In late 1960s, The Zodiac killer was spreading fear in California several brutal killings. There are five confirmed murders, but he claimed as many as thirty-seven. One of his tactics was to send ciphers to various newspapers, taunting them. Three of these ciphers have been famously unsolvable for nearly fifty years and, because no one has ever been charged with the murder, the Zodiac case is still officially open according to the FBI.
The first Zodiac cipher, cipher 408, was sent out in 1969and published in three parts, one in each of following papers: The Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner and Vallejo Times-Herald newspapers. Donald Harden, a school teacher, and his wife June solved it; it took them around 20 hours to crack. It read:
“I like killing people because it is so much fun – it is more fun than killing wild game in the forest because man is the most dangerous animal of all – to kill something gives me the most thrilling experience – it is even better than getting your rocks off with a girl – the best part of it is that when I die I will be reborn in paradise and all the I have killed will become my slaves – I will not give you my name because you will try to slow down or stop my collecting of slaves for my afterlife.” (zodiacciphers.com)
Not many good things came out of 2020, but one that did was 340 cipher, so named for having 340 characters, that had been stumping code-breakers for over fifty years was finally solved.
David Oranchak, a web designer from Virginia, has been working on this project since 2006. He realised the best chance they had of solving it was to create a computer program to run though possible solutions. The other members of the team are a warehouse operator from Belgium called Jarl Van Eykcke and an Australian mathematician called Sam Blake.
After running thousands of possible solutions, they found one that gave them some real words – ‘gas chamber’ and ‘hope you are trying to catch me’, from this they knew they were on the right track but that the solution needed more work. They tried the same substitution key, but with slight alterations that produced even more real words, albeit ones with spelling errors, e.g. paradice. David Oranchak has a video explaining how they cracked the code, find it here.
Sam Blake has said they tested “around 650,000 different reading directions through the cipher” (sfchronicle.com) before finding the right one, and even then it needed some extra tweaking to figure it out. The final text read:
“I hope you are having lots of fun in trying to catch me.
That wasn’t 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 (sic) all the sooner, because I now have enough slaves to work for me, where everyone else has nothing when they reach paradise 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 (sic) death (globalnews.ca)
There is some debate about where the extra ‘life is’ on the last line is supposed to go in the message, but I think it makes the most sense at the end: “I am not afraid because I know that my new life will be an easy one in paradice. Life is death.”
The TV show and gas chamber references relate to a phone call that was made to Jim Dunbar’s live show a couple of weeks before this cipher was received, where someone claiming to be the Zodiac said “I don’t want to go to the gas chamber” (sfchronicle.com). A Zodiac victim who survived their attacks listened to the recording for her opinion on if this really was the Zodiac speaking. She said unequivocally no, it wasn’t the same voice; the caller was later identified as Eric Weil, a man who had a history of mental illness. All this corroborates this solution as being the correct translation of the cipher. The solution was sent to the FBI and they have confirmed it has been officially solved.
Blake went on to say “We would like to dedicate our work that culminated in this solution to the victims of the Zodiac killer, their families and descendants. We hope this is a stepping stone towards finding justice for these people.” (sfchronicle.com)
There are two more ciphers left to break.