Most documentaries, series, and movies centered around the infamous Zodiac Killer focus on his terrible crimes, chilling letters and ciphers, and the seemingly neverending search for his identity. Even today, more than 50 years after his crimes, the cases remain unsolved. But a new Peacock docuseries Myth of the Zodiac Killer takes a different stance from any other that completely blows the theories and suspicions wide open: what if the Zodiac Killer never actually existed?
Filmmaker Andrew Nock and former English professor Thomas Horan, who has studied every piece of evidence, news clipping, and detail from the Zodiac Killer cases, believe that there might never have been a serial killer behind the murders. Horan, in particular, thinks it’s nothing more than a myth, contrived over time as the letters, stories, and theories dominated the conversation around the case, manipulating public opinion. Is there really any concrete evidence that the crimes were committed by the same person? Hock and Horan have interesting theories that are explored through the compelling two-part true crime docuseries.
David Faraday’s previous altercation
One detail about the Zodiac Killer’s first murder of David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen in 1968 points to a potential other explanation for who committed the murders and why. Just days prior to the shooting, high school student Faraday reportedly got into an altercation at a restaurant with another young student from his school. He confronted the young man about his alleged drug dealings, threatening to reveal what he was doing and urging him to stop.
This was at a time when there was a wave of major drug trafficking activity and motorcycle gang violence in Vallejo, CA where the murders took place. Journalist Nate Gartrell admits that any threat of being turned in to police was taken seriously by members of the biker gang. Thus, Horan posits that it’s possible the same young man, or his friends, may have followed Faraday and Jensen to Lake Herman Road and killed them to prevent Faraday from talking.
Darlene Ferrin’s ex-husband had a motive
The Zodiac Killer’s second victims were in 1969. Darlene Ferrin and Mike Mageau (the latter survived) were two friends sitting in a car together in Blue Rock Springs Park. A phone call was made by the purported killer, admitting to the act shortly after committing it. But Horan believes this was simply meant to take the heat off the real killer and blame the supposed serial killer who was responsible for the similar double murder of Faraday and Jensen a year prior. He points to Ferrin’s first husband Jim Crabtree, who had a criminal record and reportedly a tumultuous relationship with Ferrin when they were married, as someone else who could have done it, yet was never seriously questioned.
Crabtree had a similar car to the killer and had reportedly been accused of stalking Ferrin before. Crabtree, who was tracked down to be interviewed for the docuseries, claims to have an alibi for the time of the murder. It isn’t ironclad, though: he says he was alone in another park far away, as he usually is for the holiday, high on drugs celebrating the Fourth of July.
Crabtree weirdly claims to have experience in cryptography, though others suggest this isn’t the case, and that he was simply a clerk typist in the army. He also chillingly told Nock he wished Ferrin would be punished nine times over for moving on with someone else so quickly, mirroring the nine times she was shot.
The mysterious park ranger
During the third attack of Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepherd in 1969 at Lake Berrynessa (Hartnell survived but Shepherd later died), a severely wounded Hartnell was discovered by park ranger Dennis Land, who called the police. While Land did not match the description of the man a group of college girls noticed lurking nearby not long prior to the attack, there are some things that don’t add up. First, Land reportedly packed up the crime scene, including the towel the pair were lying on, and handed all the evidence to police upon their arrival. Second, there’s a missing gap of time when he was out of radio contact that coincides with when the attacks occurred.
While Land does not match the description of the man given by the college girls and is described fondly by other authorities who knew him, some find the behavior of the trained officer, including completely messing up a crime scene, to be odd.
The science behind the letters
Most letter analysis focuses on handwriting. But with improvements in technology, there are other things that can be analyzed. This is exactly what happened when Nock handed over the Zodiac letters to a pair of French experts who specialize in computational linguistics, Jean-Baptiste Camps and Florian Cofiero. They apply the principles of computer science to the analysis and synthesis of language and speech, he describes, and run the details through a customized artificial intelligence (AI) model. The idea is to potentially gain evidence to support (or refute) the claims that different people wrote the letters.
The experts found noticeable differences in the way the author of the letters used words and, most importantly, syntax, which strongly indicates a different person wrote the letters that came after the first four. They explain that most people are privy to handwriting analysis and can easily adjust their handwriting to disguise it and trick expert analysis. But it’s not quite as easy, nor even considered, to change one’s style of writing and syntax. It’s possible the changes they detected could be the result of a psychological change in the author/killer. But the pair believe their analysis at least presents a need for deeper investigation.
Journalist intervention for personal gain
While the Zodiac Killer letters were initially sent to a variety of media outlets, they eventually became exclusive to the San Francisco Chronicle. At one point, the writer began to address one reporter specifically, Paul Avery (who was portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. in the 2007 David Fincher movie Zodiac). One letter contained a bloody piece of victim Paul Stine’s shirt, and it was confirmed to be a match. Law enforcement officers are adamant that no one would have access to that evidence to have stolen and planted the piece of apparel, and certainly not journalists. But some point out the then-friendly relationship between police officers and journalists. At that time, there were also rampant reports of corruption and evidence tampering. Thus, the docuseries posits that someone behind the scenes could theoretically have provided that piece of shirt to the media.
It’s no surprise that keeping the story and investigation going was good for newspapers. Nonetheless, while many of Avery’s peers, even those who referred to him as “Unsavory Avery,” recognized his aggressive style, they do not believe he would have contrived a story through criminal means for the sake of gaining eyeballs. But some do find it suspicious that the letters started to become exclusive to the San Francisco Chronicle and, more specifically, to Avery, and wonder why.
Myth of the Zodiac Killer is now streaming on Peacock.