Larry is a true crime fan and has several years of experience reporting on true crime cases and hosts a true-crime podcast.
After more than 50 years, the Zodiac Killer is back in the headlines. This is a banner year for amateur detectives, and the Zodiac case is no exception. In December, volunteer code-breakers finally cracked the 340-character cipher that was sent to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1969.
The Zodiac Killer left a path of bodies across Northern California during the late 1960s and early '70s. Police believe he may have killed as many as 30 people. Outside of the murder of a lone taxi driver, all of the recorded attacks targeted couples.
The first Zodiac cipher was quickly solved by amateur cryptologists but the infamous "340 Cipher" eluded the world's greatest cryptologists, including the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI.
A conversation in the comment section of a YouTube video helped pave the way to a solution. After spending 15 years on the code, amateur cryptologist David Oranchak replied to a comment on one of his videos about the cipher.
This led to a collaboration between Oranchak and the commenter, Sam Blake. Later, a third investigator, Jarl Van Eycke, joined the pair. All three worked remotely to find a solution. However, it was Van Eycke who wrote the software that solved the cipher.
The team decrypted the message by running over 650,000 possible solutions through supercomputers at the University of Melbourne. The FBI ended up confirming that the team did in fact crack the cipher.
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 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 WILL BE AN EASY ONE IN PARADICE DEATH.
— Zodiac Killer's Decoded Message
Many true crime fans had hoped the decoded message would hold the identity of the Zodiac Killer, but it hasn't happened yet. For now, the Zodiac's identity remains a mystery.
Until we get closer to solving this mystery, here are 12 facts about the Zodiac Killer case that you might not know.
1. The Zodiac Killer Wanted to Become the First Viral Icon
It was not law enforcement or the media who created the name "Zodiac Killer"; it was created by the killer himself. After his second double murder attempt, he contacted police and reported the killing, and took credit for a prior attack. He sent dozens of letters to the media in California and signed them with a symbol that resembled the crosshairs of a gun.
Along with demanding that his letters be published, he also expressed anger that Zodiac buttons had not been printed for people to wear. At this time, buttons were popular and Californians often wore peace buttons or Black Power buttons. The Zodiac Killer was set on getting maximum exposure, and so he threatened to blow up a school bus of young children if it didn't happen.
2. Two Victims Managed to Survive
At an isolated park in the city of Vallejo, California on July 4, 1969, the Zodiac Killer shot Darlene Ferrin and Michael Mageau. Darlene died but Michael survived and was able to give key details to police. A year later the Zodiac Killer struck again—this time at Lake Berryessa, where he targeted Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard.
The Zodiac Killer marked the dates of their deaths on Bryan's VW. However, Hartnell survived and was able to recount his conversation with the Zodiac and described what the serial killer was wearing.
Another of the Zodiac Killer's victims, David Faraday, was believed to have been the Zodiac's first male victim in 1968 but survived until the crime was discovered. His female companion ended up dying at the scene.
3. An Interest in the Middle Ages?
The Zodiac Killer had worn what was best described as an executioner's costume for one of the serial killer's murders. Hartnell recalled the Zodiac Killer wearing clip-on dark glasses, and a black executioner's hood.
The costume appeared handmade and neatly stitched. When the Zodiac Killer attacked Hartnell and his girlfriend, he used a knife as his weapon, despite it being much easier to just shoot them.
When you research medieval executioners, you can find some dressed in a similar fashion as the Zodiac Killer. These medieval executioners were usually dressed all in black; some had a cross on their tunics.
Another medieval symbol that the Zodiac Killer is the signet used. It looks like a crosshairs, but it is very similar to Germanic mythology's Woden Cross. It's also known as Odin's cross and in Europe is known as the Sun Cross.
4. There's Something about Bodies of Water
The brutal double attacks all occurred near bodies of water. The first attack took place near Lake Herman in Benicia, California. The second attack occurred at Lake Berryessa and the third happened in Vallejo, which is a waterfront city in Solano County.
5. Strange Alphabet Used in Ciphers
Many of the cipher symbols were part of a 13th-century alphabet known as "the Zodiac alphabet." This also supports the idea that he was very interested in the Middle Ages, especially when you consider his executioner's costume, as well as the cross symbolism of the crosshairs sign.
6. A Military Background?
Blake says that the encryption the Zodiac Killer used in the cipher can be found in a 1950s Army cryptography field manual. The Zodiac Killer shifted the code so that decoders had to read it diagonally, which made it more difficult to decipher.
There is other evidence to suggest the idea of a military background. Vallejo, the site of one of the Zodiac's attacks, was a Navy town. Some believe Zodiac knew Vallejo too well and was either from there or worked there at some point. If so, he could have been part of the Navy.
Investigators recovered a shoe print that showed the killer wore military boots primarily used by those in the Navy.
7. A Political Cartoonist Wrote the Most Famous Book on the Case
Robert Graysmith was the political cartoonist of the San Francisco Chronicle when the Zodiac Killer first struck and gained national notoriety. Graysmith was drawn into the case and eventually left his job to dive into witness statements, police records, and anything else he could find that was connected to the Zodiac Killer.
Graysmith published Zodiac in 1986, which I have read and learned many things I did not know about the Zodiac Killer. He spent 15 years researching the serial killer and the book became a bestseller, and was also the basis for a movie, also called Zodiac.
Graysmith believes that Arthur Leigh Allen was the killer.
8. Arthur Leigh Allen is Probably Not the Zodiac Killer
While he was the prime suspect for years, Allen is probably not the Zodiac Killer. However a great deal of circumstantial evidence supports the theory. Allen wore a Zodiac watch, but the forensics don't hold up.
While Allen's family believes him to be the Zodiac Killer, forensic experts have agreed that his fingerprints, palm prints and handwriting weren't a match. Allen also doesn't look like the man in the police sketch. Witnesses differ on Allen's photo and voice.
9. Ted Cruz is the Most Famous Person Alleged to be the Zodiac Killer
Ted Cruz is not the Zodiac Killer. He was born after the murders began and there is no evidence to support the claim that he is the Zodiac Killer. However, this doesn't keep people from believing the claim.
A 2016 survey found that 38 percent of Florida voters believed Cruz may have been the infamous serial killer. Of those 38 percent, 10% were positive he was the Zodiac Killer and 28% believed there was a good chance he was. Others have been falsely accused of being the killer, including Ted Kaczynski and author Gareth Penn.
10. The Zodiac Killer Understood Maps
The San Francisco Chronicle received a map code on June 26, 1970. The Zodiac Killer signet appears atop California's Mount Diablo, along with encrypted instructions to locate an undetonated bomb.
Also, the Zodiac used magnetic north instead of just north, which shows his familiarity with maps. The map cipher is still undecrypted.
DNA May Finally Identify the Zodiac Killer
In 2018, investigators sent envelopes used by the Zodiac Killer to a lab for advanced DNA analysis. Authorities are hoping to run the recovered DNA through online genealogy sites, with the intention to identify the killer through familial connections.
The DNA sample is imperfect and can't be matched exactly, but investigators can use it to rule out suspects. Not surprisingly, Arthur Leigh Allen has been ruled out.
© 2022 Lawrence Lease