The Most Pattern-Seeking Animal of All

Much has already been written about the dubious content of the recently published book The Most Dangerous Animal of All: Searching for My Father . . . and Finding the Zodiac Killer by Gary L. Stewart and Susan Mustafa. It joins a crowded pantheon of weakly supported books, and yet went on to make a profitable appearance on the New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction eBooks.

Michael Butterfield does a good job of pointing out the major problems with the evidence presented in Stewart’s book. There is also a lengthy thread on Mike Morford’s forum, and many posts on Tom Voigt’s forum. You can look at Stewart’s evidence and judge for yourself.

But here I will focus on the the book’s claims about the ciphers. The authors write that Stewart’s sleazy father, Earl Van Best Jr., was the Zodiac Killer, and his name appears in three of the killer’s cryptograms. The authors suggest that this is proof that their suspect is indeed the Zodiac killer.

Let’s look at how they found his name in the Zodiac’s 340-symbol cryptogram:

Using the kanji style of writing he had learned as a child in Japan, [Earl Van Best Jr.] began on the right side of the page, arranging letters and symbols in vertical columns. Instead of a coded message, he included his full name, written backwards.

[One of New York’s Christian literary agents B. G. Dilworth] pulled up some images of the ciphers on his computer and at random began studying the 340 cipher, looking for my father’s name. He began by looking for the name Best.

Working his way from right to left backwards across the cipher, he found the name, Earl Van Best Junior. Van had put one letter of his name in each column.

Here’s what Dilworth’s discovery looks like:

Each column has one symbol marked. Here’s what they look like when you write them out from left to right:

But let’s write them from right to left instead, as Dilworth found them:

So, we’re getting closer, but it still does not look quite right. To overcome this, Dilworth allows some symbols to resemble other letters. For example, he treats the half-filled circle as the letter E. Here are the symbols with Dilworth’s interpretations:

Dilworth indulges in a bit of freedom with his approach. The problem, though, is that it causes at least hundreds of thousands of other names to appear in the ciphers. How can you know for sure that Earl Van Best Junior, a name among thousands, is the correct one? You can’t, unless you assume that you’ve already correctly identified your suspect.

Here’s a small sampling of the abundant names you can find using the same approach.


Timothy B. Greenwood


Clifton D. Pritchett


Carl B. Powell Junior


Earl Vasquez Junior

In fact, using Dilworth’s method, you can find many other similar Earls, such as: Earl Van Cook Junior, Earl Van Bell Junior, Earl Van Diaz Junior, Earl Van Cole Junior, Earl Van West Junior, Earl Leo Best Junior, Earl Bob Best Junior, Earl W Powell Junior, Earl B Little Junior, Earl T Howell Junior, Earl Clayton Junior, Earl Clifton Junior, Earl Wendell Junior, Earl B Patton Junior, Earl C Abbott Junior, Earl L O’Neill Junior , Earl a Osborn Junior, Earl O Hayden Junior, Earl C Albert Junior, Earl V Madden Junior, Earl Tolbert Junior, Earl F Bowden Junior, Earl Colbert Junior, Earl Boswell Junior , Earl Conklin Junior, and on and on and on. They are all appearing due to coincidence. Earl Van Best Junior is appearing due to the same kind of coincidence.

The book says:

To assure himself this was not a coincidence, B. G. used the same method to try to find his own name. It wasn’t there

He must not have looked hard enough, because it is there:


B.G. Dilworth


“Dilworth” even appears in the 408!


Gary Stewart himself appears


Gary Stewart’s full name appears in the decoded 408


Even his co-author Susan Mustafa appears in the 408

Dilworth also says:

He then looked … for more common names like Jane Brown and Mary Smith. He couldn’t find any first and last names in the same sequence

Once again, he didn’t look hard enough. Jane Brown can be found if you apply the method from top to bottom, and other common names are easily found:


Jane Brown


Betty Scott


Dorothy Collins

You can try it for yourself with this search gadget. You can also look at the 170,000 names I’ve found so far here (male names) and here (female names).

The book also says:

Even though the cipher had been decoded, they couldn’t take the next step of deciphering the killer’s name, because they didn’t know what name to look for.

Unfortunately, what this really means is: If you start with a name ahead of time, you can force it to appear within the cryptograms. This is how so many unreliable solutions are conjured from thin air. We see it repeatedly, and the pattern is usually this: The solver tries to generate a specific name, and eventually figures out a technique to make it appear. But the technique usually generates many other names. Since the solver has a strong desire to promote their suspect, all the other names are conveniently ignored.

You still need to prove that your solution isn’t just appearing by chance, like a face in the clouds.

Now let’s look at the authors’ claims about the 408 cipher:

I found a version on the Internet where the decoded message had been typed above the Zodiac’s cipher. I approached the three sections of the cipher as if they were a seek-a-word puzzle, looking at a particular letter and then looking vertically, diagonally, and across for my father’s name.

I saw it right away, plain as day: EV Best Jr.

Here’s the 408 with the decoded message printed above the cipher:

And here’s where he found E.V. Best Jr:

Notice how the name is permitted to flow in multiple directions, and can skip a symbol. As expected, that name is appearing purely by chance. Many other names can be found by chance as well:




A.T. West Jr.


H.T. King Sr.


N.L. Peck Sr.








Will Blair


Will Bean


Theo Nash


Lee Allen (Arthur Leigh Allen?)


Ted O’Dell


Ned Williams


Rob Forrest


Theodore (Kaczynski?)


Dan Eilliot


(Richard) Gaikowski


(Fred) Manalli


F(red) Manalli





Again, there’s no way to accept “E.V.Best Jr” as a correct interpretation unless you already accept Stewart and Mustafa’s story.

Lastly, Stewart attempts to connect their story with Zodiac’s 13-letter cryptogram:

My father then included a new cipher with thirteen characters, including letters and symbols — the exact number of letters in Earl Van Best Jr.

The only connection there is that the length of “Earl Van Best Jr” is the same length as the 13-letter cryptogram. This is an extremely weak connection, since there are millions of names that are thirteen letters long. And the authors don’t bother to explain what any of the symbols mean!

I don’t doubt that Stewart’s father was a bad man and committed many terrible acts. But Stewart and Mustafa have tried to convince us that simple coincidences in the ciphers are proof Van Best was the Zodiac Killer. Stewart has made many rounds in the media to promote his book. His efforts were very successful – his “non-fiction” book sold many copies. But both the media and his publisher remain agnostic over the truth of his claims, sadly reinforcing the profit cycle of folklore and misinformation.