It was an eerie and chilling letter that arrived at the 75th police precinct in Brooklyn last November.
“This is the Zodiac,” the missive said. " . . . The Zodiac will kill the 12 Signs in the belt. When the Zodiacal light is seen Zodiac will spread fear.” At the top of the letter was a small circle with a pie-like slice containing the words: “Taurus the first sign is dead.”
Investigators couldn’t find any murders that could be linked to the mysterious writer. The letter was promptly logged in a property room and forgotten.
Now that letter has become a key document in a bizarre series of shootings by an elusive gunman that recalls San Francisco’s Zodiac killer and New York’s “Son of Sam” murders and is spreading fear throughout the city.
The gunman, who has been dubbed the “Zodiac Killer” by the tabloids, appears to be choosing his victims according to their astrological signs, with the goal of a death under each sign.
Fifty detectives have been assigned to the case. On Tuesday, Mayor David N. Dinkins authorized a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the gunman. Dinkins, in a statement, called him a “twisted individual with a distorted notion of his role in life.”
Authorities have warned New Yorkers to beware of strangers asking their birth dates.
Since March, four shootings have been attributed to the gunman. Only one victim has died. Joseph Proce, 78, a retired ice delivery man who was shot May 31 as he was walking near his home in Queens, died Sunday of complications from his wounds in Jamaica Hospital.
The three other victims are all recovering from their wounds.
Although he was third in the string of victims, Proce was born under the astrological sign of Taurus--the same sign mentioned as being dead in the letter received by police last November.
Each shooting took place on a Thursday in the early morning hours. The first three victims were all shot in the back.
The first and second shootings were separated by 21 days as were the third and fourth, and the second and third shootings were separated by 63 days--or three times 21.
Police believe the man may be patterning himself after California’s Zodiac killer, a man who claimed responsibility for as many as 40 killings in a series of notes to San Francisco area newspapers from 1968 to 1987.
Like the California Zodiac and like David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” slayer who killed six young men and women and wounded several others in New York City in 1976 and 1977, the gunman has written letters to news organizations and police boasting of his actions and giving details of the shootings.
“No more games pigs,” he said in a letter to the New York Post describing the three shootings up to then, including the astrological signs of the victims. Until then, police had considered the attacks random and unrelated.
The gunman’s most recent victim, a 30-year-old homeless man from Brooklyn named Larry Parnham, was shot in the chest last Thursday around 5:15 a.m. as he was sleeping on a bench in Central Park.
Parnham told detectives that, only days before the incident, a stranger had befriended him outside the park and, during the course of conversation, had asked him his birth date. Parnham was born under the sign of Cancer.
Parnham described the stranger as a dark-complexioned black, age 33, between 5 feet 10 and 6 feet tall, with an Afro-style haircut and a slightly receding hairline or bald spot near his forehead.
The Zodiac gunman’s first victim was Mario Orosco, 50, who was shot March 8 in the East New York section of Brooklyn. The second victim, Germaine Montenesdro, 33, was shot on March 29, also in East New York.
Orosco is a Scorpio and Montenesdro a Gemini. It is unclear how the gunman knew their signs.
The incidents have unsettled many New Yorkers--particularly residents of East New York.
“Everybody is worried about this guy,” a diner manager in that neighborhood told a New York Post reporter. “He’s already shot four people. I’m scared . . . I’m always looking over my shoulder.”
The case also has been a field day for astrologers and amateur sleuths.
A theory about the shootings published in Mike McAlary’s column in Sunday’s Daily News holds that the gunman is choosing the scenes of his shootings according to where the stars of the constellation Orion would fall if it were superimposed over a map of the city.
The column contends that the first three shootings--each of which happened in or near East New York--form part of the constellation known as Orion’s belt.
In notes to the media, the gunman has said: “The 12 Signs will die when the belts in the heaven are seen.” He also has described himself as Orion, the great hunter.