As early as September 1969, two young lovers had spent a secluded afternoon together at a lake in Napa County, California, before going to university.
Cecelia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell were alone – or at least they thought they were.
As they snuggled under the oak trees on a picnic blanket, they spotted a man walking towards them. When they saw he was wearing a black hangman's hood, sunglasses, and a strange white symbol on his chest that looked like a crosshair on a visor, it was too late to flee.
Cecilia and Bryan were about to become the fifth and sixth confirmed victims of the Zodiac Killer that terrorized San Francisco Bay. At gunpoint, the killer tied her to a plastic clothesline that he cut before brutally stabbing her with a knife.
After Zodiac reported to the police and the press in a series of mocking and boastful handwritten letters – some containing cryptograms and other evidence only the killer would know – he stopped writing and what appeared to be a stop killing. BildD: A police sketch of the Zodiac Killer
Mrs. Shepard later died with ten stab wounds, but Mr. Hartnell survived – despite being stabbed six times in the back -. Before leaving, the killer wrote the dates of his previous murders on the door of his car with a felt-tip pen. They were courting couples, too – one couple were just high school on their first date.
Although the last confirmed victim of the man who called himself the Zodiac Killer was Paul Stine, a San Francisco cab driver who was shot dead in his cab a month after the lakeside tragedy, the cold-blooded killer claimed he actually slaughtered 37 people.
This staggering death toll could never be confirmed as Zodiac was never found.
After Zodiac reported to the police and the press in a series of mocking and boastful handwritten letters – some containing cryptograms and other evidence only the killer would know – he stopped writing and what appeared to be a stop killing.
America's Jack the Ripper has faded into the shadows and more than 50 years of police work have shed no new light on him.
Given that the case is one of the most extraordinary in US criminal history, it is not surprising that the Zodiac killer continues to thrill. The murders inspired two Hollywood films, the 1971 Clint Eastwood thriller Dirty Harry and Zodiac, a faithful 2007 dramatization starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal as newspapermen and Mark Ruffalo as the cop pursuing the killer.
Amateur and professional cryptographers, including the FBI, continued to grapple with the unresolved encrypted messages, hoping Zodiac was being sincere in claiming that they contained his identity. Pictured: one of the ciphers of the zodiac
Filthy Harry replaced Eastwood's famous die-hard attorney Harry Callahan as a detective who eventually kills the psychopathic serial killer (Scorpio) after kidnapping a busload of school children.
The true zodiac was never identified, let alone brought to justice, despite the countless suspects. Meanwhile, amateur and professional cryptographers, including the FBI, continued to sift through the unresolved encrypted messages in the hopes that Zodiac was being sincere in claiming they contained his identity.
Now the case has suddenly come back to life. A code-breaking team from the United States, Australia, and Belgium – two computer programmers and an applied mathematician – announced that they had cracked one of the largest remaining Zodiac ciphers after running it through their own dedicated software program.
The 340 cipher, so named because it contains 340 characters arranged in a large block of letters and symbols, was sent by Zodiac to the San Francisco Chronicle in a humorous greeting card in November 1969.
While many ciphers simply consist of replacing symbols with letters, the 340 cipher was far more complicated – and over eight months the trio tested around 650,000 different ways of reading the message.
Then, a few weeks ago, they discovered that the cipher was starting to unravel by breaking it into three sections and reading the characters diagonally (like in a word search puzzle).
After finding out that Zodiac had made a mistake (a fact that might explain how it had beaten so many previous attempts) and corrected it, they had a finished message.
Unfortunately, it did not reveal his identity, but partially read: "I hope you have a lot of fun catching me … I am not afraid of the gas chamber because it will send me to paradise all the sooner because I now have enough slaves to." to work for me … where everyone else has nothing when they reach paradise they are afraid of death. & # 39;
Darlene Ferrin, 22, (left) and Mike Mageau, 19, were mugged in their car just four miles away in the town of Vallejo. Cecelia Shepard (right) and Bryan Hartnell were about to become the fifth and sixth confirmed victims of the Zodiac Killer that terrorized San Francisco Bay
Everything is stacked. He had previously described his victims as "slaves" and misspelled many words, including "paradise". The cipher also referred to a recent incident where a man called on a local TV chat show claiming to be a Zodiac and saying he was "sick" and was afraid of the gas chambers. (In the decrypted message, the killer insisted it wasn't him.)
It's clear that long before 2020, Zodiac expected its cipher to be broken. Dave Oranchak, the American member of the trio who had worked on the 340 since 2006, said it was a "beast" to crack.
Although it turned out to be "more of the same attention-grabbing junk" that was in Zodiac's letters, he said, "it was on" many people's "list of" best unsolved ciphers of all time. "
The FBI confirmed the breakthrough, but added that the Zodiac case would not make any further comments, given the ongoing investigation.
It is perfectly fitting that the cipher should be broken by members of the public, as this was also the case on the only other occasion when a zodiac code was cracked. The first – a long cipher sent in three pieces to local newspapers in 1969 – was simpler and was quickly solved by a teacher and his wife.
Unfortunately, the recent breakthrough in encryption can't get investigators much further. Zodiac littered his letters with terrible spelling, but since he had no problem with far more complicated words and was able to quote lines from the comic book opera The Mikado, some have dismissed this as a ploy to suggest that he was far less educated than him.
According to one school of thought, Zodiac found that in his latest confirmed murder, he got too close to shoot taxi driver Paul Stine (left) in San Francisco's smart Presidio Heights. It is widely believed that Zodiac killed Cheri Jo Bates (right), an 18-year-old college student, in 1966 – beating and stabbing her as she was leaving a library
There are still two Zodiac ciphers unresolved – one in which he wrote: "My name is …", followed by 13 symbols. Mr. Oranchak is not hoping to crack this, as cryptographers need a much longer message to recognize patterns.
Plus, Zodiac experts doubt that such a calculating killer should ever be caught – which only adds to the appeal of a case that remains temptingly open.
San Francisco had only seen 100,000 hippies gather in its Haight-Ashbury neighborhood for the "summer of love" a year earlier when the Zodiac killer said he had struck for the first time. Free love may have been a factor at Zodiac as it targeted smooching couples parked in the alleys of notorious lovers.
His first victims – David Faraday, 17, and Betty Lou Jensen, 16 – had their first date one evening in December 1968 when they were shot while kissing in a car.
Next came Darlene Ferrin, 22, and Mike Mageau, 19, who were mugged in their car just four miles away in the town of Vallejo the following July.
A car parked briefly next to them, drove away, but returned 10 minutes later. The driver got out and blinded them by beaming a powerful torch in their faces before shooting them with a 9mm Luger.
His first victims – David Faraday (17) (left) and Betty Lou Jensen (16) (right) – had their first date one evening in December 1968 when they were shot kissing in a car
When he heard Mr. Mageau groan, he returned and shot each of them twice more. Half an hour later, an anonymous man called the police in a "low, monotonous" voice from a telephone booth to draw their attention to the attack and to get involved in the previous double homicide.
Despite being shot three times, Mr Mageau survived and identified his exposed attacker as white, around 26 to 30 years old, 5 feet 8 inches tall, and with short, light brown, curly hair. Four weeks later, Zodiac sent his first letter along with a 408-symbol cryptogram split across three newspapers. He warned that if it wasn't featured on the front pages the next day, he would kill a dozen people over the weekend. (His request was not fully met, but he did not carry out his threat.) When deciphered, this first cipher contained a quote from The Most Dangerous Game, a 1924 novel about a man who hunts people for sport.
He also claimed that killing "is even better than taking down stones with a girl" and that he collected slaves for the afterlife.
According to one school of thought, Zodiac found that he got too close in his latest confirmed murder – he shot taxi driver Paul Stine in San Francisco's smart Presidio Heights and was seen by witnesses rushing away.
He was also spotted by a passing police car, but when they were mistakenly told to watch out for a black suspect, they drove by.
Zodiac continued to write his insane letters, some of which contained bloody bits of Mr. Stine's shirt, as evidence that he had. In one case, he threatened to kill children on a school bus (a terrifying concept featured in Dirty Harry) – "just shoot the front tire and then pick up the kids if they jump out," he scribbled.
The threat caused widespread panic and school buses were temporarily given police escorts.
Luckily, it was a blast, as was the threat of putting a bomb on a bus unless he saw people starting to wear "some nice Zodiac" badges with his logo on.
However, there is compelling evidence that he killed or almost killed others. The latter included Kathleen Johns, who and her ten-month-old daughter had to accept an elevator from a creepy stranger 90 miles east of San Francisco after apparently secretly obstructing their car.
He refused to let her out, but she jumped out with her child when the car stopped at an intersection and hid in a field until he left.
Johns described him as about 30 years old, 5 feet 9 inches tall, with short dark hair and heavy-rimmed glasses. Zodiac later mentioned a "pretty interesting ride" with a woman and her baby.
It is widely believed that Zodiac killed Cheri Jo Bates, an 18-year-old college student, in 1966 – beating and stabbing her as she exited a library. Typewritten letters signed with a symbol such as a "Z" were sent to the police and the press warned that they "will not be the first and they will not be the last".
He has also been linked to the disappearance of a nurse near Lake Tahoe in 1970 and the murder on a beach of a young couple who were handcuffed and shot near Santa Barbara, Southern California.
The killer wrote his last letter as a Zodiac in January 1974, signing a few lines from The Mikado and threatening to "do something bad" if it wasn't printed.
Suspects over the years have included a former Peeping Tom seaman, a hippie newspaper editor, a doctor, and a mentally ill librarian.
David Toschi, the San Francisco detective who led the Zodiac investigation, estimated that he interviewed 5,000 people.
However, none of the suspects aroused as much suspicion as Arthur Leigh Allen. Military mud prints were found in the mud near the shooting range on the lake, and investigators said the armed forces' training could explain the Zodiac's capabilities using ciphers.
Allen was a tall man who had both quit the U.S. Navy, taught under a cloud, and jailed for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old boy. He was supposedly obsessed with young children but hated women.
Even close family members believed he could be the killer, while a friend claimed Allen told him he wanted to attach a torch to a gun and kill people, and change his name to Zodiac.
The police interviewed him several times, but eventually dismissed the evidence against him as circumstantial. Handwriting and fingerprinting experts also ruled him out, and he died of a heart attack in 1992 at the age of 58.
Inevitably, speculation about the killer's identity continues, and if Allen was indeed not a zodiac, then there might still be a dark, twisted soul out there, laughing at how he got away with it and delighted to be back is the spotlight.
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