Q&A: 'Zodiac' Writer Robert Graysmith

In 1969, Robert Graysmith was a 25-year-old political cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle. As the so-called Zodiac killer began to terrorize the Bay Area, Graysmith became obsessed with the taunting, cryptographic letters the serial killer sent to the Chronicle and other news organizations bragging about his crimes. The perpetrator, who police say committed at least five killings and two attempted murders, (and who claimed to have more than a dozen victims) was never caught. Graysmith, now 63, went on to write two best sellers about the case. Jake Gyllenhaal plays him in the new movie "Zodiac," which opens nationwide today. Graysmith spoke with NEWSWEEK's Karen Breslau in San Francisco. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: The Zodiac case still inspires a cottage industry, with books, films, Web sites, T shirts and a whole subculture of amateur detectives. Why is this still going on 40 years after the murders?
Robert Graysmith:
I don't think it's good writing, a dashing detective or whatever. It's the bizarre costume and the cryptograms. It has been called the most cerebral murder case of all time. You have to take the human anguish, the human loss out of the equation to solve this, you could not deal with it. You have to look at the ciphers and the odd costume. You realize there are still cryptograms that haven't been broken, such as "My name is …" or a map, "This is where to find me." Anybody with any sort of curiosity wants to know the entire story. The only thing we had comparable to this back in 1969 was Jack the Ripper, and there are about a hundred books [about that case,] and they all have a different ending.

Why has this case become the province of amateur sleuths?
The fire was dying down and down and no one had been caught. At one point in the late 1970s, the Chronicle says, "Who cares about the Zodiac?" and I saw it going into obscurity. And I thought, "Well, wait a minute. Nobody is sharing, all the different jurisdictions, all this information. They are not going to tell each other, even within departments. What if, as a private citizen, I went around and got all the information?" Well, it took a full 10 years. I put it all together. To me, this [holding up one of his books] is a political cartoon. And the reason for the obsession is something [my editor and I] did at the last minute—in the back is every known description, all the guns, all the forensic stuff. I get people who call me, and they've just read the first Zodiac book and they say, "Robert, if you knew anything about the case, you'd know …" They are now the detective. There's something about the way it was presented that makes everyone an expert.

Are you still comfortable with the conclusion that Arthur Leigh Allen, a convicted child molester who died in 1992, was the Zodiac?
When I first met Dave Toschi [the lead San Francisco detective] in the summer of '76, I'd spoken to an expert at Stanford. We knew very little then about serial killers. He said, "This is someone who would try to insinuate himself into the police investigation." I said to Toschi, "Did you get a letter from someone wanting to help?" He said, "I just got this one. It's from a guy in prison saying, 'I'm sorry I wasn't your man, I just want to help'." The name was Arthur Leigh Allen; his name was on the list of suspects. It turns out it rang some bells with [investigators in other cities] who all independently end up on Arthur Leigh Allen's doorstep. There are too many good detectives who all came to the same conclusion.

Your critics say you made the classic amateur mistake, which is to focus on a suspect and not on the evidence.
Well, if [the killer] leaves a footprint and it's a Wing walker shoe that they only made 169,000 pairs and they are sold only on naval stations and his father is a naval commander. It's a size 10½ shoe, you can only get it if you are a dependent or an enlisted person, if he works across the street from the first victim, if he says two days before the first murder, "I am going to hunt people, I am going to put a light on the end of my gun, I'm going to taunt the press, I'm going to taunt the police and I'm going to call myself 'Zodiac'," who two days before receives a Zodiac watch, I think at some point when you have a guy who has to be a chemist, who can build electronic bombs, who knows cipher—I don't know if you want to call any of that evidence, but I think if you wear the same-sized gloves and the same-sized shoe and you have a catalog in your basement that advertises a bomb-disposal outfit that has a square hood, then at some point you have to say, "It is probably this guy." I am not one of those people. If they catch someone else, that's not going to bother me, but I'm satisfied it's him.

It is a very compelling circumstantial case. But how do you explain there was no DNA match to Arthur Leigh Allen?
I'll explain that. The Zodiac letters from 1978 on were driven to Sacramento in a cardboard box, and these letters have never been refrigerated, which, for letters going back—what?—30 years almost is a must for DNA. They sit around in 100-degree summers, they come back. The letters they test, what would you think becomes of those letters? They are in police custody, in plastic envelopes….

They get dried and crumbly?
No, they get taken. They are in private hands. And those are the ones that get tested.

Got taken by whom?
I'm thinking cops, but I don't know.

Because it's cool to have a souvenir from the Zodiac?
I don't know, but right away your chain of custody is broken, broken in the sense that I handle them, those letters were photographed perfectly. They had to have been taken out of their envelopes, pressed flat by printers and engravers and they are handled by copy boys, by [detectives], even before we had a set of rules: "Don't touch these."

Are you are saying the DNA was tainted?
I'm guessing [that it was.] Here's the thing: in those days, we didn't have DNA, but we had something like it, a saliva test. It could tell you the blood type, it told you a lot. Even in those days, if I were going to write an anonymous letter, I'm guaranteeing, especially if Zodiac wore gloves, [he] would never lick a letter. So, I get to looking into this and it turns out, yeah, Allen's been mailing letters, but he's mailing them unlicked. Stamps are not affixed, but he takes them and puts them in another envelope—this is from prison [where he was serving time for child molestation], puts this letter unsealed and unstamped, licks it, stamps it and his friends mail the letters from the outside .. There are many things that say it might not be him.

Now, if it is, if that is a really valid DNA sample—fragment though it may be—then why did they close up the case? If that is your best piece of evidence in history, get out there and run with that. Let's just say Zodiac is someone we never heard of. There's nothing wrong with that; they are going to get him because the case has been kept alive and that's why I tell everybody, that's when I'll write a last chapter. It does not bother me in the least. But you know, that's why it's a mystery, and the fact that there's doubt is going to keep it a mystery for centuries.

But of course you remember the case in Salt Lake City, when Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her home and the poor handyman was suspected; the perpetrator turned out to be a Satanic cultist. And Nancy Grace was saying on CNN of the other guy, "But he fit the profile." I hear a little bit of that in you.
Yeah. I wrote a book called "The Sleeping Woman," and it's about a woman who met a purser on a ship 25 years earlier, and he was too friendly to her daughter and she didn't like it. So … 25 years [later] she turned this guy in as the "Trailside Killer."

Another notorious serial killer in northern California.
Right, and we had a lady who had seen the killer and who was interviewed under hypnosis and had described the Trailside Killer, who stuttered. Talk about being wrong … and not only that, he was listed on the computers as being in jail at San Quentin. Instead he was walking the streets and staying at a halfway house. So that's where you're right; a profile doesn't always work. Could you be farther off in your suspect?