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THE 1971 MURDER OF BETTY MARIE CLOER
WAS SHE A ZODIAC VICTIM?

by Virginia McCullough
 

In a letter in 1969, Zodiac wrote: "I shall change the way of collecting of slaves. I shall no longer announce to anyone when I commit my murders, they shall look like routine robberies, killings of anger, & a few fake accidents, etc." By 1974, Zodiac claimed that he had killed 37 people.

1971 was a year of change the world over. This year followed a decade of tragedy and turmoil.

In March of 1965 the United States dispatched 3500 marines to Vietnam and brought death and destruction to the Vietnamese. The average serviceman was 19-years-old. They often died from the chemicals sprayed by their own government to destroy all vegetation in that land far away.

In November of 1965 United States troops suffered two significant defeats in the Dang Valley. In 1968 the Tet Offensive effectively ended the career of President Lyndon B. Johnson as his approval rating slumped from 48% to 36%. The President declined to run for re-election. Eventually the United States lost 20,000 soldiers all for the stated cause of fighting communism in southeast Asia

Americans had lost their faith in their own government and then, in 1971, The Pentagon Papers were leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg. They only confirmed what many around the world knew – the government of the United States had lied to its own people about America’s political and military involvement in the Vietnam War from 1945 to 1971.

In the last years of this unpopular war the weekly casualty rate approached 100 a week. The disconnect between American citizens and their military leaders was never more apparent then when Gen. William Westmoreland implied that he could get that death toll under the weekly highway death toll in the United States. The brave young men fighting the Vietnam War were reduced to a number count by their own government.

Meanwhile Americans back home were also impacted by the war but they were living in a different world far away still concerned with every day living and living the American Dream.

In 1971 the car of the year was the Chevrolet Vega introduced to compete with Germany’s aging Volkswagen Beetle and the rising popularity of Japanese imports. Bridge Over Troubled Waters by Simon and Garfunkel swept the Grammy’s taking awards for record, album and song of the year. The US Supreme Court ruled that busing of students could be used to achieve racial desegregation and television awoke to social consciousness with the airing of All in the Family. Richard M. Nixon occupied the White House and Spiro T. Agnew was his Vice President.

The changing times affected each state differently. On the West Coast, Oregon with it’s rocky coast clinging to the Pacific, was experiencing one of the wettest years with 1971’s rainfall just over 60 inches. But the rain did not bother Oregon’s premier runner Steve Prefontaine as he set record after record.

The city of Eugene, Oregon launched a “Readin’ in the Rain” program. Ken Kesey’s great logging epic, Sometimes a Great Notion, was chosen for all of Eugene to read. A native son, his powerful novel had been published in 1962 and quickly became a classic. A series of city events concluded with the screening of the 1971 film by the same name starring Henry Fonda, Lee Remick and Paul Newman.

Betty Marie Cloer was a 21-year-old single mother. Betty had attended Willamette High School in Eugene, Oregon and lived in nearby Junction City. She was not caught up in the international turmoil of 1971. She was not intrigued by national politics. She noticed Oregon’s star runner only in passing. Even Eugene’s pride in Ken Kesey failed to interest her.

Betty was the mother of a five-year-old son named Robert. She had been attending beautician school in Oregon with ambitions of following in the footsteps of her Aunt Ann. She was talented and determined to forge a better life for herself and her son. As 1970 faded into the background Betty Cloer made a decision to take a life altering step. She left her parents and eleven brothers and sisters to start a new life in Sacramento, California. She left her son with her parents at their home in Junction City while she established herself in California’s Capital City, leaving rainy Oregon behind. When she had found an apartment and obtained her beautician’s license in her new home state she would come back and pick up her son.

Her sister Anita has said that young Betty had become an informant for the local district attorney about certain drug deals involving LSD and other drugs. The district attorney had said that Betty Cloer’s cover had been compromised and that he could not protect her. Her concerned sister said that Betty had been threatened and she had been urged to leave town.

Whatever the impetus that caused Betty Cloer to leave, it was a momentous decision and one that tore at the young mother’s heart. Almost immediately she began to write letters home telling her mother that “I hope Robert keeps busy enough not to miss me too much. Do you have a picture you can send me of him? I really miss him.”

Betty Cloer was self conscious about her weight but after she arrived in Sacramento she began to lose pounds and gain self esteem. While short on money and living with several roommates, she worked hard to bring her little boy to California.

On February 21, 1971 she wrote a loving letter to her son.

Robert,

Hi! Boy do I miss you. Hope you are getting to school every day. There is a little boy here where I am staying. His name is Vance and he’s the same age as you are. He’s just waiting for the day when you can come down.

As soon as I finish school and get my license I am coming home to get you. We are going to live here in California for awhile. You will love it here. It rained only one day since I’ve been here, all the other days have been sunny and beautiful. Today Linda and Shirley and Vance and Ruthie and I are going to the zoo. Wish you were here to go with us but you will be soon.

Well, doll, I guess I better get on the ball and start doing something. We’re packing a lunch for the zoo. Tell grandma and granddad I said Hi. Be good and I love you.

Your mom,

Betty

P.S. It won’t be any more than a month before I see you.

However, it was not until May that Betty’s plans came to fruition and having her son with her again looked like real possibility. On May 22, 1971 Betty wrote the following letter to her mother:

Dear Mom:

Hi, you’re sure not very good at answering letters, are you? How’s Robert doing? When will he be out of school for the summer? The first of June I’m getting an apartment with one of the girls I work with. So I’ll be able to come and get him some time after that.

Well, the last couple of weeks have been real good ones. I’m meeting a lot of fun people and getting out a lot more. For the first time in years I’m not ashamed of my weight so I wear what all the other girls wear and enjoy life too. I’m coming to get Rob, I’ll just surprise everyone.

Well, how’s dad doing? I had a dream about the other night. I dreamed that he found out that they had made a mistake about his heart and it made him so happy he looked years younger. Anyway, tell him I said I miss him.

Guess I better close for now. I’m enclosing a couple of proofs. Decide which one you like the best and then send them back so I can get some made.

Please write soon and let me know how everyone is.

Love ya,

Betty

When this letter was written young Betty Cloer had less then one month to live. Just after June 1st the young mother went up to Eugene, Oregon one last time and brought her son down to their new home in Sacramento. The two of them enjoyed the early summer days of a sunny June in California’s capital city.

But California, like Oregon, had its dark clouds. Since 1968 the Golden State had been terrorized by a hooded mass murderer known as Zodiac. Robert Graysmith author of the non-fiction book Zodiac in his introduction states,:

The Zodiac murders were not simply killings. They were sex crimes in which the killer reduced the victims to objects that existed only to give him sexual pleasure achieved through violent acts. The hunt for the victims was the foreplay and the attack the substitute for the sex act. Zodiac (a sexual sadist) achieved his sexual pleasure by torturing and killing because violence and love are hopelessly confused in his mind.

In the year prior to Betty Cloer’s move to California four beautiful young women had been killed in and around the Sacramento area. Their bodies had been found in Sacramento, El Dorado and Placer counties.

The brutal killings received limited media coverage. This was the capital city and bad publicity was not conducive to the quiet dignity Sacramento worked so hard maintain. The august Sacramento Bee and the Sacramento Union that had a well earned reputation for investigative journalism in the 1970’s quickly buried the dead young women on the back pages before the stories disappeared all together. In contrast The San Francisco Chronicle’s coverage of the Zodiac was so intense that the predator became a pen pal of the paper greatly increasing its circulation.

Still the seventies was an era following a decade of excessive drug use, free love and liberal agendas. Young people still adhered to those new found ideas and thought little about minor details like a serial killer. Fear of the Zodiac was not enough to keep them secure behind locked doors. It was soon obvious that simply going to work or staying home was no guarantee of safety in Sacramento.

On March 7, 1970 23-year-old registered nurse Judith Ann Hakari went missing from the parking area of her apartment building. With their marriage just three months away, her fiancée was waiting for her in her apartment. She left her job at Sutter General Hospital at 11:30 pm. It was just a nine minute drive from her home. When his loved one failed to arrive the worried young man went looking for her. He found her car, purchased three months earlier, unlocked with the keys on the floor of the vehicle. But the 5’2” brown-haired woman weighing 125 lbs was missing. Authorities were notified.

Day after day passed in agony for her loved ones. Her father Wilho Hakari described the wait, “This is Hellish, just sitting here and not knowing and not being able to do something.” Her body was found on April 26, 1970 in a shallow grave in nearby Placer County. A young couple exploring for abandoned mine shafts off Ponderosa Way stumbled across a partially exposed body and the final resting place for the compassionate woman. Her nurse’s uniform and her coat were open in the front and her panties were found under her body indicating a sexual assault. However, although her body was checked for sperm, no results are indicated in the coroner’s record. The same report dated 4-26-70 detailed the cause of Judith Hakari’s death as strangulation and crushing injuries to the face apparently delivered with a heavy object. Blows had been delivered to the head with great speed. Her beautiful “facial figures were almost totally absent, due apparently to a combination of decomposition and trauma.” Her father said that “She was killed by an animal, not a human.”

One month to the day after Hakari’s body was found, Nancy Bennallack, a beautiful, 29-year-old court reporter, was brutally stabbed to death. An independent young woman she was 5’2” tall and weighted 125 lbs with brown hair. Engaged to be married is just one month, she was murdered inside her own apartment at 1830 Bell Street in Sacramento. Her apartment building was only 3/10 of a mile away from that of Judith Hakari’s. Her fiancée, a chief public defender for Sacramento County, had left her apartment the evening before about 11:30 pm. Two hours later neighbors heard a scream coming from the direction of the Bennallack home.

The victim had fought fiercely for her life but met a violent death stabbed over thirty times. The injuries severed the carotid arteries with two of the wounds extending into the bone of her spine. The victim “was clad only in a pair of white panties. Clothing was lying at her feet and partially under her feet”, according to the Coroner’s report. Investigators speculated that this was evidence of a sexual assault. But a thorough coroner’s report showed no evidence of spermatozoa in the vaginal, cervical, rectal, or oral smears taken during the autopsy. At one of the happiest times in her life, Nancy Bennallack became another victim of the predator killing young women in California.

Less then one month later, on Saturday, November 14, 1970, Carol Beth Hilburn’s body was discovered dumped in the SE corner of Ascot Ave and 4th Street in Sacramento, California. Hilburn was 22-years-old and had been married only three months. She had recently separated from her husband. For the past two years she had worked as a nurse’s aide at the Sunlight Royal Convalescent Hospital in Sonoma County. The previous Thursday she had traveled to Sacramento with a girlfriend to visit friends. Late Friday night, November 13, 1970, she went out to the Zodiac Club on West Capital Avenue to visit with a bartender she knew. She left there to visit the Forty Grand Club where she formerly worked. She was last seen there at 5:00 am. Police investigators said that this had to have been just minutes before she was brutally killed.

Her body was discovered at 4:40 pm clad only in a pair of panties and a slipper/sock covering one foot. Carol Hilburn was 5’8’ tall and weighed 130 lbs with blond hair and blue eyes. Her pretty face had been destroyed. An autopsy was performed that same day. The pathologist concluded that she suffered blunt force trauma to the face and head caused by “various lacerations, bruises and fractures.” Because of the variously shaped injuries he states that a variety of weapons could have been used including an ax, hatchet, cleaver or knife. There were also indications that she might have been strangled although the traumatic injuries were the primary cause of death. There were no indications that the victim fought for her life. The possibility exists that Hilburn was forcibly drugged because there was a needle mark on one arm and amphetamines were detected in her urine, but there was no evidence of past needle marks on her body.

The autopsy/coroner’s report indicated that oral, rectal and vaginal smears were taken and showed “no evidence of spermatozoa in any of the smears examined”.

Sacramento was the scene of yet another vicious murder with no apparent motive.

Paul Avery was the San Francisco Chronicle’s top investigative reporter who was best known for his series of articles on the Zodiac. The articles had apparently angered the Zodiac and in 1970 famed columnist Herb Cain wrote:

Chron newsman Paul Avery is living dangerously. His investigative reporting into the activities killer have won him the accolade of a message from Zodiac, warning ‘you are doomed’ as a result of which several Chron newsman – including Avery – are wearing lapel buttons reading ‘I am not Paul Avery.’ Meanwhile, Avery has applied for personalized license plates reading ‘Zodiac” and that isn’t the smartest thing I ever heard of….

Shortly after the Cain column appeared Avery was contacted by a letter writer who asked him to look into the possibility that the Zodiac had begun his career of terror with the October 30, 1966 murder of 18-year-old college freshman Carol Jo Bates. Bates had been slashed to death around 10:30 pm after her trip to the library to study. The coroner’s report said that she had been kicked in the head and almost decapitated.

Avery traveled to the site of the murder in Riverside county on November 9, 1970 and met with Riverside Captain Irv Cross and the lead investigator on the Bates case (#352 481) Detective Sergeant Dave Bonine. During the second briefing officer Bonine handed Paul Avery a copy of the following letter which was printed for the first time in Robert Graysmith’s book Zodiac copyrighted in 1976:

SHE WAS YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL BUT NOW SHE IS BATTERED AND DEAD. SHE IS NOT THE FIRST AND SHE WILL NOT BE THE LAST. I LAY AWAKE NIGHTS THINKING ABOUT MY NEXT VICTIM. MAYBE SHE WILL BE THE BEAUTIFUL BLOND THAT BABYSITS NEAR THE LITTLE STORE AND WALKS DOWN THE DARK ALLEY EACH EVENING ABOUT SEVEN. OR MAYBE SHE WILL BE THE SHAPELY BLUE EYED BRUNETT THAT SAID NO WHEN I ASKED HER FOR A DATE IN HIGH SCHOOL. BUT MAYBE IT WILL NOT BE EITHER. BUT I SHALL CUT OFF HER FEMALE PARTS AND DEPOSIT THEM FOR THE WHOLE CITY TO SEE. SO DON’T MAKE IT SO EASY FOR ME. KEEP YOUR SISTERS, DAUGHTERS AND WIVES OFF THE STREETS AND ALLEYS.

MISS BATES WAS STUPID. SHE WENT TO THE SLAUGHTER LIKE A LAMB. SHE DID NOT PUT UP A STRUGGLE . BUT I DID. IT WAS A BALL.

I FIRST PULLED THE MIDDLE WIRE FROM THE DISTRIBUTOR. THEN I WAITED FOR HER IN THE LIBRARY AND FOLLOWED HER OUT AFTER ABOUT TWO MINUTES. THE BATTERY MUST HAVE BEEN DEAD BY THEN. I THEN OFFERED TO HELP. SHE WAS THEN VERY WILLING TO TALK WITH ME. I TOLD HER THAT MY CAR WAS DOWN THE STREET AND THAT I WOULD GIVE HER A LIFT HOME. WHEN WE WERE AWAY FROM THE LIBRARY WALKING, I SAID IT WAS ABOUT TIME. SHE ASKED ME ‘ABOUT TIME FOR WHAT?’ I SAID IT WAS ABOUT TIME FOR YOU TO DIE. I GRABBED HER AROUND THE NECK WITH MY HAND OVER HER MOUTH AND MY OTHER HAND WITH A SMALL KNIFE AT HER THROAT. SHE WENT VERY WILLINGLY.

HER BREASTS FELT VERY WARM AND FIRM UNDER MY HANDS, BUT ONLY ONE THING WAS ON MY MIND. MAKING HER PAY FOR THE BRUSH OFFS SHE HAD GIVEN ME DURING THE YEARS PRIOR. SHE DIED HARD. SHE SQUIRMED AND SHOOK AS I CHOCKED HER, AND HER LIPS TWITCHED. SHE LET OUT A SCREAM ONCE AND I KICKED HER HEAD TO SHUT HER UP. I PLUNGED THE KNIFE INTO HER AND IT BROKE. I THEN FINISHED THE JOB BY CUTTING HER THROAT. I AM NOT SICK. I AM NOT INSANE. BUT THAT WILL NOT STOP THE GAME. THIS LETTER SHOULD BE PUBLISHED FOR ALL TO READ IT. IT JUST MIGHT SAVE THAT GIRL IN THE ALLEY. BUT THAT’S UP TO YOU. IT WILL BE ON YOUR CONSCIENCE. NOT MINE. YES, I DID MAKE THAT CALL TO YOU ALSO. IT WAS JUST A WARNING. BEWARE…I AM STALKING YOUR GIRLS NOW.

CC CHIEF OF POLICE.

ENTERPRISE
[Click to see a copy of the original "confession" set forth above.]

The letter had all the earmarks of the Zodiac. Six months after the Bates murder the officers received another written warning which read:

BATES HAD TO DIE.

THERE WILL BE MORE.

At the bottom of this paper was the small number ‘2’ or the letter ‘Z’ according to author Robert Graysmith.

By November 16, 1970 the Zodiac link to the Bates killing through the written notes had been confirmed. Avery told of a 9-hour, closed conference between the Riverside officers and homicide detectives for San Francisco, Sacramento and Napa in a story carrying his byline published in the San Francisco Chronicle November 19, 1970. There can be no question about the homicide units in these cities being fully aware of the horrifying connection linking their individual cases to one another.

On January 1, 1971 the Sacramento Bee published an article by Warren Holloway with the headline “Year Ends, but Hunt for Killers of 3 Capitol Women Goes On”. [Click] It stated that the murders of Bennallack, Hakari and Hilburn were savage slayings that horrified the public and made women apprehensive. It pointed out that “Miss Hakari and Mrs. Hilburn were battered brutally about their face and heads [and that] Miss Bennallack was viciously slashed.” Investigators in the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department and the Sacramento Police Department who worked on the cases believed that the Bennallack and Hakari killings might be linked. However, they expressed doubt that the Hilburn murder was related to the other two even though the faces of both Hilburn and Hakari were almost totally destroyed. Lt. Jerry Saulter was quick to caution against drawing any conclusions based on the closeness of the Bennallack and Hakari apartments stating that it could simply be a coincidence. In fact the mileage between all three crime scenes was 8.2 miles and had an average driving time of 21 minutes. All three women were slain on weekends late in the night. The Sacramento Bee article indicated that more then 900 people had been interviewed and 182 possible suspects had been eliminated in the Bennallack and Hakari slayings. No mention was made of those interviewed or eliminated in the Hilburn murder.

On Friday, February 26, 1971 a 20-year-old co-ed attending Pacific Union College was found murdered near Angwin airport in Napa County. Her name was Lyndia Kanes and she was the second female student murdered that had attended Pacific Union within the past two years. The first murder victim had been killed on September 29, 1969, slashed to death on the shores of Lake Berryessa. The young woman was Cecelia Ann Shephard and she was picnicking with her boyfriend Brian Hartnell when they were attacked by a hooded man armed with a gun and a knife. Hartnell survived: Shephard did not. At the time, it was the first known attack by the infamous man who would become known as the Zodiac.

When Lyndia Kanes was found, she was nearly nude and wrapped in an American flag. She had been struck in the head, her body was bruised and she had apparently been strangled to death. Like the victims in Sacramento in 1970 she was listed in Robert Graysmith’s book Zodiac as a possible victim of the boastful killer.

Pacific Union College, adjacent to the dirt landing strips of Angwin Airport was located almost 75 miles from Sacramento. It takes almost two hours to drive between the two sites, but just minutes to fly the same distance.

Then on June 19, 1971 the deadly focus turned back to an area near the capital city. The body of the loving young mother, Betty Marie Cloer, was found in El Dorado County. Two days before the Summer Solstice, on a gravel road known as a lover’s lane, Cloer’s body was discovered by two young girls on horseback in the town of Cameron Park about 34 miles north of Sacramento.

Her battered body lay naked except for a pale blue bra. Other clothing was scattered in a triangular arrangement around the body. Approximately 15 yards from the body the victim’s scarf, blouse and wig were found. Near the roadway was a pair of orange/red pants and a brown plastic, simulated leather coat. Further down the road approximately 15 yards from the two paths off the road, authorities found a pair of lady’s panties, yellow in color. There was what appeared to be blood in the crotch area. The clothing contained no rips or tears and did not appear to be torn off.

Just like Carol Beth Hilburn and Judith Ann Hakari the face of Betty Marie Cloer had been crushed beyond recognition. She had been shot three times with a 32 caliber weapon and her face beat to a pulp by a heavy object. Her family was not allowed to see the body on the advice of the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department and she was identified by a scar on her thigh.

El Dorado County Sheriff Ernest Carlson said medical tests showed that Cloer had not been “sexually molested” and that there was no microscopic evidence of spermatozoa in the smears taken from her body.

Sheriff’s investigators in 1971 stated that they believed there was a “definite link” between the Hilburn and Cloer cases, theorizing that the same assailant may have committed both homicides. Both were young women, they had stopped at a bar in Sacramento on the night they were killed, the killings took place within six months of each other, their bodies were found nearly naked in brushy fields although there was no forensic evidence of a sexual assault, and the faces of both victims’ had been crushed beyond recognition.

This reporter and newsmakingnews.com has repeatedly tried to obtain the coroner and autopsy reports for Betty Cloer and have been denied. Newsmakingnews sued to receive copies of these pubic documents and the Third District Court of Appeal finally ruled in publisher Kate Dixon’s favor on December 3, 2007 (case No. C055595). As of the date of this article, El Dorado County’s Sheriff Jeff Neves has refused to release the public documents.

The Coroner’s Reports and the Autopsies in the Bennallack, Hakari and Hilburn cases were promptly obtained by this reporter through a normal written request. The details in this article are derived from information contained in these reports.

In 1975 the California Department of Justice stated that “over the past five years (1969-1974), there have been fourteen young women murdered in Northern California, and all of these murders appear to have been committed by the same person. Eight other women have mysteriously disappeared in the states of Oregon and Washington over the past year.” The report concluded that “the murders will probably continue until such time as the perpetrator is identified and apprehended.”

The vicious predator was recognized as a serial killer who used a variety of weapons, attacking often at various locations, with the sole goal of brutalizing the bodies. He remains free to this day. Also free and unidentified is the monster known as the Zodiac.

Robert Graysmith in his seminal book Zodiac wrote of the serial killer’s victims:

Few had been sexually molested…..All of the victims were killed away from where they were found. When the murderer dumped the bodies, he parked his car in the road and not on the shoulder, so that he would not leave tracks. The victims had been lifted and tossed over drainage ditches and fences and down hillsides, indicating he was an extremely strong man. The killer knew the area.

The students were tortured, stabbed, poisoned, strangled, drowned, smothered or broken. Since the bodies were being dumped in the same spots, layered, with months separating each dumping, the police were convinced that the same person was committing all or most of the killings. The truly horrifying part to me was that it seemed that someone was experimenting in different ways of killing people.

CI&I (State Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation), had 103 murder cases that had the above characteristics, including cases in Washington and Oregon. They were certain at the least fourteen of them involved the same man.

The preceding statements were obtained from a special report: “Unsolved Female Homicides, An Analysis of a Series of Related Murders in California and Western America” marked Confidential and printed February 1975 by the Department of Justice, according to Graysmith’s footnote on page 255 of the paperback edition of his book.

On pages 308 through 311 of the Zodiac. Graysmith lists all of the known Zodiac victims at the time of publication by McMartin’s Press in 1986.

Did the beautiful woman who came to Sacramento, California in the beginning of the year 1971 become the tragic victim of the Zodiac? Or was Betty Cloer murdered by Philip Arthur Thompson, the man who has been held in the El Dorado County Jail since October 2003? Perhaps the truth will be determined by a jury in a trial currently scheduled to begin at the end of February 2008.

by Virginia McCullough © 12/11/07

[Disclaimer: This reporter is a legal runner for the defendant for Philip Arthur Thompson to secure access to the trial. I had been advised that because of my previous coverage of the Richard Hamlin case in El Dorado, the prosecution would name me as a witness in the Betty Cloer murder case to deny me access to the courtroom during the trial. The El Dorado County Jail officials have denied me any communication with Philip Arthur Thompson by phone or mail effective October 8, 2007 and he is not allowed to communicate with me.]
 


[Note: Picture in the text above left of the Zodiac:  This is an artist's depiction of the Zodiac at time he stabbed Bryan Calvin Hartnell, 20, and Cecelia Ann Shepard, 22.  Stabbed on September 27, 1969, on what is today locally referred to as "Zodiac Island" at Lake Berryessa in Napa County, Hartnell survived six stab wounds to the back, but Shepard died of her injuries two days later.]