SFPD not thrilled about spotlight on Zodiac 

It’s been nearly four decades since the last murder. The case has officially been listed as inactive. And yet the public fascination with the "Zodiac" killer seems to just grow with time, a true story that has expanded into urban myth.

And now the movie.

When "Zodiac" hits theaters early next month, its arrival will be greeted with a new round of media coverage — the media being the fuel for why the case has received publicity well beyond its due. And our local police will greet the news with as about as much enthusiasm as being stuck in the middle of a riot.

"I hate that case," said San Francisco police Capt. John Hennessey, who was the head of homicide investigations when the case was put on ice. "It just sucks the oxygen out of everything around it."

So why are the embers still burning on a story so old it creaks with middle age? Because the Zodiac was the one who got away — and was as much a genius of self-promotion as he was a cold-blooded killer.

The Zodiac killer haunted the Bay Area for several years in the late ’60s and early ’70s, committing five brutal murders and claiming scores of others. Yet his tale was elevated to Jack the Ripper levels, in large part because of his communiques to local newspapers that contained cryptograms and other riddles that captured the public’s intrigue.

His first confirmed killing was five days before Christmas in 1968, when he shot and killed two teenagers along a remote road in Vallejo. He killed two other people before his last homicide, the execution-style murder of San Francisco cabdriver Paul Stine in Presidio Heights.

The Stine slaying was the only killing linked to the Zodiac in San Francisco, yet he is inevitably tied to The City because of the bright lights placed on the letters he sent to The Examiner and mostly the Chronicle, that received front-page placement. The first letter was received in July 1969 and nearly two dozen others followed over the years, most of them filled with misspellings, his now well-known symbol of a cross inside a circle and his trademark opener: "This is the Zodiac speaking."

The killer was never found and though there were many suspects identified, there was never enough evidence to connect anyone to the case. The person most people identified as the potential killer died in 1992.

Yet the public obsession with the case has never died, maintained and stirred by dozens of Web sites, numerous books and untold numbers of people who refuse to let it die.

And now the movie.

This one is based on books written by Robert Graysmith, who long ago served as the Chronicle’s editorial cartoonist, and it stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. It reportedly cost $80 million to make, and the director, David Fincher, used retired homicide investigators and even a survivor of one Zodiac attack as consultants.

My own theory on why the Zodiac case has received so much attention is that it has been caught up in a vortex of other killings during a particularly violent and bloody period in Bay Area history. I remember the time well — there was real fear on the streets — and parents were loath to let their kids out after dark when people were randomly being gunned down.

But is was not the Zodiac case that was scaring the wits out of people. It was that other "Z" case, the Zebra killings, in which members of the Nation of Islam were murdering white people on the streets as part of some misguided messianic mission. The "Death Angels," as they were called, killed 15 people in San Francisco between 1973 and 1974 before the Police Department’s Operation Zebra (the Z was based on their radio channel) finally tracked them down.

Yet that terrifying murder spree has never received nearly as much attention as the Zodiac case, racial unrest and revolution apparently not translating to boffo box office. The unknown mystery of the Zodiac case has brought out every crank imaginable, offering leads and tips — almost all of them completely useless.

Up until a few years ago, police were getting calls on the Zodiac on almost a daily basis, but it took so much time and attention away from ongoing homicide cases that they put it on the inactive list until the day they get a lead that might actually go somewhere.

But they were definitely hoping it wouldn’t go to Hollywood, backed by a marketing campaign. It’s a legend in the (movie-) making.

Trust me — at the Hall of Justice after the movie opens, operators will not be standing by to take the calls.

The Zodiac Killer coined his name in a 1969 letter to the Examiner. Our special section reviews the new "Zodiac" movie and looks back at his still-unsolved killing spree.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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