The week of February 7th, 2016

The FBI and the Internet can’t crack this dead man’s code

By Stassa Edwards

For three hot June days in 1999, no one cared about Ricky McCormick. There were no frantic calls to the police, no missing person reports, no mothers or widows appealing to the local news for information. No one seemed to care that the 41-year-old was missing, let alone worried that he might be dead. He was missing and no one noticed—and then he was found in an abandoned cornfield in St. Charles County, Missouri. By the time police found him, his body was so badly decomposed that his fingertips had fallen off.

Police immediately suspected foul play: The field was a popular place to dump bodies. And a post-murder disposal seemed the only logical explanation for how McCormick could have ended up in a cornfield nearly 20 miles from his home—he couldn’t drive and buses don’t run to empty cornfields. But there were other reasons, too. In 1993, he served 11 months in prison for a felony conviction of first-degree sexual abuse; more recently, he’d had ties to a local drug ring. With his spotty history, police reasoned, somebody must have wanted to kill him.

Yet the Major Case Squad of Greater St. Louis found no evidence pointing to who might have killed him. And maybe McCormick hadn’t been murdered at all. The medical examiner couldn’t find any stab or gunshot wounds; maybe there was a head wound, but the body was too decomposed for anyone to be sure. “We’ve worked every lead, and not only can we not prove it is a homicide, we can’t even come up with a motive for this guy to be dead,” Maryland Heights Police Major Tom O’Connor told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1999.

The sheriff classified McCormick’s death as “suspicious.” But with no leads and, really, no clear evidence of a crime, there wasn’t much for investigators to do. To this day, the case remains open.

Over the next 12 years, Ricky McCormick’s case grew colder. Then, in March of 2011, the FBI’s Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit (CRRU) shared two notes that had been found crumpled in the pocket of McCormick’s grubby Lee jeans. The notes look like gibberish. But the FBI believes that the seemingly random letters, numbers, and parentheses scrawled on plain white paper may hold the answer to McCormick’s mysterious death.

The police found the notes on McCormick’s body and, unsure of what to make of them, turned to the FBI for help. Yet for more than a decade, the FBI couldn’t crack McCormick’s code, so they did something unusual: the bureau publicly shared the notes. “Standard routes of cryptanalysis seem to have hit brick walls,” Dan Olson, chief of the CRRU, said at the time. “Maybe someone with a fresh set of eyes might come up with a brilliant new idea.” It was the first time any member of the public, including McCormick’s family, had heard about the notes.

In some way, Olson’s announcement resurrected McCormick—at least digitally. A man no one cared about for three days while his body decomposed in a field, whose case had likely been forgotten by police, suddenly became the object of intense Internet scrutiny. But in rising from the dead, McCormick was bent to the whims of the living. Amateur web sleuths, avid redditors, Sunday codebreakers, and government conspiracy theorists all seized on McCormick’s notes. In their hands, Ricky McCormick became a drug lord, a schizophrenic. He was autistic, insane, and a fictitious creation of a nefarious government agency.

By the time the Internet was finished with Ricky McCormick, he was all these things and none of them. His code was still unbroken.

It’s not surprising that McCormick’s case would grip the Internet. The mysterious death, the encrypted notes only later released to the public—it’s a tale ready-made for conspiracy theorists and armchair sleuths. It continues to resurface on message boards like Reddit’s Unresolved Mysteries, a testament to the allure of a murdered man’s ciphered words.

McCormick’s notes entered the canon of undeciphered texts, which includes the Voynich Manuscript, the 15th-century cipher (or hoax) that includes elaborately surreal illustrations of the cosmos, the coded treasure-map Beale Papers, and the “Dorabella” letter. But McCormick’s notes also belong to a subgenre of the unbroken code canon: the cold case, with its most famous examples being the Tamam Shud case and, of course, the Zodiac Killer.

Indeed, when the FBI released McCormick’s notes, the Zodiac Killer couldn’t have been far from the minds of Internet sleuths. The Zodiac is America’s most notorious unknown serial killer; active in northern California in the late 1960s, his identity is still hotly debated today. His taunting letters to the Bay Area media included four cryptograms, only one of which has been partially solved—by a husband-and-wife team of amateur cryptographers, Donald and Bettye Harden.

Nearly 45 years after his last attributed murder, hundreds of message boards and homespun WordPress sites remain dedicated to cracking the Zodiac’s code, thanks to the lure that the entire case might be one cipher away from being solved. Many of the threads devoted to the Zodiac evince a certain admiration; there’sthe implication that such robust codes must be the product of a first-rate mind. McCormick, by contrast, earns no such respect. Unlike the Zodiac, in life he was known and judged wanting: He was barely literate, and his own mother described him as “retarded.” His code—if that’s what it was—wasn’t a murderer’s dare sent to newspapers. It was nearly illegible, stuffed into his jeans and recovered only after his death. “They told us the only thing in his pockets was the emergency-room ticket,” his mother told the Riverfront Times. “Now, twelve years later, they come back with this chicken-scratch shit.”

There was a disconnect, then, between the unbreakable code and the broken man. For many Internet sleuths, there was no grand historical backdrop to the McCormick notes. He was a just a dead man in a field. Beyond that, he was a dead man who was poor and black—he was a dead man who had fathered two children with a girl under the age of 14, a crime for which he served 11 months at the Farmington Correctional Center. In short, he was the kind of man who ends up dead in a field.  

That harsh assessment, repeated across many message boards, split the amateur code-breakers’ speculation into two schools of thought. In one, McCormick simply didn’t write the notes: They were planted by the drug dealers who employed him, as a distraction or a red herring for police. That McCormick was running drugs for a small, local drug ring is well established. In 1999, his girlfriend told the police that he was carrying drugs to Orlando—McCormick had made his most recent trip just two weeks before his death—and, as the Riverfront Times notes, his employers were violent men.

The most prominent advocate of this theory is Elonka Dunin. She’s an amateur cryptographer, described  as “everyone’s favourite crypto-gal” by one popular cipher website; Dan Brown named a character in The Lost Symbol after her. Dunin believes that McCormick didn’t have the background to create such an apparently sophisticated code. Instead, she says, he probably served as a courier, carrying the code between parties unknown. But even if true, that theory doesn’t explain much, as one redditor on Unresolved Mysteries lamented: “I can’t explain why he would have been shot and the notes left. Either the messenger gave him the messages and shot him, the receiver read the messages and shot him, or someone killed him between A and B. None of this makes sense though.” If McCormick didn’t write the notes, then virtually anyone else could have—and speculation can run wild.

“I have every confidence that Ricky wrote the notes. They are done in more of a format of something written to oneself than something written to someone else.”

The FBI’s official position, however, is that we know who authored the notes: “I have every confidence that Ricky wrote the notes,” the CRRU’s Olson said. “They are done in more of a format of something written to oneself than something written to someone else.”

But what, then, did McCormick’s notes mean? Theories generally focus on the numbers, followed by the repetition of the letters “NCBE.” Some suggest that “71”, “74”,  and “75” could be references to highways outside of St. Louis, while others believe that they reference VIN numbers, gaming notes (there’s a notable crossover between gaming sites and cipher sites), and yet some suggest that they reference car parts.

Commenters on Above Top Secret, a discussion board dedicated to “alternative topics” like government conspiracies and the New World Order, offer racially charged interpretations, painting McCormick as a drug dealer. In this universe, “NCBE” is likely street slang for is “No Cash Being Exchanged” or “Nose Candy Buys Eight Ball,” or “Nickel Bag Everyday.” It’s not a real code, one commenter writes: “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.” There’s no available evidence that McCormick ever went beyond drug running (from St. Louis to Florida, according to a girlfriend); it seems unlikely he’d need a ledger written in such “slang.”

Again, theories about McCormick’s notes are often premised on the fundamental question of whether a high school dropout could produce ciphers sophisticated enough to stump thousands of amateur code breakers—and the FBI. (Many of the amateur code-breakers, unsurprisingly, think not.) But maybe the notes aren’t codes at all. Some web sleuths see the evidence of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or even brain damage. “Having worked with folks who are brain injured, I have to tell you, this looks an awful lot like the sort of gibberish they would write. It made perfect sense in their heads, but wasn’t translating in writing,” wrote one. One redditor saw patterns of schizophrenia: the shaky handwriting, the paranoia, the uncontrollable need to cipher random thoughts and ideas.

Perhaps there’s an even more banal explanation. Some see McCormick’s “code” as nothing more than a handwritten schedule for his medication—with the FBI seeing genius code in notes written solely to remind the owner how to keep his mind.

This is the most sympathetic portrayal of Ricky McCormick, and the one that most plausibly connects the supposed “code” to what little we know of the man. While it doesn’t appear he ever received an official psychiatric diagnosis or treatment, after his 1992 arrest for felony sexual assault, his public defender believed he was “suffering from some mental disease or defect.” She asked for a mental health exam, but McCormick was found fit for trial—which doesn’t suggest much more than that he could tell right from wrong. His family, meanwhile, described him in ways that fit with an undiagnosed mental illness: In addition to his mother’s remark about him being “retarded,” an aunt remembers a withdrawn boy with a “brick wall in his mind.”

The answer to his ciphered notes may remain bricked up inside that mind, now gone. When McCormick’s notes reappear on cold-case and cipher message boards, they usually fade quickly. There’s only so much to go on, and no new information. And maybe there’s a deeper, more poignant reason. Nick Dunning hints at it on his Cipher Mysteries blog, writing, “But all I’m actually left with is a feeling of deep sadness—that what we’re glimpsing into in these two notes is the life of a poor, illiterate guy who aspired to ride the horse of opportunity, but only ever got dragged behind it.”

The Voynich Manuscript and the Zodiac Killer’s cryptograms offer laptop detectives the chance to test themselves against presumably genius intellects, to reveal messages that have remained hidden for decades—centuries, in the case of the Voynich Manuscript—and become a part of history. In contrast, McCormick’s notes offer only the possibility of better understanding the virtually anonymous life and death of a man who died largely unmourned, his body dumped in an abandoned field in middle America. The Internet rarely agrees on much, but it seems to have agreed that if Ricky McCormick, a poor, semiliterate black man, was sending a message from beyond the grave, then the message wasn’t worth reading.

Illustration by J. Longo