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Home   >   True Crime/Cold Case Files   >   ZODIAC   >   The “Nightingale Murders” & ZODIAC

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 Introduction

 Investigative Method

 My San Francisco

Year of the Zodiac:

 Lake Herman Rd. 12-20-1968

 Blue Rock Springs 7-4-1969

 The Zodiac Speaks

 Lake Berryessa 9-27-1969

 San Francisco  10-11-1969

Gamester of Death:

 Poison Pen Pal

 Claims and Mistakes

 The Kathleen Johns Incident

 Cheri Jo Bates

 Zodiac & The “Nightingale Murders”

On the Track of The Zodiac:

 Gaviota Revisited

 Gaviota Crime Scene Investigated

 The Case of “Sandy”

 Cracking the 340 Cipher

 Blue Rock Springs Reconstructed

 Blue Rock Springs: Silencer or Not?

 Benicia: Where the Cross Hairs Meet

 From Folklore to Fact: cases in detail

 “Nary a Conspiracy”

 The Zodiac Speaks: A Pattern

 Zodiac: a profile in person & paper

My Suspect:

 A Man Known as Beard

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 The Zodiac Killer

Gamester of Death

ZODIAC & The “Nightingale Murders”-- Hakari, Lass, Bennallack

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   “She was, in the true sense of the word, a good girl.” That is perhaps something that the Press today wouldn’t say about anybody nor perhaps would anybody use that as a character reference to the Press. But in 1970 it was apropos for South Lake Tahoe police chief Ray Lauritzen. For the last several years thousands of Baby Boomers had run away or suddenly forsaken the establishment and joined a commune, hit the Summer of Love, went to the dogs in Haight-Ashbury, or spiraled into drug use and wanton debauchery. Donna Lass, a young nurse from the midwest, was not the kind to do that. This made her sudden disappearance from South Lake Tahoe all the more mysterious.

     The Tahoe police quickly came to believe that she had been abducted and murdered. The circumstances were not only suspicious, but they also showed that whoever did it must have stalked her for a while. On the night of September 5/6 (Saturday/Sunday), 1970, she was working her night shift at the Sahara Hotel, which had the largest casino in the area. She got off about 1:50 a.m. and went straight to her new apartment on Pioneer Trail Road— the Monte Verdi Apartments. This consisted of 2 parallel apartment blocks. Her apartment was one toward the back.

     But she never got that far. Her new car was parked by the apartments. It was found locked. There was no sign of a struggle. Yet she was never seen again. There was no indication she even got as far as her apartment’s door.

     The police had good cause to be suspicious. A telephone call was received the next day, Monday, by both the Sahara and by her landlord. A male voice on the other end said that Donna had been called out of town suddenly because of family sickness and wouldn’t return for a while.

     That’s always a dumb excuse. It indicated her abductor didn’t know her very well at all. It also assumes he thinks no one else knew her well enough to know this behavior was outside her character. But, obviously, he knew enough of her movements. This confirms for us that he stalked her. But making that call was a mistake. The police could check into her friends and family and, of course, discovered no family sickness existed. There is no sickness that is going to make a person leave their furnished apartment and new car in the parking lot and just vanish.

     She had been kidnapped. There was no other conclusion. Considering the time at which this must have happened, there can be no doubt that the kidnapper/killer was waiting for her. It is unlikely that he followed her. She could have been to the door before he got out of his car. He would have to rush for her. No one at the apartments had heard anything, and South Lake Tahoe is a quiet place. Side streets were cut into the pine forests, and amidst these serene arboreal lanes cabin-like seclusion and peace surrounded the apartments and homes.

     The police did turn up that she was seen the day before walking along with a blonde-haired man. That is apparently all that came of it. Was this her abductor or just somebody she had met at the casino?

     Donna Lass would have made little news outside of the small community of South Lake Tahoe had it not been for a postcard sent to the San Francisco Chronicle on March 22, 1971. It showed a condo development at Incline Village on the north area of Lake Tahoe. It was signed with ZODIAC’s crosshairs. A few cut and paste words indicated a body was buried beneath the snows. The card basically claimed there was “Victim 12” in the Tahoe area. Since Donna Lass was the only one to go missing up there, it was assumed by all that ZODIAC meant her.

     This gave Lass belated news coverage. It also gave news to other murders which had happened in California’s capitol of Sacramento. Prior to this they had only received local, minimal news. Now, of course, the Press wondered if they were all the victims of ZODIAC.

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   The fist victim was killed months before Lass disappeared and, disturbingly, she was also a nurse. When Lass’ disappearance was given wide press, it wasn’t difficult to note the remarkable similarity in her disappearance and the abduction/murder of Judith Hakari. Hakari, too, had been working the graveyard shift, this time at Sacramento’s Sutter Hospital. It was a stormy, spring night March 7, 1970. Like in the Lass case, this was Saturday night, soon to be Sunday morning. She was last seen at 11:30 p.m. (according to a Sacramento Bee article and Sac. Co. Sheriff’s cold case website) driving north on Howe Avenue to Alta-Arden.

     Hakari pulled into the parking lot of the Markston Apartments, on the corner of Markston and Alta-Arden Way (then called Glendale Ave). She immediately must have been seized, either at gun point or simply knocked unconscious and abducted. Her car was found unlocked. Her keys were on the floorboard.

     No solid lead came about Hakari until over a month later on April 25. A couple was hiking about Weimar, California, on Ponderosa Way, looking for an old mine, when they found her body in a shallow grave. According to the Bee article, she had been buried in a white sack. Under the body was a gray zip-up sweatshirt with a pocket on either side of the zipper. Other sources have said that she was buried in her nurse uniform, which was open in front and her underwear was found beneath her.

     In any case, Hakari had been strangled to death by such strength the hyoid bones in her neck had been crushed. Her face and head had then been bashed in by a blunt instrument so that she was unrecognizable. But she was not sexually assaulted.

     The similarities to Lass’ abduction and presumed murder are striking. Somehow Hakari was taken silently from the parking lot (though the heavy rain may have helped cover any noise) as she got out of her car. She, too, must have been stalked for some time prior. Whoever abducted her knew when she got off that night or merely waited and waited until he recognized her car. Both Lass and Hakari were attractive, young nurses. Lass was 25; Hakari was 22. 

     One other factor commands immediate attention. Weimar is a little spot on Highway 80 on the way to Reno and Lake Tahoe. It was quite a drive from Sacramento to this location (about an hour). The killer must have known Ponderosa Way to some extent. Could he have kept going after he buried her body? Did he commute between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe irregularly (a 2 hour drive), and dumped her body while returning to the sapphire lake?

     I ask this for 2 reasons. The phone call made after Lass’ disappearance was foolish, yes, but it rather shouts the killer’s motive. He needed to waylay suspicions here in South Lake Tahoe. For some reason, he either couldn’t get out of South Lake Tahoe for a while without looking suspicious or he needed time to hide her body. It was a small community. It survived to service the lake for vacationers and the Sahara just across the border in the little section known as Stateline, where all eager Californians could go and legally gamble.

     If the same killer is responsible for both Hakari and Lass, this phone call is significant, for it highlights that it was necessary that a police investigation be delayed here.

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     It did not stop with Lass in September. The nightmare returned to Sacramento on October 25/26. The next brutal murder was disturbingly close to the Markston Apartments. This was at the Tahitian Apartments, only one block away. By line of sight, it was only across Glendale Avenue and an open field. It could be seen from the Markston Apartments.

     This murder was that of Nancy Bennallack. She was, however, not a nurse. She was a court reporter and was engaged to a man in the Public Defender’s Office. Her murder was similar in that she was almost identical in size, weight and hair color to Hakari. The lead sheriff investigator also noted other similarities, such as both also had a brooding upper lip and that both were engaged. Also, Bennallack must have been stalked for some time prior. It was hardly an impulsive act. The killer jumped the fence, climbed up the gas meter and onto her second story apartment balcony in order to get in. She must have jumped out of bed and met her fate. She had not fought back, but was cut down quickly. Although she was not a nurse, she too had met her fate on the weekend. She died either late Sunday night or early Monday morning.

     Her murder in her own apartment is the first big difference between her murder and Lass and Hakari’s. She was not abducted. Nor was she so brutally bludgeoned like Hakari had been. She was stabbed or sliced repeatedly over 30 times, the slices cutting her throat as well. She was found in her underwear, some of her clothes beneath her. Like Hakari, however, she had not been sexually assaulted.

     It is possible that the killer used tape on the ends of his finger tips. The reason is hard to fathom, since he simply could have used gloves. For some reason, he wanted his hands bare. Either this was to use the knife or for some other reason.

     A few of these tape tips were found at the scene, either on the balcony or on the ground when the killer climbed back down. The lead investigator placed then in a bag and had them on his note binder. However, a forensic technician didn’t pay attention and closed the binder on them, thus crushing them and any ability to get the fingerprints off the inside of them.

     Some of this latter information must be taken with caution. I must confess that for 17 years I knew the lead investigator, but never broached the subject of these murders because I simply was not investigating these type of cold case murders. Jerry is now passed, and my information came from his widow. She could not remember which murder case had the tape involved, but from the evidence it seems unlikely it would have been Hakari’s case. More likely then, from what was told me, it was Bennallack’s murder.

     Are these 3 murders connected? They are certainly the result of premeditation and careful stalking. The MO of the 3rd murder is quite different, but the killer could have been getting more confident. This is something investigators commonly see in serial murder sprees. If these killings are connected, then it indicates that the killer could come and go from Tahoe. I deduce that Hakari was the first victim. He gave no secrets away about Tahoe by burying her in Weimar on the way back there in March. But when he abducted Lass in South Lake Tahoe in September, he needed to make it look as if she had disappeared elsewhere in order to divert attention from Tahoe. Again in October he was back in Sacramento on the weekend. He killed Bennallack only a block away from Markston Road on Bell and Glendale. In between, he must have been devoting himself to stalking his next prey.

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     Yet another victim fell prey to this night stalker. Police investigators seemed hesitant to connect the victim, Carol Beth Hilburn to the others, but there nevertheless are reasons to do so. She was an attractive 22 year old nurse’s assistant— tall (5 foot 8 inches), lean 130 pounds. On November 13, 1970, she was visiting Sacramento from Sonoma County where she worked at the Sunlight Royal Convalescent Hospital. That late Friday night she visited an old bartender friend at none other than the The Zodiac Club on West Capitol Avenue (a biker’s hangout). From there she went to Lloyd Hickey’s Forty Grand Club on Del Paso Blvd. She had once worked there and chatted until the early morning hours. Neither of these, shall we say, are in the best part of town.

     After she left (around 5 a.m. Saturday morning), nothing was seen of her until her body was found several miles north of there in the rural Rio Linda area. It had been dragged naked from the car that had brought it and dumped in the open area at the corner of Ascot and 4th Street. She was only wearing one suede boot/sock. Like Hakari, she must have been brutally murdered. Her face and skull had been beaten to a pulp. She might also have been strangled. She had not been sexually molested.

     These are definite similarities. Dumping the body in a remote rural area also fit the pattern, as seen in the Hakari murder. It is by no means unique that a killer takes a victim’s body and dumps it in the wilds or remote areas, but the coincidences of the victim’s profession and the way in which she was killed suggest a connection. Dumping Hilburn where she was found can also be viewed as a consistent compromise in his previous MO with Hakari. If this was the same killer, he couldn’t afford to have her found somewhere on the way to Tahoe, like Hakari was found. The closest rural areas to The Forty Grand and Del Paso Blvd was simply to follow it eastward and take Rio Linda Blvd north. Nevertheless, Ascot and 4th were still far off the normal route. Like Ponderosa Way near Weimar, Hilburn was dumped where the killer had to have known of the location to begin with.

     However, there are differences. The coroner’s keen eye found a needle mark. It was fresh. She didn’t have a record of doing drugs, and indeed no other needle marks could be found. It was speculated she may have been plied with liquor by her assailant and then drugged. This should not cause us to say that her killer was not the same as the others. It may merely mean that he was progressing in his MO. The killings were now also coming closer together— Hakari (March 1970), Lass (September 1970), Bennallack (October 1970), and Hilburn (November 1970)— another sign a serial killer is gaining confidence.

     However, the police were not eager to connect her murder to the others. Perhaps they suspected a copycat killer. Maybe they suspected others involved who were visiting those clubs. She certainly didn’t visit the best parts of town.  She could not have been stalked from Sonoma. She was only visiting. She had recently broken up with her husband after a short marriage. Perhaps she was viewed as volatile or flighty and thus maybe they suspected any number of scenarios.

     Yet the general similarities are amazing. The killer of all women was incredibly brutal, and he did not rape them. He picked women of similar ages and appearances. I don’t think he had a kink against nurses per se, but it is possible. If he killed Bennallack, this would seem so. But what this does tell us is that he probably didn’t play the midnight prostitutes. Prostitutes are the No. 1 victims of serial killers. They are simply an easy nighttime target. For a night stalker who didn’t work the “angels of the cement,” as they are euphemistically called, he had to pick a compromise. What other type of woman is working graveyard shifts at night? Nurses seem the obvious answer. Nancy Bennallack may have come to his attention while he was stalking Hakari, or he could even have done some time or was in trouble in court for another reason and had seen Bennallack there.

     In any case, he was familiar enough with them to know where they lived and what their schedule was like during the night of the attack. He was familiar with certain rural areas. In Lass’ case, he made a terrible slip-up by  making those absurd calls. He wasn’t too familiar with his victims. He struck only on weekends.

     Sheriff investigator Stanley Parsons had made much that the 3 murders (Hakari, Lass, Bennallack) were connected, but this did not hit the Press until a hastily called Press conference on March 27, 1971. This was only days after The ZODIAC returned to the headlines. That postcard had been received at the Chronicle on March 22, 1971, showing a Tahoe condominium scene. When Lass was linked as being the possible victim, naturally Hakari and Bennallack were immediately linked to ZODIAC. The sheriffs had no choice but to call a news conference to assuage the worries and rampant speculation that The ZODIAC was now haunting Sacramento and the area in between there and Lake Tahoe.

       Parsons was not at the news conference, but the Press was allowed to read his summary. “If the Zodiac claims he killed the missing nurse of Lake Tahoe, and if in fact he did slay her, then there is a very good chance he also killed Miss Hakari and Miss Bennallack.” But Parsons seemed to be reticent to believe ZODIAC had a hand in any of them. This pretty much seems the consensus of opinion amongst the investigators. ZODIAC’s MO was well known, as was the fact he was a fairly clumsy killer. The night stalker who killed these 4 women was quite careful. He stalked and he made sure never to be heard. None of the victims seem to have fought back.

     These 4 similar murders remain unsolved to this day. But are they victims of The ZODIAC?  The postcard and much assumption and nothing else has been the only thing that connected ZODIAC to Donna Lass’ disappearance. But today it seems unlikely that ZODIAC even wrote the postcard. It had been mailed on March 22, 1971, long after the Lass disappearance of last September 1970. On the card, “Zodiac” claimed his 12th victim. Yet on March 13, 1971, a “genuine” ZODIAC letter had been mailed from Pleasanton in the East Bay and addressed to the LA Times. In this letter, ZODIAC already claimed 17 victims.

   Tom Voight has said that a reliable source has told him that a former detective on the Zodiac case forged the postcard. This is possible. ZODIAC didn’t use cut and paste words from the newspaper. Moreover, the handwriting on the front of the postcard looks traced. It is this element which finally exposed the 1978 letter to the SF Chronicle as a forgery. Like in that letter the postcard’s writing is thick and does not flow easily. This complicates things, but it is not necessary to go into it here. If this postcard is a forgery, which seems likely at the present time, it calls into question a couple of other supposed (and accepted) ZODIAC communiqués. Ultimately, what this would mean here is that a police detective was forging a few letters to keep interest going in the case.

     By whatever means The ZODIAC’s reputation came into play, it has brought these cold cases deserved light. They do, in fact, reveal a very disturbing pattern that tells us a very diabolical person was on the loose.

     These murders took place a couple of years before the surprise hit TV movie Night Stalker would air. It breathed life into Darrin McGavin’s career and into the character he played— Kolchak. I can almost hear McGavin read the case note summaries of these victims as I write them, just as he did in the movie. Whoever picked these women off had great strength and cunning. Hakari’s throat was held so tight her hyoid bones were crushed. Each was stalked by a silent assailant. He was very careful. None seem to have reported that a man had been tailing them. And both Hakari and Bennallack were engaged to be married. They would have said something to their boyfriends. He had some other motive than sexuality. They were, like the victims of Night Stalker, killed for some other reason.

     Then the killings stopped. The night stalker ceased or moved on. If all of these were done by the same man, he was truly getting bolder and then, at the height of confidence, suddenly quit. He perhaps had as much success as Jack the Ripper (except he preyed upon the decent), and he too made a clean getaway. It definitely wasn’t ZODIAC. This was someone far more cunning. He had an ulterior motive, but no one knows what it was beyond the murder of similar women. He had some connection with Tahoe and Sacramento. He was as clever as The Ripper, probably bolder and more premeditative. He was, probably, far more of the reality behind the fictional Night Stalker of Kolchak fame. He planned, waited, and then silently killed. He suddenly stopped and faded into mystery. Yet he has no handle and remains obscure.

     Night Stalker as a handle has been far overused in popular and professional criminology. It’s been applied with deserved measure to The EAR, to the Atlanta Child Murderer, to Richard Ramirez (with little justification), and probably many more. But this killer truly appears to have been the first and the one possibly most like the fictional namesake.

     Because most of the victims were nurses, I call him the “Nightingale Murderer.” There’s something about a name which seems to crystalize certain attributes and create the popular interest that may help solve them. If any series of murders deserve that, these do. Despite the fact that the sheriffs did not want to openly associate Hilburn with being his victim, I think it best to include her for now.

     Like The ZODIAC, this serial killer and predator must be apprehended.

      

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