It was a blustery San Francisco evening, December 1999. The end of the world was nigh, and the air was thick with Y2K dread as I drove my cab through the darkening streets. I had just picked up a fare deep in the Richmond District at 38thand Balboa. I raced back downtown in hopes of a quick fare turnaround.
After dropping off my passenger, I received a radio call for a fare traveling from the Tenderloin out Presidio Heights. I screeched past the taxi line in front of the St. Francis Hotel and headed out of Union Square. I was working midnight to 10 a.m., so I needed to stay as busy as possible for as long as possible. I knew business usually slumped in the middle of the night when the city was fast asleep.
I picked up my fare at Geary and Larkin. He was an elegantly dressed man in his late twenties. I distinctly remember his black, slicked-back hair and the sweet timeless smell of Clubman after- shave. His destination was Washington and Maple Street. I knew the notorious history of that area well. It was one block from the location where the Zodiac Killer fatally shot cab driver Paul Stine on October 11, 1969.
My fragrant passenger was also very aware of the location’s notoriety. He gleefully mentioned that he could look out of his girlfriend’s bedroom window and see the exact spot Paul Stine had been shot, subsequently immortalizing him in the Zodiac Killer’s sick game with the city of San Francisco.
The fear of the Zodiac that gripped the city in the late 1960s and early 1970s was insidious. An unknown killer was in their midst: a sadistic, methodical assassin who taunted the San Francisco Chronicle with letters and ciphers, along with firm instructions that the newspaper place his cryptic messages on the front page.
Zodiac, from what was known at this point, tended to direct his butchery toward couples in their cars in somewhat remote locations. Shooting a cab driver in a residential area seemed a bit out of character, as though he was testing the waters, challenging himself to operate out of his comfort zone.
On the evening of October 11, 1969, Paul Stine was sitting in the cab line in front of the St. Francis Hotel in Union Square. Cab drivers tend to get fidgety when too much time has elapsed without a body in the back seat, so he headed out in the hopes of getting a nearby radio call. The man who would soon end his life flagged him down at Mason and Geary.
No one will ever know what kind of interaction took place between Paul Stine and the Zodiac. Did they have a friendly conversation? Did Stine get an uneasy feeling about his passenger?
All cabbies know that in the span of a 15-minute drive, a passenger can give up their life story, or share confidential details about their love life. Or in many cases, the destination directed at the beginning of the ride will be followed by complete silence. We will never know what was said in the cab that night in 1969, but we do know that Stine was instructed to take Zodiac to the corner of Washington and Maple.
When Stine reached the destination, he was for some unknown reason redirected to stop one block up on Washington and Cherry. One has to wonder whether Zodiac saw potential witnesses in the windows of nearby homes at the original drop zone and became unnerved.
As Stine inched up to the curb to dump his passenger, Zodiac had other plans. He pulled out a 9mm semi-automatic pistol and shot Paul Stine in the head at point-blank range. He took Stine’s wallet, then cut off a portion of his shirt as a keepsake. The bloody garment was later used by Zodiac as ghoulish proof of his involvement in the crime. Having claimed another victim, Zodiac disappeared into the night.
Paul Stine was murdered just two months before turning 30. He was planning to get out of the taxicab business after being robbed a little over a month before his tragic meeting with the Zodiac. Cab driving wasn’t Paul Stine’s only gig – he also sold insurance and attended classes at San Francisco State, where he was looking to complete his doctorate in English.
He was at one time a reporter for his high school newspaper, and after graduation had a stint as a writer for the Turlock Journal. He lived with his wife in an apartment at 1842 Fell Street, in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park. He was for all intents and purposes a happy, well-adjusted man, with plans far beyond becoming a part of Zodiac lore.
In what could be one of the biggest gaffes in San Francisco Police Department history, the cops could have captured the Zodiac that night if not for a crucial communication error.
Inhabitants living in the house directly across the street from the murder had witnessed the entire savage affair. Police were called and descriptions were given, but for some reason the all-points bulletin described the suspect as an “NMA” (Negro Male Adult). Hot on the trail, police encountered a stocky white man matching Zodiac’s true description not far from the scene of the crime. When the man was asked if he had encountered anything unusual, he stated he had just seen a man on Washington Street waving a gun. The police had come face-to-face with Zodiac himself and seemingly let him walk.
Paul Stine was the fourth murder that was officially attributed to the Zodiac Killer. No one knows the total body count. He has never been positively identified or captured.
Graysmith, Robert Zodiac
Graysmith, Robert Zodiac Unmasked
Weirde, Dr. Dr. Weird’s Weird Tours: A Guide To Mysterious San Francisco
Barrett and James Books