2021 was a banner year for amateur detectives. In January, true crime activists brought the case of an anonymous hiker found dead in a tent to national attention, which led to his identification. In April, authorities arrested Kristin Smart’s killer based on facts that came out during the course of a podcast. Months earlier, in December 2020, three amateur code breakers solved the Zodiac Killer’s infamous 340-cipher — a task that the world’s top cryptologists, police and the FBI had been working on for more than 50 years.
Blame it on the pandemic. Or on the burgeoning online true crime community that allows people across the globe to access key facts about unsolved cases. Whatever the reason, the efforts of these laptop sleuths have had significant real-world results.
A year ago in June, a French engineer claimed he solved the final two Zodiac ciphers, known as Z13 and Z32. The self-named Zodiac Killer murdered five people between the late 1960s and early 1970s but authorities believe he may have killed up to 30 victims. To reveal the name of the killer would be a remarkable feat. But the online community of Zodiac sleuths is skeptical and authorities aren’t commenting.
“The Zodiac case is an active and ongoing investigation,” said San Franscisco Police Sargeant Michael Andraychak via email. “We are not releasing any information about the investigation.”
While the FBI has confirmed that David Oranchak, a U.S.-based software developer, Sam Blake, an Australian mathematician, and Jarl Van Eycke, a Belgian programmer, did in fact solve the 340-cipher, they have yet to release a statement about Z13 and Z32.
Impossible to decrypt
The Z13 and Z32 ciphers — the shortest of the four sent to newspapers when Zodiac was active — were deemed unbreakable by most experts and law enforcement authorities. Because of their brevity, just 13 and 32 letters, respectively, cryptologists say it is not possible to decode them. Code breaking relies on patterns of letter groupings and repeated words and a single name or short phrase won’t contain those types of clues.
Fayçal Ziraoui didn’t disagree. But after reading an article about the men who decrypted the 340-cipher, an idea struck him: what if the Zodiac had used the same encryption key for the shorter two ciphers? If that were true, it might indeed be possible to solve Z13 and Z32 because the codebreakers had published the key. If you’d like to take a look at it for yourself, you can find it here.
In addition to the 340-cipher, the first cipher was also solved by amateurs — a California teacher and his wife. Though Z408 is the longest of the four, its message is simple: “I like killing because it is so much fun.” Sent in pieces to several San Francisco newspapers, the code didn’t take long to break: just a few days of intense work back in August 1969.
The third cipher, the Z13, reads: My name is ____________________ followed by 13 symbols and letters. The Z32, the last of the ciphers, was sent June 26, 1970 and purportedly revealed a location of a school Zodiac threatened to bomb, though no bomb ever detonated (see photo below).
Could Ziraoui discover the killer’s name after so many years?
Ziraoui graduated from the Ecole Polytechnique and HEC Paris, France’s top engineering and business schools. He wasn’t a codebreaker and knew little about Zodiac but Paris was locked down due to Covid-19. Why not give it a shot? he thought.
For two weeks the 38-year-old lived, ate and slept Zodiac. Since he had never paid much attention to the case, he read everything he could get his hands on. When he wasn’t researching the killer, he was working on the ciphers.
Using various “creative” code-breaking techniques, he arrived at a result for the first cipher. According to his calculations, the Z32 message translates to: “LABOR DAY FIND 45.069 NORT 58.719 WEST,” which allegedly refers to the magnetic North coordinates of a school in the California city of South Lake Tahoe.
Ziraoui was euphoric because the coordinates appeared to match up with a Lake Tahoe postcard the killer sent in 1971. He then applied the same techniques to Z13 and came up with the letters KAYR. Kayr reminded him immediately of Kaye, the last name of a well-known Zodiac suspect usually referred as Lawrence Kane (one of many pseudonyms he used). The spelling struck him as too close to be a coincidence and he guessed that the R was a mistake, similar to the frequent typos in Zodiac’s letters to the press and in the decoded 340-cipher.
Excited to share his discovery, Ziraoui logged onto Reddit in the early hours of January 3 to post his solutions on one of its Zodiac forums. If he expected praise and validation from its 50,000 members, he was in for a shock.
Reddit post censored
His post was deleted in less than an hour.
Long-time Zodiac sleuths also dismissed his claims and even Oranchak, the leader of the team that cracked Z340, expressed skepticism that the engineer had solved the ciphers.
Tom Voigt, author of Zodiac Killer: Just the Facts and administrator of zodiackiller.com, a popular website devoted to the case, is doubtful as well. In an email interview, he said:
The two remaining Zodiac codes shall remain unsolved until the FBI determines otherwise. That hasn’t happened yet. And likely won’t, ever, as the codes are simply too short to contain a conclusive solution. Every week I get numerous code “solutions” e-mailed to me. . .There’s nothing scientific about his “solution.”
Others argue that police should consider Ziraoui’s theory. Still others have said that even incorrect answers may move cryptographers closer to a resolution.
“It does replicate a known error in a previous solved Zodiac cypher, so it would actually be a mark of consistency on Zodiac’s part, if it’s true,” said one Reddit member. “These kinds of handmade cyphers from before computers often contain errors of this type. The cypher sculpture in front of the CIA building has one, too.”
Despite getting far more recognition than others who have claimed to solve Z13 and Z32, Ziraoui has since vanished from the true crime community. According to The New York Times, he said he does not “have the skills to play” in online forums.
Whether Ziraoui’s solutions are valid is for the experts to decide. But what about the connection between the Lake Tahoe postcard and the school coordinates? Is it significant? And who was Lawrence Kane? Is it likely he was the Zodiac Killer? Why would he reveal his name in the first place?
The postcard Ziraoui referred to is known as The Pines postcard, shown above. Sent to “Paul Averly” of the San Francisco Chronicle on March 22, 1971, it depicts an area in South Tahoe. Cut-outs cover the card, including the pasted phrases “sought victim 12,” “pass LAKE TAHOE areas” and “around in the snow.” The sender — believed to be the Zodiac — attached an advertisement for the Forrest Pines condo complex to the back of the card.
Due to the nature of the postcard, investigators believe the sender intended it as a reference to the disappearance of Donna Lass. Lass, a nurse who had previously lived in San Francisco, went missing September 6, 1970. Police never located a body but they found her car near her apartment on the southeastern side of Lake Tahoe.
It may be relevant that past “Lake Tahoe areas” is the lodge the sender labels “Sierra Club,” which was in reality the Clair Tappaan Lodge located along the Donner Pass Road. However, the card was sent after the 25-year-old’s disappearance had been extensively reported on. Whether Lass was one of Zodiac’s victims has never been established.
Though the card doesn’t refer to a school or any type of bombing, it implies the sender knew of the Lake Tahoe area. If the Zodiac did kill Lass in that vicinity, he would have been in South Tahoe in early September when school began and could have conceivably planted a bomb — which he later claimed was a “dud.” Interestingly, September 6, 1970 was the day before Labor Day (recall that Ziraoui’s Z32 decryption starts with LABOR DAY). It was common practice then for children to return to school after that holiday.
Larry Kane was born Lawrence Klein in 1924. The son of immigrants, he grew up an only child after both his brothers died in infancy. He spent his early years in a Jewish, working class neighborhood in Brooklyn and dropped out of high school. At 17, Klein legally changed his last name to Kaye. He didn’t begin going by Kane until the 1960s, after he was charged with adultery and assault in 1959.
Detective Harvey Hines, who worked on the Zodiac case for 30 years, considered Kane the primary suspect. His report, in which he lays out the evidence is available in full online. Below is a summary of the key reasons Hines and others have stated that Kane may have been the Zodiac.
- The Z13 cipher begins A E N K, an anagram for KANE.
- Kane studied at the Radio Materiel School and was admitted to its the Electronics Training Program, an exclusive, highly classified military training program. Those admitted to the intensely competitive program scored “in the top two or three percent of Intelligence Quotient in the nation.”
- Kane had a picture of a zodiac chart on his wall at one point.
- He lived just two blocks from where taxi driver Paul Stine picked up Zodiac.
- After studying Kane’s photo, the officer who saw Zodiac at the Paul Stine killing said, “I’ve seen hundreds of photos since then, and this is the best likeness.”
- He had a long criminal history, dating back to when he was in his early twenties.
- He served in the navy, which Zodiac is also believed to have served in.
- Survivor Brian Hartnell, who spoke with Zodiac, said after hearing Kane’s voice, “His speech is certainly consistent with the voice I heard, although it’s been too long to be certain.”
- Kane’s physical characteristics match some descriptions of the Zodiac Killer. Both were 5’ 9” and approximately the same weight, with dark hair.
- He was 45 years old when the killings began. Zodiac is estimated to have been between 40 and 45.
- Kane had a brain injury that affected his ability to control self-gratification.
Despite the circumstantial evidence, aficionados remain unconvinced. There is overwhelming circumstantial evidence against main suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, who authorities have ruled out. Voigt considers Kane an easy pick out of the suspect pool but doesn’t believe there is a strong case against him:
Regarding Lawrence Kane, once the misinformation is stripped away, he is the low-hanging fruit of Zodiac “suspects.” And there’s a ton of misinformation about Kane.
On his site, Voigt notes that Hartnell was very unsure about Kane’s voice and that the officer who identified his photo was tentative at best. Moreover, the officer’s description of the killer is nothing like Kane, nor does Kane closely resemble the police sketch of Zodiac.
“A good maybe, that’s the best I can do.’” Fouke had described the suspect as a white male, approximately 35–45 years old, approximately 5 feet 10 inches tall, 180–200 pounds, with “light-colored hair possibly greying in the rear.”
Aside from the identity of the killer, another key question remains unanswered. Why would the killer reveal his name at all, even in a cipher? The solution may relate to one of America’s darkest writers and most mysterious cryptographers: Edgar Allan Poe.
After newspapers published Zodiac’s first two codes in 1969, the president of the American Cryptogram Association challenged him to reveal his name in a cipher. In a published article, Professor D.C.B. Marsh told the San Francisco Examiner:
“The killer wouldn’t dare, as he claimed in letters to the newspapers, to reveal his name in the cipher to established cryptogram experts. He knows, to quote Edgar Allan Poe, that any cipher created by man can be solved by man. Zodiac has not told the truth in his cipher messages to the Examiner, the Chronicle and the Vallejo Times-Herald. Zodiac has not done this, because to tell the complete truth in relation to his name — in cipher code — would lead to his capture. I invite Zodiac to send The American Cryptogram Association a cipher code — however complicated — which will truly and honestly include his name.
Secret codes fascinated Poe, so much so that in 1839 he challenged readers of Alexander’s Weekly to submit a cipher he couldn’t decode. Many did send in ciphers — and Poe broke every single one.
The Zodiac’s Z13 cipher appears to refer to the professor’s own newspaper challenge.
“This is the Zodiac speaking. By the way, have you cracked the last cipher I sent you? My name is_______________”
The 13-letter code follows his needling question. In addition, Poe’s A Few Words on Secret Writing shows the alphabet being split into two halves of thirteen letters. Notably, Z13 may give a nod to Poe’s article by representing the first half of the alphabet. It starts with A and ends with M (the 13th letter).
According to Zodiacciphers.com, the Z340 code and the Z13 code may have been created at about the same time:
The name Zodiac appeared to be numerically carried forward from the 20th line of the 340 to the 13-Symbol cipher in the form of three circled 8’s . . This was achieved by placing the correct spelling of Zodiac alongside the ‘near Zodiac’ and numerically counting the difference between the columns. This produced perfect numerical symmetry . . . For this to be achieved, it was argued the two ciphers must have been created with each in mind, and therefore both crafted at a similar time.
Could such perfect symmetry support Ziraoui’s argument that the two use the same encryption key? Even the phrasing of Zodiac’s taunt seems to suggest a connection between Z340 and Z13. “By the way, have you cracked the last cipher I sent you?” could be a tacit reference to the Z340 — the last cipher he’d sent in November 1969 — being the key to Z13.
Regardless of the validity of Ziraoui’s decryption methods, it seems in character with Zodiac’s sense of arrogance and his love of games that he would give Marsh a challenge he could, theoretically, solve. He also knew the odds were in his favor. It took 51 years and a supercomputer to crack Z340. If Zodiac embedded an encryption key to Z13 and Z32 in Z340, Marsh had his work cut out for him.
The Zodiac ciphers contain other more personal clues that may reveal something about his background.
Among the symbols included in his ciphers were circles with different portions shaded in — ideograms believed to have been invented by Harvey Poppel of Booz Allen Hamilton, a management-consulting firm known for its defense and intelligence contracts.
Zodiac’s letters and codes are rife with mistakes. Could some of those have been intentional? In my previous article, I argue that is the case with the spelling errors in the Z340.
There may be one easy way to determine whether Kane was the Zodiac and that involves forensic evidence. According to reports, police have fingerprints, partial DNA and a palm print of the killer. None of this evidence matched Allen and several other suspects have also been discounted due to forensics.
But does any of it match with Kane?
Kane has been a suspect for decades and in all that time police haven’t made a single announcement about his profile matching any of the forensic evidence, which suggests it doesn’t.
According to writer Michael Butterfield, administrator of Zodiackillerfacts.com:
Kane was excluded on the basis of handwriting experts who determined that he did not write the Zodiac letters and the negative results of fingerprints comparisons. Retired San Francisco police lieutenant Tom Bruton stated that Kane was also excluded by DNA comparison.
The problem, however, is that it’s unclear whether the forensic evidence actually belongs to the Zodiac Killer. The fingerprints were lifted from a taxi the Zodiac rode in when he killed Stine. Witnesses reported that he wiped down the cab interior to remove his prints and it seems possible the ones police found may have belonged to another passenger.
The same may be true of the palm print lifted from a public phone Zodiac used to call in a murder. Even the partial DNA taken from a postage stamp and envelope may belong to someone else.
The FBI Zodiac files are awash with suspects being eliminated or providing a non-match using fingerprint analysis, however, if none of the fingerprints and palm prints on the Zodiac letters, the Napa payphone and Paul Stine’s taxicab originated from the killer, then any suspect elimination by comparison to these prints is meaningless
Do authorities have more forensic evidence than they have revealed?
With DNA analysis techniques advancing rapidly, it certainly seems possible. So an end to the case isn’t out of the question. Even with two of the four ciphers solved, however, it appears law enforcement is no closer to finding the Zodiac’s identity than they were when he first began his killing spree more than half a century ago.