Missing Lake Tahoe Casino Worker Once Linked to Zodiac Case Finally ID’d

Posted on: January 2, 2024, 06:21h. 

Last updated on: January 2, 2024, 09:12h.

A human skull found alongside a highway in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains has been identified as having belonged to Donna Lass, a woman who went missing from the Sahara Hotel Casino in South Lake Tahoe in 1970.

Donna Lass, Zodiac killer
An image of a 1971 Sacramento Bee article covering the disappearance of Donna Lass, whose skull has now been identified by DNA testing. (Image: Sacramento Bee)

Lass was a 25-year-old nurse at the casino whose disappearance has been connected to the Zodiac killer case. The unidentified serial killer terrorized northern California in the late 1960s and sent messages to police taunting them with cryptograms and ciphers. The case is arguably the most famous unsolved murder case in US history.

Lass’ last entry in the nurses’ logbook was at 1:50 a.m. on Sept. 6, 1970. She disappeared after her last shift at the Sahara, which is now the Golden Nugget Lake Tahoe.

DNA Breakthrough

In 1986, the Placer County Sheriff’s Office found the unidentified skull in the Lake Spaulding area. With no evidence to go on, the case was filed as a Jane Doe investigation that might one day be reopened pending further advancements in forensic technology.

Last year, a cold case team sent the skull to the California Department of Justice Bureau of Forensic Services. Fifty-three years after her disappearance, the bureau was able to match the DNA of the skull to that of one of Lass’s sisters. The South Lake Tahoe Police Department told the Lass family last week of the identification.

“We are extremely grateful that this team effort was able to bring closure to the Lass family and are hopeful that cold case detectives can continue to make advances in these cases,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.

Zodiac Message

Speculation that Lass was a victim of the notorious Zodiac killer stemmed from a postcard sent to The San Francisco Chronicle in March 1971. It depicted the Sierra Club in Lake Tahoe and bore the Zodiac’s notorious calling card, a signature consisting of a circle with a cross through it.

“Sought Victim 12,” it read. “Peek through the pines… pass Lake Tahoe area… around in the snow…”

A handwriting expert with the California Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification told The Sacramento Bee at the time that the writing was “consistent with all other Zodiac writings I have examined.”

The Zodiac killer murdered five known victims in the San Francisco Bay Area between December 1968 and October 1969, but claimed to have killed many more. Written communications from the killer ceased in 1974.

Sgt. David Smith of the Placer County Sheriff’s Office told The Bee that investigators were not currently linking Lass’s death to the Zodiac case.