The L.A. producer behind “The Case Breakers” made a docuseries on the D.B. Cooper case they supposedly solved in 2016 — then he sued the FBI
Yesterday the story that the Zodiac Killer case had finally been solved went viral. I admit it: when I saw the first headlines a surge of adrenaline ran through me. The Zodiac Killer murdered at least five people in Northern California in the late 1960s, though he claimed as many as 37 victims. The search has continued for decades but the case has remained unsolved, despite remarkable advances in DNA technology.
According to a group of 40 former law enforcement officers who call themselves “The Case Breakers,” the Zodiac Killer is Gary Francis Poste, a California house painter who died at 80 in 2018. In their press release they even include a handful of photos, in which they refer to Poste simply as “Z.”
“1974: Z’s brain-surgery scars,” the caption beneath one photo of Poste reads. Another informs viewers that the photograph we’re seeing is “Z’s 1974 snow hike.” Next to it is a sketch of the Zodiac Killer in full executioner’s garb.
I’ve followed the Zodiac case for years and have written several articles on it, so the possibility of it being solved after so long thrilled me. At first glance, the story seemed plausible. The past year saw at least one major breakthrough in the case, when codebreakers solved the Z340 after intelligence officials failed to break cipher for more than half a century.
If three amateur cryptographers could make such progress, why couldn’t a group of 40 retired law enforcement officials finally ID the killer?
It seemed logical. It is logical. But as it turns out I was essentially Charlie Brown running after the football the “Case Breakers” slyly held out for me.
Even cursory research reveals it’s far more likely the latest “Zodiac Killer” suspect is nothing more than that — a suspect, and a weak one at that.
What is the evidence?
So far, there’s not much and none of it is convincing.
While the group claims to have more they haven’t released it. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Police Department and the FBI have not endorsed the Case Breakers’ claim that Poste is the Zodiac Killer. According to the FBI:
“The Zodiac Killer case remains open. We have no new information to share at the moment.”
Here’s a summary of the information the group has released so far:
1. The “forehead scars”
Take a look at the photo above because that’s part of the group’s evidence. It claims the “forehead scars” in the police sketch of Zodiac and the “forehead scars” on Poste match. The Case Breaker site alleges:
After a statewide examination, the renowned sleuths have recovered new physical and forensic evidence, signed up eyewitnesses, filed court affidavits, and secured decades of pictures from Poste’s former darkroom. That includes photographic proof, as a former FBI agent put it, of “irrefutable” scars on our Zodiac’s forehead — spotted by 3 witnesses and an observing cop, then later passed on to the 1969 SFPD sketch artist (Page 2).
I may not be a former FBI agent, but it seems pretty clear to me that the police sketch doesn’t show scars at all. The lines could simply be age lines, aka plain old wrinkles.
As it turns out, the lines aren’t even supposed to be there.
So says Tom Voigt, who has run ZodiacKiller.com for years and is the author of Zodiac Killer: Just the Facts. I’ve interviewed Voigt before and found him to be a reliable, knowledgeable source on all things Zodiac. In an interview with Rolling Stone yesterday, Voigt had this to say about the so-called “matching scars”:
“. . . they’re matching up lines on foreheads. No witness ever described lines on Zodiac’s forehead. Those lines were simply added by the sketch artist to fill in the sketch. The amended sketch, which is supposed to look more like Zodiac, according to witnesses, doesn’t really even have any lines. So they got rid of them. So because the witnesses were like, “We’re not really happy with that sketch that we gave you a few days ago,” they got changed. The lines went away. No witness ever described that.”
Then there’s the fact that Poste never wore glasses. We’re supposed to match up the artist’s “scars” with Poste’s but dismiss the missing glasses on every available photo of Poste as a younger man?
2. The key that is Poste’s name
This one sounds a little more convincing. At least initially:
Other clues include deciphering letters sent by the Zodiac that revealed him as the killer, said Jen Bucholtz, a former Army counterintelligence agent who works on cold cases. In one note, the letters of Poste’s full name were removed to reveal an alternate message, she told Fox News.
“So you’ve got to know Gary’s full name in order to decipher these anagrams,” Bucholtz said. “I just don’t think there’s any other way anybody would have figured it out.”
Not so fast.
The problem is the group hasn’t released any information that confirms this, nor has it given any data to prove how these unofficial investigators arrived at their remarkable conclusion.
When cryptographers solved the Z340 in December 2020, they provided detailed, verifiable information to authorities and the public. They were transparent about their methods and their process. The FBI also endorsed their solution.
Want to follow along? Watch this hour-long video in which software developer David Oranchak, one of the three men who cracked the code, explains how they did it.
The Z340 codebreakers were successful after many years of research. But thousands of amateur cryptographers regularly claim to have extracted various names from the four ciphers Zodiac sent to the press. It is easy to find names in the ciphers, but that doesn’t mean the solutions are correct.
Earlier this year Fayçal Ziraoui, a French engineer, claimed to have decoded the Z13 and Z32 ciphers to reveal that the Zodiac Killer was Lawrence Kane, another man who has repeatedly been floated as a suspect in the case.
The Ziraoui story also went viral, gaining coverage from The New York Times, The Washington Post and other reputable newspapers. Yet no law enforcement agency has confirmed the engineer’s claims. Even Ziraoui, however, provided information and data about his methods.
The Case Breakers have provided no such evidence about their codebreaking at this point. Bucholtz disputes this allegation:
“The process of Dale Julin’s code-breaking is simple, as I explained. Take each of the taunting letters, one at a time, write down all the letters/numbers from each letter and accompanying envelope. Remove the letters of Gary Francis Poste and then use the rest of the letter to discover the “real” message Zodiac was trying to convey. It’s not a secret. The only thing we’re keeping confidential right now is the actual content of each letter that Dale uncovered. We actually encourage others to go through the same exact process and see if they’re findings match up.”
When asked to provide the content of the letters, as well as the messages that removing the letters of Poste’s name reveals, Bucholtz said she is not authorized to do so. This morning a number of her messages to me, which were posted in a Facebook True Crime group, had been deleted.
Without the content of the letters used, or the alternate message, it is not possible to “go through the same exact process and see if findings match up.”
3. The other “dark room photos”
One of the photos retrieved from Poste’s dark room is allegedly the face-scar photo, which is discussed above. Other alleged dark-room photos on the site are simply shots of Poste over the years.
The photo below supposedly shows him dressed in the executioner’s outfit the Zodiac wore when he attacked Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard at Lake Berryessa in 1969. Shepard died at the scene but Hartnell survived and went on to describe what he saw to police.
The Case Breakers photo, dated 1980, appears to capture a shadow of someone in a hood. It is unclear that the photo is Poste and one cannot easily determine what he is wearing, never mind whether it shows some type of “match” to the costume Zodiac wore 11 years earlier.
Another photo from site shows Poste wearing a dark double-pocketed shirt, military-type boots and sunglasses. Next to the photo is a drawing of the executioner’s costume, which was created based on Hartnell’s recollections.
The group has not released any other “darkroom photos.”
4. The Cheri Jo Bates connection
The Case Breakers allege that Poste, as Zodiac, murdered college student Cheri Jo Bates in Riverside, California in 1966. The Bates case has been raised as a potential Zodiac murder for decades, despite the fact that it occurred hundreds of miles from the other Zodiac killings.
A groundskeeper discovered the 18-year-old student on a gravel path at Riverside City College on Halloween morning. She had been stabbed 42 times and had fought her killer.
The case was linked to the Zodiac Killer after an anonymous writer sent letters to Riverside police and to the press during the year after the murder. The content led investigators to believe Bates may have been Zodiac’s first victim. “There will be more,” the letters promised. They were signed “Z.”
In 2016, a man contacted authorities anonymously to say that he had sent the three “Z” letters to Riverside police and the press in 1967. Four years later, DNA testing of the stamp on the envelope revealed the identity of the writer and the FBI interviewed him. He told investigators he had been a troubled teen who wrote the letters to gain attention. A guilty conscience led him to set things right.
DNA testing revealed the writer was neither Bates’ murderer nor the Zodiac Killer. As result of these developments, the Riverside police are no longer investigating her murder as a Zodiac killing and are pursuing another suspect.
The revelation does not explain who sent a letter to journalist Paul Avery four years after Bates’ murder alleging there was a Zodiac link. However, it does cast doubt on the connection.
According to police, Bates’ killer may have worn a wristwatch because a paint-spattered Timex with a broken band was found 10 feet from her body. A print of a military boot was also found at the scene.
The Case Breakers say the paint on the watch links it to Poste because he painted houses for a living. They also allege that the military boots link him to the case because he served in the Air Force. They further maintain Poste was in the general area at various undisclosed times in the past.
However, the Case Breakers don’t get the date of these forensic discoveries correct. Their press release reads:
On 10/30/66, Riverside PD detectives collected a wristwatch with a broken band, thought to have come off the killer during his assault.
In fact, Bates’ father did not report her missing until the morning of October 31, 1966. Thus the police’s discoveries had to have made been after the groundskeeper found her body at approximately 6:30 a.m., about 45 minutes after her father made the call.
If the Case Breakers can’t even get the date Bates’ body was discovered right, how are we supposed to believe they decrypted a code that took 51 years to break? Why should we believe they have damning evidence they have chosen to hide from the public?
Yesterday, Riverside Police Department spokesman Ryan Railsback said they “have not uncovered any evidence that the Zodiac Killer — whoever he or she may be — is responsible for Bates’ death.
In further correspondence with him in regard to the Case Breakers’ allegation that the department has refused to conduct DNA testing to eliminate Poste as a suspect, he said:
“We stand by our response that we have been providing the last couple days in regards to our Cheri Jo Bates murder investigation and that it is not related to the Zodiac cases. We understand there may be some who do not accept our response, but ours is still an open murder investigation and we don’t have any new information to provide.”
Poste’s name was raised as a suspect in Bates’ and the Zodiac cases as early as 2017. From what I have learned, this connection may have been intended as joke (though Poste does have at least one arrest in his past). Because palm prints, fingerprints and other forensic evidence were found in Bates’ car, it seems highly likely DNA and other forensic tests have already ruled him out.
Who is behind the “Case Breakers”?
The group sounds impressive. Among its ranks are former FBI agents, professors, retired police detectives and other esteemed law enforcement figures. But a closer look reveals this is the largely same group of volunteers that claimed to have solved the D.B. Cooper case five years ago.
The man behind the Case Breakers is Thomas J. Colbert, a former L.A.-based producer who managed to generate enough publicity about the D. B. Cooper case to produce a two-part History Channel documentary on the case.
Just as he now alleges Riverside police won’t look into DNA evidence that links Poste to Bates, he accused the FBI in 2016 of holding back information that supported his theory about D.B. Cooper’s true identity. In July 2016, the Bureau announced it was ending its investigation into the 1971 airline hijacking crime. In September 2016, Colbert sued them, alleging that they were preventing him from proving his case.
Colbert’s documentary aired the same month the FBI ended its investigation but it was just one of many similar TV and film projects he produced. According to Colbert’s biography on IMDb:
Thomas J. Colbert is a senior executive with decades of management and editorial experience in the national news, TV entertainment, publishing and motion picture fields. Since 1990, hundreds of true tales nationally broken by Mr. Colbert have been put into development. His current high-profile project, the twenty-first for the big and small screen, is a trifecta — including a documentary, companion book and coming scripted limited series.
As alluded to in his “trifecta” comment, he also published a book on the case with Jacaranda Roots Publishing. A visit to the publishing site reveals only three books listed. The first is Colbert’s book on Cooper. The second is an unpublished book titled The Last Zodiac Victim, which features Poste on the cover and has the same title as the press release link on the Case Breakers’ website. A third title, also unpublished, appears to be an unreleased book about Jimmy Hoffa.
No other information about the company, such as an address, employee names or other available titles, appears on the site.
Compare the site’s forthcoming Zodiac book cover with the press release photo on the Case Breakers web site:
The resemblance between the cover and site photo is striking and, based on Colbert’s IMDb biography, it’s hard not to wonder whether he’s already pitching another trifecta —” including a documentary, companion book and coming scripted limited series.”
The D.B. Cooper Link
In 2016, The Washington Post wrote an article about Colbert’s allegations that he and the Case Breakers had solved another famous mystery. According to Colbert, the elusive D.B. Cooper was none other than Robert Rackstraw, a Vietnam veteran who had once been a weak suspect in the case about the hijacking:
They were certain they knew the identity of the long-missing hijacker known as D.B. Cooper, and now the self-appointed investigators wanted their man to turn himself in to the FBI and sign over his life rights for a book and movie project.
The target of their lobbying was Robert “Bob” W. Rackstraw, a Vietnam War veteran who lives in Southern California and had once surfaced briefly as a suspect in the country’s only unsolved hijacking of a commercial airliner.
The Post goes on to say that Colbert and Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer, tried to convince Rackstraw that confessing to being D.B. Cooper would bring him fame and fortune:
He could, they told him in a series of emails given to The Washington Post, cash in by confessing that he’s Cooper.
But the story doesn’t end there. When money didn’t work, Colbert resorted to low-key threats. A Hollywood Reporter article explains the producer tried to convince the veteran that the only way to get the media off his back would be to cooperate:
So Colbert later emailed with a harder sell, advising that if he didn’t get on board, he and everyone who knows him would be hounded forever. But if Rackstraw gave in, Colbert would “work to keep your neighborhood media-free and peaceful. Sign away and I’ll make it all happen.”
Negotiations fell through but the series aired anyway — without a single interview with Rackstraw.
Poste isn’t around to cash in on being Zodiac but that doesn’t mean Colbert has no plans to make money off the story’s virality.
But….could it still be true?
Is it possible Poste really was Zodiac? Yes.
It is likely? Hell, no.
That said, when police first released Dennis Rader’s name as the BTK Killer in 2005, many expressed disbelief that the Cub Scout leader and church-going man could be the murderer behind the brutal deaths of at least 10 people. The same holds true for the Golden State Killer, who police identified in 2018 as James DeAngelo after a decades-long investigation.
The key difference is that officials working on the Zodiac case and the Bates case have made no such announcements.
For that matter, there have been far more convincing Zodiac suspects than Poste. An enormous amount of circumstantial evidence linked Arthur Leigh Allen to the Zodiac murders but the forensics didn’t match up.
Could all the hoopla about Poste be a publicity stunt, much like the one about D.B. Cooper? Yes.
Is it likely? Hell, yes.
I’m working on a follow-up story on the viability (or rather, the non-viability) of Poste as a suspect with details from his past. Here’s a spoiler: nothing I’ve learned so far supports the idea he is the Zodiac Killer.
In the meantime, you might want to read my previous articles on the Zodiac Killer. You can find the first, "12 Surprising Facts About the Zodiac Killer," here and the second, "French Engineer Says He Solved the Zodiac Cipher that Reveals the Killer’s Name: But Who Was Lawrence Kane?," here.