Gary Francis Poste

A mugshot of Gary Francis Poste (left), of Groveland, taken when he was arrested for domestic violence on Feb. 22, 2016, and booked into Tuolumne County Jail, where he spent more than a year before being sent to a state-run nursing facility in Stockton after being diagnosed with dementia and found incompetent to stand trial. He died in state custody at 80 on Aug. 23, 2018. A group of independent investigators has now accused him of being the notorious Zodiac Killer (police sketch of possible likeness from the late 1960s on the right).

A group of unofficial investigators made headlines Wednesday when they announced their theory that a now-deceased Groveland house painter named Gary Francis Poste was the infamous Zodiac Killer, known for a string of unsolved murders in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1968 to 1969 that has kept detectives and armchair sleuths alike guessing for decades.

Some residents of the Mother Lode were shocked when they heard the news that such a high-profile fugitive could have been living in their midst all this time. However, law enforcement agencies tasked with trying to solve the cold case have expressed skepticism or outright refuted the new claims.

In a statement sent via email on Thursday, the San Francisco FBI office said its “investigation into the Zodiac Killer remains open and unsolved” and declined to answer further questions related to the independent group’s theory.

“Due to the ongoing nature of the investigation, and out of respect for the victims and their families, we will not be providing further comment at this time,” the statement said.

The news on Wednesday stemmed from a press release put out that morning by the so-called Case Breakers, which bills itself on its website as a national task force of 40-plus “crack investigators” who have backgrounds in law enforcement, military intelligence, forensic analysis, academics and journalism.

Fox News picked up the story, and other media organizations throughout the world quickly  followed suit, some with headlines that could at quick glance be misconstrued as the case having been officially solved.

“Cold case team says Zodiac Killer ID’d, linking him to another murder,” read the headline on Fox News’ website.

Tuolumne County Sheriff Bill Pooley said even he was surprised when he received a text message from someone saying that the Zodiac Killer had been identified, until he opened the article and realized the group making the claims was not part of any official investigation.

“To be quite honest, once I saw it didn’t come from a law enforcement agency, I just quit reading,” he said.

Case Breakers' press release accuses Poste of being the notorious serial killer, who has never been caught despite being linked to five murders and claiming responsibility for dozens more in taunting, cryptic messages sent to law enforcement agencies and newspapers at the time.

Poste is no stranger to Pooley or the Sheriff’s Office, nor are rumors about his purported connection to the Zodiac case.

On Feb. 22, 2016, Poste was booked into Tuolumne County Jail on felony domestic violence charges after an arrest at his home on the 10000 block of Merrell Road in Groveland. He was 78 at the time and would die a little over two years later at a state-run nursing facility in Stockton after being found incompetent to stand trial due to being diagnosed with dementia.

In early 2017, as Poste’s case was going through the court process, The Union Democrat was contacted by Georgia-based TV news anchor Dale Julin regarding his belief that Poste was the long-sought Zodiac Killer.

Julin would later file affidavits in court containing sworn statements from a former Groveland man who said Poste had confessed to him about being the Zodiac Killer and threatened his life twice, as well as former cellmates of Poste’s at the Tuolumne County Jail who said he had also confessed his alleged alternate identity to them.

The Union Democrat obtained copies of the affidavits at the time through a Public Records Act request to the County Counsel’s Office, but determined much of the information to be unverifiable upon review.

Former Sheriff Jim Mele acknowledged in an unpublished, on-the-record interview with The Union Democrat in 2017 that persistent Zodiac-related rumors involving Poste led them to pass along information to San Francisco Police Department investigators, who visited the jail.

Mele said at the time he couldn’t say whether they interviewed Poste or any specific inmates because the Zodiac Killer investigation is under the jurisdiction of the SFPD as opposed to his office, due to none of the murders occurring in Tuolumne County.

“I would think that if San Francisco felt this was a true suspect, they would jump on it and do their due diligence and look into it,” Mele said when asked if he believed the rumors about Poste. “This is a case that several communities would love to see come to a conclusion one way or another, so I think they would be just as anxious to solve it.”

The Union Democrat made two separate requests to Poste for an interview while he was still alive and in custody at the jail in 2017, though he didn’t respond.

Pooley confirmed on Thursday that the SFPD investigators interviewed Poste at the jail. However, he does not know what was said and believes they were just doing their due diligence by following up on a lead in a high-profile case like “any investigator worth their salt would.”

“Clearly, they didn’t arrest him or anything like that,” Pooley said. “My assumption would be that if they were able to prove anyone did this, there would be a press release.”

Det. Gianrico Pierucci, an SFPD investigator on the Zodiac Killer case, said in a 2017 unpublished, on-the-record interview with The Union Democrat that he wouldn’t confirm who they have or haven’t interviewed due to the open nature of the case, though he said they received at least three to four tips per week related to the ongoing investigation.

Court records show Poste was placed at a nursing facility in Stockton called “Golden Living” in 2017 under a conservatorship overseen by the County Counsel’s Office, which acts as the public guardian to provide care for people who can’t care for themselves and don’t have anyone to help them.

The domestic violence case against Poste was officially dismissed after he died on Aug. 23, 2018, court documents said.

Sonora attorney David Beyersdorf was appointed by the court to represent Poste as a public defender throughout much of his domestic violence case. Beyersdorf said on Thursday that the man some have accused of being the Zodiac Killer came off to him as “elderly and frail.”

“He didn’t seem to have a good focus on why we were there,” Beyersdorf said of his interactions with Poste.

Beyersdorf said he was contacted by either Julin or people affiliated with him, but ignored them because his job was to represent Poste in the immediate case and help him get medical attention after seeing his deteriorating condition.

Deputy County Counsel Christopher Schmidt represented the public guardian through conservatorship proceedings to help get Poste placed in a facility and declined to comment on the Zodiac Killer rumors because investigating such claims was never the role of his position.

“We received media contacts throughout the conservatorship and would refer them to the SFPD or some other agency that would be responsible for investigating that,” Schmidt said.

One court document dated Sept. 27, 2017, said that Schmidt told the court they had contacted about 100 live-in facilities to send Poste, but only one was willing to do an interview for placement.

Schmidt wouldn’t directly say whether the reason they had trouble finding him a placement was due to Zodiac-related rumors or the domestic violence allegations against him, but said they generally use “only known and credible case information” when administering cases.

The news release from the Case Breakers is largely focused on the 1966 murder of Cheri Jo Bates, who was long considered as the potential sixth official victim of the Zodiac Killer due to a handwritten letter sent to the Riverside Police Department in 1967 that was similar to the ones sent out by the Zodiac Killer. 

Case Breakers claims they believe forensic evidence collected at the scene of Bates’ murder will match Poste’s DNA, which the group says is being stored at the Vallejo Police Department.

However, the Riverside Police Department has not acquiesced to the independent team’s requests because it has since officially ruled out the Zodiac Killer as a possible suspect.

Officer Ryan J. Railsback, spokesman for the Riverside Police Department, said in an interview on Wednesday that the only thing he can say is fully accurate about the Case Breakers’ news release is their quote from him stating that his department is “100% sure” the Zodiac Killer was not responsible for Bates’ murder.

Railsback said they are so certain because they received a similar handwritten letter in 2016 from a person admitting they were the person who wrote the original letter in 1967 and did it as just a “sick joke” when they were a troubled teen.

The FBI analyzed the letter’s handwriting, confirmed them to be from the same person, tracked down the person, and confirmed that the person was neither Bates’ killer nor the Zodiac, Railsback said.

“That letter was basically the only thing we had that was a possible link to the Zodiac Killer,” he said. “We had no other physical evidence ever linking the Zodiac Killer to the Cheri Jo Bates murder. We’ve sent evidence out for analysis and never linked it to anyone suspected of being the Zodiac Killer. This past August, we officially ruled it out.”

Railsback said they put out a news release in August announcing the Zodiac Killer was ruled out and that someone had offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to Bates’ real murderer.

The reward prompted communication with Railsback from an attorney who only told him at the time that his client had information that could lead to the suspect in Bates’ murder and inquired whether the $50,000 would be paid if the suspect was already deceased.

When the Case Breakers story went viral on Wednesday, and Railsback became inundated with media requests, he went on the group’s website and found that the same lawyer who inquired about the reward was listed as a part of their team.

Some media outlets have been more critical than others of the Case Breakers’ claims.

Tom Voigt, who has followed the case for 25 years and runs ZodiacKiller.com, described the claims about Poste in an interview with Rolling Stone on Wednesday as “hot garbage,” “completely bogus,” and that he didn’t understand why it got coverage at all due to the lack of backing evidence in the press release.

Others have labeled it as a publicity stunt, such as the website SFist.com that wrote: “Just a tip, if you want to get on Fox News or TMZ, just pick a popular cold case, declare with certainty that you have solved it, put out an overly complicated press release, and wait.”

Jen Bucholtz, who is identified in the press release as a member of the Case Breakers team and a former Army counterintelligence agent who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said she brought the claims to the group after being contacted by Julin and reading his “copyrighted book manuscript.”

“I read his manuscript one weekend and was like oh boy, this makes total sense,” she said. “By the halfway point, I thought ‘He’s got the guy, this has to be it.’ ”

Bucholtz pointed to Julin’s deciphering of undiscovered hidden messages in the Zodiac Killer’s writings that can only be cracked using Poste’s full name. She declined to say what the specific messages said until Julin’s book gets released.

“It’s not just the forehead scars that the media latched onto,” she said. “There’s a heck of a lot more back story to this, but we’re not at liberty to discuss.”

Julin said in an email on Thursday that he was in Venice, Italy, and unable to do a phone interview. 

The longtime journalist and Peabody Award winner didn’t directly answer questions related to the publication of his book, when it’s coming out, or whether any publishers have expressed interest, but said that “the full story will soon be told” because of the Case Breakers.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniodemocrat.com or (209) 768-5175.

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