Then I received an article reciting details of the unsolved “Zodiac murders” that had unfolded in Northern California more than a decade earlier. In an episode that has since been recounted by countless journalists and Hollywood filmmakers, the killer had ambushed and slain five people. (The murderer has never been identified for certain, although numerous people have claimed to pinpoint the culpritincluding a San Francisco woman who held a press conference in April declaring her father was the Zodiac killer.) He then sent letters to Bay Area newspapers threatening to kill many more unless they published a series of cryptic symbols, an act that created widespread panic. Included in the article I received were descriptions of the symbols, which sounded just like the ones on the postcards in my drawer. “Holy cow!” I said. “Im getting mail from a mass murderer!” I called the local FBI branch, and a nice young woman with an FBI badge came to my office, picked up the collection of mail, said thank you, and left.
The agent then explained that the mail was from an amateur sleuth in California named Gareth Penn, who had been trying for some time to interest the police in the idea that I was the Zodiac killer. Perhaps he was trying to alarm me into confessing or doing something incriminating. Who knows. Even today, I know little about the man, beyond the odd detail Ive picked up here and therelike the fact that he is a librarian and surveyor by trade, that he has (or had) a wonderful Jesus beard, and that he is a member of Mensa. About the details of Penns theory, I know next to nothing (curious readers could find them in Penns two self-published books on the subject), except that it has made me the subject of a particularly bizarre and vacuous chapter in the annals of American criminal justice.
I dont want to be cute about the murders, which not only left victims and grieving relatives in their wake, but also frightened a lot of people, and frustrated California and Massachusetts law enforcement. So, for the record: I am not the Zodiac killer, had absolutely nothing to do with those (or any other) murders. As far as I know, I wasnt even in California when any of them happened. Similarly, I had nothing to do with the death of Joan Webster, a Boston college student whose murder Penn has also tried to pin on me. A note to Zodiac hobbyists and Penn aficionados: Please dont bother parsing the foregoing for cleverly worded nondenials and numerological incriminating clues; if you dont like my choice of words, feel free to make up other language that you would take as a flat, comprehensive, unqualified denial, and assume I said that. What follows will tell you nothing at all about Zodiac or Webster; its a personal history of being struck by low-voltage lightning out of a clear blue sky.
Before approaching me, Penn apparently made himself a nuisance to the California Department of Justice. Early on I was in touch with a nice investigator there named Fred Shirasago, who knew Penns father and could sometimes get him to make his son stop harassing me for a while. But I guess when you know something terribly important that the entire world thinks is hooey, it gets harder and harder to let it go.
My favorite episode was the phone calls. Sometime in the 1980s, I started getting them at two and three in the morning. When my wife or I answered, a male voice would say something vaguely threatening like “Im coming north, and Im going to get you soon!” We told the Brookline police about it, got them to drive by more frequently, and eventually it stopped.
I only discovered the reason for the calls much later, during one of my occasional trolls through the Internet to see if Im still of interest to Zodiac amateurs. The calls were supposed to be transmitting coded messages via numbersin particular, the time of the call! Apparently, Penns assumption was that when the average person is aroused by the phone in the middle of the night, the first thing he does, before woozily answering, is to note the time of the first ring on the digital clock he keeps by the bedwhich is, of course, synchronized with the clock in the Naval Observatory. If your clock (or his) is off by just a couple of minutes, the call that was supposed to register as “2:14″code for “Got you dead to rights this time”will be misinterpreted as “2:16,” which I think means “The Sox cant make the playoffs without a closer.” (Sadly, Ive lost the magic decoder ring I got in exchange for cereal box tops as a child, so I cant be sure.) The story got even better years later, when I discovered that a Penn skeptic had been calling him at home at times that figured into Penns theory, whereupon Penn assumed the calls came from me and “returned” them to my house, so he thought he was having a conversation with me, all in three-digit numbers.
During the era of late-night phone calls, I got the impressionhow, I no longer rememberthat Penn was also trying to get volunteer vigilantes to visit summary justice on me. (Penn has said in his own writing that he was contacted by would-be vigilantes, but when he found out what they were after he had nothing more to do with them.) One of my friends suggested I might want to get a license and carry a gun. I entertained the idea for about five minutes, but decided if I let Penn affect how I lived in any wayand carrying anything more dangerous than a Swiss Army knife is far from my idea of normalthere would be no end to it. Anyway, expecting to get the drop on some stranger who came after me with murderous intent was obviously ridiculous: being shot trying to get your piece out of a holster is not much better than just being shot.
On another occasion, a morning radio host in Los Angeles invited me to be interviewed on his show about some city planning issue. When I called in, he asked two or three clueless questions about housing, and then blurted out that he had Penn on another microphone. Apparently, he thought he was a junior Geraldo Rivera doing an ambush interview, which, naturally, would segue into a debate about whether I had killed six people. I got an apology from the station manager for that.
“Right. So youve suffered no damages. You will win the lawsuit and get an award of one dollar, and Penn will get publicity hes obviously dying for. Forget it.”
Im a little sore at the lawyer for having discarded my file a few years later in an office cleanup, but as Penn keeps sending me the odd mysterious letter or postcard, Ive accumulated another whole folder of truly bizarre correspondence for my biographer (or Penns) to enjoy. And the lawyers advice turned out to be sound. Indeed, the constant of this story is that, as far as I can tell, not a single person who matters in my lifenot law enforcement, not friends and family, not students, not colleaguesever gave Penns views a minutes credence, so Ive never regretted not lifting a finger to refute them or defend myself. Recently I asked my wife and daughters about how they have taken this whole thing. Daughter number one, the earnest save-the-world schoolteacher, was outraged that anyone could say such awful untrue things and not suffer any consequences. She still worries that people she doesnt know might suspect me of the crimes. Daughter number two, the free-spirited writer, loves weird, off-center stuff and browses the Internet occasionally to see what Penn is up to now. My wife first thought it was silly, then was a little afraid when Penns fans appeared willing to take the law into their own hands, but now looks back on the whole ordeal as just an irritating distraction. Ive never apologized to thembut what would I apologize to them for? My initials?
The surreal quality of Penns dialogue with the facts is captured by the matter of the phone number. At one time in Cambridge I had a phone number with the last four digits 6266. From this Penn, using some sort of gematria, extracted enormous meaning. But what does a number assigned by the phone company say about the person it was given to? Many of the other details Penn has used to launch his voyages of conjecture are equally beyond my control, like my birthday and my mothers name. There was also some fuss made about the fact that I was on the freshman rifle team in college. (At least two of the Zodiac murders were committed with a handgun at point-blank range, so rifle marksmanship doesnt seem germane, but go figure.)
By contrast, things I have intentionally crafted have been mostly ignored by the Penn-Zodiac crowd. Although I write for a living, only my dissertation (tables and tables of numbers!) and two other works have attracted their interest. One of them was a paper that used a hypothetical carjacking to illustrate something about persuasion; the other was a satirical op-ed I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle that used Canadian wolf relocation to make fun of xenophobia. I thought it was a pretty minor effort, but it echoed through the recesses of the Internet for years. If only I could get fellow scholars to pay half as much attention to my serious work.
I have a recurrent mental image of Penn (whom, to my knowledge, Ive never met). Hes seated cross-legged on the floor surrounded by an enormous collection of Lego pieces, each one a fact either about me or about the Zodiac/Webster crimes. Hour after hour, day after day, he assembles an amazing structure, but the pieces from the two batches dont fit together properly, so he relabels something that looks useful, or whittles a new piece from scratch into the shape he needs. Everyone should have a hobby, I guess, and the world has survived a wide variety of philosophies about the relationship between belief and evidence. But all in all, I wish he had gone looking for a race-car driver with the initials PDQ.
Michael OHare teaches public policy analysis at the University of California at Berkeley, specializing in environmental and arts policy with forays into public management.
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