Will DNA submitted to genealogy sites also finally catch the Zodiac Killer?

Will DNA submitted to genealogy sites also finally catch the Zodiac Killer?

A scant hope of catching the Zodiac Killer perhaps lies on the back of a postage stamp, licked by the murderer 50 years ago.

The arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, the man law enforcement believes is the East Area Rapist, has sparked myriad questions about the use of genealogy websites to revive long-cold cases. After DeAngelo’s capture, investigators revealed they submitted the East Area Rapist’s DNA to an open-source genealogy website called GEDmatch, where it found a match with a relative who also used the service. Detectives were then able to narrow their list of suspects, eventually arresting DeAngelo on suspicion of a string of rapes and murders across the state during the 1970s and 1980s.

Armed with millions of DNA profiles, uploaded online by curious family-history seekers across the world, could investigators finally decipher the Zodiac’s identity?

Like most things about the Bay Area’s most infamous serial killer, the answer is murky.

Unlike the East Area Rapist, Zodiac didn’t leave his blood or semen at the crime scenes. The 1968 murders of David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen on Lake Herman Road and the 1969 attack on Michael Mageau and Darlene Ferrin at Blue Rock Springs Park were committed with a gun, as was the murder of San Francisco cab driver Paul Stine. The remaining attack, on Cecelia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell at Lake Berryessa, was done with a knife.

There is no confirmed DNA evidence from Zodiac at any of the scenes.

The closest police have to Zodiac’s DNA are the stamps he used to post his cryptic letters. In the early 2000s, San Francisco investigators developed a partial profile by testing saliva traces retrieved from beneath a stamp. Because the profile is incomplete, it cannot rule anyone in. But it did rule out long-time suspect Arthur Leigh Allen in 2002.

"Because it's a partial, the process they used on the Golden State Killer would be much more difficult to narrow down to a specific individual," said Michael Butterfield, writer and researcher for ZodiacKillerFacts.com. "... They wouldn't be able to narrow it down to a single family unit."

There are, of course, theories that Zodiac didn’t lick the stamps himself. But with the use of DNA profiling nearly two decades in the future, it’s unlikely Zodiac would have avoided licking stamps to foil the cops.

Then there’s the case of Cheri Jo Bates.

If you believe, as some do, that Bates’ murder was committed by the Zodiac Killer, a whole new avenue of possibilities opens up. Bates was 18 years old when she was found dead outside of the Riverside City College library on Halloween morning 1966. The college freshman had been beaten and stabbed repeatedly, her throat cut so deep she was almost decapitated.

Six months after Bates’ death, an unsigned letter arrived at the Riverside Daily Enterprise.

“BATES HAD TO DIE,” it read in block letters. “THERE WILL BE MORE.”

The Bates murder remains unsolved, but Riverside police have evidence that could someday point to a suspect. Under Bates’ fingernails were skin scrapings. Strands of hair, belonging to a stranger, were clutched in her hand.

The Zodiac Killer's last confirmed letter arrived at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1974. He was never heard from — as far as anyone knows for certain — again.

"The idea that Zodiac must be dead or in prison because we haven't heard from him is wrong," Butterfield said. "I am somebody who subscribes to the idea that Zodiac is, in a sense, like DeAngelo. He was just leading in his life.

"... I believe the case will be solved by the types of DNA evidence they have today. With that partial profile, with some renewed efforts that I've heard are going on, it's possible they could get a complete profile and do what they did with the Golden State Killer."


Story by SFGate writer Katie Dowd