Although the American serial killer known as the Zodiac was officially declared inactive in 2002, that hasn’t stopped the police, the media, and the public from a continued effort to figure out just who was behind the infamous murders and strange press communications in the late 60s and early 70s. Now a team of computer scientists are trying out a new method of cracking the Northern California murderer's bizarre code: a robot that has been programmed to think like a serial killer.
This team is featured in the History Channel’s new docuseries The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer, and the robot, nicknamed CARMEL, has one main task: to crack the famous 340 cipher. The still-unsolved cipher was sent to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1969 by the alleged killer, and ran on its front page. It was written in pen and is a mixture of letters and symbols.
The team consists of five members: three professors, a Google employee, and an engineer. They spent 11 days working tirelessly, 7:30am to 7:30pm, to solve the cipher. "Several years ago, we did a class—called symbolic processing—and we focused on the Zodiac-340 cipher," professor of computer sciences Ryan Garlick told the Denton Record-Chronicle. Ryan teaches at the University of Texas, and was contacted in 2008 by National Geographic after some of the work he was doing with his students was published online. He was asked to do an interview on their show Code Breakers, which led to the History Channel contacting him for their new series.
Kevin Knight is the person behind the coding of CARMEL and is also the research director of the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute. The other team members include Sujith Razi, a software engineer at Google, Dave Oranchak, a software developer and expert on the Zodiac ciphers, and Craig Bauer, a cryptographer at York College.
"If you looked at it, it just looks like a sheet with some letters on it, with symbols mixed in," Garlick explained to the Denton Record-Chronicle. "If it's a homophonic cipher, that means that each character is a substitute for one or more letters. You go through a process of matching the character to a letter of the alphabet. So you look for a symbol that's used the most in the cipher, and that would be a substitute for a letter that's the most used in English — like 'E' or 'S.' So we run the cipher through the computer program to match those characters and then see what you come up with."
CARMEL has an interesting hobby; like many serial killers, it writes poems. Unlike the Son of Sam, the Zodiac was not known for writing poems. However, one poem has been possibly attributed to the killer, carved into a desk in the Riverside City College Library, very close to where student Cheri Jo Bates was murdered on October 30, 1966.
The software for CARMEL’s poetry is available for anyone to play around with online. You can choose to up the curse words for some really vile poems. For the sake of the sensibilities of our readers, I’ll keep mine appropriate. I have a master’s degree in poetry, and I have to say, this Zodiac robot actually writes some pretty good poems.
On the topic of Halloween:
I started feeling like a little fairy,
Haunted by the sound of lighting candles,
A silver candle burning bright and scary,
Lying on the bed of candy apples.
On the topic of Murder:
Destroy or kill or die and then avenge,
The fear of being haunted by a brother!
An angel blink an eye and take revenge,
The breath of death becomes a former lover.
This one is weird, and I love it. On the topic of Romance:
Label me an early story teller,
Being treated like a shredded chicken!
I hang my head and write a scarlet letter,
Blinded by the sound of vampire fiction.
Then I typed in my own name as a topic and had an existential crisis:
Another thousand people passing through.
I see an angel watching over me,
Alone and feeling like a part of you,
Surrounded by the fear of being free.
Then I upped the curse words to full power and entered my name again and faced another, more vulgar, existential crisis:
The mother*cking mother f*ckers free.
Life is such an easy thing to do,
You become a f*cking part of me,
Surrounded by the fear of breaking through.
This is a TAME poem compared to others I have made with the curse words turned up. Beware, the Zodiac robot still thinks like a disgusting, murderous, gross dude, and I’ll let you discover that on your own, if you are so inclined. After all, CARMEL was programmed to think just that way. Like so many morally terrible artists both alive and dead, this robot is, unfortunately, a really good writer. But we must not be distracted by the beauty of its words; it is still a robot designed to think like a serial killer and no amount of great art can change that.
All joking aside, it does seem that the team, with the help of CARMEL, is actually getting closer to solving the cipher, and Ryan says they may have already solved a portion of the code. "We looked at the cipher in a lot of different ways — up and down [moving from] left to right, up and down [moving from] right to left. Then someone asked 'what about spirals starting from each corner?' What if you start left to right, then go down to the next line, but go right to left? What about leaving off the last line? You try skipping characters... There’s a guy at the FBI whose theory was that you needed to cut it in half and then paste the bottom half to the top and then read [the cipher] left to right," he told the Denton Record-Chronicle.
The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer premiered on November 14th on the History Channel and new episodes come out Tuesday nights. Ryan says he is impressed with the rest of the team of researchers and detectives also working for the show. He believes in the continued importance of finding who is responsible for the murders of at least five people, though the Zodiac bragged about taking 37 lives. "On the map he sent to the San Francisco Chronicle, he put his symbol over Mount Diablo, and said he had a bomb buried out there," Ryan said. "It's really possible that there's still a bomb out there. There's also the possibility the Zodiac is still alive... A few of his victims are still alive. I'd like to know who did all this, and there are obviously a lot of other people who want to know who the Zodiac Killer is or was. If the case was solved, it would help a lot of people."
Thanks to the Denton Record-Chronicle for their reporting.