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The Cryptic Code of Ricky McCormick

This case has remained unsolved for 24 years, 5 months, and 7 days.

Most people wouldn’t have given Ricky McCormick a second look. He was shorter than average at 5’6, had a scrawny build, and was an illiterate high school dropout who’d ended up spending some time incarcerated. Aside from some run-ins with the law, he dabbled in some illicit substances, although none of his friends or family described him as an addict.

And then in June 1999, McCormick was found dead in a cornfield. He hadn’t even been reported missing. Police investigated the death, which wasn’t even classified as a murder at first, but were unable to find any good leads. For over a decade, the case went cold.

Then, 12 years later, the FBI released information revealing not only that they thought the case was a homicide, but also that they’d found cryptic notes in McCormick’s pockets and hadn’t been able to crack the code. They were asking the public for help. To this day, the codes haven’t been cracked, and many questions remain.

If McCormick was illiterate, how was it he was able to create a code that even FBI analysts can’t solve? Did he really write these notes or had they been placed there by someone else? And perhaps most importantly, who murdered him, and why?

Ricky McCormick’s body was found in a cornfield.
Ricky McCormick’s body was found in a cornfield.

Table of Contents

About Ricky McCormick

According to sources, McCormick was a high school dropout who was functionally illiterate. His mother, Frankie Sparks, has described him as “retarded.” As a child, he didn’t interact with other children and often stood off by himself during recess. He ended up dropping out of Martin Luther King High School in St. Louis and never learned how to read or write effectively.

A picture of Ricky McCormick.
A picture of Ricky McCormick (Cipher Mysteries).

McCormick’s cousin also described him as odd, saying he would talk “like he was in another world.” Some suspect that he had untreated schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Still, he managed to hold down odd jobs while collecting disability checks for chronic health issues as he suffered from some heart and lung issues.

Troubles With the Law

Although McCormick never married, he had four children. Two of those children were fathered with a girl under the age of consent, and he ended up pleading guilty and being incarcerated for statutory rape. He served almost a year in jail before being released on parole.

At the time of his death, McCormick was 41 years old and living on and off with his elderly mother in the St. Louis area. He was working part-time at a local gas station, although he didn’t drive or own a vehicle himself

McCormick clearly had some serious struggles in life, but no sources ever described him as suicidal or insane. He also didn’t have any known enemies and although he might’ve dabbled in some illicit substances, he was a casual user at most, not some high-level dealer who had a number of enemies. So how and why did he end up dead?

The Days Before the Death

To get a better understanding of this case, perhaps it’s best to look at the days looking up to McCormick’s death to see if there are any clues. 

June 15–21, 1999

On June 15, 1999, McCormick got on a Greyhound bus, taking it from St. Louis, MO to Orlando, FL. There, he stayed for two days at an Econo Lodge. Some sources say that this trip to Florida was not a random one; McCormick had reportedly gone there to pick up marijuana for his boss

According to McCormick’s girlfriend, he was afraid and a bit paranoid after he returned from the trip. It was suspected that he was worried because a high-level drug dealer was working in McCormick’s neighborhood and he was concerned about angering or upsetting the dealer.

June 22–27, 1999

About a week later on June 22, McCormick went to the emergency Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. He complained of chest pain and was looked at, then discharged a few days later on June 24. After he got out of the hospital, McCormick spoke to his girlfriend on the phone on June 26. That was the last time he contacted her.

The next day, June 27, McCormick was seen at his place of work (an Amoco Gas Station on Chouteau Avenue). He worked there part-time about three days per week. And that was the last time anyone saw McCormick until his body was discovered on June 30. 

The gas station where Ricky McCormick used to work. It used to be an Amoco station but is now owned by BP.
The gas station where Ricky McCormick used to work. It used to be an Amoco station but is now owned by BP (Google Maps).

A Grim Discovery

On June 30, 1999, a body was discovered near West Alton, MO. This wasn’t the first time a body had been found in the area, and it was regarded as a dumping ground for criminals for years. One body was found in 1995 — an alleged prostitute who’d been shot to death — and two others were found in the same area around 2001, a few years after this case. 

Because of the state of decomposition (it was summer and bodies tend to decompose more quickly during warmer, more humid months), it was hard to make a determination of who this man was. What remained of the body was sent to the St. Charles County Medical Examiner’s Office to be looked at.

A regional map showing St. Charles County — where McCormick was found — and St. Louis County — where McCormick lived and worked.
A regional map showing St. Charles County — where McCormick was found — and St. Louis County — where McCormick lived and worked (Discover St. Charles).

Body Identified as Ricky McCormick

At first, authorities hadn’t been sure who the body belonged to, and when they compared it to a list of missing persons, nothing came up. No one had reported McCormick as missing, so he wasn’t on police radar; they weren’t looking for him and didn’t even know he was missing. Eventually though, the body was confirmed to be that of Ricky McCormick

Autopsy Results

Because McCormick’s body had been left out in the summer heat, decomposition had taken hold quickly. Ultimately, the St. Charles County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the manner of death as undetermined. It wasn’t clear if McCormick had been murdered, or if he’d succumbed to one of his numerous health conditions

Still, there was no explanation on how McCormick ended up in a rural cornfield in St. Charles County — some 20 miles from where he lived and worked. The question of how he ended up so far from home when he didn’t drive or own a vehicle remains unanswered. Additionally, there were no public transportation lines that could’ve taken him to where he ended up, nor was there evidence of him purchasing a ticket for any public transport. It seems that he must’ve been brought to where he ended up, but by whom? And why?

Bureau Commander of Criminal Investigations for the St. Charles County Police Department David Tiefenbrunn said of the case: “If I was to rely on my police instincts, there probably is some foul play. We just haven’t been able to prove it.”

Suspect — Gregory Knox

Authorities didn’t find many clues near McCormick’s body — or if they did, they kept that information from the public. They asked around their information circles and got some leads. According to a police informant, a drug dealer, Gregory Knox, claimed to have dumped the body of a black man he killed near the area where McCormick’s body was found.

“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.”

Police Information (Source: True Crime Files)

Knox was also suspected of committing a number of other homicides in the St. Louis area, although authorities didn’t have enough evidence to arrest and charge him for those. The same seems to be true regarding McCormick’s death; there isn’t enough evidence to bring charges against Knox or anyone else. 

Eventually, Knox went to prison for a time after pleading guilty to drug possession charges in January 2001. 

Another Suspect — Baha “Bob” Hamdallah

Another suspect in the potential murder of McCormick was his boss, Baha “Bob” Hamdallah — the same one that McCormick had reportedly gone to Florida to pick up marijuana for. Two months after McCormick’s death in August 1999, Hamdallah was allegedly shot by his brother. He survived and didn’t press charges, but during the course of the investigation into that shooting, authorities noted some troubling information about Hamdallah.

According to police records, Hamdallah was tied “to black gang members in St. Louis City and narcotics use” and was “reported to be violent and in possession of several weapons which include handguns and knives.” 

Indeed, Hamdallah reportedly shot a man in 1997, but was never prosecuted for the crime. In 1998, he allegedly shot one of his older brothers, injuring him. The older brother declined to press charges. Later that same month, Hamdallah was arrested for felony assault for beating a man with a rusty hammer. That same man was fatally gunned down two weeks before he was set to testify against Hamdallah in court, a murder that remains unsolved to this day. Many suspect Hamdallah was behind the murder.

A newspaper article discussing Hamdallah’s murder trial.
A newspaper article discussing Hamdallah’s murder trial (

Eventually, Hamdallah was convicted of first-degree murder in 2002 for another incident in which he murdered a customer. He was sentenced to 38 years for that shooting, though he was freed in 2008 after an appellate court granted him a retrial

Given the pattern of violent behavior, it seems entirely possible that Hamdallah might’ve had something to do with McCormick’s potential murder. However, there was simply not enough evidence to file charges against him for it, then or now. 

And That Was It

And that’s how McCormick’s case remained, open and unsolved, for over a decade… until the FBI released more information. 

12 Years Later: New Evidence Released

In most cases, the more evidence there is, the clearer the situation becomes. However, in McCormick’s case, nothing could be further from the truth. It took law enforcement 12 years to come out and reveal another piece of evidence in this case: the presence of at least two cryptic notes. Additionally, the FBI formally classed the case as a homicide.

Two cryptic notes had been found in McCormick’s pockets when his body was discovered, but this information had been kept from the public. It wasn’t clear what the notes were for, what they meant, or even if McCormick had written them himself. 

Ricky McCormick’s cryptic notes.
Ricky McCormick’s cryptic notes (FBI).

The notes contain a variety of letters and numbers along with some parentheses, although it’s not clear what any of it means. The FBI’s Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Unit (CRRU) revealed the notes to the public in the hopes that someone would be able to solve the code, since none of their specialists were able to break it.

Family Not Informed

McCormick’s family had not been informed about the notes either and learned about them on the local evening news. His mother, Frankie Sparks, told a news outlet:

“They told us the only thing in his pockets was the emergency-room ticket. Now, twelve years later, they come back with this chicken-scratch shit.”

Frankie Sparks (Source: Riverfront Times)

The family also contested the idea that McCormick had written the notes in the first place. He was, after all, functionally illiterate. “The only thing he could write was his name. He didn’t write in no code,” Sparks told the media. McCormick’s cousin said that he “couldn’t spell anything, just scribble.”

Did McCormick Write the Notes?

Some cryptographers believe that McCormick wrote the notes himself while others aren’t so sure. Dan Olson, chief of the CRRU, believes that McCormick wrote the notes. He stated:

“I have every confidence that Ricky wrote the notes. They are done in more of a format of something written to oneself than something written to someone else.”

Dan Olson (Source: Riverfront Times)

Others, however, aren’t so sure. Elonka Dunin, an expert amateur cryptographer, doesn’t think that McCormick wrote the notes himself: “I don’t think McCormick wrote these notes. Perhaps he was a courier.” It’s plausible that someone else wrote the notes and McCormick was just the deliveryman, although we probably won’t ever know for sure.

An informational flyer for the CRRU.
An informational flyer for the CRRU (National Public Safety Partnership).

What Do the Notes Mean?

While some have dismissed the notes as pure gibberish or the scribblings of an illiterate man, many experts disagree. Olson has stated of the notes, “This means something. We look at a lot of things that are gibberish, arbitrary strikes on a keyboard. This is not that case.” 

Despite releasing the notes to the public and a number of sleuths trying their luck at cracking the code, it remains unbroken decades later. Furthermore, we’re no closer to solving McCormick’s murder, and no closer to any answers in this case.

Theories on What Happened

This is another one of those cases that seems to attract the outright bizarre theories, up to and including alien abduction. Since the FBI classified the case as a murder, some of the theories related to McCormick’s health (like he had a heart attack) can be ruled out. Even so, we don’t seem any closer to solving this case.

Knox Killed McCormick

One of the prevailing theories in this case is that Knox killed McCormick, as the confidential police informant had told authorities back when McCormick’s body was first found in 1999. If Knox was bragging about murdering a black man, putting his body in an area near where McCormick’s body was found, and that the murdered man had worked in a gas station on Chouteau Avenue, all of these pieces of information line up with the murder victim being Ricky McCormick.

Of course, as they say in detective work, “There’s what you know, and there’s what you can prove.” Thus far, authorities haven’t had the evidence to charge Knox with McCormick’s murder. The words of a police informant are not enough evidence to convict someone beyond a reasonable doubt. 

A somewhat bizarre cover image for an article discussing the Ricky McCormick case.
A somewhat bizarre cover image for an article discussing the Ricky McCormick case (Riverfront Times).

Hamdallah Killed McCormick

Given Hamdallah’s extensive criminal history that was discussed earlier in this article, it’s entirely possible that he killed McCormick and dumped his body. It’s not clear if authorities ever questioned Hamdallah, but I would hope that they had. 

Hamdallah was McCormick’s boss at the Amoco gas station, so the two had a close working relationship. McCormick is also believed to have gone to Florida to pick up marijuana for Hamdallah on numerous occasions, according to McCormick’s girlfriend, and had done so in the weeks leading up to his death. Did something go wrong on this most recent trip, leading Hamdallah to get upset with McCormick and kill him? Possibly.

That being said, McCormick’s autopsy report didn’t reveal any cause of death (like a gunshot wound or blunt force injury with a hammer), and we know that Hamdallah often used some sort of weapon in committing his crimes. 

Someone Else Killed McCormick

It’s also possible that someone else killed McCormick, someone who hasn’t been named in news articles and police publications. Unfortunately, it seems that so little evidence was left at the scene that there just isn’t enough information to narrow down the suspects, nor to broaden the net with some extra suspect information. As far as we know, there were no witnesses, no security camera footage, and no traffic cameras that could’ve picked up McCormick’s killer. 

What About the Notes?

Perhaps the strangest part about this case is the presence of at least two undeciphered notes found in McCormick’s pockets. Who wrote them? What do they mean? Are they really the ramblings of an illiterate man or are they an uncrackable code of a master cryptographer? 

The notes could be essential to the murder case, or completely unrelated. If McCormick really did write them himself and was using them as a way to remember things, then they might have nothing to do with solving the murder. On the other hand, if McCormick was just a courier for someone and was delivering encrypted notes, then maybe he was killed because he knew too much. 

We just don’t know at this point, and without additional information coming to light, we may never know. 

A newspaper article about Ricky McCormick’s notes.
A newspaper article about Ricky McCormick’s notes (

What Do I Think Happened?

I think this is a tragic case of a murder of an indigent black man who didn’t get any attention until it was revealed that notes in his pocket had stumped FBI experts for over a decade. It shouldn’t take some oddity in a murder case for authorities to give it a closer look. Doesn’t everyone deserve justice? Why did it take cryptic notes for McCormick’s case to get attention again? 

I think we as true crime consumers sometimes forget that every case was some family’s worst day of their lives. McCormick’s family and friends lost a son, a father, a boyfriend — someone who mattered to them. The fact that it took cryptic notes to bring his case to media attention is sad in many ways. McCormick may not have been a perfect person, but he mattered to his friends and family. It’s easy for us to forget that, sometimes.

Notes Likely Unrelated

The notes may or may not have anything to do with his murder, although I don’t think that McCormick wrote them himself. After all, his own family said that the only thing he was able to write was his own name, so how would an illiterate man be able to manufacture a code so complex that even FBI cryptanalysts can’t solve it? 

It seems more likely that he was a courier for the notes, that someone else wrote them and McCormick was simply the messenger. Who better to deliver a message than an illiterate man? There’s no chance of him reading and learning about the contents of the message, after all. 

Two Likely Suspects

I think it’s likely that McCormick was murdered by either Gregory Knox or Baha Hamdallah. After all, you’re more likely to be murdered by someone you know than a stranger. Both had criminal records and had acted out violently before, making them good suspects in McCormick’s case.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be enough evidence to charge either of them. The case took place over 20 years ago now, so new evidence is unlikely to surface unless someone makes a confession or untested DNA evidence is finally examined — although there’s no report that there is even any DNA evidence to test.


Even if McCormick wasn’t a paragon of morality, that doesn’t mean that he deserved to die and that his case ought to remain unsolved. Unless more evidence surfaces, this case may remain cold forever, so if you know anything about the murder or the notes, please reach out to law enforcement.

Do You Have Information?

If you have information about what happened to Ricky McCormick, please contact the St. Charles County Police Department at (636) 949–3000. If you have an idea how to break the code, have seen similar codes, or have any information about the Ricky McCormick case, write to CRRU at the following address:

FBI Laboratory
Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit (CRRU)
2501 Investigation Parkway
Quantico, VA 22135
Attn: Ricky McCormick Case

Ricky McCormick and his code.
Ricky McCormick and his code (St. Louis Post-Dispatch).

Cold Case Questions

  • Who do you think killed Ricky McCormick?
  • What do you make of McCormick’s cryptic notes? Do they mean anything? Did he even write them himself?

Tell me your thoughts about this case in the comments below!

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