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Tracy incident possibly tied to Zodiac case

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In the last couple of weeks, news of the possible identity of Northern California’s Zodiac Killer of the late 1960s has resurfaced.

A group of volunteer investigators of murder cases known as the Case Breakers had identified Gary Francis Poste as the mass murderer who is believed to have killed five persons in 1968-69, although Zodiac claimed to have murdered 37. It was also reported that he had died in 2018.

So what do all of these reports and accompanying gobs of conjecture have to do with the ol’ dusty tank town in the Valley?

Well, it brings back memories of what could have been the episode in which one person successfully escaped the Zodiac Killer’s grasp in 1970. And that took place at the corner of Highway 132 and Bird Road six miles south of Tracy. Alas, the local connection.

The person who escaped was identified as Kathleen Johns, then a 23-year-old woman driving, with her infant daughter, from San Bernardino to Petaluma on the evening of March 22, 1970.

When she reached Modesto on Highway 99, she turned west onto State Highway 132, heading west toward Vernalis.

When she reached Bird Road, she was hailed by a man in another car who signaled her to pull over and stop. She did, and he told her one of her car’s wheels was wobbling. He offered to take her to a service station, but instead proceeded to drive her and her daughter through rural roads south of Tracy for an hour and a half. When the man stopped his car at a stop sign, Johns jumped out of the car and carried her infant into nearby fields, where she hid.

The man eventually drove off, and Johns hailed down a passing motorist, who took her to the Patterson Police Station.

While she was being interrogated by a Stanislaus County Sheriff’s deputy, she looked up at a wanted poster on the wall with a composite sketch of the Zodiac Killer. She immediately yelled, “That’s him.” That instantly connected her to the Zodiac Killer case.

Johns’ burned-out car was found along side Highway 132. The man had apparently returned and torched it.

Johns made her way to Petaluma without further incident to visit her mother.

Four months later, on July 24, 1970, this hand-lettered note was mailed to the SF Chronicle.

Whether the note was actually from the Zodiac Killer was never confirmed, but it ended any involvement Jones had with the case.

It was a strange and scary episode that transpired 51 years ago close to home, especially for folks living in the Vernalis area. Now, with interest in the Zodiac Killer case re-ignited in television and newspaper coverage, who knows what else will come to light?

Editor’s note: Some of the details of the Kathleen Johns episode came from “The Zodiac Manson Connection,” a soft-cover book authored by Howard Davis.

Ray Fosse’s Tracy ties

The death of Ray Fosse, 74, announced Wednesday, saddened a host of Oakland A’s fans who had heard and watched the two-time World Series Champion catcher broadcast A’s games over many years.

His death also struck home to a number of Tracyites. His wife of 51 years, Carol, is a Tracy native and one of three daughters of John and Bernice Mancuso — Carol Fosse, Renee Reece and the late Sharon Rinauro.

In addition to relatives, Ray had a number of Tracy friends, not least of whom was Tony Traina, who provided baskets of cherries to the Coliseum broadcasting booth during cherry season and was always more than willing to provide his World War II-era Jeep for special events at the Oakland ballpark.

I had a chance to talk to Ray on several occasions, and I specifically remember one time when we were seated in the Tracy Inn Coffee Shop, where Ray was saying how much he admired and respected his father-in-law, Tracy farmer and agriculture leader John Mancuso.

• Sam Matthews, publisher emeritus of the Tracy Press, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at shm@tracypress.com.

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