A cypher, also referred to as a cryptogram, is information contained in a code. For example, spies in World War II often communicated in cyphers. It is also called steganography. Cyphers are often created by writing a message and substituting symbols for the letters (monoalphabetic substitution ciphers). This type of cypher or cipher (either spelling is okay) is the most common. The recipient needs to have the symbols to decode it. Another way of cyphering is to have a message written within the context of a letter. In this case, the recipient needs to know the sequence of letters to pay attention to. Polyalphabetic ciphers can involve moving every letter of the alphabet over one letter so the page looks like random letters.
Code breakers consider that “e” is the most commonly used letter in the English language. They look for patterns of letters and pay particular attention to single letter words. The most common 4 letter word is “that.” The most common 3 letter words are “the, and, for, was and his.” The most common 2 letter words are “of, to, in, is, and it.” The most common double letter is “ll,” followed by "ee, ss, oo and tt.” Occasionally serial killers write cryptic messages, as in the case of the Zodiac killer, and leave it to the public to decipher. The follow up book to Murder Book involves a killer who leaves a cypher at the murder scene.
The Zodiac Killer was a serial killer who operated in northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The killer's identity remains unknown. The Zodiac murdered between December 1968 and October 1969. Four men and three women between the ages of 16 and 29 were targeted. The killer originated the name "Zodiac" in a series of taunting letters sent to the local Bay Area press. These letters included four cryptograms (or ciphers). Of the four cryptograms sent, only one has been definitively solved.
The first murders widely attributed to the Zodiac Killer were the shootings of high school students Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday on December 20, 1968, on Lake Herman Road. The couple were on their first date and planned to attend a Christmas concert at Hogan High School about three blocks from Jensen's home. The couple instead parked on a gravel turnout, which was a well-known lovers' lane. Shortly after 11:00 p.m., their bodies were found by Stella Borges, who lived nearby. The Solano County Sheriff's Department investigated the crime but no leads developed.
Utilizing available forensic data, Robert Graysmith postulated that another car pulled into the turnout, just prior to 11:00 p.m. and parked beside the couple. The killer apparently exited the second car and walked toward the car ordering the couple out. Betty Jensen appeared to have exited the car first. When David Faraday was halfway out, the killer apparently shot Faraday in the head. Betty Jensen was gunned down twenty-eight feet from the car, fleeing from the killer, with five shots through her back. The killer then drove off.
Blue Rock Springs Attack
Just before midnight on July 4, 1969, Darlene Ferrin and Michael Mageau drove into the Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo, four miles from the Lake Herman Road murder site, and parked. A second car drove into the lot and parked alongside them but then left. Returning about 10 minutes later, the car parked behind them. The driver exited the vehicle, approaching the passenger side door of Ferrin's car, carrying a flashlight and a 9 mm Luger. The killer directed the flashlight into Mageau's and Ferrin's eyes before shooting at them, firing five times. Both victims were hit, and several bullets had passed through Mageau and into Ferrin. The killer walked away from the car but upon hearing Mageau's moaning, returned and shot each victim twice more before driving off.
On July 5, 1969, at 12:40 a.m., a man phoned the Vallejo Police Department to report and claim responsibility for the attack. The caller also took credit for the murders of Jensen and Faraday six-and-a-half months earlier. The police traced the call to a phone booth at a gas station at Springs Road and Tuolumne, about three-tenths of a mile from Ferrin's home and only a few blocks from the Vallejo Police Department. Ferrin was pronounced dead at the hospital. Mageau survived the attack despite being shot in the face, neck and chest.
The killer was almost caught after this shooting. Police were pulling over cars, but had thought the caller said the shooter was black. Later, they found out they were mistaken, and in one of the letters from the Zodiac he commented about having been pulled over.
Letters from the Zodiac
On August 1, 1969, three letters prepared by the killer were received at the Vallejo Times Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The San Francisco Examiner. The nearly identical letters took credit for the shootings at Lake Herman Road and Blue Rock Springs. Each letter also included one-third of a 408-symbol cryptogram which the killer claimed contained his identity. The killer demanded they be printed on each paper's front page or he would "cruse around all weekend killing lone people in the night then move on to kill again, until I end up with a dozen people over the weekend."
On August 7, 1969, another letter was received at The San Francisco Examiner with the salutation "Dear Editor This is the Zodiac speaking." This was the first time the killer had used this name for identification. The letter was a response to Chief Stiltz's request for more details that would prove he had killed Faraday, Jensen and Ferrin. In it, the Zodiac included details about the murders which had not yet been released to the public, as well as a message to the police that when they cracked his code, "They will have me."
On August 8, 1969, Donald and Bettye Harden of Salinas (retired teachers), cracked the 408-symbol cryptogram. It contained a misspelled message in which the killer said he was collecting slaves for the afterlife.
Lake Berryessa Attack
On September 27, 1969, Pacific Union College students Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard were picnicking at Lake Berryessa on a small island. A man approached them wearing a black executioner's-type hood with clip-on sunglasses over the eye-holes and a bib-like device on his chest that had a white 3"x3" cross-circle symbol on it. He approached them with a gun, which Hartnell believed to be a .45. The hooded man claimed to be an escaped convict from Deer Lodge, Montana, where he had killed a guard and stolen a car, explaining that he needed their car and money to go to Mexico. He had brought precut lengths of plastic clothesline and told Shepard to tie up Hartnell, before he tied her up. The killer checked, and tightened Hartnell's bonds after discovering Shepard had bound Hartnell's hands loosely. Hartnell initially believed it to be a weird robbery, but the man drew a knife and stabbed them both repeatedly. The killer then hiked 500 yards back up to Knoxville Road, drew the cross-circle symbol on Hartnell's car door with a black felt-tip pen, and wrote beneath it: "Vallejo/12-20-68/7-4-69/Sept 27–69–6:30/by knife
The Most Likely Suspect
There is a significant amount of circumstantial evidence linking Arthur Leigh Allen to the Zodiac killings. Allen was given a Zodiac watch as a Christmas present from his mom in 1967 which had the circle and cross symbol on it. He hated his mother. Allen was known to park his car and drink alcohol in it by the Lake Herman area, where 2 of the murders occurred. Allen had a bad temper and always kept a loaded gun in his vehicle. Allen had entered the military but was kicked out after serving less than 2 years. He took a job teaching elementary school. During his couple years of teaching, he only used 1 sick day--the day after Cheri Jo Bates was stabbed to death. (Cheri Jo Bates, age 18, was a Riverside Community College student who was brutally stabbed to death. Arthur Allen was in the area at the time. The Zodiac made reference to the Cheri Bates murder in his letters, even though it was only carried on local news. Investigators proved Allen was in the area at the time. Her murder is unsolved and many attribute it to the Zodiac killer.) Allen was fired as a teacher for molesting a child. A search of Allen’s home revealed he had the model typewriter that was used to send the letters to police. In 1972, a friend of Allen’s revealed to police Allen told him he planned on killing couples at random and planned on taunting the police with his success. The police searched a trailer Allen listed as his address, but failed to search where he was actually living. According to his family and friends, Allen possessed codes with identical symbols to those used by the Zodiac. The Zodiac spelled words occasionally with double “ss” like “bussy work,” as did Allen. Investigators believed the killer was very familiar with the Vallejo, California, area and Allen lived there. The first 2 homicide scenes were within 7 minutes of his home. The Blue Rock Springs surviving victim picked Allen out of a line-up as the man who attempted to kill her. According to the surviving Berryessa victim, Allen’s physical appearance and voice were the same as the man who assaulted her. Someone had seen Allen with bloody knives on the day of the stabbing. Allen told investigators he had killed a chicken. Allen had a 10.5 shoe size, the same as the Zodiac killer.
When Arthur Allen attended Sonoma State College the Zodiac murders ended, but the Sonoma coed murders began. They are officially referred to as the “Santa Rosa hitchhiker murders” and involved the murders of 6 girls ages 12 to 23. They remain unsolved and many attribute these murders to the Zodiac. Allen was living in Santa Rosa at the time. If you mapped where the first 2 murdered coeds were last seen, and where they were found, Allen’s residence was directly between them. When Allen was incarcerated in 1975 for child molestation, the letters to the newspapers ended. Arthur Leigh Allen died at age 58 in 1992, from diabetes and heart problems. DNA testing on the stamps did not match Allen, but his family said he often didn’t lick his stamps because he didn’t like the taste.
In 1996, a man claiming to be the Zodiac killer, Heriberto “Eddie” Seda was arrested in New York City. Seda attacked people throughout New York City, sending taunting messages to the police and media after each crime. The messages included codes based on International maritime signal flags, which New York Post journalist Keiran Crowley decoded with the assistance of his father-in-law, a veteran of WWII cryptography. The killer's letters to police claimed that he was selecting his victims based on their signs of the Zodiac, and implied he would act only at certain times when specific stars were visible in the night sky. He used an improvised firearm, explaining in his messages that the lack of rifling marks on the shells would prevent his capture. (Police are still able to trace bullets back to home-made weapons as they still leave unique marks.)
New York police considered the possibility that the notorious Zodiac Killer may have relocated to the East Coast and resumed his crimes after two decades of inactivity. However, a handwriting analyst and consultation with California authorities ruled out that possibility.
Capture of the Copycat
Heriberto Seda, age 26, was an unemployed high school drop-out, living with his mother and half-sister. On June 18, 1996, Seda was mad that his half-sister (Gladys Reyes) because she was in a bedroom with her boyfriend. Seda pulled out a weapon and began threatening the couple. While Reyes' boyfriend hid in the bedroom, his sister tried to escape through the front door, but Seda shot her in the buttocks. Wounded but not incapacitated, she made her way to her neighbor’s apartment where she called the police. Seda drew the killer’s Zodiac symbol on the bottom of the page during his statement to police. Seda shot 8 people, killing 3 in New York. His killings didn’t have the same search for young women exhibited by the original Zodiac killer. Seda’s DNA was connected to a stamp on one of the letters sent to police in New York, however, he was not matched to the California killings. It is believed the original Zodiac killer was never caught. Here is a weird aside on Heriberto Seda: In prison, Seda began a romantic affair with Synthia-China Blast, a "Latin King" gang member who identifies as female, and is serving a sentence for a gang-related murder. Their relationship received attention due to their legal battle to be allowed to marry while incarcerated, and due to Blast's efforts to obtain gender-reassignment surgery.
Exorcism and Education
I am named after my grandfather, Frank Kapsner. Frank and his brothers (3 became priests) played a lot of baseball. His brother, Father Celestine Kapsner (Carl), was the Chicago priest who wrote Be Gone Satan, which was the basis for the movie The Exorcist. It’s significant to note that The Exorcist is a movie, not a documentary. Father Celestine was proud of his ability to bring people back to the church through discussion. Father Oliver (Leonard) was a historian and a librarian and his picture is displayed in the St. John’s library. Father Roland was known for his since of humor. Another of Frank Kapsner’s siblings, Sister Benedict, was the treasurer at St. Benedicts. My mother’s sibling, Sister Mary Cecilia (Cecilia) taught business at St. Cloud Cathedral. Involvement in the church was the only way for poor people to receive an advanced education two generations ago.
Quote for the week:
When I was pulled over the officer looked at my driver’s license and asked me to take my glasses off. I complied, but thought, “Yeah, I’m on the run and the only disguise I could come up with is these clear glasses. Should I go home and put on the shirt I was wearing for my license picture too.” Hannibal Buress
“I don’t really think I need buns of steel. I’d be happy with buns of cinnamon.” Ellen Degeneres
Thanks for listening,
Austin, Texas. Summer, 2015
As I’m speaking, people ask me how I tolerate the stress of forensic work. The answer is I enjoy my life away from work. We had one of our most enjoyable vacations in Austin, Texas, and plan to return someday. Bobby Flay said the Salt Lick had the best barbecue he’s ever eaten so we verified that it is amazing. They slow barbecue all of their meat overnight, and when it’s gone the restaurant closes, every day.
I had heard about Rocket electric bike tours in Austin on Jimmy Fallon so I called Rocket bikes and talked them into giving us a tour of music venues in Austin on their electric bikes. Austin is currently the best place to hear live music. We listened to a symphony, a jazz band, some great country bands, a nightclub blues singer, and a variety of small music acts. A block of homes were purchased and made into bars, with folk music playing on the porches. You buy a beverage, walk through the yards and listen. The only glitch was when my daughter-in-law ran a guy off a bridge with her bike. Actually, he didn’t jump—just thought about it. Austin has a long section of scenic biking walkway over the river which we rode before we hit the clubs. I’m in for doing this again!
Frank Weber is a forensic psychologist whose award winning forensic and clinical work includes assessment and expert witness testimony for homicide, sexual assault, and physical assault cases. From this real life world comes his first work of fiction Murder Book from North Star Press. “A convincing piece of fiction that pulls you into a heart-breaking human experience with unpredictable and jolting twists.”