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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

LUKE BURBANK, host:

And I'm Luke Burbank.

Madeleine, where have you been this week, by the way?

BRAND: Luke, I've been down a rabbit hole. Really. You know that Zodiac movie that's out today?

BURBANK: Right, right. The Zodiac killer from like the late '60s, I think. He killed a bunch of people in the Bay Area. And then he was always taunting police, I think.

BRAND: Right. He was sending those weird letters.

BRAND: And he always wore a hood.

BRAND: And cryptograms. Right. That's the one. Well, the case really has never been solved after 40 years. And at the time in the late '60s, early '70s, it was a huge story.

(Soundbite of news broadcasts)

Unidentified Man #1: Zodiac, a symbol that now stands for terror in San Francisco.

Unidentified Man #2: The most wanted man in San Francisco calls himself the Zodiac killer.

Indented Man #3: Since last December, five persons have been murdered in the San Francisco area.

Unidentified Man #4: Last week he threatened to make a busload of schoolchildren his next victim.

Unidentified Man #5: This bloody shirt belonged to the latest victim, the cab driver.

Unidentified Man #6: Zodiac, the boastful killer who's alluded San Francisco police for twelve years.

BURBANK: Well, I guess now that this movie's out today - I mean, Jake Gyllenhaal's in it. Everyone, including us, is getting back into this story.

BRAND: Right, there's this renewed interest. But my story's not about that. My story's about a group of people that have never lost interest in the case. People who are so obsessed with Zodiac they're actually trying to solve the case themselves.

And Luke, that's how I found myself sitting in a car in the rain outside a small, yellow, Spanish-style house in Vallejo - that's near San Francisco -where the number one suspect once lived.

Mr. ED NEAL (Zodiac amateur investigator): This is where Arthur Leigh Allen used to live. We may not necessarily want to park out the front.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEAL: People here are a little touchy about the Zodiac investigators coming around.

BRAND: Investigators like Ed Neal.

Mr. NEAL: I used to come by here a lot. I used to come by here once or twice a week, seriously, when I lived in American Canyon, which is only about four miles from here.

BRAND: Once or twice a week?

Mr. NEAL: Probably. I mean not like stop outside and, you know, just look at the place. I mean, I'd sort of drive by.

BRAND: Ed's 41 years old, a professional massage therapist, and for the last 14 years, an amateur Zodiac detective.

Mr. NEAL: So it's a little odd, I think, to have someone who's involved with, you know, a healing type of job, investigating a serial murderer. I always get a bit of a kick out of that, I suppose.

BRAND: The Zodiac was never caught. Arthur Leigh Allen is the best of a pathetic bunch of suspects, Ed says. A lot of circumstantial evidence points to him but DNA, fingerprints, handwriting, none of it matches.

Mr. NEAL: So that means basically solving the case is still, well, up for grabs. Anyone can do - well, I shouldn't say anyone can do it. Officially only police solve cases. However, that doesn't mean that I can't find any sort of information that might help to lead to his capture.

BRAND: And that's what fuels this Zodiac amateur detective community. The idea that they, ordinary people, could someday identify a criminal as notorious as Jack the Ripper.

Mr. NEAL: Zodiac mailed this on October 27, 1970, and in it he included a strange symbol. It wasn't like a Z. He did have a Z in there for Zodiac. He had his usual cross-circle symbol. But he had another one that…

BRAND: And that means no detail is too small or too seemingly irrelevant.

Mr. NEAL: Somebody thought this was a symbol for a wide flange beam. It's not as far as I know, but we just call it that so that everybody knows…

BRAND: And why no trip to one of the crime scenes is ever wasted.

Mr. NEAL: We are at the Lake Herman Road attack site, where the Zodiac shot Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday on December 20, 1968.

BRAND: And this is just a turnout on the side of the road.

Mr. NEAL: Yes, it is. It's strange, like why did he pick here.

BRAND: Ed says he began investigating after the reading the seminal book on the case, "Zodiac," by Robert Graysmith. That's the book the new movie is based on. It came out in 1986. Its cover was yellow. The amateur detectives just call it Yellow Book.

Mr. TOM VOIGT (Zodiac amateur investigator): The yellow book, the infamous yellow book.

BRAND: That's Tom Voigt, another Zodiac investigator. He, too, was inspired to looking into the case after reading Graysmith's book. But now…

Mr. VOIGT: I try not to speak of it.

BRAND: Why?

Mr. VOIGT: It's entertaining. You know, it was entertaining but it turned out to be mostly false.

BRAND: Tom and Ed have both turned on their former prophet, Robert Graysmith. They say they've found numerous inaccuracies in the yellow book and they have more and better information. Information that's posted on Tom's Web site: Zodiackiller.com. There are some 5,000 individual pages on the site and about 10,000 images.

Mr. VOIGT: The information I collect, the more interested in the case I become and the closer I think a solution is right around the corner. And - so I'm hooked. I don't know. I don't see an end to this coming anytime soon, as far as my interest is concerned.

BRAND: Tom just turned 40 and lives in Portland, Oregon. He spends most of his non-working time on all things Zodiac. He says he's spent $75,000 investigating the case over the last 10 years. What are you spending the money on?

Mr. VOIGT: Well, traveling back and forth to the Bay Area and all those related expenses, and then the Web site expenses, and then having to buy information when people don't want to give it to me. And my cell phone bill.

Mr. JOHN MIKULENKA (Documentary filmmaker, "Hunting the Zodiac"): I would agree that most of the people that I encountered have certain obsessive or compulsive tendencies.

BRAND: That's John Mikulenka. He is just finishing up a documentary on the amateur Zodiac detectives.

Mr. MIKULENKA: At first I thought the common thread was that they were guys in their 30s without girlfriends.

BRAND: But after five years of filming and meeting a lot of women, too, he's come to view them differently.

Mr. MIKULENKA: It's a passion that's constructive - at least in their minds it's constructive. They're trying to solve something that - a heinous crime that created many victims. They, of course, could be throwing their money and time at something else, quite a bit less productive or constructive - shopaholics or watching endless TV, or getting drunk all the time.

BRAND: And John says, that obsession was instrumental in getting the police to reopen the case five years ago and do some DNA testing. It's something John can empathize with, you see he too felt the lore of the Zodiac after reading Robert Graysmith's yellow book.

Mr. MIKULENKA: And you read that book and then you want to go to Vallejo and find the hardware store where the prime suspect works and see if you can look him the eyes, you know. It's - it was…

BRAND: He was still alive then.

Mr. MIKULENKA: He was still alive back then. Yeah. So it's really a compelling read. And for anybody living in Northern California, I mean, I remember plotting with a co-worker like, let's get a car and go over to Vallejo and see if we can find that hardware store.

BRAND: And like any subculture, they have created a community. Here's Ed.

Mr. NEAL: I spend several hours a day, actually these days it's mostly on a Zodiac chatroom. And we are all real good friends and so a lot of it is just pure socializing, which is, you know, fine with me since I don't tend to get out much now because I'm in the Zodiac chat all the time.

BRAND: And Tom, he met his live-in girlfriend in one of the Zodiac chatrooms.

Mr. VOIGHT: I have friends all over the world I never would have met. I mean, have you had a friend in Iceland. I bet you don't.

BRAND: You're right I don't.

Mr. VOIGHT: See.

BRAND: Tom says he gets two to three million hits a month on his Web site. He says there are active Zodiac hunters all over the world - Iceland, Japan, Ireland. A couple of hundred of them will be in San Francisco tomorrow for Tom's 2007 Zodiackiller.com Task Force meeting.

Do you ever step back from it and go what am I doing? This is really - I've really gone too far here.

Mr. VOIGHT: No. I've never even pondered that. I'm going to stake this out and keep doing what I'm doing.

BRAND: I'm just saying from the outside, one might wonder, well, why are you spending all energy is a little crazy. It looks really crazy for me outside.

Mr. VOIGHT: No. I think most people understand, really, because if you go into any Walgreens, they're going to have a section for true crime and that's because so many people are interested. They're going to have mysteries, they're going have true crime because that's what entertains people. You know…

BRAND: I mean - but there's a difference between reading it, you know, for an hour before you go to bed versus spending your life doing it.

Mr. VOIGHT: Yeah, there's a difference but I think that I'm a lot more fun than most people. To check your e-mail and to see a, you know, Zodiac letter that only - maybe three or four other people in the world have seen. Or potentially checking your e-mail and having the solution to - decipher that has been - people have been trying to put together for 35 years unsuccessfully. That's fun. I like it.

BRAND: And Luke, you are too young to remember when all these was happening in the late 60s, early 70s - but it was a crazy time. And all these guys - it's no accident they're all in their 40s - they were young kids at that time, they remember this. This was a big part of their childhood, the Zodiac killings and all the craziness that was happening then.

BURBANK: I can totally see that though, because, Madeleine - you have young kids - and, you know, when you're in a certain age kidnapping and murders and you hear about that stuff and you just think it's going to happen to you. I can see how these guys sort of have gotten so fascinated with it.

BRAND: And become obsessive. And if you're obsessed go to our Web site for more at npr.org.

And there's a lot more ahead including more on Zodiac coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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