Zodiac's cipher codebreaker speaks out: Killer was his own self-defeating "publicist"

Zodiac Killers 340 encryption public domain
This article originally appeared here on Salon.com
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Sam Blake, an Australian mathematician, learned about the unsolved ciphers of the Zodiac Killer - a series of encrypted messages - from a documentary in the 1990s. His interest rose slightly in 2007 after David Fincher's "Zodiac" was released, but it wasn't fully cemented until last year when he saw David Oranchak's YouTube series "Let's Crack Zodiac".
The series was devoted to solving the codes that the serial killer from Northern California sent in letters to newspapers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the ciphers, called the 408 cipher, was broken in 1969 by a school teacher and his wife, but it did not reveal the identity of the murderer. The additional three puzzles remained unsolved for over 51 years despite advances in computer technology.
"[Oranchack] put together some really good videos that went deep into analyzing the 408 cipher. He then had some conversations with the American Cryptogram Association about the unresolved 340 cipher," Blake said. "I really liked his approach, he was very analytical. And when I saw his presentation I thought I could probably suggest a few things to see if he'd tried before."
Blake's suggestions came up to him, and Oranchak formally worked with Belgian programmer Jarl Van Eycke to solve the cipher, organized as a grid of 63 unique, mysterious symbols.
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They succeeded two weeks ago after using Van Eycke's code-breaking computer program and more than 650,000 variations written by Blake for a year. The cipher roughly translates as:
"I hope you have fun catching me
I wasn't on the TV show
I am not afraid of the gas chamber
BECAUSE I NOW have ENOUGH slaves to work for me
So they are afraid of death
I am not afraid because I know my new life is here
On December 11th, the FBI confirmed that "private individuals" had broken the code.
"The Zodiac Killer case remains an ongoing investigation for the San Francisco FBI and our local law enforcement partners," the organization said in a statement. "The Zodiac Killer has terrorized multiple communities in Northern California and even though decades have passed, we continue to seek justice for the victims of these brutal crimes."
According to Blake, the 340 cipher was much more complex than the 408 cipher because of its organization. Not only were decoders needed to determine the key to the letters, but also the direction in which the letters ran.
"I've been asked once before if I thought the zodiac understood how much more difficult it made it thereby, and I doubt that it did because otherwise it would not have included such contemporary material in the content of the cipher", said Blake. "As if 'that wasn't me on the TV show', that's something you probably wanted to put out before 51 years because he wrote it there."
There are many theories about who the zodiac is or was and numerous online groups and subreddits devoted to study and selection. Blake believes the continuing interest in the case is that he was very much "his own self-publicist".
"He didn't just send ciphers to newspapers," Blake said. "He has sent out several, several letters, notices, cards and drawings. Threats to blow up buses and all sorts of things. He really kept himself in public."
The mysterious nature of these ciphers, as well as the fact that the crimes remain unsolved, cemented the Zodiac Killer as a kind of symbol of dark pop culture that survived the true crime boom. "Dirty Harry", in which Clint Eastwood plays the lead role, is loosely based on the Zodiac case and shows a murderer (Andrew Robinson) who goes by the name of "Scorpio". Fictional killers sending messages like the Zodiac ciphers have appeared in everything from "Criminal Minds" to the anime series "Death Note".
Just last year, FX aired "The Dangerous Animal of All," a four-part documentary series that investigated Gary L. Stewart's search for his birth father, Earl Van Best Jr., for evidence that might suggest that his father was the Zodiac Killer.
Blake wouldn't consider himself a huge true crime fan, but he's interested in documentaries that describe the advances in science that enable investigators to catch serial killers.
"For example, I really enjoyed seeing various presentations from Paul Holes on how they used family DNA and genealogy to catch the Golden State Killer," said Blake. "I believe that many cases have been resolved using this amazing technology. My interest in them is in the methods of catching them rather than the actual underlying culprits."
There are still two unresolved Zodiac Killer ciphers, the Z13 and Z32 ciphers. The Z13 in particular has fascinated researchers for over 50 years because it is immediately preceded by the phrase "My name is ...".
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Blake said he and his team are interested in bringing your attention to these, and he is currently looking to see if the university he works at would be willing to fund their research.
"Right now it was kind of a side project," said Blake. "But now that we've had this success and it looks like we're going in the right direction to resolve these issues, I would certainly spend more time on it."

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