By San Francisco crime historian and writer Paul Drexler
The call came at 9:30 AM on September 26th.
“Hi, This is Tom Colbert. I’m a Hollywood producer. Is this a bad time to call?”
For a writer, there is no bad time for a Hollywood producer to call.
“I’ve read your columns in the San Francisco Examiner. I like your work, especially the stories about the Zodiac.” he said.
Tom proceeded to tell me that he and his team had identified the Zodiac and found his hideout.
I’ve researched and written about historic crimes for twenty years. The longest chapter in my book, Notorious San Francisco: True Tales of Crime, Passion, and Murder, is about the Zodiac Killer.
The Zodiac case has spawned over 1000 websites, inspired a new field of study, Zodiology, disturbed the sleep of at least 10,000 cryptologists, and motivated “religious” wars between the followers of competing theories.
Between 1968 and 1971 a man calling himself “The Zodiac” killed at least five people in and around San Francisco. Many believe that his murders started before 1968 and that Zodiac may have had as many as 20 victims.
But It was Zodiac’s overweening ego that grew this case to legendary status. Zodiac sent letters to the newspapers bragging about his omnipotence and ridiculing the police. In some of these letters, he included cryptograms that he claimed would reveal his identity if correctly decrypted. He sent novelty postcards with hidden messages to reporters, detectives and others. He threatened to shoot children on school busses, included rough sketches of explosives he planned to bury.
Zodiac continued sending letters until May of 1974. He has not been heard from since.
In 1986 Robert Graysmith, a former cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote Zodiac, a best seller, in which he claimed that Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac. Since that time at least 20 men have been suspected of being the Zodiac. They fall into three main categories.
The first category I call “The Usual Suspects.” These are early Zodiac suspects, such as Arthur Leigh Allen, Laurence Kane, and Richard Gaikowski, who were first accused by the administers of different Zodiac Killer websites. Their claims have been largely debunked by evidence from rival websites.
The second category is “Daddy did it.” At least four people have accused their deceased fathers of being the Zodiac. The facts to prove this are sadly lacking.
Celebrity killers, the third category, such as Ted Kaczynski, and the Manson family have also been accused. In addition, two retired detectives accuse their suspects, Edward Edwards and George Hodel of committing other famous murders, such as the 1946 Black Dahlia case and the Lipstick Killer. Again, the evidence is weak.
Getting back to our new suspect, I received a 43-page, document from Tom Colbert, replete with the identification of the Zodiac, clues, bios, witnesses, deciphered interpretations of the seven Zodiac postcards, and a timeline.
While I am skeptical, I give Tom Colbert some measure of credibility. He is a producer with a long history in TV news and true crime, and seems to have a knack for finding stories. More importantly, he is associated with The Case Breakers, a forty-person volunteer team of largely retired FBI agents and police, forensic specialists, and others who work on cold cases.
On the other hand, Tom Colbert is a TV producer, a man with a product to sell, in this case, a documentary. Tom also claims to know the real identity of airline hijacker D. B. Cooper, and the final resting place of Jimmy Hoffa.
Here is a brief summary of Colbert’s story:
Colbert’s team believes that Zodiac was Gary F. Poste, an air force veteran and painting contractor who lived in Alameda California between 1963 and 1974. In addition to the five official Zodiac murders, the team claims that Poste also killed Cathy Jo Bates in Riverside California in 1966 and Donna Lass in Lake Tahoe in 1970. Both these murders have been linked to the Zodiac by others.
In 1974, Poste moved his girlfriend (and future wife) Mary and her 10-year-old son Mark, along with his business partner, Rod Hamlin, and family, to Groveland Ca, a small town in the Sierras. Though only 300 people live in Groveland, two million people pass through it each year because it is the town nearest to Yosemite National Park.
At this point, Gary stopped killing people but he satisfied his blood lust through his stepson’s friends. Gary taught them survival and shooting skills, how to kill animals, and how to make explosives. Poste also directed the young men in a series of petty crimes, and vandalism.
In 2007, after decades of camping and hunting with Poste, Wil, one of his stepson’s friends, started reading true crime material. Wil noticed a resemblance between Poste and the Zodiac.
In 2014, after hearing that Wil was researching the Zodiac, Poste attacked him. After the men were separated Wil went into hiding and tried telling his story to the press and police. No one believed him until met TV anchor Dale Julin, who began his own investigation.
In 2016 Gary Poste was arrested for domestic abuse when he pushed his wife Mary down a flight of stairs. In 2018 Poste was sent to a locked facility for dementia patients where he died later that year.
Dale Julin continued his investigation, gathering affidavits from Poste’s cellmates and other evidence. In 2020 Colbert joined the investigation and brought in some of the members of the Case Breaker team.
I’m intrigued but not convinced. At this point, there are too many unknowns and witnesses who need to be further questioned.
A major barrier to solving the Zodiac case is the lack of reliable forensic data. The DNA gathered from the stamps of Zodiac’s letters has deteriorated and can only be used to eliminate suspects.
There are partial fingerprints on one of the Zodiac victim’s car, but they are too incomplete to identify the killer. Witnesses have said that the Zodiac always wore gloves.
We have the bullets from the victims and shell casings. But without having the guns that shot these bullets, their value is limited.
Handwriting analysis is the last forensic applicable in this case. But this is not an exact science and handwriting experts often disagree.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Colbert’s theory is that it has the potential to deliver complete DNA evidence, based on a case where the Zodiac is a suspect.
In my next report, I will analyze the strengths and weaknesses of Poste as the Zodiac, reveal a detailed timeline concerning Poste and the Zodiac case, and identify what evidence is needed to either exonerate or convict Gary Poste in the Zodiac court of public opinion.
About the Author: Paul Drexler is a writer and crime historian in San Francisco. He regularly writes for the San Francisco Examiner with his column ‘Notorious Crooks’ and he is the Director of Crooks Tours of San Francisco offering walking tours of the city and its criminal history. Paul has appeared in a number of documentaries for the Discovery ID network and on Paramount TV where he featured as an expert on the Zodiac Killer.