This Code Has Stumped the FBI for Over 15 Years
From the moment police discovered Ricky McCormick’s body facedown in a cornfield outside of St. Louis, on a ribbon of land running between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, they suspected foul play. McCormick had only been missing for three days, but his body was in an advanced state of decomposition, even considering the warm weather that June of 1999. Unable to identify him visually, police had to ID McCormick using his fingerprints—which had fallen off, along with the rest of the skin on his hands above the first knuckle.
The decay was so advanced, police theorized that the killer intentionally kept McCormick’s body in a high-temperature environment to promote decomposition in an attempt to cover up the cause of death. If that was the plan, it worked: After a difficult autopsy, the St. Charles County Medical Examiner's Office ultimately ruled McCormick’s cause of death "undetermined.”
The police found something else strange that day. In his pants pocket, McCormick was carrying two pieces of paper, each covered in several scrawled paragraphs. Some of the paragraphs were outlined in bubbles, almost like speech balloons, while others seemed laid out in the style of a formal letter, with an introduction line, a body of text, and a signature, or possibly even an address with a ZIP code at the end. The police couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
The police passed the notes to the FBI, who kept them a secret, even from McCormick’s family, while they worked for 12 years to crack the code—and the case. But in March 2011, when they still hadn’t solved the mystery, the FBI released the notes to the public. Dan Olson, chief of the FBI's Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit (CRRU), was appealing to the internet for help.
Ricky McCormick had never learned to read. After dropping out of high school, the 41-year-old held an array of low-level jobs, including mopping floors and washing dishes. He had a criminal record, and had spent time in prison for statutory rape. When his body was found, he'd been working at a gas station. According to his cousin, Charles McCormick, Ricky "couldn't spell anything, just scribble.” His mother, Frankie Sparks, said that the only thing he could write was his name. Because McCormick’s literacy skills were so poor, it's not entirely clear whether he wrote the notes himself. Olson, though, is sure that they hold the key to his strange death, one of only a few unsolved murders in the area for decades. “Breaking the code could reveal the victim’s whereabouts before his death and could lead to the solution of a homicide,” Olson said in a 2011 FBI statement.
Family members believe Ricky thought someone was looking for him. In the last week of his life, he showed up at a hospital emergency room in St. Louis complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath, and was admitted for two days of observation. From the hospital, he went straight to his aunt Gloria’s home and visited with her briefly. The next day, he headed to another hospital two miles away, with similar complaints. This time, McCormick was released after 50 minutes, although his aunt claims to have heard that he stayed the night in the waiting room anyhow. McCormick suffered from heart and lung ailments throughout his life, but Gloria thinks her nephew was using the hospitals as sanctuaries, figuring that someone who might be trying to find him wouldn’t look for him there.
Investigators zeroed in on a possible motive for the murder almost immediately: a drug deal gone wrong. The gas station where McCormick worked was owned by a man named Juma Hamdallah, and investigators believe that McCormick had traveled on several occasions to Florida to pick up packages of marijuana and deliver them to his boss’s brother—and also his coworker—Baha “Bob” Hamdallah. According to McCormick’s girlfriend, Sandra Jones, he took a Greyhound trip to Orlando for this purpose just two weeks before he died, bringing back baseball-sized bundles of pot in ziplock bags. Jones also told police that although McCormick never talked much about his trips to Florida, he acted differently upon his return from the last one—he seemed afraid. She wondered if something had gone off-script in Orlando. Jones also said that if anyone were out to do McCormick any harm, it would be Bob Hamdallah.
Both Bob and his brother Juma had violent histories. Only two months after McCormick’s death, Juma opened fire at Bob during an argument (he survived). Bob, meanwhile, had ties to drug trafficking and gang members in St. Louis City, as well as a 1998 arrest for second-degree assault (he beat a man with a hammer) on his record. In 2002, Bob went to prison after shooting a customer in the face after an argument, although he was released in 2008 after a retrial determined that he’d acted in self-defense.
In addition to the Hamdallah brothers, investigators also expressed interest in a man named Gregory Lamar Knox, who dealt drugs in the housing complex where McCormick had lived, and was a suspect in at least two murder-for-hire schemes, according to police. Police also later received a tip from a confidential informant that seemed to tie Knox to McCormick’s murder, and found possible criminal links between the Hamdallahs and Knox.
But after a series of stakeouts, the St. Charles Police Department was never able to substantiate the tip. The leads had seemed promising, but in the end, investigators were right back where they started: with a dead body, a strange cipher, and no answers.
The notes found in McCormick's pockets remain one of the CRRU's top unbroken ciphers. The public response to the release—over 7000 analyses and remarks flooded in within two years—prompted the Bureau to create a separate webpage just to field the responses.
The CRRU team even tried asking the American Cryptogram Association, a group of novice codebreakers, for help. In 2009, the puzzle was presented at the club’s annual convention in Niagara Falls, Ontario, to a room of about 25 members, but to no avail. They, like the CRRU, were baffled. "Standard routes of cryptanalysis seem to have hit brick walls,” Olson explained in his 2011 statement.
Of course, there are theories. One of the more popular is that the notes were the handiwork of a serial murderer—someone like the Zodiac Killer, who murdered at least five people in California in the late '60s but was never caught. Three of the Zodiac's cryptograms, which were mailed to various newspapers, are also on the CRRU’s unsolved list today; a fourth was solved by a husband-and-wife amateur cryptographer team in 1969.
Another theory is that the notes were, in fact, written by Ricky to himself—the idea being that even though he was functionally illiterate, he at least knew the alphabet and had assigned his own meaning to each character. Some think the notes are a list of medications that Ricky might have taken and the times of day he needed to take them. Or perhaps they were another kind of personal reminder: One commenter on a discussion board has argued, “this is an uneducated drug dealer's shorthand. It breaks down who he sells to, how much he sells, a short description of how he knows them, recognizes them, or if he doesn't know them.”
Others have surmised that the code actually has no solution at all—the notes are just the arbitrary scrawls of an illiterate person. Still others have gone further and called the notes a red herring, arguing they serve only to distract authorities from the murder itself.
Cryptography expert Elonka Dunin, who has spent many hours analyzing the notes, doesn't agree. She told St. Louis television station KPLR in 2011, "It feels to me that there is an actual rhythm to it, that there's something that's being communicated, that it's not just … random letters being written by someone who is schizophrenic and writing odd characters."
To complicate matters further, Dunin also says the notes might not be encrypted at all. "It’s possible that it’s like an artificial language, something that Ricky created," she explained. "Or he may have used a combination—an artificial language, then encrypted [it] on top of that.”
Indeed, the FBI has said [PDF] that McCormick used encrypted notes—and possibly his own secret language—as a child. Tantalizing as that may seem, his family has more recently dismissed this idea that writing in code was a regular part of McCormick's life. “He didn't write in no code,” his mother told the Riverfront Times.
When the FBI released the notes to the public in 2011, they noted that breaking a code typically involves four steps. The first is determining the language of the encrypted message; in this case, it’s assumed to be English. Next, the system of the code—rearranged words, word substitution, letter substitution, for example—has to be determined. Once that’s figured out, the would-be cryptographer must construct the key, such as a list of the characters involved in the code and what each letter translates to. After the key is built, all that’s left is to translate the plaintext—in this case, McCormick’s notes—and break the code.
In this instance, though, no one has been able to get past step two. Olson himself worked on the puzzle for two weeks solid in the beginning and walked away with only pattern observations. “The characters are not random. There are many Es, for example, that could be used as a spacer,” he told the Riverfront Times. The rest of Olson’s CRRU team, applying many years of professional experience, had the same result—no dice. The results put this particular code in a distinct class: Only 1 percent of cryptograms submitted to the FBI every year go uncracked.
Regardless of who wrote them, Olson remains convinced that the notes contain details about who McCormick was with during the last hours of his life—or about who left his corpse in the field. "This means something," Olson told the Riverfront Times. "We look at a lot of things that are gibberish, arbitrary strikes on a keyboard. This is not that case." He says that the FBI is still hoping to figure out the answer. “Even if we found out that he was writing a grocery list or a love letter, we would still want to see how the code is solved. This is a cipher system we know nothing about.”