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How the Zodiac Killer Taunted Investigators with Letters and Ciphers
“By the way, have the police been having a good time with the code?” the Zodiac Killer taunted police about a complex cipher in one chilling letter. “If not, tell them to cheer up; when they do crack it they will have me.”
While most killers hide in the shadows, California’s Zodiac Killer taunted police and the terrified community, relishing in his kills and promising more violence in a series of chilling, hand-written letters.
The letters sent to local media included complex cipher puzzles he promised were the key to identifying him and issued demands to publish his messages to achieve the notoriety the killer desperately craved. One even included a blood-stained piece of evidence to prove he was the killer, according to ABC News.
The first double homicide occurred on the night of December 20, 1968, when 17-year-old David Faraday and his girlfriend, 16-year-old Betty Lou Jensen, were parked at a remote spot on Lake Herman Road around Vallejo, California, Biography reports. The killer fatally shot both teens.
Another young couple was attacked on the morning of July 5, 1969. In an eerily similar incident, 22-year-old Darlene Ferrin and her 19-year-old boyfriend Mike Mageau were parked in a car in a remote location when a man approached them and opened fire. While Ferrin was killed, Mageau survived.
A male called the Vallejo Police within an hour of the attack on Ferrin and Mageau, providing authorities with the location of the latest crime scene and claiming responsibility for the earlier attack on Lake Herman.
What did the Zodiac letters say?
Weeks later in August of 1969 three local newspapers got nearly identical hand-written notes from someone claiming to be the killer, who called himself “Zodiac.”
“Dear Editor, This is the murderer of the 2 teenagers last Christmas at Lake Herman & the girl on the 4th of July near the golf course in Vallejo,” he wrote to the San Francisco Chronicle, according to Zodiackiller.com. “To prove I killed them I shall state some facts which only I & the police would know.”
The letter continued to provide specific details like the type of ammo used in the Lake Herman attack, total number of shots fired, and the orientation of the bodies. He also provided details about what Ferrin had been wearing the night she was killed, the ammo used in her attack, and added that Mageau had been shot in the knee.
Along with the details, each paper received ⅓ of a cipher the killer claimed would reveal his identity. He demanded the papers print his letter on the front page or he promised more violence would follow.
"It terrified everyone,” said Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle whose own investigation into the killer inspired the 2007 movie Zodiac, told ABC News. “Three newspapers gave their front pages to the man. I mean, that's how terrified they were."
The notes were all ominously signed with a cross hair symbol.
It wasn’t long before the San Francisco Examiner received another chilling letter.
“Dear Editor,” the killer wrote. “This is the Zodiac speaking.”
The killer taunted police for being unable to solve his cipher.
“By the way, have the police been having a good time with the code?” he wrote. “If not, tell them to cheer up; when they do crack it they will have me.”
Once again, he provided specific details of his crimes.
Who cracked the Zodiac cipher?
Just a few days after sending the letter, the cipher was solved by high school teacher Donald Harden and his wife, Bettye, according to Biography. But, it didn’t reveal the killer’s identity as he claimed it would and only taunted police further.
“I like killing people because it is so much fun,” it read. “It is more fun than killing wild game in the forest because man is the most dangerous animal of all.”
The killer also claimed he was killing to collect slaves for the afterlife, according to Wired.
More Zodiac Killer Victims
The first puzzle may have been solved, but the violence didn’t end there.
In late September, another couple was attacked as they were having a picnic at Lake Berryessa in Napa County. The surviving witness, 20-year-old Bryan Hartnell, would later tell police that the killer emerged from the woods wearing an executioner’s hood and stabbed the couple, UPI reported in 2018. Hartnell’s girlfriend, 22-year-old Cecilia Ann Shepard, was killed in the bloody attack.
The Zodiac Killer appeared to deviate from his previous pattern when killing his final victim, taxi cab driver Paul Stine, the next month.
Stine was shot by the Zodiac Killer, posing as a passenger, in the Presidio Heights area of downtown San Francisco.
Once again, the killer bragged about the murder in a letter, which included a bloody piece of Stine’s shirt.
"I am the murderer of the taxi driver over by Washington St. and Maple Street last night," the letter to the San Francisco Chronicle said, according to a 1969 United Press International report.
Chillingly, the killer wrote at the end of the letter that he planned to shoot out the tire of a school bus next and “pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.”
Cracking Another Cipher
The taunting letters continued for years, with Zodiackiller.com — a website run by Zodiac Killer: Just the Facts author Tom Voight — asserting that 20 or more letters may have been sent by the killer through 1974.
In November of 1969, the killer sent another 340-character cipher along with a card to the San Francisco Chronicle. For more than fifty years that message — along with two other short ciphers received after that — were never solved, according to Discover Magazine.
That changed in 2020, when three amateur sleuths with extra time during the pandemic were able to crack the 340-character message. The team was made up of U.S.-computer programmer David Oranchak, Australian applied mathematician Sam Blake, and Belgian warehouse worker Jarl van Eycke.
“The cipher had been unsolved for so long, it had a huge target on its back, and I felt like it was a challenge that had a chance of being solved,” Oranchak said, according to Wired. “It was an exciting project to work on, and it was on many people’s ‘top unsolved ciphers of all time’ lists.”
The translated cipher reads: “I hope you are having lots of fun in trying to catch me.”
The killer goes on to say that it “wasn’t me on the tv show” in reference to a person who had called into a KGO-TV talk show a month before the letter claiming to be the Zodiac and then describes more of his motivations.
“I am not afraid of the gas chamber because it will send me to paradice (sic) 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,” he wrote. “I am not afraid because I know that my new life will be an easy one in paradice death.”
The FBI later confirmed the validity of the translation.
“The FBI is aware that a cipher attributed to the Zodiac Killer was recently solved by private citizens,” they wrote in a December 2020 tweet.
The two remaining ciphers are still unsolved, and more than five decades after the Zodiac Killer claimed his first victim, his identity remains a secret—even after the FBI extracted DNA from the letters.