CRACKING THE CODE
Harden's effort comes to life in movie 'Zodiac'
By LESLIE ESCOBAR
The Salinas Californian
When Don Harden first learned of a mysterious cryptogram that might reveal the identity of a serial killer in the Bay Area, he wasn't particularly interested in tackling its challenge.
The year was 1969, and Harden's wife at the time, Betty, had spotted the infamous "Zodiac Killer" puzzle in the San Francisco Chronicle. She tried to persuade Don, a history and economics teacher at North Salinas High School, to help her solve it. Don Harden declined, but not for long.
"She didn't know what the heck she was doing," Harden recalled earlier this month from his home of six years in Fountain Hills, Ariz. "So finally, to get her off my back, I said, 'OK, let me see it.' "
Just past midnight on Aug. 8 - after five days of nearly nonstop work in their Chestnut Street home in North Salinas -Harden cracked the code.
But the author of the code, a Northern California serial murderer dubbed the Zodiac Killer, was never found.
Now, almost 40 years after Harden's eureka moment, the Zodiac Killer is back - this time as portrayed in a film, "Zodiac," set for release March 2.
The movie details how the Zodiac Killer taunted police and the press with letters and phone calls in which he claimed responsibility for murders throughout the Bay Area.
He's thought to have killed at least five people between December 1968 and October 1969.
On July 31, 1969, the killer sent three letters to the Chronicle, the Vallejo Times-Herald and the San Francisco Examiner, according to various Web sites devoted to the case, which became one of California's most followed serial-killer sagas of the 1960s.
The author took credit for three murders and included with each letter a part of a cryptogram. The writer said that when solved, the cryptogram would include his identity.
In an article published in The Salinas Californian on Aug. 9, 1969, Harden said the writer of the code used 29 different symbols in the message and 12 characters for the letter E alone.
Adding to the confusion was the fact that the spelling was "rather poor and in some places he had made errors in the use of his own cipher," Harden said in that story.
According to the 1969 article, the message read, "I like killing people because it is so much fun. It is more fun than killing wild game in the forrest (sic). When I die I will be reborn in paradise and all I have killed will become my slaves. I will not give you my name because you will try to slow down or stop my collecting of slaves." After decoding the message, Harden said he sent it to the Chronicle, who then forwarded it to investigators of the case.
"I got it done, sent it in, they checked it out and that was it," he said. "So I thought, 'Well, I didn't want to get too much attention.'"
While the Zodiac Killer sent more cryptograms to newspapers in subsequent years, only the first set was ever solved.
Harden, now 78, said while local attention was minimal, but his students at North Salinas High were enthusiastic about his role in the case.
"My class said, 'Come on, tell us about it,'" Harden said. "So, I had to take one day, and we didn't do any work in class and I basically broke down the code."
Don and Betty Harden divorced in the 1980s. Don Harden married his new wife, Dee, 10 years ago.
Harden said he became aware a movie was being made after receiving a call from Paramount Pictures, the distributor of "Zodiac," last year.
David Fincher, director of "Se7en" and "Fight Club," is directing the movie. It stars Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Jake Gyllenhaal.
According to the official Web site for "Zodiac," the movie follows four men whose "lives and careers are built and destroyed by the endless trail of clues." Two sources close to Paramount said the characters of Harden and ex-wife Betty appear in "Zodiac." And according to The Internet Movie Database, actress Gloria Grant plays Betty Harden, who died several years ago. Grant had a small role in the 2005 film "Rumor Has It."
Don Harden's name doesn't appear on IMDB's cast list for the film.
Dee Harden calls her husband's accomplishment "amazing" and said the couple are planning to see "Zodiac."
"Oh, of course we will," she said. "We're big movie buffs."
Don Harden, however, said he prefers a sense of anonymity.
"I think there might be a few people I told," he said. "But I didn't want people to think that's the only thing I ever did in my life."