Getting Away With Murder: ‘Zodiac’ Tracks An Elusive Killer

What if the brutal assassin were around today? Experts and film's star say he wouldn't stand a chance.

Nicknamed the Zodiac Killer, one of America’s most notorious serial murderers claimed responsibility for as many as 37 deaths while terrorizing the San Francisco area in the 1960s and ’70s. As brilliant as he was terrifying, the Zodiac Killer has baffled police for nearly 40 years.

And he’s never been caught.

But what if Zodiac, the subject of a new film from director David Fincher (see “Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo Hunt Ultimate Serial Killer in ’Zodiac’ “ ), were active today?

“The case would have been over in 30 minutes,” insisted Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle during Zodiac’s initial reign and the author of the book “Zodiac.” “We would have formed a task force and we would have shared our information. He wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

(Watch six clips from the upcoming thriller, including one exclusive.)

Zodiac toyed with police by sending coded ciphers to several area newspapers, promising that his true identity would be revealed to whoever cracked the intricate code.

Graysmith (played in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal) claims to have solved one of Zodiac’s later ciphers. As expected, however, the purported solution got investigators no closer to figuring out who Zodiac really was.

Star Mark Ruffalo (Inspector David Toschi) thinks that was by design — that the ciphers were an ingenious method of keeping the police one step behind.

“No one had used the media in the way that this guy had done. He actually had most of the community trying to solve the case. Those ciphers were like the Sunday crossword puzzle for people — everybody and their sister were trying to figure it out,” Ruffalo argued. “The Chronicle’s circulation doubled overnight by putting Zodiac on the cover. But he was running the show.”

According to Ruffalo, that would all be different today. “They wouldn’t keep egging him on by printing stuff. They would have been running the media in a way that [drew] him out,” like many papers’ refusal to print the Unabomber’s so-called “Manifesto,” Ruffalo said. “[But] they didn’t know how to handle it back then.”

It’s specifically because of Zodiac that police today would have a better shot at catching him, writer James Vanderbilt asserted, because Zodiac changed the way police cooperate with other investigative agencies.

“Zodiac killed in three or four different jurisdictions, and it was really tough for the police to coordinate everything,” he said. “The reason FBI task forces exist in these situations is because of the Zodiac case.”

Zodiac also benefited from living in an era well before DNA evidence could be used to link a suspect to a crime, something that would have led to his quick arrest today, Graysmith said.

“He called the Napa Police Department after he’d come down from stabbing the kids at Lake Berryessa, and [when police traced the call and found the phone booth he was using], the phone is still wet from his sweat,” Graysmith recalled.

“They came that close,” he sighed.

“Zodiac” opens nationwide March 2.

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