Gary Francis Poste, the Air Force veteran-turned-house painter who may or may not have been the notorious Zodiac Killer, has been revealed as the ringleader of a group of men he trained as “killing machines.”
A team of 40 private investigators claimed last month that they had unmasked Poste as the Zodiac Killer — who terrorized the Bay Area in the late 1960s with brutal murders accompanied by creepy riddles — through photos and anagram code-breaking. Now, they tell The Post that, after the murders, Poste led a bizarre double life in a small Sierra Nevada town.
The Zodiac mysteriously dropped out of sight in 1974, after a final letter to the media. The case is among the most famous unsolved murders in the US.
Poste moved to Groveland, Calif., in 1970, according to Thomas J. Colbert, who runs the Case Breakers team — consisting of former cops, forensic analysts, academics and retired military — and has been working the case for about 10 years. He came to the High Sierras town after marrying a woman there who had a young child.
The alleged killer fronted as a mild-mannered house painter and was well-liked by the locals, Colbert said. But he also began recruiting young men in their late teens and early 20s as his own personal criminal gang in the picturesque mountain town about 26 miles west of Yosemite.
Some 10 men were part of what locals called “The Posse” and they stayed loyal to Poste for decades, until he died in 2018. He would take them deep into the mountains where they learned to “hike and kill,” Colbert said.
“He taught them how to turn a pipe bomb into a bomb that would blow up houses,” Colbert said. “If new cops moved into town, he would have [the posse] throw rocks into their windows to get them to move out. He was involved in loaning guns out to suicidal people in town.”
According to Colbert, the men would go on hiking trips into the mountains to kill animals for fun.
“One time he had a kid climb out on a tree branch and hang caches of raw meat from it,” he said. “He also nailed salmon hooks below to catch bears trying to get to the meat. One time there were three bears bleeding to death from this tree trying to get the meat and Gary just watched them, laughing at them.”
He described Poste as a type of “Fagin” — the child-gang leader from “Oliver Twist” — who rounded up local “wayward boys.” Colbert added that there was no indication that Poste had a sexual interest or sexual relationships with the young men.
One posse member, whom Colbert identified only as “Wil,” fled Groveland in 2010 after seeing sketches of the Zodiac Killer and confronting Poste, he said.
Former Air Force Capt, Hans Smits, met “Wil,” whose real name is Chris Avery, when Avery went to a Santa Cruz TV station to report Poste. Smits was friends with a TV anchor, Dale Julin, at the station at the time.
Julin, now an anchor in Savannah, had researched the Zodiac case for years and after meeting Avery and learning Poste’s name, claimed to have cracked some of the cryptograms using the name. Julin also filed affidavits in court saying a Groveland man (Chris Avery) had told him that Poste had confessed to him that he was the Zodiac killer.
Tuolumne County Sheriff Bill Pooley told the Union Democrat last month that local law enforcement was aware of Poste but did not take the Case Breakers claim that he was the Zodiac Killer seriously.
Smits told The Post that he took Avery under his wing after the FBI interviewed him and didn’t pursue Avery’s claims. Smits said he took Avery out to dinner where Avery noticed “two bad dudes” from Groveland stalking him.
The next day, Smits said, he put Avery on a train to Whitefish, Mont. Avery, who could not be reached by The Post, has been on the lam in Montana for the past decade, according to Smits, who said he still keeps an eye on him.
Last month, a man believed to be Avery, spoke out in a Youtube video about Gary Poste,
“He just didn’t have a conscience,” Avery said. “He could just kill indiscriminately. He couldn’t stop after he came up here. He had to continue to kill even if it was small animals —just to make himself feel better. Of course he did end up killing other people.”
According to Smits, Avery had told him that he was with Poste at least one time when Poste ordered another posse member to shoot and kill a man at a mountain lake in the High Sierras. Smits said the victim was someone Poste knew and had a vendetta against. The Post was unable to independently verify the charge or find a second source to corroborate it.
Smits also said that, when Avery asked Poste, “Are you the Zodiac?” the man came at him with a five-pound hammer.
Smits said that Poste’s posse always called him only “The Old Man.” Another source told The Post that Poste was a good housepainter who painted Clint Eastwood’s mother’s home in the 1970s.
Colbert’s team believes Poste is the Zodiac because of his physical similarity to a 1969 police sketch of the killer, both featuring forehead scars, and anagrams sent to the San Francisco Chronicle that purportedly revealed Poste’s name.
The Zodiac Killer taunted authorities and newspapers with elaborate coded messages and cryptic notes. He randomly killed five people and severely wounded two others during his spree, which began in the Bay Area in the late ’60s, police have said.
But in letters and cryptograms sent to the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times at random times after the killings, the Zodiac boasted that he had committed more than 30 other murders. Amateur sleuths have tried for decades to decipher the cryptograms, or ciphers. Of the four ciphers produced, two remain unsolved, and one took 51 years to crack.
Last week, Colbert got a tip from his Groveland sources about what he believes is a trove of crucial evidence showing that Poste was the Zodiac Killer.
According to the investigator, a few years before his death, Poste began quietly giving away his weapon, pistol parts, gunpowder, bullets and shell casings — more than a thousand, involving 25 different calibers — to “favorite locals.”
Colbert said the “evidentiary goldmine” is now being examined by three forensic labs. He believes that modern techniques, like identifying fingerprints on shell casings, may match official police evidence and convince skeptical detectives that Poste is their man.
FBI officials in San Francisco say they’re still investigating the Zodiac Killer, who has been linked to five “seemingly random brutal murders” in 1968 and 1969 in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“The FBI’s investigation into the Zodiac Killer remains open and unsolved,” the FBI said in a statement to The Post. “Due to the ongoing nature of the investigation, and out of respect for the victims and their families, we will not be providing further comment at this time.”
Whether or not he turns out to be the Zodiac Killer, Poste may have come by his strange life as a result of a drunk-driving accident at age 20. He was working at an Air Force radar station near Rockville, Ill., when he was a passenger in a Jeep that slammed into a railroad tunnel wall, killing the driver, according to the Evansville Courier & Press.
Both young airmen were drunk, Colbert said. Poste was scarred on his forehead and had to have teeth pulled because of his injuries.
Not long after the accident, Poste was shipped out to a radar station in Greenland, one of the “loneliest and most isolated” bases in the world, Colbert said.
“That’s where we believe he lost it,” the investigator added. “He came back to the US a different person.”
Poste’s last years were also tumultuous. In 2016, he shoved his wife, 74, down the stairs of their home before being jailed for the attack.
He was later found mentally incompetent to stand trial and was placed in a state hospital before apparently being placed under a mental health conservatorship, the Sun reported.
The suspected killer died in 2018 from sepsis, dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) and vascular dementia. According to TMZ, his remains were scattered in the Sierra Mountains.
“A lot of people up in that little town still think he was a nice house painter,” Colbert said. “They are wrong.”