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This Code Has Stumped the FBI for Over 15 Years

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

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.

One of the notes found in McCormick's pants. Image credit: Federal Bureau of Investigation via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 
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.

Another of the notes found in McCormick's pants. Image credit: Federal Bureau of Investigation via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 
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.”

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crime
The Terrible Crime at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin 
Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright
Keystone/Getty Images

Some of the most horrific murders in Wisconsin history involved none other than famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright was in the middle of building a home, which he named Taliesin, for himself and his mistress in Spring Green, Wisconsin. He had recently left his wife and six children for Martha "Mamah" Borthwick, whose husband Edwin Cheney had commissioned Wright to build a house in Oak Park, Illinois. Cheney may have a gained a Frank Lloyd Wright house, but he lost his wife—Mamah and Wright became close, even traveling to Europe together, sans spouses, in 1909. The Cheneys divorced in 1911; Wright’s divorce would take more than another decade to be finalized.

On August 15, 1914, Wright was away attending to the construction of Midway Gardens in Chicago when he got a terrible message. “Taliesin destroyed by fire,” it read, and that was all. For the time being, at least, Wright was spared the details: Their servant, Julian Carlton, had attacked Mamah, her children, and Taliesin workmen, pouring gasoline under the door and setting the home ablaze. When some of the victims broke windows and tried to escape, Carlton hacked at them from outside of the house with a hatchet.

The Ogden Standard, September 5, 1914
A news account of the tragedy, September 5, 1914
Library of Congress // Public Domain

While precise accounts of the crime vary, according to biographer William Drennan, Carlton first killed Mamah and her two children, 8-year-old Martha and 12-year-old John, while they were eating lunch on a porch, bludgeoning them with a hatchet. Once Carlton had taken care of them, he went to a dining room where the workmen were eating, locked them in, and set fire to the place.

In the end, eight people died—seven victims and the murderer himself. The victims included Mamah and her children, draftsman Emil Brodelle, gardener David Lindblom, handyman Tom Brunker, and Ernest Weston, the son of carpenter William Weston.

The murderer didn’t die right away, though. He swallowed hydrochloric acid soon after the attack, and died of starvation about seven weeks later. Despite being questioned, Carlton never did give a motive for his killing spree. There’s some evidence to suggest a series of disputes with the workers, however, and that Carlton had recently been told he was being terminated.

Taliesin
Taliesin as it looks today
edward stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

As for the absolutely devastated Frank Lloyd Wright, he rebuilt Taliesin in Mamah’s honor. The land may have been cursed, however, because this second reincarnation of the house was also destroyed by fire. In 1925, a lightning storm apparently ignited the wiring, sparking a conflagration that eventually burned the house down. Not one to be deterred, Wright built Taliesin III on the same spot. Today, the home is open for tours and events.

A version of this story originally ran in 2011.

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Animals
8 Animals That Have Been Imprisoned or Arrested
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iStock

It might seem like a case of animals just being animals, but when eight donkeys in northern India recently ate nearly $1000 worth of greenery in their small town, they did four days in the big house. (Perhaps part of the problem? They ate expensive saplings that were planted right near the jail. Rookie mistake.) But whether they harmed property or people, were in cahoots with human outlaws, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, these eight other critters are proof that "crime" can sometimes be cuddly.

1. THE PIGEON THAT WAS ARRESTED ON SUSPICION OF ESPIONAGE.

In 2015, officials in India arrested a pigeon they suspected was a spy. The bird’s body was stamped with a message written partly in Urdu—Pakistan’s official language—and what appeared to be a Pakistani phone number. It had landed in a village close to the country’s shared border with Pakistan, near the Kashmir region that’s claimed by both countries and has been the subject of multiple wars between India and Pakistan beginning in 1947. Though there was a ceasefire in 1972 (the current situation is that India controls 45 percent of Kashmir, Pakistan 35 percent, and China 20 percent), because both countries believe they have rights to the area, it's frequently the site of military clashes and infiltration.

So when a 14-year-old boy found the suspicious-looking pigeon so close to Kashmir, he turned it over to authorities. The officials took it to a veterinary hospital for x-rays, and though they couldn’t find any concrete evidence of foreign fowl play, they kept the bird in custody, recording it as a “suspected spy” in their police diary.

That said, not everyone took the news as seriously as the Indian police did: In the days following the bird’s arrest, Pakistani social media was flooded with memes depicting the feathered detainee as a slick 007 type, and amused internet users coined hashtags like #PigeonVsIndia and #IfIWereAPigeon.

2. THE BEAVER THAT WAS APPREHENDED FOR A DESTRUCTIVE CHRISTMAS SHOPPING SESSION.

In December 2016, a wild beaver must have decided that forest trees weren’t festive enough, because it wandered into a dollar store in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, to browse Christmas trees and decorations. Workers noticed the animal knocking items onto the floor, and called the St. Mary's County Sheriff's Office.

Captain Yingling of the sheriff's office arrived on scene to prevent the "shopping" beaver from ruining the store. “The suspect attempted to flee the area but was apprehended by Animal Control,” the sheriff's department joked on their Facebook page.

Instead of allowing the beaver to finish up its holiday shopping, the St. Mary's County Sheriff handed the critter over to a wildlife rehab center. As for the police, they said the quirky incident just marked another day on the job: “As a law enforcement officer, you just never know what your next call may be...” they mused on Facebook.

3. THE FOUL-MOUTHED PARROT IN INDIA THAT WAS ARRESTED FOR REPEATEDLY INSULTING HIS OWNER'S STEPMOTHER.

In 2015, police in the Indian state of Maharashtra taught a foul-mouthed parrot named Hariyal a lesson in politeness after they “arrested” it for swearing at an elderly woman named Janabai. According to locals, the pet bird had picked up the rude habit from Janabi’s stepson, Suresh Sakharkar. The two were embroiled in an ugly property dispute, and the latter had reportedly spent the prior two years training Hariyal to spout epithets whenever the estranged relation walked past his house.

The situation escalated, and Janabi, Suresh, and his bird were eventually called to the police station. “Police should investigate and seize the parrot,” the embittered stepmother told Indian news channel Zee News. That said, Hariyal must have known he was in hot water, because he kept his beak shut. “We watched the parrot carefully but it did not utter a word at the police station after being confronted by the complainant,” a police inspector told reporters.

Instead of locking Hariyal up, officials gave the parrot over to Maharashtra’s forestry department, where he can presumably fly—and curse—freely for the remainder of his life.

4. THE SQUIRREL THAT WAS ARRESTED FOR "STALKING" A GERMAN WOMAN.

While walking down the street in the West German city of Bottrop in 2015, a woman realized that she had attracted a furry stalker: a tiny red squirrel. The animal was chasing her and acting aggressively. Frightened and unable to flee the rodent, the woman called the police for help. Authorities captured the squirrel, “arrested” it, and brought it back to the station. There, they discovered that the critter was suffering from exhaustion.

Police helped nurse the squirrel back to health by feeding it honey, and a spokesman said the squirrel would be sent to a rescue center instead of languishing away in a cell for its stalkerish habits.

5. THE BAD MONKEYS IN INDIA THAT WERE IMPRISONED IN "MONKEY JAIL."

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In 2004, a rogue monkey became infamous for terrorizing residents of the city of Patiala, in India’s northern Punjab region. The monkey was guilty of multiple crimes: It stole food from homes, ripped the buttons off people's shirts, threatened kids with bricks, and once even swiped someone’s math textbooks and calculator. To keep the marauding jungle creature off the streets, officials sentenced it to “monkey jail”—a now-defunct detainment center in Patiala that was reserved for ill-behaving primates.

The “monkey jail"—which appears to have operated from 1996 until the mid-2000s—was located in the corner of a local zoo. The 15-foot-wide barred cell was secured with chain-link fencing and wire mesh, and had a sign that read: "These monkeys have been caught from various cities of Punjab. They are notorious. Going near them is dangerous."

Punjab is filled with countless wild Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) monkeys. Some of the animals have moved into cities and towns in search of food, as humans continue to destroy their natural jungle habitat. Others were once used as animal guards, or trained as performing monkeys, and were set loose by their owners once they turned violent. Particularly ill-treated or mischievous primates have been known to destroy property and pester—or even attack—humans. But since Hindus revere Hanuman, the monkey god, killing the creatures is verboten.

Wildlife officers in Punjab took matters into their own hands by opening the monkey jail. They responded to public complaints by capturing the creatures with trapping cages and tranquilizer guns. Once the monkeys were locked up, there was little to no chance of "parole."

As of 2004, there were 13 jailed monkeys, all imprisoned for harassing people or committing petty crimes. Patiala’s primate penitentiary was eventually closed, and authorities announced it was going to be replaced by “reform school" that's intended to train the monkeys to be less aggressive.

6. THE CAT WHO WAS DETAINED FOR HELPING OUT WITH A PRISON BREAK.

On New Year’s Day 2013, a cat took the heat for scheming Brazilian inmates who were likely either planning a jailbreak or attempting to communicate with outlaws on the outside. The white feline was slinking around the main gates of a medium-security prison in Arapiraca—a city in northeast Brazil—when guards noticed that its body was wrapped in tape. They apprehended the kitty, and discovered that it was carrying items including several saws and drills, an earphone, a memory card, batteries, and a phone charger.

Prison officer Luiz de Oliveira Souza told reporters that the cat had been seen entering and exiting the jail before. It had been raised by inmates, and was often in the custody of one of their families. However, officials couldn’t figure out which of the jail’s 263 prisoners had tried to use the feline for their own nefarious purposes: “It’s tough to find out who’s responsible for the action as the cat doesn’t speak,” a prison spokesperson told local newspaper Estado de S.Paulo.

Following the cat’s “arrest” and brief imprisonment, it was taken to a local animal shelter to receive medical treatment.

7. THE TOUGH PRISON PET THAT WAS ACTUALLY A VERY GOOD BOY.

Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary

Unlike some animals on this list, Pep the dog was a very good boy. But in 1924, Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot allegedly sentenced the dark-haired Labrador to a life sentence without parole. Pep was taken to Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, where officials jokingly gave him his own inmate number and mug shot. Reporters nicknamed the canine "Pep The Cat-Murdering Dog," as he was said to have killed the governor’s wife’s cat.

Thanks to all the media hype, Pep had quite the tough reputation. But a few years after the canine’s imprisonment, the governor’s wife, Cornelia Pinchot, set the story straight in an interview with The New York Times. Turns out, Pep had never murdered her pet feline; her family simply bred Labradors, and owned too many dogs. Pep, she said, was a gift to the prisoners to lift their spirits.

Today, researchers say that partisan journalists twisted the facts around, and that Pep was actually a beloved prison pet that freely wandered the hallways and was adored by all. As for the "life sentence without parole" part, the Lab was eventually moved to a newer prison; when he died, he was buried on its grounds.

8. THE FEISTY DONKEY IN MEXICO THAT WAS LOCKED UP TO SETTLE A SCORE.

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In 2008, police in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas arrested a feisty donkey named Blacky after it bit a man in the chest, and kicked a second man trying to rescue him. Police apprehended the burro and locked it in the jail’s drunk tank. “Around here, if someone commits a crime they are jailed, no matter who they are,” said Officer Sinar Gomez.

Police said that the donkey would remain behind bars until its owner, Mauro Gutierrez, paid the injured parties’ medical bills and salary for the days they missed work. The boisterous burro served three days in jail, and Gutierrez settled the score by paying Blacky's victims.

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