For 51 years both authorities, private citizens and professional and amateur code breakers alike have been trying to crack a 51-year-old code left behind by the Zodiac Killer. This week, however, a group of three amateur codebreakers have managed to do what many believed to be impossible and cracked the final 340 code, originally sent in November 8, 1969.
Virginia native and software developer, 46-year-old Dave Oranchak, explained that the code is a transposition cipher. According to nrich.maths.org: “A transposition cipher is one which rearranges the order of the letters in the ciphertext (encoded text), according to some predetermined method, without making any substitutions.”
Simple transpositional ciphers are created using rows and columns. The Zodiac killer’s cipher was built on the same principle; however, it was a lot more complex, “a beast” as its defeaters would later describe it.
The Zodiac killer, an unidentified serial killer who sent cryptic notes and ciphers to newsrooms, was active in Northern California in the sixties and seventies. He is officially responsible for five murders, although he attempted seven, with two victims surviving their injuries.
The Zodiac claimed he had killed 30 additional people, but police could find no evidence to confirm the claim.
The killer first struck in the winter of 1968. His victims were a teenage couple on their first date, Betty Lou Jensen, and David Arthur Faraday.
They were parked at a lover’s lane in Benicia, Solano County when they were both fatally shot. The killer pulled up in his own vehicle and demanded the teenagers get out of their car, threatening them at gun point. When Faraday complied, he was executed with a bullet to the head. Jensen attempted to escape; however, she didn’t get far before she too was shot down with several bullets to the back.
His second set of victims, another couple, Michael Renault Mageau and Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin, were targeted several months later in the summer of 1969, again the two were shot. They were also parked up in their vehicle, this time in Vallejo.
Their killer parked his vehicle behind them, before approaching the car and shooting them both multiple times. Mageau, although riddled with bullets in his torso, neck and head, managed to survive the ordeal.
Ferrin eventually died in hospital while being treated for her injuries. Michael Mageau was able to provide police with a description of his attacker, whom he said was a Caucasian male, with short brown wavey hair.
He approximated the man was between 25 to 30 years old, standing at around 5”8, weighing around 70-90KG.
The Zodiac penned his first batch of letters on August 1, 1969, after the first two set of attacks. The letters, which were the same in content, were mailed to three different newspapers based out of California. They came with ciphers that when cracked contained spelling errors such as “anamals” and “paradice” and described how much he liked to kill people and how he would have slaves in the afterlife.
These errors and themes would present themselves once again in Cipher 340, which would go unsolved for over five decades. The ciphers were printed on the front page of newspapers in response to the Zodiac Killer’s threats to pick off more people if his demands were not met.
This would continue to be a theme for the unidentified assailant, who would go on to introduce himself as The Zodiac Killer.
Two months later, in September 1969, the Zodiac Killer switched up his modus operandi and brutally stabbed a couple, Bryan Calvin Hartnell and Cecelia Ann Shepard, who were having a picnic at a lake in Napa County. He approached them clad in a black hood with glasses with a white cross painted on his chest.
Despite being stabbed multiple times, Hartnell survived the attack. Police later found a reference to the previous attack on Ferrin and Maugeau when they discovered the details of the crime scrawled across the door of Hartnell’s car.
The last confirmed killing came a month later when 29-year-old Paul Lee Stein, a taxi driver, was shot dead by a passenger in a street in San Francisco.
Despite the contact the killer kept with the media through his writings and ciphers, he was never caught or even identified.
The 340 cipher was the last to be solved, and it took 51 years to finally crack it.
Oranchak and his group, Jarl Van Eycke, a Belgian code-breaking enthusiast, and creator of the AZdecrypt app, and Sam Blake an Australian mathematician, made a five-part YouTube series explaining how they cracked the code. The group used Van Eycke’s software, which they ran for several months, before noticing a result that contained certain promising words and phrases such as “hope you are trying to catch me”, “gas chamber” and “slaves”.
Putting their heads together, they realised the code was written diagonally from edge to edge, split up across three grids. After a lot of discussion, rearranging and processing through the app, a line appeared to Oranchak: “That wasn’t me on the TV show.”
From there, they figured it out.
“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”
The message refers to a hoax call made to the KGO-TV station, where an individual claiming to be the Zodiac Killer pleaded for help, called himself ill and expressed fear of capital punishment, specifically the gas chamber. The call was made just a few weeks before the cipher was sent. It also contains one of the common misspellings found in several Zodiac notes, the word paradice.
After 50 years the 360 Cipher has finally been solved.
The identity of the Zodiac killer, however, remains a mystery.