My Father, the Zodiac, and Donald Trump Walk Into a Bar

It was important to me as a kid that evil people be smart. My father’s education and erudition made his awfulness seem more…purposeful, perhaps, more like a brilliant idea gone horribly wrong than an accident of testosterone. It’s somehow worse to be beaten by a thug than by a genius.

You take the comforts where you can.

Which is why Robert Graysmith’s book Zodiac was so important to me when I read it in the late 1980s: I needed to know that some of the people who hurt us are just too brilliant to stop, and there was nothing we could do.

I thought about that yesterday when I read the Zodiac killer’s 340-character message from more than fifty years ago, cracked by some brilliant sleuths. As expected, it’s a window into the mind of a troubled genius:

I HOPE YOU ARE HAVING LOTS OF FUN IN TRYING TO CATCH ME

THAT WASNT ME ON THE TV SHOW

WHICH BRINGS UP A POINT ABOUT ME

I AM NOT AFRAID OF THE GAS CHAMBER

BECAUSE IT WILL SEND ME TO PARADICE ALL THE SOONER

BECAUSE I NOW HAVE ENOUGH SLAVES TO WORK FOR ME

WHERE EVERYONE ELSE HAS NOTHING WHEN THEY REACH PARADICE

SO THEY ARE AFRAID OF DEATH

I AM NOT AFRAID BECAUSE I KNOW THAT MY NEW LIFE IS

LIFE WILL BE AN EASY ONE IN PARADICE DEATH

Or…maybe not so much.

What’s interesting about this message (other than it being almost certainly written by an acne-scarred edgelord beating off in his mother’s basement), is that it took half a century to decipher not so much because of its intricate execution or sophisticated message, but because the code was sloppy and the message a banal repetition of his letters to the press.

All this time, we’ve been applying diabolical logic to a man with the mind of a 13-year-old boy who assaulted the easiest targets he could manage and claimed credit for the ones he couldn’t.

(Which does not diminish the hard work of the codebreakers at all; the crack is an amazing achievement of patience and insight.)

Hannah Arendt wrote long ago about how disappointing the “master race” of Nazis proved to be once they finally stood in the dock for their crimes, and I found the same thing when I spoke to my father again after twenty years of silence. As I listened to his misapplied vocabulary and cliched insight, I realized that he was never smarter than any of the people he harmed…only more comfortable faking it.

For decades of my life, I’ve studied (and written about) terrible people, trying to find some malevolent intelligence: Lee Harvey Oswald. Gary Ridgeway. John Wayne Gacy. Joseph De Angelo. Dennis Rader. Ted Bundy. Charles Manson. Idi Amin. Jim Jones. The 9/11 hijackers. Osama bin Laden.

My father was nowhere near as bad as the Nazis or any of these other men, of course, but he was the earliest reason in my life to question what good people could do about bad ones. What do they have in common, aside from being males who feel entitled to harm others for their pleasure?

For a time, we applied the best intelligence we had to stopping them, and when that didn’t work, we thought it was because they were smarter than us.

But when we finally found them, they all turned out to be lucky idiots who flowed between the gaps of our assumptions. They were all mediocre people who found evil easier than even the smallest effort for good and who patched their inadequacies with shortcuts and con games and violence.

The reason we didn’t catch them right away wasn’t that it was hard to think up to their level…it’s that it was hard to think down to it, to take on the banal reasoning of desperate losers.

I’m not sure what that means for thwarting these horrible people while they’re at the height of their power, except perhaps that we should remember that every single one of them turned out to be lesser than us, not greater. Every single one.

I have no idea who the Zodiac is, though I suspect that someone like Arthur Leigh Allen is perhaps pathetic enough to be a likely culprit. What I do know is that when we discover his identity, he will be a staggering disappointment of a human being.

Such men cause great harm and havoc, but their times are always brief.

Sometimes only one term.

Uncle Dan Sure is Quiet around Thanksgiving

On November 24, 1971, a man calling himself Dan Cooper boarded a Northwest Orient flight from Portland International Airport to Seattle. Not long after take-off, he passed a note to a flight attendant claiming he had a bomb in his briefcase. He demanded $200,000, four parachutes, and a fuel truck standing by in Seattle.

He got them.

After releasing the passengers and refueling the plane, Cooper ordered the flight crew to take off again on a southeast course toward Mexico City. He had them fly low with the landing gear extended and the cabin unpressurized. The low speed and high drag burned through fuel more quickly than expected and so they altered course to refuel in Reno.

Long before they got there, though, an indicator light in the cockpit showed the aft stairs had been extended. A few minutes later, the tail of the plane jumped as though someone had taken his leave.

By most accounts, Cooper was a badass: he knew the terrain, he knew the equipment and tolerances for the 727 aircraft, he knew to have the interior lights darkened on landing to thwart police snipers. The trick with the air stairs had been used by military and CIA operatives during Vietnam. He was calm. He was friendly, paying for the bourbon and waters he ordered including a tip.

All they ever found were a torn placard from the 727’s rear exit in 1978 and three packets of the ransom cash buried under silt in the Columbia River in 1980. There was DNA on the tie but it hasn’t been matched to anyone. No one is sure if the money was deliberately buried or washed there.

Law enforcement likes to say that none of the ransom money has ever been spent, but when was the last time a clerk checked your twenty-dollar bill against the D.B. Cooper ransom cash serial number list? All Cooper would have to do was wait a year or two, go to some small town elsewhere in the country, deposit a few grand here and there in local banks and then write checks between them to accumulate it again.

Assuming that he made it, of course.

Of the parachutes Cooper did take, one was a training dummy — undeployable. It was accidentally included among the four. So it is possible that poor ol’ Cooper chose the wrong parachute, yanked on the cord, and came away with a plastic handle and ten inches of rope in his hands as he plummeted to the ground.

I like to imagine that Dan Cooper’s final word was, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuccccccckkkkkkkkkkkkk!”

Unless, that is, the torn safety placard was the last thing Cooper managed to grab before being sucked out of the plane instead of executing a jump at all. In that case, his final word was, “Shhhhiiiiiiiiitttttttt!” followed quickly by the thump of his body against the tail of the plane.

Is he dead or alive? What’s my theory?

There are really just two possibilities.

  • Cooper died during the jump or soon after. The weather was bad, the temperatures were brutal, and the terrain was unforgiving — towering trees and sharp rocks.
  • Cooper somehow survived insane winds and cold, landed in the scary wilderness with only manageable injury, and avoided law enforcement for the next fifty years by spending his money wisely. If this is true, it makes him THE GREATEST AMERICAN WHO EVER LIVED. The SEALS who bagged Bin Laden look like Boy Scouts compared to this mother fucker.

I know which one I prefer. I prefer to think of an elderly man, a grandfather or great-grandfather now, who quietly reads the paper as grandchildren frolic around him on Thanksgiving and occasionally slips one a twenty-dollar bill.

“Get yourself something nice, kiddo,” he says.

And when some blowhard at a party brags about his golf score or shows off his Porsche or declares himself a captain of industry, this old man nods politely and absolutely does NOT say, “I jumped out of a fucking 727 with two hundred grand strapped to my waist. Now I build birdhouses.”

Then he watches his episode of In Search Of again with a bourbon and water.