Zodiac Killer mystery cipher cracked 51 years after killer sent it to San Francisco newspaper

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — A long-held mystery of the Zodiac Killer’s murderous rampage in and around San Francisco has been solved.

A code-breaking team from the U.S., Australia and Belgium has cracked what has become known as the “340 Cipher,” a message written in code that the notorious killer sent to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1969, at the height of his string of killings. The name of the cipher refers to the number of characters in the puzzle.

“I hope you are having lots of fun in trying to catch me,” the cipher reads in part, according to the Chronicle.

The letter writer mentions a TV show. It is not clear in the cipher which show he is referring to, but the Chronicle reported that the cipher was sent to the newspaper on Nov. 8, 1969, a few weeks after a man claiming to be the Zodiac Killer called into the Jim Dunbar Show, a local television talk show.

Watch the video below to learn how the three-man team broke the Zodiac Killer’s code.

The cipher confirms law enforcement officials’ suspicions that the caller to the talk show was a fraud, the newspaper reported.

“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,” the puzzle continues. “Where everyone else has nothing when they reach paradice, so they are afraid of death.”

Hopes were dashed that the cipher would contain the killer’s name.

>> Related story: Police seek to ID Zodiac Killer through DNA after success with Golden State Killer

The decoding of the cipher is believed to be legitimate for several reasons, according to the Chronicle. The misspelling of the word “paradise,” thought to be purposeful, was in several of the Zodiac’s letters.

The killer also repeated the theme of having slaves awaiting him in paradise.

In a 1970 letter, he mentioned that he would “torture all 13 of my slaves that I have waiting for me in paradice,” the newspaper reported.

The Zodiac Killer eventually claimed he’d killed more than 30 victims, though investigators have only been able to link him to five deaths.

The FBI’s San Francisco office confirmed the news in a statement Friday.

“The FBI is aware that a cipher attributed to the Zodiac Killer was recently solved by private citizens,” the statement read. “The Zodiac Killer case remains an ongoing investigation for the FBI San Francisco division and our local law enforcement partners.”

The agency said out of respect for the victims and families, and due to the ongoing nature of the investigation, no further information would be provided.

“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,” FBI officials said.

The self-named Zodiac Killer stalked and killed at least five people across California’s San Francisco Bay Area in 1968 and 1969. His first confirmed victims, David Faraday, 17, and his 16-year-old girlfriend, Betty Lou Jensen, were shot and killed near their car Dec. 20, 1968, on Lake Herman Road near Vallejo.

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According to Biography.com, Darlene Ferrin, 22, and Mike Mageau, 19, were sitting in Ferrin’s car July 5, 1969, in a similarly remote spot four miles from the previous murder scene. The couple was approached by a man with a flashlight — and a gun.

The man opened fire, killing Ferrin and seriously wounding Mageau.

Less than an hour later, a man called the Vallejo Police Department and took credit for that attack and the one on Faraday and Jensen, the website said.

On Aug. 1, 1969, a letter was sent to the Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner and the Vallejo Times-Herald.

“Dear Editor,” the letter began, according to Biography.com. “I am the killer of the two teenagers last Christmas at Lake Herman.”

The missive contained details only the killer could have known, authorities said. He threatened to attack more victims if the letter was not published on the front page of each newspaper.

Each envelope contained one-third of another cipher, which became known as the 408 Cipher.

“I like killing because it is so much fun,” read that cipher, which puzzled police but was later solved by Salinas teacher Donald Harden and his wife, Bettye. “It is more fun than killing wild game in the forest because man is the most dangerous animal of all.”

As detectives from multiple police departments scrambled to identify the killer, he sent another letter to the Examiner in which he first used his moniker.

“Dear Editor, this is the Zodiac speaking,” the letter began, according to Biography.com.

Each of the killer’s letters bore a symbol: a circle with a cross through it, similar to the crosshairs on a rifle scope.

See the entire first letter from the Zodiac here.

One of the most chilling and brutal crimes attributed to the Zodiac Killer was the Sept. 27, 1969, attack on college students Bryan Hartnell, 20, and Cecelia Shepard, 22, who were enjoying the day on the shore of Lake Berryessa, 30 miles north of Napa.

“A man appeared holding a gun and wearing a hooded costume with a white crossed-circle stitched over the chest,” according to History.com. “Explaining that he had escaped from a prison and needed money and a car to escape to Mexico, the stranger bound their wrists with precut lengths of plastic clothesline.

“Without warning, he plunged a large knife into Bryan’s back six times.”

The man then stabbed Shepard 10 times, mortally wounding her. Hartnell would survive his injuries.

“The man then walked to Bryan’s car and used a pen to draw a crossed-circle on the door with the dates and locations of the previous attacks, the date ‘Sept 27 69,’ the time ‘6:30,’ and the notation, ‘by knife,’” History.com’s website states. “At 7:40 p.m., a man called the Napa Police Department to report ‘a double murder.’”

The caller described Hartnell’s car and gave the dispatcher directions to the crime scene. He also confessed, saying “I’m the one who did it.”

See an image of Hartnell’s car door here. See the homemade hood the killer wore here.

The next time police and reporters heard from the Zodiac Killer was after the Oct. 11, 1969, shooting of cab driver Paul Stine, 28, in San Francisco.

“That night, Stine picked up a fare headed for a destination in the upscale Presidio Heights neighborhood. At the intersection of Washington and Cherry Streets, the passenger shot Stine in the head and removed a piece of the victim’s shirt,” History.com says. “The man walked away just before police arrived, but the police radio broadcast mistakenly described the suspect as a Black man.”

Officers speeding by on their way to the crime scene spotted a man fitting the correct description of the killer, but because he was white, they did not stop him.

Stine’s death was believed to be a robbery until the Chronicle received a letter from the Zodiac Killer taking credit.

The envelope contained a bloodstained piece of Stine’s striped shirt.

The killer continued to communicate with police and reporters for years, in one letter threatening to target a school bus and “pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.” He insinuated that he’d killed many more people, and detectives suspected him in several other cases but could not prove a link.

The letters stopped in 1974. In that final letter, the writer stated that he had recently seen “The Exorcist” and thought it was the “best satirical comedy that (he had) ever seen.”

He ended the note with a tally of the murders he claimed he’d committed.

“Me -- 37, SFPD -- 0.”

Click here to see all of the Zodiac Killer’s letters to police and reporters.

The killer’s identity has been the source of much speculation over the years. Some of the more well-known suspects who have been ruled out include Bruce Davis, a convicted killer who was part of Charles Manson’s infamous “family,” and Theodore Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber.

Detectives grew hopeful in 2018 after DNA and genetic genealogy solved the case of the Golden State Killer. They were able to develop a partial genetic profile from a stamp on one of the Zodiac’s letters, but because it was incomplete, the profile could not rule anyone in as a suspect, the Chronicle reported.

The profile did rule out long-time suspect Arthur Leigh Allen.

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Meanwhile, California detectives and amateur sleuths from across the U.S. have spent decades trying to solve the case.

David Oranchak, one of the codebreakers who cracked the long-unsolved 340 Cipher, told the Chronicle he has been working on the task since 2006. Oranchak is a 46-year-old web designer who lives in Virginia.

His teammates were Belgian computer programmer Jarl Van Eycke and Sam Blake, an Australian mathematician.

“This is exciting,” Oranchak told the newspaper. “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.’”

Oranchak said it wasn’t that simple. The code has been “kicking his a--” for 14 years.

“Until now,” he said.