FBI wants public to help break murdered man's code

April 6, 2011
The meanings of the coded notes remain a mystery to this day

A lifelong fan of codes, Ricky McCormick wrote out two pages of letters, numbers and symbols and stuck them in his pocket. His body was found in a Missouri cornfield in the summer of 1999, those two sheets of paper still in his pants.

ALPONTE GLSE - SE ERTE, one line read. Is that a coded plea for help? A reminder to pick up the laundry from the cleaners? The beginnings of a commentary on the weather in St. Louis?

If you know, the FBI's top code-breaking unit wants your help in breaking McCormick's — one that has baffled government cryptologists for more than a decade — and perhaps solving his murder.

Dan Olson, chief of the Laboratory's Cryptanalysis & Racketeering Records Unit, said the papers found on the body of 41-year-old McCormick could be the key in figuring out why he was murdered.

But none of their cryptologists has been able to break the code created by McCormick, a high school dropout, even after years of work, Olson said. So the FBI is turning to the public for help, hoping that someone out there recognizes the code used by McCormick on the two papers posted by the agency at 1.usa.gov/evCb2i .

Police said McCormick had experimented with codes and ciphers for much of his life.

"We asked the family, and they said he did it quite often," said Lt. Craig McGuire of the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department. "Nobody really knows what it means. It's kind of like private diary writing."

Officials said that what would help the most would be someone who has a sample of McCormick's coded system or even something similar to it so they can run a comparison.

The FBI has been trying to break the code on and off since 2001, Olson said. They have tried just about all of the standard routes of cryptanalysis that the top experts use, he said, so the FBI didn't bother asking for help from the government's chief code-breaking agency, the National Security Agency, and its high-powered computers in the Maryland suburbs just outside the capital.

"The answer is going to come from a non-cryptological source," Olson said.

McCormick's decomposing body was found on June 30, 1999, in a cornfield near West Alton, Mo., by county sheriff's officers.
He had last been seen five days before his body was found and he had never been reported missing.

Since the FBI first made its plea for help last week, more than 1,000 tips have come in — so many by mail and phone that the FBI established a Web page at forms.fbi.gov/code to help handle the flood. But nothing so far has given agents the breakthrough they need to figure out what McCormick was writing.

There is the possibility that no one will ever be able to break McCormick's code. The FBI is still working on breaking the code created by the Zodiac killer, a serial killer who operated in California in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"We are really good at what we do, but we could use some help with this one," Olson said.

Explore further: Slovene police, FBI hail ties in cyber crime probe

More information: www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2011/march/cryptanalysis_032911

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Quantum_Conundrum
2.7 / 5 (7) Apr 06, 2011
I spent a lot of time making my own codes,but breaking them, well, that's the whole point, a good code is practically unbreakable...

You need a certain amount of the coded text to be able to break it, unless you are lucky and know some relevant information to try and see if it fits.

Names of friends/enemies of the coder, what was his job? What was his motive for needing a cypher in the first place? Was he running an illegal gambling/booking system? Drugs? etc, these key words could be useful in breaking it.

I'm sure the FBI has already tried that sort of thing, but maybe they are missing something important.

I tried a bit on the un-solved zodiac killer codes a while back, and I'm convinced there just isn't enough information to break them other than by pure luck.

If this is a code, and not just random nonsense, then it's nothing like anything I've ever seen.

Oh yeah, the "O" in the first line is not there in the actual code.

Can't let your brain fabricate stuff...
Quantum_Conundrum
2.6 / 5 (5) Apr 06, 2011
This is probably unbreakable without some sort of clue.

I don't know how somebody could run this algorithm in their head unless they are like Daniel Tammett or something.

The Parenthesis may be just that: grouping symbols.

The only other non-alpha-numeric characters that ever appear are periods and dashes. It's also possible those are "interchangeable" or indicators to himself of how that part of the code is to be interpreted.

Also, some sections may not even be using the same cypher or the same key word(s).

For example, taken by itself, section 1 on page 2 looks A LOT like a simple 36 character alpha-numeric cypher, the dashes may be part of the code, or they may be grouping symbols to help avoid confusion.
psenas
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
Well,

if it was a cry for help. Why cipher it? Also, if it were of any relevance to his death (like him writing down his suspicions) why keep that secret?
liongate
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
The last line on page two sort of jumped out at me when I looked at it, D-W-M-Y = DAY-WEEK-MONTH-YEAR. Interesting, at least in that there is a chronological sequence.
Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (3) Apr 06, 2011
Well, looking at a cleaned up version of this, I don't think the spacing in the text means anything at all, other than helping him group stuff.

the reason I say this is from page 1 you find the same words repeating over and over again, and sometimes the only difference is a space because the word incidentally fell out somewhere that he chose to put a space.

The parenthesis are just grouping symbols and are always used as such.

The dashes, period, and one apostrophe are some sort of formatting to remind himself how to interpret it.
ArtflDgr
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 06, 2011
I (think I) have one sentence of the whole done...
Its not a code in the traditional sense of formulae.
[I have a name for it, but what does that matter?]

I am too embarrassed and do not want to be a crank for having Aspergers pattern skills and math, and experience that I can apply. People dont seem to like it much when I get answers. (lifetime experience).

If my GUESSES are right, he is telling the story of what he and someone else said in some situation. Probably to tell someone else what happened.

This is a sample of what I have and can show:
"he tells me to lose or else"

The bottom part is something of a set of either instructions or history of what transactions, and WLD is a person or business (I wont say what I think it is publicly)...

There is a lot more...

Its funny AND very understandable that the kind of people who crack codes from classical education would not 'get' the angle needed.
Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (4) Apr 06, 2011
The last line on page two sort of jumped out at me when I looked at it, D-W-M-Y = DAY-WEEK-MONTH-YEAR. Interesting, at least in that there is a chronological sequence.


I agree, and whoever transcribed this letter into text on the other site I was looking at is an idiot, because they wrote a "R" as a "Q" and they also wrote that "Y" as a "4", which is a disaster.

The indented section on page 1 is coded data and coded labels.

This guy is probably a bookie or a drug dealer.

The sequences
"PRSE"
"PRSEON"
"PRSEN"
"PRSION"
"PRSEON"

Appear ridiculously often.

Assuming spaces are meaningless, we'll group by similar words:

FLR SE PRSE ON __ DE 71 NCBE
CDN SE PRSE ON S DE 74 NCBE
PRT SE PRSE ON RE DE 75 NCBE

Implies something belongs in the blank collumn, but he either didn't have the information or the information was nonexistent.

Why repeat "SEPRSEON", "DE" and "NCBE" if they are just some sort of tag or label for the previous slot?
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
At a quick glance I'd say the brackets aren't part of the code (since they are paired).
The numbers are also uncoded.

The code it's not a substitution alphabet code (FBI would have crunched that easily and there's at least one double-double letter combination)

If he was proficient with codes then it might be a one-time pad. In that case it's unbreakable.

Tinfoil hat sez: It's funny that a murderer (if he had a relationship with McCormick - and would know about his 'hobby' - would leave the body unsearched and thus leave the notes behind)

But the notes look more like a shorthand than a code to me.
Dokudango
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
I wonder if NCBE means "Non-Coded Book Entry" or something of that sort.
Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (3) Apr 06, 2011
NCBE ends an awful lot of lines on page one, and ends at least one line on page 2. Actually, it appears on every line at least once, except lines 1 and 2 on page 1, and it appears on at least two lines twice. It also follows "WLD" and "WLD'S" five times.

Over all, the code is incredibly redundant with much of it being repeating forms of PRSE, WLD, and NCBE.
Dokudango
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
It looks like he makes several mistakes (almost as if he wasn't used to the code). So it is possible that these messages, like antialias said, could be a one time code.
ruebi
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
this was posted on yahoo a couple weeks ago. someone said part of it is driving instructions to a mental health hospital in kansas. in the same town that he was charged with murder.
Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (3) Apr 06, 2011
I wonder if NCBE means "Non-Coded Book Entry" or something of that sort.


"Not Complete Book Entry"

Which may explain the missing entry? But if that's the case there is more information also missing from the other lines in that group.

"Not Coming Back Ever"

There is also the possibility that this is a language composed of more than one language. Although the guy was a high school drop-out...

"SAIS" is french for "Know" or "to know"

Some of the other words appear to have something resembling french or spanish conjugations, although the suffixes are reverse to be prefixes. I think GREEK puts some conjugations and negation in front of words, instead of behind them...

It could be that the guy literally made up his own "language" or grammar, and then encrypted that after converting english to this language.
Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (2) Apr 06, 2011
this was posted on yahoo a couple weeks ago. someone said part of it is driving instructions to a mental health hospital in kansas. in the same town that he was charged with murder.


Well, someone else claimed that a section contained the name "DEPEW" and an 877 number to a mental hospital, however, when you follow their alleged instructions to find that code, it simply does not exist in the text...so they were scamming. Why they would do that is anyone's guess, it's not like anyone interested can't just check the code...

Based on their instructions, "877" would require the sequence "HGG", which would be pathetically obvious, and does not exist in the code, as I checked several times.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
Repetition (especially as many as are evident at second glance) would indicate it's not a one-time pad.

Also there's no indication he used formal cryptography methods or math (no 5er groups which is usual in cryptography , no even margins, the addition of brackets and markings, the non-coding of numbers)

On page one the mid part seems to be a list with letters simply shuffled around:
"Firse(t) Person De 71
Sec(o)nd Person De 74
.... Person De 75 ...."

Looks really just like he shuffled letters around for the most part and used a shorthand.

Quantum_Conundrum
2 / 5 (4) Apr 06, 2011
Well, give me a 1/5, but the point I was making is that if I intended to code something, like a list of names and telephone numbers, etc, I would not even bother to put repeating terms like "labels", which this person obviously did a lot of that.

The reason is because those terms become keys and indicators to someone else as to what the text says, which is a bad thing.

If I were going to code a name and number so nobody else could read it, particularly in consecutive rows, I certainly wouldn't have labels or other redundant markers in the coded text.

baudrunner
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
The handwriting will have been analysed. This is the script of a disturbed person, one who is very frustrated by his own affected motor control, and who is probably very dyslexic. Those lines that end in 'NCBE' start with 'first person...De (as in December) 71 (as in 1971), then 'second person....De(cember 19)74',then means to say something similar in the next line but can't get the spelling and order of letters right because of his serious dyslexia.

Worst case scenario is that it's possible that he was himself a fumbling serial killer who wasn't very good at it, and who ultimately met his demise at the hands of his last victim.
Quantum_Conundrum
2 / 5 (4) Apr 06, 2011
Looks really just like he shuffled letters around for the most part and used a shorthand.


I don't buy it because the 4th and 5th characters on those lines are identical on all three lines, giving the identical sequence "SEPRSEON" all three times.

Also, if line one is "FIRST" (Assuming the thing the other site said was an "L" is actually an "I",) and line 2 is "SEC(O)ND", then what is line 3?

"PRTSE" ?!

Moreover, if you are right, then literally the only unique information on these lines are:

" " 71
S 74
RE 75

As it would be pointless to code words and phrases like "first person" and "second person" when they would have been obvious from the order of the list in the first place.

Who does this?

First Person John Doe
Second Person Jane Doe
Third Person Lucy Loo

When you could do:

First Last Info
John Doe XYZ
Jane Doe ABC
Lucy Loo MNO

And then code it, and there are no redundant markers...
CHollman82
4.2 / 5 (5) Apr 06, 2011
Watch it ends up being a recipe for chili!
El_Nose
3 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2011
All codes are breakable -- it just takes time

the only real questions that come to mind that make them exponentially difficult is what was this guys linguistic capability -- did he speak spanish and french or arabic did he dabble in norse runes --- these are better questions. Remember he was creating this text on the fly - so it has a scheme that a human can do ad hoc and encode and decode on the fly. Remember these are his notes. This was why the FBI figured they could crack it by themselves and they just wound up with a guy who read up on the normal encryption techniques and created one of his own -- uncrackable no -- it has too many repeats - but to me that just endicates that this may have actualy have been a test cipher and meant to be gibberish and not all the letters have a direct meaning. like adding noise to a signal.
Godiva
1 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2011
the code or hint could be something that is personal to him.. age. year or something or a name or and idea of his.

There is too much freedom to really know what to look at. goodluck though.
Burnerjack
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
My only question:' Why NOT ask the NSA for help. It is the same government on the same side paid by the same taxpayer group, right?
Is this evidence of some misplaced bureaucratic pride? My (our)taxes at work again?
Burnerjack
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
Mr FBI man... you spent 10 yrs on this instead of 4 sec on a Cray, really? Psst... ( c'mere....hey, I know a guy....)
Quantum_Conundrum
2.8 / 5 (4) Apr 06, 2011
Mr FBI man... you spent 10 yrs on this instead of 4 sec on a Cray, really? Psst... ( c'mere....hey, I know a guy....)


No, idjit, they definitely used computers to try to crack it. Get real.

It could say anything, as you could try every possible combination, and one of them would be correct, but you wouldn't have any way of proving it's correct without context, which the general public does not have.

If it's some sort of code used by a criminal organization, then anyone else who knows it probably isn't going to tell.
Quantum_Conundrum
1.8 / 5 (5) Apr 06, 2011
El_Nose:

All codes are not breakable.

You absolutely cannot break certain types of codes unless you have the code book, because some key words can represent far more complicated things than you think, and the code language can be far more dynamic than you think.

Try breaking this line...it's breakable, but you won't do it...hehe..

THE8T HEKPY THETH EARXI RE
Quantum_Conundrum
1.8 / 5 (5) Apr 06, 2011
Give up?

It says:

"THIS IS A STRING OF TEXT"

Now, try and figure out the coding system to get from one to the other. Good luck.
ArtflDgr
1 / 5 (5) Apr 06, 2011
i have most of it translated..
i posted the key points to the FBI website already.

its not a code... as i said its pretty easy to figure it out IF you have a handle on it.

and the ONLY way to have a handle on it is not have the kind of childhood that the people who get to work at the NSA and FBI tend not to have...

i grew up in a inner city war zone, and so have in experience what most people imagine i have no idea of... as they assume a different childhood. bronx science certainly dont hurt either. combine the two, and maybe i have a future doing something else... :)

for those that dont think i have it, great! be happy!
for those that think i DO have it, so far above no one has been even slightly close, except for the hint post i put up.
Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (2) Apr 06, 2011
ArtflDgr:

So if you have it, can you at least do this, since if you used your name already on the FBI site,...

How did you get the "He tells me to lose or else" part?

What line does that come from on which page?

I can't find anything that even remotely looks like that
Quantum_Conundrum
1.5 / 5 (2) Apr 06, 2011
Ok, that's line 6 page one, I think...

"...BETSMELOSERLSE..."

could be "me lose (o)r (e)lse"

, and SOMEBODY needs to tell these idiots on this other site that their text transcription is HORRIBLE and has so many mistakes it's useless.
Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (2) Apr 06, 2011
"URGLSNEASN"

"Your Girl's Neice (and nephew)"?

"Tells me lose or else your girl's neice (and/or nephew)"

huh?

Is that a death threat to his family or his girlfriend's family?
Kingsix
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
So what do you guys make of the P1 top left? Date?
And what do you take the text as (AESM3)?

I really doubt that a guy who spends years on cyphers would code things by using the first letters of the actual words he is writing. Ex I have seen people saying they thing NCBE is like "not coming back ever". Thats pretty lame.
NotAsleep
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
Considering that any number of professional cryptanalysts have been unable to break the code in 12 years, it's probably not a good idea to trivialize things like spaces, indentations, parenthesis and "mistakes"
Kingsix
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
Sorry re-read the source, apparently he just made up his own codes.
MrMikeLives
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
Well the origonal FBI post said that he had worked with cyphers and codes for at least some part of his life this would mean that even if in this case its a one off encryption that his other cyphers would give rise to a pattern of how he thinks about codes. It also states that that the local sherif said that he used it as a private diary writing, makes me wonder if anyone has looked for any of his diaries. It seems that his writings could be located.
Fig1024
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
Isn't it likely that some kind of "code guide" would be in his house? he'd have to use something to decode/encode the message. It's not very likely that it's all in his memory

If this code has no guide, if it was just for himself rather than communication with other, then it can't be overly complex. It be based on something easy to remember
bredmond
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
it might make things easier to know more about the person who made the notes. knowing his thoughts could indicate which direction to go and eliminate other possibilities.
NicholasCLewis
not rated yet Apr 07, 2011
I have created a wiki site to allow people to work on theories and discuss them. mccormick-code (dot) wikidot (dot) com
Cynical1
not rated yet Apr 07, 2011
Plans for the Infinite Probability ship... or his radio shack shopping list...
JoeBlue
1 / 5 (1) Apr 10, 2011
It's not a code, it's directions. What's in for me, if I tell them how to read it?
james11
not rated yet Apr 11, 2011
The only thing I noticed is that there are E's at the end of almost every line or sentence on both pages...what could that be?

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