The ‘Zodiac’ Killer Reverse Engineered

Let’s talk about Steve a bit here. I may appear a bit negligent in elaborating on my suspect because EAR/ONS came to overwhelm my investigating time. But I had continued my investigation since 2012, though slower and haltingly because of the problems of getting undeniable proof, not “daddy did it” proof.

I had settled on Steve Wilcox long ago as the prime suspect. I introduced him as “Steve Beard” on my website as I continued along. The odd chance might happen that more information would be offered by someone who recognized the picture I had up. This never happened, but the whole idea of a new suspect in Zodianna thrilled those in the Zodiac Community.

Ironically, or perhaps not, he did not attain any high profile. I said I was using an alias, as I was still investigating. By 2012 ZODIAC was in the tank of popularity as well. Steve didn’t match the folklore either. My purpose in my ZODIAC section on my website was to relay the foundation of the true case and perhaps garner some more information. It was not a tool by which to communicate with the Zodiac Community, though some very nice overtures were made to me.  Steve was greeted with a shrug perhaps, and there was expressed consternation why I had such a different take on the crime spree.

The entire web section at the Q Files was necessary to erase the folklore that had come to dominate the subject and thus open the door to the real ZODIAC. An example of how false the information had hitherto been, it had led one enthusiast in New Jersey to make a big deal about Kjell Qvale being the ‘Zodiac’ Killer. He was an exclusive car dealer and importer in San Francisco, in many ways the inspiration for Thorndyke in the Lovebug.  Qvale should never have been a suspect. He was 50 years old at the time, and though he lived in upscale Presidio Heights nothing else fit. He seems to have resembled the San Francisco composite of ZODIAC, but this composite was known to be quite inaccurate. Balanced with other data, The ZODIAC was known to be under 6 foot tall and to be quite heavy.  ZODIAC was also between 25 and 30 years old, and more than one witness confirmed his young voice.

ZODIAC looks like a skinny ferret here.


The last thing I should ever want is to be involved in a fiasco like that, at least over such an impossible suspect.

The same can be said for Bill Grant. He was a nasty character, stalker, and was truly part of the inspiration for the legends in Vallejo about Dee Ferrin’s stalker. But he too was 50, and despite having mastered cryptology during WWII he was a poor fit. Study of ZODIAC’s cryptograms revealed ZODIAC was not an expert in code.

At an opposite is my suspect– Steve. He was an original person of interest, but he skirted the dragnet. He had no connection to Dee Ferrin, and at that time Vallejo PD most certainly labored under the belief that she had known her killer. Whether ZODIAC killed her intentionally or she was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time it didn’t change the fact that it seemed there was a connection between the two. Finding her mysterious stalker, backtracking her life, should help reveal the infamous ‘Zodiac’ Killer.

Obviously, this never happened.

Steve’s connection with Vallejo wasn’t much. It was with the backroads. It was one of small game hunting. The backroads of Vallejo here– Lake Herman Road and Columbus Parkway were and are major arteries between the highways. It didn’t require being a local to know them.


Little changed, the first killing location on Lake Herman Road.

Steve lived an hour away in Sacramento. He was recently released from the Air Force because of an extended trauma. Vallejo PD probably never pursued him that far to uncover any such information.

Unlike the other suspects,  there was no connection. There was no connection to Dee Ferrin or even to Vallejo. There was no investigation to uncover his connection to Presidio Heights. That crime hadn’t happened yet, and Steve had already been forgotten.

Steve remained the unsuspected until me. Over the last 4 years I have uncovered many incriminating coincidences. They are more than exist against suspects in other books, but I have learned legalese. Legally they are of no value. They tend to create suspicion. I needed the silver bullet. But these led to the location where I could find it.

Having Steve as a prime suspect now, I realized something else was forming. I was not getting any more clues or evidence, but with Steve I was able to reverse engineer and make sense of some of ZODIAC’s false clues.

I learned of his short stint in the corrections system, and thus I could understand why ZODIAC would know about Deer Lodge Prison in Montana. I learned of the ongoing Bay Area connection, his schooling, his upbringing. He was, in fact, one of the few at that time outside of avionics who would have known what a radian was. I began to suspect a clever killer, one whose sophistication did not go into the execution of his crimes but into selecting locations and then in covering his trail with his publicity campaign.

Let’s face it, by writing each letter, each cryptogram, he was giving potentially incriminating clues.  It was only in licking the stamps that he may have made his fatal mistake. Everything else he covered.

Clues, clues indeed. He knew they were incriminating clues– handwriting and potentially verbiage.


In overlaying what I had learned about Steve, I discovered how clever ZODIAC had been . . .if I was right that it was, in fact, Steve. Steve didn’t like English patter songs like those written by Gilbert & Sullivan. He liked Grand Ol’ Opry, and perhaps this is why he knew of the British comic operetta The Mikado. But country/western was more to his liking than anything British.

Throughout ZODIAC’s letters he dropped hints of British influence. But they weren’t too deep. “Happy Christmass”; “kiddies” is dubious; “Blue Meanies” simply meant he had watched the Beatles in Yellow  Submarine. There was superficial Britishness. Nothing more. But it was the exact opposite of his true tastes in Grand Ol’ Opry.

Equally he had dropped an expression that indicated some contact with Texas. He had a cadence that indicated a different dialect. Steve grew up in Kansas and was trained and stationed in Texas during his Air Force career.

If Steve was our man, then subtly but surely the coincidences were revealing a Midwesterner using superficial British to disguise his origins. It really seems like basic strategy. He knew he was going to write letters. We know he laid false clues repeatedly. But they follow a pattern only when overlaid on Steve’s life and background.

We will look more at these in another post.

*         *          *

Since 1990 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.


The ZODIAC– First Analysis in HorrorScope.

Outtake from Chapter 9 of HorrorScope— “ZODIAC”– by Gian J. Quasar.  This is the first analytical chapter in the book. I take the reader through the entire crime spree chronologically in the book, so it is necessary to develop and present as I go, as if you are reliving it. This chapter follows the Lake Berryessa account because this is the first time we have a face and can discuss enough evidence that relates to ZODIAC.


Up until this point the Zodiac’s crimes looked spontaneous, even sloppy, the MO of a random drive-by shooter. Only in print had he invoked some highly dubious cult fringe benefit. From the looks of his victims, his claims didn’t have to be taken seriously unless he wanted nothing but teenyboppers in the afterlife. And Napa’s sketch supported Vallejo’s witness sighting. This was no hippie gone bad. He was a lovers’ lane killer, a vengeful or gutless thrill seeker . . . but now this. Now this strange hood.


Lake Berryessa was not convenient and the attack was not spontaneous. Zodiac had labored on creating a hood to shield his face, which means he intended a daylight attack. He took the unnecessary risk of walking ¼ of a mile from where he had parked. He could have gone to a lovers’ lane and shot another couple. But he didn’t. He seems to have intended knifing a couple, and this required a remote location and distance from a road where he could spend sufficient time to bind them. This was not possible by a drive-by lovers’ lane at night. Yet there aren’t many places where he could have found daytime victims. Parks are out of the question. It would take a remote but not so remote recreation area. It is this fact that makes the attack at Lake Berryessa an enormous clue.

Of all the vacation lakes it is only Lake Berryessa that was the best for an extended attack away from a road. More importantly, it is the only one where one could find young couples. Students— couples— came from Angwin. How many can we place there that day?— Brian, Celia, Wayne, Denise, John, Helen, the three coeds. Attacking here not only argues for a sinister premeditation or need to knife a couple, but it reveals a necessity to knife a young couple.


The crime scene at Lake Berryessa, as seen from McKenzie Point in 2012.

Stalking Knoxville Road is not going to tell anybody that on a given day they are assured of coming across a young couple. A one-time fishing trip isn’t going to reveal this either. The young, heavyset man had protracted knowledge of the area. This is not surprising. One consistent thing ran through the Zodiac’s MO so far. He had quite an acquaintance with rural areas, a knowledge that could only have come over a period of time. He knew on a given day he would be assured of coming across a young couple here.

When his authorship of the Lake Herman Road murders was questioned by Jack Stiltz, he quickly responded bragging how he had cleverly affixed a pencil flashlight to his pistol and in that way just sprayed down Jensen like using a hose.

This little bit of gratuitous bragging subtly betrays Zodiac’s longstanding connection to rural areas, more so than his MO. It is one thing to stream a circle of light across one’s ceiling and walls and see the dark dot that represents the gunsight. It is an entirely different matter to think this is going to work in real life. It requires putting it into action. Zodiac would need rural land somewhere, accessible by night, where he could test it and fine tune his gunsight. It would not be a leap of faith to say he knew some of these backroads because he had access to land somewhere nearby or frequently hunted. He knew the petting spots; for some reason he knew those Vallejo backroads. His MO at Lake Herman Road required someone with enough time alone at night and some piece of rural land somewhere in the vicinity to test his “invention.”

Lake Berryessa and Lake Herman Road come together to reveal that the sloppy, spontaneous Zodiac was actually far more cerebral in his preparations than his drive-by shooting would suggest. The pencil flashlight shows he came to the dark Lake Herman Road that night fully prepared to kill a couple. The preparations for his attack at Lake Berryessa cannot be denied.

Combined with this exoticism of his outfit there remained the demented thrill seeker’s way of needlessly confessing to the police.

The confession calls compared:


Vallejo                                   Napa

I want to report a double          I want to report a murder;

murder. If you will go               no, a double murder.

one mile east on                      They are two miles north

Columbus Parkway to the          of park headquarters.

public park you will find             They were in a white

the kids in a brown car.               Volkswagen Karmann Ghia.

They were shot with a                   I’m the one who did it.

nine millimeter luger. I

also killed those kids last

year. Goodbye.


The calls reveal how Zodiac chose his words carefully. In contrast to the letter confessions, Zodiac never begins the call with “I just killed” likely because he feared that the operator could possibly start a recorder. Instead Zodiac reports the basics and then in his last line confesses to having committed the crime. The young voice with the demented thrill motive had a careful mind. But from the point of view of someone simply wanting to “collect slaves,” why was this necessary?

The portrait drawn is a confusing one: a young man, not unhandsome, but dresses obsolete. He murders hastily. He confesses over the phone in order to get the law to the crime scene. Then he brags in print and invokes some arcane cult motive. It couldn’t all be a ruse or he wouldn’t have designed that hood.

Ephemeral to this portrait is his car. Thanks to the coeds’ details about the late model Chevrolet it is possible to identify it as a 1966 or 1967 Impala. This was indeed not a car for a young man. Therefore it is possible he drove a car, a new car, he did not own. Like his clothes, it seemed suited to an older man. Was the brown car (Corvair?) used for the Blue Rocks Springs Park attack his own car? What about the mid-sized car with “no chrome” seen by James Owen in the turnout on Lake Herman Road?

Chevy Impala


Cars were certainly a clue. It was clear that Zodiac didn’t mind driving distances and had the time to do so. Lake Berryessa is far from any real settlement. Then he drove 45 minutes to Napa, a direction which indicates he was headed back to the Bay Area or Vallejo. Yet he mailed his letters from San Francisco, which is about 45 minutes from Vallejo where he had begun his crime spree.

When combined with the Zodiac’s modus operandi, the bland face on the composite tells us a few things. He was not a hippie or crazed looking cultist. His obsolescent look might not have even been too significant. After all, this was a rustic lake. But the sinister black hood is frightening. Put together, one thing is written clearly: his symbol and name had come to mean something important to him. One cannot say that his alter ego was only one on paper. Nor was he a man who had found killing just as thrilling as he had written in his simple syntax.

Zodiac was evolving before us. He went from being a heavyset, plain looking man who didn’t take credit for his killings, to one who then did both by phone and then by letters and an elaborate cipher, then to becoming that alter ego in real life.

*         *          *

Since 1990 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.


An outtake from Chapter 8 of HorrorScope— “Car Door Score”– by Gian  J. Quasar


Traffic was occasional for this time of night. The corner of Clinton and Main in downtown Napa was dark except for the fuzzy light from the cones of evenly spaced streetlights. They mostly illuminated the old rock walls of Napa’s historic and oldest building. In the large parking area behind it, owner Mike Black had built the Space Age, modern Napa Car Wash. It looked more like a long fun land ride. Affixed incongruously to this historic 1900s building was a stark contrast of 1960s lathed stucco. This was narrow set of offices that managed the car wash. Here the phone booth stood by the stucco wall. The car wash itself extended back into the darkness of the parking lot until its “Space Age” girders melded into the dark silhouettes of a grove of trees.

Hal Snook arrived, parked down the street and walked to the parking lot. The police officer guarding the area confirmed he had arrived quickly and, shining his flashlight beam on the dark booth, showed it had not been disturbed. The receiver was still off the hook. Both then started shining their flashlights around, but the round beams never coasted over anything that seemed like tire tracks or footprints.

Zodiac’s score on Bryan Hartnell’s car door.



Meanwhile, Narlow and Lonergan paced the gurneys as the victims were rushed into ER, where Drs. Caulkins and Seibert started attending them immediately. Narlow and Lonergan followed in and hoped for some information. When the blankets were pulled back, all were surprised by how brutal this was. Blood soaked their clothes, trickling out from slices in the fabric. Both were in critical condition. Another doctor was being summoned. The doctors told Narlow and Lonergan to get out.

There wasn’t much for them to do but wait yet again. Lake Berryessa was about an hour away along a thin, dark country road marked only by reflectors here and there. Whatever evidence awaited them, none of it was as important as the eyewitness accounts. So they waited.

Time passes slowly in a hospital corridor. At one point the nurse told them Celia’s best friend’s name was Judy. They decided to call the college and get in touch with her. When she couldn’t be found Narlow issued an APB for her. Still they waited. Finally, the doctors said they could talk to Bryan. He was the most stable of the two. At 9:37 p.m. they were allowed a brief chat.

Hospitals are cold places. It is not a temperature that registries on the skin but in the centers of living. An x-ray room is particularly anodyne. The machine makes its noise. Voices echo in the Spartan surroundings. Nurses are always calm. Doctors are utilitarian. Bryan lay on the steel table in fear of his life, drugged up and in shock.


Where Bryan Hartnell had parked and the location that night of all the forensic investigation.

The detectives leaned over and smiled at him. Their faces were a friendlier sight than the cold white glare of the overhead light set in the ugly, dull ceiling.

Before they could say anything, a nurse peaked in. Narlow was wanted on the phone. Lonergan proceeded with asking the questions.

In such a state like this, Hartnell was only capable of repeating the most significant details. It was clear from his description that the appearance of the assailant was striking. The first detail he gave was the most disturbing. Hartnell said the man wore “a black ceremonial type hood, square at top.”

Perhaps because of his drugged and shocked state Lonergan was hesitant to believe it . . . at first.

Hartnell continued: the attacker was heavy set, about 200 to possibly even 250 pounds. Though he approached with a gun, he stabbed them with a long knife. The gun had a holster, the knife a scabbard. The gun was an automatic; the knife appeared homemade with a black handle. His clothes were dark.

Lonergan was skeptical. He later stated in his report: “It should be noted that Hartnell was very groggy and he was very difficult to interview at this time.” Lonergan wanted Hartnell interviewed again the next day if possible.

Lake_Berryessa_Suspec sketch
Possibly the best sketch of Zodiac, taken at Lake Berryessa. 


The flashlight beams crisscrossed for the last time. The sidewalk, parking lot, and the gutter revealed no tracks. Snook got his dusting kit and went to the phone booth. Before he entered he could see that the receiver was lying on the little shelf under the phone in the corner of the booth. He noted that the receiver faced south; mouth piece was almost under the phone and the ear piece near the edge of the shelf, pointing south. The openings faced east. In other words, the caller had held the phone with his left hand and set it down with the same hand. Not surprising since most people dial with their right hand. Moreover, given the location of the booth in relation to the street, this was more convenient for the caller’s safety. This allowed the caller to keep his eye on Main Street and the sidewalk to see who passed while he spoke.

Snook dusted the whole area and took a few dozen prints. When he finished and packed-up his kit he checked his watch. It was 10:49 p.m. He had a long drive to Lake Berryessa now.

Not only was this a long drive, it was at this time of night a deserted drive. His headlights coasted about the dark two lane road. With every bend, they swayed off sapling brush on one side and etched hillside on the other; occasionally off wood posts with little reflectors on them. Finally, on the right side there was nothing but a morass of ink. This indicated the valley lake was on his right side. He was getting closer. His headlights pushed on.


The redoubtable Snook at the scene on Knoxville Road.  

Little did Harold Snook know but that Ken Narlow and Dick Lonergan were only 20 minutes ahead. At 10:15 p.m. they had left the hospital and returned to the station to talk to Celia’s best friend, Judy, who had finally been found. The interview yielded no information on anybody who would want to kill her. She was, after all, just visiting. It was an exercise in futility, though standard procedure.

*         *          *

Since 1990 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.