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.

10 Questions About Columbus Day

ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images
ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images

Every American student learns that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the New World in 1492. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s poem "History of the U.S." has made it impossible to forget the date (although the couplet actually predates her birth), and many federal workers get a day off every October to recognize the explorer's arrival in the New World. You know the who and where, but here are 10 more answers to pressing questions about Columbus Day.

1. When did Christopher Columbus become a cultural icon?

By the early 1500s, other navigators like Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had become more popular and successful than Columbus had been with his off-course voyages. According to The New York Times, historians and writers in the latter part of the 16th century restored some of Columbus’s reputation with great words of praise for the explorer and his discoveries, with his fellow Italians proving particularly eager to celebrate his life in plays and poetry.

2. How did Christopher Columbus's popularity reach the United States?

Blame the British. As the American colonies formed an identity separate from their mainly English roots, colonists looked to figures like the "appointed of God" Columbus to symbolize their ideals. "By the time of the Revolution," writes John Noble Wilford, "Columbus had been transmuted into a national icon, a hero second only to Washington." Columbus's American legacy got another shot in the arm in 1828 when a biography (peppered with historical fiction) by Washington Irving transformed Columbus into an even more idealized figure who sought to "colonize and cultivate," not to strip the New World of its resources.

3. When was the first Columbus Day?

The first recorded celebration took place in 1792 in New York City, but the first holiday held in commemoration of the 1492 voyage coincided with its 400th anniversary in 1892. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in which he called Columbus a "pioneer of progress and enlightenment" and suggested that Americans "cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

If Harrison had had his way, though, the holiday would have been celebrated on October 21. He knew that Columbus landed under the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use today—making October 21 the correct date for anniversary celebrations.

4. Did anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day in the 19th century?

Italian Americans embraced Columbus as an important figure in their history and saw celebrating him as a way to "be accepted by the mainstream," the Chicago Tribune notes. The Knights of Columbus, an organization formed by Irish Catholic immigrants in 1882, chose the Catholic explorer as their patron "as a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith," according to the group's website. Following President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation, they lobbied for Columbus Day to become an official holiday.

5. When did Columbus Day become an official holiday?

The holiday first found traction at the state level. Colorado began celebrating Columbus Day, by governor's proclamation, in 1905. Angelo Noce, founder of the first Italian newspaper in the state, spearheaded the movement to honor Columbus and Italian American history. In 1907, the Colorado General Assembly finally gave in to him and made it an official state holiday.

6. When did Columbus Day become a federal holiday?

With Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, lobbying from the Knights of Columbus paid off, and the United States as a whole observed Columbus Day in 1934. Thirty-four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

7. Why does the date of Columbus Day change every year?

Columbus Day was originally celebrated on October 12, the day Columbus landed in the New World, but the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971 and changed it to the second Monday in October, as well as moved the dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays (Veterans Day would be moved back to November 11 in 1980 after criticism from veterans’ groups). The act of Congress was enacted to "provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Monday, and for other purposes."

8. Does every state observe the Columbus Day holiday on the same weekend?

In Tennessee, Columbus Day comes with an asterisk. The state’s official holiday observance calendar reads that Columbus Day is the second Monday of October, or "at the governor's discretion, Columbus Day may be observed the Friday after Thanksgiving."

9. Which states don't celebrate Columbus Day?

In Hawaii, the second Monday of October is known as Discoverer’s Day, "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands, provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday," KHON2 writes. According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 states treated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in 2013. South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and the District of Columbia celebrate Native Americans Day or Indigenous People's Day as a paid holiday. Several cities, like San Francisco and Cincinnati, celebrate Indigenous People's Day.

10. How do other places around the world celebrate Columbus Day?

In Italy, Columbus Day (or Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo) is listed as one of the national or international days of celebration and is still on October 12, but it's not a public holiday. Some countries have chosen to observe anti-Columbus holidays like the Day of the Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Pan American Day in Belize, and the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity in Argentina.

Quid Pro Quo Has a Nefarious Etymology

MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images
MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While some altruists will happily lend a hand without expecting anything in return, most of the world runs on the idea that you should be compensated in some way for your goods and services.

That’s quid pro quo, a Latin phrase which literally means “something for something.” In many cases, one of those “somethings” refers to money—you pay for concert tickets, your company pays you to teach your boss how to open a PDF, etc. However, quid pro quo also applies to plenty of situations in which no money is involved. Maybe your roommate agreed to lend you her favorite sweater if you promised to wash her dishes for a month. Or perhaps, in return for walking your neighbor’s dog while he was on vacation, he gave you his HBO login credentials.

No matter the circumstances, any deal in which you give something and you get something falls under the category of quid pro quo. According to The Law Dictionary, “it is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.” In other words, if everyone on both sides understands the expectation that something will be given in return for a good or service, your contract is valid.

Based on that definition, quid pro quo hinges on transparency; all parties must understand that there’s an exchange being made. However, this wasn’t always the case. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry states that quid pro quo was used in 16th-century apothecaries to denote when one medicine had been substituted for another, “whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

So, if you were an unlucky peasant with a sore throat, it’s possible your herbal remedy could’ve been swapped out with something less effective—or even dangerous. Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t offer any specific examples of how or why this happened, it definitely seems like it would have been all too easy to “accidentally” poison your enemies during that time.

Just a few decades later, the term had gained enough popularity that people were using it for less injurious instances, much like we do today.

[h/t Columbia Journalism Review]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER