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By CAT SIEH

The Union Democrat

The movie "Zodiac," opening today in theaters nationally, revisits one of Northern California's most enduring murder mysteries, and subtly reopens an obscure passage of Calaveras County's own past.

The movie, like the 1976 book of the same title, focuses on one of many suspects a former Valley Springs school teacher.

Many investigators long fingered Arthur Leigh Allen, who lived briefly in Burson, as a prime suspect in the killings, which stumped law enforcement and newspapers in the late 1960s.

Allen, who worked as a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Valley Springs Elementary from late 1966 to 1968, died of cancer in 1992. But the argument over whether he was a viable suspect lives on.

Evidence against Allen, though extensive, is overwhelmingly circumstantial. Recent DNA testing did not match Allen's genetic profile, and finger and palm prints taken from crime scenes did not match.

In his best-selling case study "Zodiac," author Robert Graysmith singled out Allen (under the pseudonym "Robert Hall Starr") as the most promising suspect linked to the murders of at least five people from 1968 to 1969.

The new film follows Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), a former San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist who was gripped by the case as it unfolded. His interest only increased as the killer sent taunting letters and cryptograms detailing the slayings to the Chronicle newsroom.

The Zodiac killer was definitively linked to five murders in Vallejo, Napa and San Francisco, though he once claimed to be responsible for 37 murders.

Allen, a convicted child molester who lived primarily in Vallejo, lost his teaching credential and his job at Valley Springs Elementary in 1968, after he allegedly molested a student.

Vallejo and San Francisco police investigators questioned Allen in the years following the murders, though it is unclear how Allen first became a suspect.

"Arthur Leigh Allen was one of our primary persons of interest," said Lt. Richard Nichelman, Vallejo Police Department spokesman. "(Evidence against Allen) was fairly significant, but just short of us being able to sustain a charge against him."

Tom Voight, 39, creator of the Portland, Ore.-based Web site, zodiackiller.com, is one of dozens of amateur detectives still investigating the crime.

Voight cited evidence against Allen ranging from his shoe size (it matches prints found at the crime scenes) to an acquaintance's report to police that Allen once said he was "going to San Francisco to kill a cabbie."

It was an apparent reference to the killing of one-time Modesto resident Paul Stine, shot in his cab in October 1969.

The site chronicles many law enforcement attempts to pin the crime on Allen, including multiple residential search warrants, interviews and handwriting samples accumulated over 20 years. Perhaps the most tantalizing is the Zodiac-brand watch Allen wore during the years of the killings, even after he was questioned as a suspect.

Police compared Allen's handwriting to that used in confirmed Zodiac letters and declared they were not written by the same person.

A report to police by a friend of Allen's after the murders has been equally exciting for sleuths like Voight: During a conversation before the crimes occurred, the friend reported that Allen had discussed the subject of hunting humans, saying he would like to kill people at random, taunting police with letters and calling himself "Zodiac."

Searches of Allen's property, according to Voight's site, yielded pipe bombs, a foot-long knife and the type of ammunition used in one Zodiac attack.

Cheri Folendorf is the former personnel director for Calaveras Unified School District, which includes Valley Springs Elementary. She worked with investigators, including Voight and Graysmith, to compile information on Allen's time in Calaveras.

Folendorf provided a file of handwriting samples and employment records, and Voight recovered Allen's Valley Springs class photo.

"I could pick (Allen's) picture out anywhere," Folendorf said. "He was just a rough looking bald-headed guy kind of creepy."

Folendorf said a 1990s DNA testing that failed to link Allen to the crimes came as a hard blow.

"It was grossly disappointing," she said of the results. "Not that we'd want to be known for having the Zodiac killer be one of our teachers."

Voight said Allen's file included an absence slip, dated for the day after the murder of Cheri Bates in Riverside. Riverside Police consider Bates a possible Zodiac victim.

Howard Lowe, an English teacher at Sierra Ridge Academy in San Andreas, grew up down the street from Bates, who was beaten and stabbed to death on the Riverside City College campus in 1966.

"I remember girls who were my age, students, were very concerned about being out and being on campus at night or anywhere in the area," he said.

Lowe said he remains unconvinced that the Zodiac, or Allen, killed Bates, but doesn't rule out the possibility.

While the Zodiac killings don't compare in scope to later American serial killers, the crimes continue to captivate professional and amateur investigators.

Allen's possible links to the Zodiac case continue to be hotly debated by amateurs, on Web sites and message boards across the country. Some argue vehemently that Allen is not the killer, offering up other potential suspects.

They include a San Francisco engineer, the brother of a Zodiac victim, and even convicted unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

Despite the pronounced lack of physical evidence, Voight, who has studied the case for 11 years, remains convinced Allen is the most promising suspect.

"I've seen a lot of suspects," he said in a telephone interview. "He's always been the most interesting."

As the film draws new attention to Zodiac, Vallejo police aren't giving up. Nichelman said the San Francisco Police Department recently transferred DNA evidence still present on three Zodiac letters to VPD.

The department has sent the samples out for testing, and expects results in a few weeks. Nichelman said the results will certainly be compared with Allen.

Contact Cat Sieh at csieh@uniondemocrat.com or 736-8097

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