Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Zodiac Killer

The Zodiac Killer

The Zodiac Killer is one of the great unsolved serial killer mysteries of all time, taking only second place to Jack the Ripper.

Even though police investigated over 2,500 potential suspects, the case was never officially solved. There were a few suspects that stood out, but the forensic technology of the times was not advanced enough to nail any one of them conclusively.

This October, 1966 killing began a ghoulish series of murders that panicked the people of the San Francisco area. For years the Zodiac taunted the police with weird ciphers, phone calls, insulting and cryptic messages.

Before it was all over, this clever and diabolical killer changed the lives of eight people, only two of whom lived to tell the tale.

On the night of Sunday, October 30, 1966, long before anyone was to hear of the Zodiac, an 18-year-old student named Cheri Jo Bates was brutally murdered near the parking lot of Riverside City College's library annex. Neither rape nor robbery seemed to have been a motive, as her clothes were undisturbed and her purse was present and intact.

Cheri Jo Bates - Zodiac Victim
Cheri Jo Bates

After disabling her lime green Volkswagen by pulling out the distributor coil and the condenser, then disconnecting the middle wire of the distributor, the zodiac killer had apparently waited for Bates to return to her car and try to start it, whereupon he made a pretense of unsuccessfully tinkering with the engine.  

After this ruse, and probably with the offer of a ride, he lured her into a dark, unpaved driveway between two empty houses owned by the college, where they spent approximately an hour and a half.  Exactly what they did during this time is uncertain, but eventually the man attacked her, slashing her three times in the chest area, once in the back, and seven times across the throat.  

Police determined that the murder weapon was a small knife with a blade about 3 1/2" long by 1/2" wide, but the wounds to Bates' throat were so deep and brutal as to nearly decapitate her, severing her larynx, jugular vein, and carotid artery.  She had also been choked, beaten, and slashed about the face. 

Found about ten feet from Bates' body was a paint-spattered man's Timex watch with a broken 7" wristband, stopped at around 12:23, which one source claims was later traced to a military PX in England.  The paint was analyzed, and was found to be common exterior house paint.  Also found at the scene were the heel-print from a shoe that appeared to be close to size 10, as well as hair, blood, and skin tissue found in the victim's hands and beneath her fingernails. Greasy, unidentified palm and fingerprints were also found in and on her car, about 200 feet away. 

The watch, discovered at the crime scene.
The watch, discovered at the crime scene.

Although the library closed at 9:00 p.m. (and books found in her car verify that she had been inside before then), two separate witnesses reported hearing an "awful scream" at around 10:30, followed by "a muted scream, and then a loud sound like an old car being started up" about two minutes later.  This time matches an estimation given by the coroner, and is generally accepted as the time of her death. 

Judging by these details, the murder of Cheri Jo Bates would appear to be nothing more mysterious than a particularly vicious crime of passion, committed perhaps by a spurned suitor, an ex-boyfriend, or a subject somehow linked to Miss Bates. Certainly, the simple fact that Bates spent over an hour in the dark with the man who murdered her suggests that she knew and trusted him enough to converse more than casually.  It was not until almost exactly one month after the attack that the case approached a bizarre new level.


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