A dead body found in a Missouri field, murdered, apparently, by a blow to the head. No witnesses, no murder weapon, and no apparent motive. The only evidence: two notes in the victim's pocket with a mysterious code scrawled upon them. Twelve years later, the case remains unsolved.
It's not the description of the opening scene from latest episode of "Cold Case," it's the true story of the murder of Ricky McCormick. An eccentric 41-year-old high school drop-out who had a passion for making encrypted notes, McCormick had last been seen five days before his murder in St. Louis, where he was undergoing treatment for heart and lung problems in June 1999. Investigators came to believe that the coded messages found in McCormick's pocket would point them in the direction of his murderer. But McCormick's code has proven to be too indecipherable for even the FBI, so after twelve years, the Bureau's Cryptanalysis and Racketerring Unit, in collaboration with the American Cryptogram Association, is turning to the internet for the answers.
"Standard routes of cryptanalysis seem to have hit brick walls," CRRU chief Dan Olson said in a statement. "Our cryptanalysts have several plausible theories about the notes, but so far, there has been no solution."
The FBI is hoping that "crowdsourcing" the code might lead to a break in the case. Both of McCormick's notes (seen above and below) were posted on the FBI's website with some simple guidelines to help amateur sleuths try to solve one of the CRRU's most vexing cases. "Maybe someone with a fresh set of eyes might come up with a brilliant new idea," Olson said.
Are you good at figuring out puzzles and codes? Check out Ricky McCormick's mysterious notes and the FBI's website, and tell us if you think you can solve the case.
The FBI has offered the below exercise to assist any amateur cryptanalysts.
Breaking any code involves four basic steps:
1) Determining the language used
2) Determining the system used
3) Reconstructing the key
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.