Code breakers solve the Zodiac Killer’s cipher after 50 years

Amelia Symons, Staff Writer

Known for mainly killing couples in secluded areas, the Zodiac Killer wreaked havoc in San Francisco in the 1960’s. What sets this person apart from past killers was his connection to the media. He mocked and taunted the police and investigators by sending letters to the local newspaper with information about the case that was never leaked to the public. He also included pieces of evidence from a few of the murder scenes in these letters. The symbol of a circle with a cross through it that appeared at the bottom of each of these letters is what gave him the name the Zodiac Killer. 

The total number of kills is believed to be at least seven, but in the letters, the killer claims it was as many as 37 people. The only confirmed victims of the Zodiac Killer were two teenagers on Lake Herman Road, a couple in a parking lot of Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo, a couple at Lake Berryessa in Napa County, and a taxi driver in Presidio Park in San Francisco, a teenager at Riverside Community College, and a young couple in Santa Barbara County. It is also speculated that he may have been involved in the disappearance of a young nurse near Lake Tahoe. 

The public assumed he stopped killing in 1974 when the letters stopped, but the investigation into this case has never ceased, and the case remains open in San Francisco, Napa County, and Riverside. Investigators and detectives have worked for decades on this case with no new breakthroughs. People and law enforcement have had nearly 2,500 suspects over the years, but nothing has ever been definite. People were convinced that their friends, loved ones, and work colleagues were responsible for the crimes. 

In 2011, America’s Most Wanted ran a story about the Zodiac Killer, hoping to catch the attention of anyone with information. The Zodiac Killer was never caught because he stopped killing and stopped reaching out to the media. Unfortunately, evidence collected at the time is not able to be used with new technology because it was mishandled and the chain of custody was broken. In 2018, when the Golden State Killer was caught after a DNA match, police hoped to do the same with the Zodiac Killer through the stamps on the letters he sent, but no further information has been leaked about whether or not that has led investigators anywhere.

For nearly 50 years following the time when the Zodiac Killer was active, the ciphers he sent to the media have haunted the Bay Area and northern California. In late 2020, a group of three code breakers, David Oranchak, Jarl Van Eycke, and Sam Blake, believe they have finally deciphered the messages. After trying many different deciphering techniques, the trio began to think that there was no message in the letters, but Oranchak developed his own decryption software in hopes of cracking the code. 

News of the code being deciphered was brought to the FBI, where the Zodiac Killer remains an open case, but they have chosen not to speak any further about the case out of respect for the victims and as an attempt not to inspire any crazed fans or copycat killers. Although the identity of the infamous Zodiac Killer has not yet been discovered, codebreakers and detectives are one step closer than they have ever been.