Fresno State grad student cracks language code that helps convict murderer

A Fresno State linguistics student cracked a language code that helped put a murderer behind bars last year.

Zach Metzler is now using his experience for further research in his field. He will give a talk Feb. 27 in the Peters Business Building, Room 192, from 12:30 to 1:45 p.m. about cracking codes with phonology.

The graduate student said Fresno police had several phone recordings from an inmate who was suspected at the time of shooting a 50-year-old man in Fresno in September 2018.

Translators at the police department couldn’t make sense of the language, so investigators turned to the linguistics department at Fresno State for help. The department said it then put Metzler on the case.

“They had someone in custody speaking what they thought at the time was a minority language,” Metzler said. “As I listened to it I realized, ‘OK, it’s not a natural language, it’s not a real language that humans normally speak. It’s some sort of code.’”

He likened it to a language game, such as Pig Latin, or Ubbi Dubbi, which was popularized in the PBS show “Zoom.”

Investigators asked Metzler if he knew what the inmate, 30-year-old Damone Mayberry, was saying in the recordings. 

“And I said, ‘Well, no. But I can figure it out.’” 

So he went home and started transcribing each recording and creating a formula for how he thought the language worked. He listened to the recordings for hours through a special computer program.

While Metzler did not have experience in cracking language codes, he works specifically in phonology, “which is the organization of sounds in language,” he said. “You can think of it like syntax and grammar … but instead of nouns and verbs, it’s different types of sounds and there are orders they are allowed to go in and ways they’re organized.”

Mayberry could be heard speaking the code to his mother and sister, who spoke it back to him, Metzler said. He initially thought it was a language game they had made up as a family, but he later learned it was likely a prison code used to relay messages.

He said his big break came when Mayberry was having trouble saying the phrase “critica conica dishica.”

“He kept messing it up over and over and over again,” Metzler said, “and he finally just said it in plain English.”

The phrase was “critical condition.”

That phrase “had the last 10 percent of what my hypothesis was missing and now I had a direct translation for it,” he said. 

It didn’t take him long to translate the rest of the information.

A few months later, the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office contacted him with about 40 hours of more recordings from Mayberry, which they wanted to use as evidence in his trial, according to Metzler.

That’s when he enlisted two of his friends, one a current linguistics student, and another a former, to help him out. 

Metzler said a lot of what the trio translated was mundane.

“A lot of it was complaining about being in jail,” he said. “A lot of it was ‘the food sucks and it’s depressing.’”

There was a certain part of the recordings that did make it to the trial, which was held in fall 2019.

“He was talking to his mother and his sister and wanted them to relay to a third person an alibi,” Metzler said. “He wanted his family to tell a third person, ‘Oh, when the cops ask, tell them this is how it happened.’”

He was called to testify at the trial, which he described as “awful.” 

“It was the worst job on Earth,” he said. “It’s nerve-wracking. I had to get cross-examined and that was really bad. At the end of it you’re like, maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Mayberry was convicted of murder, first degree residential robbery and assault with a firearm, according to Fresno County Superior Court records. He was sentenced on Dec. 12, 2019, to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Metzler has traveled with Fresno State linguistics professor Chris Golston to work on projects around the country, including in North Dakota and the Southwest. 

Golston calls him “a great student and a friend.”

“It’s great to see a student so interested in linguistics and in applying what he knows,” Golston said, “from documenting and preserving languages in the Great Plains, to presenting his research in conferences in Canada and England, to catching criminals in Fresno.”

During his presentation, Metzler will speak more about what he calls “hidden organization” in language. 

He says there are rules that we all obey in language, but that we aren’t aware of. 

“It’s there for speakers, but no one knows about it, they’re not aware of it, and it doesn’t show up in writing,” he said. “That’s what we study in linguistics — this hidden structure that no one sees.”

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