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Hunting the Zodiac
Documentary film
Producer/Director John Mikulenka, 2003 (Germany), 2007 (United States)
1 hour 3 min

“I become inspired, I am seized, and I know from that feeling that I am to investigate this subject.” Howard Davis, author of The Zodiac/Manson Connection

Amateur criminologist. Armchair detective. Amateur sleuth. Cyber Detective. Internet sleuth. Digital vigilante. Civilian police. Crowd sourced amateur investigator. These are just a few terms used to describe the phenomenon whereby the general public becomes involved in criminal cases, often cold cases. Producer and director John Mikulenka’s documentary, Hunting the Zodiac, uncovers this world as he tells the story of the fervent search for the Zodiac killer by a community of these investigators.

Between 1988 and 2012, America’s Most Wanted brought true crime into our living rooms, and implored the public for help when police were stymied in their pursuits to bring criminals to justice. Jump to 2014 when the producers of “This American Life” released the podcast “Serial.” The first season of this investigative journalist series delved into the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and the man convicted of her murder, her former boyfriend Adnan Syed. To say the series was a breakout hit is an understatement. To say it transformed the podcast world is entirely accurate. Since then, the market for everything true crime has exploded. Netflix’s Making a Murderer (the story of Steven Avery who after DNA testing, was released from prison after serving seventeen years for a rape and murder he did not commit) cemented a culture that has, and continues to grow at an exponential rate. This blog included.

It was out of this continuum that the amateur investigator subculture flourished. While the internet ensured clues were only a key stroke away, shows such as Forensic Files, The First 48, and Cold Case Files gave the public an insight into how to conduct an investigation. It only takes one look at the website websleuths.com to become convinced that this community is vast and, excuse the pun, deadly serious. Today’s junior investigative criminologists have gone from being online detectives to being in the field securing clues and tracking down leads. Considering this evolution in the true crime subculture, Mikulenka’s Hunting the Zodiac is of incredible interest because with its initial release in 2003, it shows the phenomenon in its earliest stages, well before arm chair sleuthing became mainstream.

Mikulenka follows a group of Zodiac hunters as they meet for a “Zodiac Killer Task Force Meeting.” Perhaps most well known of these is Tom Voigt, who created the website zodiackiller.com in 1998, well before the advent of the true crime explosion. Voigt and other amateur investigators meet to exchange and analyze clues. Each has their favorite suspect, and each pursues the case relentlessly. The breadth of their knowledge about the case is remarkable and the extent of resources expended is stunning.

We also meet homicide detectives Kelly Carroll and Mike Maloney, who are at the time, the only two investigators actively working the case in San Francisco. Carroll and Maloney give us insight into the deluge of tips they receive from the general public that range from useful, to utterly irrational and their hope that new technology will provide a breakthrough in the case. Due to the fact that the case is active, detectives are limited in what they can share with the Zodiac hunters. Detective Maloney points out the tragic irony of the predicament: the amateur community would love to have access to the information detectives have at their disposal and believe if they did that they could solve the case. On the flip side, investigators wish they had the time and resources to devote to the still unsolved case.

Mikulenka does well at showing a well-rounded picture of this community of amateur investigators. The all-consuming nature that grips most is obvious. Their spirited debates show the passion for which they hold the case. The presentation of archival material juxtaposed with how these Zodiac hunters search for the truth, makes clear the fact that the fear has subsided. It makes clear that these sleuths operate in a world unencumbered by the battle for time that original investigators felt they were losing before the next victim would appear. It shows that these amateur sleuths possess a freedom that law enforcement would never know and that their reward for tracking down a deranged psychopathic killer could in no way match a criminal investigators sense of failure for not having done so.

The positives that come out of the amateur communities effort seem to far outweigh the negative. Their efforts keep cases in the public eye and on law enforcement’s agenda, a fact that Detective Carroll acknowledges as he is quick to credit the amateur community for his and his partner’s active assignment on the case. And in deference to the amateur community, Detective Maloney envisions that they will “perhaps in some way be responsible for the ultimate resolution of the case.” Whatever term one wishes to use for bands of investigators such as these, the fact seems to be that while some law enforcement agents may appreciate their efforts, they have not yet learned how to harness the power of these communities. Quiet possibly, one of the most important things the audience walks away with is that this subculture lends each other a supportive community of like-minded people. People with whom and without judgment, they can blend a personal passion with a sense of duty to a larger cause. With one Zodiac hunter estimating his personal spending for the case at $30,000 and another $100,000 (not to mention the thousands and thousands of hours spent on the case), maybe most starkly, Mikulenka’s film shows how the Zodiac crimes continue through the loss of money, time, and the toll it takes on these amateur sleuths personal lives.

Further reading/viewing:

Hunting the Zodiac movie website: http://www.huntingthezodiac.com
Watch Hunting the Zodiac on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvnOGTJ54uM
Special report authored by for SFPD, Mike Maloney for Tom Voigt’s website: http://www.zodiackiller.com/ZStatus.html
Dean, Michelle. “True Crime Addict” and the Serious Problem of Internet Sleuths,” The New Yorker. June 23, 2016. Available at http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/true-crime-addict-and-the-problem-of-internet-sleuths
Yardley, Elizabeth, Adam George Thomas Lynes, David Wilson, Emma Kelly. “What’s the deal with ‘websleuthing’? News media representations of amateur detectives in networked spaces.” Crime, Media, Culture, Vol. 14, Issue 1, 2016, pp. 81-109.

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