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The Serial Killer as a Marketing Genius
By: Tom Zoellner
MAY 21, 2018
THE HEADQUARTERS of the San Francisco Chronicle announces itself with a six-story clock tower; the whole edifice looms above Mission Street like a clipper ship with lighted portholes. I used to work there on the nightshift.
While my friends wrote UNIX code and got rich on stock options during the belle époque of the year 2000, I wrote about drug homicides and late-running meetings at City Hall for low pay inside an old-line newsroom. I also fielded phone calls from cranks.
This was part of my job. For every hundred people who calls up a newspaper at 9:00 p.m. wanting coverage of their garden show the next day or an investigative reporter to look into the rotten oysters sold at the fish counter of the Food King, there’s one who might have a tip worth pursuing.
One of these calls came from an abrasive guy with a New Jersey accent. He had a theory on the Zodiac Killer he wanted me to see. He’d be in town soon and wanted to talk about how he had — single-handedly — solved the notorious case, which was then about four decades stale from its first murder. Police had long since given up on it; the killer would be elderly, if he were even still alive.
The homicides had electrified California in the late 1960s, but that period was about as antique to the Chronicle’s newsroom as the 1906 earthquake. This weird call should have been prime hang-up material, but I kept talking to the guy, whose name was Mike Rodelli and whose theory turned out to be remarkably cinematic.
He told me the Zodiac Killer was still living, and not in squalor or obscurity, but at the levels of beau monde San Francisco society. He was a wealthy sports-car dealer, a horse-breeder, and a philanthropist who slept in a Presidio Heights mansion, but from December 1968 until October 1969, he had lived a murderous double life, stalking lovers’ lanes around the Bay Area and killing at least five people.
Rodelli told me he was traveling out to town in that spring to meet with a fellow amateur Zodiac investigator and asked if I would meet with him. He promised more details. He said I would have little doubt in his theory once I saw the proof. I equivocated, telling him that it would be dependent on whether there was breaking news that night. But part of me felt compelled to hear him out. Sure, I said. Come see me at the Chronicle when you’re out here.
And so in April, I sat with Rodelli — a trim guy with the perfect everyman look of a spy — in the third-floor conference room after all the desk editors had gone home and the newsroom was practically deserted. He explained how he zeroed in on his suspect, and I had to admit that it was ingenious.
Like Jack the Ripper before him, Zodiac had distinguished himself from more obscure serial killers by sending handwritten letters to the newspaper that read like a combination of insane babble, soaring egotism, and a coy scattering of facts that were either clues or red herrings.
“This is the Zodiac speaking,” he wrote to the editor of the Chronicle on October 13, 1969, with his customary salutation.
I am the murderer of the taxi driver over by Washington St. + Maple St. last night, to prove this here is a blood stained piece of his shirt. […] School children make nice targets, I think I shall wipe out a school bus some morning. Just shoot out the front tire + then pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.
The killer wrote at least 20 of these letters (a few are of disputed authenticity) in the same block handwriting before they faded away after 1974. Rodelli’s insight was that a person so accustomed to writing imperious notes to the newspaper must have also been in the habit of doing so under his real name. So he asked an associate in the Bay Area to search the Chronicle’s files on microfiche until he came across one that matched the Zodiac’s literary style.
On June 26, 1969, a wealthy car importer of Norwegian descent named Kjell Qvale wrote to the editor complaining that the paper was supporting “militants and lawbreakers” and warning of a “bloody confrontation” if society didn’t shape up. This rant might be read as a reactionary piece of fretting typical of the late 1960s, but Rodelli saw an ominous voice. He learned everything he could about the author, spoke to him directly, concluded he was likely the Zodiac Killer, and has compiled 18 years of painstaking research into a book recently published on Kindle: The Hunt for Zodiac: The Inconceivable Double Life of a Notorious Serial Killer.
After discovering the forgotten Chronicle letter, Rodelli’s next logical step was to find a photograph of Qvale from the late 1960s to compare it to the best police sketch taken from witnesses who saw him fleeing from his final murder.
Qvale’s home in Pacific Heights was a few blocks from where the cabdriver had been murdered. Rodelli then tried to trap Qvale into giving him a handwriting sample by sending him an innocuous question through the mail. But he received only a typed note in response. Curiously enough, it was written on an unusual trim size of stationery known as Monarch — a bit smaller than ordinary typing paper — that had been the same kind favored by the Zodiac in his letters to the newspapers.
Rodelli had passed his thick file — along with the envelope from Qvale with what he hoped would contain fingerprints and saliva DNA — to the San Francisco police. They only brushed him off, as had the Napa County Sheriff’s Office. I couldn’t blame them. Here was one of an estimated 3,000 suspects that had been suggested by detectives and amateurs alike over the last 30 years, in a once-glitzy case whose evidence had been shoved into lockers long ago. Qvale was also not your average homicide suspect: he had been one of the West Coast’s biggest importers of MGs, Jaguars, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, and Austin-Healeys.
But Rodelli’s obsession and the enduring interest in the case gave me the hook I needed for a feature article on how amateur investigators keep the memory of the Zodiac alive. I was, of course, 30 years late to the story, but what struck me most while recapping all this was how lame these actual murders were compared to the level of thought Zodiac had put into creating a public persona. Two teenagers shot in their car in Benicia, California; a similar slaying in Vallejo, California, in which the killer emptied bullets into a car in a lovers’ lane; a picnicking couple at a lake attacked by a costumed man wielding a knife; a final execution-style murder of a San Francisco cabbie. In the heartless logic that governs media attention, these wouldn’t have gotten much attention from the newspapers. But the pure weirdness of the way Zodiac talked about himself gave it marquee status. I found a criminal behavior specialist who told me: “In no way was he a genius, except as a marketing genius.” Like the Manson family murders in Los Angeles, they caught a wave of social anxiety about the permissiveness and liberalization of the 1960s. The gleeful nihilism of the anonymous killer, as expressed in his creepy letters, seemed like the face of evil that resisted all negotiation or explanation.
Now I was in the position of having to go down to Qvale’s luxury automobile dealership on Van Ness Avenue without calling in advance and asking him the equivalent of, “Um, excuse me, I’m from the Chronicle and I was wondering if there was any chance you might happen to be the Zodiac Killer?” That day, I told several people where I was going to be before walking over to the showroom and taking a deep breath.
I told the receptionist who I was, asked to speak with the boss, and Qvale came out a few minutes later, an affable-looking silver-haired man of means, 81 years old. I asked him if we might go into a side office, where, embarrassed and guilty, I told him of Rodelli’s accusation and asked for a response.
He paused, then stood up, stretched his hands out in front of him, and rubbed them together. Then he began to pace back and forth, his lips thin. I wondered if this could be seen as a sign of guilt. I also wondered if I would have reacted any differently if, out of the blue, somebody from the metropolitan newspaper had — in effect — accused me of committing a notorious murder outside my own house.
Finally, Qvale laughed. “You can’t find anybody in this city that’s less likely to be the Zodiac Killer than me,” he said. “I haven’t hit anybody since I was a kid. It’s goofy.” He said of Rodelli: “He has nothing. This is all circumstantial nonsense in his eyes. I have a lot of assets to bring to bear, and that son of a bitch is going to be sorry he did it.” I wrote about this.
Qvale never did sue Rodelli. In fact, he agreed to meet him in person five years after I left the Chronicle. Over the phone, he displayed the same affability and charm that he had shown me in person, as though he were cheerfully giving street directions to a young man who had lost his way. Rodelli described these conversations “like old friends renewing acquaintances.”
But he wasn’t as friendly in person on September 27, 2006, when Rodelli went into the dealership, along with a retired detective from the Vallejo police named Jim Dean. They came forearmed with one of the truly rare elements of the Zodiac story: a new fragment of information. An SFPD officer named Armond Pelissetti, who had canvassed the neighborhood the night of the cab driver’s murder, had confirmed he briefly had spoken that night with a man out walking his dog, asked him if he had seen anything unusual, and then moved on. He indicated the dog walker had been Qvale.
Then followed a truly bizarre meeting, in which Rodelli first apologized to Qvale for the nature of the conversation and then hit him with the entire investigative file, running him through a series of questions. Qvale said it wasn’t him that the officer talked to that night, as he hardly ever walked his dog; he claimed never to have touched a firearm, despite serving in World War II; he said he had “no idea” where he was on the dates of the other murders that didn’t happen near his house; that he didn’t even read the thick report of circumstantial evidence that Rodelli had compiled for him. There wasn’t much to go on, but Rodelli found him slippery on details, and not vigorously protesting his innocence. But what was he supposed to do? That seemed to be that.
Qvale died in 2013, four years after having taken up piano lessons at the age of 90. The New York Times eulogized him as “one of the earliest American importers of European cars, ultimately selling a million automobiles as a distributor and dealer.” Having failed to persuade any law enforcement agency to interrogate him, Rodelli decided to marshal together all his research into the Kindle where it can be considered an artifact of crime history, one of the most impressive public briefs ever compiled on the approximately 2,500 people who have been identified as Zodiac suspects, both during the red-hot period of the active investigation and the inevitable chill that followed.
This is probably the right place to disclose that I have stayed in occasional touch with Rodelli via email and gave him some advice as to how to find a literary agent. He also described my Chronicleinterview with Qvale in his narrative. When his book published, I gave it a nice review on Amazon. Because if nothing else, it serves a monument to persistence and a record of dogged tenacity.
Rodelli studied to be an oceanographer and spent a few years mucking about in Malaysian swamps looking for mangroves before he found a career in telecommunications, and later in advertising copywriting. The logical cast of his mind helped inform his research.
He has vacuumed up every available scrap of information about Qvale from the public record and put it on display. We learn about his birth in Trondheim, Norway (whoa — an official sister city to Vallejo, a Zodiac murder site), his automobile business (he autographed a few cars with a felt pen, just like the murderer), loads of head-spinning details about significant dates in his life (two murders happened on the anniversaries of his parent’s dates of deaths), the geometry of his Presidio Heights neighborhood (a little similar to the killer’s drawing of a bus bomb), even the exterior pattern on one of his car factories in Italy (which looks sort of like the murderer’s logo). For an amateur investigator, Rodelli is more thorough than most district attorneys, and for an amateur writer, he tells a thoroughly absorbing story of sifting through obscure records and playing a cat-and-mouse game that lasts 18 years.
Part of what makes it all so appealing is Rodelli’s mixture of obsessive drive combined with a surprising humility. He acknowledges at several points when he is out of his depth — he admits he is no trained interrogator when he goes to face Qvale and wishes at many points that the actual police would take over for him. He does not arrogantly proclaim that he has solved the case; only that he believes his suspect to be especially compelling. A reader senses his discomfort at possessing a conviction that others have not embraced. This makes his incomplete journey of discovery almost as compelling as the Zodiac himself — a rare literary act in the true crime genre, which tends to demand neat endings and clearly defined characters.
This isn’t to say that his book is perfect. There is seemingly no detail of Qvale’s life that doesn’t seem shaded for maximum ominous value, down to the names of his racehorses Gun Barrel and Skystalker. As the protagonist of his own detective story, Rodelli also creates an overcooked sense of melodrama around his discoveries. “I felt a chill suddenly pass through me,” he writes at one point. “The hair on the back of my neck immediately stood up,” he says another time. Through most of the book, however, he keeps a check on the pulpy prose and builds his case from fact.
What always appealed to me about Rodelli’s thesis — from a strictly literary point of view, as opposed to anything forensic — was the way it linked the nastiest elements of society to the aristocrats, a bit like the 1996 graphic novel From Hell, which postulated that Jack the Ripper, who stalked prostitutes in the scuzzy Whitechapel neighborhood, was one of Queen Victoria’s physicians. It weirdly speaks to the hidden unity of a population — the aristocrats are intrinsically connected with the dregs, no matter how much wealth and segregation may divide them.
Another compelling feature, common to all Zodiac resurrections: The case is firmly embedded in the distinct anxieties and contradictions of late 1960s San Francisco, which was a conservative and conventional town in many ways, despite the famous hippie superstructure. The Zodiac’s world is a lost one of rotary dial phones, ubiquitous cigarettes, men’s sideburns, plaid jackets, lovers’ lanes, jazzy speech, and bulbous car hoods. It was also an era in which physical newspapers were king, and readers hung on their content.
Mystery novels in which the killer leaves riddles, codes, or some version of a scavenger hunt also owe their modernist inspiration to the Zodiac, whose very name taps into an arcane demi-world of secret meanings and gnostic texts. The four ciphers he sent to Bay Area newspapers were full of strange symbols. Only one of them was ever cracked, significantly not by police but by a schoolteacher in Salinas. It reads like the rant of an uneducated psychopath. Here is the text, complete with misspellings:
I like killing people because it is so much fun it is more fun than killing wild game in the forrest because man is the most dangeroue anamal of all to kill something gives me the most thrilling experence it is even better than getting your rocks off with a girl the best part of it is that when I die I will be reborn in paradice and all the (people) I have killed will become my slaves I will not give you my name because you will try to slow down or stop my collecting of slaves for my afterlife
This fantasy does not sound like one coming from a suave and educated importer of luxury cars, one who could charm even the eccentrics who walked into his marbled showroom. But perhaps such a gifted actor had the ability to shift his range for a particular audience, adopting the literary style of a murderous lunatic — with strangely British tics like “rather” and “the most” — even as he lived as a ordinary public citizen?
Whoever the Zodiac may have been, he deployed a similar obtuse and taunting tone in his uncoded letters. He filled them with enough eccentric tidbits to give armchair investigators a lifetime of leads to chase: references to the musical The Mikado and the novel Don Quixote; an eerie postcard sent to the Chronicle with the legends “peek through the pines” and “sought victims”; hints that future murder scenes could be determined by following radians keyed to the peak of Mount Diablo; a pleading letter to celebrity attorney Melvin Belli; brags about his victims; promises to wipe out more if the public didn’t start wearing lapel buttons with his trademark circle and crosshairs logo. When he killed a woman and severely wounded her male companion on the shores of Lake Berryessa, he wore a white KKK-like costume bearing this logo. Then he penned a note on the car door, noting the dates of previous killings: Vallejo 12-20-68, 7-4-69 Sept 27—69—6:30 by knife.
Like many of the amateur Zodiac investigators, Rodelli got hooked on the case not from contemporaneous memories — he was 13 when most of it was going on — but from a book published in 1987, the foundational Zodiac: The Shocking True Story of the Nation’s Most Bizarre Mass Murderer by former Chronicle editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith, which has sold nearly four million copies.
Graysmith worked in the noirish clipper ship of the Chroniclebuilding when the letters began arriving. His book is structured like a timeline, progressing from the first canonical shooting at Lake Herman Road on December 20, 1968, all the way to the frustrating fizzile as the killings stopped, the letters halted, and the era faded away.
“At first, I was merely fascinated by the purely visual qualities of Zodiac’s symbols,” he writes in the introduction. “Then, gradually, a resolve grew within me to unravel the killer’s clues, to discover his true identity, and failing that, at least to present every scrap of evidence available so that someday someone might recognize the Zodiac killer.”
Graysmith’s book was the source material for the 2007 film Zodiac, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. One of its most fascinating elements to me is the role played by time. The active period of the murders lasted no more than 16 months, but the speculation, frustration, and the pursuit of thin leads continues to this day. Characters in the film seem to age before us; they sift the same evidentiary sand with the same disappointing results. The Zodiac mystery never resolves. Perhaps this is a part of his evergreen lure.
I don’t think that it is a coincidence that Graysmith’s narrative spends only its first third in the 1968–’69 period when the murders were actually taking place. The bulk of the book — and the secret of the enduring interest in the Zodiac — lies in the ensuing quietude, and the dreadful chasm of the future. As Graysmith points out, the killer was almost caught multiple times and seemed, via his letters, to wish for a spectacular capture and a show trial. But it never happened. He may have been killed by accident or suicide. Or he may have faded into retirement like Wichita’s BTK Killer or Sacramento’s Golden State Killer after his psychosis ran out of youthful fuel. What’s left is a sizable cottage industry dedicated to him that thrives on the open question. There are now at least half a dozen websites and message boards that get regular traffic from armchair investigators and at least 35 published nonfiction books about the case, many of which feature the killer’s cross-and-circle logo on the cover, some of them which put forward various suspects. Graysmith himself was convinced Zodiac was really an oil refinery worker named Arthur Leigh Allen. He also hypothesized that up to 44 unsolved Bay Area killings — most of them with women as victims — might have been the handicraft of his subject.
The San Francisco police thought they might still be holding a thin fragment of his biological essence — some old DNA recovered from possible saliva on the stamp and envelope of one of his letters. Such technology wasn’t available in the era of rotary phones and leaded gasoline when the murders were taking place. But the San Francisco police have since acknowledged that the DNA sample appears to be “background” material that could have come from any of the hundred hands that touched the letter, and that Zodiac might not have ever licked his own stamps.
“If there is one key word for the entire story of the Zodiac mystery, it is obsession,” wrote Graysmith. One of his closest readers, Mike Rodelli, has poured much of his life into pursuing a theory he believes correct, in hopes of finally answering a great American riddle that remains officially unanswered.
When I first met him in the Chronicle conference room, he was 44; he is now 62. Most of the key investigators and witnesses are dead, and those that remain have fuzzy memories. If the killer himself is still alive, he would be 85 at the very youngest. And unless Qvale left a diary of his purported crimes in an attic somewhere, or if the police of the distant future are somehow able to do a better DNA analysis of the Zodiac letters and match it to Qvale’s relatives, Rodelli will never live to see his suspicions either validated or dismissed for certain.
After having gone over Rodelli’s voluminous file representing 18 years of digging, do I think that the affable — even presidential — Kjell Qvale could have been living a double life and been out killing teenagers when he wasn’t selling Bentleys? I don’t know. I’ll probably never know. The ambiguity has kept the story of the Zodiac alive for half a century, and the enduring dilemma — an answer dangling just out of sight — recalls that of the 2001 film The Pledge in which a police detective played by Jack Nicholson makes a promise to grieving parents to catch their daughter’s killer, and spends decades chasing a suspect only to lose him in the end. The viewers of the film are permitted to know what the protagonist isn’t: he was right all along.
In an even broader sense, this frustration captures man’s existential dilemma in a Platonic universe of unknowable absolutes. Truth exists. Answers exist. A hard foundation of reality exists underneath a concealing fog. But humans will not always see it.