ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- When the American Cryptogram Association gathered for their annual convention in Niagra Falls in 2009, there was something new on their agenda. Ten years earlier, a poor black man was found dead in a remote field. A man no one seemed to care about as his body decomposed for three days. A high school dropout who never married but had four children. A felon who was rarely employed and on disability. A man who couldn't read or write and didn't own a car.
Yet this obscure man, long forgotten after his death, was about to become an internet sensation.
Hello world. Meet Ricky McCormick.
On June 15, 1999, McCormick boarded a Greyhound bus from St. Louis to Orlando. He would stay two days at the Econo Lodge.
On June 22, McCormick walked into the emergency room at Barnes-Jewish Hospital complaining of chest pain. He was admitted, and discharged on June 24.
On June 25, McCormick walked into the emergency room at Forest Park Hospital, complaining of shortness of breath. He was not admitted.
On June 26, McCormick talked with his girlfriend, Sandra Jones, on the phone for the last time.
On June 27, McCormick was seen at his place of work, the Amoco station at 1401 Chouteau. Medical examiners determined that was his day of death.
On June 30, McCormick's body was found in a field just outside West Alton in St. Charles County.
Nobody reported him missing. There was no indication of foul play. No evidence of enemies. Police had no reason to suspect homicide. Still, the Major Case Squad of Greater St. Louis was activated. Twenty-five investigators worked round the clock on the case without success.
"It's kind of a puzzling case," said Captain David Tiefenbrunn, the Bureau Commander of Criminal Investigations for the St. Charles County Police Department. "If I was to rely on my police instincts, there probably is some foul play. We just haven't been able to prove it."
The Medical Examiner ruled the death "undetermined." But investigators believed they had a murder on their hands.
And there the story appeared to end, just another statistic of a forgotten man.
But then an amazing thing happened. Twelve years after his death, the FBI revealed that cryptic notes were found in McCormick's blue jeans. Cryptic notes that the FBI's Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit (CRRU) could not solve, quite a statement since they cracked the codes of Nazi spies during World War II, and successfully solve more than 99 percent of such cases. The FBI was now certain McCormick had indeed been murdered, and they believed the notes in his pockets were written within days of his death.
For twelve years, the CRRU worked the case out of their Quantico, Virginia headquarters. And for twelve years, the FBI was stumped. The cryptic notes in McCormick's pockets were such a mind-boggling challenge, they ranked third on the FBI's toughest list to crack, right behind the famed Zodiac killer from 1969. The FBI examines hundreds of cryptic codes each year. They are usually able to crack codes in a matter of hours, not decades. For the McCormick notes, they used computers and state of the art software to look for patterns. Some 15 to 20 experts were brought in to try and crack the code.
Which brought them to Niagra Falls, where hundreds of amateur sleuths flocked to see the Maid of the Mist Boat Tour, the Cave of the Winds Mountain Park and to take a crack at the code.
They all failed.
The FBI was not giving up. They made a rare appeal to the public, releasing the notes on a web page, pleading for help. More than 7,000 people left comments. The response was so overwhelming, the FBI web page crashed, unable to handle the bandwidth.
And still, nothing.
Who wrote the notes?
More than 20 years later, the question remains. Was it McCormick himself? Could it have been a killer? Somebody else?
The FBI emphasized the characters in the codes were not random, but instead patterns and sequences. The notes contained numerous letter E's, references to the numbers 71, 74 and 75, and a focus on the repetition of the letters "NCBE."
Was it McCormick himself?
Let's start with the premise that McCormick wrote the notes. This is the prevailing thought from the FBI and police investigators. But McCormick's parents certainly didn't believe he wrote the notes, telling police he could barely spell. They said as a child, he just scribbled. And nobody in his family knew what the mystery notes meant. And to believe that McCormick was the author is to believe that a semi-literate man who could barely spell his name has stumped the FBI with 30 lines of coded text.
Could it have been a killer?
If McCormick was murdered, perhaps the murderer wrote the note and planted it to divert police.
But police don't think so.
"We can't rule out anything at this point," Tiefenbrunn said. "The only thing we feel confident in is that it was not a note left by the killer of this individual. So obviously if we could decipher that code it would be interesting to see what Mr. McCormick had written down or what that message was, either to remind him of something or I guess it could possibly be something that would lead us to the killer of this case. So that's undetermined. Do we want to know the contents of that code? Most definitely."
Or maybe the notes were planted by a third party, and McCormick was a courier, perhaps detailing drug connections, vehicle ID numbers, gambling information, or a million other things.
And perhaps it wasn't code at all, and instead just gibberish, random words thrown out by someone suffering from mental illness. But one thing is certain: the notes meant something to somebody.
For investigators, if there was a murder, the case now revolved around motive. McCormick worked odd jobs at the then Amoco station. Combined with his disability income, he survived on just a few hundred dollars a month. Police had suspicions of drug trafficking, and looked closely at McCormick's trip to Florida, less than two weeks before his death. It was McCormick's second trip to Florida in a short period. He paid cash for his bus tickets and hotel rooms. Police began looking into activity at the Amoco station.
And they kept asking themselves how a man without a car could wind up dead in a field 30 miles from his St. Louis home?
Like the cryptic notes in his pockets, that question remains unanswered.
Tiefenbrunn emphasizes that no case will ever be closed. But after all these years, the best chance to solve the McCormick case is for someone to solve the riddle found in the blue jeans.
Can you crack the McCormick code?
The FBI has offered the below exercise to assist any amateur cryptanalysts.
Breaking any code involves four basic steps:
Determining the language used.
Determining the system used.
Reconstructing the key.
Reconstructing the plaintext.
Consider this cipher: Nffu nf bu uif qbsl bu oppo.
Now apply the four steps:
Determining the language allows you to compare the cipher text to the suspected language. Our cryptanalysts usually start with English.
Determining the system: Is this cipher using rearranged words, replaced words, or perhaps letter substitution? In this case, it's letter substitution.
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.
Reconstructing the plaintext: By applying the key from the previous step, you now have a solution - Meet me at the park at noon.
We reached out to the FBI for comment, as they are still trying to crack the code.
"The FBI appreciates the public’s help in this case, which remains open," their statement read.
Ricky McCormick rests in Laurel Hill Memorial Gardens, 70 acres tucked along the St. Charles Rock Road in Pagedale. The cemetery's log book says he's buried in Lot 11D, Space 2. There is no headstone. There is no sign that anyone has ever visited.