Although unfamiliar to many in the Pacific Northwest, Californian retirees here can attest to how Zodiac killer stories frightened households more than 30 years ago.
Vern Lippold, 82, of Sequim, claims to have arrested a man he says was the Zodiac killer, during his police days.
"I've been tortured with this for years," he said.
"I'm sure this guy was the Zodiac. I'm try-ing to prove this guy was 'the guy' to myself."
The Zodiac mystery continues to baffle historians and lawmen, like Lippold, as the gruesome murder stories live through newspaper clippings, books and films.
Reportedly a murderer of seven (confirmed) to 37 (which Zodiac claimed), he killed women mostly, between December 1968 and October 1969.
He sent letters with encrypted messages that code breakers across the United States tried to crack. He phoned reporters with threats and/or information about himself, leaving only vague clues and no hard evidence.
All homicide cases linked to the Zodiac remain open.
The call on the Zodiac
While patrolling on May 20, 1981, years after any apparent Zodiac activity, Lippold - then a sergeant for Hayward Police Department in Northern California - was called to a scene at a local shopping center.
Pulling into the parking lot, he saw a uniformed security guard with a hand on his gun near a woman in her 20s and a tall man.
"The closer I get, I see a white man, 52 years of age, tall, thin, white suit, white shirt, white tie, white short cropped hair with dark horn-rimmed glasses and a white 1966 four-door Chevy sedan," Lippold said.
"I thought, 'By-God that security guard's got the damn Zodiac.'"
Lippold's recollection of the Zodiac dated back to a bulletin from the Oakland Police Department describing a murder on a lover's lane of Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday on Dec. 20, 1968, in Benicia, Calif.
Other reports said the Zodiac drove a similar white car and had features such as Lippold saw right in front of him.
"At the time, I thought, 'He goes to murder someone wearing a white suit?' If I'm going to kill someone, I'll wear my old dungarees so I can burn them."
Upon investigation, the security guard told Lippold that he had patrolled the lot every half an hour. The suspected Zodiac had parked in the back and had not moved for about 90 minutes.
"The security guard thought he was casing the market for a holdup," Lippold said.
"It wasn't very long before the girl pulled up and, as soon as she gets out, this guy pulls up by the market and he follows her."
Pursuit of the killer
Lippold remembers the situation through his and the security guard's words:
From a distance, the guard sees the man speak to the woman and grab her arm. She resists.
The guard stops the suspect and asks what he's doing.
Suspect: I'm a plain-clothes cop and I'm making an arrest. I don't need anything from you. If I do, I'll call, so get the hell out of here.
Turning to the woman, the security guard asked the woman her side of the story.
Woman: This guy tells me 'I'm a cop.' I asked him to show me his badge, but he won't do it. I don't want to cause any problems.
Security guard: Then show me your badge if you won't show her.
Suspect: I don't need to do that. I've got to get her in so she can get processed.
Guard: I know the Hayward cops and they'd show their badges.
Suspect: I don't have to listen to you.
A nearby storeowner who overheard the commotion calls the police, which brought Lippold and another officer to the scene.
Face to face
The suspect was in custody, so Lippold began questioning him.
Lippold: Did you tell her you were a Hayward Police Officer?
Lippold: Did you tell this lady she was under arrest?
The suspect wasn't cooperating, so Lippold inspected the suspect's car. Inside, he found a private radio line, a phone directory hanging from the dash and a large red light used on the back of 18-wheelers.
"I always wondered how he'd get these young kids to stop for him. It was with the big red light," Lippold said.
Flipping through the phone directory, he found some glaring clues.
"Every place I could remember that there was a murder, he had a business address marked in the book," he said.
Certain he was onto something, Lippold needed the woman's testimony for help.
"We were going to arrest him anyway, but we needed her," he said.
With her as a witness, Lippold was hoping to have a strong case that the suspect was the Zodiac, but the woman was hesitant.
Lippold: Suppose you didn't help out and we let him go and another girl was found dead? You'd have some sorry feelings.
Woman: I'm afraid if I do anything, he'll pay bail and get out and come and get me.
Lippold: It'd be a long time before he got out, if at all. If you get any phone calls, you call me, and I'll get a hold of the district attorney to get protective custody.
Lippold said the security guard didn't know who he had stopped.
"I told him, 'That's the Zodiac,'" he said pointing.
Lippold said the suspected Zodiac turned the same color as his white clothes.
"He stiffened up and his tongue set.
If I was accused of so many murders, I'd be denying it," Lippold said.
"He doesn't deny it. He doesn't say a word."
The suspect then was transferred to the Hayward Police Department - the last Lippold saw of him.
Lippold remains in the dark years later as he has no idea what happened to the suspect, for he was never subpoenaed as the arresting officer.
"He was in custody, but I never heard anything," he said.
"For 28 years, there hasn't been anything."
Retiring to Sequim with his wife, Beverly, 22 years ago, Lippold has researched the killer through books such as Robert Graysmith's "Zodiac" and Internet articles with the help of his niece.
The Zodiac vanishes
"I'm not an expert by any means and no one really knows what happened to him," Lippold said.
"There was no way to prove it from that day, for there weren't any more letters, notes or phone calls from then on."
Lippold has tried furthering his research by calling the Hayward Police Department for clues.
"I asked for a copy of the report, but they said it would cost two months for someone to go through all the microfilm to find it."
He tried to go through local newspapers, but nothing existed of his incident.
However, Lippold remains proud of the arrest of the man he says was the Zodiac.
"In my own mind, he was the Zodiac," he said.
"I can't think of a better description of the car and the guy. Not many guys dress like that."
Guard was a hero
Remaining humble, Lippold gives credit to the security guard.
"What's funny now is that some security guy catches the guy the whole state is looking for.
"People holler about rent-a-cops, but he saved her life."
He has found some comfort from the ordeal through
Sequim's retired police officers and firefighters group. He has told his story several times, an account he said many former officers appreciate because some of them are from California.
"Most people here don't even know who the Zodiac is," he said.
"I'd be willing to let people know the story of it, but I just want to put the information out there."
Lippold can be reached at 460-2462 or 683-9180.
Reach Matthew Nash at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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