Yet to be published memoir possibly IDs Zodiac killer: Says he killed Tahoe woman, hung remains in tree
Special to the Sierra Sun
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 be where Donna Lass’ remains were hung high up after she was murdered by the Zodiac killer more than 51 years ago. Lass, a nurse from Stateline, went missing in September 1970.
The Tahoe Daily Tribune obtained a bootleg copy of a yet to be published memoir called “Catching Zodiac” by Peabody Award-winning TV journalist Dale Julin that possibly unmasks the killer, deciphers previously unsolved encrypted puzzles and through those, found possible macabre treasure maps 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 cold case crime scene investigation team, The Case Breakers, has been performing its own investigation from information in the book and have named Poste as a 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, who they think 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 SHE IN THE TREE’
The Zodiac sent anagrams and taunting letters to law enforcement and newspapers which have spawned many amateurs and professionals throughout the years to try and solve the anagrams, and the mystery.
Julin, a TV news anchor from WJCL TV-22 in Savannah, Georgia, spent years pouring over anagrams. He’d spend time at his anchor’s desk before reporting the news, trying to solve the ciphers.
The whistleblower responsible for bringing the story to Julin, who is being protected and referred to as Wil, told him a story about being with Poste for a wedding in Tahoe, and that Poste made a crack about, “I’ve planted a she in a tree at Lake Tahoe that will grow forever!”
In Julin’s book, about seven years in the making, he said there were three possible cards the Zodiac sent to media, including the San Francisco Chronicle, that teased the press and police about Lass’ disappearance — the “13 Hole Punch Card,” the “Halloween Card,” and the “Peek Through the Pines” card.
His solutions to the cards, which he solved like they were anagrams, gave possible macabre “treasure maps” to Lass’ body.
Julin solved the card puzzles treating them as if they were like ciphers that were 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 the 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. Bucholtz is also a published author who holds master’s 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 Tahoe Daily Tribune used those anagram solutions in June 2020, and like Julin did with a few others and a compass in 2015, 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 Coast Guard agent who volunteered to help Julin search for the tree using his cipher solutions helped solve part of a puzzle by recognizing 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 tree on Forest Service land, just outside of the campground.
Julin describes in the book how Poste was a longtime house painter and that painters regularly use 40-foot ladders. He also at length described through others how during camping trips in the Sierra, Poste 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 detectives his story while sitting in their office and they agreed to visit the tree.
Julin located a local painter that allowed use of a ladder. He said that when it was leaned against the tree, it led to the exact spot.
A detective climbed the ladder 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 told the Tribune. A one-hour search with a cadaver dog took place on the day the Golden State Warriors won an NBA title in 2015. It came up empty.
But Julin wrote that there’s unfinished business, and that the search should have taken more time and been expanded to cover a greater area.
He suggested the owners of Zephyr Cove Resort could do “ghost” tours starting from the dock, across the highway to the RV campsite. From a particular site, the tree is visible over a small fence in a gully.
“Whatever it takes to get out the true story of Donna Lass’ demise,” Julin wrote.
“When he first reached out, naturally, I was skeptical, hundreds thought that they solved it,” Bucholtz said. “I got about half way through the book and 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 seven-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 gonna pay off for him and his work will be recognized.”
UNLOCKING THE MYSTERY
Gary Francis Poste died in 2018.
The Case Breakers believe that Poste’s 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 said on Wednesday.
Railsback said his department ruled out Bates was murdered by the Zodiac due to a several-year collaboration with a FBI genealogy team that determined a hand-written letter was written by a troubled teen. He also mentioned not wanting to use up what DNA they may or may not have left since they feel it’s not the Zodiac.
Case Breakers organizer Thomas Colbert said in a statement that it would take minutes to compare DNA and that he hopes the next chief has “a backbone.”
Tahoe Daily Tribune editor’s note: I was contacted by Julin more than a year ago, after he found out I had acquired a copy of his yet-to-be-published memoir. But I held off on publishing this story until the release of The Case Breakers press release Wednesday naming Poste as a Zodiac suspect, even though I had Julin on record by obtaining the book. Julin agreed to let me share his Zephyr Cove revelations, because he has been in touch with the family of Donna Lass for more than five years and said now more than ever, he wants them to have closure.
Bill Rozak is the editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of The Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.