It took 51 years to crack, but one of the provocative coded messages attributed to the Zodiac Killer has been resolved, according to the FBI.
The mysterious 340-character cipher, mailed to the San Francisco Chronicle in November 1969, does not reveal the identity of the killer. But it builds on his image as the attention-seeking killer who reveled in terrorizing the Bay Area in the late 1960s.
“Hope you have a lot of fun trying to catch me” and “I’m not afraid of the gas chamber” are two of the gloomy brags in the post, according to David Oranchak, a Virginia software developer who said he deciphered the figure with the help of Sam Blake, an applied mathematician in Melbourne, Australia, and Jarl Van Eycke, a warehouse operator and computer programmer in Belgium.
Mr Oranchak, who runs a website and YouTube series on the Zodiac Killer numbers, said he was thrilled to have solved the code after 14 years of trying to crack it. But he also said he was worried about the effect this could have on the families of the victims.
“The message in that figure – I don’t see it as useful to them,” he said. “It’s more of the same stuff the killer liked to write about. It’s just about hurting people and scaring them.
The FBI, which employs a team of code crackers in its encryption and racketeering unit, said it had verified Mr. Oranchak’s claim that he had broken the code, known as the number 340. The agency said the figure was one of four attributed to the killer and that it was first submitted to an FBI lab on November 13, 1969.
The office said it received the solution on December 5 from a crypto researcher.
“Over the past 51 years, the CRRU has considered many solutions proposed by the public – none of which had merit,” the FBI said in a statement. “The figure was recently resolved by a team of three private citizens.”
The FBI field office in San Francisco also released a statement about the breakthrough, which was reported by The San Francisco Chronicle on Friday. According to the statement, the field office knew that a figure attributed to the Zodiac Killer “had recently been resolved by individuals”.
“The Zodiac Killer case remains an ongoing investigation for the San Francisco FBI Division and our local law enforcement partners,” the office said. “The Zodiac Killer has terrorized several communities across Northern California and even though decades have passed, we continue to seek justice for the victims of these brutal crimes.”
The San Francisco office said it would not comment further due to “the ongoing nature of the investigation and out of respect for the victims and their families.”
The code had long baffled cryptographers, law enforcement officers and armchair detectives obsessed with the shadowy killer, who was charged with five murders in the late 1960s. Only one previous cipher attributed to the Zodiac had been resolved and it was decoded by a California couple shortly after it was sent in the 1960s.
This one was seen as much more complex, which suggests the killer was frustrated that the former was so easily deciphered, Mr Oranchak said.
The team that cracked him got together earlier this year, Mr Blake said, after reaching out to Mr Oranchak with some ideas on how to unravel the patchwork of symbols and characters.
“It’s considered one of the holy grails of crypto,” Blake said. “Back then, the encryption had withstood attacks for 50 years, so any attempt to find a solution was really moonlight.”
For months, Mr Blake said, he and Mr Oranchak tested, through trial and error, about 650,000 possible solutions, running them through a code breaking program written by Mr Van Eycke.
But the program didn’t reveal anything until it suddenly produced a startling combination of words on December 3, including “gas chamber” and “trying to catch up to me.”
“That’s what caught our attention,” said Mr. Oranchak, who explains the team’s code cracking process in a YouTube video. “It was the key.”
Mr Oranchak said he was amazed when the decrypted message revealed the phrase ‘it wasn’t me on the TV show’, as the letter was sent about two weeks after a man claiming to be the Zodiac had called a bay area television. show up and had spoken to attorney Melvin Belli. This meant that the solution the team came up with fit the timeline of that time, Mr Oranchak said.
Mr Blake said the code was cracked “with a massive search among many applicants using sophisticated software capable of effectively solving homophonic substitution ciphers.”
“Not only were we lucky to find the needle in the haystack,” he said, “but we were lucky enough to pick the right haystack so we started looking for the needle. “