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.”

You Can Now Visit the Recreated Cottage of a Famous Unsolved Murder Victim

Joe the Quilter's rebuilt cottage at the Beamish Museum
Joe the Quilter's rebuilt cottage at the Beamish Museum
Beamish Museum, YouTube

Joe the Quilter led a quiet life in the English countryside, where he tended his gooseberry garden and earned something of a reputation as a hermit. Born Joseph Hedley, he had earned his moniker by attaining “a greater proficiency in quilting than any ever known in the north of England,” according to a postcard recently spotlighted by Museum Crush. When he wasn’t at home in Warden, Northumberland, he was traveling around the country selling his homemade quilts, some of which were shipped across the pond to America.

Old Joe was well known, and well-liked. It was quite a shock, then, when he was found murdered in his home.

The quilter was last seen alive on the evening of January 3, 1826. A few days later, when they hadn't heard from him, concerned neighbors broke down his door. They found the walls of his cottage—which had been ransacked—stained with blood. A bloody handprint marked a quilt that was stretched out in a frame. Joe's body was found in the outhouse; his head, face, and neck had been slashed 44 times by a sharp object. He was 76 years old at the time of his death.

“The only possible motive for the crime was considered to have been a hope of securing money, as it was foolishly believed that old Joe was rich, although he was receiving parish relief,” according to an 1891 issue of The Monthly Chronicle of North-country Lore and Legend.

Although rewards were offered for information leading to an arrest, no one was ever brought to justice, and the event became another one of the country’s unsolved murders. Now, nearly two centuries later, Joe’s story is once again being told thanks to the Beamish Museum, which has rebuilt a version of Joe’s cottage.

Although Joe’s cottage was torn down in 1872, museum staff and community members unearthed some clues about what his humble abode may have looked like during a recent archaeological dig. The model was built with stones from Joe’s original home, and the interior furnished with items similar to ones he once owned. The aforementioned postcard, as well as historic records of an auction that was held to sell Joe’s belongings after his death, aided museum staff in this process.

The cottage, which is now open to the public, is part of the museum’s $13.9 million “Remaking Beamish” project. The museum focuses on Northeastern England’s history, particularly during the key decades of the 1820s, 1900s, and 1940s. The exhibition of Joe’s cottage not only tells the story of his personal history and demise, but also highlights the history of quilting and England's cottage industry boom in the early 1800s.

Museum director Richard Evans told Museum Crush that the “beautifully-crafted, heather-thatched cottage gives us a rare chance to understand what everyday life was like in the Northeast during the early part of the 19th century.” It also brings visitors just a little closer to one of the area's most terrible historical crimes.

[h/t Museum Crush]

13 Secrets of Crime Scene Cleaners

iStock
iStock

It’s a profession that few people realize exists—until tragedy strikes, and suddenly they have to deal with the unimaginable. That’s when they call a select group of iron-stomached, steel-nerved workers known as trauma scene restoration specialists, biohazard remediation technicians, or simply crime scene cleaners.

Until a few decades ago, the task of cleaning up after a loved one died fell to family and friends, potentially adding trauma on top of an already terrible event. In the 1990s, a small group of companies and entrepreneurs sprang up to tackle the problem, specializing in the removal of blood, fluids, human tissue, and hazardous substances. By 2012 (the last year for which reliable data is available), crime scene cleanup was a $350-million industry in the United States, and included more than 500 companies. Here’s what these hazmat-suited heroes want the world to know about their work.

1. THEY AREN'T LIMITED TO CRIME SCENES.

The phrase crime scene cleanup brings to mind police tape and furrow-browed detectives. In reality, only a fraction of the calls these companies receive—which can come from family members, property managers, hotel owners, or anyone with a dead body on their property—are the result of a major crime. Unattended natural death (i.e., a person who dies alone and isn’t discovered quickly) and suicide are the most common scenarios. Glenn Cox, general manager at Southern Bio-Recovery, which has four locations in the Southeast, says that only about 30 percent of the 60 to 100 death scenes his company handles every year are homicides.

To pay the bills, it's common for companies to supplement with other kinds of biohazard removal, whether that's removing tear gas from a property after it's been used by law enforcement or getting rid of meth labs. Cox says that Southern Bio-Recovery also cleans up hoarding situations and decontaminates homes after viral or bacterial incidents—think MRSA or hepatitis outbreaks.

2. MANY OF THEM ARE EX-MILITARY OR LAW ENFORCEMENT.

Former Marine John Krusenstjerna founded Des Moines-based Iowa CTS Cleaners after serving two tours in Iraq. “Just experiencing things out there left me kind of wondering what happened in these situations back in the United States, who takes care of it,” he tells Mental Floss. Peruse executive bios of many trauma restoration company websites and you’ll find similar military, law enforcement, or paramedic backgrounds. Exposure to death—and the chaos it wreaks on family members—also provides valuable experience in the emotional and physical challenges inherent in cleanup. "Being able to compartmentalize in your mind, to stay focused on the task, to have integrity … all of those are attributes I believe I learned from being a soldier," Cox explains.

3. THEIR TRAINING MIGHT INVOLVE PIG BLOOD.

A bucket of blood
iStock

The certification requirements for crime scene cleaners range from nonexistent to uneven, so most training happens in-house. James Michel, CEO at Bio Recovery—which has 22 branches around the country—says all of his company's employees are taken to a special training facility at their headquarters in New York state. "We stage crime scenes there using organic and non-organic types of fake blood: stage blood, pig blood, all different types. We recreate crime scenes with sheet rock, toilets, tile, and [trainees are] able to break it down. We have decontamination stations that are permanently set up so they can walk in and out of and really grasp how to do this on a day-to-day basis." All in all, Michel says, four weeks of such training are required before their techs are even let out on a crime site.

4. THE DEATH SCENE CAN SPREAD BEYOND THE BODY.

“All of our scenes are chaotic, and there's multiple things to do,” says Nate Berg, founder and president of Scene Clean, based in Osseo, Minnesota. “For example, in a decomposition [when a body has been left undiscovered for a long period], you've got strong odors and you've got all their personal property, which now have absorbed the strong odors.” The work becomes a matter of peeling the layers of contamination—bedding and linens, furniture, carpeting, floorboards, subfloor or sheetrock. And what’s visible to the eye (say, a small bloodstain on a carpet) may actually indicate a large pool underneath.

“A bad day is when we get called to a really bad decomposition or unattended death,” Krusenstjerna says, “and find out they’ve not only decomposed in a kitchen or bathroom but it’s dripping into the basement. We had an apartment building where it went from the third floor to the first floor.”

5. THEIR CLEANING SUPPLIES ARE NEXT-LEVEL.

A gloved hand holding a handsaw
iStock

As you might expect, cleaning up the blood, fluids, and tissue left in the wake of a violent death or long-undiscovered decomposition takes more than bleach and elbow grease. The first step is detection of every spot, splatter, or shard. “We use an indicator similar to hydrogen peroxide, but it’s a much, much stronger version,” Cox says. “When it [comes into] contact with bodily fluids, it foams up and turns a very bright white color. It’s also a very strong disinfectant.”

When dealing with brain matter—which tends to harden to a cement-like consistency—Berg prefers to use an enzyme cleaner that, when absorbed by the tissue, softens it just enough to allow it to be removed with a scraper. For stubborn brain tissue, or fluid that’s seeped into the cracks between floorboards, it might be time to break out the demolition tools: crowbars, weighted hammers, circular saws. It’s also not uncommon for techs to have to dismantle furniture, remove sheetrock, or rip up flooring to get at the contaminants that have seeped in or gotten stuck.

6. THEY CAN MITIGATE THE SMELL ... SORT OF.

A person dressed in personal protective equipment
iStock

There’s nothing like the smell of death. And while some techs get used to the odor, “when a body’s been there for 60 days, in moist air, you walk in and breathe that smell, and you just go, ‘This is going to be a long day,’” Michel says. Every technician wears personal protective equipment (a.k.a. PPE; think lined suits, booties, layers of gloves and respirators) to guard against blood- and air-borne pathogens, but it can be hard to avoid a quick waft now and then. “I don’t care how good you are,” Michel says, “when you twist your head in a certain way and break that [respirator] seal, that smell is coming in the mask.” To cope, and to deodorize the home, techs employ HEPA filters, air scrubbers, ozone machines, and hydroxyl generators—which use concentrated UV light to target and destroy pollutants.

7. THEY HATE SEEING CATS ON-SITE.

A longhaired cat caught mid-yawn or snarl
iStock

That's because cats could mean cat pee. “Cat pee is my fricking nemesis,” Berg says. “Most of the time we have to pull up floors or walls and make physical contact with the cat urine because it crystallizes.” Michel agrees: “When you leave a dog by himself and they [defecate] or urinate, you can clean that for the most part. Cat spray is the hardest odor to remove.”

8. THE TURNOVER RATE IS PRETTY HIGH.

Even the toughest clean-up doesn’t compare to the emotional stress of working with grieving families or glimpsing the violence people inflict upon each other. "We only go to the worst of the worst," Michel explains. He's seen professionals in his office and around the industry turn over at a rapid rate. “We’ve had hundreds of employees come in and out of these doors throughout the years and the psychological toll is extremely difficult. Some of the tough cases, where there’s children involved, there’s a somberness in the office for days.” He says that most employees, and even owners, only last about five or 10 years, max.

9. TECHS OFTEN FUNCTION AS COUNSELORS ...

A woman with glasses with her hand on the shoulder of a younger man
iStock

Because everyone deals with grief differently, a crime scene cleanup tech has to be prepared for every kind of human interaction. Usually, it’s the owner or senior tech who deals with loved ones, and that might mean listening to detailed accounts of the deceased or protecting customers from seeing the worst. “Customers tend to want to tell us the whole story, starting two months back,” Cox says. “They need to vent. I have to talk with them, and sometimes I have to give them a hug and let them know that we’re here to help. We understand their situation and let them know that time heals. This is part of the healing process as well.”

10. ... BUT THEY SOMETIMES NEED HELP THEMSELVES.

Experienced techs and owners talk about the importance of separating their work and home lives. Still, not everyone is gifted with the ability to disengage (and even those who can may find the toll adds up over time). Several of the people we spoke to said their companies provide paid counseling for techs on a confidential, request-by-request basis. "All they have to do is submit a request. We take care of everything," Michel notes.

11. THEY MIGHT BLAST THE RADIO—OR WORK AS QUIETLY AS POSSIBLE.

A "quiet please" radio sign
iStock

Techs have to find a way to work amid all that emotion. While on site, that might mean keeping things light among themselves. “We have radios in our truck,” Krusenstjerna says. “We bring the radio in the house, to help break up the time. We’ll talk amongst each other, joking about what we saw on TV the night before or what’s funny on Facebook. But the last thing we want, and where we draw the line, is if the family is in the house. Not to sound like we’re gross or gruesome but we’re not going to say, ‘Grab the tooth off the window ledge,’ because we don’t know if they’re sitting there with their ear to the bedroom door. So we’ll be quiet, and use body language and signs and stuff like that.”

12. A CLEAN-UP CAN COST $10,000.

Based on region, type of cleanup, and number of techs, the cost to customers varies wildly, from around $1000 to over $10,000. Generally, the more dispersed the fluids and tissue in the home, or the longer the decomp, the more manpower it will take and the longer the job will be—leading to higher costs. (While insurance and victim compensation will cover some of the cost, at least part of the bill still falls to the customers.) Depending on the number and type of jobs undertaken, owners of crime scene cleanup companies can clear hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, in profit every year. Techs themselves can make anywhere from $25 per hour to over $100 per hour. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual compensation for a hazardous materials removal worker hovers around $41,500, but the top 10 percent earn more than $75,000.

13. THE FACT THAT THEY'RE HELPING PEOPLE MAKES IT WORTHWHILE.

A person in a pink sweater, sitting on a couch, holding the hands of an older person
iStock

If there was a common thread in all the conversations we conducted with crime scene cleaners, it was the immense satisfaction they take from their jobs. Despite the smells, the gore, and the grief, these individuals find great reward in the help they’re able to provide to others in their hour of darkness. “When I have a family member who’s just lost a loved one give me that hug—because they could not have done this for themselves—there is no greater satisfaction in my life,” Michel says. “If I were to die tomorrow, that would be one of the greatest things I've ever been a part of. You can't describe in words. The only way I can say is, it's the beat of another human being's heart against yours, thanking you for helping them on the worst day of their lives."

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