July 4 marks the day most Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence, but for true crime buffs it has a darker meaning. On July 4, 1969 the man who would become known as "The Zodiac Killer" murdered a young couple as they sat in their car at a park in California. The following day he would phone the police to claim credit not only for the murders of Michael Renault Mageau and Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin, but for the killing of another young couple six months earlier.
The Zodiac Killer murdered at least five people during the late 1960s and early 1970s but authorities believe he may have killed as many as 30 people. Except for the murder of a lone taxi driver, all his documented attacks targeted couples. The first cipher Zodiac sent to newspapers was quickly solved by amateur cryptologists but the “340 Cipher” eluded the efforts of the world’s best mathematicians, detectives and cryptologists for 51 years — not to mention the NSA, the CIA and the FBI.
In late 2020, at the height of the pandemic, three internet sleuths did what the authorities couldn't: they solved the 340 Cipher. Though true crime fans hoped the break in the case would lead to the identification of the killer, it hasn’t happened yet. For the time being, the Zodiac’s name remains a mystery.
A YouTube video led to the solution
After working on the code for 15 years, amateur cryptologist David Oranchak responded to a comment on one of his videos about the cipher. It sparked a collaboration between Oranchak, a web designer based in Virginia, and the commenter, Australian-based mathematician Sam Blake. Not long afterward Jarl Van Eycke, who works by day as a warehouse operator in Belgium, joined the pair. All three worked remotely to find a solution, but it was Van Eycke who wrote the software that solved the puzzle.
According to an interview Blake gave, the three decrypted the message by running about 650,000 possible solutions through the supercomputers at the University of Melbourne.
“There’s been a lot of solutions in the past that have required artistic creativity and a lot of bending and massaging of the cipher in order to get it to make a few legible words… then something like a sentence, and often then the name of somebody who could be associated with the case,” he said. “What we did was a very different approach to that. We looked at different possible ways you could read the cipher — what other reading directions could they have taken in terms of trying to write it out — and we then ran them through supercomputers and looked for a solution in that direction.”
Curious about what it says? Take a look:
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 FBI has confirmed that the group did indeed decrypt the message. Two of Zodiac’s ciphers remained unsolved, though French engineer Fayçal Ziraoui and many others allege they may have cracked them.
Want to take a shot at finding clues in the still-cryptic message above? Here are 12 facts about the case to bring you up to speed:
1. Zodiac wanted to go viral
It was the killer — not law enforcement or the press — who created the name Zodiac. After his second known double murder attempt, he phoned police to report the killing and to take credit for a previous attack the year before. He also sent dozens of letters to California news outlets and signed them with a symbol that resembles the crosshairs of a gun.
Not only did Zodiac demand his letters be published to avoid future deaths, but he also expressed his anger that Zodiac buttons had not been printed for people to wear. At the time, such buttons were popular and Californians could often be seen wearing peace buttons or Black Power buttons.
In fact, Zodiac was so intent on getting exposure that he threatened to blow up a school bus of young children if it didn’t happen.
“If you dont want me to have this blast you must do two things. Tell everyone about the bus bomb with all the details. I would like to see some nice Zodiac buttons wandering about town. Everyone else has these buttons like, black power, melvin eats bluber, etc. Well it would cheer me up considerably if I saw a lot of people wearing my buton. Please no nasty ones like melvin’s. Thank you.” -from a letter mailed to the San Francisco Chronicle on June 26, 1970
2. Two of his victims survived
Zodiac shot Darlene Ferrin and Michael Mageau five times at the isolated Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo shortly after midnight on July 4. As he was walking away, he heard Mageau moaning and went back to shoot each victim two more times. The young waitress died at the scene but, remarkably, Michael lived and was able to give key details to police.
A year later Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard were relaxing at Lake Berryessa when the Zodiac struck again. Though he penned the dates of their deaths on Bryan’s white VW, Hartnell did not succumb to multiple stab wounds. When he recovered, he recounted his conversation with Zodiac and was able to describe what the murderer wore.
Oddly enough, David Faraday, believed to be Zodiac’s first male victim in 1968, also survived until the crime was discovered but later died. His female companion died of gunshot wounds at the scene.
3. He may have been into the Middle Ages
Zodiac wore what has been described as an executioner’s costume for at least one of his killings. Hartnell told detectives Zodiac appeared wearing clip-on dark glasses, a black executioner’s hood with a white circle and cross on the chest, a foot-long knife with a taped wooden handle and a scabbard with brass rivets.
Hartnell said the costume looked hand-made and neatly stitched. When Zodiac attacked Hartnell and his girlfriend, he used the knife as his weapon, despite the fact that it would have been much easier to simply shoot them.
After doing a little research, I found some medieval art that features executioners dressed in a similar fashion, usually all in black and occasionally with a cross on their tunics. Note the similarity to the executioner in the medieval painting below. The scene depicts the death of German serial killer Peter Niers, who was infamous for using Black Magic to achieve supernatural powers.
Another possible medieval symbol is the signet Zodiac used. Most people see a crosshairs when looking at the signature, but it also bears a striking similarity to Woden’s Cross, a key component of Germanic mythology. The cross is also known as Odin’s cross in Norse mythology and across Europe as the Sun or Solar Cross, an ancient symbol connected with the heavens.
The sun cross also features in Dante’s Paradiso, the third and final section of his poem The Divine Comedy. In Canto xviii, 12 warriors inhabit the cross instead of the usual figure of Christ. The number 12 may correlate with the Zodiac and the idea that the symbol connects to the sun also seems potentially meaningful.
4. He apparently had a thing about bodies of water
All three of the brutal double attacks on couples (every known attack but the one on the taxi driver) occurred near water. The first took place at a lovers’ lane near Lake Herman in Benicia, California. The second occurred at Lake Berryassa in Napa County. The third happened in Vallejo, a waterfront city in Solano County.
5. He used an obscure, medieval "Zodiac" alphabet in his ciphers
Many of Zodiac’s cipher symbols belonged a 13th-century alphabet known as “the Zodiac alphabet.” This fits with my theory that the killer may have been interested in the Middle Ages, especially when taking into account his executioner’s costume and the potential sun cross symbolism of the crosshairs sign.
6. He may have served in the military
According to Blake, the encryption scheme that Zodiac used in the 340-cipher can be found in a 1950s Army cryptography field manual. Zodiac altered the code so that it had to be read diagonally, which made it more difficult to figure out. Other Zodiac ciphers are believed to derive from military cryptography manuals as well.
Other evidence supports the idea of a military background. Vallejo, the site of at least one attack, was a Navy town. Some investigators believed Zodiac knew Vallejo too well not to have lived or worked there at some point. If so, the idea that Zodiac may have been part of the Navy would be a logical guess.
A shoe print found at the scene of one of the crimes also showed that he wore military boots primarily used by men in the Navy.
7. An ex-cartoonist wrote the most famous book on the case
Robert Graysmith was a political cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle when the Zodiac murders first gained national attention. He became obsessed with the case and left his job to spend more time poring over witness statements, police records and anything else he could find.
Graysmith published Zodiac in 1986, after 15 years of exhaustive research, and it became an instant bestseller that served as the basis for a movie by the same name starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
Graysmith was convinced Arthur Leigh Allen, an elementary school teacher fired for pedophilia, was the killer.
8. Zodiac is probably not Arthur Leigh Allen
Despite his status as LE’s prime suspect for years, Allen was probably not the Zodiac killer. Though a great deal of circumstantial evidence supports this theory — Allen even wore a Zodiac watch — the forensics don’t hold up.
Allen’s own family believed he may have been the killer, but experts agreed that his fingerprints, palm prints and handwriting weren’t a match. Allen also looks quite different from the man in the police sketch. Witness reactions to Allen’s photo and voice have been mixed.
9. Ted Cruz is the most recent famous person suspected of being the Zodiac
Before I go further, let me dispel any illusions: Cruz is not the Zodiac Killer. He was born two years after the murders began and there is no evidence whatsoever to support this claim, other than a vague resemblance to a police sketch.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop people from believing the claim. According to a 2016 survey by Public Policy Polling, 38 percent of Florida voters questioned thought the senator might have been Zodiac. Of those respondents, a full 10 percent were sure he was the guy and 28 percent thought there was a good chance he was.
Many others have been falsely accused of being the Zodiac, including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and author Gareth Penn.
10. He had a sophisticated understanding of maps
The “map code” was sent to the San Francisco Chronicle on June 26, 1970. The Zodiac signet appears on top of California’s Mount Diablo, along with coded instructions that explain how to locate an undetonated bomb.
The fact that Zodiac used Magnetic North instead of just North suggests that he was familiar with maps. A follow-up note emphasized this:
“PS. The Mt. Diablo code concerns Radians & inches along the radians“.
The reference to Magnetic North also suggests Zodiac may have been at the top of the mountain when he calculated directions. Incidentally — or maybe not incidentally — the translation of “Diablo Mountain” is “Devil Mountain.”
The map cipher remains undecrypted.
11. DNA may help solve the case. Maybe.
In 2018, investigators sent envelopes used by the suspected killer to a lab for advanced DNA analysis. Authorities plan to run the recovered DNA through online genealogy sites and will attempt to identify the Zodiac Killer through familial connections.
Though the DNA sample is imperfect and cannot be matched exactly, it can rule out suspects. Perhaps not too surprisingly — considering the earlier forensics results — Arthur Leigh Allen was not a match. Just how hard it will be to use the sample to pinpoint Zodiac is unclear.
12. He may have been obsessed with numbers, especially 2 and 3
As I mentioned above, Zodiac targeted couples. In addition, in the recently decoded cipher paradise is spelled wrong three times, at the beginning, middle and end of the cipher.
I’m no expert, but “paradice” looks and sounds like “pair of dice” to me — or, “pair of dies” — which may be a way of referring to the couples Zodiac targeted. At the time he sent the 340 Cipher, he had just attacked his third couple weeks earlier, i.e. there were six victims. In astrology, Gemini, or the Twins, is sign number 3.
I NOW HAVE ENOUGH SLAVES TO WORK FOR ME…I AM NOT AFRAID BECAUSE I KNOW THAT MY NEW LIFE WILL BE AN EASY ONE IN PARADICE
It is interesting to note that three is an important number in the zodiac, as well as one with Biblical significance. Dante’s Divine Comedy is broken up into three sections: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso; it is deeply concerned with sin, heaven, hell, demons and it also has many astrological references.
According to scholar Theodore Cachey, a precise numerological system runs through the entire poem and it focuses on three and six, the first perfect number.
The decryption team believes Paradice, not death, is the final word in the 340-cipher. Did the Zodiac believe he was at the end of his journey when he sent it?
Unfortunately we can’t ask him. All signs of Zodiac vanished after 1974.
After rereading the Zodiac letters and cards, I notice there is quite a lot of doubling (see Halloween card below). There are thirteen “eyes” in the card and, if you add the skeleton, 4-teen— which fits with the written number inside.
A pink rectangle emphasizes the two empty eyes, the holes in the pelvis seem to match them. The dots at the bottom of the page mirror those four.
Last but not least, Mount Diablo itself is double-peaked.
On the other hand, maybe Zodiac was just a lousy speller who mixed up Paradice for Paradise three times in a row. Or he wanted to make the ciphers harder to crack. Still, after researching all this, I can’t shake the suspicion that religion — perhaps Catholicism — played a role in Zodiac’s childhood.
If these facts caught your interest, you’re not alone. Graysmith was one of thousands of true crime fans who have become fascinated with the cold case. Will amateur internet sleuths ultimately help identify the killer, as they have in so many other instances?