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Special Case File

Zodiac Ciphers

The Secret Cryptograms

Zodiac Ciphers

"I WILL NOT GIVE YOU MY NAME"

The elusive Zodiac Killer is responsible for upwards of five murders, and possibly many more over the course of several years which saw the unidentified serial killer conduct a reign of terror on the citizens of San Francisco. In order to claim credit for these crimes, the killer sent the media and police a series of letters, in which he provided evidence only the perpetrator would know, along with several cryptograms for the authorities to decipher.

Within these ciphers, the killer left rambling messages explaining the motivation behind his murder spree, as well as taunting the police with further crimes. The first of these ciphers was cracked in 1969, while the second was left a mystery until early December 2020. The last two however, one of which allegedly contains the real name of the Zodiac, have never been solved.

On December 20, 1968, two teenagers, David Faraday and his girlfriend Betty Lou Jensen, were attacked at Lake Herman Road as they sat together in Faraday’s car. An unidentified man emerged from another vehicle, firing shots at the young couple, killing them both at close range. 17-year-old Faraday was killed by a single shot to the head, and 16-year-old Jensen suffered five gunshot wounds before she died. The killer then climbed back inside his own car and drove away from the crime scene.

With no witnesses to these murders and no credible suspects, the case hit a dead end. A similar incident happened at the Blue Rock Springs Park on July 4, 1969, when 19-year-old Michael Mageau and 22-year-old Darlene Ferrin were attacked in the parking lot by an unknown assailant. The gunman fired five shots at Mageau, hitting him in the face and body, along with several more that hit Ferrin. As the attacker went to leave he heard Mageau cry out, and returned to shoot both victims two more times before driving away.

Darlene Ferrin died from her wounds, but Mike Mageau survived the attack, and was able to provide a description of the killer to detectives. Investigators suspected a link between the two attacks, but without any solid leads they could only speculate. Several weeks later, the San Francisco Examiner, Vallejo Times-Herald and San Francisco Chronicle each received a letter on July 31, 1969. The letter writer claimed responsibility for the Vallejo murders, and provided proof by describing details only the killer would have known.

Accompanying each letter was a 136-character cryptogram that was one-third of a larger 408-symbol cipher that was to be published on the front page of each newspaper by August 1. The letter stated, “Here is a cyipher or that is part of one. The other 2 parts of this cipher have been mailed to the S.F. Examiner + the S.F. Chronicle.” The author added, “If you do not do this I will go on a kill rampage Fry night that will last the whole week end.”

The three-part 408-symbol cryptogram, which the killer claimed would contain his identity, was solved by North Salinas high school teacher Donald Harden and his wife Bettye, who submitted it to the Vallejo Police Department on August 8. At 6:35pm that day, the Vallejo Police Department received a telephone call from George Murphy at the San Francisco Chronicle, who informed them that Mr. Harden of 54 Chestnut Street had solved the code.

His worksheets and cipher key were sent to the Chronicle, who later turned them over to the police later that day. Donald Harden and his wife spent roughly 20 hours working to decipher the cryptogram, and used a homophonic substitution to identify the solution. It was verified by the Cryptographic Unit at Skaggs Island Naval Communications Center and published the following day by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Vallejo Times-Herald.

Donald Harden working on the cipher.

The Zodiac’s 408-symbol cipher decoded read;

“I LIKE KILLING PEOPLE BECAUSE
IT IS SO MUCH FUN IT IS MORE FUN
THAN KILLING WILD GAME IN THE
FORREST BECAUSE MAN IS THE MOST
DANGEROUE ANAMAL OF ALL TO KILL
SOMETHING GIVES ME THE MOST
THRILLING EXPERENCE IT IT EVEN
BETTER THAN GETTING YOUR ROCKS
OFF WITH A GIRL THE BEST PART OF
IT IS THAE WHEN I DIE I WILL BE
REBORN IN PARADICE AND THE I HAVE
KILLED WILL BECOME MY SLAVES I
WILL NOT GIVE YOU MY NAME BECAUSE
YOU WILL TRY TO SLOI DOWN OR ATOP
MY COLLECTIOG OF SLAVES FOR MY
AFTERLIFE EBEORIETEMETHHPITI”

The cryptogram contained numerous mis-spellings similar to the letters, and to the disappointment of Vallejo Detective Sergeant John Lynch, it primarily consisted of the killer’s thoughts and ramblings concerning the reasoning for his murderous rampage. The killer had written “when they do crack it they will have me,” in his letter, however the cipher contained no information that would lead to his identity.

It contains the line “MAN IS THE MOST DANGEROUE ANAMAL OF ALL”, which is believed to refer to the short story “The Most Dangerous Game“, by Richard Connell, that was published on January 29, 1924. The story features a big game hunter becoming ship-wrecked on an Island inhabited by a man known as General Zaroff, who indulges his proclivity for capturing shipwrecked sailors and then hunting them for sport. After becoming bored with hunting animals, claiming they pose no challenge, he began hunting humans instead.

The Harden Solution for the Times Herald cipher.
The Harden Solution for the Chronicle cipher.
The Harden Solution for the Examiner cipher.

It is believed the Zodiac had drawn inspriation from the short story, styling himself on the character of Zaroff and declaring in his cipher, “I LIKE KILLING PEOPLE BECAUSE IT IS SO MUCH FUN IT IS MORE FUN THAN KILLING WILD GAME IN THE FORREST.” Although it failed to reveal the killer’s identity as promised, it did end with 18 symbols which could not be deciphered, the meaning of which remains unknown. It is possible these symbols represent an additional code that could reveal the killer’s name, however there has been another theory concerning a missing line in the cryptogram that appears to answer the mystery. It is possible the author of the cipher inadvertently missed out a line of text from his original draught when transitioning from the San Francisco Examiner cipher to the one mailed to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The missing line could possibly be “LONE OR STRAY PEOPLE”, and would appear to strenghten the line “AND THE I HAVE KILLED WILL BECOME MY SLAVES” into a more coherent sentence. The 18th symbol could possibly be explained as a mis-spelling of one of the words. With this theory, it is evident that the Zodiac never intended to be left with 18 unexplained symbols at the end of the cipher. The 408 cryptogram was also independently solved by the FBI in Washington, who would also corroborate the validity of the Harden solution.

Some in law enforcement were sceptical that the killer and the letter writer were the same individual. Vallejo Police Chief Jack E. Stiltz was quoted in two newspaper articles on August 2nd and 3rd, in which he requests the author of the letters to provide more details in order to corroborate his involvement in the crimes. On August 4, the Zodiac sent another letter, which this time contained the debut of his now famous introduction, with the killer declaring “This is the Zodiac Speaking,” and in which he provided details about the murders which only the perpetrator would have known.

On August 11, 1969, a letter was received by Detective Sergeant John Lynch at the Vallejo Police Department. It was signed by a “Concerned Citizen”, and contained a brief typewritten message along with the key to the 408 cipher. It read; “Dear Sergeant Lynch, I hope the enclosed “Key” will prove to be beneficial to you in connection with the cipher letter writer. Working puzzles criptograms and word puzzles is one of my pleasures. Please forgive the absence of my signature or name as I do not wish to have my name in the papers and it could be mentioned by a slip of the tongue. With best wishes. Concerned Citizen.” The FBI expressed their opinion that the cipher key was “generally valid and substantially accurate”, but commented how the author could have read the description of the decryption in the newspaper provided by Donald Harden and his wife. Only one usable palmprint was lifted from the envelope, but has never been matched to an individual.

Bettye Harden

The killer struck again on September 27, 1969, at Lake Berryessa. That day Cecelia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell, two Pacific Union student, were confronted by a stranger wearing what appeared to be an unusual home-made four cornered hood. Hartnell later described the hood as well sewn, black in colour with holes cut for the mouth and eyes. The man had attached a pair of dark sunglasses to further conceal his identity, and wore a belt with a long wooden sheathed knife and an empty leather holster.

This unusual costume also consisted of a bib section that fell down towards the man’s waistline that had an embroidered cross-circle design. This design was the same as the symbol on the three-part cryptogram and the cover letters which would be used as the Zodiac’s signature on all future letters. As he approached, holding a large semi-automatic pistol in his right hand, he ordered Shepard to tie Hartnell up with pre-cut lengths of clothesline, and when finished, he ordered her to lie down so he could bind her too.

When he was finished the man told the couple, “I’m going to have to stab you people”, and in an attempt to protect his friend, Hartnell said, “Stab me first”, to which the stranger replied, “I’ll do just that”. The man used what appeared to be a foot long, doubled edged bayonet, which was later described as looking like it had been damaged, with rudimentary repairs made to the handle. The man stabbed Hartnell six times and Shepherd up to ten times, which proved fatal.

After leaving both for dead, the hooded attacker walked to Hartnell’s car nearby and scrawled a message on the door with a black magic marker, leaving his crossed circle signature and the dates of his Bay Area attacks. The killer then called the operator to the local police and reported the apparent double murder, claiming “I’m the one that did it.” During the frenzied attack, Shepherd succumbed to her wounds, but Hartnell managed to survive.

The message written by the Zodiac at Lake Berryessa.

On October 11, 1969, the Zodiac killer claimed his last official victim, this time murdering a lone victim. 29-year-old San Francisco cab driver Paul Stine picked up a male passenger at the corner of Mason and Geary Streets at Union Square, calling in the destination to the dispatcher and entering the details into his log, which was towards the corner of Washington and Maple Streets in Presidio Heights. As the cab stopped at the intersection of Washington and Cheery Streets, the man sitting in the passenger seat pulled out a gun and shot Stine point blank in the right side of the head.

Witnesses recalled seeing the man remove Stine’s wallet and keys from his pockets and then proceed to cut a large piece from the back of his shirt, which he then soaked in the dead man’s blood, taking it with him. After cleaing the cab of all prints, the killer walked slowly north towards Cherry Street. That night police came close to apprehending the Zodiac, but due to a misidentification of the shooter, police were looking for the wrong individual.

Just two days after the Stine murder, the San Francisco Chronicle received a letter from the Zodiac Killer claiming responsibility for the crime. On October 20, 1969, a man contacted the Oakland Police Department claiming to be the Zodiac and demanding that a high profile lawyer appear on a local television show called A.M. San Francisco.

The caller requested either F. Lee Bailey or Melvin Belli, and while Bailey was unavailable, Belli agreed to appear on the show hosted by Jim Dunbar. With a request to keep the line clear, an unidentified individual called the station numerous times, telling Belli his name was “Sam” and that he was the Zodiac. Belli spoke briefly with the man, agreeing to set-up a meeting in Daly City, but the caller never showed at the rendezvous.

In early November 1969, the Chronicle received another letter from the killer, the contents of which included a “Jesters” brand greeting card along with a long 340-character cipher and the usual misspelled letter in the Zodiac’s own unique handwriting. This letter would be the first to contain what appeared to be a “body count”, kept by the killer of how many victims, or slaves as he referred to them, had been claimed so far. This presented something of a conundruum for investigators, because so far the number of victims attributed to the killer was six, not seven as claimed in the latest letter. The letter also possibly included a swatch of bloody shirt from Paul Stine, dispelling any doubts the killer was the author of the letter, however there is uncertainty if it was sent with this or the following letter. The Z-340-character cryptogram was considered undecipherable, the contents of which would remain a mystery for over 51 years until December 2020.

The Zodiac's 340-symbol cipher

Further letters followed in November and December 1969, one of which was addressed to lawyer Melvin Belli. The next incident involving the Zodiac occurred in March 1970, when 23-year-old Kathleen Jones was driving her with her infant daughter Jennifer on Highway 132 in San Joaquin County in the early evening hours, and was offered a ride by a stranger when informed by him that her wheels were loose.

The man proceeded to take Ms. Johns on a terrifying journey, which would only end with her escaping along with her child. Her own vehicle was later found almost completely burnt out. The Zodiac sent a short note to the Chronicle on July 24, 1970, apparently claiming credit for the kidnapping of Kathleen Johns and her baby. This would be among the last confirmed Zodiac incidents, with all future communication with the killer being through letters.

The Zodiac sent his next communication to the Chronicle on April 20, 1970, which included a letter and small accompanying cipher which the killer claimed, would apparently contain his real name, along with a plan for a modified bus bomb. The letter read, “This is the Zodiac Speaking. By the way have you cracked the last cipher I sent you? My name is…” The cipher was a 13-symbol cryptogram, in the same style as those sent previously.

There has been much conjecture and debate about whether the Zodiac did indeed insert his name into this latest cipher. He had previously claimed that the July 1968 cryptogram would include information that would ensure his capture, but this proved to be incorrect. The 13-symbol cipher of the “My name is” letter has continued to prove unsolvable, with several theories put forward as to the identity of the Zodiac.

The 13-symbol cipher that allegedly contains the killer's real name.

The next Zodiac cipher accompanied a letter send on June 26, 1970, in which the killer sent a Phillips 66 road map of the Bay Area to the Chronicle. The map was annotated with a custom clock face, drawn across the summit of Mount Diablo in the style of the Zodiac symbol, which consisted of a zero at the top, a six at the bottom, a numeral three on the right side and a nine on the left.

A written note next to the annotation indicated the zero “is to be set to Mag. N.”, and the letter was back to the old style introduction of previous Zodiac letters. The letter ended with the words, “The Map coupled with this code will tell you where the bomb is set. You have untill next Fall to dig it up.” The 32-symbol cipher allegedly contained the location of the buried bomb, but since 1970, the meaning of the code has remained a mystery.

The 32-symbol cipher that contains the co-ordinates to the location of an alleged buried bomb.

There were no further confirmed Zodiac codes sent to the authorities after the June 1970 letter, and the only mention of a code came with the October 1970 Halloween card. This communication once again made mention of the killer’s slaves in the afterlife, and was accompanied with a square note which read “Sorry no cipher,” written twice in the style of an X.

There was one more cipher tentatively attributed to the Zodiac, however it has never been confirmed as a genuine communication from the killer. This letter was mailed from Fairfield to the San Francisco Chronicle in early May 1971, and included a 148-character cipher along with written text which made reference to 21 victims and claimed “ILL NEVER GIVE MY NAME BECAUSE YOU DONT UNDERSTAND.” The author threatened to send a patch of human skin from the next victim.

The cipher sent to the Chronicle in May 1971.

The 148-character cipher was solved and read;

“TIS THE ZODIAC SPEACKING
WHY CAN’T YOU STOP ME.
I CAN’T STOP KILLING.
STOP LISTENING T(O) PHONYS
IF THIS IS NOT ON YOUR FRONT
PAGE IN A WEEK I WILL SKIN 3
LITTLE KIDS AND MAKE A SUIT
FROM THE SKIN.”

There are theories which would connect this letter to the Zodiac as a genuine communication. The reference to “3 little kids” is a possible allusion to the murders of three girls slain in 1969 and 1971, and is considered a threat to kill three more. On August 3, 1969, 14-year-old Deborah Furlong and 15-year-old Kathie Snoozy were found on a hillside in southern Almaden Valley.

Both girls had died from what was described as “a frenzied flurry of knife wounds,” with Snoozy suffering more than 200 wounds, and over 100 committed upon Furlong. San Francisco police Inspector Dave Toschi suspected these murders might have been the work of the Zodiac killer. The Zodiac had previously made reference to an August murder, without giving details, and these murders would account for this and add to the killer’s list of unclaimed victims.

The third murder was perpetrated on April 11, 1971, when 18-year-old Kathy Bilek went missing, her body later found with 17 stabs wounds in her back and 32 in her chest and stomach. A suspect was apprehended in the Bilek slaying, when San Jose student Karl F. Werner was arrested after being seen by a park maintenance man near the scene. Authorities had already drawn a connection between the Bilek murder and those of Snoozy and Furlong, calling them a “carbon-copy killing”.

By September 1971, Werner, who had been a classmate of the first two victims, confessed to all three murders and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Subsequently Werner was suspected of being the Zodiac, but it was soon determined he had been residing in Massachusetts at the time of some of the Zodiac’s earlier murders. It is possible the line “STOP LISTENING T(O) PHONYS” in the cipher is a direct reference to Werner’s confession, and the Zodiac’s implied insistence that the Snoozy/Furlong murders were his work.

The cipher threatens to “MAKE A SUIT FROM THE SKIN,” while the letter promises to “SEND A PATCH OF HUMAN SKIN IF THEIR IS SOME LEFT OVER,” which could be an allusion to the fact that hardly any skin would be left intact on his victims after the number of stab wounds suffered by Snoozy and Furlong, which exceeded over 100 each. More letters were sent to the media, some of which are believed to have been sent by the same author of the original Zodiac letters, however none have been definitively confirmed as genuine Zodiac communications.

Code breakers of the FBI and amateur enthusiasts have over the years attempted to decipher the hidden meaning to the Zodiac’s unsolved cryptograms, without success. The 340-character cipher sent with the November 1969 Jester’s greeting card has been amongst those undeciphered codes that have been on the top of the list for both amateur and professional cryptographers. For some 51 years it remained unsolved, until an international team worked together to decipher it.

On December 5, 2020, a team of private citizens claimed to have solved the cryptogram and submitted their findings on the Zodiac’s 340-cipher originally sent in November 1969 to the FBI, who subsequently verified their discovery. The team included David Oranchak, a software engineer from the U.S., Jarl Van Eycke, a computer programmer from Belgium and Sam Black, a mathematician from Australia.

The decoded 340-symbol cipher reads;

“I HOPE YOU ARE HAVING LOTS OF
FUN IN TRYING TO CATCH ME THAT
WASNT ME ON THE TV SHOW WHICH
BRINGS UP A POINT ABOUT ME I AM
NOT AFRAID OF THE GAS CHAMBER
BECAUSE IT WILL SEND ME TO
PARADICE ALL THE SOONER BECAUSE
I NOW HAVE ENOUGH SLAVES TO WORK
FOR ME WHERE EVERYONE ELSE HAS
NOTHING WHEN THEY REACH PARADICE
SO THEY ARE AFRAID OF DEATH I AM
NOT AFRAID BECAUSE I KNOW THAT
MY NEW LIFE IS LIFE WILL BE AN
EASY ONE IN PARADICE DEATH”

Despite the success of the team, the FBI announced that the decoded message provided no further clues as to the identity of the Zodiac. It did however offer an explanation on the circumstances of the phone call made by a man called “Sam” to Melvin Belli on a TV talk show in October 1969, apparently claiming to be the Zodiac.

The cipher makes a direct reference to this incident, including the talk show and mention of the gas chamber, during which the caller said “I need help. I’m sick. I don’t want to go to the gas chamber.” The author had also misspelled the word “paradise”, in the exact same way the Zodiac had done so in previous letters, and he makes mention of the collecting of slaves for the afterlife, a common theme in Zodiac communications.

The FBI in San Francisco confirmed the three men had correctly solved the cryptogram, and issue a statement which read;

The FBI is aware that a cipher attributed to the Zodiac Killer was recently solved by private citizens. The Zodiac Killer case remains an ongoing investigation for the FBI San Francisco division and our local law enforcement partners. The Zodiac Killer terrorized multiple communities across Northern California and even though decades have gone by, we continue to seek justice for the victims of these brutal crimes. 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.

Oranchak, a 46-year-old software developer from Virginia would go on to explain how the 34-cipher is what is known as a transposition cipher. Most ciphers that are used today by computers being reliant on mathematics to scramble messages, while a transposition cipher, by contrast, are largely dis-used relics from the past that use rules to rearrange the characters or groups of characters in the message.

Transposition ciphers rearrange messages in a wide variety of ways, a common one is by rearranging columns of a message. Oranchak says that the message in the 340 was probably rearranged by manipulating triangular sections cut from messages written into rectangles.

In order to solved the cipher, Oranchak and his colleagues developed an app that helped them unravel the puzzle. “The cipher had been unsolved for so long, it had a huge target on its back, and I felt like it was a challenge that had a chance of being solved,” said Oranchak. He said he had been working on and off on solving the 340 cipher since 2006, and said “It was an exciting project to work on, and it was on many people’s ‘top unsolved ciphers of all time’ lists.”

He was helped in solving the cipher by Sam Blake, an applied mathematician who lives in Australia, and Jarl Van Eycke, a warehouse operator in Belgium. Van Eycke also developed the software behind the AZdecrypt, a code-breaking app that was inspired by his drive to crack the 340. With the decoding of the 340-cipher, there are only two Zodiac ciphers left that are unsolved. The first of which is the cipher sent with the April 1970 letter, in which the Zodiac claims to have provided his real name, while the second is the June 1970 cipher that contains the location of the buried bomb.

Although the contents of the June cipher most probably contain random co-ordinates, the contents of the April cipher are an intriguing mystery. The Zodiac stated numerous times in communications that he would not reveal his identity to the authorities, because they will stop his murderous spree and prevent him collecting slaves for his afterlife. It would seem that whatever the contents of the 13-symbol cryptogram, it can be safe to assume that it does not reveal the name of the Zodiac killer.

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