Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Zodiac Killer

Donald Cheney

Cheney, who had been friends with Allen for years until he moved to southern California, told the detectives that he and Allen had had a conversation in Allen's Fresno Street basement in December 1968 that started on the topic of recreational hunting but soon took a turn for the bizarre. Allen brought up Richard Connell's classic short story The Most Dangerous Game, the tale of a mad count that hunts shipwrecked travelers on his private island for sport, which has been published in dozens of fiction anthologies and is popular at the grade school level. Allen is said to have greatly enjoyed the story, and allegedly identified with the count.

After broaching the idea of hunting humans, Allen is said to have given a hypothetical account of how he would commit a series of murders in lovers' lanes. He allegedly described how he would "use a revolver or pistol with a flashlight attached to same for illumination and an aiming device, [and] would walk up and shoot people... Allen also talked about shooting the tires of a school bus and picking off the 'little darlings' as they came bouncing off the bus", 1 and went on to say that he would send harassing notes to the police. If this was not enough, Allen also allegedly stated that he would call himself "Zodiac."

According to the MBPD report, "Cheney replied, 'Zodiac … why that, why not something else?' Arthur Allen at this time became very emotional and stated, 'I like the name 'Zodiac' and that's the name I'm going to use'". 2

On its face, Cheney's account appears damning - after all, if Allen made these comments in December 1968, then he had displayed knowledge of the Lake Herman Road murders that no one but the Zodiac would have until August 1969. The Zodiac's threat to shoot at a school bus did not come until even later, in October of that year. We can forgive minor quibbles, such as the misquote of "little kiddies" as "little darlings;" the police, rather than the newspapers, being named as the recipients of the forthcoming letters; and the missing definite article that the killer unfailingly used as part of his moniker. There is, however, the question of Cheney's timing: why did he wait two years to come forth with this information?

Cheney moved to southern California in January 1969, and it is possible that he did not hear about the second Vallejo attack and the letters that followed it. However, the Zodiac case exploded into national attention following Paul Stine's murder in downtown San Francisco, and it is unlikely that anyone in the state of California could have avoided hearing about the unknown killer who stalked lovers' lanes, wrote taunting letters to the newspapers, and called himself "the Zodiac," and apparently Cheney was no exception. By their own admission, "Mr. Panzarella and Mr. Cheney had read and seen articles in the newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, concerning the 'Zodiac' killings". 3 Ignorance, then, is no explanation for his silence. We must infer from his account that none of the Zodiac reports registered with Cheney, and that he never again thought of Allen as a possible killer until 1971, when he heard about an obscure and totally unrelated series of unsolved murders in Grass Valley, CA, a small town about 150 miles north of San Francisco and Vallejo. According to Cheney and Panzarella, it was "the recent killings in the Grass Valley Area by an unknown suspect [that] brought the suspicions to a focus."

We must wonder how the Grass Valley murders would jog Cheney's memory as regards Allen and the suspicious conversation, when the almost daily reports out of San Francisco detailing a killer identical to the one Allen described did not. We must also wonder why, if Allen was indeed the Zodiac, he would reveal the identifying details of his murderous exploits within days of their commission. Certainly, he could not expect Cheney's memory to be as bad as it appears to be; the slaying of Jensen and Faraday on December 20, 1968, dominated the Vallejo media for weeks. The Zodiac did take certain risks, but situational control was one of his hallmarks. Such a concern would almost certainly rule out anything as foolish as overtly detailing his crimes, especially to someone who might have suspicions about him already - Allen had touched Cheney's young daughter inappropriately on a camping trip years before, and Cheney had complained to Allen's brother about it. (In one report, a VPD detective wrote, "This might be a motive why Cheney would make such an accusation against Arthur Allen") 4