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Dave Toschi, dapper detective who chased the infamous Zodiac killer for years, dies at 86

Dave Toschi, dapper detective who chased the infamous Zodiac killer for years, dies at 86
San Francisco Police Det. Dave Toschi looks through files in 1976. (San Francisco Chronicle)

Dave Toschi, the San Francisco police detective who led the long-running yet unsuccessful investigation into the Zodiac serial killings a half-century ago, has died. He was 86.

Toschi died Saturday after a lengthy illness, his daughter, Linda Toschi-Chambers, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

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Toschi was put on the Zodiac case after a San Francisco taxi driver was shot to death in 1969. The detective was removed from the case nine years later when he acknowledged writing and mailing anonymous fan letters to the Chronicle lauding his own work.

Five people were fatally stabbed or shot to death in the Zodiac killings in Northern California in 1968 and 1969, and their killer sent taunting letters and cryptograms to the police and newspapers.

The killer was never caught. He was dubbed the Zodiac killer because some of his cryptograms included astrological symbols and references.

Mark Ruffalo portrayed Det. Dave Toschi in the 2007 movie "Zodiac."
Mark Ruffalo portrayed Det. Dave Toschi in the 2007 movie "Zodiac." (Merrick Morton / Paramount Pictures)

In an interview with The Times in 1996, Toschi said he thought he had finally tracked down the killer on a November night in 1969. A man called a television station during a news program about the killings and told the host, "I think you're looking for me."

"The host thought they had the guy, and we put a trace on the call," Toschi recalled. "The guy talked on and on, giving all kinds of details.

"Meanwhile, we traced the call to a hospital in Oakland, and we talked to one of the supervisors there. He told us, 'You've been talking to a man we just gave phone privileges to. He's a mental patient.'"

Duffy Jennings covered the killings for the Chronicle and grew close to Toschi.

Jennings said Toschi visited the San Francisco murder scene on the anniversary of the killing for many years searching for overlooked clues.

"The Zodiac case gnawed at him," Jennings said. "He said it gave him an ulcer."

The 2007 movie "Zodiac" starred Mark Ruffalo as Toschi.

Toschi was born in San Francisco and graduated from Galileo High School before serving in the Army in the Korean War. He returned to San Francisco in 1953 and was hired at the Police Department, where he worked until retiring in 1985.

His penchant for bow ties, snappy trench coats and the quick-draw holster for his .38-caliber pistol drew the attention of Steve McQueen, who patterned his character in the 1968 movie "Bullitt" after Toschi. Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" character was also partially inspired by him, the Chronicle reported.

Toschi's family said the retired inspector enjoyed music and books.

He "could sing with the best of them," said his daughter. "His greatest pleasure was his loving family, and we will miss his keen sense of humor, his gentle guidance and his unconditional love."

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Toschi is survived by his wife Carol, two daughters and two granddaughters.

A Times staff writer contributed to this report

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