Code Dead: Do the encrypted writings of Ricky McCormick hold the key to his mysterious death?

"This means something," Olson says. "We look at a lot of things that are gibberish, arbitrary strikes on a keyboard. This is not that case."

The McCormick notes eventually moved to the back burner. But a few years ago, with some new staff and capabilities in the FBI laboratory, Olson decided it was time to revisit the case and bring in some fresh eyes. Approximately fifteen of the twenty analysts on staff applied their experience and techniques to the codes. Still nothing worked, putting McCormick's handiwork in rare company. The FBI examines hundreds of suspected codes each year. After weeding out those that are nonsense from the codes the bureau categorizes as solvable, only about 1 percent go unbroken, Olson says.

In September 2009, Olson's frustrated team looked outside for help. They presented the McCormick puzzle to a room of about 25 amateur code breakers gathered in Niagara Falls, Ontario, for the annual convention of the American Cryptogram Association. The challenge generated interest, but association members have been unable to make any breakthroughs.

Despite investing hundreds of hours to decipher the mystery over nearly a decade, the FBI's elite CRRU — the same unit that cracked the codes of Nazi spies during World War II — remained foiled by the apparent craftsmanship of a high school dropout.

Olson's rare, and some would say humbling, decision to appeal to the masses last year for help garnered immediate attention. Local newspapers and TV stations in Missouri and Illinois ran with the update. So did news organizations from as far away as New Zealand, Germany and Ghana.

The deluge that followed prompted the FBI to establish a special Web page just to handle the more than 7,000 public comments and theories that have poured in so far. Respondents have suggested the encrypted notes could mask information about everything from vehicle identification numbers, gambling books and drug-dealing transactions to addresses and directions, mental-health episodes or medications. The list goes on and on. Sifting through them all has prompted seven or eight conversations about potential leads between Olson's team and local investigators, he says. But no arrests or significant developments in the case have emerged. The secrets buried in the codes remain as mysterious as the events that precipitated McCormick's death.

Ricky McCormick always stood out as different from his peers. His mother, Frankie Sparks, describes him as "retarded." His cousin Charles McCormick, who shared a brotherly relationship with Ricky for most of his life, says Ricky would often talk "like he was in another world" and suspects Ricky might have suffered from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

"Ricky went to see a psychiatrist, and he said Ricky had a brick wall in his mind," remembers Gloria McCormick, an aunt better known as "Cookie" in whom Ricky often confided. "He said Ricky refused to break that wall. He didn't like the life of living poor and had an active imagination."

It's unclear whether McCormick ever received formal treatment for mental illness, but family members recall Ricky's penchant for concocting tall tales and his displays of unusual behavior. As a boy he spent so much time at recess standing off by himself that his mother would receive calls from school administrators asking if anything was wrong.

Teachers shuffled McCormick along from grade to grade, but he could hardly read or write when he dropped out of St. Louis' former Martin Luther King High School on North Kingshighway.

McCormick subsisted on occasional odd jobs — floor mopper, dishwasher, busboy, service-station attendant — and disability checks he collected due to chronic heart problems. He preferred the graveyard shift and developed a reputation as a night owl, heading out the door at dusk and dragging himself home at dawn.

"I called him a vampire," Gloria McCormick says. "He slept all day, and then at night he rises."

As a teenager and later as an adult, he frequently hitched a ride or caught a bus to distance himself from the street toughs who dealt drugs and picked fights outside his now-bulldozed home near the present-day intersection of Lindell Boulevard and North Sarah Street.

Eventually Ricky found trouble himself. In November 1992, St. Louis police arrested the 34-year-old McCormick for having fathered two children with a girl younger than fourteen years old. McCormick had been sleeping with the girl since she was eleven, according to court files, which protected the girl's identity. McCormick's mother and aunt knew the girl simply by her nickname, Pretty Baby.

While awaiting trial on the first-degree sexual-abuse charge, McCormick's public defender noted she had reasonable cause to believe McCormick was "suffering from some mental disease or defect" and requested that the judge order a mental-health exam. Dr. Michael Armour, a local psychologist, evaluated McCormick at the former St. Louis State Hospital. Following Armour's report and a hearing, however, the court certified McCormick was fit for trial. Six weeks later, on September 1, 1993, McCormick pleaded guilty to the crime. State inmate 503506 would spend thirteen months behind bars in the Farmington Correctional Center before being sent home a year early on conditional release.

McCormick's relationship with Pretty Baby reflected an obvious lapse of good judgment. It wouldn't be his last.

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