No flowers for Ricky McCormick
+ Ricky McCormick's remains were well on their way toward fertilizing the soil when investigators arrived to the scene in late June 1999. Filthy Lee blue jeans and a stained white T-shirt clung to his scrawny five-foot-six-inch frame. Although it had been just three days since he disappeared, the flesh on his outstretched hands was already rotted to the point that his fingertips, just below the top knuckles, had fallen off and lay next to him in the weeds.
+ 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.
+ It turns out McCormick's riddle, allegedly written by a man who could hardly write his own name, has stumped the world's foremost code breakers. They remain so baffled, in fact, that McCormick's notes now rank third on the CRRU's list of top unsolved cases, behind only an unbroken cipher authored by the self-proclaimed Zodiac killer in 1969 and a secret threat letter written to an undisclosed public agency about 25 years ago.
+ In March 2011, FBI officials made a rare and remarkable revelation, seemingly out of the blue. Dan Olson, chief of the bureau's Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit (CRRU) in Quantico, Virginia, disclosed for the first time the existence of two pages of handwritten encrypted notes found stuffed in a pocket of McCormick's jeans. Unable to decipher the tangle of letters and numbers, the FBI released copies to the public with a plea for assistance to hardcore puzzle solvers and wannabe sleuths alike.
The family discovers that the FBI had deceived them and hidden information:
+ In St. Louis, McCormick's family members say they have never heard from police about the suspects in the death 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."
Ricky has always been for everyone an idiot (or worse):
+ Ricky McCormick always stood out as different from his peers.
+ His mother, Frankie Sparks, describes him as "retarded." His cousin Charles McCormick, who shared a brotherly relationship with Ricky for most of his life, says Ricky would often talk "like he was in another world" and suspects Ricky might have suffered from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
"Ricky went to see a psychiatrist, and he said Ricky had a brick wall in his mind," remembers Gloria McCormick, an aunt better known as "Cookie" in whom Ricky often confided. "He said Ricky refused to break that wall. He didn't like the life of living poor and had an active imagination."
+ It's unclear whether McCormick ever received formal treatment for mental illness, but family members recall Ricky's penchant for concocting tall tales and his displays of unusual behavior. As a boy he spent so much time at recess standing off by himself that his mother would receive calls from school administrators asking if anything was wrong.
+ Teachers shuffled McCormick along from grade to grade, but he could hardly read or write when he dropped out of St. Louis' former Martin Luther King High School on North Kingshighway.
+ McCormick subsisted on occasional odd jobs — floor mopper, dishwasher, busboy, service-station attendant — and disability checks he collected due to chronic heart problems. He preferred the graveyard shift and developed a reputation as a night owl, heading out the door at dusk and dragging himself home at dawn.
"I called him a vampire," Gloria McCormick says. "He slept all day, and then at night he rises."
+ As a teenager and later as an adult, he frequently hitched a ride or caught a bus to distance himself from the street toughs who dealt drugs and picked fights outside his now-bulldozed home near the present-day intersection of Lindell Boulevard and North Sarah Street.
+ Eventually Ricky found trouble himself. In November 1992, St. Louis police arrested the 34-year-old McCormick for having fathered two children with a girl younger than fourteen years old. McCormick had been sleeping with the girl since she was eleven, according to court files, which protected the girl's identity. McCormick's mother and aunt knew the girl simply by her nickname, Pretty Baby.
+ While awaiting trial on the first-degree sexual-abuse charge, McCormick's public defender noted she had reasonable cause to believe McCormick was "suffering from some mental disease or defect" and requested that the judge order a mental-health exam. Dr. Michael Armour, a local psychologist, evaluated McCormick at the former St. Louis State Hospital. Following Armour's report and a hearing, however, the court certified McCormick was fit for trial. Six weeks later, on September 1, 1993, McCormick pleaded guilty to the crime. State inmate 503506 would spend thirteen months behind bars in the Farmington Correctional Center before being sent home a year early on conditional release.
+ McCormick's relationship with Pretty Baby reflected an obvious lapse of good judgment. It wouldn't be his last.
+ McCormick may have been regarded as something of a simpleton who, despite some street smarts and his criminal record, was generally naïve to the world. The same cannot be said for the men who ran the Amoco gas station at 1401 Chouteau Avenue south of downtown St. Louis where he worked.
+ Minutes before sunrise on June 15, 1999, about two weeks before his death, Ricky McCormick walked up to the counter at the Greyhound bus terminal downtown and purchased a one-way ticket to Orlando. It would turn out to be the last of at least two brief trips to Florida he made that year.
+ It's not clear whom McCormick met during his stay in Room 280 at the Econo Lodge in Orlando. But phone records show he or his girlfriend, Sandra Jones, made a flurry of calls to several people in central Florida a couple of weeks ahead of his arrival. Jones and McCormick exchanged a similar barrage of short phone calls during the two days McCormick spent in Orlando, and he made at least one call to the St. Louis gas station where he worked.
+ Jones would later tell police she suspected McCormick went to Florida to pick up marijuana. According to a sheriff's department investigative report, Jones' explanation went like this:
+ McCormick would accept offers to pick up and deliver packages for money. He made trips to Florida before and on several occasions brought marijuana into the apartment he shared with Jones in the Clinton-Peabody housing project south of downtown. The drugs would usually be sealed in zip-lock bags rolled together into bundles the size of baseballs. McCormick told Jones he was holding the stashes of weed for Baha Hamdallah, the police report states.
+ McCormick never liked to talk about his excursions to Orlando, but he seemed different when he got back that last time, Jones told police. He seemed scared.
+ Indeed, McCormick's already unsettled lifestyle seemed to become more erratic after he came back, as if he sensed trouble around the corner but didn't know where to turn. McCormick used much of his time during his last days to seek out medical care or, perhaps more accurately, a safe place to stay.
+ Around three o'clock the afternoon of June 22, 1999, McCormick walked alone into Barnes-Jewish Hospital's emergency room complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath. This was nothing new. McCormick had a history of ER visits and had suffered from asthma and chest pains since childhood. He told his doctors he didn't abuse drugs or alcohol, a statement friends and family back up. It didn't help, however, that he smoked at least a pack of cigarettes a day since he was about ten years old and drank coffee by the gallon. By his own estimate, he told his doctors he downed more than twenty caffeinated beverages a day.
+ Doctors ruled out a heart attack but admitted McCormick for observation and kept him there for two days. Ricky left the hospital on June 24 with orders to return for follow-up visits in the coming week. He would never make it to those appointments.
+ McCormick took a bus to his aunt Gloria's apartment after leaving Barnes-Jewish and visited with her for about an hour. Her home had always been a sanctuary for him, and he maintained a closer relationship with Gloria than with his own mother, who lived just around the corner.
"Everybody needs someone to talk to now and then," Gloria says. "Ricky would come visit and talk with me."
+ But he revealed little this time, chatting just a bit before getting up to leave. It was late afternoon, and Ricky waved off offers to drive him wherever he needed to go. Gloria's last image of Ricky is him walking down the street.
+ Around 5 p.m. the next day, June 25, McCormick entered the emergency room at Forest Park Hospital, less than two miles from Barnes-Jewish. This time he complained that he was having trouble breathing following an afternoon of mowing grass. Doctors diagnosed his wheezing as another asthma flare-up. He was not admitted, however, and was officially released at 5:50 p.m. It's not clear when he actually left the hospital.
+ Gloria says she heard McCormick spent that night in the waiting room before leaving the next morning.
Jones told police that she talked with McCormick on the phone at about 11:30 a.m. on June 26. He told her he was out of the hospital and was on his way to the Amoco to get a bite to eat. At least one gas-station employee told police he last saw McCormick there the next day, on June 27.
+ McCormick left the gas station with at most hours left to live; medical examiners determined he was definitely dead the same day.
+ On December 23, 1999, detective Jana Walters of the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department received a call from Sgt. Ed Kuehner of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department's homicide division. He had information to share about Ricky McCormick's death and wanted to arrange an inter-agency meeting.
+ Nine investigators gathered on the fourth floor of St. Louis' police headquarters six days later. In addition to Walters and her partner, detective Michael Yarbrough, Kuehner's gathering included members of St. Louis' homicide and narcotics divisions, investigators with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and a special agent from the FBI.
+ Walters and Yarbrough learned St. Louis police were investigating a man named Gregory Lamar Knox, a major drug dealer who operated in and around the housing complex where McCormick had lived, as a suspect in several homicides, including "at least two murder-for-hire schemes." According to police records, 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. St. Louis police had also linked the Hamdallahs with alleged "criminal activity and the possible association with Gregory Knox."
+ 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.
+ At St. Charles County Sheriff's Department headquarters, detective Yarbrough has only seen about five unsolved murders since the 1960s, Yarbrough says: "I still have the same feeling that things don't add up," and "It's kind of like Humpty Dumpty. All the pieces are there, but how do you put them back together?"
Bye from Spain.
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