The attack took place more than 37 years ago, but Ken Narlow's memories of the Zodiac killer remain vivid. Those memories are now part of a movie about the unsolved murders.
Narlow retired from the Napa County Sheriff's Department in August 1987. One case would not retire when Narlow turned in his badge and gun. Sept. 27, 1969, was the day he started his search for the Zodiac killer.
The saga of the man who killed and then wrote letters to the San Francisco Chronicle and taunted law enforcement with his horrific actions and clues to his identity for years has been made into a movie. "Zodiac" will be released on March 2.
Narlow, who put in years of detective work trying to solve the murders of an Angwin woman and the attempted murder of her boyfriend, was hired as a consultant by Phoenix Picture production, backed by Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures during the filming of "Zodiac."
The Zodiac, who mocked police with cryptic messages about his crimes, is the suspect in the murders of David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen who were shot to death on Dec. 20, 1968, on Lake Herman Road in Solano County; the July 4, 1969, fatal shooting of Darlene Ferrin and attempted murder of Mike Mageau at the Blue Rock Springs golf course parking lot in Vallejo and the Oct. 11, 1969, shooting death of San Francisco taxi driver Paul Stine.
The killer's rampage spread into Napa County in 1969. Pacific Union College students Cecelia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell, both 20, were enjoying a picnic at Lake Berryessa when they were accosted, hog-tied and repeatedly stabbed by the Zodiac killer, who was dressed in black and wearing an executioner-type hood.
Shepard died two days later. Hartnell survived and is now an attorney in Southern California.
The Zodiac was never caught.
The movie does not center on the murders, Narlow said. "It is based on Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith's book "Zodiac," the Chronicle's crime reporter Paul Avery, San Francisco Police homicide inspector Dave Toschi and his partner inspector William Armstrong.
The movie is directed by David Fincher, who also directed "Seven" and "Flight Club."
Graysmith is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Avery by Robert Downey Jr., Toschi by Mark Ruffalo and Armstrong by Anthony Edwards.
Narlow, who is played by actor Donal Logue — star of Knights of Prosperity — also is featured in the movie.
"The movie is about the obsession the Chronicle guys and the two San Francisco inspectors had in trying to solve the case," Narlow said. "It took over their lives. The Zodiac would kill and then send these letters in code to the Chronicle and law enforcement challenging them to find him. The movie is about the pursuit of the suspect, not focusing on the Zodiac killings."
In addition to Narlow, retired Napa County Sheriff's Deputy Dave Collins, who was the first deputy on scene at the Lake Berryessa killing, was also hired by Phoenix Pictures as a consultant. He doesn't have a character in the movie.
During the filming of the picture, Narlow said he and Collins got the royal treatment.
In October, the motion picture studio sent a limo to pick up Narlow and his wife at their Napa home. They flew to Culver City so Narlow could make a documentary to accompany the movie.
"We all went to dinner. That was the first time I'd seen Bryan Hartnell since the Lake Berryessa stabbings. We got to meet his whole family," Narlow said.
"The family was so excited about meeting Ken. They said they had heard about him their whole lives and now they finally got to meet him," Marie Narlow said.
After dinner the group screened the movie. "It was three hours long. They are going to cut some of it. I hope it isn't Ken's part," Marie said.
"Fincher wanted me to critique the movie. … I was thrilled he wanted my opinion," Ken Narlow said. "They treated us just great — the red carpet treatment."
Narlow is pleased with the movie's accuracy.
"I believe the movie is very authentic. They relied heavily on the police reports," Narlow said.
Recreating the scene
One of the most expensive sets to recreate for the movie was the Lake Berryessa site.
The 1969 attack on Shepard and Hartnell happened on a small peninsula that jutted into the lake. The Zodiac killer stalked the couple before attacking them. The oak trees he hid behind are long gone, Narlow said.
"I took them to the Berryessa stabbing scene. They recreated the scene to look just like it did that day almost 30 years ago. They had three helicopters bring in two huge oaks trees — about 16 inches in diameter. They drilled holes in the ground and hauled in water so the trees would last during the filming," Narlow said.
The trees were 45 feet tall and weighed about 13,000 pounds. The movie crew also replanted 1,600 clumps of grass to match the original scenery.
Narlow said the producer and director consulted with him and "recreated my office as it was in 1969 for the movie. They also had me send my uniform so they could reproduce it for the movie," he said.
Narlow said he was OK with the actor (Logue) who played him in the movie. "I am too old now to play the part. But I think the actor who played me is heavier than I was at that time," he said.
Narlow and Collins and retired Vallejo police detective George Bawart were also given the special treatment this month when they took part in a media "junket" in Los Angeles to promote the movie.
"The studio reserved the whole 11th floor of the W Hotel in Beverly Hills for the event. They took care of the meals. We were available to media representatives from all over the world. Our suites had posters of the crime scenes and the media was brought into the room in groups and we explained our part in the investigation," Collins said.
Narlow and the other retired peace officers who consulted on the movie will be treated to the celebrity glitz again on March 1, when they will fly to Los Angeles for the exclusive preview of "Zodiac."
"I've been invited to the preview. I can hardly wait," Marie Narlow said.
So who is the
Narlow admits the events of Sept. 27, 1969, changed his life.
"I met the ambulance at the Queen (of the Valley Hospital). It was just heart wrenching to see what happened to those kids," he said. "I put my heart and soul into finding the Zodiac. When I retired, I left all my notes and interviews with the department. It belonged to them. I left the case there, but it seemed to follow me."
Narlow said even after three decades he still gets e-mails and other correspondence from people who say they either know who the Zodiac is or have information that could lead to his identification.
"I have a binder of about 100 pages a woman sent me that she said will prove her father is the Zodiac. It's fascinating reading, but all speculation. There is no evidence," he said.
Although the Zodiac killer was never arrested, law enforcement has zeroed in on a couple of suspects. Vallejo detectives said years ago they believed the Zodiac was Arthur Leigh Allen, a Vallejo resident who died in 1992.
"We don't believe that Allen is the Zodiac. There is not enough evidence to prove that. The sheriff's department considers the case to still be open," said Collins.
As for Narlow, he's not sure if the Zodiac killer is alive.
"As time goes by, I have my doubts that the Zodiac is still alive. But I still think the case can be solved. That will happened only when some citizen remembers something and comes forth. I really wanted to solve that case before I retired. I will never give up hope," he said.