It was beginning to seem like a hoax, a jumbled mess of nonsense characters with no true meaning. But This week, the Zodiac serial killer’s infamous “340 Cipher” has finally been cracked.
The cipher was one of several sent in a letter to the S.F. Chronicle in November 1969 from the Zodiac, the serial killer who killed five people in the San Francisco Bay Area between 1968 and 1969. He has never been caught.
David Oranchak, a 46-year-old web designer from Virginia has been working with a group to crack the code since 2006. In an interview on Friday, he told reporters,
“We’ve been sitting on the solution since last Saturday. When I first started looking at the Zodiac ciphers all those years ago, I thought, ‘Oh, I can just write a computer program and solve it,’ but it’s been kicking my ass all this time. Until now.”
The FBI confirmed that the code was cracked but would provide no further comment.
“The Zodiac Killer terrorized multiple communities across Northern California, and even though decades have gone by, we continue to seek justice for the victims of these brutal crimes. Due to the ongoing nature of the investigation, and out of respect for the victims and their families, we will not be providing further comment at this time.”
The 340 Cipher, named because it contains 340 characters, aligned the words diagonally down the page and occasionally shifted to another column. Purposely misspelled and extraneous words were thrown in too to throw crypto experts off. Although the code was complex, it was a scheme mentioned in at least one U.S. Army code manuals from the 1950’s.
The team searched for common references such as “gas chamber” and “the TV show”. In the encrypted message below, the TV show mentioned refers to Jim Dunbar’s “AM San Francisco” show on KGO-TV that aired in October 1969. On that show, Dunbar and attorney Melvin Belli took a call from a person claiming to be the Zodiac, and he said, “I don’t want to go to the gas chamber.”
““We knew we had something because of the Dunbar show. One of the interesting things about this is that it forces the minimum date of the cipher’s construction — maybe he had one and adjusted it, but it couldn’t have been in that form prior to Oct. 22, when the Dunbar show aired, and … when The Chronicle got the 340 letter.”
The cracked cipher read:
I HOPE YOU ARE HAVING LOTS OF FUN IN TRYING TO CATCH ME THAT WASNT 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 IS LIFE WILL BE AN EASY ONE IN PARADICE DEATH
According to the FBI, the difficulty of the code indicates the murderer was intelligent, but the bragging about slaves and the misspelled word “paradise” were already present in other Zodiac writings.
The Zodiac sent two other ciphers to newspapers that are left to decode. And in at least one of his communications, the killer said his name was in one of his ciphers.
You can read about the Zodiac case here, including a complete collection of all the letters he sent.