How Police Unknowingly Encountered The Zodiac Killer

Who is the Zodiac Killer? It has been over fifty years since he committed his first murders, yet police still don't know the answer to that question. While at least five confirmed murders committed in Northern California between 1968 and 1969 have been linked to the same man, he has never been identified beyond his unsettling nickname: The Zodiac Killer. The killer named himself, claiming in a handwritten letter sent to the San Francisco Chronicle in April of 1970: "This is the Zodiac speaking" (via Zodiac Killer). He continued to correspond with the press and the authorities for years, sending them taunting letters as well as mysterious ciphers, which he claimed would reveal his identity if they were solved.

Authorities believe that during his active spree, the killer murdered five people and wounded two young men, Michael Mageau and Bryan Hartnell, who were attacked but managed to survive their injuries, according to Zodiac Killer. However, the Zodiac Killer claimed in his letters that his true number of victims was much higher, telling authorities that he was really responsible for the deaths of 37 people, according to Biography. Despite the many taunting letters and the evidence linking the seven of his confirmed victims, the man behind the horrific murders has still never been found.

Police spoke with the Zodiac Killer on the night of Paul Stine's murder

While they may still not know his identity, the police have come very close to the killer on at least one occasion. Following the murder of a San Francisco cab driver named Paul Stine on October 11, 1969, police were called to the crime scene, where they patrolled the area looking for the killer, according to The Talko. However, due to a mix-up in communication, the police believed the man they were searching for did not match the physical description of the real killer. 

As a result, they unwittingly let the Zodiac Killer go free, despite him still being in the vicinity of the crime scene. To make matters worse, they didn't simply unknowingly walk right by him. The police even spoke to him, asking the Zodiac Killer himself if he had seen a suspicious man in the area that night. Of course, he lied, telling authorities he had in fact seen a man waving a gun around, sending them off on a wild goose chase while the real Zodiac Killer disappeared again.

The Zodiac Killer's "340 cipher" was cracked in 2020

As he was known to do, the Zodiac Killer then taunted the police about this mistake, writing (typos and all) in a letter one month later: "p.s. 2 cops pulled a goof abot 3 min after I left the cab. I was walking down the hill to the park when this cop car pulled up + one of them called me over + asked if I saw anyone acting suspicious or strange in the last 5 to 10 min + I said yes there was this man who was runnig by waveing a gun & the cops peeled rubber + went around the corner as I directed them + I disappeared into the park a block + a half away never to be seen again," via Zodiac Ciphers.

Stine was the Zodiac Killer's last confirmed victim. For the next few years, he continued to communicate with authorities, sending letters and ciphers, but these tapered off around 1974, and the trail eventually went cold. However, while his identity remains unknown, there have been some breaks in the case in recent years. In December of 2020, three amateur code breakers managed to crack the infamous "340 cipher" and decode the message that had gone unsolved for over 50 years, per CNN. Hopefully, this means authorities are one step closer to uncovering the true identity of the Zodiac Killer.