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

McCormick never liked to talk about his excursions to Orlando, but he seemed different when he got back that last time, Jones told police. He seemed scared.

Indeed, McCormick's already unsettled lifestyle seemed to become more erratic after he came back, as if he sensed trouble around the corner but didn't know where to turn. McCormick used much of his time during his last days to seek out medical care or, perhaps more accurately, a safe place to stay.

Around three o'clock the afternoon of June 22, 1999, McCormick walked alone into Barnes-Jewish Hospital's emergency room complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath. This was nothing new. McCormick had a history of ER visits and had suffered from asthma and chest pains since childhood. He told his doctors he didn't abuse drugs or alcohol, a statement friends and family back up. It didn't help, however, that he smoked at least a pack of cigarettes a day since he was about ten years old and drank coffee by the gallon. By his own estimate, he told his doctors he downed more than twenty caffeinated beverages a day.

The notes seem to display elements of secret languages and simplified phonetic spellings. For example, “MLSE” could be code for “miles.”
The notes seem to display elements of secret languages and simplified phonetic spellings. For example, “MLSE” could be code for “miles.”
The FBI has been stumped for a decade but  insists the writings have meaning.
The FBI has been stumped for a decade but insists the writings have meaning.

Doctors ruled out a heart attack but admitted McCormick for observation and kept him there for two days. Ricky left the hospital on June 24 with orders to return for follow-up visits in the coming week. He would never make it to those appointments.

McCormick took a bus to his aunt Gloria's apartment after leaving Barnes-Jewish and visited with her for about an hour. Her home had always been a sanctuary for him, and he maintained a closer relationship with Gloria than with his own mother, who lived just around the corner.

"Everybody needs someone to talk to now and then," Gloria says. "Ricky would come visit and talk with me."

But he revealed little this time, chatting just a bit before getting up to leave. It was late afternoon, and Ricky waved off offers to drive him wherever he needed to go. Gloria's last image of Ricky is him walking down the street.

Around 5 p.m. the next day, June 25, McCormick entered the emergency room at Forest Park Hospital, less than two miles from Barnes-Jewish. This time he complained that he was having trouble breathing following an afternoon of mowing grass. Doctors diagnosed his wheezing as another asthma flare-up. He was not admitted, however, and was officially released at 5:50 p.m. It's not clear when he actually left the hospital. Gloria says she heard McCormick spent that night in the waiting room before leaving the next morning.

Jones told police that she talked with McCormick on the phone at about 11:30 a.m. on June 26. He told her he was out of the hospital and was on his way to the Amoco to get a bite to eat. At least one gas-station employee told police he last saw McCormick there the next day, on June 27.

McCormick left the gas station with at most hours left to live; medical examiners determined he was definitely dead the same day.

Looking back, Gloria McCormick suspects Ricky's hospital visits were attempts to find a hideout where he could lay low. Sitting at an open window in her same apartment, Gloria's voice softens between tugs on her Salem 100's cigarettes. "Maybe he knew he got into something that put his life on the line," she says. "He knew he could have stayed here. But maybe he didn't want to put my life on the line."

When McCormick's corpse turned up, his girlfriend Jones' thoughts turned to Baha "Bob" Hamdallah. After McCormick returned from his trip south, Jones said she suspected Ricky might have done something wrong in Orlando. If anyone was going to hurt McCormick, she told investigators, it would probably be Bob Hamdallah.

On December 23, 1999, detective Jana Walters of the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department received a call from Sgt. Ed Kuehner of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department's homicide division. He had information to share about Ricky McCormick's death and wanted to arrange an inter-agency meeting.

Nine investigators gathered on the fourth floor of St. Louis' police headquarters six days later. In addition to Walters and her partner, detective Michael Yarbrough, Kuehner's gathering included members of St. Louis' homicide and narcotics divisions, investigators with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and a special agent from the FBI.

Walters and Yarbrough learned St. Louis police were investigating a man named Gregory Lamar Knox, a major drug dealer who operated in and around the housing complex where McCormick had lived, as a suspect in several homicides, including "at least two murder-for-hire schemes." According to police records, a confidential informant also told police that Knox was responsible for the murder of a black man who worked at the gas station on Chouteau Avenue and whose body was dumped near West Alton. St. Louis police had also linked the Hamdallahs with alleged "criminal activity and the possible association with Gregory Knox."

The St. Charles detectives came away from the meeting wanting to know more about the role Knox and the Hamdallahs may have played in McCormick's death. Within weeks they began conducting stakeouts of the Hamdallahs' gas station and the homes of several of its owners and employees.

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