In early June 1963, 18-year-old Robert Domingos and 17-year-old Linda Edwards both dipped out of class at Lompoc High School for Senior Skip Day, a local tradition that came shortly before graduation. But instead of hanging with classmates, the couple went to the beach on their own.
Days later, their bullet-riddled bodies were found on a remote stretch of Gaviota Beach in Santa Barbara County. Nine years after the murders, in 1972, county police investigators attributed their murders to be the work of the so-called Zodiac Killer, even though no one appeared to have taken credit for the killings.
The serial killer who went by the notorious handle operated in the San Francisco Bay area from roughly 1968-69, and police conclusively linked him to at least the murders of five people—David Faraday, Betty Lou Jensen, Darlene Ferrin, Cecelia Shepard, and Paul Stine—although he appeared to claim 37 bodies in a cryptic letter mailed to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1974. After data from a consumer genealogy website helped nab 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo, who is accused of being the Golden State Killer, police are hoping the same method can identify one of America's most notorious serial killers after 50 years. (The renewed push for Zodiac DNA began months ago, before the arrest of DeAngelo, Vallejo Police Detective told the Associated Press.)
Tom Voigt, an amateur sleuth based in Portland, has investigated—so much as any lay citizen can—the Zodiac case for the last 20 years, as catalogued on his website, zodiackiller.com. The odd quest has essentially become Voigt’s day job—he accepts donations through his website—and the 51-year-old has described receiving exclusive access to police evidence vaults and maintaining a network of confidential sources in the law enforcement community. One of those sources, he said, even gave him never-before-seen autopsy photos of Domingos and Edwards.
While Voigt hasn’t received access to evidence maintained by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, he told me late Monday it’s time they released more information to the public—or else closed the door for good on the killer ever being brought to justice. We chatted at length about why an outsider like him is worth hearing on a case as serious as this one, and where this saga goes from here.
VICE: Numerous law enforcement agencies have worked on this since the Zodiac emerged decades ago. Why should people trust you or your website as an authoritative source for information on such a case?
Tom Voigt: Well, it was about six months after launching that America's Most Wanted and John Walsh featured my site. I was able to get into the San Francisco Police Department evidence room, I was able to get into the Napa County Sheriff's Department evidence room, and I got access to materials that nobody else have ever been given access to. My knowledge of everything Zodiac behind the scenes, stuff that no one else has ever seen, is something that I think is displayed throughout zodiackiller.com. You're going to see information from all the jurisdictions that no one's ever seen before. And just most recently in September, I don't know if you saw that update, but I was invited down by the Vallejo Police Department to help them with their Zodiac evidence. That's ultimately what people want to know.
Given your prolonged exposure to the saga, what’s your sense of what it would take to catch the Zodiac Killer at this point?
The only thing that hurts cold cases is when it's a police department that is involved and they have limited funding. A typical city police department is always struggling with their budgets and cold cases are expensive to solve because often times they're going to involve forensic testing and so forth to try to find a DNA match of the culprit. They're focused on current crime. That's where all their resources have to go. They just really don't have much manpower or budget left to try to solve 40- or 50-year-old cases that were cold within three days. So it's considered a long-shot and they're gambling with taxpayer money.
If the state of California would get behind the Zodiac case like they did with the Golden State Killer and put state money into the investigation, they could collect whatever evidence that they don't already have from San Francisco and Vallejo, they can test it all, get a full DNA profile with the state crime lab and then just copy the formula that was used to catch the Golden State Killer suspect. There's a proven formula. There's a path—before there was no path through the wilderness. Now there's a path that's been laid out. The hard part's over.
About the DNA sample: When I last talked to you, you said the sample that has made the press recently was collected on top of a stamp on a letter apparently sent from the Zodiac, meaning it could be basically anybody's. Are you skeptical that the police have a viable DNA sample?
They don't have a viable DNA sample. Let me clarify: The DNA from 2002 was taken from the top of the stamp and some people have a hard time understanding why DNA would have been collected outside and not underneath. There wasn't [enough] underneath to pull even a partial profile. The outside of the Zodiac stamp is just as much evidence as the inside. And the job of Cydne Holt, her job [as featured on an ABC News story] was to try to get DNA from the Zodiac evidence that was given to her and that is what she did. She tested all of the evidence inside and out and that's what she should've done. And it just turns out that the only DNA she could get was only a partial profile [and] just happened to be from the outside of the stamp.
Now, that doesn't automatically mean it's the mailman's. I think that once Zodiac dropped that letter in the mailbox, not more than ten or 15 people would've touched it over time until it was determined to be evidence and sealed properly. So, there's a one-in-ten or one-in-fifteen chance that that DNA could be the Zodiac's, but it's still only a partial profile. So, luckily Detective Terry Poyser of the Vallejo Police Department submitted some evidence, the Zodiac letters, to a lab sometime ago and it's expected that the results will be back [as soon as] next month.
Do you really think the Zodiac Killer is still alive?
Well, I hope the Zodiac is still alive because then he can be prosecuted. I used to say that the odds were that he was dead, but it used to be so funny because when I started researching the Zodiac case I read a lot of other types of books about other cases and it was always said by the FBI, their behavioral experts and profilers, oh, you know, serial killers can't stop on their own—they keep going and they keep going. So if a series of murders stopped, it's because the guy got caught for another crime, unrelated. Or because he died or he's in a mental hospital—they can't stop on their own. Oh boy, did that turn out to be bullshit. The Green River Killer stopped on his own, Gary Ridgway, and he was eventually caught decades later. The same with Dennis Rader, the BTK Strangler, and now you have another example with the Golden State Killer suspect DeAngelo. If he's the guy, apparently he stopped a long time ago.
Why is this case still important and worthy of, as you note, finite resources? It's been 50 years.
The worst of the worst always have to be pursued until they're caught. The Zodiac is the last one. His last claim was he killed 37 people. I don't know if he really killed 37 people but, you know, he sure killed five. And he deserves to be apprehended, if possible, and prosecuted for those crimes. And that's why people are still interested. It's always been about the victims.
Is there any stuff that you saw in the evidence room that you didn't publish on your website?
I ended up seeing two or three written items that I felt like definitely could've been from the Zodiac. I don't know if they were from the Zodiac but they could be and I want to get another shot at them—I want to see them again. I do know for sure that there were some items in those boxes that should have been considered evidence. There's a lot of material to go through.
The funny thing is, that a lot of what Vallejo has in those kook—I call them kook boxes because a lot of stuff is just kooky, sent by people who think they know who the Zodiac is or think they've solved the code. I've been sent stuff by the same people. I'd open a package and it would be dirty Q-tips in a Ziplock bag. Someone thinks they know who the Zodiac is and they got his dirty Q-tips so that the DNA—so that they can prove he's the Zodiac and they sent it to me for some reason.
You mentioned in your post that you saw some newer suspects that weren't previously or publicly mentioned.
Virtually everything in those boxes was all sent by people who figured they knew who the Zodiac was or figured they solved one of the cyphers. But I get emails multiple times a day from people who think they know who the Zodiac is. I didn't really waste too much time reading that stuff when I was in Vallejo because I'm already used to it and 99 percent of what I get sent about possible suspects is just garbage. People tend to want to be right—they want their neighbor or their dad or their grandpa or their elementary school teacher [to be] the Zodiac. They just jump to conclusions. A lot of the reasoning behind why someone things they know who the Zodiac is just not substantial at all. And also, a lot of people, their knowledge about the Zodiac is limited to a paperback book that they read 30 years ago, which is inaccurate, or an inaccurate movie, or an inaccurate TV recreation. They're basing why they think who they know the Zodiac is on falsehoods. I'm very quick to spot that stuff because I've been dealing with that for so long. It's very rare when I see something about a suspect that's really very compelling at all.
Going back to the autopsy photos of Robert Domingos and Linda Edwards, you obtained these from a source inside the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office?
That's correct and I've had that information for awhile now. I don't like to post photos like that unless I think there's something that might benefit the case overall. If I don't see any real possibility that it can benefit the case in the long run, which ultimately is to solve the case, then I don't really want to be known as someone who posts gruesome photos. So I've always tried to avoid it. But in the case of Domingos and Edwards, it's the 55th anniversary coming up. I don't know what the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office is doing, but it's been 55 fucking years. Do something—anything.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.