(Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5)
A generous Zodiac researcher loaned me a copy of Gareth Penn’s hard-to-find book Times 17: The Amazing Story of the Zodiac Murders in California and Massachusetts, 1966-1981. Gareth Penn is one of the most prominent and prolific people among the many who have inserted themselves into the folklore surrounding the Zodiac case.
Gareth Penn (Credit: Mike Martin)
In 1987, Penn self-published Times 17, a collection of his sprawling essays, filled with well-written but delusional speculations connecting Berkeley professor Michael O’Hare to the Zodiac killings. Repeatedly dismissed by authorities, Penn’s claims span almost 400 pages. The book is filled with elaborate mathematical ideas which superficially appear rational, but fall apart quickly when examined. Penn’s most abundant trick is to use math to simultaneously generate and disguise random coincidences. First, he sets up basic systems of mathematical operations that create new information from the Zodiac’s correspondences and other facts surrounding the case. Then he plucks out the interesting bits of new information generated by his tricks, and ignores all the other uninteresting coincidences. This confirmation bias approach is shared by many similarly misguided amateur sleuths and codebreakers. Penn’s complicated mathematical procedures create a barrier for most readers, making his claims tedious to analyze and challenge. For an example, see my previous article about Penn’s letters to the popular Scientific American writer Martin Gardner. There you can see why Penn’s “binary Morse” system quickly falls apart: Morse code has a hell of lot of different interpretations when you let the codes run together.
Times 17 also features Penn’s “radian theory“, in which two of Zodiac’s killings form an angle of approximately one radian with Mount Diablo.
Map code and clues in Zodiac’s correspondences
Penn’s radian observation
It’s arguable whether this is by design by Zodiac. At the least, it’s an interesting observation. But throughout Times 17, Penn takes the idea to ridiculous extremes, connecting his mathematical games to angles formed by key words and elements of Zodiac’s correspondences. Penn spreads the interesting observation thinly across a great deal of poor reasoning.
Example of Penn’s application of pseudo-mathematics and angles to Zodiac’s letters
Penn’s bizarre behavior led some to think he might be the Zodiac Killer himself. And like Zodiac, Penn even has his own copycat. Former postal carrier Raymond Grant also self-published his own book filled with “proof” of Zodiac’s identity. His book is filled with many of the same mathematical coincidence generators employed by Penn. For many years, Grant has been arguing that Penn was part of a larger team which included Michael O’Hare, O’Hare’s mother, and Penn’s father. Grant claims he discovered and disrupted the catastrophic “Terminus Event“, the culmination of the group’s “Zodiac Project”. On web sites and online forums, Grant repeatedly tried to share his theories, which were met with strong criticisms. This led to a pattern of Grant authoring many lengthy responses and rebukes, only to be followed by their removal because of his frustration with other Zodiac researchers.
Grant describes discovering the “Terminus Event”
Penn and Grant seem to be intelligent, capable writers. But any serious analysis of their claims will lead you to question their sanity. Or at least their motivations. The study of the irrational crimes of the Zodiac killer has branched into an entire forest of irrational behavior, fertilizing an expanding mythology, like UFO enthusiasts have done by filling in the blanks on mysterious events in the sky.
You can now read the entirety of Times 17 online, if you want to subject yourself to the experience. The book is split into five parts, and can be viewed at the following links:
You can also download the entire 100 megabyte PDF here: times-17-full.pdf. (UPDATE: Thanks to zodiphile, the book is now available in epub and mobi formats for reading on mobile devices). For more of Penn’s writing, read his Ecphorizer articles, or his followup book The Second Power (read it online here). He is also reportedly working on a third book. And, you can still visit Penn online at his blog, where you will only find the occasional bizarre posting of his cryptic puzzles.
Be sure to read Michael J. Martin’s comprehensive and fascinating article which goes into a deep exploration of the Gareth Penn saga. O’Hare himself has also written an article about his experience with Penn. Michael Butterfield has also written a lot of interesting material about both Gareth Penn and Raymond Grant.
Film reviewer Mike D’Angelo once wrote, “I think the [Zodiac] movie erred in selecting author Robert Graysmith as its source and nominal protagonist. Zodiac buffs know well that the true obsessive is a fellow named Gareth Penn.” Have a look at Times 17 and see if you agree.