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

No arrests ever materialized. Yarbrough says that despite ongoing suspicions, detectives never could substantiate claims from informants suggesting a connection between the Hamdallahs and Knox or prove either was responsible for McCormick's death.

Still, both Knox and Baha Hamdallah found their way to prison, at least for a time.

Knox was arrested on July 25, 2000, and pleaded guilty in January 2001 to charges of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a drug-trafficking crime. A March 2001 HUD report to Congress noted Knox "was a suspect in at least four homicides that occurred in 1998 and 1999 in the LaSalle Park Homes and Clinton-Peabody public housing developments (in St. Louis). He was also the number one supplier of narcotics to LaSalle Park Homes." Knox is currently serving his sentence at the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky, and is scheduled to be released in November 2013.

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.

On October 13, 2000, Baha Hamdallah was managing another store, Charlie's Food Market in Madison, Illinois, when he got into an argument with a customer named Robert Steptoe. Different versions of events were later presented in court, but ultimately a jury convicted Hamdallah of first-degree murder after he shot Steptoe in the face with a 9-mm Glock pistol outside the store. In September 2002 a Madison County judge sentenced Hamdallah to 38 years in prison for killing Steptoe.

Nearly four years later, however, in May 2006, an Illinois appellate court ruled Hamdallah's lawyer erred by not calling a gunshot-residue expert to testify in person in the shooting case. The appellate court granted a retrial. In the second go-round, the jury bought Hamdallah's claims of self-defense and his version of events in which the gun went off while he and Steptoe were struggling for control of the pistol. On May 15, 2008, Hamdallah walked out of court a free man.

Attempts to contact Baha and Juma Hamdallah for this story were unsuccessful. Brother Bahjat Hamdallah says Juma now lives in the Philippines and that Baha has married and relocated back to the Cleveland area in his attempt to start over following his Illinois murder trial.

Gregory Knox, responding by e-mail from prison to questions about McCormick and allegations he was involved in McCormick's murder, wrote: "At this moment this is all new information to me, and I have no information that could help your case."

With little left to go on, investigators now believe that the codes found on Ricky McCormick may offer the best hope to explain how his corpse ended up in that isolated cornfield so many years ago. The FBI's Olson is convinced an answer to the codes is out there, though it will not appear out of thin air.

"Can it be solved? Yes, I am absolutely confident," Olson says. "But you can't just will it."

Today the field in West Alton offers no hint of its murderous history. No marker or makeshift memorial stands in the place where McCormick's body was found. The cycle of seasons erased long ago what little impression he left behind.

A few miles south, no headstone identifies McCormick's final resting place at Laurel Hill Memorial Gardens. If not for an entry in the cemetery's log book, one would never know his bones are buried beneath the grass designated as Space #2 in lot 11D. Here and there other graves are decorated with red silk flowers and plastic green wreaths, but not McCormick's. There is no sign anyone has ever visited his anonymous plot.

Back in St. Louis, McCormick's family members say they have never heard from police about the Hamdallahs, Knox or other details of the investigation into Ricky's death. They never heard about the encrypted notes found in his pocket until the local evening news broadcast a report on the codes.

"They told us the only thing in his pockets was the emergency-room ticket," McCormick's mother, Frankie Sparks, says. "Now, twelve years later, they come back with this chicken-scratch shit."

Contradicting the FBI's statements to the media, family members say they never knew of Ricky to write in code. They say they only told investigators he sometimes jotted down nonsense he called writing, and they seriously question McCormick's capacity to craft the notes found in his pockets.

"The only thing he could write was his name," Sparks says. "He didn't write in no code." Charles McCormick recalls Ricky "couldn't spell anything, just scribble."

Don Olson stands by his assessment, however.

"I have every confidence that Ricky wrote the notes," Olson says. "They are done in more of a format of something written to oneself than something written to someone else." As an example, he points to circles drawn around some segments of code that suggest a to-do list where items are marked as tasks are completed.

Elonka Dunin, an expert amateur cryptographer who has consulted novelist Dan Brown of The Lost Symbol and The Da Vinci Code fame, agrees the McCormick notes appear to be personal. They might be a message from one person to another but do not look as if intended, as with some other famous ciphers, to be challenges to a broader audience, she says. Dunin, a computer-game developer who happens to live a short distance from where McCormick's body was found, has spent tens of hours during the past year analyzing his notes. Like Olson, she suspected McCormick might have authored them for his own private consumption. Upon learning more about McCormick's illiteracy and personal background, however, she has second thoughts. "I don't think McCormick wrote these notes," she says. "Perhaps he was a courier."

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