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The Unsolved Murder of Ricky McCormick

The Unsolved Murder of Ricky McCormick

 

Case File Overview

 

On June 30th, 1999, the body of Ricky McCormick was discovered between a cornfield and a road in St. Charles County, Missouri. The police were all too familiar with the area; it was known to be a “criminal dumping ground” for bodies.

41-year-old Ricky, who suffered from chronic heart and lung problems, hadn’t yet been reported missing. Ricky was last seen at an Amoco gas station that he worked at part time 3 days before his remains were found.

The investigators were confounded by the fact that Ricky’s body was discovered more than 20 miles (32 kilometres) from his home. Ricky didn’t drive or own a vehicle, and public transportation was not available in the area.

Also, Ricky’s body was badly decomposed, which was odd because the medical examiners believed that he had died only 3 days before his body was found and the weather hadn’t been unseasonably warm. The authorities suspected that Ricky was killed elsewhere. His body may have been kept in an outbuilding or vehicle trunk until it was dumped where it was subsequently found.

The medical examiner classified Ricky’s cause of death as undetermined after an autopsy and toxicology exam were completed. The authorities, however, consider the case a homicide.

Ricky’s murder remains unsolved.

 

Case Files Theories

 

Researching this case leads to more questions than answers. How did Ricky get so far from home? What caused Ricky’s death? Who killed Ricky? And … where did the mysterious handwritten note in Ricky’s pants pocket come from?

The Cryptic Note

12 years after Ricky’s murder, the FBI reached out to the public for help in solving the mystery behind the cryptic note that had been discovered on Ricky. To date, the FBI’s Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit (CRRU) and the American Cryptogram Association have been unable to decipher the baffling note. The authorities feel that determining what is in the note could help solve Ricky’s murder.

Dan Olsen, chief of the FBI’s CRRU, explained the significance of the cipher found on Ricky: “It doesn’t happen often that we have an unsolved cipher of this length and significance. The characters are not random. There are many E’s, for example, that could be used as a spacer. There are many characteristics that suggest it could be solved, many patterns. The problem is we don’t know why it’s not solvable.”

The note contains over 30 lines of coded text, including numbers, letters, and parentheses.

Photo of McCormick Cipher Page One

Photo of McCormick Cipher Page Two
Image source: Riverfront Times

Tips for solving a cipher

The tips below are from the FBI website, and they provide a step-by-step breakdown of how to solve a cipher. The FBI has stated that they cannot get past step 2 when analyzing the note found on Ricky:

“Breaking any code involves four basic steps:

1. determining the language used;
2. determining the system used;

3. reconstructing the key; and

4. reconstructing the plaintext.

Consider this cipher: Nffu nf bu uif qbsl bu oppo.

Now apply the four steps:

1. Determining the language allows you to compare the cipher text to the suspected language. Our cryptanalysts usually start with English.

2. Determining the system: Is this cipher using rearranged words, replaced words, or perhaps letter substitution? In this case, it’s letter substitution.

3. Reconstructing the key: This step answers the question of how the code maker changed the letters. In our example, every character shifted one letter to the right in the alphabet.

4. Reconstructing the plaintext: By applying the key from the previous step, you now have a solution: Meet me at the park at noon.”

If you are like everyone else, you won’t be able to make heads or tails out of the encrypted note. But good luck trying. If you manage to solve the mystery, you can mail your solution to the FBI:

FBI Laboratory
Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit
2501 Investigation Parkway
Quantico, VA 22135
Attn: Ricky McCormick Case

Another unanswered question that plagues this case is who wrote the note. Below, we’ll explore a few of the most popular possibilities.

Murderer wrote the note

One of the theories out there about who penned the note is that it was written by Ricky’s murderer. The story goes that the killer wrote the coded note and planted it on Ricky’s body to serve as a red herring to distract the police away from the real killer. Given the complexity of the note and how long it would take to invent this coded language, I think that this theory is extremely improbable.

Ricky wrote the note

It’s widely held that Ricky wrote the note. CRRU Chief Dan Olsen contends that the note is “done in more of a format of something written to oneself than something written to someone else.”

Was Ricky the type of person to develop a complex cipher that even the FBI has failed to solve? Maybe. Ricky was known for “concocting tall tales and his displays of unusual behavior.” He was reportedly only semi-literate and struggled with learning disabilities and mental health issues. Ricky’s mother, Frankie Sparks, referred to him as “retarded.”

Most people believe that Ricky wrote the note in a shorthand that he developed over the years. If this is the case, it’s possible that the note will never be deciphered. Ricky’s shorthand would have been affected by his learning challenges and mental health, meaning that anyone who tried to solve the cipher would first need to learn Ricky’s idiosyncratic private language. Perhaps the FBI is really stuck on step 1 of deciphering the coded note mentioned above, “determining the language used,” and not on step 2, “determining the system used,” as they have suggested.

There is confusion regarding whether or not Ricky’s family thinks that he was capable of writing the cipher. Some members of Ricky’s family said that he couldn’t read or write, and there was no way that he wrote such a complex, coded message. Other family members mentioned that Ricky had been writing his own “secret language” since he was a child. Unfortunately, there are no existing samples of Ricky’s handwriting. As result, there is nothing to compare the note with to determine if Ricky was the author. Considering the above, it’s hard to know what to think.

Ricky was couriering the note

Cryptographer Elonka Dunin contends that Ricky likely didn’t write the note. Instead, after taking into consideration Ricky’s education and background, Elonka suggests that he may have worked as a courier of coded messages for criminals. However, if Ricky was killed because he was couriering notes for nefarious people, it seems odd that the killer would have left the note on his body to be found by the police.

Who do you think murdered Ricky?

Ricky had a sketchy past; in the early 1990s he pled guilty to statutory rape for fathering two children with a 14-year-old girl.

Even more, Ricky’s girlfriend told the police that Ricky had made a couple trips to Orlando, Florida to pick up marijuana for Baha “Bob” Hamdallah, the owner of the gas station that Ricky worked at. This supports the theory that Ricky was participating in illegal activity at the time of his death.

Additionally, Gregory Lamar Knox, a high-level drug dealer who operated in Ricky’s neighbourhood, was a suspect in several homicides. In fact, “a confidential informant also told police that Knox was responsible for the murder of a black man who worked at the gas station on Chouteau Avenue and whose body was dumped near West Alton.”

It was reported by both his girlfriend and his aunt that Ricky seemed afraid after he last returned from Orlando. Did Ricky know he was in danger?

This is a mind-boggling case, but I’m leaning towards Ricky being killed by Hamdallah or Knox as a result of his illegal activity. I also think it’s probable that Ricky wrote the cryptic note himself and it played no role in his death.

Regardless of who wrote the cryptic note or why, the fact remains that neither Ricky nor his loved ones have gotten the justice that they deserve. If you have any information about Ricky’s murder, please contact the St. Charles County Police Department hotline at 636-949-3002.

Related reading and listening

“F.B.I. Seeks Help Cracking Code in Victim’s Notes”The New York Times article

“The FBI and the Internet Can’t Crack This Dead Man’s Code”The Kernal article

“Code Dead: Do the Encrypted Writings of Ricky McCormick Hold the Key to His Mysterious Death?Riverfront Times article

Ricky McCormickTrue Crime Garage podcast episode 1 and 2

McCormick CypherThinking Sideways Podcast episode

Interested in unsolved mysteries? Check out the disappearance of Amy Wroe Bechtel and the unsolved murder of Lisa Leckie.

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2 Comments

  1. Nickolas Krahn Nickolas Krahn

    Your site is so fantastic. I’m going to come back here again.

    • Christine Christine

      Thanks for reading!

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