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IS THE ZODIAC KILLER STILL OUT THERE? EXCLUSIVE Film relives horror of West Coast America's most notorious murderer.. an occult-obsessed monster who was never caught.

Byline: By DEBORAH SHERWOOD and BARRY WIGMORE in San Francisco

FOR nearly 40 years America has been gripped by the search for a notorious serial killer - a fiend in an occult costume who preyed on courting couples and left bizarre coded messages at the scenes of his crimes.

He claimed to have killed 37 people and was dubbed the "Zodiac Killer" because of the weird symbols on his notes.

Chillingly, he was never caught. Police had a prime suspect but never found enough evidence to charge him.

So when that man died of a heart attack the case was all but closed.

Now a EUR43million Hollywood movie has brought the killings back into the limelight - and raised the possibility that the real killer is still living in one of the West Coast communities he terrorised for years.

During research into the film, a letter posted in 1990 was found in the archives of a San Francisco newspaper. It was similar to one sent by Zodiac in the early-70s and was sent from a town called Eureka in North California.

The letter has been linked to a man now known to have been living in the San Francisco Bay area where the killings took place in the 1960s.

Tom Voigt, who runs website zodiackiller.com - which gets up to four million hits a month - has since spoken to him on the phone... and believes he could be the killer.

Inquiries are still going on, but in the meantime America has again been gripped by the murders - thanks to the new film Zodiac, starring Jake Gyllenhaal of Jarhead and Brokeback Mountain fame.

It has already won rave reviews in the States and is due to open here on May 18.

The nickname Zodiac Killer came about because the murderer signed letters to newspapers with a cross over a circle that looked like a sign from the Zodiac - and even wore a sinister costume with a similar sign on it during his attacks.

The film tells how the Zodiac killings began in September 1968 and then went on for nearly 12 terrifying months in the Bay area - then the heartland of the Sixties peace and love movement.

The maniac tended to target couples in out-of-the-way places.

His first victims are thought to have been David Faraday, 17, and Betty Jensen, 16, who were shot in Benicia, California.

Darlene Ferrin, 22, and Michael Mageau, 19, were shot in July, 1969, in a golf course car park in nearby Vallejo. Then, in September, 1969, Zodiac attacked a young couple picnicking at a beauty spot outside San Francisco called Lake Berryessa - later to be known by locals as Zodiac Island.

The killer tied up the couple then stabbed them.

The girl, Cecelia Shepard, died. Her boyfriend, Bryan Hartnell, survived. He was able to tell police the killer carried a .45 pistol and wore a medieval executioner-style costume with a black hood.

He had clip-on sunglasses over the eye-holes and a bib-like jacket over his chest with a white 3ins Zodiac symbol on it.

His last victim is thought to have been cab driver Paul Stine, who picked up the Zodiac Killer in October, 1969 - and was shot in the head at a road junction. The Zodiac phenomenon has already spawned bestselling books and documentaries while thousands of amateur detectives have tried to piece together the clues. In the new film, Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, a multimillionaire San Francisco crimewriter and cartoonist.

Graysmith's obsession began when the first letter from the killer arrived on August 1, 1969 while he was a cartoonist on the San Francisco Chronicle. The letter described two murder scenes with details only the killer could know - and threatened more killings if a coded message he also sent was not published. He claimed the message - a cryptogram with 408 characters - contained his identity. He sent other letters - all saying "This is the Zodiac speaking....." - which threatened bombings and child murders.

One included a diagram of a bomb he said he would put on a school bus. Most of his codes have never been worked out - and the killer has never been officially identified. Graysmith looked at the first note and became obsessed. He felt this would become one of America's great murder mysteries and wanted to solve it.

He also proved a big help to murder hunt chief Detective Inspector Dave Toschi, who realised that Graysmith could follow up leads freely in other police jurisdictions where he could not go officially. Graysmith and Toschi, played in the film by Mark Ruffalo, became convinced that the Zodiac Killer was Arthur Leigh Allen, 58, a weird loner with an IQ close to brilliant who had served time for child molesting.

He worked in a branch of Ace Hardware stores in Fresno, California.

Graysmith started following Allen. At 2am, after work at the paper, he would park his car outside Allen's basement flat to see if he went out looking for new people to kill.

When police took Zodiac victim Bryan Hartnell to the store where Allen worked, Allen blurted out "I thought you were dead" and ran out the back of the shop. But prosecutors decided it was circumstantial evidence and not enough to build a case on.

In 1992 Allen died of a heart attack. When Graysmith and Toschi went to his basement flat, they found live bombs like the bus bomb Zodiac described in one letter. They also found a survival manual with an ad in it for a bomb disposal suit - which looked like a mediaeval costume with a helmet that was squared off across the top.

SINCE Allen's death there have been no similar murders and no Zodiac letters.

And despite the possible new suspect, Graysmith is still convinced he was the killer - and is certain DNA tests now being carried out will prove it.

He said last week: "Allen was definitely the Zodiac Killer. If he was still alive, we'd have received a letter from him by now.

"He'd want to gloat. All this publicity around the film is what he dreamed of. He wouldn't have been able to resist it."

Graysmith was dumped by two wives who could not live with his obsession and now lives in a tiny flat in San Francisco stacked with boxes containing his files on the case. His book, Zodiac Unmasked, is the basis of the movie.

He and Toschi are still in touch and went to see the movie together when it came out in the States earlier this year.

It isn't the first time Toschi has found fame. With his black turtleneck jumpers and huge .38 Cobra automatic in its quick-release shoulder holster, he was the model for Steve McQueen in Bullitt.

Clint Eastwood's Inspector Harry Callaghan was also modelled on Toschi in the first Dirty Harry film, which portrayed the Zodiac Killer as a spaced-out hippy nutcase.

Whether the movie, which also stars Robert Downey Jnr, flushes out another possible Zodiac Killer, or leads to new clues about one of America's most feared murderers, is unclear. Yet it remains one of the most terrifying reallife stories to hit the screen in years.

d.sherwood@mgn.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

Killed... Darlene Ferrin; Killed... Cecelia Shepard; Killed... David Faraday; Killed... Paul Stine; Killed... Betty Jensen; Survived... Bryan Hartnell; Celluloid sleuths... Robert Downey Jnr and Jake Gyllenhaal in the new Zodiac film; Shadow of death... Golden Gate Bridge towers over murder scenes. Above, one of the killer's codes; America's most wanted... poster of Zodiac Killer; Obsessed... Graysmith
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Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 22, 2007
Words:1253
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