Investigator: Zodiac Killer struck in Tahoe

by Gregory Crofton, Tribune staff writer

Labor Day, 30 years ago, a young woman disappeared from a casino nursing station and was never found.

Information presented to law enforcement agencies Thursday may link the woman’s disappearance to the Zodiac Killer, a man who many believe killed at least seven people in California and Nevada in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Law enforcement agents from El Dorado and Douglas County met to discuss reopening the case of Donna Lass. The 25-year-old disappeared while working as a registered nurse at Sahara Tahoe Casino First Aid Station. During the 1970s, the Sahara was a Stateline casino located where the Horizon Casino Resort is today.

Two members of the Lass family and a retired detective from Groveland, Calif., came Thursday to South Lake Tahoe Police station to tell the agents that they believe Donna was abducted and murdered by the Zodiac Killer.

“There are suspicions that Donna Lass was a victim of the Zodiac,” said South Lake Tahoe Sgt. Tom O’ Conner. “But we haven’t actually ever established that she was murdered. We haven’t even found the body. She was a very responsible person, for her to disappear doesn’t add up, doesn’t make sense.”

Harvey Hines, a retired detective, said he has been investigating the Zodiac Killer since 1973. He retired in 1992 from a California police department ending a 30-year-career in law enforcement. He was joined Thursday by Mary and Don Pilker, Donna’s sister and nephew.

“What I’ve wanted to do for a long time is hand my case over to some agency and let them run with it,” Hinds said. “I don’t care if I don’t get a dime’s worth of credit as long as someone closes it out.”

Lass, who had moved to South Shore from San Francisco, Calif., three months before she disappeared, was working a 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift at the nurse’s station. The last entry in her log at work was listed as 1:45 a.m. Donna should have been headed home to the apartment she had just rented on the California side, but Hines thinks she was abducted at work.

“There was a lot of evidence inside Sahara Tahoe Casino that she left directly from there,” Hines said. “She was a very personal person and she left a lot of personal items behind; an opened letter, a dirty uniform and on her log, a pen was dragged from the last word she wrote to the bottom of the page.”

Donna was never seen or heard from again. Her sister Mary came to South Shore to help search for Donna in 1970. She and several other family members spent about two weeks in the area hoping for a lead. Then they went back home to Sioux Falls, S.D.

“We drove her convertible home, packed all her things,” Mary said. “And we were scared the whole way home.”

Mary said she believes Hines’ report is the key to solving Donna’s case. She’s been in contact with Hines since 1974, but only recently did her family take a serious look at the information he compiled.

“After all these years I met with Harvey Hines about a month ago,” said Don Pilker, Mary’s 35-year-old son. “I went down to the Bay Area. I went through the report with him page by page. My commitment and mother’s commitment to him that day was that it’s now going to happen. We just want some resolve and we finally believe that he has got it right on.”

Law enforcement agencies took a cautious stance to the situation Thursday. Back in the ’70s, during the initial investigations of the Lass case, Douglas County and El Dorado may have been competing to solve the case rather than working together and sharing information.

“The guy has put a tremendous amount of time into it,” O’ Conner said. “When I read our old reports and the ones from Douglas County they didn’t quite make sense. When I heard his reports it helped fill in some of the blanks. I’m very interested in reading his entire report.”

Both the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and South Lake Tahoe Police said they plan to read over all reports including Hines’ and then evaluate the information they have.

“We’re committed to reviewing all aspects of the investigation and will bring forward any new information that’s relevant,” said Douglas County Sheriff’s Sgt. Tim Minister. “We’ve been in contact with the San Francisco Police Department regarding the Zodiac murders. As yet we can’t commit to say this is Zodiac-related. There’s been some investigating done on both sides and we plan to share it with South Lake Tahoe Police Department and they have agreed to do the same.”

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