- Associated Press - Saturday, January 14, 2017

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Even with survivors, the suspect’s composite and his DNA, police have never identified the Zodiac, the self-named serial killer who terrorized northern California in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Five killings are directly linked to him but in a 1974 letter, one in a series of taunting missives to Bay Area newspapers, the Zodiac indicated the number was actually 37.

And then, silence. The case went ice cold. It is one of the nation’s most notorious unsolved cases.

Until - possibly - now.

In November, more than two dozen cold-case investigators convened in Oakland to learn if a new Pittsburgh-based tip in the case was worth pursuing. Did a handwriting sample of a northern California man, submitted by his suspicious daughter, match that of the Zodiac Killer? They wanted to know.

Nationally renowned handwriting expert Michelle Dresbold of the East End told them there are so many similarities, many of them quite unusual, in what she could compare between the handwriting samples of the Zodiac and the father that further investigation is definitely warranted.

“There is enough - more than enough - to consider this valid,” she told the excited group.

The investigators plan to get right back on the case - now that a new semester has begun at the University of Pittsburgh.

The amateur sleuths are members of Pitt’s Students Conquering Cold Cases club. Ms. Dresbold’s presentation was their last meeting of the fall semester. They’ll resume examining the Zodiac case and others as the spring semester begins this month.

The members, who must meet certain academic and other criteria, plan careers in law, law enforcement and similar fields, and hone their analytic skills in tackling unsolved cases.

Recognized by the university in the 2015 fall semester as an official organization, the club has as its goal uncovering leads police can use to bring a sense of closure to victims’ families.

They are guided by retired Pittsburgh Police Cmdr. Ronald Freeman, who headed the city police violent crimes section and was involved with a cold case unit that included Pittsburgh and Allegheny County homicide detectives and the FBI. Now an adjunct professor at Pitt, he agreed to be the club’s sponsor.

In addition to the Zodiac Killer, the amateur investigators have taken on baffling cold cases such as the 2012 disappearance of 21-year-old Lebanon County woman, the 2005 Christmas Eve murder of a 94-year-old Beaver County woman and the 1993 slaying of a 74-year-old Westmoreland County woman.

“I think back to meetings with cold-case detectives and while the difference is (club members) don’t have the training and background in policing, they have the same enthusiasm and desire to solve these cases,” Mr. Freeman said.

“It’s surprising how really good they are at this. I’m really impressed with their skills and abilities.”

ZODIAC INVESTIGATION

Twenty-five students - 19 of them women - sit at circular tables in Room 231 of Pitt’s Lawrence Hall on Nov. 30. They are excited to learn if Ms. Dresbold holds any hope for them to further investigate the Zodiac, the subject of numerous books and several movies including the 2007 eponymous-named film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr.

Each student has a laptop open in front of them that they use for taking notes, conducting Google searches and using social media to expand upon what Ms. Dresbold tells them. They use computers so much in their work that they are momentarily flummoxed when Ms. Dresbold asks them to take out a piece of paper for an exercise.

“Every little thing you put in your writing says something about you,” says Ms. Dresbold, who is known for her work with Pittsburgh and other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and her book “Sex, Lies and Handwriting,” which includes her analysis of handwriting in the JonBenet Ramsey, Lizzie Borden and Jack the Ripper cases, among others.

Using a large projection screen, she points to similarities between the Zodiac Killer’s handwriting and that of the California man - dots above “i’s” that aren’t filled in and squeezed “o’s”; odd spacing and “d’s” leaning to the right; similar “p’s” and weirdly shaped “g’s”; misspellings and “t’s” curved at the bottom.

“There are a lot of things that are pretty unusual,” she told the group. “I was kind of shocked. I was not expecting this.

“Do we have an exact match? No. But I really wonder why so many things are similar. I think there’s too much to not take it seriously,” says Ms. Dresbold, who said she needs more of the father’s samples to conduct a complete analysis.

Mr. Freeman said in an interview that he plans to contact a California police laboratory “and share what information we have and to see if there is anything they want us to do and anything they’ll do.”

He was surprised to learn while researching the case that thousands of people had said over more than four decades that they know the Zodiac Killer’s identity.

“I was thinking, ‘Is this one of those thousands?’ and then Michelle comes up with this information. We’re compelled to move forward and try to get DNA. It’s high on our agenda (this) semester.”

Club president Alexandra Morgan, 20, a sophomore from Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County, agreed; “We definitely have a lot of work (this) semester, so I’m looking forward to it.”

The Zodiac Killer’s case came to the club because a Downtown woman had been looking for a handwriting expert and found Ms. Dresbold. The woman told her this tale:

She and her boyfriend last year had visited her father in northern California, where he also had lived at the time of the Zodiac killings. One night, he disappeared for six hours, returning in the early morning hours. Carrying a whiskey bottle, he woke the couple and oddly began quizzing them on what they knew about serial killers and asked them to name one that had never been caught.

His demeanor was so strange, so dark, so off, his daughter thought. Chillingly, she learned there had been a murder during the time her father was out. The woman began investigating unsolved serial killings in the area and came upon the Zodiac Killer case. Fearing her father was the serial killer, she gave Ms. Dresbold a 2015 Christmas card with her father’s handwriting for comparison.

Ms. Dresbold gets similar requests about 10 times a year from people who mistakenly think a relative is a killer and want her to profile their writing. But this was different.

“The punctuation, spacing, strange letter formation, the angles - I was pretty taken aback by (the comparison),” she said in an interview. “I really think the authorities should follow up on this man.”

HOW THE CLUB EVOLVED

While investigating such a sensational case is exciting, the club has its roots in empathy.

In the summer of 2015, Pitt student Nicole Coons of Harrisburg saw an attendant at a tennis club putting up a missing person poster for Kortne Stouffer, who was 21 when she vanished three years earlier.

Ms. Coons, who plans to go to law school when she graduates this year, talked to the attendant who was a childhood friend of Ms. Stouffer. Moved by the baffling disappearance of someone near her age, she began researching the case and struck upon the idea of creating a cold case club in which “a lot of students look at it to try to catch something police officers might have missed.”

Ms. Coons, 21, presented her idea to her friend and fellow Pitt student Hannah Eisenhart, 22, likewise a senior from Harrisburg, and they set about the process of getting the club recognized. They needed a professor to be the sponsor so Ms. Coons, who as a sophomore had taken a class taught by Mr. Freeman, approached him about the possibility.

“I would always talk to him after class and he was so interesting, telling stories about being a homicide detective. I could tell he was really good at his job and was a good and nice professor so I knew he would do a good job.”

A board was set up as were requirements for participants - students must have a 3.5 grade-point average, relevant internships and do well in an interview with board members.

As president, Ms. Coons planned each two-hour weekly session for the club’s meeting. Depending upon what is discussed, members often have work to do outside of the meeting and report back to the group of about 30 the following week.

The first case they undertook was Ms. Stouffer’s mysterious disappearance. With money provided by the university, they purchased a conference call speaker and conducted interviews during club meetings with Ms. Stouffer’s family and friends. Social media was a key to locating some of Ms. Stouffer’s friends who hadn’t been interviewed by police and were willing to do so. Their names were provided to investigators.

Ms. Coons and Ms. Eisenhart, who was the club’s business manager, stepped down from their positions this school year so others could take their positions. “We didn’t want to graduate and have things fall apart. We wanted it to continue on.”

HOPE FOR VICTIMS’ FAMILIES

In September, Dan Coyle of Freeport received a call from the club asking if he would be open to an interview about the death of his mother Stephanie, 74, in Arnold, Westmoreland County, on July 16, 1993.

“We were just thrilled they were looking over the case,” he said recently. “Twenty-three years have gone by and new people were interested. We were very excited.”

He and his wife, Barbara, came to a meeting in November and for nearly two hours talked about the case and answered the students’ questions.

“They all seemed so generally interested,” he recalled. “This is great to have this many people show an interest in the case.

“It’s hard to put into words what this means to us. They are very, very intelligent and concerned.”

Mr. Freeman said that is the hallmark of the group of high-achievers.

“It’s just nice to see young people who want to give something back to our society that they’re not getting paid for. They give hope to victims’ families.

“Given their enthusiasm and their abilities, I think some day we will (solve a case),” Mr. Freeman said. “You just never know what we’ll find. Given their energy and efforts, anything is possible.”

___

Online:

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