NEW YORK, JULY 12 -- Dart Man may be in custody today, but Zodiac remains at large.

While that sounds much like a page ripped from a kid's comic book, it also is the latest news on the twin crime sprees that have gripped New York City to the point of obsession, amplified almost hourly by breathless media coverage.

Jerome Wright, 33, a messenger and mail-room clerk who has been treated for psychiatric problems, was charged today with being the man who has used a straw to blow small, pin-like darts into the backs and buttocks of well-dressed white women in midtown Manhattan.

Based on identifications by three victims, Wright was charged with reckless endangerment, harassment and criminal possession of a weapon in three of the 55 reported dart attacks in recent weeks, police said.

Wright, on probation for a drug conviction, lives with his aunt in the Bronx. Authorities picked him up for questioning Wednesday based on a police sketch of a 5-foot-8 black man who had been sneaking up behind his victims, most of whom wore businesslike skirts and dresses.

"Mr. Wright has made numerous statements to us, none of which has given us real insight into why he is doing this," said Joseph Martino, chief of Manhattan detectives.

None of the 18 darts recovered by police was found to be tainted, and some victims were unaware that they had been pricked, authorities said. Nevertheless, with the number of murders here running far ahead of last year's record-breaking 1,905, the Dart Man story has led television broadcasts night after night during a summertime news vacuum.

Police patrols were beefed up, a hotline was established, the Guardian Angels handed out safety flyers and psychologists started offering theories, such as that Dart Man probably hated his mother. Some women even began wearing pants or girdles as protection against dart attacks.

The Zodiac killer, clearly a more serious threat, made news today mainly because he did not shoot anyone. The star-obsessed gunman has shot four defenseless men -- two walking with canes, one drunk and one homeless -- since March 8. Three of the shootings came 21 days apart, making today a possible date for his next attack.

In cryptic, scrawled letters to police and news organizations, Zodiac has vowed to kill 12 people, one born under each astrological sign. The bizarre nature of the shootings has produced such front-page tabloid headlines as "RIDDLE OF THE ZODIAC," "STALKING THE ZODIAC," "ZODIAC TRAP," "ZODIAC DRAGNET," "ZODIAC WRITES POST AGAIN" and "NIGHT OF THE ZODIAC."

Three of the shootings took place along the Brooklyn-Queens border, and the fourth occurred June 21 when a homeless man was shot while sleeping on a Central Park bench. One victim, Joseph Proce, 78, of Queens, died of medical complications.

A letter last month to the New York Post began, "This is the Zodiac. The twelve signs will die when the belts in the heaven are seen . . . . No more games pigs." The note contained a drawing of the crosshairs of a gunsight and a circle with three astrological signs.

Police initially believed that Zodiac learned the astrological signs of his four victims -- Scorpio, Gemini, Taurus and Cancer -- by striking up conversations and asking their birth dates. Now, however, they say he must be using another method, possibly by searching computer records.

All four attacks have taken place between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. on a Thursday. In early-morning darkness today, as undercover police teams fanned out around the city, so many reporters and camera crews hit the streets that a police spokeswoman complained that they were jeopardizing chances of catching Zodiac.

In the event of a killing, according to the New York Post, police hoped to trap Zodiac by shutting down the subway system, apparently his preferred method of transportation.

While police hunted Zodiac, spending as much as $30,000 on overtime, there were 10 unrelated shootings during the night, five of them fatal. "Maybe he read in the papers that we were beefing up," a police official said of Zodiac.

The saturation coverage surrounding the Zodiac saga is reminiscent of that during the 1977 "Son of Sam" serial murders and has overshadowed other strange and horrible crimes in a city that has seen more than its share. In recent weeks:

A man with a lengthy arrest record was charged with murder after allegedly throwing a 3-year-old boy off the roof of a Brooklyn housing project.

A Queens teenager and his father were charged with killing a man who sold them a used Cadillac that turned out to be a lemon.

A disabled 95-year-old man was charged with murder for allegedly using a metal pipe to bludgeon an 88-year-old woman who lived in his Manhattan co-op building. Police said he accused the woman of voodoo and poisoning other elderly neighbors.