By: Joe Strupp
It’s been 40 years since the mysterious Zodiac killer stalked the San Francisco area, killing at least six people and taunting police through cryptic messages sent to local newspapers, most notably the San Francisco Chronicle. Never caught, his identity has remained a mystery, while the case has continued as one of the area’s creepiest legends.
In recent months, however, a new film about the killings, set to open Friday, has drawn new interest to the case, and the Chronicle’s part in it. Not only does the movie center on the newspaper’s role in pursuing the killer, in part by printing the puzzle-like notes he sent to police and editors, but it focuses on two former Chronicle newsmen, reporter Paul Avery and cartoonist, later author, Robert Graysmith.
“Two of the main characters are journalists at the Chronicle,” says Editor Phil Bronstein, who was not at the paper when the murders occurred, but lived nearby. “We had film crews in here, they filmed a bunch of it here, a lot of background stuff.”
Actor Robert Downey Jr. plays Avery, who died in 2000, while Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Graysmith, who left the paper years ago, but wrote two books about the case. “I think the newspaper had a big role in the movie,” said Bronstein, who has yet to see the flick. “The Chronicle became one of the contacts for the Zodiac. The key part of the hunt was communicating with the Chronicle.”
Most Chronicle staffer were not at the paper when the killings occurred between 1966 and 1969, and some were not even born. But a handful of longtime employees who were around at the time said the film has reminded them of how things were different in that era.
“It was a big deal, the biggest story they had at that time, big in the newsroom,” said Jim Brewer, a politics and government editor who has worked at the paper since 1969. “There was a lot of energy, that they were going to catch the guy.” Brewer said the Zodiac case eventually got lost in the shuffle of a string of high-profile crimes in the area that followed during the 1970s, from the Patty Hearst kidnapping to the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
“It is bringing back how different it was that many years ago, the relationship between the press and the police,” Brewer said about the movie. “There was much more of a trust relationship. If something like that was happening today, it would be driven by cable news and it would be head talkers.”
Carl Nolte, a general assignment reporter whose time at the Chronicle dates back to 1961, recalls some reporters being concerned about their safety after Avery was threaten by the killer. “It was kind of apprehensive and spooky,” Nolte, now 73, recalls. “There was this guy out there threatening one of our reporters.” Brewer recalls taking Avery to the sheriff’s office in nearby Marin County, where Avery lived, to get a gun permit. “He was a reasonably calm guy and never seemed very excited and scared,” Brewer added. “But he was enthusiastic.”
Several staffers remember someone printing up buttons that said “I’m Not Avery,” for those worried about being killed by the Zodiac as a sort of bad joke.
“It has become a curious thing,” Nolte said about the case and its impact on the paper. “When your own people become involved in it it becomes less of a news story and more of a personal thing.” He said the movie also reminds him about how long ago the killings occurred. “Did people really dress like that?” he says with a laugh.
Even for those who were not around during the killings, such as columnist Andrew Ross, the movie has drawn new interest to the decades-old case. “It is a piece of San Francisco history that had a lot of the city spellbound at the time,” he said. “I suppose, on some level, it is always fascinating for the media to be on the inside of some bit of history.”
The Chronicle, meanwhile, has used the movie as a launching pad for a string of stories looking back at the case and the paper’s part in the investigation. On Sunday, the paper devoted six pages and the cover of its feature section to stories about the Zodiac and the movie, including an interview with Downey and a first-person recollection by former reporter Duffy Jennings.
The Chronicle Web site has posted images of the newspaper stories from the time, including reprints of the strange coded messages Zodiac sent in. Bronstein also hosted a screening of the film last week for local law enforcement officials, including many who worked on the case.
“I think people found it to be accurate, the people who were there,” Bronstein said about the screening. “A lot of people thought Downey was great choice to play Avery.”
The nearby Times-Herald of Vallejo, Calif., which also received letters from the Zodiac killer during the crime spree, has run at least 18 stories related to the case and the movie in the past week, according to Editor Ted Vollmer. He said the paper was involved in the coverage at the time because four of the six murders occurred within its circulation area.
“This has drawn new attention to it,” he said of the movie. “There is a lot of curiosity.”
Bronstein added that the case is a good lesson in the issues surrounding a newspaper’s involvement in a story it is covering. “History is always a good teaching lesson,” he said. “The goal was to search for this guy as part of the story.”
Related: YOUR NIGHTLY VIDEO: ‘Zodiac’ Stalks the ‘SF Chronicle’