"Damn your metal signage, W.W"

Could this be the message of the alphabet thief?

Design student Liam Flahive took 30 minutes with a borrowed Scrabble game to settle on a meaning from the 22 stainless steel letters pried from the I-35W Memorial last week. The theft of the letters from the newly unveiled monument to the bridge collapse victims set off a minor puzzle-solving frenzy after the Star Tribune published a list of the missing letters on Saturday.

Some proposed solutions are complete nonsense, but others come close, spelling out bridge victims' names and the word "memorial." None of those solutions used all of the available letters, however.

Only Flahive's used every letter and punctuation mark and appeared to offer some relevance to the crime. By arranging and rearranging the Scrabble tiles, Flahive came up with the phrase, completed with a stolen comma and substituting the stolen dot above an "i" as a period in what could be the thief's initials.

The solution is not perfect, since it's missing a dot after the final initial. Still, the clue was so good that Flahive felt compelled to forward it to the Minneapolis Police Department. The police department had nothing to say about it Monday.

But the city's point man on the 35W memorial project, Paul Miller, said he's heard that city break rooms have had Scrabble boards out since the theft, hoping city workers might stumble on a solution. Told on Monday of Flahive's solution, Miller paused for a second before responding: "Wow!"

He said he couldn't think of anyone who hated the sign, but thought the clue was a good one.

More skeptical was city employee Erica Prosser, who worked with collapse survivors and loved ones of those who died as they jointly wrote the memorial's message.

"I'm not an investigator, but it's really hard for me to believe that somebody would want to send a message at the expense of the feelings of those victims' families and the survivors," she said.

Flahive, a design and photography student at Brown College, said he's a fan of word puzzles, one reason why he was drawn to the challenge. He said he also felt compelled to act by his dislike for criminals.

Flahive said he used an online anagram program to come up with some partial solutions, but gave up after it showed thousands and thousands of possible answers made up of meaningless strings of words. (Star Tribune reader snap1234 came up with "A Reanimated Smugly Gown," among others.)

Certain that the letters spelled something, he ran down his alley to a neighbor's house to borrow a Scrabble board. He never took seriously the idea that the letters were stolen at random.

"It didn't make sense," he said. "If you're going to steal letters and sell them for scrap, you would just start prying off one after another." The stolen letters were taken from words across the entire message. Some of the pieces stolen, like the dot above an "i," were among the smallest things on the wall and wouldn't have much scrap value.

He thought the statement would be something about the sign itself, so using letters from the Scrabble board he blocked off the word "sign," and then found "your."

About half an hour later he cracked the code. Or did he?

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747