Updated Oct 9, 2012 - 9:21 pm
Can you decipher the mystery code from an unsolved murder?
Now, the FBI has asked for the public's help to decipher the message and unlock answers to the 1999 murder of 41-year-old Ricky McCormick.
"Despite extensive work by our Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit (CRRU), as well as help from the American Cryptogram Association, the meanings of those two coded notes remain a mystery to this day, and Ricky McCormick's murderer has yet to face justice," explained the FBI on its website.
The notes were discovered in the shirt pocket of McCormick when his body was found in a rural field between Alton, Ill., and St. Louis, Mo., on June 30, 1999.
"At first, they kind of looked like basically gibberish to us," said Lt. Craig McGuire, the public information officer for the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department. "We'd be able to get a little bit more information about his whereabouts, his associates, and his dealings in the last few hours and days of his life if we were able to decipher those writings."
But so far, neither the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department nor the FBI has had success.
KIRO Radio reached out to local cryptanalysis experts to determine why the FBI's modern methods of cryptography may have failed.
"He (McCormick) wasn't someone who was trained as a professional in anything very technical, so it's probably not a super-complicated code, but it probably involves some sort of personal secret," said Neil Koblitz, a professor of mathematics at the University of Washington.
Koblitz believes that because McCormick was a high school dropout, it is likely the answer to the code could have come from something as simple as his favorite book.
"You could make a code by taking some passage in literature that you like, and take that sequence of letters, and each sequence of letters will give a number to shift each letter of the alphabet."
The first line of Shakespeare's Macbeth, for example, would be shifted like this:
"Enter three witches..." The letter "E" would represent a shift of five, since it is the fifth letter of the alphabet. "N" would mean a shift of 14, and so on.
So, if you tried to encode the word "kill" using the first line of Macbeth, you would begin by shifting "K" five letters down the alphabet to "P". "I" would be shifted 14 letters to become a "W" and so on, until each letter of the message has been shifted.
"Kill" would be coded as "Pwfq."
"To crack this code, all you have to do is know where the person looked and find out where they started. Then you're done. You've cracked it. But if you have no idea what book they looked in and where they started in it, then there is no real way you could figure it out," Koblitz said.
That, of course, is just a theory of what McCormick could have used.
If the Macbeth example is similar to his methodology, said Koblitz, then even advanced computer software or mathematics could not decipher the code without knowing its original source.
According to local investigators and the FBI, McCormick's mother said that he had used such coded messages since he was a child, further evidence that his method was not tied to complex logical reasoning, and therefore could not be solved with logic alone.
His codes, however, could have become more complex over time.
"But if that's the case, then it would be really helpful to have some examples of the earlier methods. If those are somewhat simpler to decipher, as they probably would be, then that would set you on the right track," Koblitz said. "It would tell you the direction he was going in and what to look for and what type of code."
The St. Charles County Sheriff's Department told KIRO Radio that to their knowledge, no earlier examples were obtained by the FBI.
After more than a decade, the McCormick murder remains one of the CRRU's top cases, said the FBI, who hopes fresh sets of eyes can reveal new leads and help uncover the method to McCormick's madness.
But is there anything to be revealed? Is it possible that the message has nothing to do with the murder or even that the mysterious notes mean nothing at all?
"It may be that it is nothing but a bunch of gibberish, who knows," said Lt. McGuire, who has been a part of the case since 1999. "The only guy who really knows right now is deceased."
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The FBI has asked for the public's help to decipher a cryptic message and unlock answers to the 1999 murder of 41-year-old Ricky McCormick. .