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Code Dead: Mysterious Murders and Strange Ciphers

History is littered with cases of unsolved murders, many of which were decidedly of a bizarre nature, leaving bafflement in their wake. Yet as perplexing as these cold cases and unsolved killings may be, sometimes they wrap themselves with even more oddities that serve to only deepen the intrigue and enigmas surrounding their inscrutable nature. There have been impenetrable cases in which not only does a murder go mysteriously and stubbornly unsolved, but also comes with an unbreakable, shadowy code or message that goes on to generate far more questions than the answers they taunt us with. These are the clues that managed to actually take investigators farther off the path of what they thought they knew and into the uncharted jungle realm of complex puzzles and baffling riddles that may never be solved, teasing them with buried clues they may never fully unearth. These are the strange cases of unsolved deaths that further obfuscated answers and weaved spiraling mysteries around themselves with the presence of strange, indecipherable codes that may or may not hold the key to their resolution, but which have continued to remain complete cryptic exercises in bafflement that fester in our minds and defy our attempts to scratch past their surface to find a resolution.

On a sweltering day on June 30, 1999, the body of a 41-year-old Ricky McCormick was found in a dark, desolate cornfield in St. Charles County, Missouri. Strangely, there had been no missing persons reports filed for the man at the time, no police report,  and indeed no one had really seemed to have noticed that he had been gone at all. It became clear later that he had last been seen alive five days earlier, on June 25, 1999, getting a health check-up at Forest Park Hospital in St. Louis, but that was the extent of what anyone knew. The only reason the corpse had even been found at all was because a passing driver just happened to notice it as she drove by on an empty stretch of nearby Route 367. The body had been in the field long enough that it had rotted and decomposed to the point where he had to be identified by fingerprints. An unemployed high school drop out with four illegitimate children and a criminal record, it was perhaps understandable that McCormick could have managed to sort of slip under the radar, yet the indelible mysteries behind his death were just beginning.

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The first oddity was the fact that the abandoned field was nearly 20 miles from where McCormick had lived on and off with his elderly mother, despite the fact that he had not had a car nor a driver’s license, and there were no bus lines or public transportation of any kind that stopped in the bleak, rural area. This led police to suspect possible foul play, perhaps linked to his shady past as a drug dealer and a felon for sexual abuse. It seemed that there were perhaps reasons for someone to want him dead, but there were no leads as to who might have committed the crime, no clear motive, and no physical evidence that he had even been murdered at all, as the coroner was unable to find any signs of gunshot or knife wounds on the badly decomposed body and McCormick was found to have had a history of chronic heart and lung problems. The death was deemed “suspicious,” but that was about as far as authorities could get.

The mysteries continued with the discovery of two handwritten notes in McCormick’s pockets which would only puzzle authorities even more. The notes contained a series of cryptic codes composed of a mishmash of a randomly arranged gibberish of letters and numbers occasionally punctuated with parentheses, childishly scrawled across the crumpled up paper, the meaning of which was a complete mystery. Analysis by FBI’s Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit (CRRU), as well as the American Cryptogram Association turned up nothing, and the codes remained an absolute enigma. Making things even more bizarre is that the existence of these puzzling notes with their unbreakable cipher was kept secret and not announced to the public until March 29, 2011, a full 12 years after the death had taken place, and even then it was only released by frustrated authorities in an effort to appeal to anyone out there who might be able to crack the code and its meaning, believing that they were the key to discovering what had happened to the victim. Not even the family of the victim had been informed of the notes.

It was at this time that it became clear from comments by McCormick’s family that there was no way that he could have been the one to write the notes and their code. The family claimed that Ricky had been almost completely illiterate, barely able to write his own name, let alone strange cryptic messages, and even his own mother described him as “retarded.” In the meantime, the FBI was so deluged with comments and theories about the code from the public that they set up a separate website just to deal with them all, yet the messages continued to stump everyone. The notes found on the body of this forgotten, unmourned criminal whom no one had seemed to even care about became the object of intense scrutiny by amateur code breakers and armchair sleuths, who offered up a myriad of speculation and theories on what they could mean, ranging from the idea that they were the meaningless, insane rantings of a schizophrenic individual to the notions that the notes were planted by drug dealers and were shorthand for a deal, or even that the whole thing was part of a sinister government conspiracy. Just about the only thing that many seem to agree on is that McCormick likely did not write the notes himself, although the FBI has said that they believe he very well may have.

Ricky McCormick

Ricky McCormick

In the end, even after all of the years of debate, analysis and scrutiny no one really knows. Ricky McCormick’s death, as well as the identity of who wrote the notes, for what purpose, and what they mean, all remain a complete mystery that has baffled the FBI and thousands of amateur investigators for nearly 20 years. The only one who could possibly know the answers to any of the many questions surrounding this death is McCormick himself, but those secrets died along with him in that empty cornfield years ago. The death of Ricky McCormick remains to this day one of the most puzzling cold case murders there is, and its mysterious code one of history’s most perplexing unsolved ciphers.

Joining the ranks of mysteries deaths and codes is yet another one of the most infamous cold cases in history. One hot summer day in 1948, the mysterious body of an unidentified man was found lying on his back against a seawall on Somerton Beach, near Adelaide, South Australia. The body was immediately deemed to be bizarre, as the man had been dressed in the unseasonable attire of a sweater and a coat, despite the sweltering heat. Things would only get weirder from there, as it wasn’t immediately apparent as to the cause of death, with the man appearing to be in top physical shape, leading authorities to suspect suicide. The man was well-groomed and well-dressed, clean shaven and with immaculately cut nails and polished shoes. Strangely, all of the labels of his clothes had been carefully removed, and he carried no identification of any kind, or even a wallet. Indeed, all that was found on his person were some matches, a pack of cigarettes, some chewing gum, a comb, a train ticket from Adelaide to Henley Beach which had not been used, and a bus ticket.

Further examination of the body created more mysteries. The man’s dental records and fingerprints matched no living person, and an autopsy also discovered some oddities. There was found to be an abnormal amount of congestion and blood pooling in the man’s stomach, liver, brain, and kidneys, and additionally his spleen was around three times the normal size for a man his age. Food found in the stomach was found to be mixed with blood, although it could not be ascertained why, and the liver was found to be considerably damaged. While these findings were certainly unusual, there was no trace of any foreign or dangerous substances in the body. In the end, the coroner was unable to uncover neither the man’s identity nor his cause of death. Some form of poisoning was suspected, but there was no physical evidence of this to be found. A follow up investigation, release of pictures of the victim, and an appeal to the public for help in identifying the man were unable to come up with any concrete identification of the body, only false leads and a large number of people coming forward claiming that they had known him in some capacity or seen him in the days leading up to the death. However, none of this led anywhere, and the man’s identity remained elusive.

Taman Shud Code 5

Puzzled authorities were able to find some clues when they tracked down a suitcase thought to have belonged to the man stashed at the cloakroom of the train station in Adelaide which had been specified on his ticket. The worn, brown suitcase had had its label removed and among various assorted personal effects contained some clothes, also with their labels purposefully removed, except for three articles which retained labels reading “T. Keane,” “Keane,” and “Kean.” Considering that all other tags had been meticulously removed, police believed that these remaining tags had been intentionally left behind for a reason. The bag contained no form of identification, and authorities ran a check on any reports of a missing person by the name of “Keane” or “Kean,” but there were none in any English-speaking country.

The only other potentially useful clue to be found among the various clothing and belongings would also prove to be the most baffling. Tucked within a pair of trousers in a false pocket was a crumpled up piece of paper torn from a book on which was written the mysterious words Tamam Shud, which means “It Is Ended”, or “The End” in Persian. Things got more intriguing when a very rare edition of a book called Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with a page torn out that corresponded to the one in the pocket came forward, which was allegedly found in a locked, unattended vehicle abandoned near the beach where the body had been found. Adding to the mystery, in the back of the book were faint indentations from where someone had scrawled a phone number, along with five lines of seemingly random capital letters that were thought to be an encrypted code of some sort. Code breakers and encryption experts were unable to ascertain what the letters meant, deepening the mystery.

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Authorities soon found that the phone number was that of a nurse named Jessica Ellen Thomson, who resided not far from the beach where the body had been found. When police questioned her, she denied knowing who the mysterious “Somerton Man” was, yet showed a significantly strong reaction when shown a plaster bust of the dead man, to the point that she looked about to faint and made efforts to look away. Authorities were highly suspicious that she probably knew who the dead man was, but could not prove anything to this effect. The only useful thing that authorities were able to glean from Thomas was that she claimed she had given a copy of the Rubaiyat to an army lieutenant named Alf Boxall in 1944 while she was training to be a nurse in Sydney. Authorities at first believed that Boxall might actually be the identity of the victim, but he was found to not only be alive and well in Sydney, but also to have no knowledge whatsoever of the dead man or why they should be connected. Incidentally, his copy of the book was missing no pages and had oddly been signed by Thomas as “Jestyn,” a nickname she was not known to be called by.

This was pretty much where the whole weird case hit a dead end. With no forthcoming clues and no other possible witnesses, nor any clue as to what the strange cipher meant, frustrated police were unable to proceed any further. This was compounded by a request by their only tenuous lead, the nurse Thomas, that her real name not be kept in permanent records nor be released to the public or any third parties. As a result, she was usually referred to by various pseudonyms and her identity obscured, which created an obstacle to the investigation and served to slow efforts to get answers.

The “Tamam Shud” or “Somerton Man” case has since remained one of the most perplexing murder mysteries of the modern age, continuing to baffle to this day, and it has stirred intense debate as to who the man was, how he died, and what the code means. Numerous subsequent investigations have been launched with the aim of finding out what happened and cracking the code, but none of these have reached any concrete, conclusive answers, in many cases only generating more mysteries. The only new information that could shed any light on the case was the 2013 interview of Kate Thomson, daughter of the nurse questioned by police, on the TV program 60 Minutes. In the interview, Kate claimed that her mother had lied to police and that she had in fact known the dead man. She also claimed that her mother spoke fluent Russian and that both she and the man had perhaps been spies. While this revelation caused a media sensation at the time, there is unfortunately no evidence to back up these spectacular claims, and the case remains largely as impenetrable as it’s ever been.

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A case which is perhaps even more bizarre began on August 20, 1966, when a young man in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was flying a kite on a hill and made the gruesome discovery of two men sprawled out in a remote wooded area. When authorities arrived, a day had already passed, as they had encountered difficulties reaching the area where the bodies were found. What they found when they reached the bodies baffled everyone present. The two deceased men were lying side by side, partially covered with grass and both were wearing business suits, as well as raincoats and, oddly, strange lead eye masks which had served some unknown purpose. There was no sign of any sort of violent struggle and the bodies lacked any trace of injury or trauma. Scattered around the bodies were some wet towels, an empty water bottle, and a notebook in which was written various esoteric passages on spiritualism and a cryptic message which read:

16:30 be at the specified location. 18:30 ingest capsules, after the effect protect metals await signal mask.

Further investigation of the bodies identified them as two electricians named Manoel Pereira da Cruz and Miguel José Viana, who were from the nearby town of Campos dos Goytacazes. The autopsies turned up no sign of injury, and the cause of death could not be ascertained. A test for toxic substances was planned but not performed at the time due to the coroner’s being very busy, and when the test was finally done the bodies were too decomposed to glean any such information from. A search of the men’s homes turned up some bizarre clues, when books on supernatural spirits and further notebooks filled with various spiritualist ramblings were found along with an assortment of materials used to make their mysterious masks.

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Perplexed, the police began trying to piece together the events leading up to the two men’s deaths. They were able to determine that the two men had left for Rio de Janeiro on August 17, after telling friends that they needed to buy some things for their electrician business. They then purchased two waterproof raincoats at a shop at the town of Niterói for unknown reasons and a bottle of water at a bar. A waitress at the bar later described the two as being very nervous and on edge about something, often checking the exit and anxiously looking at their watches. It would be the last time anyone saw them alive.

What has become known as the “Lead Mask Case,” has never been satisfactorily resolved. The cause of death has never been discovered, and the events leading up to the deaths remain murky at best. Neither has it ever been found what the purpose of the strange lead masks was, why the two men had been wearing raincoats, or the meaning behind the mysterious words written in the notebook. Much debate has ensued over the years, which has spawned many theories. One is that they had simply run afoul with someone over a business deal and were murdered. Another is that they had been involved in some sort of cult and something had gone wrong, or that they had been part of some secret government conspiracy.

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The Lead Mask victims

A more bizarre theory proposed by a friend of the victims is that the two men had been attempting to contact aliens and, believing that they would be bathed in bright lights and radiation, constructed the masks to protect their eyes. This could also have explained the raincoats, as they may have believed the clothing would incur some protection against whatever they expected to see. In this scenario, it is thought that they had died from overdosing on the psychedelic drugs they had been allegedly taking to facilitate extraterrestrial contact. Unfortunately, since there was no test ever done for dangerous substances, there is no evidence that any drugs were involved. As for the note, it has been speculated as being everything from inscrutable directions to a secret code or cipher, but no one knows just what it means. Despite all of the speculation and debate, there has never been any one theory that really gels together the masks, strange attire, the deaths themselves, and cryptic note in a way that makes much sense, and the case remains a conundrum to this day.

Perhaps the most famous ciphers linked to rampant, mysterious death are those put forth by the notorious Zodiak Killer of the late 1960s and early 1970s, who has gone on to be one of the most infamous serial killers of all time. Between December 1968 and October 1969, the mysterious, shadowy killer prowled Northern California and was responsible for at least 7 brutal attacks and 5 confirmed deaths, quite possibly many more. Throughout this horrific killing spree which kept the populace in a state of profound panic and fear, the killer was known to keep a regular correspondence with authorities and San Francisco Bay Area press through phone calls and around 20 taunting rambling, handwritten letters, many of which contained strange coded ciphers, all while police feverishly worked to track down the dangerous, elusive criminal. They did not get very far, constantly being evaded by the enigmatic madman and baffled by his scrawled, handwritten rants and codes.

One of the Zodiak Killer's ciphers

One of the Zodiak Killer’s ciphers

Some of the letters sent to police and the press contained sophisticated ciphers, one of which was eventually decoded by amateurs and translated to mean simply “I like killing people because it is so much fun,” as well as suggesting that the killer was collecting “slaves for the afterlife.” Throughout this increasingly aggravating correspondence the killer claimed to have killed more victims, up to 37 by his own reckoning, and relentlessly mocked and insulted police efforts trying to track him down, while deriding their ineptitude and inability to find him. He also continually threatened more death to follow. Among these various letters were a total of 5 separate cryptograms, only one of which was actually ever cracked to any degree of certainty, with the others escaping attempts to understand them to remain unbroken. Although the remaining ones are thought to hold possibly groundbreaking clues to the killer’s identity, the victims, and the circumstances surrounding the crimes, they have never been solved despite intense analysis by authorities, experts, and countless amateur sleuths.

Despite decades of intense investigation, debate, numerous false leads, and possible suspects, as well as a myriad of theories as to who was responsible for the murders, the killer has never been apprehended. Indeed, no one has much clue as to who it could have been at all, and the crimes remain one of the most puzzling mysteries in the world of crime. The remaining 4 cryptic codes have never been decoded and their meanings remain a mystery to this day. Even now there are numerous people who still obsessively toil away trying to crack the case and translate the ciphers, but answers remain elusive. There is still no conclusive evidence, no further leads, and no concrete clue as to what the meticulously penned cryptograms and codes mean, despite frequent claims by those claiming to have finally cracked them. The identity of the Zodiak Killer and the meanings of his inscrutable codes remain some of the most intriguing puzzles in police history, spawning countless books and films, and continuing to be a persistent, legendary murder mystery.

As long as there are strange deaths, there will continue to be those that are stranger than most. These enigmatic ciphers and codes will undoubtedly continue to incite debate, speculation, and sheer wonder. What do these strange cryptic messages mean? Who created them and why? What connection do they have to these deaths and what answers do they harbor tucked away within their complex mysteries? Perhaps someday we might finally peel back the layers to get at the answers and resolution we seek, but until then these cold case deaths and the misunderstood, seemingly unbreakable codes they carry with them will remain a profound exercise in frustration and a wellspring of deep mystique and intrigue. We can only scratch away at the surface and be reminded of the fact that some unsolved deaths may never be solved. For some crimes, only the dead know the answers.