Was the Zodiac killer a local teacher?
Bay Area investigators are probing in Valley Springs

Calaveras County Ledger-Dispatch

June 2, 2001
By Matthew Hedger
Staff Writer

After more than 30 years, the "Zodiac" is still California's most infamous serial killer.

In the late 60s and early 70s, the Zodiac killer terrorized the Bay Area while taunting and frustrating the investigators who tried to catch him and an international media sensation was born. The Zodiac killings have never officially been solved. But decades ago detectives identified a suspect who those closest to the investigation are morally if not absolutely certain is the killer. That suspect was Arthur Leigh Allen.

Allen died in 1992 at age 58 from various medical problems. But from 1966 to 1968, Allen was a teacher at Valley Springs Elementary School and lived in a house in Burson. He was fired from the Calaveras Unified School District in 1968 after he allegedly molested a child. Some believe that it was this firing that caused Allen's life to spin out of control and led to the Zodiac killing spree that officially started in Vallejo in December 1968.

Many investigators believe the Zodiac killed as early as 1966 when a college student named Cheri Jo Bates was stabbed to death in Riverside in Southern California. Some say that Allen can be linked to the Bates killing, partially through personnel records obtained from the Calaveras Unified School District.

More than three decades later the Zodiac case still carries so much notoriety that four Bay Area law enforcement agencies (including Allen's hometown police department in Vallejo) have created a new task force to try to solve the mysterious murders once and for all. Investigators from that task force were in Calaveras County just last week seeking to interview those who knew Allen when he was a school teacher here and exploring the house and grounds where he once lived. Although the task force leaders will not officially comment on why they are in the area or what exactly they are looking for after so much time has passed, speculation that DNA tests currently being conducted may be providing a long awaited answer to the identity of the infamous Zodiac.

A victim steps forward

One Valley Springs resident, who had extensive contact with Allen as a child, spoke to a reporter on the condition that she not be identified. The Ledger Dispatch has agreed to keep her anonymous.

Cindy Michaels, not her real name, was one of Allen's students and describes herself as "best friends" with Gwen Cordes, the girl who was allegedly molested, and with whom she kept up a correspondence with long after Cordes left the area. "I want to tell people what I know about him but I'm afraid of copycats or what if it wasn't him. I don't want somebody to come up here and start up where the Zodiac left off," she said.

Michaels recounted several things Allen would do both inside Room 5, where he taught, and outside the classroom that made her, as well as most of the rest of her female classmates afraid of him. "I remember when I first met him," she said, "I used to go to school every year a couple of days before the start of the new year to meet my new teacher. And while I was there, I'd go and meet my brother's teacher, too. Mr. Allen was going to be my brother's teacher and I went into his classroom and met him and when I was on my way out, he showed me to the door. At the door, he reached down and pulled the back of my dress up and patted me on the butt and I thought, gee, why did he do that. I thought it was weird and I went home and I told my parents, I like my new teacher but my brother's teacher is weird."

Michaels said after the school year got underway, it was not uncommon for Allen to single out girls from the classroom and call them up to the front of the class where he would take them across his knee and paddle their behinds in full view of the class. "Gwen's grandmother used to live across the highway from Mr. Allen's house in Burson and I would sometimes go there for a visit. We were out in the yard playing and Gwen said, "Oh no, he's looking at us." and I looked over at his house and he was standing there in his big picture window with a pair of binoculars looking at us. It was really creepy. Gwen said to me, "Let's go over there," but I said no and Gwen said, "But he'll do something bad to us if we don't." Now I think he did something bad to Gwen because she did. I know when I got back to school after that, sure enough, that sucker called me up to the front of the class and said to me, "I saw you over at Gwen's, you should have come to see me," and he took me across his lap and hiked my dress up and paddled me in front of the whole class. I was so humiliated, I had tears in my eyes but what was I going to do?"

Chance encounter may have saved her life

"One time, Gwen and I were going to ride the bus to Gwen's house. I only lived a block from the school so I didn't usually take the bus. Gwen and I were walking to get on it when Mr. Allen called us into his classroom. I remember saying, "No Mr. Allen, we'll miss the bus," but he made us come into his room. He took us out of the classroom through the back door and told us to get in his car. I remember it was a big white car but I don't remember what type. He told us to get down in the floorboard and he drove us to where the dump is out by Paloma. On the way he opened a big 40-ounce bottle of Coors and drank it. I remember by the time we got there he had finished it and it's really not that far, just a few miles. Anyway, I don't know what he had in mind by taking us there but when we got there, Shorty, the guy who worked at the dump, was there and he recognized me from times before where I had been at the dump with my dad. So Mr. Allen seemed like he got mad and he throws his empty beer bottle down into the dump and opens up his trunk and the whole thing was full of big empty beer bottles and he throws them all away. Then he orders us back into the car and he drives us down to Gwen's mother's house's driveway and lets us out. I never told my parents about it because I was afraid I would get in trouble."

Watch owned by teacher featured a zodiac design

Michaels related how she found a Web site about the Zodiac killer recently that brought back memories she is not sure she wants to remember. "I remember the zodiac watch that is talked about on the Web site. I remember having conversations around the dinner table about it with my brother because he would just go on and on about how neat it was. On the website it says there is a sort of controversy about when and where he (Allen) had possession of the Zodiac watch. I know he had the thing back in 1967."

According to Allen's brother Ron, the zodiac watch was a gift to Allen from their mother in 1967, but Allen is on record as estimating he did not receive the watch until July or August of 1969. The face on the zodiac watch is a cross-circle symbol, the same symbol used by the Zodiac killer.

Phrase used by Zodiac also used by Allen

Another picture of a letter written by the Zodiac killer to a newspaper in the 60s that was reproduced on the website led Michaels to have little doubt that the killer and Allen are one in the same. "The thing that convinced me that he is the killer is a letter on the website from the Zodiac with a phrase on it, "titwillo, titwillo, titwillo." Mr. Allen used that phrase a lot in class when he got exasperated. He woul d sit down and say, almost to himself, "titwillow, titwillow, titwillow," three times like that. We all thought it was a weird thing to say and that's why I still remember it. So when I saw a picture of the letter with the same phrase on it, I just got chills," said Michaels.

During the physical education portion of the school day, Michaels revealed how Allen frequently had girls jump on a trampoline and perform tumbling maneuvers during a time when the school dress code required girls to wear dresses to school. "I've never seen such a fat man be so graceful, he looked like Hoss Cartwright, but he could really fly on a trampoline, to see that big dude on the trampoline was something I really remember. He made us do tumbling and jump on the trampoline and stand on our heads and in those days we still had to wear dresses, we weren't allowed to wear pants. Our panties would show when our dresses would fly up and it was so embarrassing. One day a couple of us started wearing shorts under our dresses so the boys couldn't see our panties and he got mad and said we were little girls and it didn't matter. He got so irate and made us take the shorts off and said there was nothing there to see. Then we tried to tuck our dresses up so nobody would see but it didn't work. He got the idea one time to teach all of the girls how to stand on our heads. All the boys just sat there and snickered, you know. It was so humiliating. This guy was just your genuine pervert," she declared.

Michaels also remembers when Special Agent James Silver, from the San Francisco office of the State Department of Justice, showed up at her doorstep in the summer of 1974 when she was a junior in high school and wanted to ask her questions about Allen. "I remember the first thing I said was, what has he done now and Silver said, "Why would you say that?" "I still don't know how he got my name, but he asked me about Allen, and what he did, and what I remembered, and afterwards, I remember him saying, "We've got him now," and when he (Silver) left, he gave me his card and told me if I thought of anything else to tell him to give him a call. "I still have the card," she said, showing it to me.

In 1968, Allen was accused of molesting Gwen and he was forced to leave his teaching position in March, well before the end of the school year. No charges were ever filed against him though, and he was actually able to find employment at another school after the Valley Springs scandal.

Web designer strives to keep case open and active

Cheri Folendorf, director of personnel at the Calaveras Unified School District, said she has been in contact with Tom Voigt, who maintains a website containing the largest collection of information yet compiled about Allen, at www.zodiackiller.com. Folendorf said she has provided several documents to Voigt, including samples of Allen's handwriting from his long dormant personnel file which, when examined, closely matches samples from letters attributed to the Zodiac.

One of those documents was an absence slip from Nov. 1, 1966, two days after the murder of Cheri Jo Bates in Riverside. Initially, Allen attributed the absence to "school business," but was later charged by school administrators with a sick day. It was the only one of 19 available sick days ever used by Allen before his termination. In late November of 1966, two anonymous, typewritten letters confessing to the Bates murder were mailed to the local newspapers and the police. The letters were written on the same model of typewriter that was eventually seized from Allen in 1991.

Folendorf said that several other educators who worked with Allen at Valley Springs in the same time period have recently been in contact with her after the renewed interest in Allen as a Zodiac suspect began to circulate. At least one of those educators described Allen as "sloppy in his appearance, as well as in his teaching habits." Information placing Allen in Riverside at the time of the Bates murder was developed 20 years earlier, in 1971, by the Vallejo Police Department and the California Department of Justice and it is unclear why the investigation stalled.

After Allen was dismissed, Gwen's family left town when the school year ended in June, and moved to Wisconsin where Michaels began corresponding with her. Michaels said she remembers one letter from Gwen in particular that shocked her. "She wrote me and said, "you'll never believe who I saw here. I saw Mr. Allen," It was so weird and I remember being afraid for her."

Michaels continued to write Gwen for several years, and even exchanged pictures back and forth, until one day the letters started coming back. "I remember her last known address was in Iowa, and suddenly my letters started coming back, no forwarding address. I haven't heard from her since. I really wish I knew what happened to her," she said.

In a telephone interview, Tom Voigt, the webmaster who created www.zodiackiller.com and launched it on March 20, 1998, told the Ledger Dispatch his theory of why the current task force into the Zodiac killings was also formed in 1998. "Whenever I'd get an inquiry from the media or someone (about the Zodiac), they (the police) would also get one," he explained, "But they didn't have any answers. In 1991 they searched for a knife at Allen's residence, they found a knife at Allen's residence. They looked for a typewriter at Allen's residence. They found a typewriter at Allen's residence. To the best of my knowledge they have done nothing with the knife or the typewriter and have not ever been able to put two and two together."

Voigt said he believes the different police agencies with unsolved Zodiac crimes only started the new task force to circle the wagons and fend off questions about why Voigt, a private citizen from Portland, Oregon, had more answers about the Zodiac and the Allen connection in particular, than they did.

"I don't have any faith in the task force," said Voigt, "I think it was a defensive move, a public relations move for them. Vallejo and Napa and the others got tired of looking bad so they developed the task force to answer questions. To this day, the Riverside Police has never been contacted about Allen by the Vallejo P.D. We know they (Vallejo P.D.) have DNA from Allen, from his brain tissue, and his DNA has already been processed and is available. I can tell you for a fact the San Francisco Police Department has DNA samples from Zodiac letters but they might not have enough for a good sample. Take that knife and try to find blood and tissue on it and see if it matches Cecelia Shepard, who was killed at Lake Berryessa (a confirmed Zodiac killing). Since they haven't even done that, why would they bother to see if the typewriter matches any of the letters?

"If I'm wrong, I'll be the first to admit it and I'll be glad I'm wrong," explained Voigt. "I've looked and looked for the answers. If the knife was tested in Napa there are no records of it. I understand that when the lead investigator retired up there, he ordered the destruction of a lot of evidence connected to the case. I hope that knife still exists. Vallejo P.D. does not want to be upstaged by a guy that lives in Portland. I've been able to put more up on Allen on my website than they have come up with in thirty years. They have taken a beating on other cases in Vallejo and I certainly wouldn't want to be a police office there, but publicly they look bad and they are just covering their backs," he added. "My goal has always been to keep the case open and publicize it because I've always thought it was solvable."

In one of his last taunting letters to the news media, Zodiac claimed he had 37 victims to show for his five years of terrorizing the Bay Area. He was only linked conclusively to seven victims, David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen, Darlene Ferrin and Mike Mageau, Cecelia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell, and Paul Stine. His list of possible victims include Cheri Jo Bates, Kathleen Johns and Donna Lass.

If you remember Mr. Allen, click here to send an e-mail.