Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story depicted in David Fincher’s Zodiac, paying special attention to some of the real events not depicted in the movie.
It goes without saying that David Fincher‘s best movie, Zodiac, takes its inspiration from a true story. Reviewers praised it for its historically accurate depiction of the hunt, by journalists, law enforcement, and the public, for the serial killer known as the Zodiac, who tormented the San Francisco Bay Area beginning in the late 1960s.
Fincher’s movie is based on two books by cartoonist-turned-journalist Robert Graysmith: Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith on screen. Because the movie so closely follows the real events, an article dedicated to those events would function too much like a plot summary. Instead, this column takes a look at some of the parts of the true story that Zodiac does not depict. We also look at the recent gains investigators have made in their search for the infamous Zodiac Killer.
The First Confirmed Zodiac Killing
On December 20, 1968, David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen went on their first — and tragically their last — date. The two teenagers went to different high schools in Vallejo, California, and had only known one another for a couple of weeks. According to SF Weekly, Jensen wore “a purple dress with a Christmas bell brooch pinned to its white collar” when she introduced her parents to David before they attended a holiday concert at Betty’s school.
After a brief stop at a friend’s house, the young couple made their way to the concert and had planned to be home by 11. After leaving the school, Faraday drove his station wagon to one of the area’s “lover’s lanes,” a private area near a pumping station.
When police arrived on the scene, they found Faraday outside the passenger door with a gunshot wound above his ear, still breathing. But by the time they arrived at the hospital, he was dead. Police found Jensen’s body 28 feet from the vehicle. She had five bullet wounds in her back and two in the front.
Police wrongly assumed the motive was jealousy or drugs. They couldn’t solve the case. Months later, on July 5, 1969, they got a lead when another young couple was shot while parked on another lover’s lane in the same area. After that second shooting, a man calling himself the Zodiac called the Vallejo police department. “I also killed those kids last year,” he told the dispatch.
That second killing is where David Fincher’s movie begins.
The Real Dave Toschi
In David Fincher’s Zodiac, Mark Ruffalo plays police officer Dave Toschi. Known for his Dandyish outfits, Toschi is a hungry dude in more ways than one. He’s always eating, always looking for the next piece of information, always wanting to solve the case.
His New York Times obituary describes him as “colorful.” Literally. According to Toschi’s daughter, he always wore a colored shirt, never a white one.
Toschi also served as the inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s character in the Dirty Harry film franchise, Inspector Harry Callahan. And Steve McQueen based the police officer he plays in the 1968 movie Bullitt on Toschi. His dress and choice of a quick-draw holder for his .38-caliber pistol, according to SFGate, drew McQueen’s attention.
Ruffalo’s Toschi attends a screening of Dirty Harry in Fincher’s movie. And just as he did in real life, he walks out of the screening not happy with Callahan’s cavalier attitude. Ruffalo, who spent time with Toschi before his death in 2018, told Collider:
“He couldn’t take it. It was so simplified. He was in the middle of one of the biggest cases in the United States at the time and they were having no movement on it and he knew they had a mountain of evidence and it took them nine months to get a search warrant to toss the guy’s trailer…I think that was frustrating for him.”
Was Arthur Leigh Allen the Zodiac Killer?
Much of David Fincher’s Zodiac concerns Toschi’s — and later Graysmith’s — fixation on a man named Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), one of the leading suspects in the case. The movie ends with Mike Mageau (Jimmi Simpson), a survivor of the Zodiac’s second killing, identifying Allen as the killer. But he does point to another man’s face, saying the killer’s face was rounder than Allen’s, thus leaving room for doubt.
And in real life, doubt still remains.
In the years that followed, other witnesses, including a police officer, said Allen did not equal the killer they had spotted in weight. Allen died in 1992. Days later, police secured another warrant to search his apartment.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, a decade later, in 2002, police conducted a DNA test to try and find the killer. They took genetic traces from the envelopes the killer used to send his letters. Kelly Carroll, one of the investigators in the case, made it clear:
“Arthur Leigh Allen does not match the partial DNA fingerprint developed from bona fide Zodiac letters.”
A number of other suspects have been named and publicly discussed. But of course, the Zodiac has not been found.
The 2020 Breakthrough
Journalists and investigators are destined to follow the case of the Zodiac forever. In 2020, a team of experts from three countries solved one of the killer’s notorious ciphers, 51 years after he first sent the message.
The so-called “340 cipher” was solved, according to CNN, by Virginia software developer David Oranchak, Belgian computer programmer Jarl Van Eycke, and Australian mathematician Sam Blake.
Zodiac’s “340 cipher” comes after one of the best moments in David Fincher’s movie. Famous attorney Melvin Belli (Brian Cox) appears on television to talk with the killer over the phone in real-time. The man who calls in talks about being sick and his fear of being sent to the gas chamber for his crimes. Shortly thereafter, authorities trace the call and find that it was not the Zodiac who phoned into the program.
The cipher decoded by experts in 2020 responds to such events. The killer wrote, via the Washington Post:
I HOPE YOU ARE HAVING LOTS OF FUN IN TRYING TO CATCH ME
THAT WASNT ME ON THE TV SHOW
WHICH BRINGS UP A POINT ABOUT ME
I AM NOT AFRAID OF THE GAS CHAMBER
BECAUSE IT WILL SEND ME TO PARADICE ALL THE SOONER
BECAUSE I NOW HAVE ENOUGH SLAVES TO WORK FOR ME
WHERE EVERYONE ELSE HAS NOTHING WHEN THEY REACH PARADICE
SO THEY ARE AFRAID OF DEATH
I AM NOT AFRAID BECAUSE I KNOW THAT MY NEW LIFE IS
LIFE WILL BE AN EASY ONE IN PARADICE DEATH
After they decoded the message, the team sent it to the FBI. According to the Washington Post, the FBI publicly acknowledged the citizens’ contributions. A spokeswoman said:
“The Zodiac Killer case remains an ongoing investigation for the FBI San Francisco division and our local law enforcement partners.”
Watch Zodiac now on Hoopla or wherever you rent or buy movies online.
Related Topics: Real Stories