Monday Mystery: Ricky McCormick's Strange Notes

On June 30, 1999, the body of 41-year-old Ricky McCormick was found in a cornfield near West Alton, MO.  He had been dead for quite some time, but that part didn't surprise anyone -- McCormick was known to have cardiopulmonary problems. The last confirmed sighting of him alive was five days before that, in fact, when he came into a local hospital for a checkup. The FBI page characterizes it as a homicide, but the local coroner ruled the cause of death undetermined; that usually means that there was something about the circumstances that made them think foul play was involved, but the fibbies don't say specifically what it was. Possibly just that he had no car, and yet he was found fifteen miles from home, in an area with no public transit.

No, the real reason this case is interesting is what they found in McCormick's pockets.

McCormick was reportedly a high school dropout, barely literate, and yet in his pockets were two notes that are either total gibberish, or cleverly encrypted. You can see them on the FBI site, where unusually enough, the bureau has set up a page for members of the public to make observations about the cipher, or submit their own solutions.

McCormick's family says the ciphers were far beyond anything he could have put together on his own. I don't know about that; the human mind tends to be systematic even when it's not quick, and it's possible that he put a personal spin on something someone else taught him. I will comment that if the notes were his and for his own benefit, they were probably not for quick reference -- he would have had to laboriously decode them again to get the information out of it. I can sometimes read simple things like pigpen (aka Masonic) ciphers on sight, but this is very much a learned skill that belongs to someone who handles alphabets, even new ones, with ease. There are a limited number of transformations I can do in my head and keep cached long enough to feed the resulting words through my recognition vocabulary filter, but that is orders of magnitude more complicated, and I do as much as I can chiefly because even my short-term memory cache is eidetic enough that I can 'see' and 'write' the plaintext letters to the paper next to the ciphertext as I do it. Someone who was functionally illiterate would not have been able to wrestle letters like that even if they originated in words he was familiar with.

You can get the basics of the case here. They've hired one of the more soothing GPS robo-voices to narrate their video, but if you can get over that, it's not a bad overview.

There is some suggestion in other sources that the FBI is interested in the notes in particular, and in the case in general, because McCormick had some connection to much bigger, smarter, badder dudes. If they were pursuing someone whose criminal career was extensive and ongoing, that would also explain why they're suddenly coming forward with the declaration that this was a murder, and that these notes could be important: they're hoping it'll provide them with evidence to link this killing with other crimes, for which the mastermind can then be busted. I'm not sure who all in the FBI has experience handling codes. I note that here the Cryptanalysis department mentioned is linked with Racketeering, but that may be because historically, bookies have kept all their records in code -- the more bizarre and inventive the better -- and that's how the FBI first got into it.

Check the category label for more Monday Mysteries!

Further reading: (note: They mention Elonka Dunn; that section should read that she was a consultant for Dan Brown, and if you've ever read any of Brown's books, you'll realize that he didn't necessarily listen to a damn thing she said)