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This is the zodiac speaking

  • David Van Nuys shares the prestigious American Psychological Association award which he received last year. Photo by Robert Grant

By: Irene Hilsendager
April 19, 2019

If any one remembers in the late 60s and early 70s California was in fear of one name: Zodiac. This was a vicious killer that floated between the City of San Francisco and Vallejo. No one wanted to be on the streets after dark. Every black car seemed suspicious. Children were kept inside but no one has ever been sure that the Zodiac was captured; is he still alive? How many more were killed that were never reported?

Into the story comes David Van Nuys and Michael D. Kelleher.  The Zodiac had become the most antagonist and evasive killer that the law enforcement of San Francisco County had encountered, and author Kelleher and the chair of the Psychology Department at Sonoma State University, David Van Nuys, took it upon themselves to reconstruct the crime scene. After seeing letters and quotes noodled by the zodiac, took it upon themselves to try to put a face to this mysterious person.

A series of letters, allegedly written by the monster himself were published in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Examiner and Vallejo Times and demanded to have them published. If the letters were not posted the alleged killer threatened to murder more people. The zodiac had already killed two people in Vallejo called Lovers’ Lane. The newspapers felt they had to post these threats before many more human beings would be slaughtered.

Van Nuys was torturing himself that he had never written a book although his co-workers and friends had done so in the past. This is when Michael Kelleher approached Van Nuys to co-author with him and work on the sort of a killer crime fiction. David majored in creative writing and was approached by a big publisher, and when Kelleher approached Van Nuys and said I am writing a book but I won’t say about who, David recognized the name. Between the two authors, work went quickly and it was a learning lesson when they recognized signs of the profile. Now they would say that the zodiac was a prolific terrorist. The authors were hoping that they or the police would find in some attic or basement, souvenirs or remnants of the notes the zodiac had written. 

The alleged killer sent three letters of instructions that had to be published. The three parts were sent to the three newspapers hoping somebody would break the code. The Navy National Secretary couldn’t break the code; however, two teachers broke the secondary code but no one had ever solved the code; this was all a part of the zodiac’s personality as he was a liar, trickster and teaser. 

Part of the broken code said, “I love to kill people because human beings are the worst animals of all.” He wanted to brag and manipulate the citizens. Most of his letters looked as if he had a learning disability, probably had been teased in school. He used a .22 pistol in the first kill, but he also was brilliant. He had taped a pen light to the barrel of the pistol to say it was the first laser and he could hone in on his victims better. He probably was either very intelligent or the most stupid person on earth. His letters were all mailed from the San Francisco Bay area. Since the law enforcement community and the newspapers were so often threatened, they had to cow-tow to him as he threatened to blow up a school bus and even sent plans for the bomb if letters were not published.

In one of the threats, he went on to say that he wanted to meet the flamboyant and prominent attorney, Melvin Belli. One letter pleaded, “Stop me before I kill again.” This was a complete break as grammar was perfect but he did seem that he wanted to stop and again said, “Help me before I kill again.” 

Some letters were received by the editors that claimed they were the zodiac but the letters were not signed and probably was only a cranky person who said they were criticizing a movie, critiquing money and too much violence-just a reaction formation.

In summoning up a conclusion, Mike and David kept going over the material again and again but could only come up with that this person had anti personae disorder, a disregard of others rights, a pattern of histrionics, was narcissistic that he needed a grandeur of admiration, had a paranoid personality with distrust and fear of authority. He also had issues with police, had a dis-association disorder and a multiple personality. Van Nuys said while he was chair of the psychology department at SSU many students would come to him and claimed to have personality disorders. Since his reputation was on the line he always made sure he had positive responses.

In recent years, some people contacted David saying they know who the zodiac was.  There was a hand print on the car when the cab driver was shot from the back seat, and verified that a bloody shirt was sent but so far he had only attacked females and the cab driver was a male who again he made it a point to tease the police.  There are so many ifs, possibilities, probabilities and did he move to other parts of the country or is he still alive? Maybe someday a clue will come via the DNA bank and a near five-decade murder will be solved.

Van Nuys is still very busy. His handle is Dr. Dave and does the Shrink Rap Radio podcast weekly. He says it involves all the psychology you need to know and just enough to be a little bit dangerous.