by San Francisco true-crime historian and writer Paul Drexler.
The recent solution of the Zodiac case has surprised almost everyone. The real killer was none of the hundreds of major suspects, suggested by investigators. He was not the father of any authors seeking a bestseller, or an already infamous serial killer. He was a total unknown. While the crime was still unsolved, a famous director made a movie based on the case. Over a decade after the movie was released, police caught the killer. In this article, I’m going to compare the director’s solution to the real facts of the case.
This Zodiac case did not happen in California. It occurred 5,700 miles away and is known as the “Korean Zodiac Killer case.”
On September 15th, 1986, Lee Wan-im, a 71-year-old woman was raped and strangled in the rural city of Hwaseong. Just one month later, on October 25th, 1986, Park Hyun-Sook, a 25-year-old housewife, was raped and strangled on a dark rural road. In December 1986 two more women were raped and strangled. South Korea was experiencing its first serial killer. The killer had a unique pattern. Almost all the victims were killed in dark rural areas and were strangled with their own clothes. Panic swept the country.
To call the police investigation merely incompetent would be like calling the Grand Canyon a hole in the ground. The police had little training in crime or murder investigation, crime scene investigation, or forensics. Their crime-solving strategy was often to beat suspects until they confessed. Such tactics, known as “the third degree,” have been standard practice for many police departments around the world.
From victims, who had been raped but not murdered, police learned that the killer was slim, had a long face and soft hands. Because many of his victims wore red, and it was believed that he attacked his victims on rainy nights, many Korean policewomen, dressed in red, hoped to lure him into a trap. In reality, only a few victims wore red or were killed on rainy nights.
In 1989, Yoon Sung-yeo, a disabled man with a pronounced limp was arrested for the murder of the eighth victim. He was tortured and deprived of food and sleep until he confessed. Other than the fact Yoon’s hair was a partial match for a hair on the victim’s body, there was no evidence against him. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
When two more murders occurred, police called Yoon a copycat killer and not the real Zodiac.
By 1991 the murders had stopped but the Zodiac killer was still at large. The case became the largest manhunt in Korean police history. The number of suspects reached a total count of 21,280 individuals. In addition, 40,116 individuals had their fingerprints taken, and 570 DNA samples and 180 hair samples were analyzed.
In 2003, with the case still unsolved, director Bong Joon-ho decided to make his second film, Memories of Murder, inspired by this case.
Memories of Murder (2003)
“May you live in Interesting times” is reputed to be an old Chinese curse. If this is true, Korea in 1986, must have been an enthralling place to be. An autocratic government in Seoul was fighting to hold on to its power, students and police were battling in the streets. Urban Korea was rapidly industrializing, but many rural areas seemed to be in the 19th century.
In October 1986, two women are found raped and murdered on the outskirts of a small agricultural city. From the beginning, local detectives Park Doo-man, and his partner, Cho Yong-ko are way out of their depth. Their only knowledge of murder investigation has been gained by watching American TV crime shows. They very quickly demonstrate the adage, “When you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
In this case, the hammer is brute force. They pick up a mentally handicapped young man who used to follow one of the victims around town.
Park, believing that he can tell if a suspect is guilty by looking him in the eye, accuses the young man. Cho kicks him down the stairs and beats a confession out of him. Sao, a more sophisticated detective arrives from Seoul to help. Seo, with assistance from Officer Kwon
, a local policewoman, locates previous rape victims who survived Seo and Kwan learn that the killer has a thin face and soft hands. Sao releases the young man whose hands are rough from working in the fields
In a way, Park, Cho, and Seo represent different parts of the brain. Park is the ego, cocky, and self-important. Cho is the id, primitive and violent and Seo is the super ego, logical and law-abiding.
Park comes up with a far-fetched theory and finds a suspect, Cho beats him to get a confession, and Seo proves that he is innocent.
As the murders mount up, panic sweeps the area. Police, under tremendous pressure, see a pattern. The killer waits until a rainy night and kills women wearing red. Then, Officer Kwon figures out that a local radio station is requested to play a particular song during the nights the murders are committed. The local police chief plans to saturate the area with police during the next rainstorm but lacks the resources because most of the police are away fighting student demonstrators. On the next rainy night, police wait in hiding but the killer claims another victim and escapes.
Although the detectives’ incompetence is almost comical, the case takes a huge toll on them and their personalities begin to change. Park becomes more thoughtful, Seo becomes more emotional and Cho, wounded in a bar fight, leaves the investigation.
New clues lead the police to a factory worker who fits the killer’s profile and they believe they’ve solved the case. But when DNA results from the U.S. clear the factory worker, Seo loses all control and tries to kill the factory worker, who is saved by Park.
The last scene takes place ten years later. Park is now a father and businessman. He happens to pass by the first crime scene and decides to visit it, learning from a little girl that the scene had recently been visited by an unknown man. The man said that he was reminiscing about something he had done there a long time ago. Park asks the girl what he had looked like, and she tells him that he was someone who looked very ordinary. The film ends as Park looks straight at the camera, seemingly trying to spot the killer amongst the audience.
Memories of Murder, now considered a masterpiece, was a huge hit in Korea and launched Boon into the top rank of directors. In 2019 Boon’s film, Parasite won four Academy Awards and became the first foreign-language film to receive the Oscar for best picture.
The Case is Solved
In 2018, fifteen years after Memories of Murder was released, new DNA results enabled police to identify the killer. He was Lee Choon-Jae, who had been in jail since 1995 for raping and murdering his sister-in-law. Lee worked for an electric parts company during the murders and lived in the district where the murders occurred. Lee confessed to 14 murders and thirty rapes.
Yoon Sung-yeo, who was convicted of the 8th murder and had been released in 2009, asked for a new trial to clear his name. With Lee’s confession at the second trial, Yoon was acquitted. Subsequently, eight of the original investigators in Yoon’s case were arrested for abuse of power for physically abusing Yoon when he was a suspect, forcing him to make a false confession, and falsifying investigative documents. It was also revealed that four men who had been abused by police in the investigation committed suicide in the 1990s.
“We bow down and apologize to all victims of the crimes of Lee Chun-jae, families of victims, and victims of police investigations, including Yoon,” the police chief stated, noting others had suffered from “police malpractice” during the initial Hwaseong investigation.
When Lee was caught, director Bong Joon-ho was curious to see Lee’s reaction to the end of Memories of Murder, when the detective looks into the audience. Like a true psychopath, Lee had no reaction. “It was just a movie”, he commented.
“I still don’t understand why I wasn’t a suspect,” Lee was quoted as saying after confessing to the killings “Crimes happened around me and I didn’t try hard to hide things so I thought I would get caught easily. I bumped into detectives all the time but they always asked me about people around me.”
Lee had been saved by an additional police error. Police had mistakenly believed the killer’s blood was type B. Since Lee’s blood type was type O he was passed over.
The Original Zodiac Killer
Since the California Zodiac case has been covered so widely I’ll just give a brief summary here.
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.
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 deciphered. He sent novelty postcards with hidden messages to reporters, detectives and others. He threatened to shoot children on school busses, and included rough sketches of explosives he planned to bury.
Although over three thousand people were questioned by police, the only person they publicly identified was Arthur Leigh Allen of Vallejo California, a former schoolteacher who had been institutionalized in 1975 for child molestation. Allen first came to the attention of authorities when he was placed in the vicinity of one of the murders.
Allen became a serious suspect when a Don Cheney, a former friend, told police that Allen had talked about killing couples, wanted to call himself Zodiac, made other incriminating statements, and owned a Zodiac watch. Police served two search warrants against Allen but found no incriminating evidence in his home. Partial DNA evidence, fingerprint evidence, and handwriting analysis also seemed to exclude Allen. Zodiac continued sending letters until May of 1974. The case is still unsolved.
Robert Graysmith’s book Zodiac, published in 1986, is largely responsible for sparking interest in the case. Graysmith was a political cartoonist at the SF Chronicle during the Zodiac killings. He became obsessed with the case and researched it for the next thirteen years. Graysmith’s Zodiac, the first book written about the case, became a best seller. Zodiac the movie based on the case was released in 2007.
In the opening scene, Michael Mageau and Darlene Ferrin are together, parked in a lover’s lane when a car comes up behind them. A man emerges from the car and walks over to the couple’s car. When the man arrives at the car he pulls out a gun and starts shooting. Ferrin is killed and Mageau is badly wounded.
Four weeks later, a letter written by the Zodiac arrives at the San Francisco Chronicle. He describes his crimes and demands that the letter is published. The letter includes a cipher that Zodiac states will reveal his identity if decoded. Robert Graysmith, a political cartoonist, is in the newsroom when the Zodiac’s first letter arrives at the SF Chronicle. Intrigued by the letter, Graysmith begins trying to figure out the cipher. Graysmith strikes up a kind of friendship with Paul Avery, the Chronicle crime reporter.
The Zodiac killer strikes again in September of 1969, killing one and severely wounding another victim. Soon afterward, Paul Stine, San Francisco taxicab driver is shot and killed in the city’s Presidio Heights district. San Francisco police detectives, Dave Toschi and his partner Bill Armstrong, are assigned to the case,
The Chronicle receives a new Zodiac letter, with a piece of Stine’s bloody shirt.
The Zodiac states in the letter, that he plans to attack city school buses. Toschi and Armstrong soon find themselves working with detectives from Vallejo and Napa. Napa police had found “Wing Walker” boot prints on the ground, while the SFPD was able to get a partial fingerprint from the taxi cab crime scene.,
Soon afterward, the Zodiac ( or someone claiming to be him), requests to call into an early morning talk show, and speak with celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli. A deep-voiced man who goes by the name of “Sam” calls in and proposes a meeting, but Sam is a no-show, and it is soon revealed that the caller was from a mental institution.
Another letter soon arrives at the Chronicle, taunting the police, and including instructions for creating an explosive device. Reporter Avery writes a number of unflattering stories about the Zodiac, and is “rewarded” for this with a personal letter from the Zodiac, along with a piece of the cab driver’s bloody shirt. Paul Avery is fearful and starts carrying a gun after receiving this letter. He later turns to drugs and alcohol.
Avery’s article soon brings many people claiming to know the Zodiac’s identity. A man named Don Cheney tells them about Arthur Leigh Allen, a former friend, who talked about hunting couples before the killings started. Cheney is presented as a reliable witness. Toshi and Armstrong question Allen at work. In this scene Allen is wearing wing walker shoes the same size as Zodiac. Allen makes several suspicious statements though he denies being the Zodiac. A handwriting analyst says that Allen’s handwriting does not match the Zodiac, although Allen is ambidextrous, and might have written the notes with his other hand. Allen’s fingerprint does not match the partial print found on Paul Stine’s cab.
It is 1975 and four years have passed. Graysmith has remarried and decides to write a book about the Zodiac. Throughout this time, the Zodiac has been silent. Graysmith tells Toschi about the evidence he has collected. Though Toschi claims he can’t help, he quietly gives Graysmith additional people to question.
Graysmith follows one of these leads, in which another detective claims that a man named Rick Marshall might be the Zodiac. By now, the case has consumed Robert’s life. He loses his job at the Chronicle, and his wife takes the kids and leaves, fearful that the Zodiac may target their family.
Graysmith soon after goes to visit the sister of Darlene Ferrin, Zodiac’s first victim. Graysmith asks her about a party where he heard that there was a man who was making Darlene feel uneasy. Graysmith is convinced this was Rick Marshall, but Linda claims it was not a person named Rick…it was some man named “Lee.”
Graysmith, convinced that Lee is Arthur Leigh Allen, rushes to Toschi’s house in the middle of the night to tell him. In their meeting, Graysmith points out a number of things that could link Arthur to the Zodiac, but Toschi claims all he has is circumstantial evidence. Toschi encourages Graysmith to finish his book on the Zodiac.
The time then cuts to December of 1983. Robert walks into a hardware store in Vallejo and finds himself face-to-face with Arthur Leigh Allen. No words are exchanged before Graysmith exits the store.
Eight years later, after Graysmith’s book “Zodiac” was released, Mike Mageau, the survivor of the first Zodiac killing, meets with a detective, and is shown a number of mugshots. Mageau points out the photo of Arthur Leigh Allen as the Zodiac.
The Movies Compared
Both movies are excellent, with first-class, acting, writing, directing, and cinematography.
Memories of Murder is “based on the True Story” and on a play. Director Bong interviewed many of the people involved in the Korea Zodiac case, but the movie does not claim to be an authentic recreation of the actual crimes.
While the characters and some of the events are fictional, the overall themes are accurate. The Korean police were brutal and incompetent in both the case and the movie. In both the case and movie, a lower-class disabled man was accused of the crime. One of the strongest themes is the portrait of South Korea in the 1980s; an autocratic government clinging to power, police who are both brutal and uncertain, a populace skeptical of government, all of them clueless.
It seems like the only one who really knows what he’s doing is the killer.
Zodiac is “based on actual case files” and on Robert Graysmith’s books “Zodiac” and “Zodiac Unmasked”. Director David Fincher and scriptwriter James Vanderbilt spent months interviewing witnesses, family members of suspects, retired and current investigators, the two surviving victims, and the mayors of San Francisco and Vallejo. The presentation of San Francisco in the 1970s is convincing. The movie received positive reviews and many people praised its accuracy and its fidelity to the real events.
You expect any movie based on a real event to fudge a bit for dramatic purposes. Time and characters are compressed, dialogue and scenes are created for storytelling purposes. But even including this proviso, Zodiac, the movie, gives a slanted perspective.
The problem is Graysmith’s book. He is a compelling writer, but an examination of Zodiac, and Graysmith’s other true crime books, reveal that he never lets facts get in the way of a good story.
In the movie, Graysmith, who played no role in the real police investigation, becomes the main character. In reality, Graysmith and Zodiac reporter Paul Avery had no relationship when they worked at the San Francisco Chronicle. The dialogue and scenes between Robert Graysmith and Detective Toshi are almost totally fictional.
Don Cheney, who claimed that Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac has made many contradictory statements in the last thirty years and is not considered a reliable witness. Cryptologists have debunked Graysmith’s cipher solutions. The forensic evidence; fingerprint, DNA, and handwriting analysis, seem to exclude Arthur Leigh Allen as the Zodiac.
The Movie Endings
A movie’s ending is perhaps the most carefully designed part of a film. It is the audience’s last impression, the last chance for the filmmaker to create a satisfying ending. The ending was a challenge because both movies were mysteries without a final solution.
Zodiac had a two-part ending. The first, where Graysmith silently confronts Allen, fits the typical murder ending, in which the detective reveals the killer.
The second takes place years later when Graysmith’s book is a best seller. Michael Mageau, Zodiac’s first victim, is shown pictures and asked whether he recognizes his assailant.
Mageau points out a photograph of Allen and says, “That’s the man.”
The end of Zodiac implies that Allen was the Zodiac, but that police didn’t have enough evidence to convict him.
In reality, Mageau’s identification, given twenty years after the crime, meant very little. In 1968, at the time of the shooting, Mageau told police that he did not get a good look at the killer and that he saw the killer only in profile. Studies have shown that a person’s memory is most accurate at the time of the event. Memory, unlike a new haircut, or a bottle of good Bordeaux, does not improve with age.
The end of Memories of Murder takes place ten years after the crime spree has ended. Park, now a businessman and father, meets a girl who might have seen the Zodiac killer. The girl describes the man as ordinary looking. Park stares into the camera lens giving the audience an ending that is both ambiguous and intriguing.
Suppose the American and Korean police switched cases. Had Toshi investigated the Korean Zodiac case, it is likely that Lee Choon-Jae would have been caught. Had Park investigated the Zodiac case, there’s a good chance Arthur Leigh Allen would have been convicted.
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.
Read Paul Drexler’s fascinating true crime book ‘Notorious San Francisco: True Tales Of Crime, Passion, and Murder’ a fast-paced collection of largely untold true crime tales uncovering the dark secrets of San Francisco’s past. Read Crime Traveller’s review here.
“Easy to read in a free-flowing narrative, Drexler’s years of research and writing on San Francisco’s crime history shines through. His skill is telling these historic stories in a way that brings them to life with each and every one being as juicy, lively and engaging as the next with twists and turns fit for any modern day documentary.”