Unmasked by Robert Graysmith (Bill Wallace, SF Chronicle)
    Massachusetts Man Says He's Cracked Zodiac Killer Code: Corey Starliper believes he has solved the 41-year-old "340" cipher and has identified the legendary serial killer who terrorized northern California. (Brandon Schillemat, July 21, 2011, Belmont Patch)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ARCHIVES: The Zodiac Killer (SFGate Staff)
    -Zodiac Movie vs. Zodiac Killer (Chasing the Frog)
    -Zodiac Killer (Wikipedia)
    -Zodiac Cypher Webtoy (Oranchak)
    -ESSAY: The Zodiac Killer (Jake Wark, TruTV)
    -Zodiac Killer Facts
    -OBITUARY: Paul Avery, Longtime Newspaper Reporter (Michael Taylor, December 13, 2000, SF Chronicle)
Perhaps the most intense story of Mr. Avery's career was the Zodiac case, a series of killings -- unsolved to this day -- that began in October 1966 and ostensibly ended with the death of a San Francisco cab driver in October 1969. At the time, Mr. Avery was a police reporter at The Chronicle.

The Zodiac became infamous because of the letters, riddled with cryptograms, that he would send to Bay Area newspapers. For a long time, it was thought that the Zodiac's activities were limited to the Bay Area, but Mr. Avery discovered a 1966 murder in Riverside that he linked to the Zodiac.

The Zodiac soon wrote Mr. Avery a letter, warning, "You are doomed." Just as quickly, someone made up hundreds of campaign-style buttons, worn by nearly everyone on The Chronicle staff, including Mr. Avery, that said, "I Am Not Paul Avery."

    -ARTICLE: Zodiac Serial Killer Found?; The Sun (David Lowe, 9/03/08, The Sun)
    -ARTICLE: DNA seems to clear only Zodiac suspect: New-found evidence may allow genetic profile of '60s killer (Mike Weiss, October 15, 2002, SF Chronicle)
    -ARTICLE: Zodiac's written clues fascinate document expert (Lance Williams, March 3, 2007, SF Chronicle)