A convicted child molester from Vallejo, California, Arthur Leigh Allen was the only Zodiac Killer suspect ever named by police — but was he really the murderer?
In the late 1960s, a serial killer hunted victims in Northern California. The so-called “Zodiac Killer” murdered at least five people between 1968 and 1969, taunted journalists and the police with complicated ciphers, and seemingly disappeared without a trace. And though the serial killer has never been definitively identified, many believe that he was Arthur Leigh Allen.
A convicted child molester, Allen once talked to a friend about writing a “novel” in which a killer called the Zodiac would stalk couples and send letters to the police. He wore a Zodiac watch with a symbol that matched the killer’s signature, lived near many of the crime scenes, and owned the same kind of typewriter that the Zodiac likely used to write his letters.
But even though Allen seemed like the perfect suspect on paper, police were never able to tie him definitively to the Zodiac Killer’s crimes. Evidence like fingerprints and handwriting failed to link Allen to the murderer and, to this day, the true identity of the Zodiac Killer remains a mystery.
Here’s why some think that Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac Killer anyway — and why he’s never been charged with any of the Zodiac’s murders.
Arthur Leigh Allen’s Checkered Past
Whether or not Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac Killer, he led a troubled life. Zodiac expert Tom Voigt, who runs ZodiacKiller.com, told Rolling Stone: “If [Allen] wasn’t the Zodiac, he might be responsible for some other murders.”
Born in 1933 in Honolulu, Hawaii, Allen grew up in Vallejo, California, near the sites of many of the Zodiac’s future kills. He briefly enlisted in the U.S. Navy and later became a teacher. But Allen’s behavior deeply disturbed his colleagues. Between 1962 and 1963, he was fired from Travis Elementary for having a loaded gun in his car. And in 1968, he was fired from Valley Springs Elementary for a much more serious incident — molesting a student.
From there, Allen seemed to drift aimlessly. He moved in with his parents and allegedly developed a drinking problem. He got a job at a gas station but was soon terminated for showing too much interest in “small girls.”
According to ZodiacKiller.com, Allen then worked briefly as a janitor before finding some stability in his studies. He attended Sonoma State College and earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences with a minor in chemistry, which led to a junior position at an oil refinery. But Allen was charged with child molesting in 1974, after which he pled guilty and served a prison sentence until 1977. Then, he held a series of odd jobs until his death in 1992.
At first glance, Arthur Leigh Allen’s life seems like a sad and pointless existence led by someone with serious problems. But many believe that Allen led a secret double life as a serial killer called the Zodiac.
Was Arthur Leigh Allen The Zodiac Killer?
There are several reasons why Arthur Leigh Allen is seen as a compelling Zodiac Killer suspect. For starters, the Zodiac is commonly believed to have served in the military; Allen served in the Navy. Allen also lived in Vallejo, California, close to the Zodiac Killer’s hunting grounds, and wore a Zodiac watch with the symbol that the killer later signed on his letters.
Then there’s what Allen said. According to ZodiacKiller.com, Allen reportedly told a friend at the beginning of 1969 about an idea he had for a book. The book would feature a killer called “Zodiac” who killed couples, taunted the police, and signed letters with the symbol on his watch.
Allen’s book idea could have merely been that — an idea. But running through the Zodiac Killer’s known murders and suspected ones, it also seems entirely plausible that Allen committed them.
Shortly after one suspected Zodiac victim, Cheri Jo Bates, was stabbed to death on October 30, 1966, Allen took his only sick day off from work during that year. Two years later, the Zodiac Killer’s first confirmed victims Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday were killed just seven minutes from Allen’s home on December 20, 1968 (authorities later determined that Allen owned the same kind of ammunition that had killed the two teenagers).
The Zodiac’s next victims, Darlene Ferrin and Mike Mageau, were shot on July 4, 1969, just four minutes from Allen’s home. Ferrin, who died after the attack, worked at a restaurant near where Allen lived, prompting speculation that he’d known her. And Mageau, who survived the attack, identified Allen as the man who had attacked them. In 1992, Mageau was shown a photo of Allen and yelled: “That’s him! He’s the man that shot me!”
The coincidences don’t stop there. After Zodiac victims Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard were stabbed at Lake Berryessa on September 27, 1969 (Hartnell survived, Shepard did not), Allen was seen with bloody knives, which he said he’d used to kill chickens. San Francisco Weekly additionally reports that Allen wore the same obscure Wingwalker shoes as the Zodiac, and Allen also happened to have the same shoe size as the serial killer (10.5).
The Zodiac’s last known victim, taxi driver Paul Stine, was killed on October 11, 1969, in San Francisco. Decades later, a man named Ralph Spinelli, who’d known Allen, told police that Allen had confessed to being the Zodiac Killer and said that he’d “prove it by going to San Francisco and killing a cabbie.”
All of that seems suspicious enough. But Voigt also makes the case on his site that the timeline of the Zodiac’s letters could reflect Allen’s nervousness about being caught by the authorities. After the police interviewed him in August 1971, the Zodiac’s letters stopped for two and a half years. And after Allen’s arrest for child molestation in 1974, the Zodiac went silent.
Arthur Leigh Allen was even the favorite Zodiac Killer suspect of Robert Graysmith, the former San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist whose book Zodiac was later turned into a feature film.
Despite all this, however, Allen always maintained his innocence. And the police never found evidence strong enough to charge him.
The Other Zodiac Killer Suspects
In 1991, Arthur Leigh Allen started to speak out about the allegations against him. “I am not the Zodiac Killer,” he said in one interview in July of that year with ABC 7 News. “I know that. I know that deep in my soul.”
Indeed, History reports that hard evidence failed to link Allen to the Zodiac’s crimes. His palm prints and fingerprints didn’t match evidence recovered from Stine’s cab or one of the letters, and a handwriting test suggested that Allen had not written the Zodiac’s taunts. DNA evidence also appeared to exonerate him, though Voigt and others have argued against this.
So, if not Allen, then who was the Zodiac Killer?
Several other potential suspects’ names have been floated in recent years, including newspaper editor Richard Gaikowski, who was hospitalized for going “berserk” around the same time that the Zodiac’s letters stopped, and Lawrence Kane, whose name appeared to show up in the killer’s ciphers.
In 2021, an investigative team called the Case Breakers also claimed to have identified the Zodiac Killer as Gary Francis Poste, an Air Force veteran turned house painter who allegedly led a criminal posse in the 1970s. Poste, they said, had scars that matched ones in a Zodiac sketch. And they claimed that removing his name from the Zodiac’s ciphers changed their meaning.
Yet to this day, the Zodiac Killer’s true identity remains a head-scratching mystery. The FBI’s San Francisco office maintains that “The FBI’s investigation into the Zodiac Killer remains open and unsolved.”
So, was Arthur Leigh Allen the Zodiac Killer? Allen died in 1992 at age 58 after suffering from diabetes and insisted upon his innocence until the end. But for Zodiac experts like Voigt, he remains a compelling suspect.
“The reality is that Allen is the suspect you just can’t quit,” Voigt told Rolling Stone. “I just can’t quit that ‘Big Al,’ especially now [that] I’m going over all these old emails and tips and leads going back 25 years. And some of the stuff that was said to me about it is just mind-boggling.”
After reading about Zodiac Killer suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, discover the story of San Francisco Chronicle journalist Paul Avery, who tried to hunt the infamous murderer down. Or, see how a French engineer claimed to have solved some of the Zodiac Killer’s most difficult ciphers.