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.”

8 Tips for Interviewing a Serial Killer, According to Famed FBI Profiler John Douglas

iStock/Kritchanut
iStock/Kritchanut

Over the course of his career, former FBI agent and behavioral analyst John E. Douglas has interviewed criminals ranging from repeated hijacker Garrett Trapnell and cult leader Charles Manson to serial killers Edmund Kemper (a.k.a. the Co-Ed Killer) and Dennis Rader (a.k.a. B.T.K.). In his new book, The Killer Across the Table, Douglas takes readers into the room as he interviews four very different offenders.

In these conversations, “I'm trying to gain [their] trust [to get] information that I'll be able to apply to current cases,” Douglas tells Mental Floss. Here, he outlines how he prepares for an interview with a killer to figure out what makes them tick.

1. Never go into an interview cold.

“Preparation is the number one factor for a successful interview” of this kind, Douglas says. “Before I go in to do an interview, [I] go back into the files and fully look at the case that got him or her incarcerated to begin with. Which means looking at the police reports, the preliminary protocol that the medical examiner did regarding the autopsy, autopsy photographs, and then looking in the corrections reports as well. You want to be totally armed with the case when you go in.”

2. Memorize everything—don’t use notes or a tape recorder.

Early on in his interviews with killers, Douglas used a tape recorder, which he now says was a mistake. “You're dealing with very paranoid individuals. They don't trust you, they don't trust the [corrections] system,” he says. “If my head is down, [they’ll ask], ‘What, are you taping this? Why are you writing these notes down?’” Memorizing the case is key—when he goes in, he won’t have notes or a tape recorder: “It's going to be key [for] me to maintain some eye contact with them.”

3. Make sure the environment is right.

The key in these interviews, Douglas says, is to make the environment feel open so that the killer feels comfortable and like he’s in control. “When you go into a prison, sometimes you're forced to deal with what you've got,” he says. “But if I have time, I try to [make arrangements] depending on the personality.”

Douglas prefers to conduct his interviews at night, relying only on low table lights to create a soothing, stress-free atmosphere. Douglas will even think about seating arrangements. “If I'm dealing with a real paranoid type of individual, I need to put this person near a window—if there's a window—so that he can look out the window and psychologically escape, or I may have him face a door,” he says. Both Charles Manson and Richard Speck chose to sit on the backs of their chairs so they could look down on him. Douglas’s attitude is: “You hate me. I know you hate me, but go ahead and do it. I'm just trying to get a little bit of information now.”

4. Don’t rely on what a killer tells you.

Douglas never takes a killer’s word for anything, which is why memorizing the case is so important. Typically, he knows the answers to the questions he’s asking, and it allows him to call out the offender if he or she lies. “If you don't look deeply into the material, you don't know who in the heck you're talking to,” Douglas says. “You're talking to somebody who's pulling the wool over your eyes … If [an interviewer relies] on self-reporting, they're going to be filled with a lot of lies coming from the person they're interviewing.”

5. Know that this is not an interrogation.

Once he knows who’s committed a crime, Douglas says, his main goal is to find out what motivated them. The best way to get that out of them is to ask his questions “in a very relaxed kind of a format, making the subject—even if it's a guy like Manson or some of the worst killers you'd ever want to meet—feel real comfortable and feel at the same time that they are controlling me during the interview.”

What Douglas ultimately tries to do is have a conversation with the offender. “That means if they're asking me a lot of questions about myself, about maybe my family, my job, and I'm pretty honest with them,” he says. “They will trust me and open up to me as long as they know that I know the case, backwards and forwards. If they start fudging on the case trying to send me down the wrong path, I will confront them, but not in mean [way]. I'll laugh and say, ‘Look, come on. I know what you did. What are you doing here?’ That’s how you gain their trust.”

6. Be mindful of your body language—and the actual language you’re using.

When he’s in an interview, Douglas isn’t sitting there with his arms crossed, looking uncomfortable. “The body language should be just relaxed, not a defensive kind of posture,” he says. “[It should be] very comfortable—like on a date kind of thing.”

Douglas also avoids words like killing, murder, and rape, and, as awful as it might sound, avoids placing the blame on the killer. “I'm trying to get him to talk so we're going to project the blame," Douglas says. "[Some killers] use this projection, never accepting responsibility, not admitting that it was free will, that they had the ability to make choices and they made the wrong choices in their lives, even though they may have come from a very, very bad background.”

This kind of approach is what helped Douglas gain insights from Ed Kemper. When Douglas asked how Kemper—who was 6 feet, 9 inches tall and 300 pounds—would get young women in his car, Kemper revealed that he would pull up next to them and look at his watch, which would give them the impression that he had somewhere to be. “I’ll go with this guy. He’s got an appointment, nothing’s going to happen to me,” Douglas says. “Just a little thing like that was real helpful to me.”

7. Play it cool, no matter what happens.

Being confrontational is no way to get a killer to open up. “In an interview, whether it's a serial killer or any type of violent offender, I'll never challenge them or be negative toward them,” Douglas says. “I'll never do anything like that. If I feel that they're not being truthful, I'll bring it to their attention. But I’m on a fact-finding mission. There are several shows on television right now where celebrity types are going into prisons doing interviews. They get in the guy's face and they call him a liar. [So] the guy, what does he want to do? ‘I want to go back to my cell. Screw you. I'm out of here.’ And you can't hold him there—he's got to go back. So, you never do anything like that.”

8. Don’t be afraid to feign empathy.

Sometimes getting what you need out of an offender means fudging the truth. Sometimes Douglas will tell the killer that he’s earning points with the warden by doing the interview. “There's still always this glimmer of hope that they'll get out of prison one day, even if they're in there for multiple murders,” he says. “The warden doesn't give a damn about him, but I'm just telling them this to try to get him to speak up.”

Sometimes Douglas will play to his subject's pride and narcissism. “They want to be the big daddy,” he says. "'But I'm the main guy, right? You're doing this research and you guys got the real McCoy here. I'm the best and the worst of the worst.'" And sometimes, he feigns empathy—all with the goal of finding out information that will help prevent and solve other crimes.

"Let the person feel they are in control of the interview,” Douglas says. "Be open with yourself. Give them information about yourself to this person and it should go well."

When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s Central Park Five Series, Is Netflix’s Most Watched Show

Atsushi Nishijima, Netflix
Atsushi Nishijima, Netflix

On the night of April 19, 1989, white investment banker Trisha Meili was attacked and raped while jogging through Central Park. The case made global headlines, particularly after five African-American teenagers who came to be known as the Central Park Five were arrested and convicted of the crime, despite a lack of evidence. (They each confessed to being there, but all have insisted those admissions were coerced.)

The convictions were vacated in 2002 after Matias Reyes, a serial rapist serving a life sentence, confessed to being the perpetrator. Yet the case remains one of the most controversial in American history. Now, more than 30 years after the attack occurred, When They See Us, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay's limited series depicting the crime and those involved in it, has become Netflix’s biggest hit.

The streaming platform tweeted that When They See Us has been the most-watched series every day in the U.S. since its May 31 premiere. Lucifer had previously held that title.

The series even out-performed the newest season of Black Mirror, including one newly dropped episode featuring Miley Cyrus. Netflix declined to elaborate further on how it tabulated the viewer data, which isn't surprising given how hush-hush the company is with such information. 

As with all retellings, DuVernay's four-part series has created some controversy of its own. Eric Reynolds, a former NYPD officer who arrested two of the Central Park Five, spoke to CNN about what he deemed some glaring inaccuracies in the show. While the show claims the five accused minors were sometimes questioned without their parents present, Reynolds said that the teens's parents were with them throughout their interrogations, and that prosecutor Linda Fairstein was not at the precinct when the investigation commenced. “All you need to do is look at the videos," Reynolds said.

When They See Us currently holds a 95 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and some predict it will be Netflix’s first Emmy win for best series. Despite numerous nominations for series like House of Cards, The Crown, Orange Is the New Black, Stranger Things, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Master of None, the streaming network has never taken home the top prize for Outstanding Series in either the drama or comedy categories.

[h/t Esquire]

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