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Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

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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Jennifer Boyer, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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The Mysterious Murder Case That's Captivated Iceland for Nearly 200 Years
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Jennifer Boyer, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

For centuries, a cluster of small farms near the water on Iceland's Vatnsnes peninsula have eked out an existence among the grassy fields and rocky hills, more or less content to be surviving at the edge of the world. The peninsula is known for a black basalt rock formation that's said to be a petrified troll, and for the colonies of seals that come to sun themselves on the beach.

It's still almost as peaceful—and lonely—as it was the night in March 1828 when Agnes Magnúsdóttir ran from Illugastaðir, the farm where she worked, to the house at Stapakot farm to report a fire. The situation, she said, was dire: Two people were trapped inside the rapidly burning building.

When the rescuers arrived and extinguished the blaze, the scene was even worse than they expected. Inside, they discovered the bodies of Natan Ketilsson, the farm’s owner, and his guest, Pétur Jónsson. Though the two were badly burned, the rescuers could see it wasn't the fire that had caused their deaths: They'd been murdered. The men had been stabbed 12 times and bludgeoned with a hammer before the fire had been set with shark oil.

The authorities quickly arrested both Agnes and Illugastaðir’s other maid, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir, as well as a young man named Friðrik Sigurdsson. Although the trio's motives were murky, local gossips suspected the crime had something to do with their romantic entanglements.

DANGEROUS LIAISONS

Agnes was born in northern Iceland on October 27, 1795. Her parents, Ingveldur Rafnsdóttir and Magnús Magnússon, were unmarried farmers; her father quickly left the picture, and at age 6 Agnes was fostered out to a pair of tenant farmers elsewhere in northern Iceland. Little about her early life is known, save that it was steeped in toil and poverty. But everything changed when she met Natan Ketilsson.

Agnes fell head over heels for Natan, a self-taught doctor and herbalist. Though she was his maid, he encouraged her intellect and gave her a glimpse of life beyond poverty and drudgery. The two seem to have had a brief affair, but Natan was in love with Skáld-Rósa, a well-known local poet. Though Rósa was married, her long-standing relationship with Natan was known in the area; the two even had children together. To make matters more complicated, Natan had also recently been intimate with 16-year-old Sigríður.

No one has ever been able to figure out how, exactly, these intertwined passions may have led to murder. Had Agnes grown jealous of Natan's recent attentions to Sigríður? Or had Friðrik? The trial documents focused more on the idea that the group was conspiring to steal from a wealthy landowner, saying that Friðrik "came to commit this evil through hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal." The women named Friðrik as the mastermind of the crime, although they were short on details about why he was to blame.

The few available facts, together with a fear of rebellious servants, encouraged the idea of Agnes as a sort of villainess, and it was enough to condemn her. Author Hannah Kent, who in 2013 wrote a "speculative biography" about Agnes called Burial Rites—soon to be made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence—said in an interview that while translating local documents she found that “words such as 'devil,' 'witch' and 'spider' were frequently used to describe [Agnes]. Where I looked to find something of her life story, or acknowledgement of social or cultural factors that may have contributed to her crime, I found only the belief that she was unequivocally evil—a monster.”

EXECUTION DAY

The church in Tjörn, Iceland, where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried
The church in Tjörn, Iceland where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried.

After a long trial that went all the way to the Supreme Court in Copenhagen—Iceland was then still under Danish rule—Agnes, 33, and Friðrik, 19, were sentenced to be executed. Sigríður was also sentenced to death, but her punishment was eventually commuted to life in prison, which she would serve in Denmark. The reasons for the commutation aren’t entirely clear, except that by then the public had seized on Agnes as the real evil-doer. Since jail space wasn’t available in rural Iceland, the convicted were sent to local farms to await their fate; Agnes was held at Kornsá, the very same farm where she had lived with a foster family, although by then the house had different inhabitants.

Execution day arrived on January 12, 1830. The beheading was a spectacle: 150 male representatives from all of the district's farms attended, and a special ax was imported from Denmark. Guðmundur Ketilsson, Natan’s brother, carried out the deed in the middle of three hillocks in Húnavatnssýsla; Friðrik went first, then Agnes. It was the last time anyone was executed in Iceland. (You can still see the ax head, and chopping block, at Iceland's National Museum.)

They were forbidden Christian burial rites, and their heads were impaled onto sticks and displayed publicly, facing the road. But the heads wouldn't be there for long: They were stolen within 24 hours of going on display—and would stay missing for close to 100 years.

Sometime around 1930, a local woman who claimed to have been visited by Agnes’s spirit came forward with their location. The identity of the thieves remains a mystery, although legend has it that a kind-hearted housewife felt moved to bury them herself. Bizarrely, the heads were found just where the informant said they would be, “‘in the direction of the setting sun at high summer’ and not far from the execution mound,” according to crime writer Quentin Bates.

The bodies of Agnes and Friðrik, which had been buried near the site of their execution, were reburied with their heads in a churchyard in Tjörn, not far from where Illugastaðir farm once stood.

A NEW CHANCE AT JUSTICE

On September 9, 2017, Agnes got a second day in court. A mock trial arranged by the Icelandic Legal Society retried the case under modern rules, with the result that Agnes was sentenced to 14 years in prison instead of death.

According to David Þór, one of the mock court’s three judges and a real former judge at the European Court of Human Rights, the original trial didn’t attempt to answer why the murders occurred. "No one cared about the motivation behind the murders—that wouldn't happen in a modern court," he told the Associated Press. "Today we would try to understand the motivation behind the murders and particularly how the two women, who had no other place to live, were treated by their master."

Agnes’s story has captivated Iceland for the last 200 years. Was she a woman whose hard-won happiness was being threatened, and she was out for revenge? Or was there something even darker at work? Though the 1828 trial records are preserved in Iceland’s National Library, little evidence remains of Agnes’s life.

“There isn’t a lot to go on,” Bates writes. “But it can be imagined how the relationships between these people had developed and the pressure increased over the course of the dark winter in a farmhouse the size of a small apartment today, and with a healthy walk to reach the nearest neighbors. It’s the stuff of a psychological thriller.”

And indeed, nine books have been written on the subject in Iceland, with a 10th on the way; the murderess is even the subject of an Icelandic pop song. With the renewed interest, the events at Illugastaðir will likely captivate us for years to come—even if we may never know exactly what happened that March evening.

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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
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The Pom-Pom Hit: When Texas Was Struck By a Cheerleader Mom's Murder Plot
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock

On a January morning in 1991, Wanda Holloway was faced with a decision: Realizing that she couldn't afford two murders, the 36-year-old married mother of two had to decide whether to order the killing of her rival, Verna Heath, or Verna’s 13-year-old daughter, Amber.

It was a toss-up as to who presented the bigger problem to Holloway. Amber was an eighth-grader who had the talent and poise to consistently knock out Holloway’s daughter, Shanna, from a spot on their school’s cheerleading squad in Channelview, Texas; yet Verna was the one who pushed Amber, getting her into gymnastics and even being so bold as to let Amber try out for the junior high cheerleading squad before she had even formally enrolled in school.

Killing Amber would guarantee Shanna a berth to cheerleading stardom. But there was a problem: Holloway's ex-brother-in-law, Terry Harper—whom she enlisted to help her carry out her plan—said the man he knew who would accept the assignment wanted $5000 to kill a minor. Bumping off Verna would be a comparatively reasonable $2500.

In a perfect world, $7500 would get rid of them both, but Holloway simply didn’t have the money. So she decided it would be Verna. In addition to being cheaper, she figured Amber would be so devastated by her mother’s death that she couldn’t possibly get through cheerleader tryouts that March.

On January 28th, after dropping Shanna off at church, Wanda met with Harper to give him her diamond earrings as a down payment. Within a matter of days, she would make national headlines as the mother who would do anything for her daughter. Even if it meant life in prison.

 
 

A suburb of Houston, Holloway's hometown of Channelview, Texas sits in a state where football fields are considered holy ground and small town players are revered for their athletic prowess. Boys were expected to suit up if they wanted social status; girls could obtain a measure of popularity along the sidelines as cheerleaders. In both cases, the fitness and discipline required could help provide a foundation for a transition out of adolescence.

As a young woman, Wanda Holloway wanted to join that clique. Her father, a conservative Baptist, vetoed the idea. The costumes were too revealing, he said, too sexualized. Reporters would later seize on this detail and use it to craft a kind of super-villain origin story for Holloway—a woman who was determined to see her own daughter succeed where she hadn’t.

Holloway remained in Channelview and, in 1972, married railroad warehouse employee Tony Harper. They had two children: Shane in 1973 and Shanna in 1977. She divorced Harper in 1980, remarrying twice and retaining custody of the kids.

As Shanna grew older and grade school activities increased, Holloway was determined that her daughter would enjoy some of the opportunities her own father had denied her. She urged Shanna to try out for the seventh-grade cheerleading squad; though Shanna didn’t feel as passionately about the team as her mother did, she tried her best but didn’t make the cut as three girls were vying for two open slots. It was apparently vexing to Holloway that one of the girls who made the team didn’t even attend Alice Johnson Junior High during tryouts: She was still transitioning from a private school. That student was Amber Heath.

Amber and Shanna had purportedly been friends, even having sleepovers at each other’s homes. But Holloway perceived both Amber and her ambitious mother, Verna, as obstacles to Shanna’s progress in cheerleading. Verna had printed flyers and handed out candy during that seventh-grade coup. The next year, Holloway decided to make an offensive move and passed out rulers and pencils that urged Shanna’s classmates to vote her into the squad: “Vote for Shanna Harper for Cheerleader.”

The vice principal intervened, saying such campaigning was against school rules. (Verna's flyers had somehow skirted any penalty.) When Holloway ignored him, parents of other cheerleader candidates—Verna included—held a meeting and voted to disqualify Shanna from being in the running. Shanna was now 0-2, and Verna had made it personal.

As tryouts loomed for ninth grade in 1991, Holloway decided she couldn’t take any more chances with the Heaths. She approached Terry Harper, her first husband’s brother, the one man she knew with some slightly delinquent criminal tendencies. Harper had been arrested a few times on misdemeanor charges. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, he didn’t travel in the kinds of circles where he might know any hitmen. But Holloway seemed convinced that Harper had the connections to make Verna and Amber go away.

Harper would later tell police that he brushed off Holloway’s solicitations but she was persistent. Realizing she was serious, he went to the sheriff’s department, where officers expressed the same initial skepticism. Murder-for-hires didn’t happen in Channelview. When Harper insisted, they wired him with a microphone so he could continue his dialogue with Holloway.

In six separate recorded conversations, Harper found Holloway hard to pin down when it came to an explicit admission of her desire to have Verna murdered.

“You want her dead?” Harper asked.

“I don’t care what you do with her,” Holloway replied. “You can keep her in Cuba for 15 years. I want her gone.”

Semantics aside, Holloway’s intent was clear. Days after she handed over her down payment to Harper for the (fictional) assassin, police arrested Holloway for solicitation of capital murder. Investigators would later remark that Holloway seemed unfazed by the charge.

Out on bail, she told Shanna what she was facing: a potential verdict of life in prison. Although Shanna knew her mother wanted desperately to see her on the team—much more than Shanna herself cared to—she had no idea the rivalry with Verna had escalated to potential homicide. And despite the wishes of her biological father, Shanna remained at Alice Johnson High, avoiding eye contact with Amber Heath practically every day.

 
 

Holloway was arraigned in February 1991, and pled not guilty. Her defense was that the plot had been cooked up by her ex-husband, Tony Harper, and his brother in order for Tony to secure custody of their kids. Her desire to see Verna “gone,” she argued, was simply a joke.

The jury wasn’t laughing. In September 1991, it took them just two and a half hours to find Holloway guilty and sentence her to 15 years in prison—“poetic justice,” as one juror later put it, for wishing Verna would be exiled to Cuba for the same length of time.

Poetic or not, Holloway didn’t do 15 years—or even 15 months. She was granted a new trial in November of that year and the verdict was overturned on appeal in 1996 after it was discovered one of the jurors had been on probation for a drug possession charge and shouldn’t have been serving. Rather than fund another trial, Harris County prosecutors allowed Holloway a plea bargain where she received 10 years but ultimately served only six months in a work camp pulling weeds before being released on probation.

The last time a journalist caught up with Shanna was in 2012, when the then-34-year-old teacher discussed raising her own two children and having an infamous mother with a reporter from People. Living in Humble, Texas, she said she still saw Wanda on a regular basis, although the two rarely discussed the murder plot. Shanna asked about it back in 2010. Holloway called the entire incident a “mistake” and said that she was “sorry.”

When Wanda's future as a free woman was still up in the air, Alice Johnson High went ahead with cheerleader tryouts on March 22, 1991. Amber appeared and made the cut. Shanna did not. She was too distraught to show up.

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