Tom Voigt knows absolutely everything about the Zodiac Killer, the real-life murderer featured in the movie Zodiac. Neither cop nor crackpot, Voigt is certain that he's amassed almost enough evidence to solve the decades-old case very soon.
Voigt runs the popular website ZodiacKiller.com — an online destination for amateur sleuths who are fascinated by the bizarre murders that terrorized the Bay Area in the late 1960s and 1970s. Stop by, click through the evidence (those angry, taunting letters! Those creepy ciphers!), parse the many "Whodunnit" theories, and before you know it, you'll be hooked into the mystery too.
Voigt, a web designer, lives in Portland, Ore., but he makes trips back to the Zodiac's stomping grounds to further his work on the case, as well as lead occasional tours of crime scenes and related locations (like the very mailbox where the killer was known to drop publicity-seeking missives to the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets).
It's been 45 years since the Zodiac — clad, nightmarishly, in a homemade executioner's hood — stalked a young couple on the banks of NorCal's Lake Berryessa in what was probably his most famous crime. But Voigt believes the killer's identity will soon be revealed.
io9: How did you become interested in the Zodiac Killer?
Tom Voigt: When I was born, my parents were living in Southern California. My father was a newspaper man, and my earliest memories were of my dad coming home and turning on the black-and-white TV, and I remember all these crazy stories from the late 1960s. Not just Zodiac, but the Manson Family, all the anti-war protests, the Watts riots, and so forth. I remember the TV being really scary! We eventually moved out of the Los Angeles area to Oregon, because the Mansons had scared my mom so badly. But then we got to Oregon and it was Bigfoot, D.B. Cooper, Ted Bundy. That's the atmosphere I grew up in.
When I was in my late 20s, I saw a Zodiac Killer reenactment on Unsolved Mysteries. I remembered that name from when I was a little kid, and I was really surprised that the guy was still at large. Some time later, I bought a paperback book about the case to take on a road trip, and [I soon] became hooked on the case.
Was it the Robert Graysmith book?
Yeah, the first Graysmith book. It made me realize there were quite a few things about the case that made me believe it could be solved. I had never been on the Internet at that point, but I knew about it, and I thought, "That's the way to solve the case!" With a website, anybody in the world can get to it. You could get tips from all around the world. You could put up all the Zodiac letters and codes up, so everyone can read them, and maybe somebody, somewhere would see one of the unsolved codes and solve it. It seemed like a no-brainer, so I taught myself how to build a website. That's how compelled I was with it. I started Zodiackiller.com on March 20, 1998 — before Facebook, before Google, before YouTube.
How has it grown and changed over the years? Has the crowdsourcing approach yielded any solid tips or leads?
It's grown every year. It's hundreds of thousands of pages, as far as how many pages of data are available to people online. As far as activity, in terms of hits, the highest monthly total was more than 37 million. That was in March 2007, when the big-budget Zodiac movie opened. My site was so overwhelmed that it stopped being able to count how many hits there were halfway through the month! So who knows how many it really ended up with.
The most important thing about the site it that it's like a funnel. People send me information every day: tips and so forth about who they think the Zodiac is, or what they think he was trying to accomplish. Also, people who think they've solved the codes. I get all this data, and I filter through it. I can spot really easily what's garbage, and I can also spot what's good information. I have really good sources that I've developed over the years within law enforcement, and I can pass that information along to them.
It's really interesting to hear people contact me that say they went to one of the original detectives — or one of the current detectives — and they're told, "Go to Tom Voigt at ZodiacKiller.com." It's pretty cool that the site is so well-respected from people within law enforcement, and it's actually recommended by them.
You mentioned David Fincher's Zodiac, which introduced a whole new generation to the case. What did you think of the movie?
A vast majority was factually inaccurate. It would take a ten-hour phone call to list every little detail!
Was there one inaccuracy that particularly stood out?
Well, every time there's a scene where Jake Gyllenhaal [as Robert Graysmith] takes credit for a piece of information that I actually found out and shared with [the real] Robert Graysmith 20 years after this movie was supposedly taking place. [Laughs.] There were all these scenes set in 1970 where Graysmith was learning some new tidbit about [suspect] Arthur Leigh Allen, when actually it was a tidbit learned by me and passed on to Graysmith. So that was annoying.
But, I didn't really expect it to be accurate. I saw some early photographs [from the set] of the Graysmith and Paul Avery, played by Robert Downey Jr., characters, together. They never actually interacted during the time they worked at the Chronicle. I've interviewed both Graysmith and Avery extensively and they didn't sit next to each other or talk to each other [like Gyllenhaal and Downey do in the movie]. In fact, the first time they met was after Graysmith had left the Chronicle. [Laughs.]
But the film got the word out [about the case] to a lot of people, and the first two-thirds of it I actually really enjoyed. But the last third was pretty painful.
Did you read the latest book on the case which came out earlier this year, The Most Dangerous Animal of All, written by a man who was convinced that his father was the Zodiac?
That was debunked within about three days. The biggest piece of so-called evidence that's presented in the book is an alleged handwriting match between the suspect and the Zodiac. And it turned out that the suspect's handwriting samples came from a marriage certificate. I have a really great team of researchers that follow the case through my website, and in the discussion forum, it took about three days for them to obtain handwriting samples from the reverend who performed the marriage. That handwriting matched the handwriting on the certificate. So it wasn't even written by the suspect! That was pretty damn funny, but it was good publicity for about two weeks.
What's your favorite theory as to the Zodiac's identity?
With everything I know about the case, I believe the Zodiac is Richard Gaikowski. He was a San Francisco artist. There are a million and one things that point to him, but the most damning bit of information is simply the way the original three-part code [mailed in separate segments by the killer in 1969] was solved.
You can see Gaikowski's nickname, G-Y-K-E. When the cipher is solved using a key, it turns out that GYKE is actually the last four letters of the word "because," in the phrase "I will not give you my name because you will try to stop me from killing." All three syllables of his name are given [across the three ciphers], but the GYKE portion was only included with the letter in which Zodiac wrote "In this code is my identity."
It sounds complicated, but I have visuals on the site that explain it. It's really stunning, and the odds of that being random, with all the other coincidences about Gaikowski ... I just think the odds are against it.
Is the case still open?
Oh, theoretically. But based on the emails I get, people are really frustrated with San Francisco police. There's nobody that really takes the tips or calls people back. I've always said that if the Zodiac called the SFPD to turn himself in, they'd put him on hold for so long he'd die of old age before they could prosecute him.
Do you think it will ever be solved?
I believe it will be solved sooner than later. I think there's crucial evidence and crucial informants. I think there's people out there who know what happened, they know the whole story, but they don't really want to come forward because they don't want the notoriety. Maybe in a way they're worried about being prosecuted for not coming forward sooner.
So I tried to get a reward fund going. I felt like people are old enough now that they're starting to worry about medical problems. Maybe they want to take care of their kids or grandkids, and so they're willing to deal with whatever they were worried about in the first place, for enough money. So I wanted to raise a reward of six figures; I fell short, but I'll try again. I think that's the way to go. I think there's somebody out there who knows who the Zodiac was and can prove it, but they're not motivated to come forward.
Do you ever encounter people who wonder why you're so involved in the Zodiac case?
All it takes is for me to explain to people that it's not a glorification site about some known killer. I mean, what's the point of, like, a Ted Bundy website? He was caught and a Wikipedia page is enough. So once people realize that the Zodiac is not my hero, and that we're trying to help catch the guy, and it's actually working out pretty well, then they think it's really cool.