Craig Bauer: Attacking the Zodiac Killer

While writing Unsolved! The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies, it soon became clear to me that I’d never finish if I kept stopping to try to solve the ciphers I was covering. It was hard to resist, but I simply couldn’t afford to spend months hammering away at each of the ciphers. There were simply too many of them. If I was to have any chance of meeting my deadline, I had to content myself with merely making suggestions as to how attacks could be carried out. My hope was that the book’s readers would be inspired to actually make the attacks. However, the situation changed dramatically when the book was done.

I was approached by the production company Karga Seven Pictures to join a team tasked with hunting the still unidentified serial killer who called himself the Zodiac. In the late 1960s and early 70s, the Zodiac killed at least five people and terrorized entire cities in southern California with threatening letters mailed to area newspapers. Some of these letters included unsolved ciphers. I made speculations about these ciphers in my book, but made no serious attempt at cracking them. With the book behind me, and its deadline no longer a problem, would I like to join a code team to see if we could find solutions where all others had failed? The team would be working closely with a pair of crack detectives, Sal LaBarbera and Ken Mains, so that any leads that developed could be investigated immediately. Was I willing to take on the challenge of a very cold case? Whatever the result was, it would be no secret, for our efforts would be aired as a History channel mini-series. Was I up for it? Short answer: Hell yeah!

The final code team included two researchers I had corresponded with when working on my book, Kevin Knight (University of Southern California, Information Sciences Institute) and David Oranchak (software developer and creator of Zodiac Killer Ciphers. The other members were Ryan Garlick (University of North Texas, Computer Science) and Sujith Ravi (Google software engineer).

My lips are sealed as to what happened (why ruin the suspense?), but the show premieres Tuesday November 14, 2017 at 10pm EST. It’s titled “The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer.” All I’ll say for now is that it was a rollercoaster ride. For those of you who would like to see how the story began for me, Princeton University Press is making the chapter of my book on the Zodiac killer freely available for the duration of the mini-series. It provides an excellent background for those who wish to follow the TV team’s progress.

If you find yourself inspired by the show, you can turn to other chapters of the book for more unsolved “killer ciphers,” as well challenges arising from nonviolent contexts. It was always my hope that readers would resolve some of these mysteries and I’m more confident than ever that it can be done!

BauerCraig P. Bauer is professor of mathematics at York College of Pennsylvania. He is editor in chief of the journal Cryptologia, has served as a scholar in residence at the NSA’s Center for Cryptologic History, and is the author of Secret History: The Story of Cryptology. He lives in York, Pennsylvania.