How a Pizza Shop Owner Spent $13k Trying to Catch the Zodiac Killer

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Few serial killers have maintained both their notoriety and anonymity so well as the Zodiac killer. But while we benefit from the distance of time, in the early 1970s the case was extremely urgent. Law enforcement officials and the residents of the San Francisco Bay Area, in the thick of it all, were not only mystified, but also terrified. The serial killer stalked men and women in the Bay Area and was responsible for at least five deaths – and likely many more.

The terror began in December 1968 when a young couple was shot to death in a parked car in an isolated area. In 1969, the killer started sending letters to local newspapers, taunting the police with cryptic messages. The city of San Francisco was on edge, and police came up empty-handed time and time again.

Amidst all the confusion and anxiety, one San Francisco resident took it upon himself to help catch the Zodiac. Tom Hanson owned and managed pizza shops in California, but he also had some acting experience, appearing in exploitation films such as The Hellcats in the late 1960s. Hanson, outraged by the unsolved Zodiac killings, hatched a plan to catch the murderer himself. He decided to use his savings to make a film based on the Zodiac, in an attempt to draw the killer out.

Photo Credit: Facebook, Zodiac Man

It was believed that the Zodiac was a film buff due to a line in one of the letters he sent to police. The killer wrote that man was “the most dangerous animal of all to kill,” which was a line of dialogue from the 1932 film The Most Dangerous Game.

Photo Credit: Facebook, Tom De Zeus

Hanson and his friends got busy making the film, spending $13,000 to produce The Zodiac Killer. The film took many creative liberties and provided the killer with a fictional backstory. Once the film was completed, the next stage of the plan to catch the killer could now proceed. In April 1971, Hanson screened the film for an entire week at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre. He took out advertisements in local papers to promote the film. Hanson believed that the Zodiac would come to one of the screenings, and he would be able to nab him and put an end to the killings.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

At each screening, Hanson and his friends monitored the entire theater, including the entrance and the lobby. The filmmaker also came up with a plan to further draw out the killer. People who watched the film could fill out a card in the lobby to try to win a motorcycle. What theater-goers didn’t know was that a man was inside the podium in the lobby where people dropped their cards, comparing handwriting samples with the Zodiac’s letters to local newspapers. Another man was hiding in the freezer. If the person in the podium noticed a match, he would flip a light switch to alert the man in the freezer to come apprehend the suspect.

Human error was on full display, however, and sometimes these posts were unmanned if people had to go to the bathroom or take breaks. Hanson discovered someone had dropped a card into the podium that read, “I am the Zodiac. I was here” during one screening. Another night, a man followed Hanson to the bathroom. As the two men stood at the urinals, the stranger, who was apparently a dead ringer for the man in Zodiac wanted poster, said to Hanson, “You know, real blood doesn’t come out like that.”

Hanson took the man to an office in the theater where he was questioned, but police didn’t have enough evidence to hold the man for anything. Interestingly, the man returned to the theater later that evening to “check in” on Hanson for unknown reasons. Stranger still, the man was later fired from his job at a bank and became a mailman, just like the main character in Hanson’s film.

Ultimately, Hanson’s plan did not work. The Zodiac was never caught, and the debate rages to this day about the serial killer’s true identity. If you’re curious, you can take a look at the trailer for 1971’s The Zodiac Killer here.

h/t: All That Is Interesting

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