A Killer Obsession

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2007


Robert Graysmith is like a character from one of his true crime thrillers. That would be the eccentric, obsessed writer, your classic archetype, the brilliant nutter who lives in a studio apartment filled with 2,500 pounds of notes and doesn't answer his own phone. Leaning into the wind, head cocked, Graysmith is now scuttling through downtown, giving a quickie tour of the macabre, his Greatest Hits of the Zodiac.

"Zodiac" being the real 1968 serial killer who was never caught (though he was portrayed as a deranged hippie freak in the 1971 "Dirty Harry" vigilante film), which then became "Zodiac," the 1986 Graysmith book that sold 4 million copies, which then became "Zodiac," the movie about the killer (and Graysmith) that opens nationwide on Friday and stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr.

"Here's the St. Francis," Graysmith says. He points to the hotel on Union Square. "That's where Stine was idling in his taxi." That would be Paul Lee Stine, then 29 years old, working for the Yellow Cab Co. as he pursued a graduate degree in English lit at San Francisco State. Married. No kids. Graysmith ticks off these facts as if they were from a police blotter. You want to know the cab number? Graysmith could tell you it was 912. Significant?

"LeRoy Sweet, the dispatcher, sent him to Lake Street." He gives us the exact address, but we can't take notes fast enough to keep up. Graysmith is a speed talker. Stine was flagged down right here, in the theater district. Graysmith points. The Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera "Mikado" was playing. Another clue? "This was Harold's News Stand." Now it's not. "Here's where the killer got in, rear, driver's side." He can go on like this forever.

The Zodiac shot Stine in the head at the intersection of Cherry and Washington in the posh Presidio Heights neighborhood. Oct. 11, 1969. "That's Columbus Day," Graysmith says. "Hey, I never thought of that before. Another holiday." Zodiac murdered two teenagers on the Fourth of July. Another teenage girl right before Christmas. Hmmmm.

Careful. You are in danger of falling down the rabbit hole with Graysmith on perhaps the greatest cold case ever, the bizarre and theatrical and still-unsolved serial murders by a real-life ghoul who called himself Zodiac, who claimed in letters to have killed 37 people (though police have focused on five homicides and two attempted murders in the greater Bay Area in 1968 and 1969).

How bizarre? He wrote taunting letters to the police, like Jack the Ripper. He claimed his victims would be his slaves in paradise. He mailed a Happy Halloween card to the Chronicle reporter covering the case. He sent cryptograms to the newspapers. The FBI could not crack them; a high school teacher did.

Creepy? He wore a costume. In broad daylight, at Lake Berryessa in Napa County, Zodiac stabbed a couple while wearing a medieval executioner's outfit, all in black, with a hood and his trademark insignia -- a circle with a cross -- neatly sewn onto his chest. The woman died.

Graysmith was a new editorial cartoonist working at the San Francisco Chronicle when the first Zodiac letter arrived at the paper in Aug. 1, 1969, and Graysmith just happened to be in the meeting when the envelope was handed to the editor. The letter accurately described two murder scenes and promised more if the cipher was not published.

"I looked at the small printing on the letter," Graysmith wrote in "Zodiac." "Primarily, I felt rage at the coldness, arrogance and insanity of the murderer." Rage -- and fascination. "Irretrievably hooked, immediately obsessed, I wanted to solve what I felt was to become one of the great mysteries."

Obsessed? Boy, he is not kidding. In the beginning, Graysmith was only peripherally involved with the Zodiac case. The story belonged to veteran crime reporter Paul Avery, played in the movie with flamboyant verve as a hard-drinking, drug-snorting hotshot by Downey. Zodiac sent him a card, "PEEK-A-BOO -- YOU ARE DOOMED!," and his colleagues at the paper donned campaign-style buttons that read "I Am Not Paul Avery." You can't make this stuff up.

The San Francisco investigator assigned to the case was already famous: Dave Toschi (Ruffalo), with his .38 Cobra in its quick-release shoulder holster and his black turtlenecks, was the model for Steve McQueen in "Bullitt."

But Graysmith? He really went deep into the Zodiac wormhole. The cartoonist spent a decade researching and writing his first (of two) Zodiac books. He kept his job at the Chronicle until 1983 -- he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize six times by the paper for un-Zodiac-related cartooning -- but Zodiac consumed him. He'd sit in the front window of the Owl and the Monkey cafe. "They let me sit there for 10 years," Graysmith recalls. When the place closed (it's now a health food joint), the owners gave him his table, chair, coffee cup and tray, as mementos.

Graysmith has written seven books, including one about the murder of "Hogan's Heroes" star Bob Crane, which became the movie "Autofocus," and another about the Unabomber. In his two Zodiac books, Graysmith is barely present as the narrator. But in the film, he is a central character. When James Vanderbilt, the screenwriter, pitched the movie to Mike Medavoy of Phoenix Pictures, he says, "I asked him to imagine what it would be like if Garry Trudeau had decided to crack the Son of Sam case. Robert isn't a cop hunting a killer. He's a cartoonist hunting a killer."

When Vanderbilt met Graysmith, "he was nothing like I'd expected from reading the books. He was much more incredibly quirky. And kind of heroic." Like how? "Well, he's got this great mind, right? But here he is chasing around the real suspect, the guy he thinks is the Zodiac killer, while driving this bright orange VW rabbit, which is probably not the smartest thing to do."

Between 1973 and 1983, Graysmith interviewed hundreds of people about the case, and reviewed their police statements, including two of the survivors of Zodiac, one who had repeatedly been shot (and became a vagabond) and the other repeatedly stabbed (who became a lawyer). By the late 1970s the Zodiac case had gone cold. There were 2,500 suspects. Eventually his studio apartment contained more than one ton of material. Boxes to the ceiling. The police let him examine files, he says, hoping that he would turn something up, that he could do things as a private citizen that they couldn't do without probable cause and warrants.

Among his investigative techniques? Pure will. Once, Graysmith came across a phone number in a victim's handwriting. Instead of just dialing the number, wary of tipping off whoever would answer, Graysmith went through the Vallejo phone book. The entire phone book. Number by number.

Graysmith's first draft was 12,000 pages long. As he wrote, he edited not with a pen or pencil, but by cutting words out of the page with an artist's Xacto knife. What then? "I'd sweep them up, sort through them and throw most of them away," he says. Most? "Some I'd keep for later use."

With his editor, Graysmith went through 13 drafts. It took three years. His daughter Margot remembers spending weekends with her father in the apartment. "We'd watch cartoons, and he would type," she says.

Graysmith's first marriage ended before his obsession with Zodiac began; the case helped end his second. Graysmith remembers typing his first drafts on the backs of flea-market circulars to save money (for alimony and child support). Daughter Margot recalls gathering 350 pennies to go to the movies with her dad. Margot and two sons by his first wife are close. His ex-wife, who watched him lose it during the Zodiac case, remains a friend and attended the film premiere in San Francisco.

The "Zodiac" director David Fincher ("Fight Club" and "Se7en" ) recalls sending a copy of the script to Graysmith, "who read it, and said, 'Wow, so that's why my wife left me.' He could finally see himself as he was." Says Fincher, "I don't know if the Zodiac was made for Robert or Robert was made for the Zodiac."

In his books, and in the film, Graysmith identifies who he believes the Zodiac is -- a man named Arthur Leigh Allen. The police had interviewed Allen and searched his residences. He kept live squirrels. The evidence, though powerful, is circumstantial. Allen died of a heart attack in 1992. "I truly believe that we have the Zodiac," Graysmith says. "But there are some other good suspects." (If you're curious -- and have three weeks -- draw your own conclusions from Internet sleuthing.)

So what if he is wrong? "Let's assume we're all wrong, and he's not the guy," Graysmith says. He is sitting at a table, his two Zodiac books in front of him. He pushes them away. "If he's not the guy, I don't want to get near it." Why? Because Zodiac will suck him right back down the hole.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company