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This Code Has Stumped the FBI for Over 15 Years

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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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Beyond CSI: 10 Fascinating Forensic Careers
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If you were to believe everything you saw on television about a day in the life of a forensic science professional, it would be all crime scene investigation all the time. As pulse-poundingly exciting as the investigative antics on CSI, NCIS, Dexter, and Criminal Minds may be, the day-to-day duties of forensic professionals aren’t always so cinematic. From accountants to astronomers, here are 10 lesser-known—but entirely fascinating—forensic careers.

1. FORENSIC LINGUIST

From pronunciation to word order, the patterns with which a person communicates are almost as distinct as the sound of his or her voice. Which makes them an identifiable piece of evidence in a criminal investigation, particularly in cases where fraud or plagiarism are concerned. Though the field of forensic linguistics emerged in the late 1960s, it didn’t come into popular use in the U.S. until the mid-1990s, when FBI forensic linguist James Fitzgerald convinced his employer that publishing the Unabomber's “manifesto” could possibly help them catch the man who had killed three people and injured nearly two dozen others with the homemade bombs he’d been mailing to unsuspecting victims for nearly two decades. It worked. Several people called in tips after reading the manifesto, recognizing the writing style, which eventually led them to Ted Kaczynski.

If you've been watching Discovery's Manhunt: Unabomber, you've already gotten a sense of what Fitzgerald's job entails. He's portrayed by Sam Worthington in the series, and Fitzgerald, a.k.a. "Fitz," has been impressed with the series' accuracy. "They are in the high 80 percentile [of accuracy]," Fitzgerald told Bustle, noting that "the Fitz character is a composite character." He describes the series as "a metaphorical look at my role in the Unabomber case, as well as bits and pieces of other agents who did it. It’s relatively factual. I will say, if it is about language analysis that is shown on the screen, that was me. That was the real Fitz."

2. FORENSIC OPTOMETRIST

Diagnosing astigmatism and glaucoma is all in a day’s work for an optometrist. Catching a murderer? Not so much. But Graham Strong has spent more than two decades doing just that, helping to prove the ownership of eyewear evidence left behind at crime scenes. It all started in 1989, when he assisted investigators in proving that the glasses found beneath the body of a murder victim were the same ones that their key suspect was wearing in an earlier mug shot. “I obtained more than 20 measurements that enabled me to conclude that the glasses found at the scene were identical to photographs in every way,” Strong explained of his investigative process. The evidence resulted in a first-degree murder conviction.

3. FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGIST

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If you’ve ever watched an episode of Bones, you kinda sorta know what’s in a forensic anthropologist’s job description: to help identify and investigate decayed or damaged skeletal remains. If the science in the show seems sound, that’s because (for the most part) it is: The series, which ended its 12-season run in March 2017, is based on the life, work, and writing of Kathy Reichs, who is one of only 100 forensic anthropologists ever certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (she’s also a best-selling author and was one of the show’s producer).

4. FORENSIC ARCHAEOLOGIST

Part Indiana Jones and part Sherlock Holmes, forensic archaeologists work with the police and other government agencies to locate, excavate, and analyze historical evidence, from buried personal items to mass graves. Employing the same techniques they would at a dig site, forensic archaeologists help to organize a crime scene and preserve potential evidence and are being increasingly called upon by organizations such as the United Nations in genocide investigations in Rwanda, Argentina, and Bosnia. 

5. FORENSIC ACCOUNTANT

Some investigators carry a gun; others wield an adding machine. Consider this: When the FBI was founded in 1908, 12 of its 34 original investigators were bank examiners. Today, about 400 of the FBI’s special agents are accountants. Forensic accountants are also found in accounting firms of varying sizes, as well as in law firms and police and government agencies, where they investigate a range of crimes that have been committed in the name of financial gain, which could include anything from murder to securities fraud. 

6. FORENSIC ASTRONOMER

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Not even Copernicus could have likely imagined that the field he pioneered would one day be able to aid in the delivery of legal justice. But the celestial bodies that continue to confound us regular folk have been used in much more practical ways for several centuries now, dating all the way back to Abraham Lincoln’s days as a lawyer, when he successfully defended a client against murder by being able to establish the position of the moon on the night of the altercation (which disproved the testimony of the prosecution’s key witness).

7. FORENSIC ODONTOLOGIST

In the late 1960s, there was a serial killer and rapist on the loose in Montreal who earned the nickname “The Vampire Rapist” because of the signature bite marks he left on the breasts of his victims. That vicious calling card became the undoing of Wayne Boden, the 23-year-old former model who was arrested in 1971 when Gordon Swann, a local orthodontist, was able to show 29 points of similarity between Boden’s chompers and the marks left on the body of Elizabeth Porteous, his final victim. Boden’s conviction was the first in North America to rest on odontological evidence, but certainly not the last; in 1979, forensic odontologist Richard Souviron was a key witness in the prosecution of Ted Bundy for the Chi Omega murders at Florida State University.

8. FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST

Forensic pathologists—medical doctors tasked with examining corpses to determine identity and the cause and manner of death—have found themselves in the spotlight in recent years with the popularity of reality television series like Dr. G: Medical Examiner, which followed Dr. Jan Garavaglia, Orlando’s Chief Medical Examiner, who famously identified the remains of Caylee Anthony. A decade earlier, HBO premiered Autopsy, a documentary series in which Dr. Michael Baden—the former Chief Medical Examiner of New York City—explained the science behind some of the most notorious crimes of the century, including the assassination of JFK, the death of Sid Vicious, and the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson. Lesser-known Autopsy cases examined how maggots, tattoos, breast implants, and chewing gum have all helped solve crimes. 

9. FORENSIC MICROSCOPIST

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The most damning evidence at a crime scene is usually the kind that is impossible to see with the naked eye. Enter forensic microscopy, the science of trace evidence, which can offer valuable clues in solving a crime by examining a variety of substances such as hairs, fibers, soil, dust, building materials, paint chips, botanicals, and food. Skip Palenik has spent a lifetime using microscropy to solve real-world crimes, analyzing trace evidence in the cases of the Hillside Strangler, JonBenét Ramsey, the Unabomber, and the Green River Killer. In 1992, he founded Microtrace LLC, an independent laboratory and consultation firm focused on small particle analysis. 

10. FORENSIC NURSE

Nurses are the first point of contact for many a crime victim, so it only makes sense that they would play an important role in the legal system. From collecting blood and DNA samples to counseling crime victims, the specializations of a forensic nurse can vary, as can their training. Writer-producer Serita Stevens—a forensic nurse herself—explores the field in depth in her book Forensic Nurse: The New Role of the Nurse in Law Enforcement, which notes of the job that “When the human body itself is a crime scene, [the forensic nurse] is the most critical investigator of all.”

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13 Infamous Facts About Bonnie and Clyde
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Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were two of the most popular celebrity criminals of the 1930s (and they had a lot of competition in that decade). More than 30 years later, America fell in love with them all over again through Bonnie and Clyde, a zeitgeist-capturing movie that spoke to the dissatisfaction and unrest that people (especially young people) felt in 1967. And hey, it was the first major film appearance for Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, and Gene Wilder, and featured a future Duke of Hazzard (Denver Pyle, a.k.a. Uncle Jesse). On the 50th anniversary of its release, get to know your favorite movie about your favorite outlaws a little better with these behind-the-scenes tidbits. 

1. BEFORE IT WAS MADE IN THE STYLE OF THE FRENCH NEW WAVE FILMS, IT ALMOST WAS A FRENCH NEW WAVE FILM.

Like many young cinephiles of their day, Bonnie and Clyde's screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, were enamored of the French New Wave, the influential movement that included films like The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, and Breathless. These movies tended to have young, iconoclastic, sexually liberated protagonists and unhappy endings, making the true story of Bonnie and Clyde a perfect fit. Director Arthur Penn wound up using some of the New Wave's aesthetic techniques, too—like quick cuts, zooms, stylized photography, and abrupt changes in mood—making Bonnie and Clyde the first major American film to imitate the style. But before Penn came onboard, the screenwriters pursued two actual French New Wavers: François Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless). Each filmmaker eventually passed on the project, but both offered suggestions that were incorporated into the final product. 

2. FAYE DUNAWAY'S STAR-MAKING PERFORMANCE ALMOST DIDN'T HAPPEN.

Warren Beatty, doing double duty as star and producer, and director Arthur Penn considered many other actresses first, including Tuesday Weld, Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, Sharon Tate, Leslie Caron, and Ann-Margret. (Back when he was only producing it and not starring in it, Beatty had also considered his sister, Shirley MacLaine, for the role.) Beatty said they were turned down "by about 10 women," though he would later say Weld was the only one they made a firm offer to. When Beatty met Dunaway, he didn't think she was right for the part, but he told her to meet with Penn, who he thought would think she was perfect. Beatty was right. 

3. THE WRITERS HAD NO IDEA WHAT THEY WERE DOING.

Benton and Newman worked at Esquire (as editor and art director, respectively), and had no screenwriting experience whatsoever. But they loved the story of Bonnie and Clyde, which Benton, growing up in the Dallas area, had heard his entire life as part of local folklore. (Benton's father had actually attended Bonnie and Clyde's funeral in 1934.) Benton and Newman didn't have experience writing movies, but they did have a well-connected friend of a friend who put them in touch with the French filmmakers and offered some working capital. It was through these connections that the script fell into the hands of Warren Beatty, who immediately contacted them and set the project in motion. 

4. THE FIRST DRAFTS HAD CLYDE SWINGING BOTH WAYS.

Newman and Benton worked closely with Beatty and Penn in fine-tuning the screenplay, which all four men later described as a positive, low-conflict collaboration. The only major problem had to do with sex. Newman and Benton's version had Bonnie and Clyde having a threesome with C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), a composite character based on several members of Bonnie and Clyde's gang, the idea being that Clyde couldn't perform without a third party. Beatty claimed he had no problem playing a bisexual character, but he and Penn were both concerned that the audience would view Clyde as a sexual deviant and ascribe his lawbreaking to that. But Penn thought the idea of there being some kind of sexual dysfunction in the group was important. Eventually the four collaborators settled on Clyde being impotent. 

5. WHATEVER YOU THINK THE FILM “REALLY” MEANS, YOU'RE PROBABLY WRONG.

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Some viewers interpreted Bonnie and Clyde as a commentary on other issues, but Newman and Benton said they didn't intend it that way. As they wrote in an introduction to a published version of their screenplay, "[People] have told us that Bonnie and Clyde was REALLY about Vietnam, REALLY about police brutality, REALLY about Lee Harvey Oswald, REALLY about Watts. After a while, we took to shrugging and saying, 'If you think so.'" 

6. THE STUDIO THOUGHT IT WAS GOING TO FLOP AND TREATED IT ACCORDINGLY.

Jack Warner, who measured films according to how well they convinced him not to leave the screening room to use the bathroom, hated Bonnie and Clyde. "That's the longest two hours and 11 minutes I've ever seen!" he reportedly said after seeing an early cut. "That was a three-piss picture!" (Also: "This gangster stuff went out with [James] Cagney!") Thinking they had a turkey on their hands, and despite a warm reception at a film festival in Montreal, Warner Bros. dumped the movie in drive-ins and second-run theaters in August of 1967.

7. THE STUDIO'S LACK OF FAITH MADE WARREN BEATTY VERY, VERY RICH.

Thinking the film wouldn't make any money, Warner Bros. offered Beatty a ridiculous deal: a $200,000 salary, plus 40 percent of the gross. Yes, 40 percent. Of the gross, not the net. The film made more than $50 million. 

8. MOVIE CRITICS KILLED THE FILM, THEN SAVED IT.

Warner Bros.' wariness was validated by the early reviews. Variety was lukewarm, and The New York Times' Bosley Crowther, then the most influential critic in America, hated it. HATED it. He wrote about it more than once, and would drop scathing references to it in reviews of other movies. To him, the film’s wanton violence represented everything that was wrong with modern cinema. (It's worth noting that Crowther was 62 years old and had been the Times' chief critic since 1940.)

Early box office reflected the bad reviews. But then came Pauline Kael, a vocal champion for the film who wrote 9000 words about it for The New Yorker. She was soon followed by Newsweek's Joseph Morgenstern, who gave the film a bad review, then retracted it a week later with a new, glowing appraisal. TIME magazine, which had also panned it, recanted and put the film on the cover of its December issue. Word began to spread. Warner Bros. re-released the film into more theaters and, by the end of 1967, it was on its way toward becoming one of the top-grossers of the year. It made most of its money, however, in early 1968, when Warner Bros. put it in wide release to take advantage of its 10 Oscar nominations. (Post-script: Bosley Crowther was removed as the Times' lead film critic in early 1968.)

9. IT TURNED AN OLD SONG INTO A NEW HIT.

Flatt & Scruggs' banjo-heavy bluegrass tune "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" serves as the film's theme music, even though it was recorded in 1949 and is anachronistic for a movie set in the 1930s. Even more anachronistic, though, is the fact that when the song was re-released in conjunction with the movie, it became a hit, reaching number 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. It's now a standard in the bluegrass genre, and is often used in movies and TV when there's a chase scene set in a rural area. 

10. IT INSPIRED SONGWRITERS AS WELL AS FILMMAKERS.

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As Americans fell in love with Bonnie and Clyde the movie, they also became captivated by Bonnie and Clyde the outlaws, and the nation's troubadours took to the airwaves to sing about the tragic lovers. Merle Haggard, Georgie Fame, Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, Mel Tormé, and Bonnie's sister Billie Jean Parker all recorded new songs in the wake of the movie's success, and the aforementioned Flatt & Scruggs wrote an entire album.

11. IT INSPIRED A CLOTHING FAD, TOO.

Faye Dunaway's period costumes caught the attention of the fashion-minded, and soon berets (which hadn't been popular since the '30s) were back in vogue. The trend coincided with French designers wanting to move from mini-skirts to maxi-skirts, and gave women an appealing example of how great a maxi could look. 

12. THE CINEMATOGRAPHER QUIT MIDWAY THROUGH FILMING.

Burnett Guffey, a respected veteran in the industry who'd shot close to 100 movies and had served as president of the American Society of Cinematographers, was frequently at odds with Penn (who was fairly new to film) and with production designer Dean Tavoularis. Not only was Guffey older than most of the crew (he was born in 1905), but the "new Hollywood" visual style that Penn and Tavoularis wanted for the film didn't mesh with his old-school sensibilities.

After butting heads with the director one too many times, Guffey quit and was replaced by another old-timer, Ellsworth Fredericks. But this lasted only a few days, as Fredericks' competent-but-uninspired work made Penn realize how hard Guffey had been trying to capture his vision. He wooed Guffey back to finish the film, for which Guffey would win his second Oscar. 

13. IT CONTAINS A REFERENCE TO THE ASSASSINATION OF JOHN F. KENNEDY.

When Bonnie and Clyde are pumped full of lead in the film's bloody climax, you can see a fragment of Clyde's scalp flying off. Penn and editor Dede Allen both confirmed that this was a deliberate reference to the Zapruder film of JFK's death, which had happened in Dallas, not far from where Bonnie and Clyde grew up.

Additional sources:
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, by Mark Harris

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