Decoding a Killer
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, a serial killer known only as the Zodiac took the lives of at least five people in northern California.
The killer, who never was found or identified by authorities, taunted police by sending letters to the press in the Bay Area. Some of the letters included cryptograms. Several of the cryptograms never were solved, although some people have claimed to have figured them out.
To this day, the identity of the Zodiac Killer remains a mystery and the cryptograms an unsolved puzzle.
One Gloversville resident, however, claims he’s solved the Zodiac Killer’s code. Daryll Lathers created a chart that he says can be used to translate the characters and symbols in one of the killer’s cryptograms.
Lathers is so confident in his work, he purchased display advertisements in the San Francisco Chronicle to promote his solution.
“Zodiac’s 340 symbol code solved,” the ad states. “Copies available! Call Daryll Lathers (518) 773-3263.”
Lathers translates the cipher text into plain text and then rearranges the text to form sentences. Some of his translations include:
“The city will hold Zodiac’s seven slaves near RKO’s film drop outside its barn.”
“Killing man is the most dangerous game of all.”
“Tired of making bombs in the cellar.”
“I will kill a total of seven girls in S.F.”
“You have to be very careful how you translate,” said Lathers, 74, a retired mechanical engineer who used to work in Rochester.
Lathers claims the Zodiac Killer was a paranoid schizophrenic, making his 340-character code difficult to decipher.
The code, Lathers says, is made up of a series of letters in the English alphabet, Greek symbols, backward letters and shapes.
“If the guy is nuts, you have to think like he thinks,” said Lathers, who added that having knowledge of the San Francisco area helps crack the code. Lathers claims many of the messages include references to local landmarks.
The Zodiac claimed nearly 40 murders in letters to newspapers, but police confirmed only seven victims, two of whom survived, according to published reports. The victims were:
David Arthur Faraday, 17, and Betty Lou Jensen, 16, were shot and killed on Dec. 20, 1968, in Benicia, Calif.
Michael Renault Mageau, 19, and Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin, 22, were shot on July 4, 1969, in the parking lot of Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo, Calif. Mageau survived the attack, but Ferrin died.
Bryan Calvin Hartnell, 20, and Cecelia Ann Shepard, 22, were stabbed on Sept. 27, 1969, in Napa County. Hartnell survived eight stab wounds, but Shepard died.
Paul Lee Stine, 29, was shot and killed on October 11, 1969, in the Presidio Heights neighborhood in San Francisco.
Lathers said since a single code could have multiple meanings, he sifted through the messages to determine what was junk and what was part of the real message.
According to Lathers, the Zodiac’s messages include a threat to kill seven women.
Lathers also claims the 1930s film “The Most Dangerous Game” is a central piece of evidence to the case. He claims the Zodiac was inspired by the film.
Lathers said in 2008, he was walking through a store when he saw DVDs about the Zodiac Killer on sale. He bought them and became interested in the code. He then began to try to translate it.
“I did a sloppy job of it four years ago,” he admitted, saying he had little success at the beginning. Around last September, he tried again and made sense of the code bit by bit, he said.
He said he put a lot of time into the effort.
“A person who is working would have a very hard time to do it,” Lathers said jokingly.
According to Lathers, he submitted several pieces of his code and how he broke it to the Vallejo Police Department in California but never received a response.
John C. Linn, who lives in San Bruno, Calif., worked with Lathers on breaking the code, assisting him over the phone.
“I went through it and it made complete sense,” Linn said.
Linn, an amateur investigator, said he worked with the San Francisco Police Department on the case years ago. According to Linn, the FBI and San Francisco Police Department hired code breakers to work on the case and try to crack the code.
Linn summed up the code-breaking process for the Zodiac code as “replacing and adding, replacing and adding, until it makes sense.”
According to Linn, Lathers’ answers fit perfectly.
“It applies to every piece,” Linn said.
Websites are devoted to the Zodiac Killer and the ciphers he sent.
Postings on one site, Zodiackillerciphers.com, finds fault with Lathers’ interpretation of the code.
“It’s an interesting attempt, but unfortunately, this solution has several major problems with it,” the posting says. “The use of anagrams allows many possible solutions and interpretations; 51 out of the 63 different symbols of the cipher text are allowed to have more than one plain text letter assignment. … With so much freedom, you can overcome the constraints of the cipher text and produce numerous coherent messages.
“With so many possibilities, we cannot be certain any of them is a better guess over any other,” the posting states. … “Anagramming the plain text gives you a very large canvas of words to work with.
“This is not to say that anagramming is not useful or valid for code breaking. Indeed, when solving transposition ciphers which rearrange plain text into chunks of gibberish, looking for anagrams of certain words can help unlock the transposition scheme. But in those cases, the rearrangements are subjected to an orderly scheme, rather than to the whims of the code breaker. The same is true of polyalphabetic ciphers that assign more than one plain-text letter to a given cipher symbol. These, too, are subjected to orderly schemes,” the posting states.
Calls seeking comment for this story from the San Francisco Police Department, the Vallejo Police Department in Vallejo, Calif., and the San Francisco Chronicle were not returned.