The 'Zodiac' Writer

Robert Graysmith, author of
Robert Graysmith, author of "Zodiac" and "Zodiac Unmasked" (Courtesy: Ben Margot, Associated Press) (Ben Margot - AP)
Robert Graysmith
Author, Editorial Cartoonist
Friday, March 9, 2007; 2:00 PM

Robert Graysmith, author of "Zodiac" and "Zodiac Unmasked," as well as five other true crime books, was online Friday, March 9, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss "Zodiac," a Warner Bros., Phoenix Pictures and Paramount film about a serial killer who stalked northern California for ten months in the late 1960s and whose name was coined for a series of taunting letters with cryptograms which he sent to The San Francisco Chronicle while Graysmith was a staff cartoonist. Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Graysmith in the movie which opened nationally last weekend.

A transcript follows.

Post Movie Review

A Killer Obsession: Robert Graysmith Was a Cartoonist Until the Zodiac Case Drew Him In


Robert Graysmith: Hi. I'm Robert Graysmith. I'm in San Francisco working out of the same studio where I wrote Zodiac over a ten year period back in the 1970s and early 1980s. It's a thrill to be interviewed by readers of the Washington Post, my favorite of all newspapers.


Los Angeles, Calif.: As a prime suspect, why was Leigh Allen's photo never shown in a line-up to the surviving July 4 victim (until decades later) or the lady with the baby whose car the Zodiac burned, or the witnesses at the party above the Stine crime scene, or the cops who stopped and released him near the Presidio after the Stine killing?

Robert Graysmith: That is a terrific question and the first most people ask about the case. It seems the most obvious course to obtain a conviction. Mike Mageau, the surviving victim from the July 4, 1969 shooting at Blue Rock Springs, was hospitalized with pins in his legs and wounds to his face and neck. He gave three interviewss with police and a public defender, then vanished from Vallejo after dying his hair and becoming a street person. For years we searched for him, convinced that Mike knew who Zodiac was. I received letters from health care workers who had crossed his path briefly and heard he was having a tough time.It was not until 1991 when Vallejo Det. George Bawart, a close friend of mind, tracked down Mike to a LA airport and was able for the first time show him a photo line up of five driver's license pictures of two suspects and fillers. "I gave Mageau the lineup admonishment," Bawart told me. "He looks at them 20, 30 seconds. Points to Arthur Leigh Allen and says, 'That's the man! That's the man who shot me at Blue Rock Springs!" Kathleen Johns, the woman who was kidnapped with her baby, was in hiding for ten years and I found her through a postmark on a Christmas card. I interviewed the babysitters but they were never shown a photo of any of the suspects since they saw only an owl-faced man in a car from a distance.


McLean, Va.: Do you believe the case will ever be solved to everyone's satisfaction? Or is "Zodiacology" doomed to be like "Ripperology", where books and theories will be spun for decades or centuries without any solid conclusion?

Robert Graysmith: I certainly hope so. I think with the attention of the new movie, new evidence might be uncovered. I am satisfied that Dave Toschi, Bawart, Capt. Conway and Lt. Jim Husted of Vallejo PD were right and that the Zodiac was Arthur Leigh Allen. But there is obviously much more to the case and this is what David Fincher the director and his team of detectives in Hollywood have been working toward for three years. Even though their new findings are not in the movie Zodiac, they are preparing a time line and still interviewing witnesses and unearthing documents. I think the fact that Allen was at Lake Berryesssa the day of the stabbings (there were only about ten people that day including Zodiac) is compelling. He admitted to being there a hour before in letters and to his fellow workers at the Sonoma Auto Parts store. He was already a suspect in the other Zodiac crimes and to get himself up to that remote lake the same time as Zodiac has to be more than coincidence.


Anonymous: The movie grabbed and held my attention for its (rather long) running length. SPOILER ALERT. However, I felt extremely unfulfilled at the end of the movie when the narrative revealed that the Zodiac killer was never found.

In hindsight and with the benefit of DNA testing (which the movie did not deal with), who do you think the Zodiac killer was? The DNA evidence seems to have ruled out Leigh, one of the main suspects, does it not?

Robert Graysmith: I would love to have viable DNA evidence, but the chain of custody was broken. It came about this way. The Zodiac letters, inside a cardboard box, were driven to Sacramento California by SFPD Homicide Inspector Jim Deasy in 1978 where they lay in Fred Shirasago's office for years and endured the sweltering heat of Sacramento summers. The letters were later returned to SFPD, having never been refrigerated, and taken from headquarters and into private hands, breaking the chain of custody. The television show who organized the testing obtained them from there. Who knows what DNA was picked up during that time. The DNA fragmentary print was obtained by a trace on the back on one envelope, on the front of the other, and the seal on the last. They were mixed and the result was tested to obtain the partial fingerprint. Still even if the DNA rules out Allen, even though he knew the victims and was near or at the crime scenes, it still not rule him out. In 1969 we did not have DNA, but we did have ABO-PGM which was a saliva test that could tell us the race, sex and bloodtype of the mailer, including whether he was secretor and so on. Leigh Allen was in the habit of mailing unsealed, unstamped letters from Prison inside envelopes he had stamped and sealed to have his friends stamp and seal the enclosed letter outside prison.


Benicia, Calif.: Why are they just now testing for DNA on some of the letters sent? Have they done any other DNA testing?

Robert Graysmith: Some DNA testing was done in 1988. Vallejo PD has just sent three letters to Sacramento for testing.


Arlington, Va.: What about the man who wrote the movie posters and who had almost identical handwriting to Zodiac (except for his K's)? Was he not pursued as a suspect any further?

Robert Graysmith: Bob Vaughn, though I have never used his name in print. Ken Narlow of Napa Sheriff's Office considered him completely innocent.


Seattle: How much of Avery's spiral (that is, the drinking, the drugs, the loss of job) was a result of his own obsesession with the Zodiac? That is, do you think he would've (or already had?) developed the same addictions?

Robert Graysmith: Avery was a former war correspondent and I think that the stress of that experience and the strain of the daily deadlines at the Chonicle made for a very addictive personality and more than a few reporters there sufferred similarly. He had an honest fear of Zodaic which I saw in many of his letters in which he said, "Zode is going to get me."


Raleigh, N.C.: What do you think motivates a human being to become a serial killer? What are the factors that go into the making of such a phenomenon?

Robert Graysmith: My guess is that they are missing something in their genetic makeup. Some serial killers think that a conscience is something others have made up to make them feel inferior. They most certainly have crossed wiring in dealing with love and violence. They replace one with the other.


Fairfax, Va.: How can you be so confident that you have the right killer? Do you ever worry that you're slandering an innocent man posthumously, especially in light of recent DNA information?

Robert Graysmith: In my previous answer I laid out the chronology of the path of the tested letters which were in private hands and outside the chain of police custody. And of course we handled them at the Chronicle. Every letter was handled by a photoengraver and made into a velox. The best detectives I know consider him the main suspect. I respect their opinion. As far a slander the late Leigh Allen was a child molester and I don't know how much lower you can fall than that. When Detective Bawart went into his basement in 1991 he found Allen's tapes of children screaming. My job was to keep the case alive, to make it vivid and to make certain that someone reading the book might have the answer to the puzzle.


Minneapolis, Minn.: I was impressed by the weight given to handwriting analysis. In contemporary TV crime fiction I don't recall it getting much attention. Is it still an important tool?

Robert Graysmith: David Fincher has hired handwriting experts and in their findings they looked at not the handwriting but the spaces between the letters, the misspellings and where the words were broken at odd places. These match the 150 receipe cards that the director found. It is an important clue, but also the great mystery of the Zodiac case. I worked with Sherwood Morrill and found him to be diligent. I though at first that Zodiac might be two men. This is why it is such a great mystery.


Arlington, Va.: Why wasn't the sister of the first woman murdered, who I believe you found in prison, shown a photographic lineup? She said she saw a man at her sister's party wearing a suit and sitting in the corner of the room and she rememberd his name was "Leigh."

Robert Graysmith: She and her sister Pam, long before San Francisco knew of Leigh Allen, were interviewed in San Jose by VPD. Sgt Lynch and put together a composite drawing. Yes you are right, the logical seemed to have been overlooked because so many of the 2500 suspects had been cleared by handwiting. Leigh Allen was on a typewritten guest list of I think 14 people that the police hand. I turned this over to David Fincher while he was conducting his own private investigation.


Fairfax, Va.: Were you with the filmmakers when they were making the movie?

Robert Graysmith: I was with them from the first day, while writing the script, considering casting and trying to get the movie made. I photographed and made hundreds of hours of audio tapes of Fincher, screenwriter Jamie Vanderbilt and producer Brad Fischer as they attempted over nearly two years to get their film green lighted. I compiled this in a book called SHOOTING ZODIAC, which ends where most Hollywood books begin. I might publish this someday, but I have another book in progress. But in the process of building their film all three became crackerjack detectives, finding new evidence such as a map of Lake Berryessa showing paved and gravel roads in and out of the area, the site of the murder and signed Arthur Leigh Allen.


Nashville, Tenn.: Don't mean to betray my own ignornance, but if his notes said solving the cryptograms would reveal his name, has anything come up as far as a key if you try to solve backwards using known suspects' names?

Robert Graysmith: There are still unsolved cryptograms. They are all printed in Zodiac (1986) and Zodiac Unmasked (2002). Give it a try. There is still so much to learn. Yes all the top ten suspects have been applied to the codes. Several work very well.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think the unsolved cryptograms mean anything?

Robert Graysmith: Yes. Writing the letters and ciphers eventually became Zodiac's true motive.


Freising, Germany: Was any thought ever given to a connection between the Zodiac killings and Charles Manson's group of hippies?

Robert Graysmith: Yes. Very seriously, as well as Anton LeVey's Church of Satan.


Phoenix, Ariz.: Any parts of the movie (or book) that ended up on the cutting room floor you would've liked to make it in? Not as a stab at Mr. Fincher, of course, who did a fabulous job, merely something there wasn't room for.

Robert Graysmith: I did like a scene I watched filmed in front of the Chronicle with Avery sleeping his car. It was funny and sarcastic and added much to Avery's character. Downey did a fantastic job. I was in AUTOFOCUS, a movie starring Greg Kinnear about Hogan's Heroes' star Bob Crane made from my book, but that ended up on the cutting room floor. I would like that back, but as far as Zodiac goes, it was near perfect and I promise you exactly like being there.


Reston, Va.: I recall that the movie says the fingerprints and DNA found at one or more crime scenes did not match that of Leigh Allen. Any thoughts?

Robert Graysmith: Yes, there are palm prints and the partials on Stine's cab that don't match anybody. Has there ever been a mystery like this? My best friend, Inspector Dave Toschi who lives nearby, and I have been going over that for nearly thirty years. The case has a million angles and I am glad to have left it behind to work on other projects. It will suck you in.


Los Angeles, Calif.: The film, and the people portrayed, seem very aware of the role media can play in generating "copy cat" killers. Did you have any of those concerns regarding the production and influence of this film? If not, why?

Robert Graysmith: Not too many. It has been nearly 40 years. I can't speak for the filmmakers who worked with the original officers and with the surviving victims and witnesses to make the best film possible. I waited until 1986 to publish my book Zodiac, about crimes in 1968-69, precisely for that reason. I waited until 2002 to do the follow up. None of us take this case lightly. I think the possibility that we might learn something new is important and outweighs the danger of an imitator. Long after I published my first book, we had Zodiac copycats in New York and Japan. The book was not widely available then so that was not why they became copycats. The visual and arcane aspects of the Zodiac appeal to a certain type of mind.


Washington, D.C.: Where does "Zodiac" end and where does "Zodiac Unmasked" pick up?

Robert Graysmith: I spent three years editing Zodiac, after 13 drafts of 1200 pages to 317, to be certain we were on safe legal grounds. I changed some dates and the names of the three suspects. That book ends in 1983. Zodiac Unmasked takes up with the actual name of Allen, new information, and brings us to the death of Paul Avery and Det. George Bawart finally finding the missing witness, Mike Mageau. David Fincher has carried the case forward by locating statements by the Washington and Stine witness and the officer who passed Zodiac who identified Allen as the man they saw. I located witnesses at Berryessa who identified Allen as being at the lake that day--the son of the now deceased dentist and one of the college women.


The Stars: Hello Robert,

One more question. You certainly became all consumed by this case. How do we know that YOU are not the Zodiac!?

Robert Graysmith: In those days I weighed 145 (mainly from the stress of the search) was shorter and had much bigger feet. I have none of the killers skills--chemistry, sewing, cryptography, criminology, bombmaking, electronics, but, and I just thought of this the other day, I think Zodiac may have been a cartoonist. Look at the skeleton death threat card to Avery. The pumpkin on the front covering the pelvis of the printed skeleton and the brushwork and skeleton on the interior were drawn by Zodiac, cut out with an X-acto knife and other lettering done with brush. This is not a skill that is taught. You are a cartoonist or not. I have over my desk as I type this five cartoons drawn and signed by a suspect in the Zodiac case--Arthur Leigh Allen. Recall the neatness of the 312 word cipher. Zodiac needed a T-square, lighttable, triangle and other drafting tools to draw that. Whoever Zodiac is he is a skillful artist. Perhaps police should enlist an art critic to find similarities in the art styles and that of the suspect. Allen is the only one of 2500 suspects who is also a cartoonist.


Bradenton, Fla.: Wow! What a great movie!

Robert Graysmith: God bless you. I saw how hard those guys worked on that film. I am still getting calls at midnight from them about documents and dates--I have boxes to the ceiling of my studio filling one entire wall two layers deep, and I say, " Guys, the movie is done. You don't need more files." They have the bug. Fincher has 3100 pounds of photos, records and audio tapes, many of which I provided. I loaned them everything I had because I believed they were going to do it right.


Arlington, Va.: If you could find one person in the world (apart from Zodiac himself) that you believe is a critical material witness who has yet to be found (and might still be alive), who would that be? What would be the question you would ask?

Robert Graysmith: Yes. A young man named Leigh (who I did find down south) who knew Darlene and saw her with an older man. He also drove a white chevy 58-59. He looks nothing like Zodiac but I have never been able to shake the feeling that he knows more than he realizes. That is why it so important to keep the story alive.


Bethesda, Md.: Are you done with this case now or might you do another book about it? Nevertheless, what are your future plans/projects?

Robert Graysmith: Thanks for asking. I have published 7 true crime books, 3 have been movies. I have completed 23, yes 23, which I have illustrated with drawings, foldout maps, long bibliographies and put in my library. Someday I will offer these books, all on different subjects, for publication but the sheer joy of doing them make these the best days of my life. My interest and passion about Zodiac actually has been turned onto a beneficial path. My latest is THE LAUGHING GORILLA a 1935 story set in San Francisco about police corruption, and the completed SHOOTING ZODIAC, the story of three Hollywood detectives who try to greenlight a film. I just never wanted to do another Zodiac book, but this story is really about three good guys who take on an obstacle. It is the ultimate behind the scenes Hollywood book. They kept me in the loop at every stage of their quest over 3 years.


Baltimore, Md.: Mr. Graysmith,

I read your book with great interest ... this is the Zodia ... ah. Just kidding.

I was wondering why the sister of his victim was never shown a picture of Leigh?

Wouldn't that have cleared a few things up?

Robert Graysmith: Absolutely. That is why I have always thought the American public should be enlisted to solve difficult crimes. We are great problem solvers and go to the heart of the matter. I guess since handwriting cleared so many back then, they were not viable suspects by the time they got around to asking. Toschi didn't know of Leigh Allen until 1971. The boy at Lake Berryessa, Sept. 27, 1969, told me when I found him, "Man, I thought they caught that dude. Nobody ever questioned me after that day." He picked out Allen as being there that day. "I thought he was so young to be bald," he said. I think VPD Det. Bawart did just that with the Stine killing and Blue Rocks Springs over thirty years after the crimes.


Annandale, Va.: The suspect's name is Leigh but it's pronounced Lee, right? That's been confusing to me. And they show the name written as Leigh on a piece of identification. Please explain the different name pronunciation.

Robert Graysmith: Leigh Allen told my friend who went in to buy hardware from him before I came in eyeballed him that last day, that Ace Hardware printed his nametag as LEE because it would have cost more to have the name LEIGH sewn on his smock. His parole officer also told me the story. Check out Zodiac for ther verbatim accounts.


Minneapolis, Minn.: How did your relationship with your wife and children proceed from where the film narrative ends?

Robert Graysmith: Melanie and hang around together all the time, laugh, go to art shows and attend the movies just to see the Zodiac trailer. My best friends in the whole world are my sons David, an accountant, Aaron (one of the five CI directors at a major studio whos credits include both Stuart Little films, Castaway and so on) and my daughter Margot who is also with a film studio in Hollywood.


Washyington, D.C.: Was there any concern on the part of you or the filmmakers that this story takes place back when it does and that modern day science (DNA, forensics) have come along to make your story and crime solving a little bit retro and not hi-tech?

Robert Graysmith: Zodiac as a film had to be of its time. Back then police departments were not sharing info. Det. Bawart told me that if they had a cell phone they would have had Zodiac. He said that the cipher killer would not have lasted ten minutes today. A task force would have been formed and the superior forensics would have ended his career before it began. A good example would be the calls to KGO-TV which could not be traced unless they had 15 minutes.


So, you really : went into the hardware store to see him? I loved that scene!

Robert Graysmith: One hunded percent accurate. After ten years of trying to find Zodiac I walked into that store and saw him face to face. It was if someone had struck a tuning fork, the room just vibrated and time stood still. At that moment I was free. I was satisified that I had found MY solution. With the publication of the book Allen and the other two suspects were watched and we had no more letters, no more killings. The book ended the reign of Zodiac. The day after going into the hardware store I stood in line at the post office and wrote the last page in pencil and put it in with my typed manuscript and sent it to my editor at St. Martin's Press, Richard Marek, James Baldwin's former editor.


Nashville, Tenn.: Was a videotape found by the VPD in Allen's residence after he died?

Robert Graysmith: Yes. It said Zodaic on label, but Bawart told me that it only showed Allen mooning the police. By the way David Fincher and his investigator, Max Daly, found a survivalist catalog taken from that basement that had pictures of a bomb disposal costume you could buy--a square black hood coming down over the chest. Bryan Hartnell, the survivor from Berryessa, did tell me the hood was very neatly sewn. Police also found articles about Mel Belli and the Zodiac case. They also found guns of every caliber and live pipe bombs, Zodiac did tell us that he had bombs in his basement.


Washington, D.C.: What was Jake Gyllenhaal like? Did he talk to you much about him playing you in the movie? How inquisitve was he? Were you satisfied with his portrayal of you, of the other characters?

Robert Graysmith: Until I saw Jake's performance I didn't know how deferential I was or how consumed by Zodiac. When you are in the grip of it you don't know. Jake simply observed me and I saw in the film he caught every mannerism, even wore my awful 1970s clothes. How he knew I had been a boy scout in Tachikawa, Japan I don't know, but it's in the movie. I never told anyone. I am the luckiest guy in the world. Who doesn't love Jake Gyllenhaal. He got it just right. Mark Ruffallo simple became Toschi. He visited Dave in San Francisco and came back as him. He is the most accessible of all the actors, a regular guy and if you have a chance to see him on Broadway please go. It was as a perfect a cast as one could want. And as I said David Fincher is the only director who could have made this film and he made it as a newspaper film along the lines of ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN. How appropriate that this is the Washington Post site.


Providence, R.I.: What about the physical disparity between the killer seen leaving the Stine cab and Leigh Allen?

Was Leigh Allen "too tall and too bald" to be this killer? Did he ever wear glasses?

Robert Graysmith: No glasses and he did not smoke. We know Zodiac was 6 feet tall, weighed about 230 and was balding from descriptions and physical evidence. He wore size 7 gloves and size 10 1/2 shoes. The movie got that right. I saw Allen in person often after my meeting him at Ace Hardware, but this was tailing and at night. He looked about right to me. Allen was smart and physically formidable.


Baltimore, Md.: The first guy who was murdered in the movie, the one with the girl who were on a hillside ... What's happened to him? Was his life somewhat ruined by the murder of his girlfriend and his personal injury?

Robert Graysmith: If you mean Mike, who turns up at the airport at the end, yes Zodiac ruined his life. Whereas, Bryan Hartnell, the stabbing victim, survived and prospered. He ended up representing Mike in court in one of those ironic path crossings of the only two surviving victims.


Robert Graysmith: Thank you for having me. I was a bit slow at the beginning because I have only recently gone on line and gotten email. This is the first time I have answered questions in a forum like this. It was a lot of fun. Please support the movie Zodiac. These guys worked their hearts out to create a film of the 1970s with many layers and the support of ALL of us who worked to capture Zodiac.

Robert Graysmith


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company