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thedrifter
03-01-07, 09:05 AM
Zodiac suspect is innocent, diving buddy insists again
'He couldn't kill a chipmunk, let alone a person,' Vallejo man says
By Matthias Gafni, MEDIANEWS STAFF
Article Last Updated: 03/01/2007 02:56:52 AM PST

VALLEJO — The best friend of the Vallejo man long suspected of being the Zodiac said last week he's fed up with those who have fingered his former diving buddy as the infamous serial killer.

Glenn Rinehart told MediaNews he's frustrated with media, police and book authors who have singled out Arthur Leigh Allen as the Zodiac, whose killing spree and chilling letters haunted the Bay Area in the late 1960s.

And Friday, the unsolved case hits the big screen in an $85 million Paramount Pictures film that also pins the slayings on Allen.

Count Rinehart as one person not attending "Zodiac."

"I'm not going to read anymore about the Zodiac, because I'm so ****ed about it," the 70-year-old semi-retired substitute teacher said from his Pacific Northwest home.

"My honest feeling is that the newspapers and police killed Leigh Allen. You can't believe the emotional strain he went through," said Rinehart, who called Allen by his middle name.

"Nobody in my family believed he did it. We would trust him with anything and everybody. And we were never let down by him," he said.

While much of Allen's life has been documented in time lines, police reports and court documents and featured in books and online Web sites about the Zodiac, Rinehart offers an intimate view of the man he considered a "big brother." He also offers one of the only remaining voices defending Allen.

Rinehart said he has never spoken publicly about their relationship, and only once was interviewed by two retired Vallejo detectives between 1985 and 1995, he said.

"I was his best friend," Rinehart said. "I can tell you for a fact that he couldn't kill a chipmunk, let alone a person."

Always the eccentric, Allen actually kept wild chipmunks as pets, Rinehart said. A detail that is played up in the new movie.

Allen even had a great big chipmunk, Big Mamu, that he would take with him to the grocery store, Rinehart said.

"He was a sweetheart with animals. I've never seen animals take to a person like they took to Leigh," Rinehart said.

He remembered one time at Allen's mother's Vallejo home when a pigeon tapped on the kitchen window. Allen opened the window, placed a peanut in his mouth and the pigeon plucked it from his lips, Rinehart said.

Rinehart first met Allen when Rinehart's sister attended grammar school with him. A young Rinehart messed with one of Allen's textbooks.

"I colored in one of his books and he held a grudge," laughed Rinehart.

By high school, the two became inseparable, said Rinehart, three years younger than Allen.

The two were on the Vallejo High School and Vallejo Junior College diving teams together. Rinehart calls Allen his "diving mentor."

Both outdoorsmen, Allen and his best friend would constantly camp and hike around the area.

"We'd go to Blue Rock Springs and hike a lot, bring a snake home or something," Rinehart said. Blue Rock Springs was the site of one of the Zodiac's confirmed killings, when the killer shot Darlene Ferrin, 22, to death on July 4, 1969.

The pair left Vallejo after junior college, but didn't lose touch. Allen left to dive for Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, while Rinehart attended Cal State Los Angeles, as a member of the football and diving teams.

"I was never not in contact with him for a long period of time," Rinehart said.

In 1957, Allen enlisted in the Navy, and Rinehart the Marines.

In the military testing, Allen scored a 135 on his IQ test, five points below genius.

During the highly publicized Zodiac killings, three of which occurred in Vallejo, the pair rarely spoke about the crimes.

"He and I read about the Zodiac things when they were happening, so we must have talked about it, but I don't remember," Rinehart said.

Rinehart said he believes Allen first became a suspect after the killings in 1968 and 1969, while living alone, with his chipmunks, in a Santa Rosa mobile home.

"The first time I heard Leigh talk about being a suspect was in Santa Rosa," Rinehart said.

Rinehart said he believes police first picked up Allen's scent after a trailer park neighbor, whom Allen had confronted about beating a dog, phoned police about his eccentric neighbor.

That was the start of police harassment that would continue until his death, Rinehart said.

Numerous times, Rinehart said, police would walk into Allen's work, handcuff him and take him off for questioning, including during his stint at the former ACE Hardware store on Tennessee Street.

When suspicions toward Allen grew, investigators would enter his Vallejo house, where he lived in his mother's basement, "and take everything they wanted," Rinehart said.

"You look at some of the stuff and he was kind of a weird guy," said Rinehart, mentioning Allen's collection of Yan Can Cook videos and Perry Mason re-runs, among other odd items.

"He was a collector and ecologist. He recycled everything, when no one recycled — He was a little ahead of his time," his best friend said.

Allen also grew his own vegetables in his back yard and could take apart a car engine in a half-hour flat, Rinehart said.

In regards to the Zodiac watch Allen's mother gave him and that police refer to in documents, Rinehart said Allen kept weird items.

"It had a little design on there. I guess someone might say it was the Zodiac sign," Rinehart said. "He never, ever called it a Zodiac watch."

In response to other circumstantial evidence long used to point to Allen as the killer, Rinehart offered explanations.

"He was really left-handed. There's no way he could write some of the stuff the Zodiac wrote," Rinehart said.

He added that the composite sketches of Allen were "no comparison" either, saying Allen never wore glasses.

Rinehart said he couldn't remember any specific discussions with Allen surrounding his child molestation arrest in 1974 and the two years spent in Atascadero State Hospital.

Even though authorities were "hassling" Allen, Rinehart said his long-time Vallejo neighbors on sleepy Fresno Street cut him some slack.

"I can't remember his neighbors being anything but kind to him," Rinehart said.

Meanwhile, Rinehart said he felt like investigators were searching for a ghost.

"I felt like the Zodiac died. He was so into publicity, if he was alive he'd keep his name in the paper," Rinehart said.

Rinehart and his best friend stayed close even as Allen's health began to fade, as diabetes gave him foot sores and cataracts.

"That takes a toll on a person," he said.

Rinehart would occasionally take Allen to Kaiser Vallejo to get dialysis treatment.

In 1991, Allen began conducting interviews with the media.

"He was trying everything he could to absolve himself," Rinehart said. "He did the best to tell his side of the story."

By 1992, Rinehart was living in Martinez. In August, he traveled to Texas to visit family, when he received a message from Allen hoping to meet up when he returned, Rinehart said.

Later that trip, Rinehart received a call from his sister saying Allen had died.

"I was devastated — He was just a young guy," Rinehart said.

A girl who had looked after the ailing Allen found him, Rinehart said.

"It looked like he started to leave the door to the garage. It looked to her like he had a massive heart attack. I think he must have been dead on the way down, because his arms didn't even try to brace his fall. She found him face down dead," Rinehart said.

Allen had died from a heart attack at age 58.

Rinehart said the family quietly buried Allen.

"I don't even know where he's buried," he said.

Rinehart was willed Allen's Karmann Ghia convertible, but never received it, he said.

The only surviving family Rinehart recalls was a younger brother named Ronnie.

In 2002, San Francisco police tested a Zodiac letter, and found partial DNA under a stamp that did not match Allen's. Also, a palm print on that envelope and finger print in a blood stain at the scene of a crime did not match Allen. The new evidence led one San Francisco detective to say Allen was cleared, but other San Francisco investigators and Vallejo police still maintained Allen was a "strong suspect."

"Leigh ought to be able to get his name off the list because of the DNA test," Rinehart said.

Vallejo police recently sent three other Zodiac letters to be tested at a state crime lab.

"All you ever heard was the other side. From a friend's standpoint, I was never able to voice my side," Rinehart said. "If the poor guy could get a half, a 50-50 break, it would be good.

My memories of him are so different than anything I've heard in all of this nonsense. It troubles me that other people don't get that," he said. "I wouldn't be the same person without Leigh Allen in my life — I have to stand up for him."

E-mail Matthias Gafni at mgafni@thnewsnet.com or call 553-6825.

Ellie