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Games Killers Play

Some murderers slip codes into their notes to boost the thrill of their game.

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

Several serial killers in recent news have something in common: They communicated with codes. The most famous is the still-uncaught Zodiac, but others have used them as well, in letters, drawings, puzzles, and maps. Headlines this week featured letters from deceased Moors Murderer Ian Brady, in the hope that he left clues about where to find Keith Bennett’s remains, still buried on the moors.

In 2010, psychology major Emilie Cassinelli began a correspondence with Brady. She believes that he coded his letters to her. He died in May and she has offered the letters to news media in the hope that someone can assist her to figure it out. She says that Brady would switch between different fonts, handwriting styles, and ink colors, as well as underline specific words, such as “capture.” She thinks he was trying to thwart prison guards from seeing his secret messages.

This is similar to my experience with Dennis “BTK” Rader. During his murder spree in Wichita, Kansas, he’d written communications to the police and local TV stations. This included a word puzzle in which he said he’d planted clues. He posted challenges, described his murders, and even once exonerated “three dudes” who were suspects in his first murder. He so enjoyed his “cat and mouse” games, seeing his communications make headlines, that he made the mistake that led to his capture.

Our five years of correspondence and interviews is published in Confession of a Serial Killer. Before we proceeded, he posed a challenge. He sent half of a code to me and half to another person, forcing us to pool our resources to figure it out. The code involved alphabetized items from newspaper ads, magazine articles, drawings, and phrases buried deep inside his 20-page letters – even recipes!

I created a list to match to the letters that Rader had placed on the pictures or planted in his letter. For example, he would circle an author’s last name, “Hunter,” draw lines on the bare legs of a model, underline letters, or discuss recipes that included “B,” “T,” or “K” items.

“I found this recipe of tangy Barbecue wings that fit the bill; Boy a King of a meal. The shredded Beef au jus, the filling very Tangy. I found (A) (B) (C) (D) & (E) best and others that appear Tangy or could in a minotaur sense.”

Referring to my research on “castles” [a code word for our project], Rader described a torture dungeon: “I believe a modern castle could have a swimming pool in it depths, no life guard, have to be careful. Naturally, a utility room or mudroom, clean up, washer-dryer, etc. Tidy is the Key. A kitchen, knives, etc must be sharp, may need to cut up.”

His phrase “Wheel of Time” referred to a torture wheel he’d envisioned that involved a victim bound to the wheel. Rader would place torture devices in various positions around this wheel. He would then spin the wheel, and wherever it stopped, with the marker between the woman’s legs, would indicate the torture to which she would be subjected.

Over time, we evolved from one metaphor to another, from trains to recipes to gardening. In part, he used codes to hinder guards from seeing what he was doing, but he’d also fancied himself as a spy and hit man during his murders, so encryption was integral to his fantasy persona. Ultimately, Rader wanted me to figure out the “Factor X” that drove him and other killers. The big X was the murder code.

Whether it’s Brady, Rader, Zodiac, or Jack the Ripper, this self-anointed aura of mystique plays into the codes. In Clues from Killers, Dirk Gibson says that killers communicate to taunt police, explain or justify their acts, exert more torture, or leave clues. I also believe that some relish the idea that, with press coverage, they can terrorize many more people. It expands their sense of power. Quite a few view themselves as unique human specimens who deserve to be recognized for their uniqueness and studied.

The Zodiac, the most infamous cypher master, will soon get treatment from a cable network. Between December 1968 and July 1969, a man shot two couples in Vallejo, California, on separate occasions. The editors of three San Francisco papers each received part of a cryptogram with a letter claiming to be from the killer. They had to work together to get the full cryptogram, which they published for readers. A challenge to crack, it said:

I LIKE KILLING PEOPLE BECAUSE IT IS SO MUCH FUN IT IS MORE FUN THAT KILLING WILD GAME IN THE FORREST BECAUSE MAN IS THE MOST DANGEROUS ANAMAL OF ALL TO KILL SOMETHING GIVES ME THE MOST THRILLING EXPERIENCE IT IS EVEN BETTER THAN GETTING YOUR ROCKS OFF WITH A GIRL THE BEST PART OF IT IS THAE WHEN I DIE I WILL BE REBORN IN PARADICE AND THEI HAVE KILLED WILL BECOME MY SLAVES I WILL NOT GIVE YOU MY NAME BECAUSE YOU WILL TRY TO SLOI DOWN OR ATOP MY COLLECTIOG OF SLAVES FOR AFTERLIFE. EBEORIETEMETHHPITI

Thus began Zodiac’s game. He continued to kill and to communicate in cryptic letters. In one incident, he wore a black executioner's hood. After killing a cab driver in San Francisco, he mailed a piece of the bloody shirt. His identity remains a mystery.

During the mid-1970s, the “Son of Sam” terrorized New York by randomly shooting couples in parked cars. A note he left at a scene said, “Bang-bang. I’ll be back. Mr. Monster.” He also wrote a taunting letter to a news columnist, with numerous suggestive clues in the content and style. Attacking thirteen people, he killed six. After David Berkowitz was arrested for the crimes, he raised insanity issues. He went to prison. Recently, he’s been in the news regarding his conversion to Christianity. A documentary about him is also set to air on the Smithsonian channel.

There are many more examples, so it would be no surprise that Ian Brady had embedded a code. In the interviews, Cassinelli, a psychologist, never mentions whether she actually asked Brady why he underlined certain words and used different fonts. From what we know of the motivations for other code-happy killers, it seems likely that Brady would have provided a way to decipher his secrets. My experience with Rader confirms that while they like to pose a challenge, they also want their creative cleverness acknowledged.

References

Gibson, D. C. (2004). Clues from Killers: Serial murder and crime scene messages. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Ramsland, K. (2016). Confession of a serial killer: The untold story of Dennis Rader, the BTK killer. University Press of New England.

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