The Zodiac Killer: “Whodunnit”

Who is the Zodiac Killer?

By Hayden Gnat and Isabelle Odeh

What we will be watching:

During the initial spree of crime, little was known about the identity of the killer, but in recent years there have been many developments that have shaped the public’s perception of the man behind the mask. We will be taking a look at the 2007 movie “Zodiac”, the Hulu docu-series “The Most Dangerous Animal of All”, as well as taking a look at pieces of key evidence in the case.


The Zodiac Killer has been an illusive menace to Northern California since the late 1960s. The Zodiac Killer is known to have terrorized the area for 5 years, with 7 known victims, targeting young couples with a rare exception of Paul Stein, a taxi cab driver. He is best known for sending letters & ciphers to multiple news outlets and local law enforcement, forcing them to print the ciphers in the local newspapers. To this day, the identity of the Zodiac is up in the air. 

Through our journey of some of society’s depictions of who the Zodiac Killer is, we aim to finally come to a definitive answer for ourselves. By choosing this case, we hope to shed light on the horrific crimes of one of America’s most notorious serial killers. We chose this case not simply because it’s a name we recognize, but also because of the air of mystery that still surrounds this case roughly 60 years later.  By looking at various media adaptations of this infamous case, we hope to provide a well researched answer to the question: Who is the Zodiac Killer?

In the movie, “Zodiac” we are introduced to an array of characters/suspects who are portrayed by a cast of star-studded Hollywood actors. One of the biggest aspects of this movie is this “whodunnit” aspect of the film; because at this time the identity of the true Zodiac Killer was still unknown. This question of “whodunnit” is brought to the audience through many sound cues, character interactions and costuming. 

The official Wanted Poster for the Zodiac Killer based in 1969.

Sound cues play a huge role in this film adaptation, almost as an attempt to answer the question “whodunnit”, and this is seen best in the scene where Arthur Leigh Allen is introduced. Leigh is portrayed by actor John Carroll Lynch, best known for his work in Fargo and American Horror Story. The character of Arthur is introduced to the audience by being interrogated by detectives, while he is at work. When we look at this scene, the way the filmmakers would show us a piece of evidence, then proceed to back that up with haunting sounds that shade in the character and thus creates a bias. We are left with the impression that the filmmakers, in this scene, cast doubt on Leigh and goes as far to make it quite obvious (i.e. the watch that is from the “Zodiac” brand). These sound cues are essential for us an audience because without them, we would just have another scene where the detectives question someone that doesn’t have any true relevance. But by placing these sound cues here in this scene, we are able to gather the importance of this scene and identify with some of the emotional appeals/arguments that the filmmakers are making. 

The Zodiac is witnessed to have dressed in all black with his infamous Zodiac sign on his chest.

Character interactions are essential to the storytelling of the movie’s narrative. Watching the hold this case had on someone like Robert Graysmith and the way that he interacts with the other people in his life, has a major effect on the audience. Robert Graysmith was a content cartoonist who had a successful career and was managing well on his own. As the movie progresses, everything begins to deteriorate. From losing his job to his failing marriage, we empathize with Robert and hate the obsession that this has on him. This connects into the “whodunnit” aspect by making everyone question who’s telling the truth, forcing the audience to cast a doubt on multiple characters. This is best exemplified in the scene where Detective Toschi (portrayed by Mark Ruffalo) and Robert Graysmith sit in the diner and try to explain their theories on who’s the man behind the name. Multiple theories are tossed out, forcing us to rake through everything we’ve seen in the past and re-examine everything, trying to put the facts in order and make a concise decision.

This is the official sketch of what he is described to look like when attacking his victims.

One of the most important factors of this “whodunnit” question is most obviously the costuming of the Zodiac killer himself. Before diving into this case, a face or image most recognized with the Zodiac would be some of the symbols from one of his ciphers, but never a face or costume. So when watching the movie, we are given a glimpse of the killer’s terrifying outfit. Now it’s clearly important to mention that the Napa Valley murder scene is the first time that we actually see him. Up until this point in the murders, the killer was never shown. The focus was on the victims and the setup for them. By shifting the focus of what the camera focuses on, we can start to sense how the Zodiac killer became more infamous than the victims of his malicious crimes. When the Zodiac appears wearing all black robes, emblazoned with his bullseye signature, the audience feels the terror that the filmmakers were going for. Finally seeing an outfit was shocking, so we did some further digging and found that this adaptation is based on the real life police sketch provided by three girls at Lake Berryessa, where Bryan Hartnell and Cecilia Shephard were stabbed to death. There’s a lot to appreciate in the way that the filmmakers stick to the real life events, closely, as it allows for a certain level of credibility to be created. By also having him in this outfit, we as audience, can continue to guess at “whodunnit” because anyone could be behind the costume, almost like the 90s teen-horror subgenre. With the help of costuming, the question of “whodunnit” becomes more complex and harder to answer.

In the end, the movie “Zodiac” was released in the year 2007 and points to only one person in the end as the identity of the Zodiac: Arthur Leigh Allen. Since then, other documentaries have claimed new evidence that points to another possibility. But in the end, Zodiac as a movie kept a pretty clear identity on their version of the story and backed it up with testimony from the real life players in a summary at the end of the movie.

Who’s the Most Dangerous Animal of All? 

After our viewing of the movie Zodiac (2007) we were left with more questions than answers. We decided to dig deeper and we stumbled upon the FX docuseries “The Most Dangerous Animal of All” which was released on to the major streaming platform Hulu in 2020. We were hoping to come to a more definitive conclusion on who really was the most dangerous animal of all. We started our viewing with the first 2 episodes of this 4-episode series and were offered many enticing conspiracy theories on the identity of the Zodiac killer. 

The poster for The Most Dangerous Animal of All.

           The first episode is really an exploration of Gary L. Stewart’s unknown origins. This all came to a start when Gary learned that he was adopted, he wanted to know who his birth parents were and what they were like. Maybe in an attempt to better understand who he really was at his core. Spoiler alert: he’s an ego-centric maniac with a penchant for the dramatic flair and weird connections. I’m not joking, seriously, Gary is the only one to be interviewed in mood lighting and not without multiple contemplation shots of Gary.

         These weird connections are called to attention in the first episode dramatically when we meet his birth mother, Judith Gilford. Their relationship is noteworthy, not only because of the obvious connection, but because of the way Gary specifically talks about his mother. For instance, in the docuseries they both comment on how amazing meeting up in San Francisco was and how “it was a memory I would never forget.” Now this is heartfelt and really shows a connection between mother and son who were separated by cruel intervention, but what follows after this moment is the complete opposite. Gary claims that his mother is withholding information and almost treats her with a standoffish attitude. What causes this shift? The only answer that we could point to is his father. The episode focuses heavily on the tumultuous “relationship” between then 14-year-old Judith and 27-year-old Earl Van Best Jr. We learn throughout this 40 minute episode of all the awful atrocities Early Van Best Jr. committed against Judith as a child. From pedophilia, cruelty and child endangerment all play a role in the demise of Judith and Earl’s affair. We found this relationship to honestly drag in the storytelling, making the big reveal at the end feel long overdue and definitely takes the shock out of the viewing. The big reveal being that Earl Van Best Jr. was actually the Zodiac Killer. 

Judith Gilford, Gary’s birth mother.

While the first episode is an exploration of Judith and Earl’s relationship, referred to as the “Ice Cream Romance”, the second episode is an investigation of the Zodiac Killer and how Earl Van Best Jr. intertwines with that narrative. In this episode we are presented with multiple pieces of evidence in the case, most of which were introduced to us in the 2007 movie adaptation. One of the biggest pieces of evidence that are dissected in this docuseries are the ciphers. In the movie we learned that the original ciphers were solved by a schoolteacher and his wife. But this docuseries presents us with another of the ciphers, the 340 cipher to be exact. In this cipher and some of the initial ciphers, Gary is able to point out that his birth father’s name is littered in them. Now this is a cool coincidence but after considerable consideration, it is hard to find this as hard proof of identity as Gary pointed out. I mean the 340 cipher is called that specifically because of the 340 symbols in that one specific cipher. Hence, a bunch of names could be made from this cipher and it’s probably nothing more than a coincidence that his name was able to be found. But as the docuseries points out Gary has let his life become obsessed with finding out who his birth father really was. The other important piece of evidence that is called to attention in this episode would be the handwriting. In the case detectives believed that handwriting would be the answer to the Zodiac Killer’s identity. Gary’s new evidence would be the marriage certificate between Judith and Earl, which has Earl’s written all over it. Though it is important to mention that no other piece of handwriting was presented to the audience. But they have a hand-writing expert come into the docuseries and confirm for the audience that, without a doubt, Earl Van Best Jr. wrote the Zodiac letters. Once again, while this is a great discovery, it is not inconsequential proof that Earl was the Zodiac. Doubt is cast upon this evidence from the moment it was introduced to the audience by Gary. Gary claims that he instantly recognized his father’s handwriting as the Zodiac’s, which is hard to believe. He’s never met his father and only has one piece of handwriting, so to create a definitive answer based upon this one piece is ludicrous. It’s not proof, but rather another coincidence. 

A photo of Gary’s birth father and a sketch of the Zodiac Killer together.

Ultimately, the first two episodes of FX’s, “The Most Dangerous Animal of All” attempts to point the case in a new direction that is filled with many new conspiracy theories that are built upon coincidences or circumstantial evidence. It is clear in these episodes that this case has consumed Gary’s life, while also fueling his obsession of telling his origin story and making himself a somebody. No matter if Earl Van Best Jr. is actually the Zodiac Killer, one thing is certain, Gary is his father’s son.

Who’s Telling the Truth?

One of the biggest questions to ever be presented in the True Crime genre would be something along the lines of what’s reliable and how do we know it? The final two episodes of ‘The Most Dangerous Animal of All’ produced by FX really explores and dissects this particular question. Gary’s attempt at bringing fame to himself is present throughout the entirety of this docu-series, but it becomes more apparent the further you make your way through the series. By using this story as a way to bring fame, Gary’s credibility is brought into question. 

In episode three the audience is told that Gary finally published his book in 2014, which was met with rave attention. It quickly found its way to becoming a New York Times Best Seller and Gary is seen showing up on countless television broadcasts promoting his book and sharing his story; a story that states that Earl Van Best Jr. is the Zodiac killer. But with the success of his book online sleuths became enraged and picked apart Gary’s entire story. What follows is a result of Gary’s own insecurity and anger showing. Gary quite literally gets on to these public forums and basically calls everyone who doesn’t agree with his theory an idiot, which is shown through countless chat bubbles flashing across the screen. This is only further reinforced with interviews given by Gary (still in his ominously lit office) where he continues to rub salt in the wound by saying how the online sleuthing community can’t take that they’re “wrong” all because their theory isn’t being favored. Which is interesting because pot meet kettle. But Gary uses the critique of lacking sufficient evidence as a way to try and build up his case that his father is the Zodiac Killer. This leads to what Gary considers his strongest piece of evidence: the DNA profile. In the last half of this episode Gary with the help of his co-author watched an ABC documentary done on the Zodiac that included blurred images of five alleles. Gary uses these blurred images and comes up with his own assumptions and ideas and builds his entire defense on an image that didn’t even have correct information in it. Another interesting bit in this episode would be the inclusion of video footage of Detective Toschi and his transfer from the homicide division when it was found out he was forging letters pretending to be the Zodiac. This is important because it sets the narrative that liars are awful and not to be trusted when it comes to the discussion of justice and truth. 

In episode four everything comes to a head as the series comes to a wrap. In this episode it is revealed that Gary has been forging documents and telling lies to explain away major gaps in the profile he had on his father and his sources. It is found out that Gary was placing his father in places that he wasn’t in, connecting random facts to explain how his father could have possibly been connected to the killings. This is sprinkled in with interviews with his co-author, other investigators and his own mother learning how Gary has deceived each of them and used them to garner fame and a name for himself. Susan Mastafa, the co-author, was probably the most shocked by Gary’s deception and tricks. It was quite sad to watch her break apart behind the camera when she learned that she wrote a book for someone who was deceiving her simply for attention. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention how nice it was to basically see Gary for the attention-seeking monster he is, if not a little heartbreaking.

But what does this mean now? Is Gary’s deception enough to discredit all of the hard work and theories discussed in this docu-series? We would say yes, for this case specifically. This whole series is a focus on Gary’s story of identity and the ways in which he deceived the entire world into believing that his father was the Zodiac Killer instead of focusing on the terrible crimes that were committed. Seriously, the only times the victims were discussed was when it was in relation to Earl’s whereabouts, but never actually showing us how Earl Van Best Jr.  could have committed these specific crimes. This points back to the larger problem of people using the stories of victims to gain fame and attention for themselves, when the genre should be all about empowering the victims instead of the storytellers. 

FX’s attempt to answer the question of “Who is the Zodiac Killer?” leads to the answer Earl Van Best Jr. An answer we know to be wrong. An answer we know to be built upon the idea of profiting off of death and lies. Gary is a prime example of ‘The Most Dangerous Animal of All’. An animal willing to deceive and benefit off of tragedy. Like Susan Mastafa says at the end of the documentary, we can’t wait to take this docu-series outside to the lanai and watch it burn while we drink some wine. 


This is the most recent news about the Zodiac Killer! What do you think? Do you think Gary is the real Zodiac Killer?


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