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Starting Saturday The Zodiac killer, who terrorized Vallejo and the Bay Area nearly 40 years ago is the subject of the $85 million movie, "Zodiac," starring Robert Downey Jr., which opens Friday nationwide. In a three-day series starting Saturday, The Times-Herald examines the perplexing case, its characters and its impact on the community with local law enforcement's reaction to an exclusive San Francisco screening of the motion picture.
There may be a new lead in the decades-old Zodiac serial killer case, a Vallejo detective said Wednesday.
Three letters penned by the Zodiac were unearthed and sent recently to a state crime lab for DNA testing in a new attempt to create a genetic profile of the serial killer, Vallejo cold case Detective Matt Meredith said.
"Nothing's been reactivated, but nothing's been closed. It's really just an unsolved homicide," said Meredith, who appeared Tuesday on the ABC program "Primetime: The Outsiders."
Interest in the unsolved Zodiac case has peaked in recent weeks as Paramount Pictures prepares to release an $85 million feature film on the killer, who's avoided arrest for almost four decades. The infamous Zodiac was responsible for at least five killings, three of which took place in Vallejo, striking fear throughout the Bay Area in 1968 and 1969.
The slayer sent cryptograms and mysterious letters to various newspapers, including the Times-Herald and the Vallejo News-Chronicle, announcing his crimes and warning of future ones.
Meredith said the movie didn't prompt the decision to test the letters, because he was only made aware of those untested letters within the last couple months.
"I'm not gonna get caught up
in the hype," Meredith said. "They were letters from the original evidence sent to various organizations, agencies and newspapers.
"If sufficient DNA is found on them then that will create a DNA profile of whoever donated that substance," the detective explained. "We can use a profile to compare against other DNA profiles."
Meredith said the results probably would come back in "more than several weeks, but less than several months." If a successful DNA profile is pulled from the letters, it could be tested against numerous law enforcement criminal DNA databases in an attempt to find a match.
A spokesman from the state Department of Justice, which runs state crime labs, did not return a call Wednesday.
Typically, lab technicians would test the envelope flap and stamp area, Meredith said, for traces of saliva, which can hold DNA. But these are letters from the Richard Nixon era.
"DNA profiles have been obtained from evidence older than this," Meredith said.
The Vallejo detective said he has had cases with similarly aged evidence, in which he not only got DNA profiles, but also convictions.
Another complication could be that these untested letters come from one of the nation's most publicized unsolved cases and could have been improperly handled by numerous people, contaminating the specimens.
"If I had a piece of evidence and let a newspaper reporter see it and he sneezes on it, then his DNA will be on it," Meredith said as an example.
Any DNA evidence culled from the letters, Vallejo police would compare to their No. 1 suspect - Arthur Leigh Allen.
"Arthur Leigh Allen is a strong suspect, but the case remains unsolved," Meredith said. "As far as we're concerned, it's an open homicide - period."
Retired Vallejo Det. George Bawart, who handled the Zodiac case during its heyday, said there was enough evidence against Allen, a former Vallejo school teacher, in 1992 to charge him, "and we went to file the case." However, two weeks later, on Aug. 26, 1992, his suspect died at age 58.
DNA and print analysis was performed during a 1992 autopsy of Allen, a Vallejo mobile home park resident.
In October 2002, a San Francisco police department crime lab director tested a Zodiac letter and the resulting DNA sample, pulled from saliva under a stamp, failed to match Allen's DNA. San Francisco police even said other people could be involved in the case.
Vallejo police, at the time, said Allen still remained their top suspect.
No DNA testing existed when the Zodiac mailed the letters, leading one San Francisco investigator to rule out Allen as a suspect, saying he couldn't have known to use another person's saliva to mail the letters.
The San Francisco DNA results were not a complete genetic profile, preventing them from comparing the DNA to criminal databases.
San Francisco investigators said they also found a writer's palm print on a Zodiac letter that didn't match Allen's, and the bloody fingerprint found in the taxi of the Zodiac's final known victim, San Francisco cabbie Paul Stine, did not match Allen's print.
The department, which began looking at the old case in 2000, had planned to continue pursuing further DNA testing.
A San Francisco crime lab director and detective did not return calls for comment Wednesday.
The Zodiac's confirmed slayings began Dec. 20, 1968, when he killed David Faraday, 17, and Betty Lou Jensen, 16, on Lake Herman Road. On July 4, 1969, the Zodiac killed Darlene Ferrin, 22, in the Blue Rock Springs area of Vallejo.
The Zodiac then killed Cecelia Shepard, 22, at Lake Berryessa on Sept. 27, 1969. Finally, cabbie Paul Stine was killed Oct. 11, 1969 in Presidio Heights, San Francisco.
E-mail Matthias Gafni at email@example.com or call 553-6825. Staff writer Rich Freedman contributed to this report.