Over half a century ago, a murderer began stalking the streets of Northern California, leaving a bloody trail of terror in his wake. In the end, the serial killer claimed to have taken the lives of 37 unlucky souls. Yet for years, investigators struggled to uncover the true identity of the criminal who became known as the Zodiac Killer. Now, though, one man believes that he has solved the mystery once and for all.
Ever since 2002, you see, Gary Stewart has been searching for the truth about his mysterious past. But when he embarked on his quest, he could not have known that it would lead to one of the most infamous murderers of all time. After almost two decades of searching, however, Stewart has been forced to reach a terrifying conclusion.
On March 6, 2020, the American TV channel FX aired its first documentary series, entitled The Most Dangerous Animal of All. And in it, Stewart traces the tangled trail that, he claims, leads straight to the Zodiac Killer. But has he really solved a decades-old mystery? And what demons has he had to face up to along the way?
The story began back in December 1968, when a teenage couple were slain in a shooting in Benicia, California. David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen had been parked up in a local lover’s lane when an unknown assailant attacked them. Then, some six and a half months after those murders, another deadly incident occurred just four miles away.
On July 4, 1969, Michael Mageau and Darlene Ferrin were attacked while sitting in their parked car. And in the early hours of the following morning, the local police department received an anonymous call. During the conversation, a man took responsibility for the incident – as well as the murders of Jensen and Faraday.
But despite receiving multiple gunshot wounds, Mageau survived. And afterward, he was able to furnish police with a rough description of his attacker. According to Mageau, the murderer was a man in his mid-to-late 20s, with light brown hair cut in a short and curly style. The witness also believed the killer weighed about 200 pounds and stood at roughly 5 foot 8 inches tall.
So it was clear that there was a dangerous murderer on the loose. But what happened next would earn the killer a spot in the annals of true-crime history. Just under a month after the attack on Ferrin and Mageau, you see, three local newspapers each received mysterious letters.
According to reports, the man behind the recent attacks wrote each letter. Moreover, a piece of a cipher or cryptogram accompanied all three notes. The author claimed that the coded message would reveal the killer’s identity once solved. As if taunting investigators, he asked the San Francisco Examiner, The San Francisco Chronicle and the Vallejo Times-Herald to publish the individual sections on their front pages.
If the newspapers did not comply, the letters claimed, the murderer would embark on a rampant killing spree. The next day, The San Francisco Chronicle published its piece of the cipher on the fourth page. And when the attacks that had been threatened did not materialize, the other publications eventually followed suit.
Five days after The San Francisco Chronicle published the first part of the cipher, staff at the San Francisco Examiner received a second letter. And this time, the killer referred to himself using the nickname that would become his trademark: Zodiac. He also provided further details about the murders – information that would have only been known to the culprit.
So it’s fair to say that the Zodiac Killer had the full attention of the California police. And finally, on August 8, a local couple succeeded in solving the murderer’s code. But rather than being a clever message alluding to the killer’s identity, the message was a rambling rant in which the author claimed that his victims would be his slaves after death.
The following month, the Zodiac Killer struck again. This time, he attacked a young couple as they picnicked by a lake in Napa County, CA. But once again, the murderer left a witness behind. So while 22-year-old Cecelia Shepard died of multiple stab wounds, her companion, Bryan Hartnell, survived to tell a sinister tale.
According to Hartnell, the killer had been wearing a black hood in the style of an executioner, accessorized with sunglasses worn over the top. And on his chest, the murderer had worn a strange symbol, like a circle with a cross drawn over it. Later, the Zodiac would use this as his signature as he continued to communicate with journalists and police.
Then, on October 11, 1969, the last murder officially attributed to the Zodiac Killer occurred. That day, San Francisco cab driver Paul Stine picked up a passenger who proceeded to shoot him dead. But at first, the killing was not thought to be related to the other murders. That all changed when another letter arrived at The San Francisco Chronicle offices. In it, the killer claimed responsibility for the crime, including a piece of the victim’s clothing as evidence.
The following month, another cipher was sent to the team at The San Francisco Chronicle. But unlike the first, this one proved impossible to decode. In fact, it remains unsolved to this day, and many regard it as one of the toughest cryptographical challenges of all time. Yet the Zodiac Killer continued to taunt the authorities, sending more codes and messages to the local press.
At the bottom of his letters, the Zodiac Killer began including his symbol, along with a number believed to represent a death toll. And when the last letter arrived at The San Francisco Chronicle in January 1974, that count had reached 37. But while many murders have been linked to the killer over the years, the official figure remains at five.
Yet despite his enthusiastic communication with the authorities, the Zodiac Killer was never caught. And even today, the case remains open. Of course, law enforcement and true-crime writers have suggested many suspects over the years, but none have ever been convicted of the murders.
Individuals suspicious of their family and friends have contributed to the pool of potential Zodiac Killers over the years, too. And in 2014, a man named Gary Stewart added another name to the list. Twelve years earlier, you see, his birth mother contacted him, starting a chain of events that would lead him to a gruesome conclusion.
As an infant, Stewart had been abandoned outside an apartment complex in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And although he was soon welcomed into a new family, he always fostered a curiosity about his birth mother and father. However, he claims that he refrained from tracking them down out of fear of hurting his adoptive parents.
Then, in 2002, all that changed. That year, Stewart’s biological mother (who we won’t name for legal reasons) tracked down her son – and the sordid tale of his birth began to emerge. His mother had been just 14 years old when she’d met 28-year-old Earl Van Best Jr. at an ice cream store in San Francisco, California. But despite the age gap, a romance soon ensued.
The pair then eloped, causing a stir in the local press. In 1962, in fact, The Chronicle ran a headline declaring it the “Ice Cream Romance.” But Van Best Jr. was later arrested and charged with statutory rape as well as child-stealing and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. By this point, however, his teenage wife was already with child.
While behind bars, though, Van Best Jr. gave an interview to The San Francisco Chronicle, proclaiming his love for his wife. And when he got out, the pair fled to New Orleans, where she gave birth to a son in February 1963. Just one month later, however, Van Best Jr. abandoned the boy in the nearby city of Baton Rouge. Later, he was arrested again and eventually confined to a mental institution in California.
Meanwhile, the teenage mom signed away all rights to her baby son. And with his adoptive parents, Loyd and Leona Stewart, the boy grew up in Baton Rouge, where he eventually became a successful businessman. Then, when Stewart finally connected with his birth mother, he expressed a desire to meet his father – despite the family’s grim past.
And, hoping to help her son learn more about his birth father, Stewart’s biological mom turned to the colleagues of her deceased second husband, who had been a San Francisco police inspector. But when the friends eventually turned out Van Best Jr.’s files, Stewart claims, they refused to hand them over. Apparently, they contained information that was too disturbing to share.
“It took several months to find my father’s files,” Stewart told The New York Post in February 2020. “But the information they presented to me was that there was information in that file that they were not willing to share with me – and that was pretty bad stuff.” But even though Van Best Jr. was emerging as a sinister character, his son still wanted to confront him face-to-face and hear what he had to say.
However, nothing could have prepared Stewart for the shocking revelation that was to come. In a strange turn of events, his biological mother’s late husband had worked on the Zodiac Killer case while on the force in San Francisco. However, it would take a television show for Van Best Jr.’s son to begin to connect the dots.
One evening in 2004, you see, Stewart found himself watching a documentary about the Zodiac Killer. And in it, a composite sketch of the man believed to be responsible for the crimes was displayed. With a jolt of horror, he realized that the suspect bore a remarkable similarity to the father for whom he had been searching.
“The wanted sketch [of the Zodiac Killer] just made my heart stop for an instant, because I had seen that face before, and it looked just like my father,” Stewart told The New York Post. His curiosity piqued, Stewart decided to delve a little deeper – and was shocked by what he found.
In 2014 Stewart published The Most Dangerous Animal of All, a book written in partnership with the crime author Susan Mustafa. And in the tome, he detailed his suspicions. Apparently, though, the physical resemblance isn’t the only thing linking Van Best Jr. to the Zodiac Killer. It seems that there are many chilling similarities between the two men.
According to the book, Van Best Jr. had inherited a love of ciphers and codes from his cryptographer father. So he would have been perfectly placed to create the puzzles that had tormented the authorities and press. He was also passionate about the opera The Mikado – a work quoted by the Zodiac Killer numerous times.
And that wasn’t all. According to Stewart, the name Earl Van Best Junior is in the undeciphered code that the Zodiac Killer sent to The San Francisco Chronicle back in November 1969. At the time, too, the killer seemed to particularly enjoy taunting one journalist at the paper: Paul Avery. And seven years earlier, that same man had penned the Ice Cream Romance story about Van Best Jr.’s relationship with Stewart’s mother.
The connections didn’t end there, either. According to the book, Van Best Jr. once lived just steps away from where the Zodiac’s last-known victim gave a ride to his killer. Even the dates matched up, with Stewart’s father having been released on parole three years before the first-known murder.
Of course, the fact that Van Best Jr. was a statutory rapist who had abandoned his infant child already proves that he was a far-from-perfect citizen. But as Stewart dug deeper, he discovered that his grandmother had been a sex worker and that his father had experienced a deeply troubled youth. Might these factors have been enough to create a serial killer?
Perhaps the most convincing evidence of all, however, is the similarity between Van Best Jr.’s handwriting and that of the Zodiac Killer. According to Stewart, he showed samples of the two to an expert, who deemed them a match. And even though some have cast doubt on this process, Stewart himself seems convinced that his father was the infamous murderer.
But if he is right, there is no chance of Van Best Jr. serving justice for his crimes. After abandoning Stewart, it seems, the one-time book dealer continued to live a troubled life. And over the years, he was charged with fraud and multiple counts of Driving Under the Influence (D.U.I.) as well as more serious crimes such as pedophilia and rape. He eventually passed away in 1984 in Mexico.
Nevertheless, Stewart approached the police with his theory before the publication of his book. But although they listened with interest, the authorities were unable to look into his claims any further. In a 2014 interview with The San Francisco Chronicle, retired Captain John Hennessy explained, “I think he was sincere in his belief that his father was the Zodiac, but there wasn’t enough to move quickly on. And the reality is that without hard evidence it’s hard to prove a case.”
Undaunted, Stewart laid out his arguments in his 2014 book, which soon became a bestseller. Before long, amateur sleuths online were agreeing with his conclusion – that Van Best Jr. was the Zodiac Killer. And even though the police have been unable to take things further, this theory has continued to win many supporters.
Six years after the publication of The Most Dangerous Animal of All, a television series of the same name aired on FX. Over four parts, it reviewed the evidence supporting Stewart’s theory and explored how his search for his father had impacted his life. At one point, the camera even follows him as he visits Van Best Jr.’s grave in Mexico.
According to Stewart, the experience of making the documentary has brought him closure at last. Talking to The New York Post, he explained, “[I wanted to take] that dysfunctional cycle of my father’s life and use the new beginnings from the Stewart household to give my son and grandchildren an opportunity to walk away from this and never have to be concerned with what kind of blood they have.”
“Every time I’ve reached a milestone in my search for my father, even now knowing he’s deceased, I always try to tell other people in hopes of convincing myself that I’ve got closure,” Stewart continued. “I think my book ended [by saying], ‘My father abandoned me so many years ago, maybe now I can abandon him and walk away.’ And that was six years ago. And I have not abandoned him. We spent the last year and a half filming this documentary… but this time, I’m over it.”
Serial killers have long fascinated the public, of course. Take this story: in 1978 The Dating Game host Jim Lange stands on stage – a floral motif bedecking the set behind him. Then he points to his left to present the eligible bachelors who want to date the woman of the hour. And Lange subsequently introduces the first suitor as Rodney Alcala, whose appearance on the popular ABC show feels chilling once you become aware that this man is in fact a prolific serial killer. At this time, though, he hasn’t yet been caught.
It’s important to point out that exactly what constitutes a serial killer remains a topic of some debate. However, most experts agree that a person dubbed as such derives some kind of psychological pleasure from committing murder. Such individuals tend to act on their own, too, and they also each kill more than one person over a time frame spanning in excess of 30 days.
As a consequence, then, many consider Jack the Ripper to be modern history’s original serial killer. The notorious criminal roamed the streets of London’s Whitechapel neighborhood – a part of the city that was known at the time for being dangerous. And it was there, in 1888, that Jack the Ripper selected his victims, murdering a minimum of five women – all of whom are thought to have been sex workers.
In an effort to catch Jack the Ripper, however, the Metropolitan Police came up with revolutionary techniques that are still employed today. The authorities gathered forensic materials, for instance, and interviewed those in the local area who might have seen or heard something strange. On top of that, a physician named Thomas Bond created a psychological profile of the Ripper – perhaps in a bid to both try and connect his different murders and anticipate his next moves.
Yet while history books may not universally remember Jack the Ripper as the world’s first ever serial murderer, his killing spree was undoubtedly the first to drum up massive media interest. Indeed, stories of his violent crimes – and of the poor people who had suffered at his hands – made headlines around the globe.
Interestingly, though, the type of press coverage that surrounded Jack the Ripper has arguably fueled more recent serial killers’ actions. Certain murderers, you see, actively strive for the Ripper’s level of infamy, while others hope that the news of their crimes will stoke similar terror in the general population. Notoriety isn’t all that spurs on these individuals, however.
If serial killers are not inspired by the potential for media notoriety, for instance, then they may cite financial benefits as their main motives. Another driving force behind multiple slayings, meanwhile, may be the desire for power. Some murderers who were molested during their childhoods fall into this category; in these cases, it’s theorized, the perpetrators want to reverse the sense of helplessness that they felt during youth.
Yet other serial killers may have experienced psychotic episodes that make them feel as though God, the devil or similar intangible forces have told them that they have to kill. And a further set of these murderers justify their acts by claiming that they’re removing unwanted people from society.
On top of that, some serial murderers commit their crimes because of how the act of killing itself makes them feel. This “hedonistic” group of individuals may experience rushes of joy when they carry out murders, for example, while lust-driven killers may have sexual motives.
However, despite all these theories, many questions remain as to why these people go so far as to kill in order to satisfy their desires. One school of thought hypothesizes that a serial murderer’s homicidal instinct is biological – in other words, that they are born that way. But other experts reject this notion, claiming that there isn’t yet enough evidence to prove whether or not a person’s genetic makeup plays a role in having murderous tendencies.
Other specialists, meanwhile, stand by the so-called “military theory.” In short, there may be a possible connection between military service and serial killers, although there is little proof to support this idea. And yet this notion should perhaps be kept in mind when it comes to the case of Rodney Alcala.
Alcala came into the world as Rodrigo Jacques Alcala Buquor on August 23, 1943. His mother, Anna Maria Gutierrez, and his father, Raoul Alcala Buquor, lived in San Antonio, Texas, at the time, although in 1951 they would uproot the family to relocate across the border to Mexico.
And in 1954 Alcala would experience another huge change in his life. Raoul abandoned the family that year, leaving Anna Maria to raise the children – two daughters and two sons – on her own. When Alcala was approximately aged 11, then, the five arrived in Los Angeles, California, to start a new life.
Once Alcala had turned 17 years old, meanwhile, he decided to sign up for the U.S. military. Then, four years later, his time in the service came to an abrupt end. That’s because Alcala is said to have suffered a psychological breakdown in 1964, and this apparently rendered him unable to function in the army.
While in this fragile mental state, moreover, Alcala reportedly abandoned his post at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and hitchhiked all the way to Anna Maria’s home in Los Angeles. Subsequently, a psychiatrist found that Alcala has a personality disorder. And Dr. Nicola Davies, a researcher behind the Health Psychology Consultancy website, explained how such a condition may have manifested itself in the young man.
“Having [a personality disorder] diagnosis would have affected Alcala on a day-to-day basis in a number of ways,” Dr. Davies said on her blog. “His behavior would have been to resist social norms and laws, and he would have been incredibly deceptive and impulsive. Despite a total disregard for the rights of others, Alcala would have experienced no remorse for his [later] crimes.”
While further diagnoses later on would provide additional insights into Alcala’s character, the label of antisocial personality disorder was enough to have him discharged from the U.S. Army. Still, after leaving the military, he had the chance to shift the focus of his career path. And Alcala subsequently enrolled at the UCLA School of Fine Arts, from where he’d later graduate.
Incidentally, it was there in Los Angeles that Alcala perpetrated what authorities believe to be his first attack. In 1968 an individual contacted the cops, saying that they had looked on as Alcala had coaxed an eight-year-old child into his home. The future killer had allegedly assaulted and raped the girl, too, although she fortunately escaped death. Unluckily for the police, however, Alcala was nowhere to be found after the report came in.
In fact, Alcala had not only left the scene of the crime, but he had also left the state of California altogether. He moved to New York City, to be precise, and continued his studies at New York University’s film school. Alcala was now using the alias of John Berger, which allowed him to fly under the radar – in spite of the heinous crime he was alleged to have perpetrated.
Then in 1971 Alcala fled again, heading east to New Hampshire. Shockingly, his next line of employment saw him working at a kids’ camp as a counselor. But while Alcala changed his name once more – this time going by John Burger – he didn’t find it so easy to alter his appearance. And this turned out to be a big problem, since his face had appeared on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list at the start of that year.
When a couple of Alcala’s young campers happened to recognize their counselor on a wanted poster, then, the game was up. He was subsequently apprehended and taken to California, where he would face charges for his alleged crimes against the eight-year-old girl. Yet Alcala’s case didn’t go as planned for the prosecution.
The family of the young girl whom Alcala had attacked apparently forbade her from giving testimony at the resulting trial, you see – and they had moved to Mexico, to boot. This meant that Alcala could admit to the more minor crime of assault and serve a much shorter sentence. And so, following less than 18 months in prison, the offender was granted parole, having reportedly shown signs of rehabilitation while behind bars.
However, Alcala’s supposed about-turn sadly turned out to be an act, with freedom seemingly only spurring him to commit more offences. In just a matter of weeks, in fact, police officers again had Alcala in handcuffs after he had assaulted a second young girl. But following another short stint in prison – this time lasting two years – the man was released into society once more.
Then, just after Alcala’s second prison term, he received an unexpected green light from his parole officer. The criminal was allowed to leave Los Angeles and visit New York City – an unusual allowance given his recent release from custody. And this proved to be a fateful decision. After all, police suspect that just days into Alcala’s 1977 trip to the Big Apple, he murdered 23-year-old Ellen Jane Hover.
Following Alcala’s vacation in New York, he returned to the City of Angels and managed to secure a job at the Los Angeles Times – despite his criminal record. He also took up photography as a side gig, although some of his colleagues noticed that his portraiture resulted in strange and often revealing photos of his subjects.
In 2010 one of Alcala’s ex-co-workers, Sharon Gonzales, talked to LA Weekly about the photography samples that he had brought into the newsroom. And she recalled that many of his snaps had been of young girls. “I thought it was weird,” Gonzales said. “But I was young; I didn’t know anything.” She did ask Alcala his reasons for taking said portraits, though – and the man had a curious answer.
“[Alcala] said their moms asked him to,” Gonzales recalled. Given that the girls had been photographed without clothes, however, this claim seemed very unlikely. And yet neither Gonzales nor her superiors alerted authorities after seeing Alcala’s collection of snapshots despite their uneasy feelings. “We thought he was a little different – strange about sex,” Gonzales explained.
According to Dr. Davies, photography played right into Alcala’s hand as a serial killer, too. She said, “[Taking photos] allows [serial killers] to hide behind the camera and to obsess over their potential victims without raising any suspicions.” And even more chillingly, Dr. Davies explained that Alcala’s pictures served as a “way of collecting mementoes of his crimes, which allowed him to prolong the pleasure of his monstrous acts.”
But despite Alcala’s sinister tendencies, he was also a mastermind deceiver. You see, Alcala continued to outwardly present himself as a suave, witty and engaging man. And it was presumably this side of his personality that helped him charm his way into a spot on the popular television show The Dating Game. In fact, you can even watch him during his appearance on the 1978 episode – by which time he had already committed multiple heinous crimes.
Each episode of The Dating Game – which first hit screens in 1965 – usually featured one eligible woman who would have her choice of three men. But there was one catch: the trio would remain concealed from the single lady, leading her to ask questions in order to figure out which of the men she wanted to date. And the ABC show’s host, Jim Lange, would kick off proceedings by introducing the suitors.
On Alcala’s 1978 episode, then, Lange directs the audience’s attention toward the first man on stage. And he introduces him by saying, “Bachelor number one is a successful photographer who got his start when his father found him in the dark room at the age of 13 fully developed. Between takes, you might find him skydiving or motorcycling. Please welcome Rodney Alcala.”
Then, after the single woman, schoolteacher Cheryl Bradshaw, makes her way on stage, she starts asking amusing questions as a means to decide which guy she should date. “What’s your best time?” she asks the three men. And in retrospect, Alcala’s response can certainly be construed as chilling. “The best time is at night,” the killer replies.
“That’s the only time there is,” Alcala continues with an unnerving smile. “[Morning and afternoon] are okay, but nighttime is when it really gets good.” And when he’s asked what he would be if he were a food, Alcala fires back another curious answer. “I’m called ‘the banana,’ and I look really good,” he says.
Then, when Alcala suggests that Bradshaw “peel [him],” the Dating Game audience bursts out laughing – as does Bradshaw herself. The serial killer cracks a large grin, too, and giggles at his own joke. And with that response, Alcala seals his fate on the dating show.
Indeed, when Lange asks Bradshaw to reveal which lucky man she has her eye on, her answer is simple. “Well, I like bananas, so I’ll take [number] one,” she says, referring, frighteningly, to Alcala. And again, the murderer’s face lights up with a smirk.
After that, Alcala and Bradshaw finally meet each other on stage, and he plants a kiss on her cheek. The pair stand with their arms around each other’s waists, too, as Lange reveals the location of their first date. “Well, as far as I can see, Cheryl and [Alcala], it looks like the two of you may be involved in some sort of racket,” the host says. “So… you’ll receive tennis lessons.”
Yet as excited as Alcala and Bradshaw initially appear at the prospect of hitting the courts together, their date seemingly wasn’t meant to be. And Bradshaw explained to The Sunday Telegraph in 2012 – over 30 years after her appearance on The Dating Game – why she eventually opted out of meeting up with Alcala.
“I started to feel ill,” Bradshaw recalled of her experience after the cameras had stopped rolling. “[Alcala] was acting really creepy. I turned down his offer. I didn’t want to see him again.” What’s more, Alcala’s fellow bachelors on The Dating Game, Jed Mills and Armand Cerami, apparently got similar vibes, too. Mills, for one, told LA Weekly in 2010 that “[Alcala] was kind of a creepy guy.”
It goes without saying, then, that Bradshaw thankfully made the right choice in following her instincts regarding Alcala’s strange behavior. However, it’s possible that the serial killer’s unsuccessful experience on The Dating Game intensified his violent tendencies. “This rejection was likely to justify his lack of trust further – as well as increase his disregard for others,” Dr. Davies has explained.
After all, it was only the following year, in 1979, that police finally apprehended Alcala in connection with a murder. When 12-year-old Robin Samsoe had gone missing in Orange County, her pals had recalled a man asking to snap photos of them on the beach. Police subsequently had a sketch made of the individual whom the girls had described, and the resulting image looked enough like Alcala that his parole officer noted the similarity. Then, when cops searched a storage unit that Alcala had previously rented, Samsoe’s earrings were discovered inside the space.
Now in his 70s, Alcala remains behind bars on death row to this day, having committed at least five murders in California and two in New York. Investigators believe that his total victim count may be much higher, however – with some estimates pinning it at over 100 people. And while Alcala may be one of the most prolific serial murderers in the U.S., his disturbing appearance on a reality show secured his infamy – and earned him the chilling moniker “The Dating Game Killer.”