Reverse Poison — ZODIAC’s Mistake

Exposing the most boastful letter writing villain in history with the poison pen letters he sent. Without a doubt it would be poetic justice. It would cap off not only the entire crime spree but the decades of legend that has given us the mastermind ZODIAC Killer mythos. He is second only now to Jack the Ripper in terms of fame. Indeed, he is often called the American Jack the Ripper. Not because of any similarity in their MO. Quite the opposite. The only similarity is in the amount of fame and popular speculation that has gone with the crime spree. In the annals of true crime, the solution to the identity of Jack the Ripper and The ZODIAC are number one.

Sherwood Morrill
Sherwood Morrill

ZODIAC wrote letters in a time before any fancy way to detect DNA. They had fingerprinting, blood typing and handwriting analysis. And, if possible, if a good clue came in, a way to try and backtrack where the paper was made, sold and to whom. The ZODIAC probably knew this. He might have taken care when licking stamps, though blood grouping is rather a broad target. He never left a fingerprint. The paper was trimmed, so it was hard to trace except as to the pulp.

Despite the assertions of Sherwood Morrill, the leading documents examiner at the time of the crime spree, I must agree with those who say that ZODIAC disguised his printing in the letters. How? I don’t know. He may have written on a slanted surface. He might have been an ambidexter. But the letter to Melvin Belli when compared to the basic ZODIAC letters to the Chronicle show a marked attempt to alter printing. This same type of neat vertical printing begins a couple of other ZODIAC letters to the Chronicle and then ZODIAC devolves into his hasty, slanted scrawl.

The December 1969 letter to Melvin Belli.
The December 1969 letter to Melvin Belli.

At issue here, however, are the final letters of The ZODIAC. The last letter openly declared to be from ZODIAC was on January 24, 1974. It is called the “Exorcist Letter” because he mentions seeing The Exorcist and thinking it the best “saterical comedy.”

Another movie commentary letter, if you like to call it that, was mailed on May 9, 1974. This was regarding the Chronicle advertising the movie Badlands. It was only signed “A Citizen.” In it the writer deplored the glorification of violence. Since this was thought to be from ZODIAC, the letter has been taken as sarcastic.

Morrill had good reasons to believe that ZODIAC didn’t alter his handwriting. The writing on the side of victim Bryan Hartnell’s Karmen Ghia on Knoxville Road overlooking Lake Berryessa is clearly the same writing as on The ZODIAC letters.

Badlands Letter.
Badlands Letter.

However, the movie commentary letters lead into something else. It’s a definite progression. The “Exorcist Letter” leads to the feebly anonymous “Badlands Letter” of a few months later, and then this leads to the peculiar “Red Phantom Letter” of July 1974. It’s another commentary, really a rant. This time on the Count Marco column in the Chronicle. The writing, however, is markedly different than ZODIAC’s.

The author of this letter claims he is writing anonymously under the Red Phantom moniker. Is this ZODIAC or just an upset San Fran Chronicle reader? There are slight similarities between ZODIAC’s style of writing, but on the whole this is quite different. Everything is spelled properly, even down to complex words. The letter “K” is not made with 3 strokes. It is rare to write the letter this way, and ZODIAC’s letters always show a “K” written with 3 rather than the common way of 2 strokes. There is, in fact, little ZODIAC about the Red Phantom Letter, except it is regarded as a ZODIAC letter due to some of the style.

Just how smart was ZODIAC? This has been the subject of debate. Did he think that this letter would or would not be associated with him? It makes a big difference. It would tell us to what extent he tried to hide or not hide his own style of handwriting.

Red Phantom Letter.
Red Phantom Letter.

There are good reasons to think it is from ZODIAC. Months before on February 14, 1974, another letter came into the Chronicle. It was yet another anonymous and pointless comment. This is the “SLA Letter.” It was received only a couple of weeks after “The Exorcist Letter.” This makes it the first letter or note sent from The ZODIAC after his final official missive (The Exorcist Letter) in late January 1974. It is noticeably quite different in some regards than all the others. It is only signed “A friend,” a similar anonymity to “A Citizen” that would end the “Badlands Letter” in the coming May 1974, but it bears a remarkable resemblance to “The Red Phantom” letter in the way it is addressed.

San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco, California.

SLA card.
SLA card. SLA is slightly adjusted with a weak “Y” to convey “slay.”

The ZODIAC’s addresses are abbreviated.

The address on the “Red Phantom Letter” is clearly a more elegant example of the address on the “SLA Letter.” In the “SLA Letter” the C in California and Chronicle is clearly a more carefully made C than those narrow ones in the “Red Phantom Letter.” The SLA Letter also bears “K” written with the common 2 stroke, just like the Red Phantom Letter.

In summary, those letters that are openly from the ZODIAC have addresses on the envelope that are abbreviated. So does the “Badlands Letter” of May 1974 from “A Citizen.” The writing of this letter is quite ZODIAC style. However, the “SLA Letter” and the “Red Phantom Letter” show signs of being written by a different person who had a similar writing style. This is seen most in the “SLA Letter” in February but by July the writing has become most elegant in the “Red Phantom Letter”– the final letter associated with the ZODIAC. In both letters the letter “K” is written with 2 strokes.

Red Phantom envelope.
Red Phantom envelope of July 1974.
SLA card envelope
SLA card envelope some months before in February 1974
Typical style Zodiac address, from
Typical style Zodiac address, from “Badlands Letter” May 1974.

What was ZODIAC up to here? Are the SLA and Red Phantom letters from another writer or is ZODIAC certain his own writing will not be detected?

On the chance ZODIAC did not realize he would be identified as the author of the  “RED PHANTOM LETTER” I hope to match this writing style with that of my suspect. Requests are out, including FOIA, trying to obtain a sample of his writing in his later job with the state.

Like with the EAR/ONS case, the road to DNA is not opened unless one has lots of probable cause.  For both, handwriting may be the quickest way to lift the barrier.

It comes down to how smart was ZODIAC? Did he make a mistake with RED PHANTOM and reveal his actual printing?  He definitely made a mistake at Lake Berryessa in that he wore shoes that could identify him with the Air Force and also walked on ground that could reflect his weight.

SLA propaganda photo showing Patty Hearst ready for combat. A strange time indeed, with strange urban guerilla goals.
SLA propaganda photo showing Patty Hearst ready for combat. A strange time indeed, with strange urban guerilla goals.

The ZODIAC and the writer of the SLA and Red Phantom letters followed current events. The Symbionese Liberation Army was big news at this time. Only 10 days before the SLA Letter was posted they had kidnapped Patty Hearst as a publicity stunt and as a means to leverage the release of their arrested members. The writer of the SLA card was pretty quick off the mark to send in the card and draw attention to the initials. Although the SLA did not use the SLAY abbreviation, the letter writer preferred the morose link.

The ZODIAC’s final letter as “himself” in January indicated “sucide.”  It is certainly true that the character of The ZODIAC Killer as identifying as the ZODIAC died at that time and was never used again. However, the SLA, Badlands, and to a lesser extent the Red Phantom letter continue on his letter writing style.

The SLA and the upheavals of the mid 1970s completely overshadowed The ZODIAC crime spree. His vain claim in January 1974 of having 37 victims was transparent. Only a few days later all would change with the SLA and its vanguard army war– shootouts, bank robberies, and using Patty Hearst– a symbol of the establishment– as a gun toting convert to the revolution. Amidst this blitz of urban guerillas where could the vain boasting of a 1969 killer of lovers’ lane couples fit in?

ZODIAC vanished. But let’s hope he left us a clue in these last letters that will unmask him.


For 25 years Gian J. Quasar has investigated a broad range of mysterious subjects, from strange disappearances to serial murders, earning in that time the unique distinction of being likened to “the real life Kolchak.” However, he is much more at home with being called The Quester. “He’s bloody eccentric, an historian with no qualifications who sticks his nose into affairs and gets results.” He is the author of several books, one of which inspired a Resolution in Congress.


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