A Pizzeria Owner's Bizarre Plot to Capture the Zodiac Killer

Something Weird Video
Something Weird Video

Ray Cantrell was practically suffocating. Hiding in a freezer in the lobby of the RKO Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco late in April 1971, Cantrell had spent hours peering through a small vent in the appliance, scanning the crowd for anyone who resembled the widely circulated police sketch of the most notorious criminal-at-large in the country: the Zodiac Killer.

It was all part of an ambitious plot hatched by Cantrell's friend, a fast food franchisee named Tom Hanson. Hanson had arranged for Cantrell and several other co-conspirators to station themselves in various places around the cinema during the week-long engagement of Hanson’s low-budget film, the aptly titled The Zodiac Killer.

Dramatizing the recent murders and subsequent taunting by the killer via letters to newspapers, the movie was made for just $13,000 in a matter of weeks. Its quality was irrelevant: Hanson’s real intention in making the film was to see if he could tempt the Zodiac Killer himself to the film's premiere, where he had set an elaborate trap to single him out from the audience. If it worked, Hanson would be hailed as a hero. If it didn't, he’d be virtually broke.

Early on, it looked as though things would go south. Cantrell had limited air in the freezer, and was dragged out just in time on one occasion (a minute or two more and he likely would have lost consciousness). But before the week was out, Hanson believes he came to face to face with the Zodiac. At the urinal.

“You know,” the stranger said, unzipping his fly, “real blood doesn’t come out like that.”

A theatrical poster for the 1971 film 'The Zodiac Killer'
Courtesy of Scott Hanson

Initially, Hanson didn't have designs on becoming the next Martin Scorsese. After relocating to Los Angeles from Minnesota in the 1960s, Hanson had found his niche as the owner of several Pizza Man franchises and a handful of Kentucky Fried Chicken locations.

“Then my underwriter went broke," Hanson, now 81, tells Mental Floss. "He was supposed to bring us public. I thought, 'Well, if I’m going to go down, I’m going to do what I really want to do, which was make films.'" Hanson had acted or worked on a half-dozen small film projects since arriving in California, developing contacts and friendships with a number of performers and crew members. He knew the world of low-budget filmmaking meant working quickly and cheaply, with only a small chance of breaking out.

At the same time Hanson decided to mount a production, San Francisco was unraveling. On December 20, 1968, a teenaged couple had been found shot to death in the young man's car near Vallejo, California. On July 4, 1969, another young couple was shot in a car; 22-year-old Darlene Ferrin was killed while her friend, 19-year-old Mike Mageau, was seriously wounded. Weeks later, three major San Francisco newspapers received a handwritten letter claiming credit for the crimes and revealing details only the killer would know. Signing the correspondence with a circle and cross, the author would later introduce himself: “This is the Zodiac speaking.” He killed two more people before the year was up.

As 1970 passed with no breaks in the case, Hanson had an audacious thought. “What if I do a movie and set a trap to catch him? I thought he’d go see a movie about himself. He’d have to.” (In another letter, the obviously publicity-hungry killer even mused about who should play him in a movie.)

Shot in just a few weeks in early 1971 and edited just as quickly, The Zodiac Killer (originally titled Zodiac) represents no new ground in the exploitation film genre. Hanson hired a friend, Hal Reed, to play the killer, whom he imagined to be a postman by day and a murderous psycho by night; Paul Avery, the increasingly paranoid journalist who thought he might be targeted by the killer, met with Hanson a few times to discuss details of the case. “He’d wait in the alley near the restaurant and wait for me to come in,” Hanson says. “He was really jumpy.”

Hanson spent $13,000 on The Zodiac Killer, exhausting most of his savings. He booked a week-long premiere engagement at the RKO Theater in San Francisco and bought ads in local newspapers. Without telling authorities of his plan (“They might have tried to stop it,” Hanson says), the filmmaker enlisted six friends, including Reed, to monitor the crowd during the screenings.

The plan worked like this: Each theatergoer would get a sweepstakes entry card they would be instructed to fill out. The prize was a Kawasaki motorcycle that stood on a podium in the lobby. By dropping the card through a slot, attendees were inadvertently giving Hanson a handwriting sample he could compare to the letters published in the papers.

“We all had positions we traded out,” Hanson says. One would actually be inside the podium where the cards were being dropped, evaluating handwriting on the fly. If he saw one that resembled the writing in the published letters, he could flip a switch activating a light that another team member hiding in the freezer would see. Other men were stationed outside, in the projectionist’s room, and in the lobby. With a match, Hanson would attempt to corral and hustle the suspect into an office to detain him.

While a fine idea in theory, the stakeout proved tedious. During one freezer stint, Cantrell—who also co-wrote the film—nearly passed out. During the confusion, someone had dropped a card declaring “I am the Zodiac, I was here,” but no one was inside the podium to evaluate it in real time.

On the last night of the engagement, Hanson interrupted his surveillance for a bathroom break. “I was standing at the urinal and thought I heard the door open,” he says. “I turned around but didn’t see anyone.”

Without a sound, a man had materialized at the urinal next to Hanson’s, remarking about a graphic scene in the movie and how “real blood” wouldn’t come out of a body like that. “I zipped up, turned, and saw the same face that was on the wanted poster. Same eyes, nose, mouth, hair, everything. I thought, 'Son of a bitch, it’s him.'"

Hanson stresses that, as the proprietor of several chain restaurants, he had been held up a number of times by robbers and quickly learned to study faces for later identification. Confronting the man in the lobby, Hanson led him to a nearby office and had his friends surround him. "I looked right into his eyes and told him Paul Stine was my brother." (Stine was a cab driver who was shot and killed by the Zodiac in October 1969, and the lie was designed to break the suspect's composure.) "But he didn’t blink."

In fact, the man seemed to be making friends with Hanson’s crew, bonding over shared experiences in the military. With no legal authority to hold his suspect, Hanson watched as he ambled off. But it wouldn't be the last time he looked into the face of the man he believed might be one of the most notorious killers of the 20th century.

A police sketch of a Zodiac killer suspect
Amazon

The Zodiac Killer finished its engagement at the RKO and ended up getting booked in a few other theaters, but it was far from a hit. Hanson made another film in 1972, a drug comedy titled A Ton of Grass Goes to Pot, before retreating to Wisconsin to try and recalibrate his business ventures. When he returned to California in 1974, he decided the man he saw at the RKO needed to be monitored.

"I needed to get back on my feet and look further into this guy," Hanson says.

With the aid of private detectives, Hanson cooked up a new plot. Having obtained his address from their investigation—the man originally gave a hotel address at the premiere—Hanson sent a postcard informing his suspect that he had won a prize. When he dispatched the detectives to deliver the prize box, they were supposed to announce they had made a mistake and take it back—that way, Hanson would have his fingerprints on the package. But no prints were found.

“Another time, the detective phoned where he was working at the time, which was Bank of America,” Hanson says. “They asked for his personnel file and when the bank asked why, they said, ‘Well, we think he’s the Zodiac.'" The man was soon fired.

Eventually, Hanson gave up the chase. The killer hadn’t struck since 1969 and hadn’t written a letter since 1974—and investigators did not believe the handwriting samples Hanson had collected were a match.

But the lure of identifying Zodiac has never completely left. Today, both Hanson and his grandson continue to research the man he first spotted in the RKO bathroom, attempting to excavate any information that might connect him to the murders. Though The Zodiac Killer largely disappeared from public view following its original limited release, it was recently unearthed by the American Genre Film Archive and released on Blu-ray in July. A forthcoming book and documentary, Zodiac Man, may provide the suspect's name, which has yet to be publicly disclosed. All Hanson will say is that the man is still alive.

If Hanson is correct, it'll end a search that has continued for nearly a half-century, proving he’ll go to any lengths to corner his elusive prey.

Well, almost any lengths.

"I never got in the freezer," Hanson admits.

8 Explorers Who Mysteriously Disappeared (and Some Who’ve Been Found)

A statue of Gaspar Corte-Real
A statue of Gaspar Corte-Real

By their very nature, explorers often push the boundaries of survival in the name of glory, so it’s not a great surprise that many have gone missing in the course of their adventures. Over the years, the quest to uncover the truth of what happened to them has captivated the public, historians, and journalists alike, leading to numerous theories and some surprising finds.

1. Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real

The youngest of three Portuguese brothers, Gaspar Corte-Real was a keen explorer who undertook an expedition to Greenland in 1500. He embarked on a second expedition in 1501 with his older brother Miguel, in which they claimed Greenland for the crown before apparently sailing on to reach Newfoundland or Labrador. At that point, Gaspar sent two of his three ships back to Portugal, including the one captained by his brother. Gaspar’s ship continued its explorations, but was never seen again.

In 1502, Miguel Corte-Real, learning of his brother’s disappearance, led a search party to the area where Gaspar was believed lost, but he found nothing, and his ship too went missing. The oldest Corte-Real brother, Vasco Annes, begged the king to let him mount a further search party to find his lost brothers, but the king refused—perhaps unwilling to risk the embarrassment of losing a third Corte-Real.

The disappearances have remained a mystery for centuries. But in the 1910s, Edmund Burke Delabarre, a psychology professor at Brown University, put forward a new theory about the inscriptions on the famous Dighton Rock in Massachusetts. The rock is covered with petroglyphs that were first noted way back in 1680, and since then scholars have proposed numerous theories about who carved them and why. Delabarre suggested that the inscription was in fact abbreviated Latin, and reads: “I, Miguel Cortereal, 1511. In this place, by the will of God, I became a chief of the Indians.” This astounding theory implies that the explorer may have continued his travels into America and survived at least nine years in the New World. If his inscription is to be believed, he made quite a success of his new life.

2. Jean-Francois De Galaup

La Perouse's last letter
La Perouse's last letter

Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de la Pérouse, was an accomplished sea captain. In 1785, inspired by the successes of Captain James Cook, the French king Louis XVI sent La Pérouse on an expedition to explore the Pacific. The party was made up of two ships—La Boussole and L'Astrolabe—manned by 225 crewmembers. The voyage was expected to last four years. La Pérouse kept scrupulous records of his findings during the trip, mapping coastlines, taking specimens, and making observations of the peoples and places he encountered. (Thankfully, he sent his journals back to France, where they were preserved for posterity and later published to great success.) Having successfully sailed through the Pacific, taking in Japan, the Philippines, and Tonga, La Pérouse arrived at Botany Bay in Australia and was witnessed by British settlers sailing out of the bay in March 1788, the last sighting of the expedition. By 1791, when no communication had been received from La Pérouse for some time, a search party was dispatched from France—but no trace of the expedition was found.

The puzzle seemed to be solved in 1826 when an Irish sailor, Peter Dillon, came across something intriguing while exploring the Solomon Islands. The locals had a number of European swords, which Dillon thought might have belonged to La Pérouse, and told of sighting two large ships that had broken up on the reefs there. In 1964 the wreck of La Boussole was at last discovered on the reefs of Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands, confirming that this indeed was where the expedition had reached its sad end. However, in 2017 an Australian researcher found an 1818 account by an Indian castaway that seems to suggest La Pérouse was killed by locals on a small island off Northern Australia, perhaps in a later leg of his voyage after constructing a schooner from the remains of La Boussole.

3. Naomi Uemura

Japanese explorer Naomi Uemura in 1974
Japanese explorer Naomi Uemura in 1974
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Modern explorer and adventurer Naomi Uemura was part of the first Japanese team to scale Mount Everest in 1970. (He would have been the first Japanese person to reach the summit if his impeccable manners hadn’t made him relinquish the lead to allow his elder, Teruo Matsuura, the honor of going first.) Uemura completed many amazing feats during his lifetime, including climbing the highest mountain on each of the world’s continents solo, trekking across the Arctic to become the first person to reach the North Pole solo, and rafting down the Amazon. In February 1984, Uemura set off to scale Mount McKinley in Alaska in an attempt to become the first person to achieve a solo winter climb of the treacherous peak. Uemura reached the peak, but that is all we know, as he never made it off the mountain. Rescue parties searched for the adventurer, but all that was found was some equipment and his diary hidden in a snow cave. To date his body has not been found, and the exact circumstances of his tragic death remain a mystery.

4. Percy Fawcett

British soldier, archaeologist and explorer Percy Fawcett
British soldier, archaeologist, and explorer Percy Fawcett
Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the last 90 years, some 13 expeditions and over 100 people have perished in futile attempts to discover the fate of British explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. Fawcett was the very epitome of a dashing explorer: He had a distinguished military career before following his sense of adventure to help create maps of the vast and uncharted Amazon jungle. During the 1920s, he departed on a number of ambitious expeditions in an attempt to locate the fabled lost city of El Dorado, which he dubbed the city of “Z.”

In 1925 Fawcett set off into the Mato Grosso region of Brazil with his eldest son, Jack, and his son’s best friend, Raleigh Rimell. The trio plowed into the jungle, covering up to 15 miles in a day in their zeal to find the rumored riches of the lost city. By May 29 the group sent their native guides back with their latest letters, including one to Fawcett’s wife, Nina, in which he wrote: “You need have no fear of any failure.” This missive was the last thing heard of Fawcett, and after two years with no sign, the Royal Geographical Society sent the first of many search parties. That no trace was discovered of Fawcett only served to keep the many rumors surrounding his fate alive.

Researchers have since come forward with many different theories: Fawcett had “gone native” and was living among a remote tribe; he succumbed to malaria or a jaguar attack; he deliberately disappeared in order to set up a mystical commune. But perhaps the most believable version of his fate was obtained by journalist David Grann, who retraced Fawcett’s steps in 2005 and discovered the Kalapalo Indians had an oral history indicating that Fawcett had ignored their advice and walked right into the domain of a hostile tribe who, in all likelihood, killed him.

5. George Bass

George Bass was an English surgeon who, inspired by tales of Pacific exploration, took to the seas as a ship’s surgeon. He embarked on many expeditions, but the one for which he is most remembered is his voyage to Australia with Matthew Flinders in the 1790s. The pair mapped large swathes of the Australian coast, and Bass identified the body of water between Australia and Tasmania that was later named the Bass Strait in his honor. Despite his success as an explorer, Bass felt under-appreciated and became envious of the merchants who were making their fortunes shipping goods from Europe to the new settlements in Australia. Consequently, he abandoned his cartography and set himself up as a trader. Unfortunately he was a little late to the party and when he returned to Australia, his ship laden with goods, he discovered many others had beaten him to the punch and the market was saturated with British products.

Undeterred, he decided to try his luck in South America and set sail with his bounteous cargo in 1803. Bass and his ship were never seen again, and their fate remains an enigma. Rumors persisted that Bass made it to Chile or Peru, where he was captured by the Spaniards and forced to work in the mines there as a slave until his death.

6. George Mallory

George Mallory was a British explorer and mountaineer who captured the public’s imagination after he was asked why he wanted to climb Everest and he responded: “Because it’s there.” As one of the foremost mountaineers of his day, Mallory was an obvious choice to take part in the first British expeditions to the as-yet-unconquered Everest throughout the early 1920s—well before the benefit of modern materials, technology, and weather forecasting.

In June 1924, George Mallory and fellow mountaineer Andrew Irvine set off for an attempt on the summit. Another member of the expedition glimpsed them climbing at over 26,800 feet, but that was the last time they were seen alive. That the pair perished in their attempt was certain, but debate raged over whether they had become the first to reach the summit and died on their way down, or if they died having never reached the top. Various pieces of the puzzle emerged over time—in the 1930s, Irvine’s ice axe was discovered at 27,700 feet, and in 1991 a 1920s oxygen canister was found. Finally, in 1999, an expedition discovered Mallory’s frozen body on the mountainside, clearly the victim of a terrible fall. The climbers carefully buried the body where they found it, but sadly no trace was ever found of Andrew Irvine.

It was hoped that Mallory’s camera might be found—an artifact that could prove for certain if he made it to the summit—but unfortunately the camera remains missing. Tantalizingly, Mallory had stated that he was going to carry a photograph of his wife and leave it at the summit, and when Mallory’s body was found the photograph was not there, providing yet another clue that perhaps this great mountaineer had conquered the world’s tallest mountain.

7. Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin circa 1830
Sir John Franklin circa 1830
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the foremost explorers of the Victorian era was Sir John Franklin, who had captained a number of expeditions to the Arctic in search of the Northwest passage. Franklin succeeded in mapping large areas of coastline, identifying many new botanical specimens and furthering our knowledge of the unforgiving Arctic weather during his first two expeditions. Some 20 years after he had retired, Franklin was tempted back to make one final effort to find the Northwest Passage. In 1845, when Franklin was 60 years old, he set off with 129 crewmembers in HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The ships made it to Baffin Island, where they were sighted by a whaling ship, but after that the ships were seen no more.

With no word from the expedition, numerous rescue missions were sent out to try and discover their fate. Finally, in 1859, after a tip-off from local Inuit hunters, a team led by Francis McClintock found objects and remains from the group on King William Island. It became clear that the two ships had become hopelessly trapped in the sea ice. A note was found which indicated that the ships had finally been abandoned in April 1848, having been stuck fast in the ice since September 1846. The note also revealed that Franklin had died in June 1847, though no cause was given. Scientific analysis of the mummified remains of some of the sailors indicated they may have died from lead poisoning, likely caused by the lead used to seal their canned food. Historians argue that those who did not die from contaminated supplies probably perished in the freezing conditions as they tried to march across the ice to safety. In September 2016, archaeologists announced the discovery of the wrecked remains of HMS Terror off the coast of King William Island, which historians hope will provide yet more clues about the terrible fate of the stranded crew and their desperate struggle for survival.

8. Ludwig Leichhardt

Ludwig Leichhardt, German explorer
Ludwig Leichhardt, German explorer
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1848, German scientist and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt led an attempt to cross Australia’s desert interior from east to west. Leichhardt was already an explorer of some renown, having completed two earlier expeditions across Australia—on one occasion, he had been given up for dead after he spent 18 months in the Australian interior, only to show up very much alive and with copious notes and discoveries.

Leichhardt set off for his final mission accompanied by seven companions, 50 bullocks, 20 mules, seven horses, and a huge amount of supplies and equipment. Despite all of that, the only trace ever found of the missing expedition was a small brass plaque inscribed with Leichhardt’s name and the year 1848, which had been attached to his rifle. The lack of any further evidence of the bodies or equipment from the expedition has proved an enduring mystery, and things aren’t made any clearer by the fact that no one is sure which route they took or how far through Australia’s vast interior they got.

An 1852 search party reported that they had found an abandoned campsite with a tree with the letter L carved into it, a mark Leichhardt reportedly frequently left to indicate his route. Over the years a number of further searches uncovered more trees inscribed with an L, but their disparate locations did little to solve the riddle of the progress and fate of the explorers. The public was so intrigued by the mysterious disappearance that numerous rumors were published in the newspapers, inevitably leading to sensationalist stories of the group dying of thirst, being murdered by Aboriginal people, or even of Leichhardt surviving into old age living in the bush. However, until some concrete evidence or remains are discovered, it is likely that the truth will remain elusive.

This story first ran in 2016.

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