SAN FRANCISCO -- Fifteen years after the 'Zodiac killer' shot his last victim, investigators are at a loss about what has happened to the man who said he murdered 37 people.
The elusive killer taunted San Francisco police with cryptic messages signed 'Zodiac' and terrorized California for 10 months, then vanished.
Before disappearing, Zodiac killed San Francisco cab driver Paul Stine, 29, with a 9mm pistol on Oct. 11, 1969. He mailed a piece of Stine's bloodstained shirt to a local newspaper along with the message, 'This is the Zodiac speaking.'
The search for the Zodiac dragged on but his coded messages and bragging letters lead police nowhere. He has not been heard from since a letter in 1971, claiming a murder that occurred in 1966.
Although he ultimately claimed 37 killings, police confirmed only six as definitely attributable to the same person: three in Vallejo, one at Lake Berryessa, the Stine murder in San Francisco and one in Riverside. The victims, in addition to the cab driver, were a teenage couple in a lovers' lane, a young woman in another lover's lane, a young woman picnicking with a boyfriend and a college coed.
In a message sent after Stine's death, Zodiac boasted, 'School children are nice targets. I think I shall wipe out a school bus some morning.' That prompted San Francisco police to ride shotgun on school buses.
Five witnesses to Stine's shooting helped with a composite drawing of the assailant -- a man in his 30s with horn-rimmed glasses and crewcut hair.
Police inspector David Toschi, who doggedly tracked the Zodiac for 10 years, said this week, 'It was a baffling case' that 'lacked good physical clues.'
Toschi said over the years more than 2,000 suspects were eliminated in the San Francisco area alone. That does not take into account investigations in Vallejo, in Napa County and Riverside where the Zodiac also killed, he said.
The inspector speculated that the Zodiac could have stopped writing for a number of reasons, including capture for an unrelated crime. Or he could be in jail or dead, Toschi suggested.
Psychiatrists and criminal experts at the time speculated Zodiac was an impotent woman-hater who killed to get even with his mother, even though he killed both men and women.
Other experts saw him as a nonentity seeking fame, or a person overwhelmed by terror who killed to gain a feeling of power.
And another theory held he would be caught because he wanted to be caught. Or, if not captured, he would turn the rage against himself and commit suicide. ---
Flamboyant defense attorney Melvin Belli said he received repeated phone calls from a man claiming to be Zodiac, seeking help to 'stop the killing.'
'He used to talk to my German housekeeper. She would say, 'The poor sick boy just needs some of my good German cooking.'
'I was scared to death some night I would come home and he would be at the table with a knife and gun eating dinner,' Belli said.
In one message, Belli was sent a bloodied piece of cloth police identified as part of Stine's shirt. He agreed to meet the man one night outside St. Peter's and St. Paul's Church in the predominantly Italian North Beach neighborhood.
'I saw a car go by that I'm sure was him,' Belli said. He believes the man claiming to be the Zodiac was frightened away by police.
Messages continued to appear from time to time with Zodiac claiming 17 lives, then increasing the total in later notes with the bragging notation: 'SFPD-0, Zodiac 37.' ---
In 1981, all the Zodiac files were moved to Sacramento, where the state coordinates the multi-county efforts to track the killer. But the clues have 'slowed to a trickle' in the last five years, said Toschi, adding, 'Maybe someday we'll know what happened.'