What it's like to be the subject of a conspiracy theory

Michael O'Hare is a public policy researcher. He teaches at UC Berkeley and specializes in the arts and the environment. He does not sound like a very threatening guy. But, since the early 1980s, Michael O'Hare has been the subject of another man's obsessive quest to find the true identity of the Zodiac Killer.

Let's be clear. Michael O'Hare is not the Zodiac Killer. He's got a pretty good alibi—namely the fact that he was nowhere near California when the murders happened. In fact, his name only entered the field because an enthusiast named Gareth Penn analyzed some of the famous Zodiac cryptograms and somehow came up with the name "Michael O". How that led Penn to O'Hare isn't exactly clear, but however it happened, Penn has spent the last 30 years telling anyone who will listen that Michael O'Hare is the Zodiac Killer.

And that has made O'Hare's life rather ... interesting. This weekend, I ran across a 2009 essay, written by O'Hare, describing his experience as the unwitting subject of somebody else's conspiracy theory. This is old, but I wanted to share it because it's such a rare perspective on this kind of thing. In the age of the Internet, it's easy to read up on conspiracy theories covering just about any topic. For most of them, you can also find extensive debunking sources. It's much less common for somebody at the center of the story to talk about what that experience has been like. Totally fascinating.

The decades since Penn fixed his sights on me have not been a living hell, much as that would spice up this story. They have been an ordinary life, punctuated by one or another flurry of fuss from Penn, sometimes involving pages of numbers (for example, the data pages from my PhD thesis) with this or that sequence picked out, circled, and "decoded" into words that fit somehow into Penn’s model of the crimes.

My favorite episode was the phone calls. Sometime in the 1980s, I started getting them at two and three in the morning. When my wife or I answered, a male voice would say something vaguely threatening like "I’m coming north, and I’m going to get you soon!" .... The calls were supposed to be transmitting coded messages via numbers—in particular, the time of the call! Apparently, Penn’s assumption was that when the average person is aroused by the phone in the middle of the night, the first thing he does, before woozily answering, is to note the time of the first ring on the digital clock he keeps by the bed—which is, of course, synchronized with the clock in the Naval Observatory. If your clock (or his) is off by just a couple of minutes, the call that was supposed to register as "2:14"—code for "Got you dead to rights this time"—will be misinterpreted as "2:16," which I think means "The Sox can’t make the playoffs without a closer." (Sadly, I’ve lost the magic decoder ring I got in exchange for cereal box tops as a child, so I can’t be sure.) The story got even better years later, when I discovered that a Penn skeptic had been calling him at home at times that figured into Penn’s theory, whereupon Penn assumed the calls came from me and "returned" them to my house, so he thought he was having a conversation with me, all in three-digit numbers.

Read the rest of O'Hare's essay at Washington Monthly


  1. About the time Penn started calling at 2 and 3 in the morning is about the time I would have seriously looked into a restraining order or a police investigation into those “vaguely threatening” statements.

    1. Back in the early 80s he had the FBI involved, but the FBI was stumped looking for a motive (extortion?  but he didn’t ask for anything…) and weren’t able to help.

    2. Or even “unplugging the phone” when retiring for the night. Even crazy people may give up when nobody answers.

  2. This seems like less of a conspiracy theory and more just obsession. I mean, shouldn’t a conspiracy theory involve more than one dude?

      1.  My god, man! It’s perfect! Deflection from the actual crime by honestly claiming you didn’t commit the crime! If you falsely claimed you did, the FBI might look into it, the community would get briefly riled up, and then forget about it, irritated by some yahoo trying to insert himself into the Zodiac’s story. But if you claim, and keep claiming, you didn’t do it the community will be too busy to look into the real killer. A huge mass of people crowd-sourcing the analysis of Zodiac evidence rendered impotent by chasing the wrong man.

        So we shouldn’t be analyzing O’Hare’s data for information about the killings, we should be analyzing it for information about the killer’s identity, whereabouts and contact information! Quick, what was the name of O’Hare’s seventh-grade biology student aide?!

    1. This seems like less of a conspiracy theory and more just obsession. I mean, shouldn’t a conspiracy theory involve more than one dude?

      Did your reptilian masters tell you to say that?

  3. Or “what it’s like to be targetted by a mentally-ill person”. Either way, it doesn’t sound like much fun. Still, he seems to handle the situation with intelligence and grace.

  4. Professor O’ Hare is lucky he didn’t consult Charles Carreon about filing that lawsuit…

    Seriously though, he’s taken the whole thing with much better humor than I would.

  5. > “[. . . ] I know little about the man, beyond the odd detail [ . . . ] he is a member of Mensa”

    What is it about Mensa that attracts people like this? Something to do with monomania, persecution complex, what?

    1. the Mensa qualifying test is full of pattern matching, math tricks, word games – brain teasers. and so Mensa itself is a group of people who are better than average at clever-little-monkey stuff. it’s not necessarily intelligence or wisdom; it’s an affinity for (and an enjoyment of) a certain kind of quick symbolic thinking. 

      now tip a mind like that just a bit off-balance and all that pattern matching cleverness is going to come up with some crazy stuff…

      that’s my theory anyway.

      1.  With a little work you could transition your theory into a bad-ass conspiracy theory.  Like MENSA exists as a sort of sociological experiment intended to identify those (see: Penn) who can be deployed to harass an individual (O’Hare) who, in his policy research, is dangerously close to messing with the anonymous third party’s nefarious plans.

        Oh, and the new-to-us theory that that 90 year old cuckolded alcoholic is the Zodiac Killer should fit in there somewhere.  With the pattern.

      2. I always thought that Mensa was one of those groups that probably made a lot of sense back in the 1970s, when there were probably a lot of people who didn’t live in large cities where a measure of weirdness was accepted, but really wanted to find the other handful of people near them that they could have a really fun, geeky conversation with. And then the Internet happened. 

    2. The bar to joining MENSA isn’t that high.  My guess is that a significant percentage of Boingboing readers have scored high enough on a standardized test at some point to qualify.   I personally know hundreds of people who I’m sure qualify, and yet I can’t think of anybody I know who ever joined MENSA.

      My own theory is that people join MENSA for self-validation because they haven’t found success or been satisfied with the recognition of their abilities in more typical academic, economic or social spheres.  This is why the Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons and Gareth Penn are members, while I’ll bet $5 that the overlap between MENSA and Harvard Law Review membership is miniscule (even though I’ll bet that almost every HLR member has a MENSA-qualifying LSAT score).

    3. I think that it is because Mensa is a stupid person’s idea of what a club for smart people would be. (To paraphrase a description of Newt Gingrich.)

    4. What is it about Mensa that attracts people like this? Something to do with monomania, persecution complex, what?

      I wonder if there’s much overlap with the Large Penis Support Group (no I didn’t make it up), where men complain about how difficult it is having a big dick and how regular people can’t possibly understand.

      1. I suspect the meetings consist of a lot of comments about the temperature and depth of water in rivers they are standing next to.

        1. You guys can mock us all you like, but if not for The Group (as we like to call it) I would not know which underwear holds up best, nor the proper way to ride a bike without chafing my most important appendage, to say nothing of learning proper urinal etiquette when someone just can’t stop staring.

  6. I once received email from someone who accused me – on the evidence of a photograph of an Olmec altar that had I posted on my website – of having “shut God up in a rock”. He was understandably upset about this, and threatened to have me gang-raped by the Crips (or was it the Bloods?) to teach me not to go around immuring major deities.

    His attention span seems to have been shorter than Mr Penn’s, however, because when I failed to respond to his second email, he stopped writing to me.

    1. Crips? Bloods? God is a straight-up muthafuck’in OG! It’s in his name, that’s how old school he is.

  7. One of my hobbies is to analyze and debunk claims people make about solving the Zodiac cryptograms.  More info here:


    I have a recent article analyzing Lyndon Lafferty’s claims of finding his suspect’s name in the codes.  I also analyzed Corey Starliper’s solution, which he seems to have completely fabricated:  http://oranchak.com/zodiac/corey/hoax.html

    I’m interested to see how Penn extracts O’Hare’s name from the codes.  It’s very likely he uses techniques similar to all these other bogus claims.  In general, they all suffer from a varying combination of pareidolia and too many “degrees of freedom.”

  8. There’s also some guy living in Cornwall or someplace who is supposedly the mastermind of the Bilderberg Group or something. Some reporter tracked him down and found a pensioner living in a cottage without an internet connection who was completely unaware he was supposedly an international puppetmaster. 

  9. Interestingly enough, Penn was also a suspect for a while (go figure, a guy obsessed with numbers, just like the Zodiac, and who lived in California near where the murders took place.)  

  10.  This really makes me think of one thing…
    I can’t believe we are STILL using a system so ancient that you can’t block a phone number’s calls as ubiquitous communication.

      1. Well, sure, but can you do it on a landline fifteen or twenty years ago?

        Besides, one assumes an obsessive will find a payphone to use if they must.

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