Proposed Zodiac 340 Solution Comes Under Fire From Critics
Corey Starliper's proposed solution the the 340 cipher received much criticism from Zodiac researchers, investigators, and cryptographers.
Despite an onslaught of criticism, Corey Starliper is standing by the methodology he says helped him crack a code associated with one of the most notorious serial killers in U.S. history.
Starliper,a Tewksbury native, claims to have solved the Zodiac 340, a cipher written by a serial murderer who sent coded messages to law enforcement and newspapers in the San Francisco area beginning in the late 1960’s. Even though many have tried to decipher the Zodiac 340, it has remained unsolved for some 40 years.
Starliper said he submitted his proposed solution to the 340, published on July 21 on Tewksbury Patch, in an attempt to bring closure to the families that were victimized by the Zodiac killer.
“I started this whole thing because I thought that I could potentially make a difference,” he said.
He also thought that there was a chance the story may take off.
“I had some idea that it would escalate and it would get people talking,” said Starliper, a former correspondent for Tewksbury Patch. “When people talk, things get shaken loose.”
What has shaken loose is a bevy of readers and responders, some of whom agree with Starliper’s solution, many of whom, however, think Starliper’s solution is invalid. Starliper has even been labeled by some as a fraud and his supposed solution has been called "a hoax."
Through the verbal attacks that have followed, Starliper has tried to dispel comments about himself that he describes as “inaccurate”. One of these is the idea that he’s not open to criticism.
"Constructive criticism is welcome. In fact it's appreciated," he said. “Constructive criticism generates opportunities in the quest for truth.”
Even though Starliper said that he didn’t expect the response to his revelation to be a “bed of roses,” the extent of both media attention and negative feedback was something that he described as a “shock." He said that people responded as he expected they would, “attacking the method” he used to derive a solution to the code, which he explained was more in-depth than his critics suggest.
“They’re saying that the Caesar shift is too simple. I didn’t only use the Caesar shift,” he said. “There were a number of other methods that I used.”
A Caesar shift is a means of encryption where letters in a code have been shifted in a determined way or a predictable pattern. In a shift of “3” for example, D would stand for A, E for B, and so on, because they are three letters ahead in the alphabet.
Starliper declined to give any explanation as to how he reached the letters other than using Caesar shifts. The amateur code breaker plans to reveal all of that in a write-up on his deciphering methods, due by mid-August.
“The write up will be out as soon as FBI Headquarters in Quantico has had a chance to review it,” he said.
There are those in the general public who will be ready to critique the “walk-through” solution, as Starliper describes it, as soon as it is available. David Oranchak plans to read the write-up and explain why Starliper’s interpretations do not have, in his opinion, “special merit or significance” over mere guesses.
“Corey's system allows him great freedom to guess words that fit his preconceived notions of the Zodiac case,” he said. Oranchak runs the website oranchak.com. He is a software engineer with an interest in cryptography and wrote a program entitled “Zodiac webtoy”, designed to help people solve the 340.
“The mistake that many investigators make, amateur or otherwise, is they develop a theory and will work towards making the evidence work for that theory,” said John Morse, a Virginia-based Private Investigator, and of Morse Investigative services. On Morse’s website, he labeled Starliper an “exposed fraud."
“His method is based on an admitted liberal use of imagination,” the post read.
Starliper admits to working “backwards” at times to find words that made sense in the code.
“I can tell you that I did use the word “game” ... at one point to try to get to the next word,” said Starliper. “There were points when I was solving it, when I did go in and put a word in, and the similarities in the number sequence ... verified that the word was in fact correct. On the occasions when those similarities were not present, I went in and changed the word until the similarities matched up.
A big problem many critics raised with Starliper’s solution was that the shift values between coded letters and plaintext (or decoded message) seemed arbitrary. Starliper didn’t respond to this criticism, and even said in an initial conversation, “the pattern changes, to the point where there is no actual detectable pattern.” He said he overcame this problem by knowing “similarities in the numerical sequence.”
According to Oranchak, Caesar shift-type ciphers “use a fixed or repeating set of shift values.”
“The random selection of Caesar shift values demonstrates no credible pattern,” Oranchak said of Starliper’s method. “My initial impression was that his Caesar shift patterns would not hold up at all throughout the entire cipher.”
To confirm this, Oranchak recently analyzed Starliper’s solution down to the shift of every individual character. His work, which is posted on his site, claims that Starliper’s shifts are arbitrary.
“I am very sure that I could use the same steps to generate other guesses of the solution, all of which are as insignificant as Corey's solution,” he said. “You can simply replace Corey's solution with ANY plain text you wish, and generate another sequence of meaningless Caesar shift values.”
Michael Butterfield, a freelance writer who has researched the Zodiac case for more than 10 years, as well as the Webmaster of zodiackillerfacts.com, said that Starliper's means of decryption seem to be “random, selective, and self-serving.”
“By shifting the values of a given character within the code, Starliper was able to compose whatever message he desired. Anyone could do the same thing and achieve (his or her) own results. This is not a method to discover a valid solution -- this is a method for creating a preferred solution.”
Another qualm that critics have with Starliper’s methods are his reliance on a “340” connection between the cipher, and the area code of the U.S. Virgin Islands, to which the Zodiac was rumored to have ties. Starliper said he decided on the original shift of 3,4 by using the formula 3+4+0=7, 7+0=7—707 and 340 being the area codes for two locations in which the Zodiac supposedly operated. The problem is, as many readers pointed out, 340 didn’t become the area code of the U.S. Virgin Islands until 1997.
“It really wasn’t an insignificant connection ... in reality, if you throw away the Virgin Island connection, which people are already, you still have the 707 connection and you still have the 340,” said Starliper.
Oranchak disputes even this logic. He describes some of Starliper’s methods as “pseudo-mathematical,” specifically the connection between 340 and 707.
“These kinds of techniques are often used by numerologists to find non-existent messages and meanings in various sources,” he said.
Starliper’s decryption process took nine hours—in two shifts—which he attributes to his “trial and error method.”
“There have been thousands of solutions proposed to the 340,” he said. “This is mine.”
Michael Cole, the Webmaster of the site Zodiacrevisited.com, and an avid Zodiac researcher, said that Corey is similar to the many other people that have claimed to have solved the cipher.
Cole mentioned that through the years, Master’s Degree theses have been written on the 340 cipher, computer programs have been designed, and hundreds of man-hours have been spent in pursuit of a solution to the 340.
“Through all of this effort, none of us have even come close to solving the 340,” he said. “Corey Starliper comes along and claims to have solved the 340 in nine hours only because he doesn't have sufficient knowledge to understand that his solution is not valid,” he said.
Starliper seems to accept this as a possibility.
“I believe there is enough evidence to suggest that my solution is valid. However, it really is anyone’s guess,” he said. “For all anybody knows, (the Zodiac’s) code could be the alphabet repeated 30 times over.”
To those that dispute him, Starliper says that he won’t argue, he’ll simply tell them to come up with their own solution.
“Try your hand at it and see if you can come up with something different,” he said. ”If my solution turns out to be (inaccurate), at the very least I’ve opened the door for people to come forward with their own solutions and maybe we can get this thing solved once and for all. And if this solution is accurate, or somebody comes forward with one that is, then all this time in the spotlight and all the notoriety will have been worth it in the end.”