Zodiac Killer’s name decrypted: Joe Bevilacqua #1

2020-version updated

In the summer of 2017, I knew a man named Joe Bevilacqua.
Joe was an 81-year-old Italian-American from New Jersey. In his 20-year career in the United States Army, he had served as a chemical instructor and CID investigator, having been awarded the Silver Star and other medals during the war in Vietnam.

[Click here for the second part]

In 1994, Joe testified about the “Monster of Florence” case in the Pietro Pacciani trial. At the time of Monster’s homicides, Joe resided in the area of ​​activity of the serial killer, near Florence. The last crime took place near his home, the local American war Cemetery, where he worked as superintendent.

One afternoon in August, while we were on the balcony of Joe’s house, an apartment overlooking the “highway of the sun” and the Chianti hills, I showed him a copy of the first page of the letter from Zodiac with serial killer’s encrypted identity.
Joe took the letter and began to read aloud, translating each line into Italian. When he reached the thirteen symbols, he smiled: “Forget it.” He paused on the line below the cipher.

“Io sono moderatamente ceroso…” he translated in Italian.
“Strange sentence”, he said, “Why did he write ‘ceroso’ instead of ‘curioso’?”. Joe’s tone hinted that the mistake could have some relevance.
A few weeks later, wondering why my elderly “suggester” underlined the word “cerous” (with the Italian meaning of “waxy”), I realized that it was maybe a key to solve the puzzle (see chapter L’acqua).

I noticed another detail, during the first attempts to decipher the message. In the 1988 edition of the Oxford English dictionary, the word “Aeneid” and the main character of Virgil’s poem, “Aeneas”, were the only words starting with “Aen”[1], like Zodiac’s cipher. Could there be a connection?

That classic reading was more useful for revealing a disguise weared by the serial killer than how it was in helping to find his name (see chapter Take the money and run).

The references used by Zodiac to build the cipher

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is zodiacs-name-cipher-references.png

After three years, I believe I have come to identify all the pieces of the coding method of the 13 letters encrypted by Zodiac. It will be seen that, apart from ancient symbols and terms, the references used by the murderer to encrypt his name were popular at the time the message was written.

Links to the letter (FBI specimen)


Page 1

Page 2

How the cipher is made

Zodiac’s name is not encrypted with a substitution code. The symbols are part of a puzzle game.

The cipher

In the letter to the San Francisco Chronicle postmarked on April 20, 1970, Zodiac claimed to have encrypted his name in the row of 13 symbols on the first page. Immediately upon receiving this communication, the San Francisco Police Department asked the FBI to break the code, but the Bureau’s specialists were unable to[2]. The text was too short.
The Army Security Agency and Criminal Investigation Division were of the opinion that Zodiac had received military training in cryptography[3]. If it were true, the author should have known that the message of 13 symbols could not be “cracked” without clues similar to that he would have inserted in his Halloween card, a few months later[4] (the letter Q, according to the solution I posted here).

Excerpt from the FBI airtel on Zodiac’s military background


On first page of the letter, Zodiac asked readers if they had already decrypted the 340-character encrypted message he mailed a few months earlier. He said he was “cerous” – instead of curious – to know the amount of his reward. He nicknamed the policemen “blue meanies (sic)”, like the Beatles antagonists in the movie “Yellow submarine”. He added that he was not the perpetrator of a recent bombing on a police station, although he claimed there was “more glory” in killing a cop than a “cid” – misspelling of “kid” child.
Zodiac also told the readers he “was swamped by the rain”.
In the previous letter to Melvin Belli he had said: I am drownding (sic)”. Did he mean he lives in a not very dry place?

On second page, the killer had drawn a diagram of a bomb he was threatening to detonate, describing how it would work.


The first block of the cipher consists of an ancient Greek word in capital letters depicted in the book “The Alphabet” by Frederic W. Goudy, ANETHEKE, erected (or dedicated), recognizable by the particular shape of the Theta, similar to a solar cross. It is an inscription from a temple of Poseidon located at Cape Taenarum, in Laconia, Greece[5] (this find was first published by zodiackiller.com).
Zodiac made three changes to the original inscription. He transposed N and E, inserted a solar cross in place of the Theta, replaced the second and third E with a circled 8.

The word ANETHEKE matches the structure of the first part of the cipher with a few differences

The name and symbol that Zodiac used to sign himself were probably copied from the watch brand “Zodiac”.
The Zodiac most advertised product in the late 1960s was the Sea Wolf diving watch, publicized in 1967 as follows:

“A skin’s diver watch?
The only time
I am under water is
in the shower.”

The similarity between the Theta in the inscription of the temple of Poseidon and the solar cross may explain why the author of the cipher text replaced one with the other.
Due to its symbolic importance, the solar cross could encipher an initial.

Zodiac Watches logo

Archaeologist James Whitley, Cambridge University, explains how the word “anetheke” is translated into English:

Questa immagine ha l'attributo alt vuoto; il nome del file è set-up-anetheke-zodiac.jpg

James Whitley, The archaeology of ancient Greece, p. 140

The reason Zodiac used the word ANETHEKE in its cipher is related to the way his code was made. In fact, this ancient Greek word is translated as the word “set up”[7], that is the same verb the author of the cipher used on page 2, in the preamble of the explanation on how he “set up” the ” bomb”.

What Zodiac intends to suggest using ANETHEKE and the verb “set up” could be: “My name is – set up like this”.
The diagram below with the sun, the road and the bus could indicate the method for deciphering the “My name is-cipher”.

Decryption method hinted by ANETHEKE

The arrows represent the sunbeams which were supposed to activate the detonation mechanism

2. Let the sunshine in

The sentence “the bomb is set up like this” based on the ANETHEKE – set up connection, suggests that the name of Zodiac is “set up” as the schematic of the bomb indicates.
If the diagram is superimposed on the cipher (you may drawn it on tracing paper) as in the image below, by placing the solar circle on the I of “is”, the arrows will indicate an empty space under the symbol and before the word “cerous”, the bus just below the cipher.

The decryption of E, I and the discovery of the key word ICE

By moving the diagram of the bomb along the encrypted text (you can also use Microsoft Paint or a similar program), you’ll find three possible translations in correspondence with the symbols ⑧ that allow you to start the decryption.

You can do that using the image at this link

I and E
The seventh letter of the cipher is an I, which is shown under the decrypted symbol.
Moving the diagram horizontally in correspondence with the first, the fifth letter will be an E.

The virtual movement of the “bus” vector along the path designed by Zodiac highlights the decrypted letters as the product of the “collision” between the bus and the first of the two arrows coming from the sun.
In the case of the third , as indicated by the second arrow (in red), if the dash is translated over the word “cerous”, the elision of “rous” is obtained, which, coupled with the projection of the “i”, generates the word ICE.
The application of this procedure explains why Zodiac has misspelled a commonly used word that he could hardly not know, “curious”, in “cerous”.
The keyword ICE can be a tip for decrypting the third .

Let the sunshine in

Why apply the “sunbeam” deciphering system only to the symbol ⑧? Because, immersed in the cultural context of San Francisco dating back to when Zodiac wrote the letter, the decryption system of this part of the message seems to allude to a very famous “zodiacal” theme song by the Fifth Dimension released in that period, “Aquarius-Let the sunshine in”, taken from the equally famous musical “Hair”, the bible of hippy culture.
The “Hair” symbol is an “8” prominently featured in advertising at the time. Zodiac, may have copied the symbol and added a circle (the sun?) to differentiate it from a common “8”.

Why does Zodiac, instead of writing “my bounty amount”, include a convoluted sentence in the paragraph below the cipher that ends with:

A tip in the letter?

“Aquarius-Let the sunshine in” by The Fifth Dimension is a 1969 single with which the American band won the Grammy Award for “recording of the year”[9].

The musical piece of the group is an arrangement of “Aquarius” and “Let the sunshine in”, two songs of the musical “Hair”[10], which was performed at the Geary Theater, in San Francisco, a few steps from the corner of the street where the Zodiac stopped the taxi driven by Stine[11], the same day he was killed, on October 11, 1969[12].

In 1969-1970, the pacifist musical was so successful (as was Fifth Dimension’s “Aquarius-let the sunshine in”) that it was still staged in San Francisco, at the Orpheum theater, when Zodiac sent his name enciphered[13].

On the posters of “Hair” were depicted two mirror faces in the shape of 8. The same symbol in horizontal position appeared above the “i” of “Hair” also in advertisements[14].

Department of Justice, Zodiac Homicides Special Report, 1971

In the night of Paul Stine’s murder, “Hair” was staging at the Geary Theater, which was about 40 yards from the intersection where Zodiac got into the victim’s taxi

“Let the sunshine in” is the last song sung in the musical “Hair”, while the first song is “Aquarius”, followed by “Donna”, a name of a possible Zodiac’s victim who disappeared on the coast of Lake Tahoe, near the state line with Nevada, September 6, 1970[15].
In a postcard dated March 22, 1971, the serial killer seems to allude to his responsibility for the disappearance[16].

It is worth noting an important allusion by Zodiac in reference to “Hair” and dating back to October 5, 1970, about a month after the death of Donna Lass.
In the postcard in which Zodiac claimed crime number 13 (below), there is a visible peculiarity. Let’s identify it before reading the next paragraph.

Zodiac composed the message with newspaper clippings (which he had never done before), gluing a part of it upside down. For what reason?
The answer is in the pages of the San Francisco newspapers of that period used to make the postcard, definitive confirmation of the goodness of the lead followed.
Before the postcard was sent on October 5, in the days of Donna Lass’s disappearance, the advertisements for “Hair” appeared with the title upside down, probably to attract the attention of the reader who had seen those ads for more than a year.

“Hair, the musical that turned Broadway upside down”

Another clipping on the back of the postcard, the address “San Francisco Chronicle”, taken from Datebook, the insert dedicated to cultural events that came out in the Sunday edition in combination with the Examiner, is a useful proof of the readings of Zodiac confirming two of the next parts of the decryption.

Letters so far decrypted

Crossed out in green, the changes in ANETHEKE that have been explained; in red, the symbols actually deciphered

3. L’acqua – water

Like the word ANETHEKE, the anchor-shaped symbol before NAM also comes from an ancient civilization. This is the Brahmi letter “Ya”.

Searching on the Internet (starting from Wikipedia) for text published before the cipher was made, this letter is found accompanied by a symbol similar to Zodiac’s ⑧ only in a depiction of an ancient seal of Harappa that appeared on an old book.

The Harappa seal

Alexander Cunningham, Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, p. 61

The lithography of the seal depicted above accompanied by four Brahmi symbols was published in the “Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum” (Indian inscriptions) by the archaeologist Alexander Cunningham[17].
The YA used by the Zodiac in its row of 13 symbols was part of the name “Lachhmiya”, an attempt by Cunningham to translate the unknown symbols in the seal.

The symbols MI and YA referred to in the cipher

Highlighted on the left two anagrams of MI and YA

MI and YA appear anagrammed in the first two letters above and below the encrypted message: “My” and “I a”. The respective Brahmi symbols, the “almost” 8 (circled like the symbol of “Hair”) and the “anchor”, are found in the cipher in the same order as they were found in Cunningham’s book.

A few months after sending the encrypted Zodiac name, a Halloween card signed by the serial killer arrived on the desk of Paul Avery, the Chronicle reporter following Zodiac’s infamous deeds. On that card appeared a new and mysterious symbol that researchers of the case have related to the cattle brand of Red Ryder, main character of the homonymous western comic, which appeared on the n. 15 cover.
Maybe it is a clue.
The two symbols mentioned, highlighted below in red, have in fact something in common. In both cases, they refer to a “mark” on a bull.

On the right, the cattle brand depicted on the cover of Red Ryder #15 and the symbol drawn by Zodiac in the Halloween card

Why was Zodiac inspired by the Harappa seal?
The scribbler serial killer read western comics, listened to popular music, went to the theater, the cinema, and evidently frequented the dustiest corners of libraries.
Only three letters separate Cunningham’s C and Goudy’s G, author of “The Alphabet”. Zodiac may have pulled their works from the same shelf in the “archeology” section of some university in or around San Francisco.
ANETHEKE makes sense. It is seen at the beginning of the decryption. But why would the Zodiac choose to refer to Harappa seal in that part of the cipher? For translating a letter of his name with YA? Or does the symbol perform a function analogous to ANETHEKE? “Lacchmiya” is just a name. What should it indicate?

How to solve this puzzle?

I think it would have been impossible without the help of Joe, the elder Italian-American I met in Florence in 2017.
I remember a few days after that summer talk on Zodiac’s cipher I laid down reflecting on what I had been told, repeating to myself: “Why did he dwell on ‘cerous’? Why did he insist on its weirdness?”
Then, I was reminded of an adage by English writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton: look at the world “upside down” to see better.
I turned the cipher and started looking at the symbols slowly translating them into my advisor’s name: “J…o…e…B…e…v…i…l…a…c…q…u…a“. Thirteen letters like the thirteen symbols of the cipher.
From that perspective, the letters “lac”, which ended at the Cunningham symbol, were exactly below “cerous”, that in Italian means “waxy”.
The seal stone, “waxy”…
What if “sealing wax” had been the key?

The symbols MI and YA flank the M above the word “cerous”

The Lac
In English, “cerous” is related to the metal “cerium”[18], while in Italian it is widely used in reference to “wax”.
There is no connection between the meaning of “cerous” in English and the cipher. The question would change if “cerous” derives from the Latin etymology “cera”, wax[19]. It is possible that “cerous” means “waxy” as in Italian and Latin[20]. Joe translated it in this sense, in fact.

Taking for granted the interpretation of the term “cerous” given to me by the old Italian-American who highlighted its strangeness, “sealing wax”[21] (“ceralacca” in Italian) is the most immediate combination of words between “waxy” and the Harappa seal from which Zodiac got the anchor symbol.

The main component of the sealing wax is a mixture called “shellac” consisting mainly of “lac”[22], a resinous substance which is secreted by the cochineal Kerria Lacca.
In past centuries, sealing wax was used in combination with a seal to close mail envelopes and to certify documents[23].

LAC is also the first part of the name “Lachmmiya” from which Zodiac took the symbols MI and YA.

Could LAC be the text ciphered by the symbols above “cerous”?

If the decryption is correct, the third , formed by the disk of the sun and the 8 of “Hair” and/or the “almost 8” in the representation of the seal of Harappa, would imply a connection between the A of LAC and ICE.

What could be the connection between the letter A and ICE?

L’acqua, the water?

The decryption of the sequence ILAC through the song “Aquarius-Let the sunshine in” and the Harappa seal is useful not only to find the reason why Zodiac connected A to ICE, but to identify almost all the solution, an eventuality that certainly the author of the message had not foreseen.
Nowadays, to find it, all you need is an online search in the Census Bureau datasets (download file B in the linked page).

List of all surnames containing ILAC in the 2010 US census[24]

With a representation of 2667 people, which reaches almost 70 percent of the total, the most common surname containing the sequence ILAC in the United States is Bevilacqua[25]. This surname, in addition to corresponding to the letters identified so far and to the number of letters remaining in the final part of the decryption, contains the Italian word ACQUA[26], that is the most elementary connection to the term ICE and, at the same time, offers an explanation to the Zodiac’s choice to use the Fifth Dimension song “Aquarius-Let the sunshine in” to encrypt this part of his name.

The A is connected to the word ICE as the first letter of ACQUA, water, the last part of Zodiac’s name.

In the 2010 United States Census data, it turns out that the primacy of surnames ending with ACQUA also belongs to BEVILACQUA.It represents more than a third of the total, surpassing the second in the ranking, PASSALACQUA (1410), by almost double.

Highlighted in red, the most important data: only BEVILACQUA and ILACQUA are part of the set of surnames that contain the sequence ILAC and end in ACQUA in the United States[27].
On balance, this means that, if Zodiac is a living American citizen and the decryption so far is correct, it is very likely that his surname is BEVILACQUA (90 percent).

Fifth Dimension’s “The age of Aquarius” cover


Endnotes part 1

[1] The Oxford paperback dictionary, 1988, p. 12, read the chapter “Take the money and run”.

[2] FBI Laboratory, report on specimens Qc45, Qc46, Qc47, FBI File n. 9-49911, April 28, 1970.

[3] FBI San Francisco, airtel, file 9-49911, Janyary 22, 1970.

[4] Zodiac, Halloween card to Paul Avery, October 27, 1970 (zodiackillerfact.com). My solution’s here.

[5] Frederic W. Goudy, The Alphabet, 1922, p. 11.

[6] Sunday San Francisco Examiner and ChronicleCalifornia Living, week of November 12, 1967, p. 54. Several advertisements of Zodiac watches were published in U.S. newspapers in 1967. Source: newspapers.com.

[7] James Whitley, The archaeology of ancient Greece, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 140-141.

[8] Hair, poster, A.C.T.’s Geary Theatre, San Francisco, 1969/1970.

[9] “5th Dimension gets Grammy”, San Francisco Examiner, May 8, 1970, p. 34. Source: newspapers.com.

[10] Mary Campbell, AP, “It’s a ripe age for the 5th Dimension”, San Francisco Examiner, June 6, 1969 (p. 26).

[11] California Department of Justice, Zodiac Homicides, special report, 1971.

[12] San Francisco Examiner, October 11, 1969, p.10. Several references int he following notes also. Source: newspapers.com.

[13] San Francisco Examiner, March 24, 1970, p. 24. Fonte: newspapers.com.

[14] San Francisco Examiner, October 11, 1969, p. 10. Fonte: newspapers.com.

[15] “Hunt for nurse at dead end”, San Francisco Examiner, September 26, 1970, p. 4.

[16] MClatchy Newspapers Service AP and UPI, “Zodiac’s postcard”, The Sacramento Bee, March 27, 1971, p. D2.

[17] Alexander Cunningham, Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, Volume I, plate XXVIII. The description of the seal is on page 61.

[18] The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, Volume XI, The Century Co., p. 224.

[19] Ibidem, pp. 222-224.

[20] Harper’s Latin dictionary founded on the translation of Freund’s Latin-German lexicon, American Book Company (p. 819).

[21] William Haynes, Chemical trade names and commercial synonyms, 2nd Edition, D. Van Nostrand Co, p. 377.

[22] Andrew Ure et al., Dictionary of Chemistry, Vol. II, Robert Desilver, 1821, “Lac”.

[23] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sealing_wax.

[24] U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2010, surnames occurring at least 100 times, FILE B.

[25] Ibidem.

[26] Bevilacqua, en.wikipedia.org/wik/Bevilacqua_(surname).

[27] U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2010, surnames occurring at least 100 times, FILE B.

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