On the 30th of June, 1999, a woman was driving alongside a field road near Highway 367 near West Alton in Missouri. As she glanced out the window, something peculiar caught her eye in one of the cornfields. She pulled up alongside the cornfield and inspected, before recoiling in horror to discover that she had just found a relatively decomposed body of a man.1
The deceased man was wearing dirty Lee blue jeans and a stained white T-shirt. The body was in such an advanced state of decomposition that the flesh on his hands had rotted to the extent that his fingertips had fallen off and lay in the foliage beside the body.
The area where the body had been found had become something of a hot-spot for killers dumping bodies. Back in 1995, a sex worker was found shot dead in an abandoned home along the same stretch of road.
The body was later identified via fingerprints as 41-year-old Ricky McCormick. Ricky suffered from chronic heart and lung problems and he was unemployed and on disability welfare, but he was not homeless; he lived in the Greater St. Louis area. He was not a married man but had fathered four children throughout his life.
The location where Ricky was found was perplexing to investigators; he lived 15 miles away from the cornfield and he couldn’t drive. This led to much speculation that Ricky may have been the victim of homicide. This speculation was further compounded by the fact that Ricky may have had a head injury. However, due to the advanced state of decomposition, they couldn’t be 100% sure.
Maj. Tom O’Connor of the Major Case Squad announced that they were treating the suspicious death as if it were a homicide. A cause of death still needed to be determined, however, and authorities announced they couldn’t yet rule out whether Ricky had died naturally due to his health issues.
While a cause of death was being determined, investigators began piecing together Ricky’s last-known movements. He had last been seen alive on the 25th of June at Forest Park Hospital in St. Louis, where he was receiving medication from his doctor. Looking into Ricky’s background, investigators could find no evidence of anybody who harboured any ill-will against Ricky.
The following day, it was announced that a medical examiner could not determine a cause of death, nor could the investigators find any evidence of a crime. Therefore, they announced that Ricky had died of natural causes, despite the peculiar nature of his death.2
The strange case of Ricky McCormick was quietly forgotten about by the public until March of 2011, when the FBI announced that Ricky had in fact been murdered, and even more curious, two encrypted notes were found in his pants pockets. The FBI were now wanting the public’s assistance in deciphering these notes, announcing: “On June 30, 1999, sheriff’s officers in St. Louis, Missouri discovered the body of 41-year-old Ricky McCormick. He had been murdered and dumped in a field. The only clues regarding the homicide were two encrypted notes found in the victim’s pants pockets.”3
The two notes contained more than 30 lines of coded material using a variety of letters, numbers, dashes and parentheses. According to Ricky’s family, he had been writing such notes since he was a little boy, and investigators believed that the notes may have been written up to three days prior to his death.
Ricky had been a high school dropout and for much of his life, investigators claimed that he experimented with codes and ciphers. As one investigator stated: “We asked the family, and they said he did it quite often. Nobody really knows what it means. It’s kind of like private diary writing.”4
The notes had been extensively analysed by the FBI’s Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit as well as the American Cryptogram Association, yet neither had any success in cracking the notes. The notes had also been looked at by Ricky’s family but they too failed to decipher them.
In releasing photographs of the two notes, Dan Olson, the chief of the FBI’s Cryptoanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit said: “Breaking the code could reveal the victim’s whereabouts before his death and could lead to the solution of a homicide.” He said that in releasing the two notes, they hoped that somebody with a fresh set of eyes could understand the meaning.
The FBI also asked the public if they knew of any other notes that Ricky had written in the past, to get in contact. They had hoped that by finding another one of his cryptic notes, it could offer context to the notes or allow for comparisons to be made. Olson stated: “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.”5
In 2012, Ricky’s family came forward to dispute the claim that Ricky had written coded messages throughout his life. They said that they never told investigators he had written in code but instead, told them he sometimes jotted down nonsense that he called writing. They strongly refuted the claims that the notes found in Ricky’s pockets were written by him, leading to more questions than answers in the perplexing case.
His mother, Frankie Sparks, described him as “retarded” while his cousin, Charles McCormick said he often talked like he “was in another world” and suggested he may have suffered from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. His aunt, Gloria McCormick, recalled: “Ricky went to see a psychiatrist, and he said Ricky had a brick wall in his mind. He said Ricky refused to break that wall. He didn’t like the life of living poor and had an active imagination.”6
The family said that while growing up, Ricky had a penchant for concocting tall tales, and had displayed unusual behaviour. He moved along from grade to grade in school but could barely read or write. In fact, some suggested he couldn’t even spell his own name. In 1992, he was arrested for sexual-abuse, and while awaiting trial, his public defender noted she had reasonable cause to believe that he was “suffering from some mental disease or defect.”
The family then disclosed that around two weeks before Ricky’s death, he purchased a one-way bus ticket to Orlando. It was just one of two trips he had made down the coast that same year. Investigators were never able to establish who Ricky travelled down to Orlando to meet; some suggested he travelled there to purchase marijuana.
Olson, however, remains confident that the notes were written by Ricky. He stated: “They are done in more of a format of something written to oneself than something written to someone else.” He provided an example, pointing out circles drawn around some segments of code that he suggested was a to-do list where items are marked as tasks are completed.
The notes found in Ricky’s pocket still remain online, in a website handled by the FBI. Since 2011, thousands of people have tried to crack the code and the website is dominated by theories. Some people have suggested that the notes could mask information about practically everything, from vehicle identification numbers, gambling books and drug dealing transactions to addresses and directions.
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2 July, 1999 – “Body Found in Field Near West Alton Puzzles Police”
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 3 July, 1999 – “Man Found Near Field May Have Died Naturally”
- FOX – 13 KCPQ, 29 March, 2011 – “Try Your Hand at Cracking FBI Code”
- Associated Press, 31 March, 2011 – “FBI Seeks Help Deciphering Codes Found on Dead Man”
- FOX – 2 WJBK, 30 March, 2011 – “FBI Asking Help to Crack code of Mysterious Note”
- Riverfront Times, 14 June, 2012 – “Code Dead”