True crime is one of those genres that either repels or fascinates readers. I don’t seek these books out, but two that have stayed vividly in my mind for years are In Cold Blood (not because of the Philip Seymour Hoffman movie, although that was excellent) and Helter Skelter (the Manson murders). Those two are the gold standard of investigative nonfiction in that arena, and downright chilling.
This past week, news broke of a surprising and bizarre new true crime account. The book comes from HarperCollins, a respected but sometimes exploitative publisher that was originally supposed to publish O.J. Simpson’s offensive pseudo-confession, If I Did It. Although not quite at the same shock level as that monstrosity, HarperCollins brings us a puzzling premise that was successfully embargoed. No one knew this book was coming until it hit the shelves. In The Most Dangerous Animal of All by Gary L. Stewart, the author lays out twelve years of research that led him to the conclusion that his biological father was the infamous Zodiac killer.
The Zodiac killer was known for five murders in Northern California in the 1960s. He taunted police by sending coded messages to the local media. No one ever cracked the case, despite thousands of tips. The film Dirty Harry, starring Clint Eastwood, was loosely based on the case. In 2007, Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. starred in Zodiac, which chronicled the investigation. For more than 40 years the identity of the Zodiac killer has remained a mystery.
There have been red herrings. In 2012, former police officer Lyndon Lafferty published The Zodiac Killer Cover-Up, which claimed the now-in-his-90s killer was living in northern California. Lafferty’s book was widely criticized for factual errors and ultimately did not name the suspect.
A 51-year-old owner of an industrial cleaning company in Louisiana, Stewart isn’t the first to claim his late father was the killer. In 2009, a mother of five, Victoria Perez, announced that her late father, Guy Ward Hendrickson, was the Zodiac killer. She also told the media he took her along on killings and that she was the author of coded messages sent to the media. Although taken seriously at first, Perez lost her credibility when she later tried to claim she was the illegitimate daughter of President John F Kennedy. Some people will do anything for media coverage.
That invites the question, is The Most Dangerous Animal Of All a cry for attention, a delusion, an incorrect conclusion, or could it be—the truth at last? Stewart interviewed handwriting specialists, forensic scientists, and over 500 others who were either experts or somehow connected with the case. HarperCollins claims the manuscript has been carefully vetted by their attorneys. But why is Stewart bringing his claims forward in this manner, with an embargoed and dramatic book? Stewart tells the media he spent ten years unsuccessfully begging the San Francisco Police Department to compare his DNA with what’s in the Zodiac killer’s files. So maybe this book is a way of strong-arming that to finally happen. It will be interesting to see.
Now, the book itself. Truth be told, I couldn’t read the whole thing. The book opens with the author’s family history (he was adopted) and the writing style didn’t grab me. And, despite the evidence presented—some flimsy (his father liked codes) and some more convincing (his father’s striking resemblance to the police sketch)—the element of doubt remains present, especially considering other past attempts to claim the case had been solved. I wish the book had come out after the DNA comparison had been done. It seems to me a careful publisher would have demanded that kind of evidence prior to publication.
If you’re fascinated by the Zodiac killer, I’d watch the 2007 movie Zodiac before investing in The Most Dangerous Animal of All, at least until Stewart’s claims have been forensically proven. But if it’s just a good true crime account you’re after, I stand behind my recommendations of In Cold Blood or Helter Skelter. You can’t go wrong there.