By Bill Rozak, Tahoe Daily Tribune; 10/8/21; Brozak@tahoedailytribune.com
A pine tree stands tall next to a grove of aspen. It’s a few feet outside a popular Tahoe campground and steps away from the lake.
It may also be where local woman Donna Lass’ remains were hung high up after she was murdered by the Zodiac, more than 50 years ago. Lass, a nurse from Stateline and a former San Francisco resident, went missing in September, 1970.
The Tribune obtained a bootleg copy of a yet-to-be published memoir called “Catching Zodiac,” by Peabody Award-winning TV journalist Dale Julin. The book allegedly unmasks the killer, deciphers previously unsolved encrypted puzzles, and — through possible macabre treasure maps — reveals the location to Lass’ remains in Zephyr Cove.
In his memoir, Julin names the deceased Gary Francis Poste, who lived in a small community in northern California, as the Zodiac.
A 40-member volunteer cold case team, known as The Case Breakers, has been performing their own year-long investigation, based on information in the book. They have also concluded Poste was the suspect.
The Case Breakers said in a press release Wednesday that they believe hairs found in the Cheri Jo Bates murder, more than 55 years ago in Riverside, could belong to the recently-deceased Poste. The sleuths suspect he shot, stabbed or choked to death as many as 10 people between 1962 and 1970 – including Lass, who went missing on or around Sept. 6, 1970.
The Zodiac sent anagrams and taunting letters to law enforcement and newspapers, which has spawned many amateurs and professionals throughout the years to try and solve the mystery.
Julin (left), a TV news anchor from WJCL TV-22 in Savannah, Georgia, spent hours, days and years studying the puzzling ciphers, in between his anchor duties.
The whistleblower responsible for bringing the story to Julin is being protected and referred to only as Wil.
Seven years in the making, Julin’s book features three cards that the Zodiac sent to the media, teasing the press and police about Lass’ Tahoe disappearance: the “13 Hole Punch Card”, the “Halloween Card” and the “Peek Through the Pines” card.
His anagram solutions to the cards gave possible macabre “treasure maps” to Lass’ body. Julin solved them as if they were like the ciphers, sent completely in code.
His solution to the Halloween card sent Oct. 27, 1970: “Bye Bye Birdie! Time for me to fly!
A-OK (upside down N) Nurse Donna Lass’ body is Y-14-Y up in a tree in a hollow log Ponderosa Pine tree.
E by night you’ll see her now approaching Lunar Sunrise in Scorpius blue loch up gully view.
Y by CB MNZ 85 (degrees) SE of Zephyr Cove, 4 mi E of Stateline on the Hoot-n-Tootin MS Dixie ship. OOD take the helm. Eye eye Capt. Gary Francis Poste. CC:Frank Borman”
His solution to the pines card sent March 22, 1971: “Gonna drive me to drinkin.”
Rev up the 12 cc’=4 hp Model A out to USFS acres to see Sis Donna Lass in a tree with a cache X mark.
Cruise to her historic Lincoln address.
At a beach. Face up the hill. Go fish!
Z is Sir Gary Francis Poste.”
His solution to 13-hole punch card sent Oct. 5, 1970: “Let it snow… let it snow… let it snow”
Nurse Donna Lass’ out of joint icee body is 13 yards high up in a bear cache mark big pine tree
go magnetic north to compass bearing 85 degrees south east 1970 implicit feet from the MS Dixie Port at Zephyr Cove
to historic Lincoln center,
Collect telephone trunk call,
Who? Gary Francis Poste.”
“I was amazed by Dale’s tenacity and perseverance,” said Jen Bucholtz, a member of the Case Breakers and a former Army counterintelligence agent who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. She is also a published author that holds Master degrees in both criminal justice and forensic sciences.
She helped connect Julin with The Case Breakers. “I never thought the letters could be anagrams, kudos to him. I think he solved the case. I’ve read some other accounts and they don’t nearly make as much sense. Him solving the anagrams is what solidified it in my mind. It led him to what I consider an evidence site. That was a huge part of the manuscript.”
The Tribune used those anagram solutions in June 2020, and like Julin did with a few others and a compass in 2015, the paper went right to the tree near Zephyr Cove RV Park and Campground — across U.S. Highway 50, the Lincoln Highway, from where the M.S. Dixie II docks.
A U.S. Coast Guard agent volunteered to help Julin search for the tree, and his cipher solutions helped solve part of a puzzle: he recognized a wind barb on the card. In the book, Julin quotes him as saying, “From where we are standing, from right here at the end of the dock next to the ship (M.S. Dixie II), the wind barb symbol found on the Halloween Card points directly down the dock. It indicates the prevailing-wind direction here. The wind blows down the dock to shore. Southeast.”
Like Julin, the Tribune started walking from the dock, went across the street and into the campground. Due to the amount of activity in the RV park and vegetation growth outside the fence line surrounding the campground, a direct route was impossible.
But after a few tweaks in trying to stay on course, within minutes, we were at the base of the targeted tree on Forest Service land — just outside of the campground.
Julin describes in the book how Poste was a longtime housepainter, and that painters regularly use 40-foot ladders. Poste would also tell others that, during camping trips in the High Sierra, he would hang bear caches in trees.
About 40 feet up, there was equipment connected to the tree, including a pair of metal wires hanging down close to the ground.
Julin said, “There was a hole in the spot where the tree trunk’s two main branches split apart, then grew back together. And in that hole was either a metal bar or a metallic-looking piece of cut lumber. There was a glass insulator right next to it. The kind used on old telephone poles. Two metal wires hung down from the insulator, each about 15 feet long. There was a metal cinch that could have been used as a makeshift painter’s pulley. Run a line through it. Haul things up.”
After finding the pine tree using the wind barb, visual clues and compass bearing, Julin’s group held hands at its base and said a prayer for Lass.
Although he located a suspect tree, Julin did not find Lass’ remains.
Julin called 911 after finding the tree, and deputies from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office responded. Julin said they looked skeptical, and told him that he needed to speak with detectives, and that wasn’t possible for a couple of days.
A few days later, Julin told the investigators his story while sitting in their office, and they agreed to visit the tree.
Julin found a local painter who allowed him to use a ladder. A detective climbed up, but Julin said the detective thought “it was just another tree in the forest,” and there was no “X” or “Z” that marked the spot.
The detectives agreed to send out a cadaver dog to search for possible remains, which Douglas Sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Elges recently confirmed to The Tribune. About a one-hour search with a cadaver dog took place, on the day the Golden State Warriors won an NBA title in 2015. But the search came up empty.
Julin wrote that there’s unfinished business, and the search should have taken more time and been expanded to cover a greater area. “Whatever it takes to get out the true story of Donna Lass’s demise,” Julin wrote.
“When he first reached out, naturally I was skeptical, hundreds thought that they have solved [Zodiac],” Bucholtz said. “I got about halfway through the book and it was like, oh my gosh, this all makes sense. And at the end I felt this had to be the guy.”
Julin reached out to Bucholtz when he was looking for a way to push his theory forward and she, in turn, helped connect him with the Case Breakers.
“Something I immediately loved and respected is that Dale took a chance on somebody else bringing him this information,” Bucholtz said. “He took a chance, gathered the information and went down this path, this 7-year journey, and I just have so much respect for that. Who takes this on, as a second unpaid, full-time job, and never gives up? It’s going pay off for him and his work will be recognized.”
A DNA match could unlock the Zodiac mystery
Poste died in 2018. The Case Breakers believe his DNA from the Riverside murder would be a match, if they got to perform a test. But the Riverside Police Department has not made that DNA available.
“Without saying how we came to this, we have ruled out that Cheri Jo Bates was murdered by the Zodiac,” Riverside Police Spokesman Ryan Railsback told the Tribune on Wednesday.
The Case Breakers organizer Thomas J. Colbert said in a statement that it would take minutes to compare DNA, and that he hopes the next chief has “a backbone.” ##
FYI from TJC: In 2016, the jailed Poste was sent several letters by newsman Dale Julin which stated he had cracked the 79-year-old convict’s coded Zodiac anagrams. When the prisoner opened the 1st envelope, a cellmate watched Poste’s response – documented in a court affidavit:
Two prisoners later gave sworn testimony that Poste confessed to being the serial killer, giving up names and details involving three alleged Northern California murders.