Graysmith's Zodiac Unmasked

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Whenever I pass into a foreign country and have to fill out a visa form listing my occupation, I invariably have to resist the impulse to write "serial killer." I abandoned the idea of serial murder as a career option some number of years ago, opting instead for a lifetime of pranks, but I understand the appeal.

Life is full of paths not taken. My mother wanted me to stay with her in a little house in Camden, NJ. She wanted me to work for the U.S. Postal Service, which I actually did for a while. It was stifling. If I'd stayed there and not run off to New York, I would have become a completely different person. I would have worn different clothes, maybe white dress shirts with heavily starched collars and khakis, and black horn-rimmed glasses. I'd probably have stuck with the canvas Chuck Taylors. I would have started driving at an earlier age. I would have used a lot more crystal meth and studied taxidermy.

I love the smell of human blood. I think I would have started killing people for sport. I think I would have done it out of loneliness and boredom.

Most of them do. Forget Hannibal Lecter. He's not out there. There is no erudite and suave Prince of Darkness prowling around in the shadows slicing and dicing people for sport and art. Someone like that would be capable of getting a real life. These serial killer characters are generally a pack of real losers, socially inept bedwetters too frightened of other people to take out a personal ad.

Public romance with the serial killer has nothing to do with actual serial killers. They are a distinctly unromantic bunch, except for the unsolved cases. The unsolved cases allow us to project what J.G. Ballard called "the veronicas of our perversions" upon them. The innumerable theories regarding Jack the Ripper are an index of public dread; the Texarkana Moonlight Murderer inspired countless fictions reflecting adolescent sexual tension; and the original Zodiac case has the unique distinction of having hatched actual real-life sequels.

There was something of the taint of authentic genius, however warped, in the Delphic utterances issued by the Zodiac killer via mail and telephone to the press, the police, even celebrity attorney Melvin Belli. The Zodiac, who terrorized Northern California 1966-1974 and has never been apprehended, offered brief critiques of films and quoted Gilbert & Sullivan. He devised a cipher that defied the best efforts of NSA analysts. There may be Lewis Carroll references. He was certainly the most verbose and daring of the unsolved cases.

I became interested in the case on reading an article in the November 1981 issue of California magazine. The article, "Portrait of the Artist As a Mass Murderer," by George Oakes, presented a novel theory regarding the Zodiac. Oakes posited that the killings and subsequent communications were in the nature of a conscious artistic expression: "Other artists had sought to remove their work from the ordinary human perspective. Zodiac trumped them all." Oakes also clearly had a particular individual in mind as a suspect. An epilogue by the editor identified "George Oakes" as an alias, and mentioned that he had been "identified in a San Francisco Chronicle story about amateur Zodiac sleuths."

Working through back issues of the Chronicle in The New York Times morgue facility, I gained a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of the case, inasmuch as the facts were available, and I identified "George Oakes" as one Gareth Penn, of Napa. I initiated a correspondence with him in the autumn of 1982, and in our first phone conversation he provided me with his suspect's name, date and place of birth, mother's name, her d.o.b., verifiable address, telephone number, place of employment and fields of study. This guy had the feel of some sort of zealot. I learned a long time ago that even wackos occasionally spout truths, and I do not dismiss information simply because the source is a crackpot.

I arranged to meet with Penn at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco in January of 1983. I figured the venue would provide its own security, by virtue of my proto-Goth drag of black Chippewas, black Levi's and black thermal shirt complemented by an olive drab U.S. Army trenchcoat and a DI haircut. In 1983, in San Francisco, this shit was unusual, especially in a four-star hotel. Hotel security would be watching. I planned on taking him up for drinks at the Equinox, a rotating bar perched atop the Hyatt. I had him pegged for a drunk.

That evening turned into an authentic run down the rabbit hole of Northern California weirdness, all ambiguity and coded references as we roamed from the Embarcadero to North Beach to Los Gatos. The fellow I met turned out to be an impostor, a shill. It was all a bizarre head game, and I felt compelled to do Gareth Penn a turn. His theory was based on an elaborate gematria system that he called "binary Morse," involving a transposition of English into Morse code into a binary construct in which dots equal zeroes and dashes equal ones. This is further complicated in his theory by the use of geometric codes involving the overlap of analog time measurements and binary Morse codes. Like any system of gematria, it is tremendously ambiguous.

Over a period of years I subjected Penn to a series of carefully timed hang-up telephone calls designed to give him the impression of an elaborate communication from his suspect. It worked. His extrapolation of my systematic pranking forms the basis of his projected "chess game" in his self-published work on the Zodiac, Times 17 (Foxglove Press, 1987, out of print).

Penn's interpretation of the calls is about as accurate as his account of his meeting with me. Interestingly, his suspect declines to sue him. His suspect is a very interesting guy, with an odd sense of humor.

Robert Graysmith, a former cartoonist and illustrator with the Chronicle, wrote the definitive overview of the case, Zodiac (St. Martin's, 1986). There are flaws in it, as there are in every examination of the case so far. But Graysmith keeps his agenda clean, and whatever mistakes he might make seem to be honest mistakes.

A whole cult has sprung up around this case, best exemplified by Tom Voigt's excellent website, Most of the brightest and the best examining this fascinating case are posting on Voigt's message board, and all of the serious wackos are there, except Penn.

The consensus among aficionados has for some time now been leaning toward the late Arthur Leigh Allen as the prime suspect. He was by no means the evil genius proposed by Penn. Allen was a great fat lumbering socially inept diabetic who lived in his mother's basement and toiled at menial jobs after losing his teaching credentials on the heels of a child abuse scandal that landed him in Atascadero State Hospital for a couple of years. He kept a bunch of trailers around, tucked away in various back corners of the Bay Area, and flaunted his identification with Zodiac to nearly everyone he came in contact with. He was the very essence of a loser. William Burroughs once opined that "anyone who can pick up a frying pan owns death," and if serial murder is art, it is art on the cheap, art brut of the most brutal sort. It ain't Vermeer, for sure.

?Robert Graysmith has come forth with a sequel to his original Zodiac, entitled Zodiac Unmasked (Berkley, 576 pages, $24.95). This new book is a meticulous reconstruction of the way the case evolved, and it clearly illustrates that the elusive quality of the Zodiac had little to do with his cunning and everything to do with law enforcement ineptitude. The case against Arthur Leigh Allen is as nearly cut and dried as one could ask for. Had the local authorities shared the information they had with one another freely, he almost certainly would have been apprehended and charged in the case. Instead, the various agencies involved competed against one another, each hoping to be the one to crack the case and get the glory. The only winner in that game was the Zodiac.

Zodiac Unmasked also deals with the fans and wannabes in fine detail. The case has always been a magnet for weirdos; Heriberto Seda took it all the way, terrorizing New York City in the early 90s with his clumsy impersonation and attacking nine people before his arrest in 1996. In Japan, a 15-year-old boy perpetrated a series of brutal attacks in Kobe, quoting from the original Zodiac literature in a note he left stuffed into the mouth of a decapitated child. Graysmith gives these cases all of the attention they deserve, recounting the lurid details even as he expresses his horror at the thought that these crimes might have been inspired by his first book.

Zodiac Unmasked is by far the best book on the subject of the Zodiac murders. Graysmith has managed to make his way through the minefield of quirky personalities involved without ruffling too many feathers, and his access is as good as it gets. Of course, there will always be true believers like Penn and others who continue to insist on the viability of their own pet suspects in the face of the enormous body of evidence implicating Allen, but Allen is the most obvious candidate for the perpetrator of the original Northern California Zodiac crimes.

The bigger question is this: having witnessed Zodiac II and Zodiac III, how long will it be before we see Zodiac IV? Or is he already at work, out there in the darkness? It is a case that seems to have no end.

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