(Armchair Detective) Unsolved mysteries (well, sort of)

Here is an article from popular comedy/nerdy trivia website, cracked.com, about “23 creepy unsolved mysteries”:-


Actually, that’s clearly not what the article was called at first, because the URL refers to “23 creepy unsolved crimes”. Presumably, after hours of intense calculation, the directing minds at Cracked Mission Control decided that all their statistics indicated that “creepy unsolved mysteries” brought in more traffic than “creepy unsolved crimes.” And that’s precisely my problem here.

The cases they list are mostly crimes (actually, murders), and they are unsolved. Many of them are, indeed, as creepy as anything. But most of them are only really mysteries in the narrow sense of “we don’t know who did this,” not in the wider sense of “we truly have no idea what the hell happened here at all.” My argument is that, in fact, most of these crimes have one or at most two likely solutions, and so aren’t genuinely mysterious. And, anyway, trying to prove that is as good an excuse as I can think of for playing Sherlock Holmes, so here, for what they are worth, are my views on the first ten of the cases Cracked sets out (in the reverse order that they use):

23. Elisa Lam

A 21 year old Canadian student who was tragically found dead in one of the rooftop water tanks of a Los Angeles hotel in 2013. A lot of the publicity surrounding the case seems to have been generated by the surveillance video released by police of Lam behaving frankly bizarrely in the hotel lift on the night she disappeared, with the implication being that she was trying to use the lift to escape from someone (or something, if you admit the supernatural to these situations, which I don’t).

Having seen the video clip, I think it looks nothing like a rational person trying to use a lift to escape or hide in. Lam doesn’t just stick her head outside the lift, she wanders fully out of it and stands around conducting what looks like an animated conversation, including odd hand gestures, with thin air. It looks a lot more like a person on drugs or suffering from hallucinations of some kind failing to operate a lift. Elisa Lam did have a history of mental health problems, was using medication for those, (and was in downtown LA, which is as good a place to get illegal drugs as any if she was minded to, although the autopsy found none).

People have argued that the roof and/or the tanks were inaccessible except to staff with the necessary keys or ladders, but in fact you could get on to the roof by fire escapes, and to the tanks by climbing on the top of a structure next to them, which had a ladder on it. This was a sad, sad waste of a life, but it’s a lot more likely that it was an accident or suicide than murder. Only the facts that the tank top was shut and that Lam was naked and her clothes in the tank with her really stand out as difficult to fit in with it being an accident, although not particularly with suicide.

22.Ricky McCormick

From a young Chinese-Canadian woman with apparently everything to live for to a middle-aged African-American guy with a learning disability (and a criminal record) who was definitely riding the down-escalator of opportunity in the Land of the Free. Ricky McCormick was found dead in a field in St Charles County, Missouri, about 15 miles from where he lived in St Louis. Again, it seems a lot of the interest generated in this case comes from one thing; the two notes found in his pocket, covered with a jumble of letters that appear to be cipher, although no cryptographer has yet been able to break the code.

For me, the really key thing here is that McCormick was a long way from home, but couldn’t drive and was at a place where there were no public transport links. Alive or dead, he clearly did not get there without help. There are allegations about the criminal connections (wholly unproven) and violent record (largely unproven) of the man McCormick was working for at the time, but if this was a mob hit of some kind it was unusually subtle. The cause of death remains undetermined. Admittedly, the body was pretty decomposed when found, but you’d think the typical close-range bullet in the head would leave its mark regardless of that.

Also, you’d have thought a hitman would have taken any notes covered in cipher related to criminal conspiracies with him, and perhaps made a more determined effort to conceal the body. In any case, whilst organised crime groups, especially in the drug trade, do often use verbal codes of various kinds, they aren’t keen on writing stuff down, and creating a complicated written cipher sounds like a recipe for disaster when your average employee is barely literate anyway.

McCormick had heart problems, asthma that was being treated in hospital a few days earlier and a habit of hitch-hiking out of his crime-infested neighbourhood. For all we know, he did just that, suffered an asthma attack from the pollen and keeled over with heart failure in that  field. The notes might be just be the sort of meaningless scrawl which, according to his parents, he did sometimes used to produce when called on to write. Alternatively, it might be an organised crime killing, but, whilst tragic for McCormick and his family, “not very bright guy from deprived background gets in over his head with drug dealers and winds up dead” isn’t really that mysterious. It happens too often.

21. Bodies in Bear Brook State Park

They’re the bodies of (most likely) a mother and two or three of her children. They were dumped in drums in a forest. Either an unidentified serial killer murdered a family or a husband/boyfriend did. Both things happen (the second shockingly often). Sad (and creepy) but not mysterious.

20. “Little Lord Fauntleroy”

OK, that genuinely is mysterious – there’s genuinely no way of knowing if this was an accident, manslaughter or murder or how it happened.

19. Garnell Moore

There’s a very, very obvious suspect there, even if nothing can be proved.

18. The Hagley Woods Skeleton

A.k.a “Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?”, something Cracked doesn’t mention. Although to be fair there’s no proof she was Bella (a local prostitute who went missing at about the right time) and most people call the trees “witch hazel” anyway. If the skeleton really was that Bella, it’s very likely to be an unsolved sex murder. As for the mysterious graffiti that turns up in the locality asking the question every so often (which they also don’t mention) –  well, if you’re a teenager in an English village there isn’t a lot to do but paint creepy graffiti or drink cider in the bus shelter.

17. The Hinterkaifeck murders

Various sites that cover this one seem keen to point the finger at either the Gruber family’s closest neighbour, who appears to have been a disappointed suitor of the daughter Viktoria and had unwillingly accepted paternity of one of her children (although the child probably was not his), or else Viktoria’s dead husband Karl Gabriel, in a Martin Guerre “he didn’t really die in the war” scenario.

But the vast majority of men who were reported missing in the First World War didn’t turn up alive later under any identity, and there’s no evidence for Karl Gabriel being any different. As for the neighbour, whilst he certainly had motive, means and opportunity, he also had ample chance to find out things like the layout of the property and the family routine without having to pull creepy stunts like sneaking up to the farm with deep snow on the ground and (possibly) hiding in the attic. Nor did he have any particular reason to hang about the farmhouse for several days after the murders, as the killer appears to have done, as opposed to getting back home asap and following his usual routine.

The most likely candidate here is a vagrant repeat killer. You don’t normally start your criminal career by hacking six people to death and few people who were not a hardened murderer and/or desperate for shelter would have hung around the farm for several days after the killings. He may have been on the run from prison or an asylum or just a vagrant in the unstable economic and political conditions of Germany at that time.

A lot gets made of the fact that the murderer appears to have realised that the farm animals needed to be fed to keep them from making a racket and attracting attention, but there would have been a lot of Germans at the time who had worked on a farm or grown up on one, especially in the depths of rural Bavaria, so that isn’t decisive evidence against the neighbour.

16, 15 and 13. The Long Island killer, the Mad Axeman of New Orleans and the Oakland County Child Killer

You can call them creepy and horrific and all sorts of other things, but basically these are all variants on the theme of “a serial murderer” and none of them really did anything that other serial killers haven’t done, especially contacting the police. That’s not particularly mysterious.

14. Ken McElroy

Unpleasant man gets murdered by one or more of his neighbours, who no-one else will rat out because they all hated him? Well, stone the crows.



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