Late last year, Fayçal Ziraoui, a French-Moroccan business consultant, was at his home in the Paris suburbs scrolling through satellite pictures of the Sierra Nevada when he came across an image that startled him.
It was a collection of rocks arrayed in a way that resembled the cross hairs of a giant gun sight — a circle with a cross through it — surrounded by a larger circle. It looked to him like the symbol that the Zodiac killer used on his correspondence a half-century ago.
One of my colleagues in The New York Times’s Paris bureau, Constant Méheut, wrote about Ziraoui two years ago and his interest in the case of the Zodiac, the spree of murders that terrified the Bay Area. In December, Ziraoui searched satellite images of the Sierra after believing that a postcard and a cipher sent by the Zodiac killer pointed to those coordinates.
Ziraoui spent the winter counting down the days until the snow melted, and in mid-May, he flew to San Francisco. I traveled with him to the site west of Lake Tahoe. It’s a four-hour drive from the Bay Area, the last dozen miles on rough dirt roads blocked at times by the remnants of collapsed trees killed in the 2014 King fire.
We reached the site by driving up a rock-strewn stretch of road that you might see in a commercial for four-wheel-drive vehicles, a steep grade to the top of an unnamed small plateau, elevation 6,000 feet, overlooking the Hell Hole reservoir. Despite the name, it’s an idyllic spot with patches of light purple and yellow wildflowers and a view of the snowy peaks that surround Tahoe.
The outer circle of the rock formation is about 25 feet wide, and some of the stones are big enough that it looks as if a few people would be needed to move them. Inside the inner circle were various objects: a small-caliber bullet, some shattered eyeglasses, three pieces of obsidian and a poker chip. Outside the circle a trail of rocks pointed north.
After visiting the site, Ziraoui spent days trying to understand who might be behind the rock formation and whether it had any connection to the Zodiac killer. He showed pictures of the site to an archaeologist at the local U.S. Forest Service office, who said he had never seen the place and was not aware of anything else like that in the area. He researched medicine wheels — round symbols used by many native tribes — and contacted the United Auburn Indian Community, a group of Miwok and Maidu tribal members in the area. A spokesman for the United Auburn preservation department said the tribal group had no knowledge of the site and declined to look at photos of it.
Maybe hikers had put the rocks together? Or was it lovers? Inside the circle was a smooth rock with a professional-looking engraving: “Cal & Margaret Together Forever.”
The search for the Zodiac killer has spawned a cottage industry of sleuths, each with their own notions of how to crack the Zodiac codes and their own theories on the identity of the killer. With each new “revelation,” a strong dose of skepticism seems warranted.
For Ziraoui, researching the Zodiac killer started as a bored-at-home hobby during the pandemic. When he spoke with The Times two years ago, Ziraoui had concluded through his examination of one of the Zodiac killer’s ciphers known as Z13 that the Zodiac was Lawrence Kaye, a South Lake Tahoe resident who had been a suspect in the case. And in trying to decrypt another one of the ciphers, known as Z32, Ziraoui had come up with coordinates that led him to a school in South Lake Tahoe.
Last year, however, Ziraoui tweaked his calculations, using a different calculation for magnetic north, and his new coordinates pointed to the Hell Hole reservoir. He got the same general result when he tried to interpret another coded message believed to have been sent by the Zodiac killer, in a postcard sent to The San Francisco Chronicle in 1971.
Some Zodiac sleuths have connected that postcard to the disappearance of Donna Lass, a nurse who worked at a Lake Tahoe casino. She went missing in 1970 and may or may not have been a victim of the Zodiac killer. Needless to say, Ziraoui was intrigued to find the poker chip at the Hell Hole rock formation, though it was not from a particular gambling hall.
Soon after Ziraoui returned to the Bay Area, he trekked to the F.B.I. office in San Francisco. He handed over his calculations and the coordinates of the Hell Hole site.
Ziraoui says he realizes his decrypting efforts are just one of many.
“You always have to keep a cool head with this stuff,” he said. “It’s not up to me to say that this is the final word.”
Thomas Fuller is the San Francisco bureau chief for The New York Times.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Allie Weill, who lives in Sacramento:
“One of my favorite places to visit has become Lake Natoma, about 25 minutes east of downtown Sacramento. It’s not the most picturesque or peaceful lake in California — though there’s abundant wildlife and mist on the water in the mornings, sunsets in shades of pink and views of the Sierra from just the right spot — but it is perhaps the best place to see all kinds of people delighting at spending a sunny day on the water in all kinds of ways.
There are serious kayakers and rowers gliding past in long, sleek boats. There are college kids sunbathing on paddle boards, five or six rafted together. Families venturing out in plastic rental kayaks, with a toddler between the parents, or a kindergartner learning to use a paddle for the first time. Adults paddling for the first time, too! Once, I saw a guy who had brought his pet bird out on his tiny sailboat, like a would-be pirate.
The Sac State Aquatic Center offers rentals and classes, and several state park launch areas surround the lake, making it easier than many places to get out on the water, and there are no fast-moving motorboats, making it a great place for beginner paddlers and experts alike. I love to visit for a quiet morning paddle to look for herons, bald eagles and the occasional otter, but I might like it even more when I paddle amid the joyous noise of the busy afternoons.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
What are the best things that have happened to you so far in 2023? What have been your wins? Or your unexpected joys, big or small?
Tell me at [email protected]. Please include your full name and the city where you live.
And before you go, some good news
Shaina Shealy and Benjamin Glickstein connected on the dating app OkCupid in October 2019. She was living in Oakland, he in Berkeley.
They began dating, but Shealy was also dating two other men — both also named Ben.
Two months later, when Shealy was looking for a last-minute date to a work holiday party, she thought about which Ben would be least offended by an 11th-hour invitation and settled on Glickstein. He carried her lipstick and phone all night.
Shealy and Glickstein eventually decided to date exclusively, and they got married last month.
Read more of their love story in The Times.
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back tomorrow.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Soumya Karlamangla and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].
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