UnSubs Central

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Graysmith, Robert
New York: St Martin’s Press, 1986.

Zodiac Unmasked
Graysmith, Robert
New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2002.


“…a resolve grew within me to uncover his true face.”
Robert Graysmith, Zodiac Unmasked


Robert Graysmith has long been considered an authority on the Zodiac killer. Having written the first in-depth account of the murders, his book became reference material for those wanting to learn more about the Zodiac and he helped launch a generation of true crime fanatics eager to learn more about these unsolved murders. A political cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1969, he took a deep affinity for the case after the Chronicle became one of the principle newspapers to receive Zodiac letters and ciphers.

Zodiac is Graysmith’s day by day account of the murders and his own subsequent investigation. He points to multiple suspects, but with a cliffhanger type ending, he hones in on one, the man he gives the pseudonym Robert “Bob” Hall Starr. Here, Graysmith’s fixation with Starr begins to play out. He stakes Starr out at his place of employment. He calls Starr’s employer at home saying he has an “urgent, serious, and confidential matter,” but does not reveal it has to do with a murder investigation and does not name names (because he “didn’t want to jeopardize the job of an innocent man”). Graysmith does request the employer obtain handwriting samples from his employees, though. After the employer declines, he sends a friend into Starr’s workplace to surreptitiously attempt to secure one.[1]

Sixteen years later, in Zodiac Unmasked, Graysmith makes a full-fledged case against his prime suspect, who he reveals to be the real life Arthur Leigh Allen. He gives scant coverage of other suspects (he takes the most amount of time making the case that Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, is not the Zodiac) and even when he does, he quickly ends back up at Allen.

Both books are, at times, a challenging read. Graysmith’s encyclopedic attempt to categorize every detail of the crime often reads as filler and his presentation of the minutiae can be long and painful. His ambition to become the authority on the Zodiac killer comes through when he presents new information and I stopped counting the number of times he stated something had, “not been reproduced until now.” He even claims to have cracked the 340 cipher.[2] Then there are the times that one can see Graysmith’s novelistic desires straining through, as when he writes in Zodiac Unmasked, “Bernice glowered at her son. Frequently, he stood for hours at the same Venetian window, motionless as if at the length of a chain.”

Its Graysmith’s obsessive attention to detail that becomes an invitation to dissect his analysis and conclusions. At times, his thoroughness seems like a facade masking assumptions that are untrue. Indeed, since their publication, many of Graysmith’s statements have come into dispute and long time true crime sleuths site numerous blatant fabrications, as well as a tendency to interweave and combine witness stories. So determined was he, that Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked feels like Graysmith’s own trial of Arthur Leigh Allen, a trial that homicide investigators knew couldn’t happen in a court of law due to lack of concrete evidence. Undeterred though, and resolute in his commitment, Graysmith fully presents his one-sided prosecution. For those desperate for the mystery to be solved, Graysmith does offer a compelling circumstantial case. For prosecutors searching for enough evidence to gain a conviction in court, much less so.

Of the circumstantial evidence against Arthur Leigh Allen: Allen lived in Vallejo near where the first two attacks had taken place. He wore size 10 1/2 shoes. He was known to frequent Lake Berryessa and even claimed to do so on the weekend Cecilia Shepherd and Bryan Hartnell were attacked. He possessed a lumbering gait, which, as described by witnesses, so did the killer. He was a self-proclaimed fan of the movie “The Most Dangerous Game,” which the Zodiac referenced in one of his letters (more to come on this in future blogs!). He was ambidextrous (which followed the theory that the Zodiac was as well, and that he wrote with a different hand to hide his writing) and he wore a watch with a Zodiac symbol on it. Most damning were that Mike Mageau, who survived the July 4, 1969 attack that left Darlene Ferrin dead, identified Allen’s picture and claimed he was his attacker, and that Allen’s former friend, Don Cheney, alleged that Allen remarked of his desire to adopt the name Zodiac and randomly kill people.

Then there is the hard to ignore fact that Allen was a convicted pedophile. Imprisoned in an Atascadero, California jail for three years after being convicted of molesting a 12 year-old boy, it’s hard to defend and much more easy to accuse such a reprehensible individual. But if one is going to accuse someone of murder, it must be based on evidence and the evidence in the case against Arthur Leigh Allen is less than concrete. These issues include: San Francisco Police Officer Donald Fouke, who unknowingly drove past the Zodiac killer near the scene of Paul Stine’s murder, states that Allen is not the man he saw that night. Mike Mageau’s identification of Allen did not come until 1991, twenty-two years after his attack and after he told police that he only saw the killer’s profile as he was walking away. During a 1971 search of Allen’s trailer, police found no evidence connecting him to the murders. The palm print found on the Exorcist letter did not match Allen’s. Two forensic document analysts (including Zodiac expert Sherwood Morrill) concluded Allen’s handwriting did not match the Zodiac. DNA thus far, has been problematic. When a stamp from a Zodiac letter was tested for a television show in 2002, it was not a match. Years later, though, it would be revealed that only the outside of the stamp was tested, meaning no DNA from underneath the stamp or from the envelope seal, had been tested. And Cheney’s testimony? Police would learn that Allen had once attempted to molest Cheney’s daughter and while Cheney was seen as a credible witness at the time, subsequent interviews have given credence to the possibility that he fabricated parts of his testimony.[3]

Graysmith’s obsession with the Zodiac case came at great cost to his personal life. After years of conducting thousands of interviews and spending untold hours researching and writing, he would eventually divorce from his second wife. For all of Graysmith’s missteps, the fact remains that he kept the Zodiac killings high profile. He also successfully elicited information from the various law enforcement agencies that, until that time, were feuding amongst themselves and he worked tirelessly to bring some form of justice. In the end, only until the Zodiac killer is found and that justice is served, will we know if Graysmith’s zeal was warranted or not.


Further reading/viewing:

FBI documents – available through the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act, all 6 parts available at: fbi.gov

Zodiac UNMASKED, episodes 1-6 available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OEagZAJptB0

Don Cheney interview transcript: http://www.zodiackiller.com/CheneyTranscript.txt


[1]  Zodiac, 282-284.
[2]  Zodiac, 238-244. FBI analysis determined Graysmith’s conclusion not valid, citing the solution as “forced” and further stating, “when a cryptogram has been decrypted properly there is an unmistakable sense of rightness about the solution. This sense of rightness is completely absent in the proposed solution.” http://zodiackillerfacts.com/main/the-340-cipher-dead-ends/
[3] See: http://zodiackillerfacts.com/zodiac-theories/the-accused-the-accusers/allen-primed-suspect/


Thanks for reading!


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