String of killings remains unsolved

Zodiac investigators, victims seek closure

October 26, 2002|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Closure.

Could it be?

With two men in custody in connection with the sniper killings, many people are feeling a surge of relief, believing that three weeks of terror have ended with a rest-stop arrest near Frederick. For law enforcement, much work remains, but many people might be allowing themselves a sense of closure.

Across the country in Northern California, law enforcement officials can't say the same about another high-profile serial killer case that still dogs them. In the past weeks, national stories and an ABC News prime-time special drew similarities between the Washington-area sniper and the so-called Zodiac killer, who killed in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s. Both killers left letters to police. Both threatened children. Both terrorized communities.

Co-joined in the media, the sensational cases had another common denominator: The killers had eluded police. That comparison, however, may have ended with Thursday morning's arrests in Maryland.

"That is great news," says former police detective Ken Narlow in California. "Wish we could get a break in our case. Wish we could have that closure." He and others involved in the case have gone without that closure for more than 30 years.

It had been a routine call: Victim being transported to hospital - suspected homicide. Narlow, a Napa County Sheriff's Office detective, met the ambulance on Sept. 27, 1969, when Cecelia Shepard was brought in. The bright music major had been stabbed 10 times. Her companion that Saturday evening on a blanket at Lake Berryessa was 20-year-old Bryan Hartnell. He'd been stabbed six times.

They were the fifth and sixth known victims of the Zodiac killer. Shepard, 22, died two days after her attack. Hartnell, now 53, survived. He's an attorney in Southern California.

"I pull over my car sometimes and still wonder, how close did I get?" says Narlow, who spent 30 years trying to arrest the Zodiac killer, who police believe killed five people in 1968 and 1969. (He claimed to have killed 37.) Narlow, at 72, still goes to work at the sheriff's office and has never stopped thinking about the unfinished business from more than 30 years ago.

"I wouldn't say you become obsessed, but you are constantly wondering," Narlow says. Is the Zodiac killer still alive? If so, he would probably be in his early 70s, "probably running around in a wheelchair," Narlow says. But despite his presumed age, "there's still always the fear he will come back."

The years haven't mitigated that terror?

"No, no," the former detective says.

As the sniper killings dominated attention on the East Coast, the 1969 Zodiac case became a hot topic again on the West Coast. A Zodiac Task Force still meets on the active case, with law enforcement officials hoping the renewed interest will bring new leads. Specialists at the San Francisco Police Department's DNA lab are looking for a genetic trail; such technology wasn't available 30 years ago.

Neither was the Internet. Zodiac Web sites, including the exhaustive zodiackiller.com, appear more popular than ever. Without an arrest, there can be no closure to speculation, either.

"It never ceases to amaze me how people continually talk about the Zodiac killings," says Capt. Tony Pearsall of the Vallejo, Calif., Police Department. He was 22 and working at the department when detectives went to a park on the outskirts of Vallejo on July 4, 1969.

Darlene Ferrin, 22, had been shot five times. Her companion, Mike Mageau, 19, had been shot four times. He survived. Pearsall says the curious still occasionally go to that secluded area of Blue Rock Springs Park - the spot where the Zodiac killer shot two young people. The thought lingers that the Zodiac killer still walks among us here, Pearsall says. Maybe he's sitting back and wondering if he'll ever be caught, he says.

"I wish to God we could figure it out," he says. "I wish we could have closure."

Closure - a sort of emotional resolution or resignation after a tragedy - isn't only achieved after an arrest and conviction ends a criminal saga. Sometimes, closure has nothing to do with law and order. In 1969, Wilma Shepard also met the ambulance bringing the fatally wounded body of Cecelia Shepard to a Napa County hospital. Her daughter held on for two days. Given her injuries, she never would have had any quality of life.

"To me, her death was closure," says Shepard, of Redding, Calif. "If she had lived, she would never have been normal."

More than 20 years ago, Wilma Shepard went to a grief counseling class. She had waited a long time to go. A woman of strong faith, what could a counseling class offer her? She finally went and listened to "others struggle with finding closure." After her daughter's murder, she wanted to find the killer herself. Of course, she couldn't, she realized.

Over the years, she thought less and less often of her daughter's murderer. She was glad she never had to attend what people had hoped an arrest would bring: the trial of the Zodiac killer. A Seventh Day Adventist, Shepard says she never sought vengeance. "Whoever has done such a deed is accountable to God, not me," she says. "There will be retribution for him at a later date."

She doesn't picture the killer as he might be today. But she never stops picturing her daughter as she was then: her lovely singing voice, her personality, her kindnesses. In the case of this victim's family, closure came with a merciful end after an unmerciful attack.

"What we were left with were the beautiful memories of a beautiful daughter," Wilma Shepard says.

For the family members of 10 people killed by the Washington-area sniper, beautiful memories - and two arrests - might help close the terrible month of October.

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