Cracking the Code of a Serial Killer: The Hunt for the Zodiac
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Zodiac Killer terrorized the nation in a series of heinous attacks — and taunted the press by sending cryptic letters. The Zodiac was never caught, and to this day remains one of the most notorious unidentified serial killers in history.
The killer is known to have murdered five victims and wounded two others in attacks that occurred between December 1968 and October 1969. The Zodiac claimed responsibility for 37 more murders in letters to the newspapers, but only those seven victims were confirmed by investigators.
The killer taunted the press and law enforcement with four cryptograms, or ciphers, basically daring investigators to figure out his identity. Over the years, hundreds of law-enforcement officials and amateur detectives have attempted to crack the code — but one of the four has ever been definitively solved.
The first murders widely attributed to the Zodiac Killer were the shootings of high school students Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday on December 20, 1968, on Lake Herman Road in Benecia. The couple, who were on their first date, drove to a well-known lovers lane where their bodies were found shortly after 11 P.M.
Investigators later determined that the killer shot Faraday in the head, and shot Jensen five times in the back before driving away.
The killer struck again just before midnight on July 4, 1969, when Darlene Ferrin and Michael Mageau were shot point-blank on a lovers lane in Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo, which was four miles from the Lake Herman Road murder site.
Ferrin died at the hospital, but Mageau survived — and described his attacker as a white male with short light brown curly hair who was around five foot eight inches tall and between 26 and 30 years old.
On July 5, 1969, a man phoned the Vallejo Police Department and claimed that he killed Ferrin and Magueau — and said he was also responsible for murdering Jensen and Faraday.
On August 1 that same year, three letters prepared by the killer were received at the Vallejo Times Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The San Francisco Examiner. The nearly identical letters took credit for the shootings at Lake Herman Road and Blue Rock Springs — and each also included one-third of a 408-symbol cryptogram which the killer claimed contained his identity.
The killer demanded they be printed on each paper’s front page or he would “cruse [sic] around all weekend killing lone people in the night then move on to kill again, until I end up with a dozen people over the weekend.”
On August 7, 1969, another letter was received at The San Francisco Examiner with the salutation “Dear Editor This is the Zodiac speaking.” This was the first time the killer had used this name for identification.
On August 8, 1969, Donald and Bettye Harden of Salinas, California, cracked the 408-symbol cryptogram.
Translated, it 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 IS 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 ALL THEI 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
On September 27, 1969, Pacific Union College students Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard were picnicking at Lake Berryessa when a white man with combed, greasy brown hair approached them wearing a black executioner’s-type hood with clip-on sunglasses over the eye-holes.
The hooded man claimed to be an escaped convict, and tied the couple up with precut plastic clothesline he had brought with him to the scene. The man then pulled out a knife and stabbed them both repeatedly before hiking back to Hartnell’s car, where he drew the cross-circle symbol on Hartnell’s car door — and wrote “Vallejo/12-20-68/7-4-69/Sept 27–69–6:30/by knife” underneath it with a black felt-tip pen.
Shepard later died. Hartnell survived.
At 7:40 P.M., the killer called the Napa County Sheriff’s office from a pay phone to report this latest crime. Detectives were able to lift a still-wet palm print from the telephone but were never able to match it to any suspect.
Two weeks later on October 11, 1969, a passenger entered the cab driven by Paul Stine near Union Square in San Francisco and asked to be taken to Washington and Maple Streets. The passenger shot Stine before stealing his wallet and car keys — and also snatching a bloodstained section of his shirt.
On October 14, 1969, the Chronicle received another letter from the Zodiac along with swatch of Paul Stine’s shirt tail as proof he was the killer. This was followed by yet another cryptogram on November 8, 1969 with 340 characters — and despite many attempts, the so-called “340 cipher” has never been decoded.
Experts say that the Z340 code, which contains a mix of ancient and modern symbols, ranks with the Nazi’s Enigma Code as one of the most difficult in history to break.
A team of investigators, which includes a retired LAPD detective and several cryptologists, are attemping once more to decode the 340 cipher. The investigators are also working with a super-computer known as CARMEL — which is described as the first computer of its kind programmed to think like a serial killer.
In addition to the confirmed victims, investigators believe that the killer was responsible for several other murders — and one woman claims that she escaped the killer with her 10-month old daughter.
The Zodiac killer has never been caught.
To learn more about this case, watch the “Zodiac Killer” episode of Investigation Discovery’s True Crime With Aphrodite Jones on ID GO now!