The Zodiac Killer's Disturbing Motives For Murdering At Least Five People

The Zodiac Killer has yet to be definitively identified. Responsible for at least five murders and two attempted murders in the late 1960s in the San Francisco area, the Zodiac (as he called himself) grew widely known because he would mail ciphers, letters, and bits of evidence to local newspapers and police to take credit for his killings and taunt investigators. He claimed to have killed 37 people (via Biography).

Though the last couple of years have brought moments of excitement over the possibility of the Zodiac's identification, the authorities have not reached any conclusions. According to the Washington Examiner, in 2021 the FBI pushed back against a private group of investigators, mostly former law enforcement officers, that said the case was solved and the killer known.Likewise, a French engineer's findings that allegedly cracked the final Zodiac cipher, pointing to an entirely different suspect, proved controversial. We regularly hear reports that the identity of the "true" killer has been discovered, and it is different each time (via KQED).

While the mystery persists, the letters the Zodiac distributed and the codes that have been deciphered hint at stomach-churning motives.

The Most Dangerous Animal of All

The Zodiac tended to target young couples in isolated places, who he would stab or shoot to death. For instance, high school seniors Robert Domingos and Linda Edwards were enjoying the beach in Santa Barbara when the Zodiac came upon them, binding them with rope and eventually shooting them (via History). Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday, students on their first date, were murdered in their car at a lover's lane in Benicia. 22-year-old Darlene Ferrin was picking up her friend Michael Mageau in the lot of a public park when the Zodiac blinded them with a flashlight and fired into the car. Only Mageau escaped. Likewise, Bryan Hartnell survived when he and Cecilia Shepard were attacked at a beach near Napa. The Zodiac bound and stabbed them, and Shepard was killed.

Suspected but unconfirmed Zodiac killings included other young women (via History). A number of experts have attempted to profile the killer over the decades and have reached different conclusions, but some see sexual frustration and lack of intimacy with women, even impotence, as motivating characteristics (via Zodiac Killer Facts). It's also thought that as a loner and a "nobody," committing serial murder and receiving widespread press over it made him feel like a somebody. 

The Zodiac wrote in his ciphers, however, that he was simply having fun. One of his decoded messages from July 1969 included: "I like killing people because it is so much fun" (via Britannica). He continued: "It is more fun than killing wild game in the forest because man is the most dangerous animal of all... To kill something gives me the most thrilling experience... It is even better than getting your rocks off with a girl" (via Zodiologists).

Dark Corners of a Twisted Mind

These theoretical motives are not mutually exclusive. It could well be that frustration with and fear of women were subconscious influences, and the rush the Zodiac felt from killing was a conscious motivator to continue his spree. Or perhaps he was as aware of his feelings toward women as his thrill from the hunt. Psychologists will continue to analyze his actions and writings for implied subconscious motives, but conscious ones can only be found in explicit, clear statements in his letters.

In 2020, an amateur team of codebreakers solved the second-to-last unsolved Zodiac cipher (the last one, studied by the French engineer, was referenced earlier). It was also mailed in 1969, and remained a puzzle for half a century. The FBI confirmed the team was successful, according to The Washington Post. In it we discover another reference to fun, though this time regarding investigators: "I hope you are having lots of fun in trying to catch me."

It is clear enough that the Zodiac viewed, or at least presented, his murderous rampage as a fun game. It is also clear that his motives will remain a source of intense debate. With such an unhinged individual, there are many dark corners to probe. According to IFL Science, more than one cipher references a religious belief that his victims will become his slaves in the afterlife, necessitating more murders for a more comfortable existence after death.