When Robin Graham's Dodge ran out of petrol on the Hollywood Freeway early on a Sunday morning, she'd been driving for less than minutes. Graham had been out partying all night with a group of college friends and had gotten a lift to her car, which was parked at her workplace.
Her car stalled near the Santa Monica Boulevard off-ramp. Steering to the side of the road, she was helped moments later by California Highway Patrol officers, who offered to call her a tow truck. Declining the offer, she instead walked to a nearby call box and phoned home.
The patrol car did a loop and stopped again as she returned to her vehicle. She informed the officers she had successfully called to be picked up and so they left her by the side of the road, reports news.com.au.
When the Highway Patrol officers drove past for the third time that night, about 2pm, they noticed Graham talking to a man, who they assumed to be the family member she mentioned calling. A light blue Corvette was parked nearby; the officers kept driving.
This was the last time Robin Graham was seen alive.
Graham's family arrived just shortly after 2.30pm to pick her up, only to find her Dodge locked and abandoned on the side of the road. There was no sign of her, no note.
At the time of her disappearance, in the early hours of November 15, 1970, Graham was an eighteen-year-old college freshman at Pierce College in Los Angeles. She was one of a number of young women to have disappeared in eerily similar circumstances within a few years in Northern California.
Just eighteen months earlier, Rose Tashman, a college student, had also broken down on the Hollywood Freeway, just a few kilometres from where Graham went missing. Her car was abandoned there and her naked, strangled body was found hours later, dumped in the Hollywood Hills. Earlier still, in November 1967, West Valley police had warned of an attacker who flagged down three separate women under the guise of car trouble, before assaulting them. The incidents seemed to be linked.
The CHP officers who spoke to Graham that night faced harsh criticism for the way they handled things, having ultimately left her stranded on the freeway in the early hours of the morning, and in the company of a strange man. The Los Angeles County Supervisor was vocal in his disapproval, but the officers were found to be following the outmoded policy regarding stranded drivers. After public uproar, the policy was swiftly changed, ensuring CHP officers remained with any females stranded on the state's roads late at night. Despite this extra precaution, young women continued to go missing in similar circumstances over the following years. All the disappearances involved vehicles.
After reading the Los Angeles Times coverage of Graham's disappearance, a woman came forward and claimed to have been stalled on the same freeway earlier that same night. A man driving a light blue Corvette had stopped and offered her a lift. She refused the offer, after which the man claimed to be an off-duty policeman. This was a breakthrough of sorts, as police reasoned this man's story may have been enough to trick Graham into going willingly with him, despite having already called her parents. This was a solid theory, but investigators were puzzled as to why she had left no note on her vehicle. She had also refused help from uniformed police minutes earlier. It appeared to be a dead end. But it was a compelling link.
The following month, this same woman was able to identify the man that stopped her as Bruce Davis, who had recently become known to police.
Davis had been a high-profile member of the Manson Family and, although he didn't participate in the August 1969 LaBianca-Tate murder, had turned himself into police just weeks after Graham went missing. He was ultimately convicted of two separate counts of murder, including the killing of ranch hand Donald "Shorty" Shea, the only murder Manson himself had a direct hand in.
Despite this horrific rap sheet, it was another link that police were interested in. Bruce Davis was strongly suspected of being the Zodiac Killer.
WAS THE ZODIAC KILLER RESPONSIBLE?
The Zodiac Killer stalked Northern California between 1968 and 1970, claiming to have killed 37 different victims during that span. He sent taunting letters to San Francisco Bay Area press taking credit for the murders, and hand-drew complicated ciphers, only one of which has ever been able to be decoded, despite their wide dissemination over the years.
When a 408-symbol message was decoded, its contents were found to read in part: "I like killing people because it is so much fun it is more fun than killing wild game in the forest because man is the most dangerous animal of all to kill." Despite claiming these as thrill kills, the message goes on to explain the string of murders as the act of collecting slaves for the afterlife. "The best part of it is that when I die I will be reborn in paradise," the cipher reads.
Despite claiming 37 murders, detectives can only definitely agree upon seven Zodiac victims, two of whom survived. Due to the Zodiac's infamy, and the unsolved nature of his crimes, various theories have emerged over the decades regarding which murder victims were killed by the Zodiac and who the actual killer was.
Bruce Davis was taken into custody on December 2, 1970, after which time no murders were definitively linked to the Zodiac Killer. He was sentenced to life in prison, and although he has kept a clean record since 1980, each of his five parole appeals have been denied by the governor. He turned 76 earlier this month, and has denied he is the Zodiac Killer.
A CURIOUS MESSAGE
In 1987, close to two decades after Robin Graham went missing, a message appeared in the Los Angeles Times classified section.
"DEAREST ROBIN," the message read. "You ran out of gas on the Hollywood Frwy. A man in a Corvette pulled over to help. You've not been seen of since. It's been 17 years, but it's always just yesterday. Still looking for you. THE ECHO PARK DUCKS."
The letter would have gone unnoticed if not for WKFI disc jockey Geoff Edwards, who read the cryptic message out on air, and wondered aloud what it meant. "It sounded so romantic," he opined. Soon letters and calls came into the station, making the link to the missing person case from 17 years prior. Some wondered if the letter was a clue and comparisons were made to the Zodiac's letters to the press.
Unfortunately, this wasn't a clue, but a simple tribute, from 36-year-old local Al Medrano. Medrano was surprised by the fuss his classified message had garnered, explaining to the Times that he was an old friend of Graham's. The Echo Park Ducks was the name of the group they ran around with.
"I just wanted to show she wasn't forgotten," he said.
A CHILLINGLY SIMILAR ATTACK
Eight months before Graham disappeared, Kathleen Johns was driving to San Francisco when the car behind her started flashing its headlights. When Johns pulled over, a man approached and told her that her back wheel was wobbling furiously. He offered to fix it for her, but loosened the tyre so that it completely fell off as she attempted to drive away. The man then backed up and offered her a lift to a nearby service station; given she was with her infant child, she accepted. As he silently drove past the station, she got nervous and questioned him. He stayed silent for a few minutes, then spoke. "Before I kill you, I'm going to throw your baby out the window," he said.
The man drove her around for 90 minutes, taunting her with similar comments such as "you know you're going to die". She ultimately managed to escape, hiding breathlessly in a field with her baby as he searched for her with a flashlight. He only left when a truck approached. Johns managed to wave down another vehicle, which took her to a nearby police station. Waiting to make her report, she glanced up and saw a sketch on the wall of the man that had spent the past hour terrorising her. It was a wanted poster for the Zodiac Killer.
HOW THE CASE WAS MUDDIED
It is impossible to tell how many young Northern Californians fell victim to the Zodiac Killer. Any case with a loose modus operandi involving victims in broken down vehicles was linked to the Zodiac, and the slew of amateur sleuths invested in the case has spread much misinformation over the years. What is certain about Graham's disappearance is that she fell victim to the good Samaritan ruse, in which a series of young women in the '60s and '70s were offered help or a lift by a passing motorists, only to wind up dead or vanishing without a trace. Whether or not these cases are linked remains a point of contention.
Forty-eight years have past since Robin Graham disappeared, and while she is certainly dead, her body has never been recovered. The description of the man spotted with her matches so many young men of the time — mid-twenties, dark hair, five-foot-eight, bell bottom pants, turtleneck — and media reports at the time were frustratingly inconsistent when relaying this information, further muddying the case.
There is one compelling clue though, which may yet prove useful. Much like other victims of the Zodiac, she disappeared on the night of a full moon.
Granted, it's not much to go on, but until Robin Graham's body is found, she will remain one of numerous young people who went out one night in California, and never made it home again.