8 • The Origins
A close encounter with the Zodiac sends investigators to Riverside, California.
The stylized Z at the bottom of the 1966 letter is undeniable. But it’s also unlike the Zodiacs other signed letters. The ones that he ended with his circle cross signature. But even 1966 may not be the start of the Zodiac’s reign of terror. His work may go back even further.
You know you’re gonna die, you know I’m gonna kill you. I’m gonna throw that baby out.
– The Zodiac, to Kathleen Johns during attempted abduction
She was in the course of giving her story to police she saw a composite sketch of the Zodiac Killer and said, “That’s the guy who did this.”
Speaker 1: The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the podcast author, or individuals participating in the podcast, and do not necessarily represent those of iHeart Media, How Stuff Works or its employees.
Speaker 2: Zodiac, a symbol that now stands for terror in San Francisco. Today, there was a possibly significant development in the terrifying case of the man who calls himself Zodiac and has boasted that he is responsible for five murders in the last nine months. In Zodiac’s latest letter last week he threatened to make a busload of school children his next victims. Since then, school buses have been discretely guarded, and parents fears have openly risen. This morning, the people of San Francisco, during a television conversation program with Attorney Melvin Belli, heard a man who claimed to be Zodiac talking on the air.
Speaker 3: A man in a mask robbed, tied and stabbed them, leaving them for dead.
Speaker 4: Subject stated, “I want to report a murder. No, a double murder. I did it.”
Speaker 5: A man who wore a medieval-style executioners hood, carried a knife and gun and intended to use them.
Speaker 6: They haven’t arrested me because they can’t prove a thing. I’m not the damn Zodiac.
Speaker 7: Who is the Zodiac and where is he?
Speaker 1: From iHeartRadio, HowStuffWorks, and TenderFoot TV, this is Monster: The Zodiac Killer. Fear spread across Northern California as the Zodiac’s pace accelerated. He continued to send letters to newspapers, and to prove authenticity, he included squares of bloody clothing from the cab drivers shirt. Apparently, the letter wasn’t enough, the killer craved more attention. In October 1969, Californians gathered around their televisions, in anticipation of the Zodiac’s on-air debut. They were desperate to finally hear the voice of unspeakable evil.
Speaker 6: Kill. I want to kill.
Speaker 1: The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the podcast author or individuals participating in the podcast and do not necessarily represent those of iHeartMedia, How Stuff Works or its employees. In earlier episodes of Monster, we’ve mentioned all the witnesses that might be able to identify the Zodiac Killer. Michael Mageau, the young man who survived the attack at Blue Rock Springs. Bryan Hartnell, the survivor of the knife attack at Lake Berryessa and SFPD officer Don Fouke that encountered the Zodiac fleeing the Paul Stine murder scene.
A combination of the physical descriptions from these brief encounters was used to create the infamous police sketch you’ve probably seen floating around the internet, but in 1970 there was another possible witness that had the best chance yet of identifying the Zodiac, Kathleen Johns.
Speaker 2: In March of 1970 a young woman claimed that she had been driving along a freeway and a vehicle pulled up alongside her and the man inside gestured towards her vehicle as if there was something wrong.
Johnny: Was there any sensation to your vehicle that there was something wrong with your vehicle while you’re driving?
Kathleen Jonhs: It was an old car. Anything could’ve been wrong. The backlights could’ve been out. Anything could’ve been wrong with that. It was running fine.
Speaker 2: So she pulled over, and according to the story the man pulled over and said, “Hey your tires loose. I’ll tighten it for you.”
Kathleen Jonhs: So he went back and got a tire iron. Came back, went to the back, round, stopped again at the window and said, “It’s okay. It should be okay.”
Speaker 2: What he did was actually loosen the tire.
Kathleen Jonhs: I don’t go too far. Only here across the street, not even, and the tire fell off.
Speaker 2: That gave him a perfect opportunity to pretend to be the good Samaritan and offer her a ride.
Speaker 3: A man in a mask, robbed, tied and stabbed them, leaving them for dead.
Speaker 4: Subject stated I want to report a murder. No a double murder. I did it.
Speaker 5: The man who wore an evil style executioner’s hood carried a knife and gun and intended to use them.
Speaker 6: They haven’t arrested me ’cause they can’t prove a thing. I’m not the damn Zodiac.
Speaker 7: Who is the Zodiac and where is he?
Speaker 1: From iHeartRadio, How Stuff Works and Tenderfoot TV this is Monster: The Zodiac Killer. In this episode of Monster, we’re going to hit rewind and talk about some things you’ve likely never heard before. Until the early 1970s, everyone believes the first Zodiac killing was in 1968 the murder of Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday in Benicia, but after a while, investigators realize that the Zodiac’s trail might go back a few more years. Today, as the Zodiac case passes the 50 year anniversary without any arrest, without any answers, we’re taking the opportunity to examine a few earlier unsolved cases including the case of Kathleen Johns.
Speaker 8: On March 22, 1970, Kathleen Johns and her infant daughter Jennifer had a terrifying experience on a dark and desolate highway. After more than two decades of silence, Kathleen finally spoke of this incident.
Kathleen Jonhs: Had more sense than to stop on this dark road. I wanted to get where there was more light. I felt safer, but when I got onto the freeway where I could see again, just ahead of me I stopped on the side of the road.
Speaker 1: Two men interviewed Kathleen at a diner in 1998. We’ve come into possession of a rare copy of this interview. Kathleen Johns account of that evening is one of the many unsolved cases that some believe to be the work of the Zodiac.
Speaker 2: Kathleen Johns was pregnant at the time, and she also had her infant daughter with her. That’s something that the person may not have known when he was driving alongside that car and trying to get her to pull over. And he may not have realized that until the last moment when he had already offered her a ride, and she gets out of the car with her stomach and her baby. It’s possible that at that moment the person reconsidered what they were doing and may have decided, “Well I was intending to kill this person, but now I know she’s pregnant and she’s got a baby with her. I’m not sure I really want to go through with that.”
Johnny: Well let me ask you this why did you stop your car?
Kathleen Jonhs: Well I wanted to see what was wrong, but I wanted to get where there was more light. I could see a gas station.
Speaker 2: We don’t know for sure what happened, but we do know that Kathleen Johns got in the car with that individual and that he appeared to be driving aimlessly away from the gas station he promised to take her to. And at a certain point, she became suspicious.
Johnny: Now he said to you that he was going to kill you. Did he utter that or infer that again?
Kathleen Jonhs: Many times in this monotone no feeling, no looking at me, driving on.
Speaker 2: In her earlier statements it indicated that he did not threaten her, but later on she claimed that he said that he was going to kill her and throw the baby out the window.
Johnny: Did he change the wording or was it always-
Kathleen Jonhs: You know you’re gonna die, you know I’m gonna kill you. I’m gonna throw that baby out.
Johnny: How many times did he ask you to throw Jennifer out?
Kathleen Jonhs: Quite a few. I mean half a dozen. We were out there it seemed an awfully long time.
Speaker 2: Kathleen became very concerned. She asked him at a certain point, “Do you always go around helping people like this?” And she said that he replied by saying, “When I’m through with them they don’t need help.” Or something to that effect. This scared her enough that after I guess about two hours, she decided that the next time he slowed down that she was gonna jump out. So she sees the first opportunity that came along, she grabbed her child, jumped out, ran away.
Kathleen Jonhs: When I bailed he got out too. Car light came on. Nothing but vineyard everywhere. ‘Cause he was yelling, “Come back here.”
Speaker 2: According to various reports he either screamed at her from the car or got out of the car and tried to find her, but then another vehicle pulled up, and he apparently got spooked and drove away.
She got into the car with that individual, and that person took her to the nearby police department where she was describing what happened and while she was in the course of giving her story to police she saw a composite sketch of the Zodiac Killer and said, “That’s the guy who did this.” Shortly after that, which I believe four months later, another Zodiac letter arrived.
Speaker 9: This is the Zodiac speaking. I am rather unhappy because you people will not wear some nice Zodiac buttons. So I now have a little list starting with the woman and her baby that I gave a rather interesting ride for a couple of hours one evening a few months back that ended in my burning her car where I found them. Signed Zodiac.
Speaker 2: Kathleen Johns station wagon was burned. We don’t know whether or not the killer did that. We don’t know whether or not the person who abducted her was actually the Zodiac. It may be the Zodiac was just taking credit for it because that’s what the media was saying. It’s possible that the Zodiac liked to create confusion and thought he would benefit from that. So if he did abduct Kathleen Johns and he took the credit for it when he was just acknowledging his involvement as already reported by the media.
If he wasn’t involved and he decided to take credit for it because people were already accusing him of that tells you something about him too. That he thought, “well this just adds to my image. Makes me look all the scarier and at the same time if it wasn’t him what happens when Kathleen Johns identifies the person or describes that person it’s not him. So that just creates more confusion. If the Zodiac was not responsible for that crime, he certainly enjoyed exploiting it because it added and it padded his resume.
So, in the end, Kathleen Johns is listed as a suspected Zodiac victim, but since she’s also passed away and there was no solid evidence, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to answer that question.
Speaker 1: Her interview was recorded in 1998 nearly 28 years after her encounter. By this time, Kathleen’s name had changed to Smith.
Johnny: This is Johnny Smith on January 1, 1998. Meeting with Kathleen Smith. Howard Davis is also here present. I hope Kathy that this comes out with all of the background noise and everything, but I’m going to ask you to kind of speak up a little bit if you would.
Speaker 1: Even after so much time had passed Kathleen still remembered the incident vividly.
Johnny: Did you have any sense at all that he was behind you?
Kathleen Jonhs: There was a car behind me, yeah. He kept flashing his lights.
Howard Davis: I had always hoped to be able to talk to Kathleen and we before she passed away.
Speaker 1: This is Howard Davis. One of the men who interviewed Kathleen.Howard Davis: We had secured an interview with Kathleen at a local Denny’s. We interviewed Kathleen for a while and then John’s tape recorder ran out of battery. We really just got the basis from her. We just went through the interview. We really didn’t get much, but we did get some information that no one had heard about before. I don’t think there were any other interviews after that.
Speaker 1: Howard Davis wholeheartedly believes that Kathleen encountered the Zodiac that day. Kathleen’s description of her abductor closely resembled other eye witness description of the Zodiac.
Howard Davis: He was wearing the Bell Bottom pants and military dress shoes. Military dress shoe footprints were found at the base scene where her car was park. She was a Zodiac victim. She’s the only one to escape the Zodiac not only with her life but unharmed. She was right next to Zodiac.
Speaker 2: The Kathleen Johns abduction does not fit the Zodiac’s previously established pattern, but also at the same time he also deviated from his pattern. Going from couples to a cab driver. Then he said that he was no longer going to announce his murders, and they were going to look like fake accidents, and routine robberies, and killings of anger. So maybe he had some plan for what he wanted to do. But it did involve a drastic change in his MO. Maybe he was going to murder her and make it look like an accident. Maybe he was going to come back and wreck her car, or do something, I don’t know. But there are some people who believe that if he was responsible for that crime, that he burned the car to cover up evidence. Because he may have touched the car when he was loosening the lug nuts on the wheel. There’s also the possibility that he had intended to kill Johns and then decided not to go through with it because she was pregnant and had a kid, and then was frustrated and needed to do something.
So he drove back to where the car was and set fire to it. It’s also possible he had nothing to do with it, and Kathleen Johns was wrong in her identification. But then you come to the fact that during that same period of time, there was also speculation that the Zodiac may have been involved in another murder, in 1966 at Riverside City College. After the Zodiac murders were being reported in the media, investigators at Riverside were watching and saying, this looks kind of familiar. And maybe these crimes are connected. So, they contacted the Zodiac investigators and reported their suspicions. And after investigators looked at this, they thought it was very possible that the Zodiac had committed the crime in Riverside. You’ve got a young woman who was apparently visiting the college library. And while she was inside, someone disabled her car. And when she came out, and her car wouldn’t start, this person allegedly offered her a ride.
And then when she went with him, he took her off into a darkened area and stabbed her to death. So if the Zodiac was responsible for the murder in Riverside, then that does provide some indication that he may have been responsible for the Johns event, because there’s a similarity of selecting a single woman, disabling her car and such. Then, later on, San Francisco Chronicle reporter, Paul Avery, learned of this possible connection and reported it in the media in what was called the Riverside Connection.
Speaker 1: Was the Riverside killing of Sherry Jo Bates somehow connected to the midnight abduction of Kathleen Johns? And were both of these crimes, three and a half years apart, committed by the Zodiac? We learned there was a possibility of finding some unprocessed film footage of Paul Avery just after he made the Riverside connection. There was only one place to go in search of a rare piece of film like that. The Bay Area Television Archive in San Francisco.
Alex Cherian: My name is Alex Cherian. I’m the film archivist at San Francisco State University’s John Paul Leonard Library. The Bay Area Television Archive is in our department of special collections. This is where we preserve and remaster local news film, documentary, broadcast videotape from the 1950s through to about 2000. Before we work on it, it’s just old film and tape. By the time we finish with it, what you’re looking at is a screener which is viewable online for free. I enjoy local specific regional history a lot. I like being able to relate to it, to look at a building and know what happened there 50 years ago. I also like being on the cutting edge of finding stuff and making it available. If someone comes up with some kind of kooky idea, which is patently ridiculous. I don’t care. It needs to be explored in order to rule it out. And making all of our stuff available online, I enjoy doing that. I get excitement from doing it. It could be the Zodiac, it could be a chess tournament. It could be something to do with Jerry Brown who features in our collections way back to the early 70s. I don’t mind. You either enjoy that, or you don’t. And I love it.
Speaker 1: So this is the raw news film?
Alex Cherian: This is how it was put into cans before it came to us in the early 1980s. So what you’re looking at there is a reel of 16-millimeter film from the early 1970s. It doesn’t even have a plastic core on it, which means you can’t even project it. This has just come in raw from the lab. I guarantee you no one’s touched up for over 40 years. It may have been covered in a similar fashion by a different TV station. But the sound of the reporter, or the eyewitness, or the detective talking about the Zodiac in 1972, no one’s ever heard that. And it will be decent quality because no one’s been messing around with it.
Speaker 10: What things in this evidence you got from the Riverside Police actually lead you to believe that there could be or is some connection?
Paul Avery: Oh, his baseline was the modus operandi of the killer in Sherry Bates Riverside. Zodiac had many similarities. Egomania, wanting to get recognition for the killing. Writing to a newspaper. To the fact that no case, and has there ever been sexual molestation? Usually not showing them until we have sex crime. I received a letter in Southern California pointing out the similarities. Actually, it was an anonymous letter. And I felt that there might be something to it. So I contacted Riverside Police. They were very cooperative, gave me information on the phone and then sent me some information, Xerox copied documents. This is the first one of the first two letters that were received by the newspaper in Riverside and by the police department. The inside was a type of written confession. And this is known the defamed murder of Sherry Bates Thanks because of details in the unsigned impression. This was received exactly one month to the day after she was killed.
Speaker 1: You’re about to hear the letter that Paul Avery just described. This letter contains graphic details. Listener discretion is advised.
Zodiac Killer: Ms. Bates was stupid. She went to the slaughter like a lamb. She did not put up a struggle, but I did. It was a ball. I first pulled the middle wire from the distributor, then I waited for her in the library and followed her out after two minutes. The battery must’ve been about dead by then. I then offered to help. She was then very willing to talk to me. I told her that my car was down the street and I would give her a lift home. When we were away from the library, walking, I said it was about time. She asked me, about time for what? I said it was about time for her to die. I grabbed her around the neck with my hand over her mouth, and my other hand with a small knife at her throat. She went very willingly. Her breasts felt very warm and firm under my hands.
But only one thing was on my mind, making her pay for the brush offs that she had given me during the years prior. She died hard. She squirmed and shook as I choked her, and her lips twitched. She let out a scream once, and I kicked her head to shut her up. I plunged the knife into her, and it broke. I didn’t finish the job by cutting her throat. I’m not sick. I’m insane. But that will not stop the game. This letter should be published for all to read it. It just might save that girl in the alley, but that’s up to you. It will be on your conscious, not mine. Yes, I did make that call to you also. It was just a warning, beware, I am stalking your girls now.
Speaker 2: Now some of that information appears to have been available in the public media at the time. But it’s still possible that it was the actual killer who wrote it or someone who was trying to misdirect the investigation. I’m sure that if things did go down the way that it’s described in that letter, she thought that man was going to help her. And just like at Lake Berryessa, that person took advantage of her and forced her to participate in her own murder. And in the letter he said, she went to the slaughter like a lamb.
Speaker 1: So the police potentially had a Zodiac letter as early as 1966, just one month after the Bates murder. At the time, police thought the note was written by the actual killer because the information included in the letter was highly detailed. Specifically, the manner in which the attacker disabled the victim’s car. I can’t help but wonder why didn’t the Sherry Jo Bates case get more attention prior to the 1968 killings? But there was even more madness to come. Presumably, the same person also sent another series of letters. This time to police, the newspaper, and even to the father of Sherry Jo Bates. Paul Avery explains.
Paul Avery: Six months later, after her murder, the Riverside Police, the local newspaper, the press enterprise, and the girl’s father each received a letter. And this is where I feel the writing here is very, very similar to Zodiacs. There are other things that make me think it’s quite possibly him. And inside of these, on lined three holed notebook paper, it said Bates had to die. There will be more. And right at the bottom, there’s a Z.
Speaker 1: The stylized Z at the bottom of the 1966 letter is undeniable. But it’s also unlike the Zodiacs other signed letters. The ones that he ended with his circle cross signature. But even 1966 may not be the start of the Zodiac’s reign of terror. His work may go back even further. Investigators on the Sherry Jo Bates case connected her murder to another fatal-
Speaker 1: From the Cheri Jo Bates case connected her murder to another fatal incident in the area. This time, it was a young couple on the beach, three years earlier, in 1963. On a tip, we reached out to KEYT-TV in Sacramento, California, regarding a feature from 2010 that revealed the only known footage of the crime scene. It’s a 17-second look at an old shack on the beach where the bodies of two murdered teenagers were dragged and then burned.
Speaker 11: If Cheri Jo Bates was not the first, who was? The answer may be buried in these 43-year-old files in the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Cold Case unit. On June 4, 1963, Lompoc teenagers Linda Edwards and Robert Domingos celebrated Senior Ditch Day by going to a secluded beach at 25 miles west of Santa Barbara. They planned to graduate in two days, then get married. But, the next night, a CHP officer discovered their bodies inside the shack. Robert had been shot 11 times. Linda, eight times.
This is the remote beach where Edwards and Domingos were gunned down. As you can see, the old beach shack is long gone, just like the killer, and any evidence that might identify him.
This old newsreel just discovered in the KEYT archives is the only known film footage of the crime scene. It shows the area around the beach shack where the killer shot the teens and inside, where he dragged their bodies and tried to burn it down to hide the evidence. The last time this footage aired publicly, was 42 years ago when no one could’ve known it’s significance. It’s only 17 seconds long, but even Sheriff’s investigators who worked on the case more than 30 years ago, didn’t know the film existed. They’re also convinced a young, inexperienced Zodiac murdered Edwards and Domingos more than five years before his reign of terror in San Francisco.
Speaker 1: But, there was more to the story. This case had several similarities to other known Zodiac crimes. Especially the Lake Berryessa attack in 1969 that left Cecilia Shepard dead and Bryan Hartnell fighting for his life. The attacker approached the teens while they were sunbathing and relaxing on the beach. At gunpoint, one of the teens, Robert Domingos was bound using rope the attacker brought to the scene. The weapon used to kill the couple was a .22 caliber semi-automatic. Possibly, a rifle. Again, with a Winchester Western Super X ammunition. The same rounds used by the Zodiac during the 1968 murders on Lake Herman Road. There were no witnesses, and there was no evidence of robbery or sexual assault.
Attempting to hide then burn the bodies of his victims was unique to this case. That could have been due to the attacker’s lack of experience. Either way, with little evidence and no witnesses, the case had no leads for many years, and it remained open.
Nine years later, in 1972, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s department issued a press release connecting the Domingos and Edwards murders to the Zodiac Killer, but that connection was never officially confirmed.
The Zodiac Killer had taken notice of Paul Avery’s detective work back in 1970 connecting the killing of Cheri Jo Bates and the abduction of Kathleen Johns. A link that Avery called the Riverside Connection. The killer even acknowledged Avery’s efforts within a letter to the L.A. Times on March 13, 1971.
Zodiac Killer: This is the Zodiac speaking. Like I have always said, I am crack proof. If the blue meanies are ever going to catch me, they had best get off their fat asses and do something, because the longer they fill and fart around, the more slaves I will collect for my afterlife. I do have to give them credit for stumbling across my riverside activity, but they are only finding the easy ones. There is a hell of a lot more down there. The reason I am writing to the Times is this, they don’t bury me on the back pages like some of the others. San Francisco Police Department, Zero, Zodiac, 17 plus.
Speaker 1: The Zodiac was further mocking police by claiming to have taken the lives of as many as 17 or more victims, however, the official body count remained at five, after the murder of cab driver Paul Stein. Michael Butterfield remains unconvinced that Kathleen Johns was truly abducted by the Zodiac Killer in March 1970. He believes it could have easily been someone else. Others, including Kathleen Johns herself, continue to believe it was the Zodiac killer. Yet, the details and the facts surrounding that evening were still a little loose. Also, what was the Zodiac’s motivation for abducting her and her infant daughter that evening? Was it to keep up with the recent media attention Charles Manson was receiving or had the Zodiac been doing this kind of thing all along and had just stopped providing details in his letters?
Whatever the situation, this was exactly the break investigators were looking for. If Kathleen Johns truly did spend two hours in a car, sitting right next to the Zodiac Killer, would she be able to identify the right man?
Next time, on Monster: The Zodiac Killer.
Speaker 12: This is the Vallejo man many investigators consider to be the notorious Zodiac Killer, and this is the first time his picture has been revealed.
Are you the Zodiac Killer?
Suspect: There would be nothing further from my mind. No, I’m certain, most certainly not the Zodiac Killer.
Speaker 13: We’re pretty certain we know who he was and he died with bombs in his basement and the Zodiac bomb formula. The disc in his computer that said Zodiac. I’m pretty sure that the case is solved.
Speaker 14: The suspect that was focused on, and highlighted in the film and in Gray Smith’s book, and to a certain extent, even for Tankian
Armstrong, Arthur Lee Allen, was what they call a good suspect.
Speaker 15: The suspect brother and sister-in-law say that Allen often spoke of man as the most dangerous game.
Suspect: I enjoy a good tussle, but hey, killing just for the pleasure of it.
Speaker 1: Monster: The Zodiac Killer, is a 15 episode podcast produced by iHeartRadio, HowStuffWorks, and Tenderfoot TV. Donald Albright and I are executive producers on behalf of Tenderfoot TV. Alongside producers Merideth Stedman, Mason Lindsey, and Christina Dana. Jason Hoch is the executive producer on behalf of HowStuffWorks, along with producers Trevor Young, Miranda Hawkins, Ben Kuebrich, and Josh Thane. Scott Benjamin provides additional voice talent. Matt Frederick is our host. Original music is by Makeup and Vanity Set. If you haven’t already, make sure you check out the first season of Monster, called Atlanta Monster, about the Atlanta Child murders from the late 70s to the early 80s. Download the ten episode season right now.
Have questions or comments? Email us at Monster@HowStuffWorks.com, or you can call us at 1-833-285-6667. Thanks for listening.