The Ecphorizer

Mike West
Gareth Penn

Issue #53 (January 1986)

The Zodiac killer on the phone

In May 1983, I gave an illustrated talk at the Mensa Regional Gathering in Santa Rosa on the subject of the Zodiac murders. I didn't pull any punches. At one point, one of my auditors asked me if Mr X, the person whom I explicitly named as [quoteright]being the author of the six murders in California,

Cryptographic conversations with a mass murderer.

knew what I was doing. I replied that he probably had a general idea but might not be too happy about the presentation that I was making. This person seemed to be rather indignant, and he left me with the impression that the first order of business for him after dinner was going to be a letter or telephone call to my subject.

In any case, it was about then that the weird telephone calls started. With a few exceptions, they were of the one-ring, hangup variety. The purpose of making these untraceable calls appeared to be to mark cer- tain clock times which in turn could be read as a form of communication. Let me give you two examples.

On the 15th of June 1983, at 6:15 pm, the phone rang once. I picked it up and got a dial tone. I hung up. It rang again. Again, a dial tone. We went through this process six times before my mystery caller stopped dialing my number. The whole thing took about a minute. The date was 6-15, the time was 6:15. 15 is the alphabetic quantity of the letter O, which is written in the form of a circle. "Ring" is a synonym for "circle." I got six rings at 6:15 pm on 6-15. Six is binary 110, Morse ME. The message, expressed in three different ways, appeared to be "Me circle." It's the sort of thing you might expect from somebody whose surname is given in Morse Code by the fraction of pi, which is the number defining the relationship between the parts of the circle.

On the 9th of August 1983, the phone rang once and then went silent at 7:56 pm The same thing happened two days later, at 10:56 pm. Two days after that, on Friday the 13th, we got another one-ring hangup at 9:56 pm. I won't attempt to unravel the probability question, but I think it obvious by inspection that this series of calls can be attributed to coincidence only by a gargantuan effort. On the first day the call came after the seventh hour; the next day there was nothing. Seven followed by nothing is 70, or 35 x 2. Ten followed by nothing is 100. Nine is the quantity of the letter I, the first person singular pronoun. 56 minutes is 56/60 of an hour, a fraction which can also be written as 14/15. The fraction of pi is also written 1-4-1-5. The following July (the 27th), one-ring hangup calls came at 3:14 pm, 4:08 pm, and 4:17 pm. 314 is 100pi. 408 is 130pi. 4:17 follows the second call by an interval of nine minutes; 4 x 17 = 68, binary 1000100, Morse 10 00 10 0, ITINE (again, substitute for pronoun I). These calls fit a type which I call the "family portrait." They consist of personalia pertaining to a particular woman, her husband, and a pronominal reference to a third person. In the family in question, there is only one child.

Encouraged by what I took to be Mr X's desire to communicate, I drafted what I thought he would find to be an encouraging digital message on a picture postcard showing a Christo painting of the projected conceptual art work, "Surrounded Islands," which was just going up in Miami Beach. I franked the card with two 17-cent stamps (to imply the phrase TIMES
17) and gave it to a friend, who was on his way to Miami for a confer- ence. My purpose was to see whether a particular stimulus would elicit an appropriate response; it would be interesting to promote a dialogue. He had already chosen his means, the telephone and clock; I decided to rely on the postal service.

More interesting calls followed the mailing of the Miami card, but nothing that could be interpreted as a specific response. In July 1983 I had another friend in New York drop another letter for me. This time the return address told most of the story. Zodiac had written his confession to the murder in Riverside in a statement containing 1623 letters but had not signed the document. I propose that the number 1623 itself is the invisible signature. Written to the base two, it redivides to Morse 11 00 101 0 111, MIKE 0. Several times in the literature, Zodiac refers to the crime in Riverside by its longitude, i.e. 117 degrees west of Greenwich. The return address on the New York letter was "1623 West 117th Street." A person reading it in binary notation could well be expected to express it as MIKE O WEST.

Again, there was no specific response, although the (usually nocturnal) one-ring hangup calls continued to come in.

Finally, in early February 1984, I had one of those 3 AM Thunderbolts that made me sit up in bed, electrified. I had been trying for two years to make sense of the wide dispersal of Joan Webster's effects in Boston. All I had was two points though, and all that you can make with them is a line. Was it a pointer? If so, was she buried in Salem or Roxbury? Nothing looked promising. But now it came to me that there was a third thing about her disappearance. It was the Eastern Airlines Terminal at Logan Airport.

I got up and put on my bathrobe, turned on all the lights in the living room, then spread out the Geological Survey maps for Boston and Lynn on the floor. I covered them with a clear overlay, then connected the Highway 107 site and BM 9 at the bus station with a straight line. At BM 9, I turned a 38-degree angle and extended it as far as my straight- edge would go. It went straight through a large building at Logan, at the end of the structure connected to the airport concourse by two ramps which were clearly shown on the map.

I fretted like a caged animal until it was time to go to work. I took my Boston map with me and made a photocopy of the part showing the airport. I mailed it to the victim's mother, with whom I had been corresponding since early 1982, with the request that she mark the place that Joan Webster had last been seen, presumably right before she was picked up by her murderer. The map came back with an X drawn on the same building, at the end with the two ramps. That was one confir- mation. I needed one more to be certain.

This time the mailing was nothing but a Boston map showing the 38-degree angle joining the bus station, the Highway 107 site, and Eastern Airlines. It had a fictitious return address, and I franked it with two 35-cent stamps (35 x 2). I gave it to a person who was on her way to Hawaii. She told me later that she mailed it at the airport in Honolulu on the morning of the 15th of February.

For about six weeks prior to this, I had been receiving telephone calls from a number of people responding to an advertisement on the Golden Gate BBS in San Francisco saying that I was selling pirated Atari videogame softwares. It came as a surprise to me, since to my knowl- edge I have never even seen videogame softwares. I not only don't have a computer, I had never heard the term "BBS" prior to this time. I am not only not computer literate, I am not even microwave oven literate. I finally got the ad removed, but not before a kind computer hobbyist had read me the message, which opened with, "Pirate's Delight!" The first two letters (and a few other clues) appeared to indicate the authorship.

To return to the present, my friend had mailed the Boston map showing the 38-degree angle centered on the bus station, franked with two 35-cent stamps, on the 15th. On the 18th, my phone rang at 2:35 am. I waited for it to ring a few times to see if my caller was going to hang up. He didn't. I picked it up, asked who was calling, and the ensuing conversation took the following lines. My caller was enquiring about the Atari videogame softwares that I was selling. I told him that I had no softwares to sell and asked him where he got his information. He said that he had obtained it from an advertisement on a bulletin board system called "Golden Gate BBS II," operated by one Mike West in Tamarac, Florida. I did not point out that "Golden Gate anything" was unlikely for South Florida. I also did not suggest that the main elements of this cock-and-bull story, "Mike West" and South Florida, combined descriptive features pertaining to the Miami and New York mailings. What my caller was doing was proving to me that he was someone who was familiar with the contents of Mr X's mailbox. He also demonstrated that he was used to reading numbers in Morse Code. Finally after I had told him repeatedly that the advertisement was a hoax, he hung up; but before he did, he gave me Mike West's telephone number.

While I waiting for the sun to rise on Florida, I made several calls to directory assistance. There was no telephone listed to a Mike West in Tamarac. I tried several other nearby communities, until I got a listing in Pompano Beach. The number was the same as the one my anonymous caller had given me.

The ground was burning under my feet, but I managed to wait until it was at least daylight in Pompano Beach; then I dialed Mike West's number. He answered, a bit groggy, and it took me quite a while to explain the background before asking him what he knew about what was going on. He told me that he had never heard the term "BBS" before, did not own a computer, and had never had a videogame in his house. All he knew was that during the night just past, his phone had rung repeatedly, he thought about 3 am Eastern Time, and every time that he had answered it the caller had hung up.

The 18th of February passed without other incident. We went to a party and got back about half past eleven. We went to bed. At 12:38 am the phone rang once, then went silent. At 12:41, it rang again. It rang yet a third time at 12:44, then went silent for the rest of the night. There were three calls, at three minute intervals, beginning at 38 minutes after midnight. The word THREE in Morse Code is a redivision of BUS. You might call THREE and BUS digital synonyms. The Honolulu mailing had shown nothing but a 38-degree angle centered on the bus station in downtown Boston. The call of the previous night had been a receipt for the Miami and New York mailings; this series of calls was a specific response to the stimulus of'the Honolulu mailing.

Mr X was not just catching up on his correspondence. He had never resorted to voice calls before. They were traceable and would leave a paper trail besides. He was obviously very excited by the letter from Honolulu. I wondered if he had spent the last two years fretting because nobody had noticed his handiwork.

The following evening the phone rang at 9:56 pm, just as it had on the 13th of August past. I let it ring several times, then picked it up. It was another enquiry about the videogames from the same person who had called at 2:35 am the day before. I told him that in the interim I had talked to Mike West, and that Mike West had said that he knew nothing about it. My caller said that I must be mistaken. He and Mike West were old friends. In fact, he had heard about my softwares not from Mike West's BBS, but from Mike West personally. I asked where he was calling from. He said San Jose. I said that the long distance suggested a much more remote location. He changed his mind and said that he was calling from Los Angeles. Then he hung up.

San Jose's Area Code is 408, or 130pi. Los Angeles is 213. The Zodiac's cryptogram was modeled on the number 130pi; Zodiac insisted on its publication on 1 August 1969, the 213th day of the year. This use of Area Codes to denote geographic locations and vice versa was nothing new. Zodiac left a man's watch, stopped at 12:22, by the side of his first victim in Riverside. The word TIMEX is Morse 1 00 11 0 1001, binary 627, the Area Code of Boston, Massachusetts.

The next morning was another work day. When I got to the office, I asked my friend who had gone to Miami if he had mailed my postcard to Mr X in Miami or somewhere else instead. He told me that he had for- gotten about it until he was on the road to Jacksonville for another conference. He had stopped somewhere north of Miami to fill up with gasoline and had dropped the card in the mailbox nearest the gas station before getting back on the turnpike.

I went to the office manager and asked to see Andrew's expense file. All of his receipts for the Miami trip were filed together, airline tickets, hotel bills, restaurant tabs, car-rental agreements, and credit card slips. Right in the middle of the stack was a credit card slip from a service station near Miami. The name of the town was Tamarac. 

This month's article by GARETH PENN is the latest in his continuing tale of tracking down the Zodiac killer. The police, although aware of his results, are still sitting on their hands.

More Articles by Gareth Penn

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