Saturday, August 13, 2011

Chasing the Zodiac: Crossing the plane of the obsessive end zone

A little bit of obsession can hone the senses, enhance attention span, and protect against the kind of mental flatulence that so often results from excessive exposure to the political games of the workplace. It is, however, best used in moderation, as a sparingly-applied seasoning for life’s electric meat. Too much will surely make jerky outta that meat.

I have been mildly obsessed with the Zodiac Killer since I was a boy. We grew up wild, up in the hills between Benicia and Vallejo back in the 60’s and 70’s. My brother and I would hunt anything that moved with a couple of old shotguns we bought off an old man who lived in an aging, beat-up International Scout. He used to park on ridge lines to look for his sheep. He didn’t actually have any sheep, but he claimed to be a Basque separatist in self-imposed exile and the Basques are well-known masters of the shepherding arts so we did not argue with him. Also, he could be a mean drunk and kept a couple of big-ass revolvers in a fancy cross-draw rig he wore at all times. We generally nodded and agreed with whatever lies he told us.

It was during my eleventh year that Zodiac first killed (possible connections to earlier homicides in southern California were later discovered, but those cannot be definitively attributed to him). Zodiac’s first confirmed murders occurred on a dark December night in 1968 at a little dirt turnout on Lake Herman Road near the entrance to the Benicia water pumping station. This was, as the crow flies, about 3 miles from my residence at that time. Old Lady Borges discovered the scene and later recounted many of the details to us. A few months later our parents moved us all to West Texas, and there we remained for almost a decade.

An interest in these unsolved cases could be unhealthy for some people. Like the guy who quit his job as an airline pilot in order to follow “leads” around the country. Let’s face it, though—most of us are to one degree or another fascinated by things like this, especially if they happen to connect even tangentially to our personal history in some way. With this in mind, my brother and I set out on a ride to visit a couple of the Zodiac crime scenes on a bright November Saturday. Neither of us had traveled Lake Herman Rd. since we were warned away one afternoon by Detective Les Lundblad almost four decades ago. That guy made a definite impression on us. Back then, cops could threaten kids without having to worry about lawsuits for damaging youthful self esteem and crap like that.

Our original plan had been to hit the Lake Berryessa Zodiac crime scene first and then ride on to the Lake Herman Road site. Time and photoperiod were not cooperative, however, so we went to Berryessa and then proceeded to eat a bunch of really good Italian food. I will fast-forward past all the slabbage involved in our exit from Sacramento County and cut to the chase. We stopped off down to the hardware store in Winters for no apparent reason at all.  Finding nothing to divert us from the bizarre purpose of the trip, we continued along past several other vaguely described places, some of which bore the scars of pretending that better days had not passed ‘em by, and then we were abruptly reminded of the fact that DOJ still uses a CHP officer on detached duty to scour the Berryessa area day and night for signs of Zodiac or any potential associates. I read about this in a dime novel so it is undoubtedly true.

The entire Berryessa area was eerily deserted on this day. We stopped on Berryessa-Knoxville Rd. and waited for whatever pack of sportbike double-yellow scofflaws might happen to rocket by, in hopes of getting a good action shot, but none materialized. We saw a steer in the back of a pickup truck. He fixed me with a baleful, accusatory stare as he passed. I did not take a picture of him out of pity for his misfortune, because it is a terrible thing to lose one’s balls.

Time to move on. We fired up the bikes and continued north. Now we were closing in. Sometime (minutes or hours) prior to Zodiac’s attack at Berryessa, several young women noticed a suspicious male sitting in a car parked next to theirs outside what has been variously described as a store or deli of some kind. Some accounts refer to this place as Muskowite Corners, but I believe that is over at the junction of Highways 128 and 121. I have never been clear on that point, but something about the self-storage yard near the spot where we stopped to drink some water reminded me for a moment of a gas station/eatery of the sort common near reservoirs in decades past.  No matter what time and human actions have done to transform the physical manifestations of any particular node of meatspace, in my mind I saw what I saw, and if I can see it, it’s still there somehow.

Riding on, we passed the park headquarters and knew we were getting close. The Napa County Sheriff’s Dept. crime report was a bit vague on the exact location, describing the scene as both 5/10 and 7/10 of a mile north of the park HQ. Back in ’69 the area was undeveloped; people parked along the road and walked down to the lake. Now there is a US Bureau of Reclamation day use area, complete with parking lots and picnic tables.

I’m telling you, I have not generally held with that superstitious hippie nonsense about places retaining a “psychic imprint” of past violence. I have not believed in any kind of hippie or new age foolishness ever since a man in a county fair booth near Clarksdale, Mississippi told me in 1983 that my dog was the reincarnation of John Wesley Hardin, the gunfighter who was so mean he once shot a man for snorin’. I had gone to Clarksdale in search of that dusty confluence immortalized in the lyrics of the late, great Robert Johnson so many years before, and here was some carnie tellin’ me about John Wesley Hardin! I do not believe in any such tripe, but as I implied, this place on the shores of the lake that drowned the little town of Monticello, California was creepy. I cannot adequately describe it; to say it was foreboding would be an understatement worthy of a punch in the face.

Our investigation yielded physical evidence that some taggers had been there before us. I was gonna scratch out the obscenities scrawled on the rough-hewn wooden picnic table, but I remembered that BLM rangers patrolled the area and might interpret my actions as further vandalism, and I do NOT EVER mess with the G. Minor vandalism at some county or state park might result in a citation, but for all I knew scratching on federal property is some kind of crime that could land me in Gitmo North. Looking for more info about the scene, I booted up and commenced to googlin’. Guess what? Bob Graysmith should have stuck to political cartoonery. In his yellow-jacketed book on the subject he’d gotten the site wrong—the real scene was two peninsulae further north. This was confirmed by Napa SD sources after two quick phone calls. So much for eerie psychic essences. It’s all intracranial. Such substances as laudanum and cocaine may help, but they are evidently not mandatory. At any rate, since I do not use such substances and never will (I am unwilling to surrender my mind without a fight), it is a moot point.

On to the actual site. On a warm late September day in 1969, Zodiac attacked college students Cecelia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell here at about 6:30 PM. Hartnell survived, but Shepard was killed. I will state forcefully for the record that none of this narrative is intended to disrespect the victims or their families. The fact that Zodiac’s attacks took place decades in the past does not diminish the depravity of his acts. It does, however, raise an interesting point to consider: How temporally distant, how done-and-gone must something as vile as this be until it becomes merely a historical curiosity and loses its emotionally evocative power? I guess the answer may be different for every person, but I can tell you that I have stood in places at which heinous acts were committed hundreds of years before, and those places have not lost their power to produce in me an awful awareness of man’s capacity for cruelty.

Lake Berryessa, crime scene just out of view to the left
We toyed with the notion of riding the bikes out onto the trail that leads to the site. Hard-packed dirt, fire danger close to zero. It would’ve made for some good photos, but we decided against it on account of the fact that it might have been disrespectful. Also because of the feds. We departed the scene, taking absolutely no rocks, tree branches, buried Coors cans dating back to the 60′s, or any other federal property with us. We rode down to Cucina Italiana, an excellent little Italian restaurant at Spanish Flat where we had previously dined once last summer before I re-acquired the Zodiac virus.

Hearty meal, full stomachs, strong coffee and a dozen No-Doz®. Headed north and then west on Knoxville with the eventual aim of riding past the eastern edge of Clear Lake then into Colusa and Yolo Counties and home. Saw some initials on a big rock that allegedly have no connection at all to the Zodiac case.

Damn, but didn’t that road turn kind o’ goaty. Nice ride. Saw very few people, save for a few unoccupied cages and another group of riders. Crossed a nice little bridge over some forgotten creek and let the other group pass, because I have very few photos with moving bikes in ‘em and I now take every chance I can to get one. We decided at that time to take a long detour to Mt. Diablo, a source of some alleged inspiration for Zodiac’s crimes (a subject rife with pseudo-scientific hooey and wild conjecture, best explored separately).

Fascination with violent death is as old as humanity. There is something disturbing about this, even when it’s dressed up as history or precautionary tale. At what point does an interest, a natural fascination, cross the line into unhealthy obsession? I don’t know for sure, but it’s not at that spot on the continuum where a person chooses to spend part of a day visiting a historical murder site. At least I hope it isn’t.

Post and photo © Pseudocognitive All rights reserved, forever.


  1. So is the sheepherder you wrote about the same one mentioned in the police report?

    1. I'll have to get back to you on that, Anonymous. If you could log on with your blog's identity, I'd most likely get to it quicker.

    2. I don't have a blog. I just stumbled upon this site while searching for something to do with zodiac. For what it's worth, I like your writing and photos. Here's the part of the report I was asking about....

    3. Hey, cool! That might or might not have been him. I'm not sure. My memory is that we just called him "The Old Man." Wesher doesn't sound like a Basque name; it sounds more like an anglicized German name, maybe. It's possible that the old man told us he was a Basque separatist but lied. The police report doesn't specifiy a DOB for this Wesher guy. I'll see if I can locate him on, etc. Thanks for the info.

    4. Okay, thanks. If you find anything out, I would definitely be interested. My email is Or you can find me on

      Thanks for taking time to reply. Wesher is very uncommon name, so maybe it's spelled wrong in the report.