FBI vs the VM…?

Pretty much by accident I came across this link from the FBI: A far cry from the Somerton Man, in 1999 one Ricky McCormick had been found killed somewhere in Missouri, the police being baffled as to motives and perpetrators to this day, but with a connection to secret messages.

Interestingly enough, Ricky — described as a high school dropout with not too much formal education — was found with two notes written in a cipher he apparently had devised himself on him, and the FBI hasn’t managed until now to crack the system.

Am I the only one to note a few similarities between his cipher and the VM?

First of all, we can safely assume that neither Ricky nor the VM’s author had a strong background in modern cryptography. Consequently, the fact that neither Ricky’s nor the VM’s cipher has been cracked is probably not due to the cipher used being so strong, but being original — in other words, it doesn’t remain a puzzle because the method is so darn complicated, but because nobody has had the right idea how to solve it.

Above and below are the two cipher messages from Ricky.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it also seems that both ciphers share a number of characteristics, like a tendency for certain letters to sit word-initial/-terminal, or repeating sequences (notwithstanding the fact that Ricky relied on latin letters as opposed to the invented character set of the VM.) Look for example at the letter pair “SE”, which appears especially in the second message mostly word-terminal (assuming the dash “–” is meant to seperate words), or “NCBE”, which terminates four of the five last lines in the first message. Longer repetetive sequences also stand out, for example in the second line of message #2: “VLSE MTSE — CTSE — WSE — FRTSE” — tell me this isn’t a dead ringer for “daiin daiiin qocheedy cheedy” of VM’s fame.

The interesting feature of both systems is that, as opposed to what is generally considered a good cipher, they don’t generate a more or less random-looking sequence of latters, but au contraire the ciphertext generated looks very regular and structured.

Now, it’s always been my opinion that the genius behind the VM cipher is not that it’s an incredibly hard to crack algorithm, but that the VM’s author had a genuinely extraordinary idea when he devised the VM, and we simply haven’t followed this idea. Consequently, is it possible that poor Ricky independently and accidentally had the same idea when he decided he’d write down a few notes in his own cipher system?*)

Would it be interesting to dig deeper into a possible connection? While we can’t assume that in addition to using the same algorithm they also used the same key, could we gain insight if we examined and compared the two systems more closely, checking for similarities and differences?

*) Hint for the upcoming cheap novelist: Ricky actually was killed because his killers thought he had cracked the VM cipher and was about to find out all the secrets of the VM!

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