Yesterday's Crimes: The Zodiac Killer Answers His Copycats

There were trails of blood throughout what the San Francisco Chronicle called “an expensively-decorated hippie-style pad,” according to the paper's cover story on Monday, April 20, 1970.

The apartment at 745 Stevenson Street in San Francisco belonged to Robert Salem, 40, a notable designer of hurricane lamps. Salem was “a graying man who wore his hair long and apparently had an interest in gurus and health foods” according to the Chronicle. Friends of Salem broke into his live-work space on Sunday, April 19, 1970, when they hadn't seen him in several days.

They found him dead on one of his couches. Salem had been stabbed seven times with a very sharp knife. His head was nearly severed from his body. When decapitation proved too difficult, the killer cut off Salem’s ear. Investigators never found the ear.

[jump] Making a strange case even stranger, the words “Satan saves Zodiac” were scrawled on a wall of the converted warehouse in Salem’s blood with “a weird cross-like design” next to it. Homicide inspector Gus Coreris was hesitant to say that Salem’s murder was the work of the Zodiac Killer, who had been terrorizing the entire Bay Area since 1968.

It had been nearly six months since the Zodiac’s last known murder. On Oct. 11, 1969, the killer hailed Paul Stine’s cab on the corner of Mason and Geary streets. He rode it to Washington and Cherry streets in Presidio Heights, where he shot Stine in the back of the head with a 9mm automatic. Two days later, the Zodiac sent a bloody swatch of Stine’s shirt to the San Francisco Chronicle to needle reporters and police. Zodiac was the grandfather of all trolls.

On April 21, 1970, the Chronicle ran a follow-up story about the murder of Robert Salem written by Paul Avery, the crime reporter played by Robert Downey Jr. in David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac. By this time, the Chronicle is calling this crime the “Satan murder.” Police inspectors also go on the record saying they don’t think it was the work of Zodiac.

“Probably the person we are after wanted us to think it was the Zodiac,” Inspector Coreris said.

A grainy photo of the murder scene accompanying the article shows that the symbol drawn on Salem’s wall was an Egyptian ankh and not the Zodiac’s signature crosshair, which he wore on his chest like a super villain when he brutally stabbed a pair of college students at Lake Berryessa on Sept. 27, 1969. The ankh was also drawn on Salem’s stomach, according to Avery.

On the same day that the Chronicle ran its first story on the Salem murder, the Zodiac Killer dropped a letter to the paper into a corner mailbox in San Francisco. The new letter, his first since a Dec. 20, 1969, note to attorney Melvin Belli, included a new cipher with the words “My name is” before it.

“I have killed ten people to date,” Zodiac claims at a time when only five Zodiac victims were confirmed (then and now). The serial killer doesn’t take credit for the Salem murder (or even mention it), but he does dangle the possibility that he could have been responsible for it.

Zodiac closes the letter with a sinister postscript on the bottom of a page showing a hand-drawn diagram of a bomb.

“I hope you have fun trying to fygure (sic) out who I killed,” he taunts. “Zodiac = 10. SFPD = 0.”

While the SFPD knew who didn't hack apart Robert Salem, they didn't have any idea who did until an arrest for a hit-and-run in Big Sur in July 1970.

Come back next week for the story of the Hippie Cannibal Satanist.

“Yesterday's Crimes” revisits strange, lurid, eerie, and often forgotten crimes from San Francisco's past. 

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