Chasing Zodiac – a True-Crime Story

The Ohio Valley Writers held its inaugural writing contest this spring. Adult and elementary school winners were chosen in poetry, fiction and nonfiction categories. Here, we present the winner in the nonfiction category, Andrew Harrar. Please visit for more information. We hope to see you at our meetings!

The taxi was heading to the corner of Washington and Cherry on the evening of October 11, 2014. It was cool outside, and a small crowd of people was milling about the intersection. “What’s going on here?” my immigrant driver asked. “I belong to a group of true-crime enthusiasts, and this is the spot where Paul Stine was murdered by the infamous Zodiac Killer,” I said.

As our taxi pulled up to the curb, I explained how Zodiac had hailed a cab in downtown San Francisco on this very same night in 1969. His murderous ways were legendary in the annals of true crime, but the story was new to my driver. “The police caught the guy, right?” my driver asked as I handed over the fare. A hint of anxiety in his voice was audible. “No,” I said. “They never did.”

Mysteries can fascinate as well as frustrate.  My taxi driver was haunted by the lack of closure with the Zodiac Killer. We all want loose ends neatly tied up for us, to see the murderer put in handcuffs during Act 3, for Sherlock Holmes to explain why and how a ghastly crime occurred. Unanswered questions sometimes become the stuff of legend. Who was Jack the Ripper? What happened to the men who escaped from Alcatraz in 1962? Did DB Cooper survive his parachute jump and retire with a stolen fortune?

The mystery of the Zodiac Killer is an elaborate, multi-layered game of “Clue.” Zodiac killed his victims with guns of different caliber and used a knife in his third attack; he also committed crimes in different jurisdictions. Not content with merely killing, he also phoned the police after some crimes and sent threatening letters and coded messages to newspapers in San Francisco and the Bay Area. He signed his communications with a menacing circle and cross-hair — Zodiac was the first media-savvy serial killer.

Zodiac struck for the first time on the evening of December 20, 1968.  He shot and killed teenagers David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen on an isolated stretch of Lake Herman road in Benicia, California.  The next attack occurred on July 4, 1969 — Michael Mageau and Darlene Ferrin were both shot in the parking lot of Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo. Michael survived but Darlene died of her wounds.

On September 27, 1969, Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard were both stabbed multiple times by Zodiac at Lake Berryessa. Bryan survived but Cecelia passed away two days later. Zodiac’s final confirmed attack happened in the San Francisco neighborhood of Presidio Heights on October 11, 1969, when cab driver Paul Stine was shot and killed inside his vehicle.

During his final murder, Zodiac did not realize he was being watched from across the street. A group of teens thought a robbery was happening and called the police.  A two-man squad car on its way to the scene passed by a man wearing a dark windbreaker — the officers were unaware they had just driven by the killer. A composite drawing was later developed with input from the teens and officers Don Fouke and Eric Zelms — the Zodiac Killer was a white male from age 30 to 45, average height with short hair and horn-rimmed glasses. In other words, Zodiac was frighteningly generic.

In 2007, I joined, which offered members a forum to discuss and debate all matters related to the infamous case. The website was created in 1998 by Tom Voigt, a resident of Oregon. Tom has spent thousand of hours and dollars on his pursuit, and his website is the premier destination for amateur investigators and law-enforcement alike. It features countless documents, photos, and crime-scene reports, and one can easily get lost for hours while browsing the site. “A serious time-suck” was how one writer described Tom’s brainchild, and it was absolutely true. I found myself spending more and more time reading and posting on the discussion forums.  All one needed to enter was an inquisitive mind and a stable internet-connection. I was instantly hooked — no pun intended.

I am not going to spend time discussing the most popular Zodiac suspects — you can visit Mike Cole’s excellent website,, to see a comprehensive and very long list of the accused. When I joined in 2007, a new suspect was coming to light. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and had a pleasing appearance — this man could easily have walked down a neighborhood street at night and aroused no suspicion, I think.

His name was Richard Joseph Gaikowski. After graduating college in the late 1950s, Mr. Gaikowski worked on some political campaigns before finding his true calling as a news reporter. Richard worked in New York at the Albany Knickerbocker News from January, 1966 until September, 1968. He wrote stories on political corruption in Albany and covered “The Brothers,” a group of African-American men who sought equality and improved socio-economic conditions for their community. Richard appeared to be a very unlikely Zodiac suspect at first glance.

Citing burnout, Mr. Gaikowski quit his Albany newspaper at the end of September, 1968 and took some time off. In the spring of 1969, he became a staff member of Good Times, a counter-culture newspaper in San Francisco that symbolized the communal, hippie lifestyle of the era. Although Richard was now in his early 30s, his writing talents and mainstream-news experience were highly valued by his much-younger peers.

During the 1970s, Gaikowski became a rising star in San Francisco’s burgeoning arts-scene. He and two partners purchased the failing Roxie Theater and transformed it into a successful independent-film venue. Richard also possessed an aptitude for computers — in the 1980s, he created an online bulletin-board called Newsbase. The Bay Area was the perfect playground for Gaikowski, who moved seamlessly between the worlds of art and technology.

Were there any cracks in Richard’s persona? Tom Voigt has observed that the Good Times paper took on a much darker, revolutionary tone not long after Gaikowski joined the staff in 1969. An example was an article titled, “How to Commit Violence,” which focused on the killing prowess of various rifles and handguns. In 1971, Richard suffered a mental breakdown and was involuntarily committed to the Napa State Hospital., where he underwent psychoanalysis.

A man named “Blaine” first brought Richard to the attention of law enforcement in the 1980s. What aroused Blaine’s suspicions is unclear, but he insisted Richard Gaikowski was the Zodiac Killer. Blaine moved in similar circles as Richard during the flower-power era in San Francisco, and had written for a paper called the Berkeley Barb as well. A police detective named Ken Narlow met Gaikowski and briefly questioned him, but Richard claimed he had been traveling in Europe when Faraday and Jensen were killed in December, 1968. That was enough for Ken, and he soon dropped the matter. Richard did actually resemble the composite sketch of Zodiac, but so did thousands of other white males from that era. In any event, Mr. Gaikowski passed away in the spring of 2004 at the age of 68, and no deathbed confession was ever made.

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On July 31st, 1969, two newspapers in San Francisco and one in Vallejo received three different sections of a cipher.  Each mailing also included information known only to the killer who struck on Lake Herman Road on December 20, 1968 and again in Blue-Rock Springs Park on July 4, 1969. The complete cipher, with its odd markings and symbols, was published in both the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner. On August 8, 1969, a high school teacher and his wife solved the cipher.

On line four of the cipher sent to the San Francisco Examiner, the word “GYKE” is visible. Reading right to left backwards, one can also see the the letters “TO” and “EZ” bracketing “GYKE.” I mentioned this in a forum posting in 2008 when it first caught my attention. Is the killer giving us a clue to his name and throwing in a taunt as well? Keep in mind this is all visible in the unsolved section of the cipher.

What does this have to do with Richard? He frequently used “d. gaik” as a byline in his Good Times articles. The naysayers argue Gaikowski never used “G-Y-K-E” as a signature, but why on earth would a killer give his actual nickname in any communications? It’s a red flag for Richard, in my opinion.

The San Francisco Examiner received another letter from the Zodiac Killer on August 4, 1969. The letter began, “Dear Editor, this is the Zodiac speaking. In answer to your asking for more details about the good times I have had in Vallejo, I shall be very happy to supply even more material. By the way, are the police having a good time with the code? If not, tell them to cheer up; when they do crack it they will have me.”

This is red flag number-two and a “captain- obvious moment” if you consider Richard a legitimate Zodiac suspect. The writer mentions Richard’s workplace, and then includes virtually the same phrase a second time for good measure. It feels like an unimaginative writer trying to be hip. Draw your own conclusions.

My obsession continued, and I started hanging out in a zodiac-killer chat room on most week nights. I was impressed with the collective brainpower of Tom’s sleuthing community. Sure, there were a few oddballs here and there, but most of the researchers were supremely dedicated and whip smart to boot.

Two of my chat-room favorites were Judith and “Woodenigloo.” Woodenigloo holds a degree from Stanford and helped develop Microsoft’s Web TV in the 1990s. Judith had plunged headfirst into the flowery-power world of San Francisco in the late 1960s before embarking on a career as a fashion model and later a real-estate agent. “That Woodenigloo is a pretty impressive guy,” I said to Judith during my first week in chat. “No,” Judith said. “Woodenigloo is a pretty impressive WOMAN.” Online appearances can be deceiving — lesson learned.

The online chatter around Richard Gaikowski only got louder, and Tom Voigt created a sub-forum exclusively for him. Tom was also getting more pushback from various friends and defenders of Gaikowski. The webmaster of a rival site accused Tom of “defaming the dead” and published a lengthy essay in support of Richard. Assorted forum-regulars loudly dismissed Gaikowski as a Zodiac suspect, and the word “humanitarian” was often invoked to describe Richard. It was disheartening to see how many forumers had developed severe cases of tunnel vision through which only their favorite suspects could be considered.

Another area of pushback concerned Richard Gaikowski’s whereabouts in December, 1968. Many believed Richard was in Europe that month. An online essay about Richard’s life mentioned he wrote an article for the Knickerbocker News about sectarian strife in Ireland, but did not give a publication date. I was determined to find it.

I began logging major hours on a microfilm machine in the Elbin Library at West Liberty University. I used inter-library loans to order three boxes of Knickerbocker-News microfilm at a time for $20. The process was mind-numbing. I combed through several months of microfilm and came up empty. One weekend as I returned for more searching, a librarian named Ed Wolf said the machine had broken down and a technician came from Pittsburgh to fix it. I wondered for a second if he was going to hand me a bill.

In January, 2012, I found Richard Gaikowski’s article on Ireland. Published on February 1, 1969 in the Knickerbocker News, the news story described factionalist conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. I shared my findings online, and some Zodiac sleuths interpreted it as evidence Richard had been in Europe when the first Zodiac murders happened. Two sleuths even complimented Gaikowski for his solid reporting on the events. I felt like I had taken one step forward and two steps backward.

Something bothered me about the article, however. There was a foreword which read, “the writer of this article is a former reporter of the Knickerbocker News who set out some months ago to find out if far fields are really greener.” How long ago DID he set out for Europe? Was it September, 1968, as he claimed in an online essay? I questioned if Richard had the financial resources to travel in Europe for several months on end. I needed to do more digging, as the answers were only managing to serve up more questions in my mind.

In May, 2013, I logged into an online archive of British newspapers and began doing keyword searches. I clicked on one Observer article from January 5, 1969 and felt a strong sense of deja-vu. The news story was titled, “Ulster Police Stone Catholics,” and was written by the late-journalist Mary Holland. A man in the article told Ms. Holland, “If they get control of this city they will kill us in front of the walls, as they did during the siege.”

I flipped open my file with Richard’s February article and there it was — the SAME guy saying the EXACT same thing. And there were other details from Ms. Holland’s article that Richard passed off as his own. It was plagiarism, clear as day. There was no trip to Ireland. The editors at the Knickerbocker News had been taken for a ride. Maybe for a green ride as well.

Confirmation came later from Woodenigloo. She asked her Congressional Representative to do a passport search for Richard, and nothing was found. His travel alibi was dead in the water, and all the naysayers and skeptics were suddenly quiet. Tom enjoyed a rhetorical victory-lap, denouncing the “army of trolls and endless stream of idiots willing to lie, cheat and steal to make Gaikowski go away.”

During the late evening of October 11, 2014, our team of weary Zodiac sleuths gathered at a bar very close to the Presidio. The afternoon weather had been spectacular, and we reminisced about our experiences. A trolley bus had taken us to various Zodiac-connected sites during the day, and I only wished we had more time to talk shop and debate suspects before resuming our normal lives.

Tom mugged for the camera as I snapped photos, and Judith said she had informed a few people that she treated all Zodiac suspects equally. I gently reminded Judith that she also had been handing out “I LIKE GYKE” buttons during our Zodiac weekend. We both laughed in unison. Sometimes a hobby can take you places you never imagined. I think my true-crime journey is not yet over and there are still a few more puzzle pieces to be found, but I like the direction we are headed. Oh, and Ted Cruz is not the Zodiac Killer.