UNT professor hunts down Zodiac Killer in History Channel series

UNT professor hunts down Zodiac Killer in History Channel series

UNT professor hunts down Zodiac Killer in History Channel series
December 05
22:32 2017

What do Ted Cruz, the History Channel and a UNT professor all have in common? They can all be associated — in one way or another — with one of the most enigmatic serial killers in American history.

Ryan Garlick, a computer science and engineering professor, was asked to join a five-member team for a special series called “The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer” on the History Channel. The show features Garlick, along with other experts, as they attempt to crack the infamous 340-character cipher sent by the killer in 1969. The show premiered on Nov. 14 and spans over five episodes.

“People heard his voice, people saw him and yet it’s still a mystery,” Garlick said. “But I think on the show that we significantly advanced the problems of the case.”

The San Francisco Chronicle received the cipher nearly 48 years ago. Since then, the FBI, CIA and a host of experts have tried and failed to break the code. The case was also widely publicized when the movie “Zodiac” premiered, which Garlick said rekindled his interest after he read the book.

“It was the biggest unsolved serial killer case,” Garlick said. “Then the movie came out and reawakened everyone and put a big spotlight on the case.”

Between the early 1960s and 1970s, the Zodiac Killer was confirmed to have killed five people but claimed killing 37 people via letters to the local newspapers. Despite his continued communication, the Zodiac Killer was never found. To help crack the case, the “Zodiac Killer” team employed “high-tech AI” Carmel, a supercomputer that can search through trillions of letter sequences and can operate to think like the killer himself.

Along with its high-tech software, the team includes experts like York College math professor and cryptographer Craig Bauer, Google computer engineer Sujith Ravi, longtime Zodiac expert David Oranchak and code team leader Kevin Knight, who previously solved the Copiale Cipher. Garlick initially appeared in National Geographic’s documentary “Code Breakers,” which helped him land a seat on the “Zodiac Killer” team.

“The main advantage of forming a team is the diverse viewpoints that it brings to the problem,” Bauer said. “While this can lead to some disagreements, it also makes finding a solution far more likely. If we all had the exact same backgrounds and thought alike, our team wouldn’t be any better than a single person.”

The process involves a number of solutions and methods, each conducted through computer programs and human evaluation. The series will also show team members going out into the field to visit labs, talk to other experts and survey the sites of the murders. 

“It could be something really simple, like maybe we read it right to left instead of left to right,” Garlick said. “It can be top to bottom, it can bottom to top. It can be that you zig-zag back and forth. It could be that you spiral. Computers are good at trying all of those things and give us guidance to say, ‘Here are some patterns to trace through.’”

Throughout the process, Garlick also had help from UNT students. TAMS student Julian Laneve and Ph.D. candidate Jacob Hochstetler assisted in developing potential methods and types of software for the cipher.

“Garlick said he basically had this unsolved cipher and [said], ‘Solve it,’” Laneve said. “It was interesting to have that much freedom, especially on such an important project.”

Hochstetler, who has known Garlick for years, said working with the machine to run tests was both a blessing and a curse.

“We were given some loose guidelines from the History Channel, especially because we were mostly dealing with mechanical manipulation,” Hochstetler said. “But expecting something to work, running a bunch of tests and getting zero results [was challenging].”

Together, they pored over potential patterns within the code. They searched for bigrams, which are English-like parings of letters like “th” and “es.” They also looked for Zodiac-specific language like the words “kill,” “psycho” or “slaves” among other countless methods.

“We didn’t have much to go on,” Laneve said. “We had 300 to 400 characters, and that was it. There were so many dead ends and so many methods we would try. The whole idea of not knowing how close you are or how far you are was really frustrating.”

Especially during these projects, the act of staring at symbols and letters for hours on end can take a toll. After years of analyzing the 340 cipher, Garlick said it can be easy to grow desensitized to the Zodiac Killer’s true nature.

“When you look at this, it brings you away from the idea that this guy killed at least five people and claimed 37, and it’s just terrible,” Garlick said. “He was a really horrible guy, and he may still be alive. He could still be alive, just sitting in a rocking chair somewhere.”

The cipher is yet to be completely solved, but Garlick believes there is still power in the smaller breakthroughs.

“If you could run a machine long enough to say with confidence that it’s very likely that [it doesn’t read] right to left, you didn’t solve it, but you contributed something to where other people don’t have to spend their efforts doing that,” Garlick said. “One thing we’ve been trying to do is to get a database of what we know, so that helps future people say, ‘OK, this hasn’t been looked at.’”

Featured Image: UNT computer science professor Ryan Garlick spends his free time unlocking the meanings behind ciphers, cryptographs and codes. Garlick has been featured on the History Channel and in a 2009 National Geographic documentary called “The Code Breakers.” Sarah Schreiner

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Amy Roh

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