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Investigative team’s Zodiac Killer revelations draw skepticism

When authorities announced the arrest of the infamous Golden State Killer in April of 2018, the news cycle went into overdrive. Just about anyone who had researched or investigated the vexing case over the years seemed to be on TV at the same time. Relatives of Joseph James DeAngelo’s victims sobbed, and police detectives glared with grim satisfaction.

Tuesday, a team of independent investigators calling themselves the Case Breakers announced they had very likely identified the suspect in another infamous serial murder case: The Zodiac Killer.

Zodiac is one of the few cases even more notorious than the Golden State Killer — especially here in the Bay Area, a region gripped by creeping fear in 1969 and 1970 as Zodiac (aka Gary Francis Poste, if the Case Breakers are correct) sent taunting letters to cops and media outlets.

This time, the reaction could be described as mild interest buried under waves of scorn.

On the popular message board The Zodiac Killer — Unsolved & Unforgotten, some regulars admitted they were keeping an open mind, or even intrigued by some of the Case Breakers’ findings. More responded like the commenter Uncle Sporkums, who penned, “Complete garbage. The most circumstantial of evidence. They would have been laughed off this site if they brought this here.”

Another, who uses the handle bobloblawslawblog, said, “Another likely con exposed. If (and when) this crashes to the ground, these ‘case breakers’ should be shamed out of business.”

Mike Morford, who created a multipart podcast called “The Case of the Zodiac Killer,” and later released a book with a full transcript of that audio production, tweeted almost immediately after the Case Breakers dropped their news release.

“I can’t believe that on the same day, they both identified the #ZodiacKiller & captured a live #Bigfoot #Sasquatch,” he wrote, adding a devastating tilted-laughing-crying emoji along with a GIF of someone doing a goofy dance in a furry Bigfoot costume.

Jennifer Bucholtz, one of about 40 members of the Case Breakers team, said she had expected the negative reaction. Still, she wound up X-ing out her Twitter window for the day Tuesday because of the amount of hate she was getting.

“People don’t want to be proved wrong,” she told The Press Democrat on Wednesday. “I get it. They’ve put in a lot of effort. But all we’re saying is, ‘Just wait until we get the rest of the information.’”

It was Bucholtz, a Colorado private investigator and curriculum developer for the U.S. State Department, who began this new push to unmask the Zodiac Killer after getting a call out of the blue from Dale Julin, a weekend anchor at WJCL-22, a TV station in Savannah, Georgia. Julin presented Bucholtz with his book manuscript about Gary Poste, an Air Force veteran and house painter who died in 2018 and may have lived in California’s Sierra region.

“I was skeptical,” she said. “But when I started reading, I thought, ‘Gosh, he’s got the guy.’”

The rest of the Case Breakers’ loosely affiliated team includes other PIs, archivists, cyber investigators, DNA experts, document analysts, code breakers, handwriting experts, psychologists and a host of retired FBI agents, police officers and U.S. attorneys.

“I stand by our work,” Bucholtz said. “It’s been seven-plus years and thousands and thousands of hours by those investigators. These are not just couch potatoes who watch a lot of true crime. And I’m not trying to disparage amateur researchers. But we have hundreds of years of expertise represented on the team.”

One possible reason the amateur sleuths were so hostile to the Case Breakers’ announcement is that Gary Poste’s name is a new one in the Zodiac canon. Most attention has focused on Arthur Allen Leigh, who owned a mobile home at Sunset Trailer Park in Santa Rosa and who was elevated into the spotlight in Robert Graysmith’s book “Zodiac,” which was adapted into a movie of the same name starring Mark Ruffalo and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Ross Sullivan, Lawrence Kane and even the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, have become the pet suspects of other Zodiac obsessives. Poste was nowhere to be seen on The Zodiac Killer — Unsolved & Unforgotten site. Bucholtz said that’s because Julin “worked backwards,” as she put it, learning Poste’s name in an interview before figuring out it fit into some of the ciphers, or coded messages, Zodiac sent to investigators.

But there’s another major reason Bucholtz and her teammates aren’t being hailed as crime-solving heroes. When DeAngelo was exposed as the Golden State Killer, dozens of law enforcement officials and prosecutors attended the press conference. The Case Breakers have received no such endorsement.

“The Zodiac killer case remains open,” a representative of the FBI’s San Francisco office told The Press Democrat on Wednesday. “We have no new information to share at the moment.”

“We are unable to speak to potential suspects as this is still an open investigation,” the San Francisco Police Department said.

And at least one department was openly hostile to the Case Breakers’ conclusions. “Is there a chance that Poste killed Cheri Jo Bates? No,” Riverside Police Officer Ryan Railsback told the San Francisco Chronicle. “If you read what they put out, it’s all circumstantial evidence. It’s not a whole lot.”

Riverside PD hasn’t always been drawn into the Zodiac Killer saga. One of the Case Breakers’ big revelations is their assertion that Cheri Jo Bates, a young woman slain in Riverside in 1966, was clearly a Zodiac victim.

Bucholtz takes the determinations of law enforcement agencies seriously. “I would not classify a case as officially solved until the investigating authority says it is,” she noted.

In this case, that’s a patchwork of authorities that would include SFPD, Vallejo PD, Riverside PD and the Napa County Sheriff’s Department. What Case Breakers is really trying to accomplish now, Bucholtz said, is to convince the Riverside police to share DNA evidence with some of their Northern California counterparts. She believes it will prove Gary Poste murdered at least six people during a brazen psychedelic-era rampage.

First, the cops will have to take the Case Breakers’ work seriously.

“One thing we’re working on is, how do you get law enforcement in this country to start accepting outside help?” Bucholtz said. “We’ve got a quarter-million unsolved homicides in this country. Would you consider using some outside help? It’s a big thing to ask. But we’re hoping some of this attention will help with that. Because a victim’s family does not care who solves a case. They just want it solved.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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