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Zodiac killer’s trail leads to Tahoe

Her bathroom light was left on and there were no signs of a struggle. Piles of clothes lay neatly folded in her new apartment, but 25-year-old Donna Lass never came home to put them away.

Lass disappeared in 1970 working a late night shift at a Stateline casino nursing station. Thirty years later no progress has been made in her presumed murder, but South Shore detectives have been investigating Lass’ case since August thinking she may have been a victim of a serial killer who called himself the Zodiac.

The killer sent dozens of letters to several California newspapers that began with the words, “This is the Zodiac speaking.” They were also filled with astrologic-type coded messages and threats written in capital letter English. In the letters the Zodiac took credit for five murders, two attempted murders and a kidnapping; all of which occurred in California in 1969 and 1970.



The self-proclaimed murderer made phone calls, too. On Sept. 27, 1969, a man was audacious enough to call Napa Police Department around 7 p.m. and claim that 45 minutes earlier he stabbed to death two people. A trace on the call led to a phone booth in downtown Napa, not far from the police department.

At 6:15 p.m. that night, Cecelia Shepard, 20, and Bryan Hartnell, 20, were stabbed by a man who appeared out of nowhere wearing a hood and carrying a gun. The couple were laying on a blanket on the shore of a lake outside of Napa when the man approached them and said he was an escaped convict who needed money and a ride to Mexico. Hartnell offered him his wallet and the keys to the car, but the man instead tied them up with plastic clothesline and stabbed them multiple times.




Shepard was stabbed five times on her front side and five times in her back. She died two days later in the hospital. Hartnell survived six stab wounds to his back. The killer left a handwritten message on the couple’s car door giving the date of an earlier double murder he claimed to have committed and signed it with a circle that had a cross on top of it, a symbol that became synonymous with the Zodiac.

But did this terrifying murderer ever come to South Lake Tahoe? Since August, South Lake Tahoe Police Detective Tom Conner has gone over a report compiled by Harvey Hines, a 66-year-old investigator from Groveland, Calif., who claims Donna Lass was kidnapped and murdered by the Zodiac.

Hines, a retired policeman whose been investigating the case since 1973, became interested in South Shore after the Zodiac sent a postcard to media that stated he had claimed his 12th victim in the Tahoe area. He soon found two supplemental South Lake Tahoe Police reports filed March 25, 1970, that piqued his interest.

In the reports, a woman claimed she met a strange man at the International House of Pancakes on U. S. Highway 50 who wanted to read her astrological chart. Later that day the man came to her house to read the chart he had prepared. She said the man was 30- to 40-years-old, 5 foot 9 inches tall, 160 pounds, had a pudgy stomach and wore horn-rimmed glasses. He eventually left her house without incident, but the description she gave police is similar to that of others who encountered the Zodiac.

By 1976, Hines identified a man he believes is the killer, a person who is still alive. “I was doing this on my own,” Hines said. “Why didn’t the other agencies take it and run? Because they had all their own suspects. There was so much departmental jealousy it was thick enough to cut with a knife.

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

During the many years since, Hines has remained frustrated. In late August, as part of a 30-year-memorial push by the Lass family to solve the case, the investigator presented an 80-page report to South Shore law enforcement agencies gathered at South Lake Tahoe Police Department. Sgt. Tom Conner took an interest in the case, as well as a Douglas County investigator, and together they have begun work on it.

Conner has gone over Hines’ report four times, but has found holes in it that he said he needs to review with the investigator. The report aside, last week Conner collected a blood sample from Lass’ older sister, Mary Pilker, 66, and ran a check on Lass’ social security card and nursing license.

The blood sample was taken with hopes of finding a genetic match through the database maintained by the Department of Justice.

“There is the possibility that her remains have already been found and entered into the data bank,” Conner said. “If we get a match at least we’ll know where she was found. Hopefully that would be some kind of closure for the family.”

Conner also received from the FBI a psychological profile of the Zodiac that he plans to study.

While the work being done by Conner is appreciated, family members said they are not satisfied with the investigation.

“I haven’t heard from anyone,” Mary Pilker said.”It is quite a disappointment. Conner seems to be doing as much as he can and he seems to be doing it all on his own time.”

Mary’s son, Don, has taken an active interest in the case. Currently, he’s got a private investigator trying to track down a car the killer may have driven. “I feel very little progress has been made,” he said. “The family continues to do most of the work.”

He said most frustrating to him is the fact that two women are alive who he believes can identify the Zodiac, but have not been interviewed by law enforcement. One woman, Kathleen Johns, claims to have been a victim of the Zodiac on March 22, 1970. Johns told police she and her infant daughter escaped his grasp when they jumped from his car and ran into a field near Patterson, Calif. When she got to the Patterson Police Station, Johns saw a sketch of the killer on the wall and yelled, “That’s him.”

Years later Hines presented a number of photographs to Johns. The man she immediately picked out as her abductor is the same man Hines has suspected for the last 24 years to be the Zodiac Killer.


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