Has The Zodiac Killer Mystery Been Solved (Again)?

For more than 50 years, his identity has remained a maddening riddle. But now an L.A. novelist-turned-amateur sleuth may have finally cracked the case, revealing who was behind some of the most notorious serial slayings in California history
36685

The Hawaiian rainforest where Gloria Doerr has lived since 2017 is a sort of magnet, she says, for people who are running away from something. But even there, in the shadow of an active volcano, sometimes things catch up with you.  

For Doerr, 70, it happened this past April. She was spending a tranquil afternoon at home when she learned that her late father, Paul Alfred Doerr, had been linked to one of the most notorious murder sprees of the twentieth century. Her son had stumbled on a podcast interview with Paul’s accuser, Jarett Kobek. An internationally best-selling novelist based in Los Angeles, Kobek had written a whole book, How to Find Zodiac, about how her Dad might just have been the maniac who more than fifty years earlier had terrorized the Bay Area with a string of cold-blooded and seemingly random killings. 

By the time she’d finished listening to the podcast, Doerr, a retired real estate agent, was in shock. If this writer had only bothered to pick up the phone and call her before lodging his accusation, she would happily have told him that her father, who died of a heart attack in 2007, while far from perfect, to put it mildly, could be a charming, quirky, and voraciously curious man—a member of Mensa and an early proponent of organic foods. 

In the following days, Gloria mentioned the situation to a few close friends, who thought she might have a libel case. She even reached out to an attorney. Though she was reluctant to pay $17.95 for the book, a friend ordered her a copy.

Paul Doerr is hardly the only suspect in the case—far from it. Among the rogue’s gallery of other presumptive Zodiacs are a house painter, a former schoolteacher, a sports car dealer, a theater operator, and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. “There are probably 50 or 100 suspects named every year,” sighs Richard Grinell, the former postman who runs the website Zodiac Ciphers and has been following the case for a decade. In October, a self-described “national task force of seasoned investigators” called the Case Breakers pointed to a brand new Zodiac suspect. Their theory was quickly debunked, but not before Fox News picked up the story, leading to hundreds of credulous media reports. 

Gloria’s father, in other words, was in good company. 

The killer, who is linked to a series of late-1960s attacks in the Bay Area, employed a shifting MO: Often he shot his victims, but on one especially macabre occasion, clad in an executioner’s hood, he tied them up and used a knife. Though he mostly attacked young couples around Vallejo, he also murdered a cab driver in San Francisco. Officially, he is believed to have killed just five and severely injured two, but his modest body count has been far outstripped by his well-tended mystique, bolstered by a sinister handle and a practice of firing off letters to the media and other authorities, often including mysterious ciphers and signed with a crosshairs logo. 

By issuing a series of cryptic ciphers and, during one attack, donning an executioner’s hood, the Zodiac created a sinister mystique.

Perhaps his greatest cultural contribution, if one can call it that, is having popularized a tone of smug superiority that attention-hungry outcasts, both fictional and real—from Hannibal Lecter and the Riddler to the aforementioned Ted Kaczynski and a substantial subset of 4Chan dwellers—have sought to emulate ever since. Meanwhile, his cryptic puzzles brought a seductive element of interactivity to crime-solving (a married couple decoded his first cipher over breakfast in 1969) and prefigured the citizen-sleuth movement along with its twisted progeny, 9/11 trutherism and QAnon. That might explain why his modest murder spree managed to inspire so much media coverage, including documentaries, a David Fincher film, a bottomless podcast playlist, an array of websites and forums, and enough paperbacks to stock a small, very grisly library.

And now, a new book had been added to the shelf, and Gloria’s father was the main character. 

                                                                * * *

Bald-headed with a sprinkling of gray facial hair, Jarett Kobek, 43, is best known for his acerbic 2016 novel, I Hate the Internet. But he has dabbled in research-heavy crime stories: subjects of his dozen books include 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta, murdered Florida rapper XXXTentacion, and homicidal “club kid” Michael Alig. 

He co-founded his publishing company, We Hear You Like Books, in 2015, after I Hate the Internet failed to land a deal. The book went on to earn a rave in the New York Times, sell more than 100,000 copies, and spawn a dozen translations. “I have seized the means of production,” Kobek says now. “I can just fucking do anything I want. Like, if you want to publish a gay-porn novel with a giant golden cock on the cover”—a reference to William E. Jones’s I’m Open to Anything—“who’s gonna stop you?”

Kobek stumbled on Gloria’s father by accident. Initially, his goal was to write about misinformation and conspiracy theories, about how speculation clots into history. But he didn’t want to write about the “plandemic” or crisis actors or, least of all, Donald Trump. 

Instead, he imagined that with 50 years of hindsight, a look at the misbegotten hunt for Zodiac—how professional detectives and armchair sleuths alike had fallen victim, time and again, to a kind of mass delusion, settling on one suspect after another based on often threadbare coincidences—would help explain just how we got here. 

He began by studying the turbulent period in Golden State history during which Zodiac operated, an era in which seemingly random, inexplicable killings were becoming terrifyingly commonplace—stoking the darkest fears of an anxious populace already reeling from an alarming deterioration of the social fabric.

Kobek could relate. In the spring of 2021, outside the Los Feliz one-bedroom he shared with his cat, Ulysses, infection hung in the air like smog. A trip to the grocery store felt like a baptism in a viral plunge pool. As he strolled along Hollywood Boulevard, past Barndall Park and Jumbo’s Clown Room, thinking through the makings of his book, Kobek kept his own running tally of bodies–covid victims being wheeled out on gurneys as well as unhoused people left to die on the streets.

As he studied Zodiac’s cryptic letters, Kobek brought a writerly attention to bear. He zeroed in on the killer’s habit of quoting forgotten bits of cultural ephemera (the well-known call-outs to The Mikado and to the 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” as well as a telling reference to an obscure 1950s comic book, identified by an anonymous online researcher, Tahoe27, several years back). Running other apparent quotations through Google Books and the Internet Archive, Kobek formed a picture of the killer as a fan of pulp novels, comics, and other nerdy touchstones. Kobek knew a bit about the early years of the sci-fi and fantasy fandoms, how these nascent communities had begun taking shape around an array of obscure self-published zines. On a hunch, he did a quick web search of “fanzines” and “Vallejo.”

Author Jarett Kobek in Vallejo, CA. “I’m like, ‘This is too crazy. I don’t want to do this.’” (Photo: Aaron Gell)

That’s how he stumbled on a suspect of his own, one who had somehow escaped attention for five decades.

The second hit for Kobek’s search was a sci-fi zine called Tightbeam. In it, he noticed a letter to the editor by a man named Paul Doerr, who criticized the postal service and suggested citizens fight back by addressing their letters with one-cent stamps. Kobek immediately thought of another piece of correspondence, mailed by the Zodiac to attorney Melvin Belli and postmarked around the same time—a letter sent with six one-cent stamps.  

Just a coincidence, nothing to get excited about, he thought. This was precisely the species of random fluke that got Zodiac researchers into trouble. But the letter bore a return address, a Vallejo P.O. box. Although Kobek might indeed hate the internet, he’s highly attuned to its utility. He searched Paul Doerr. He searched the address.

Doerr, it immediately became apparent, had left behind an abundant paper trail—copious letters to the editor, a slew of classified ads, and articles of his own. Kobek spent the next dozen hours glued to his couch, reading Doerr’s oeuvre. Some of the writing had an oddly familiar ring, but Kobek remained skeptical. “I’m like, ‘This is too crazy,’” he says. “‘I don’t want to do this. He’s not Zodiac.’” When he discovered Doerr had published zines of his own, some of which were held by various libraries, he resolved to track them down. 

The first one he came across, Hobbitalia, Vol. #1, included a detailed discussion of the Tolkien fandom’s use of the author’s fictional runic language, Cirth, for creating “codes and cyphers.” Published in April of 1970, just when the killer was posting letters with ciphers of his own, it included an example bearing some resemblance to Zodiac’s handiwork. And like Zodiac, Doerr had used an arcane spelling of cipher. 

Huh.

Kobek kept digging. In Hobbitalia, Vol. #2, Doerr expressed enthusiasm for the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group devoted to medieval cosplay—as good an explanation as anyone had yet offered for the “executioner’s hood” Zodiac wore when he attacked two college-age picnickers at Lake Berryasa on September 27, 1969. It turned out a Renaissance Faire was taking place in the same area on that very day.

Interesting.

Another of Doerr’s zines, Pioneer, focused on survivalism. One issue contained instructions for making a bomb with ammonium nitrate and fertilizer, known as the ANFO formula—the same formula, Kobek noted, that Zodiac had outlined in one letter. And perhaps tellingly, both Doerr’s and Zodiac’s instructions contained the same error.

This is where Kobek’s approach to the Zodiac mystery differs from what’s found on most of the fan forums. He knew that rather than simply looking at the suspect, he needed to grasp the historical moment. Today, the sort of arcana contained in Zodiac’s communications is a mere web search away. But in the late ’60s, this was specialized knowledge. “When information is not easily available,” he explains in How to Find Zodiac, “every reference resonates with meaning. The words echo a lifetime of reading and memory.” 

In other words, Kobek saw in Zodiac’s particular obsessions and areas of expertise a sort of mental fingerprint that might help identify him.

Paul Doerr, in an undated photo, shows off his hunting skills and wears a knife resembling one wielded in the Lake Berryessa attack. (Photo courtesy of Gloria Doerr)

He next began researching the history of ANFO in a political context. Leftists didn’t adopt the bomb-making technique until 1970, but the Minutemen, a militant right-wing group, had published the formula in a newsletter in the mid-60s. Investigating further, he noted that the organization had advocated sending threatening letters to supposed Communists—letters that featured a gunsight symbol similar to the Zodiac logo. In the Minutemen FBI file, Kobek found a membership list. Paul Doerr’s name was on it.

WTF.

At this point, the man was becoming a troubling distraction. Kobek had set out to write a cultural study that explored notions like uncertainty, historical revisionism, and self-validating leaps of logic, not to lose himself in rabbit holes of his own making. But each new bit of information, rather than excluding Doerr, as Kobek expected, seemed to deepen the connections. A friend, author Jonathan Lethem, remembers Kobek struggling as the implications of his research began to hit home. “When he kind of bumbles into this suspect, he’s really in denial,” Lethem recalls. “Like, ‘This isn’t good.’ It overtook his project.”

Kobek spent nine days reading every scrap about Paul Doerr he could find. In March, he compiled his findings in a sober 19-page document loaded with caveats. He addressed the dossier to the Major Crimes Division of SFPD and other relevant law enforcement authorities. Then he waited. 

It doesn’t surprise him now that the cops never reached out for additional information. More than a year later, Kobek is all too aware that anyone involved with the case is inundated with crackpot tips every day. It’s natural that people would be skeptical. They should be.

But the disinterested response only fueled Kobek’s obsession. Digging up pictures of a fantasy convention Doerr had written about, Kobek spotted a man resembling him based on his yearbook photo, then compared the images to the police sketches of Zodiac. In one of Doerr’s lists of items he hoped to sell, Kobek found a reference to a book, The Strange Ways of Man, that included a line about how headhunters believed their victims would become “their slaves in the after-life,” a phrase echoed in multiple Zodiac letters. 

Bits of circumstantial evidence abounded, and perhaps more telling, Kobek could find nothing to rule Doerr out. 

Many times, he considered calling Gloria, but he ultimately thought better of it. For one thing, he had seen her criminal history (including felony convictions for drug distribution and possession), evidence of a woman, he imagined, who was woefully unprepared for the chaos his phone call could unleash. Besides, he doesn’t think much of witness testimony. He prefers documents, blurry snapshots, scanned PDFs. Though his research was hardly conclusive, as he was the first to admit, the details were at least reliable, grounded in fact. Why water it down with what was almost certain to be an anxious welter of denial, evasion, and filial devotion?

Meanwhile, reluctant to complicate his original book project with speculation about a new suspect, he decided to split the material into two separate volumes, Motor Spirit, about the misbegotten hunt for Zodiac, and How to Find Zodiac, about Paul Doerr. 

Both the books appeared in February to modest sales and virtually no public notice. 

                                                                  * * *

“I don’t want to believe it was him,” Gloria tells me, sitting on the deck of a Vrbo rental in Vallejo. She is tiny, about 5 feet tall. Her voice is contemplative and whispery, her hair gray and untamed, befitting a woman who spent her formative years sneaking into smoky San Francisco clubs to catch Janis Joplin sets and swoon over Jim Morrison. She’s lived an eventful life, full of wild adventures and bad choices, including “four or five” marriages. “I really hope it wasn’t,” she adds, puffing on an American Spirit and gazing out at Southampton Bay. 

It’s the evening of July 4, but the holiday spirit is tempered this year by the news of a young man who used the occasion to pick off seven celebrants at an Independence Day parade in suburban Chicago. If random murder has by now come to seem like one more all-American tradition, it was Zodiac who helped establish it on the same date back in 1969, when he approached Darlene Ferrin and Michael Mageau as they sat in a car in Blue Rock Springs Park, not ten minutes from our rental house. Shining a flashlight into their eyes, he raised an automatic pistol and began firing without a word. Remarkably, Mageau survived to offer a description. A few weeks later, the killer would dash off the first of his public missives, claiming credit for the Ferrin murder and the killings of two other teenagers the previous winter. 

Gloria has now read both the Kobek books about the Zodiac case, and while she’s not yet convinced, she’s impressed with the author’s research. When I suggested a meeting between them she was open to the idea, accepting my offer to spring for a visit to her old stomping grounds. Kobek is set to arrive from L.A. tomorrow for the overdue sit down. The lawsuit is, for now, off the table. 

Gloria Doerr in front of the Fairfield, CA, home where she spent her teenage years. “There were guns everywhere,” she recalls. (Photo: Aaron Gell)

Over the course of several phone interviews with Gloria spanning three months, a highly complex portrait emerges of her father: an eccentric outsider, with a sharp intellect and wide-ranging interests. Though he never graduated high school, he was a lifelong autodidact, spending most of his free time in a reading chair poring over everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Rachel Carson to tomes about ancient Egypt and witchcraft. 

He was at once a conservationist and a libertarian, a Renaissance Faire regular and a member of a far-right nativist militia. He spent years on Mare Island doing the mind-numbing work of a Naval documents clerk, but he wasn’t exactly shy: In his leisure hours, he seemed equally at home playing D&D with fantasy nerds and swapping firearms with Hells Angels. He openly promoted polygamy (he told Gloria he’d once lectured on the topic at a Mensa meeting) but stuck it out for decades in a loveless marriage. He almost always carried a notebook, compass, penknife, and sometimes a large hunting blade, as well as two loaded pistols, one in each pocket.

Paul encouraged his daughter to be well-rounded. He tutored her in cryptography by devising a weekly puzzle, the answer to which would lead her to the allowance he’d hidden somewhere in the house. “If I didn’t find it, I didn’t eat lunch,” she recalls. He taught her self-defense, enrolling her in karate classes and testing her situational awareness. “Close your eyes and tell me how many people are in this store right now,” he’d say. Among her fondest memories are their father-daughter hunting expeditions, during which Gloria, who couldn’t bear to see an animal killed, cried out, “Daddy, don’t!” whenever Paul zeroed in on a buck or rabbit.

Other recollections are less happy. Gloria can’t recall Paul and her mother, Rose, who maintained separate bedrooms, ever touching one another, or her. Given Paul’s work schedule, the pair crossed paths fleetingly, and then only to disparage one another with spit-flinging volleys of contempt. “She used to call him psychotic and he’d call her frigid,” Gloria recalls. “And she’d say, ‘I did my conjugal duty.’ I remember being a little kid wondering what that meant, thinking, ‘Maybe I’m the conjugal duty?’”

Gloria believes both parents suffered from severe mental illness, in particular paranoid delusions. “There were guns everywhere,” Gloria recalls. “I brought friends over, and it would be, ‘Do not reach behind that cushion.’ You have to understand, my mother was as crazy as my father in her own way. They covered for each other their whole lives.”

Paul’s behavior may stem in part from his service in World War II and later the Korean War, experiences that, in his telling, took on the air of adventure fiction. He described breaking the Japanese codes and then crouching for hours, half submerged in a swamp, tapping out false messages to confound the enemy. He told Gloria he’d once been invited to a party where J. Edgar Hoover, clad in a red sequined dress, greeted him with a kiss on the lips and thanked him for helping the Allies win the war. Doerr sometimes claimed to have been a member of the OSS, forerunner of the CIA—“One of Buffalo Bill’s boys,” as longtime acquaintance David Frohwein put it. Doerr told Frohwein that he’d been in special operations, that he quit the military “because he didn’t particularly like running off into the Vietnamese jungle with no ammunition,” and that he occasionally took on “wet work” (professional contract killings) for extra cash. 

Gloria Doerr in a school photo. “You can see how strung out I was,” she says. (Photo courtesy of Gloria Doerr)

He told Gloria he’d once been invited to a party at an estate where wealthy elites had assembled to hunt humans, assuring her he’d bailed out at the last minute. (True or not, the story’s echoes of “The Most Dangerous Game” are yet another telltale whorl in that mental fingerprint).

While such accounts are impossible to verify, they do raise the question of why Doerr spent decades working as a lowly functionary, never rising above a GS-4 classification. One explanation, according to Howard Hitt, who briefly worked in the same department, was that these stories were pure fabrications. (Doerr’s military records indicate no overseas deployments.) Hitt remembers his colleague as “a keep-to-himself kind of person,” though he does recall Doerr once chatting him up. “He started talking about how all those Jews didn’t die in the Holocaust. And he’s going, ‘Oh, they’re all a bunch of whine babies.’” Hitt resolved to keep his distance. “I could see where this was going.”  

Though Gloria, in classic hippie style, viewed her father as a “fascist,” she doesn’t recall him expressing antisemitic or racist views. As for his war stories, she considered them credible, if only because they helped explain his behavior. “I believe he had PTSD,” she says. “The night sweats, the way he would just snap, become someone else. I mean I could tell you stories that would make your hair stand up.”

Eventually, she opens up about some of her most traumatic memories, and they are, indeed, horrific. There was, for instance, the time when Paul threw her, then a first grader, up the stairs, leaving her unconscious and drooling blood. (“I ended up at a dentist’s office having all my baby teeth pulled out.”) And the boat trip during which, annoyed at her whining, he tossed her overboard and then dragged her along with a rope as she fought for air. And the time when Gloria came home with a bagful of pears, a gift from a neighbor. After Rose accused her of stealing them, Paul bound her wrists with a rope and suspended her from a tree branch, whipping her savagely with a switch as her feet dangled. Her agonized screams summoned the neighbor, who hurried over and backed up Gloria’s story. “My father never apologized for that,” she says.

                                                                     * * *

Kobek is wearing mirrored aviators and a leather motorcycle jacket—a little psychic armor, perhaps, for what promises to be an awkward encounter—when he knocks on the door of the Vallejo rental on the afternoon of the second day. There is a bit of small talk as the writer and the suspect’s only child size each other up.

Kobek admits that over the course of his research, he came to appreciate Paul Doerr’s eccentricities. “I actually really, really started to like him,” he says, noting that in some ways Paul reminded him of his dad. 

“My father had a very violent side and a very beautiful side,” Gloria says.

I just sit there, a little stunned, quietly watching them swap notes. A lot of details in the book felt familiar, Gloria admits. Yes, Paul used to play The Mikado, the same version—by Groucho Marx—that Zodiac quoted in two letters. And yes, he was in the Minutemen, and hated the postal service, and loved communicating with ciphers. And around the time of the last killing he had begun using henna in his hair, perhaps explaining an eyewitness account that described the killer’s hair as having a reddish tint.

As we look through a pile of family snapshots, Jarett takes particular interest in an undated image of Paul posing with a bow and arrow. He’s dressed in a buckskin costume and wearing a hunting knife on his hip. If you look close enough, Jarett points out, you can see what looks like two rivets in the knife handle, a possible match for the knife wielded in the Lake Berryessa attack.

According to Gloria, 1968, when the Zodiac killings began, was a tumultuous time for the family—the convergence of her adolescence and the blossoming counterculture seeming to activate Paul’s darkest impulses.

As that summer rolled around, Gloria was 16, a rising senior and an A student. Eager to earn some spending money for visits to the city, she found work at a local apricot plant. Undocumented immigrants and underage kids were put on the night shift, so Gloria started popping Benzedrine. Harder drugs soon followed. She made the acquaintance of a young man who offered her a white powder she assumed was cocaine but was in fact heroin. “ I had my little amber bottle and little spoon and I would take a hit now and then,” she recalls. “I was such a dummy back then. The first time I ever did it, I was vomiting, but I went, ‘Wow, I know this feeling. I’m safe.’” The narcotic haze recalled the disassociation that had accompanied her childhood abuse. “I think anybody that has had severe trauma in their life, they recognize, when they get into heroin, you know, that’s that safe place you go.”

Eventually, her supply dried up. By the time the school year rolled around, she was in agony. Paul’s discovery of her drug use prompted yet another of his furious tirades. “His reaction was really violent, but he couldn’t do much because I was so drug-sick,” she remembers.

The episode that sticks with her the most occurred a few months later, as Christmas approached. Gloria returned from a date shortly after curfew, prompting Rose to begin berating her. “She tells him that I’ve been out with the whole football team or something,” Gloria recalls. “I wasn’t even sexually active! So I’m defensive and defiant. And with him, you didn’t talk that way. Normally, he would just look at me, and I would shut up. But that night, I didn’t.”

We’re on the porch, smoking more than any of us wants to. The sun is high and hot, and Jarett has removed his leather jacket and sunglasses. Whatever his sentiments about the superiority of documents and data to the uncertainties of human memory, her story has his rapt attention.

“He ended up just beating the living daylights out of me,” Gloria continues. “He snapped. His eyes are blue, but the eyes that were looking at me were dilated, black. They were black. And at one point, he has me by the throat—and I’m small, right?—my legs aren’t touching the ground. And he’s punching me. And he says, ‘This is how you hit people so there are no bruises.’” Gloria flicks her cigarette at the ashtray. “Blood’s coming out my mouth. My mom’s screaming, ‘Stop, stop!’ But, finally, I was able to just say, ‘Daddy, don’t.’ And he just dropped me on the floor and walked away.”

Gloria Doerr’s high school yearbook photo. (Photo courtesy of Gloria Doerr)

Gloria believes her father could have killed her that night if she hadn’t found the words—precisely the phrase she used as a young girl during their hunting trips—to bring him out of what seemed to her like a psychotic break. Terrified, Gloria called a favorite teacher, who spirited her out of the house. She moved in with the teacher and never lived at home again, having already won a full scholarship to the state university of her choice (she ended up with a bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Cruz).

As Jarett is quick to point out, the timing of the incident seems important. Gloria was only allowed to date on Friday nights, and she remembered this life-changing moment occurring at the beginning of Christmas break. Assuming her memory is accurate more than 50 years later, a quick glance at the 1968 calendar narrows down the date to one possibility: December 20. “You know why that’s interesting?” Kobek asks. It dawns on me slowly, although every halfway decent Zodiac researcher will likely know the answer: It was the night the killer claimed his first victims.

Indeed, the first three attacks took place at teen hangouts, places that, as Paul well knew, Gloria herself frequented, either on dates, as with the makeout spots at Lake Herman Road and Blue Rock Springs Park, or when cutting school with friends to swim at Lake Berryessa. Moreover, they were all places, Gloria confirms, where drugs could be procured.

Whether or not Paul Doerr crossed the line from domestic abuser to murderer that night, it’s easy enough to imagine him out looking for her, a tormented parent in search of his unruly daughter. 

Paul Doerr, in a photo taken years prior to the beginning of the Zodiac killings. (Photo courtesy of Gloria Doerr)

The theory is reinforced by one of the many Paul Doerr letters-to-the-editor Kobek unearthed. It appeared in the November 1, 1974, issue of the neo-Pagan journal Green Egg. In a previous edition, the publication’s founder, Tim Zell, had described the intentional dosing with LSD of his four-year-old daughter while she was in the care of family friends and asked readers for advice. Doerr’s response contained an aside to Zell, personally offering to “suggest . . . various physical procedures you could carry out.” He elaborated, “It might be better if you don’t print this part of my letter. I was in a vaguely similar situation some years ago, and there are fewer people here because of it now.”

Though Doerr clearly never intended that part of his message for publication, Green Egg had a stated policy of printing every letter in full. To Kobek, the aside sounded an awful lot like a murder confession, carelessly made in a public forum (and postmarked from Vallejo, no less). What’s more, it seemed to echo, albeit “vaguely,” as Doerr puts it, the situation Gloria described: A father terrified of losing his child to the sinister undertow of the counterculture. 

Maybe Paul Doerr believed he could scare Gloria straight by punishing other young people he assumed were on the same road to ruin. Maybe he thought he was revealing the wages of sin—every gunshot or knife thrust a warning to a wayward generation, and a punishment.

Ah, but what about the taunting letters? The secret codes? The murdered cabbie? 

All an effort, perhaps, to throw the police off his scent. Confusing the enemy. Just like he’d done, or imagined he’d done when he helped beat back the Japanese during World War II and saved the Free World, earning a fairytale kiss on the lips from the nation’s top G-man himself.  

                                                                         * * *

Among the items Paul Doerr, then 80, left behind when he died of a heart attack and cancer in 2007 was a collection of firearms, which he had bequeathed to Gloria in his final days. She didn’t have the heart to tell him she was legally forbidden to keep them, having been convicted of cocaine possession just weeks before. Instead, she brought them to the nearby home of one of Paul’s closest friends, a woman who worked with him in the documents division at Mare Island and is still heartbroken about his death. A sixty-something government clerk, devoted cat lady, self-described “precognitive,” and prizewinning crochet enthusiast, she agrees to speak to me only if she’s identified by the name of her Rennaissance Faire character, the widow Mistress Goodheart. 

Unfortunately, laying hands on the firearms proves more difficult than Gloria had anticipated. Mistress Goodheart has long had what she calls “a bit of a hoarding problem,” and it seems to have gotten worse in recent years. The arsenal, which just might contain a Zodiac murder weapon, may be in her garage in Fairfield. Then again, it may not.  

In any case, Mistress Goodheart is certain that the man she knew was incapable of murder, “unless it was someone who deserved it.” 

She offers a number of points meant to exonerate him, some more persuasive than others. For instance, if Paul Doerr were going to kill a woman, why didn’t he kill Rose, “the one that was causing him so much grief and aggravation?” She suspects that given Paul’s military training, he would never have chosen the .22 caliber pistol, meant for small game, Zodiac used at Lake Herman Road. Rather, she thinks it would have been more his style to use his bow and arrow, for “the challenge.” Finally, she insists, “If Paul had done something like this, on his deathbed, he would have admitted it.”

Some of her memories, however, only implicate Doerr further. For instance, she remembers how his survivalist zines sometimes displayed an undue focus on violence. “He would explain how to make a shoe in one paragraph, and then use three pages to explain how to kill somebody,” she says, laughing. “I told him he was doing it backwards! We needed more shoes.” (Kobek, you can be sure, is on the hunt for that issue.)

As for locating Paul’s old firearms, Mistress Goodheart believes they’re long gone—stolen, she guesses, by a woman who crashed with her years ago after falling on hard times. 

Mistress Goodheart isn’t the only one who’s skeptical about Doerr. Tom Voigt is, without question, the most well-known citizen researcher of the case, having founded his website, ZodiacKiller.com, a repository of Zodiac documents and lore, in 1998—“a genius idea,” Kobek writes in Motor Spirit. He dedicated How to Find Zodiac to a slew of researchers who “did the hard work,” giving Voigt top billing. But it’s clear the two men differ widely in their approaches to the case. Voigt admits he’s favored a succession of suspects over the past quarter century, but now believes a journalist named Richard Gaikowski did the killings.

“I’m not really interested in Doerr,” Voigt tells me, with the easy certainty of a Marvel superfan policing the canon. “He’s just one of those weirdos. You know, North America was tilted to the left back then and all the nuts rolled to the West Coast.” Of Kobek’s research, he says, “I didn’t see anything of substance. The bar is pretty high, as far as compelling Zodiac suspects. You have someone like Ted Kaczynski, who is kind of the champion of the handwriting similarities. And then you have the guy with all the coincidences and the incriminating statements, that was Arthur Leigh Allen.”

In particular, Voigt is unimpressed by Doerr’s resemblance to the Zodiac police sketches, which Kobek enhanced by removing the glasses from an illustration and adding a mustache. “You can Photoshop dark-rimmed glasses on Shaquille O’Neal and post it on Reddit, and there’ll be people that give me the shocked emoji, like ‘Oh my god!’” he says.

Book critic Laura Miller expressed similar reservations, writing in Slate that Kobek “digs up some old photographs…[and] pinpoints a man he judges to be Doerr because he’s carrying a camera and has a prominent chin.” She goes on, “He erases the glasses from the Zodiac police sketch, draws on a mustache and voila!—yeah, it looks kind of like the guy in the…photos. What are the odds?” In the end, despite her praise for Kobek’s “fascinating portrait of a certain milieu,” Miller deems the case for Doerr unconvincing and “rife with confirmation bias.” In an example of the hostility towards Kobek and his efforts in some sectors of the Zodiac fandom, the review was immediately posted to Voigt’s forum by Zodiac luminary Dave Oranchak, a member of the trio of researchers who earlier this year solved the Zodiac’s Z340 cipher. “Well, well, well . . . ” Oranchak comments. “If it isn’t our old friend Confirmation Bias. Seems to always come around.”

Of course, none of the detractors yet knew what I subsequently discovered: As Gloria readily confirmed, Paul Doerr did wear glasses on occasion, and he alternately sported facial hair and went clean-shaven throughout his life. And yes, the images Kobek found were in fact her father.

A police sketch of the Zodiac killer and Paul Alfred Doerr in his mid-70s. (Photo courtesy David Frohwein)

Paul Haynes, a researcher and co-writer of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, about the Golden State Killer, seems certain Kobek has identified the killer at last. “How to Find Zodiac presents the most convincing, compelling suspect I’ve ever seen,” he says. “Put it this way, the probability of Paul Doerr being Zodiac is higher than any other individual on this planet. There are just so many specific things that overlap. If it’s not him, I would be astonished.”

“I’ve never seen anything more in-depth than this book, and he does bring up some good points,” Richard Grinell of zodiacciphers.com agrees. “If he had released this book 20 years ago, it would have got a lot more attention. The problem you’ve got now is every week there’s a new suspect, and people just go sort of groan, ‘Here we go again.’”

Robert Graysmith seems to fit into that category. When I reach out to the former political cartoonist who wrote what was long considered the definitive book on the subject, he politely “[declines] to take a look.” However, he does suggest I check out Shooting Zodiac, his recent memoir of serving as technical advisor on the David Fincher movie based on his two previous Zodiac books.

                                                                        * * *

At some point during the visit, as Gloria and Kobek examine a map her father drew for her, noting the similarities with Zodiac’s scribbles, she takes a seat on the bed and lets out a long sigh. A moment passes. “I think you’re right,” she tells him finally, her voice barely audible. “Unfortunately. I hate to say that. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to deny it. But I want the truth, whatever it is.”

There is, as it happens, an easy way to determine once and for all whether Paul Doerr committed those murders. When the Zodiac killed his last victim, taxi driver Paul Stine, he left behind several bloody fingerprints (which, it should be noted, have never been linked to any of the other suspects). Although the San Francisco Police Department did not respond to numerous requests for comment for this story, it should be a simple matter for someone in the cold case division to pull Doerr’s own prints from the Military Service Records Center and do a comparison.

For the thousands of armchair gumshoes who have become so deeply invested in the case over the years, steeping in the Zodiac’s chilling lore, perhaps no solution can finally be as satisfying as the mystery itself. 

For Gloria, though, the certainty would come as a relief, even if the evidence points to her father. “In a strange way, it validates me,” she admits. “You know, when people ask you what your life was like, and you just don’t know where to start? This validates it. Because I can’t deny the truth in it. I love my father unconditionally. But…” she pauses, gazing off for a moment and gathering her thoughts, “I do know what he’s capable of.”

Aaron Gell is a writer and editor living in upstate New York. He recently served as executive producer on the film Breaking, which stars John Boyega and was based on Gell’s 2018 Task & Purpose feature article.

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign for our newsletters today

This story is featured in the October 2022 issue of Los Angeles