The following pages are a series of police and family stories, some introspective, some just plain old cop war stories, some silly or whimsical and an occasional rant or two.
The original encouragement to set some of these to paper was from the pastor of our local parish. It was many years ago at the conclusion of a dinner in our home and we were relaxing in the living room over a glass of wine. Father enjoyed police stories, having come from a law enforcement family himself. After regaling him with a few tales he looked me in the eye and said, “You’re writing these down, aren’t you? You know, just for your family so years from now they can know what you were about.”
So I wrote a couple and the Chicago Tribune even published one, but then for some reason I stopped. But the increasing popularity of computers and word processing software made writing, revising and polishing a story even easier. With the advent of blogs, sharing became a practical option.
My plan is to publish at least two stories a month, targeting the 2nd and 4th Friday on the calendar for posting. Some will be family type memoirs under the Family Stories category. For a free subscription to this blog to receive notifications of new posts by email, signup at the right. No spam, I promise! Or follow me on Twitter (click above) for a tweet each time a new story is published.
Your comments are most appreciated. I try to answer each of them.
Thanks for reading… I hope you enjoy the stories.
“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”
Tony and I were working midnights as regular partners out of the 018th District. Each of us had less than three months on the street—we were both reasonably intelligent and eager to work—but we were as green and inexperienced as could be. Our favorite field sergeant and field lieutenant kept a friendly eye out for us, without interfering unless absolutely necessary. For the most part it worked out fairly well.
It was 12:30 AM and we were fresh out of roll call and had just finished gassing up our car. Other units were waiting behind us to do the same when the call came over the air.
“Attention cars in 18 and on City-Wide, we have a man with a gun in the tavern at 240 West Chicago Avenue. Any cars in 18 up from late roll call?”
Tony grabbed the mic as I capped the fuel tank.
“1818, we’ll take that in.”
“Ten-four 1818, that’ll be your paper.”
We were only about a block and a half from the tavern and we were there in less than a minute. We approached the tavern door cautiously with hands on our revolvers as we slowly pushed the door open. It was a week-night and there were probably no more than six or eight people in the place. Everything seemed quiet. The bartender looked at us and nodded to a man sitting at a table near the door.
Earl Ramsey looked to be about 50, neatly dressed in slacks and a sport coat. Not anyone you would expect to be carrying a firearm. An empty highball glass was on the table before him and he appeared to be very drunk to the point of semi-consciousness. He was slumped backward in the chair and his sport coat was open, exposing his belt to which was attached a holster and a small frame .38 caliber revolver. I slowly removed the gun from the holster before we attempted to arouse him.
Earl was essentially non-responsive, unable to respond to us in any intelligible fashion.
“Anybody here know him?” I asked.
“He’s not a regular here,” answered the bartender. “I’ve never seen him before.”
We glanced around the bar and the rest of the patrons shook their heads and shrugged.
His wallet contained his ID and three dollars. He lived on the far south side, but the wallet offered no other clues and he was unable to answer any of our questions. Tony went out to our squad and called for a wagon, but there were none available.
“Oh hell,” I said. “We’re only two blocks from the station, let’s take him in. We might be waiting here for an hour or more.”
We searched Mr. Ramsey in his sitting position and as we did so, he was barely responsive to the jostling and moving around.
“Come on Earl, stand up!” shouted Tony.
“Let’s go, you’re under arrest!” I shouted a bit louder to no avail.
Tony grabbed his right hand and bent his fingers sharply back and upwards. Bingo! Earl Ramsey was on his feet as Tony guided him by the fingers out to our squad. A few minutes later we were at the back door of the station, where with a great deal of support from both Tony and me, we steered him into a cell and completed the case and arrest reports. The lock-up keeper gave him a quick once over and initialed the arrest report indicating he would accept the prisoner without further ado. Our district was accustomed to dealing with drunks on a regular basis. We inventoried the revolver and were back on the street in a little over an hour.
The rest of our tour was uneventful and at 8:30 AM, Tony and I climbed into our personal cars and headed for our respective homes. It was about 9:30 AM when the phone rang in my apartment.
“Yes?” I answered quizzically.
“This is the day watch lock-up keeper. What can you tell me about this Earl Ramsey?”
“Like what?” I replied. “Did we leave something off the arrest report?”
“No, that’s okay—as far as it goes, but we were about to send him to court and he’s totally unresponsive. We’re sending him to County Hospital… what can I tell them? Was he injured, or sick? Did he resist arrest? Did you guys have any problem with him?”
“No, nothing like that,” I answered. “Just that he was very drunk and barely responsive when we brought him in. He never spoke to us but he had no injuries that we could see; just a drunk with a gun.”
A nicely dressed drunk, I thought to myself. Not the routine “man with a gun” pinch. Maybe there was something more to it, but for the life of me I couldn’t think what.
“Well, call your partner and get your act together. You two are probably going to hear more about this.” The lock-up keeper hung up abruptly.
I decided not to call Tony. We had done nothing wrong and there was nothing to do at the moment anyhow except to get a day’s sleep before our next shift. We would need to hear from the hospital before we knew anything more.
That night I briefed Tony on the day’s development with the previous night’s arrest and we made a quick call to the 012th District officer detailed to the desk at the back door of Cook County Hospital. He called back a few minutes later.
“Ramsey is in intensive care—he’s in critical condition, but I can’t get any more information on what’s wrong with him. It’s a madhouse up there tonight and nobody’s got time to talk to me. Why are you guys asking?”
“He’s our UUW (Unlawful Use of Weapon) arrest from last night.”
“Oh shit! What did you guys do to him?”
“That’s just it,” I replied. “We didn’t do anything to him. He was stoned drunk when we brought him in. He wasn’t capable of giving us any trouble.”
“Well maybe he’s an overdose… who knows. If I hear anything more I’ll give you a call.”
Tony and I gave each other a worried look as we hung up. My partner was intense under normal circumstances and definitely more prone to worry than I was, but it was fair to say this time we were both very troubled.
“Geez,” said Tony. “What do we do now?” We were both rookies and on our first year probation…on very thin ice career-wise.
“Let’s give the lieutenant a heads up.” I said. “I don’t think the bosses like surprises.”
The lieutenant listened to all the details we could provide and then sat quietly for just a moment. I thought Tony was going to jump out of his skin.
“Well, I know you guys, and if you say you didn’t do anything to him—then you didn’t do anything to him. There can be any number of medical explanations. We’ll just have to wait it out. Meantime, I’ll tell the commander in the morning… he doesn’t like surprises.”
Inside, I smiled a bit at that phrase. On the other hand I wasn’t keen on the commander becoming familiar with our names in this context. We headed out to our squad to begin our tour when the lieutenant stuck his head out of the office.
“Hey guys!” he shouted to us. “It was a good pinch—don’t worry about it.”
Easier said than done. It was Tony’s last night before starting his three day week-end. I would be working with our relief man over the week-end.
“The wife and I are going out of town in the morning. Do you think we should cancel?” asked Tony.
“To do what? Stay home and worry? Listen Tony, we didn’t do anything wrong. Go and try to forget about it. I’ll see you Sunday night.” Tony wasn’t convinced, but there was nothing else to be said.
The next night as the lieutenant finished roll call, he said something no rookie wants to hear.
“Padar, see me before you go out on the street.”
He told me to close the door as I entered his office. I sat down nervously.
“The commander sent a day sergeant over to the hospital just to stay on top of this.” He paused… a little too long I thought. “Earl Ramsey is going to die—it’s just a matter of time.”
“What?” was all I could say.
“Calm down, calm down,” he replied. “Here’s what’s happening. Ramsey is suffering from an aneurysm, something they call a subarachnoid hemorrhage. A lot of people die immediately, but this guy has a slow bleed, and it’s inoperable. Basically, they’re just waiting for him to expire.”
I was familiar with subarachnoid hemorrhages. The wife of my previous employer had died instantly from that type of aneurysm.
“Technically he’s a prisoner, lieutenant. That means he will die in police custody… and he’s my prisoner.”
“Hold on, hold on, Padar. We bonded him out this morning on an I-Bond, so he’s not a prisoner, now he’s just a patient at County Hospital.”
“Ya but…” I replied.
“Will you calm down!” The lieutenant was fairly shouting. “He will die, and because of the history here, we’ll insist that the coroner do a post mortem examination. And the autopsy will show the primary cause of death to be a subarachnoid hemorrhage, secondary to a congenital cerebral aneurysm… that is assuming you and Tony didn’t beat him over the head with your nightsticks.”
“We didn’t even bring our nightsticks in!”
“Padar! I’m kidding!”
As usual, the lieutenant was right. Ramsey expired that night and was scheduled for autopsy the following morning. Another day went by, and another tour of midnight duty, but on the way home I stopped by the morgue. I found a homicide detective and told him why I was there. Together we located the pathologist who had performed the autopsy. He confirmed the cause of death to be subarachnoid hemorrhage and further, that there no signs of physical trauma to the head. For the first time I felt a bit relieved. Earl Ramsey’s death was due to natural causes.
Tony returned to work the next night and he was all about what had happened to Ramsey. I told him that Ramsey had died but I thought that we would come out okay.
“What do mean, you think?” asked Tony.
“Wait ‘til we get out to the car,” I said. “I don’t want to talk here.” I nodded to the others in the area. Tony’s tension level had been ratcheted up several notches.
Out in the squad, Tony almost grabbed me by the tie.
“What? What is it?”
“Well,” I said slowly. “Ramsey died from a subarachnoid hemorrhage, but that wasn’t primary. It was very unusual.”
“Wasn’t primary? What the hell was primary?” Tony was nearly shouting.
“Broken fingers,” I said. “Doc said he had four broken fingers on his right hand and that was the primary cause of death.”
Tony blanched white and sunk back into the seat.
“I’ll be okay,” I said. “But it was you who broke his fingers…” but I lost my composure—I couldn’t keep a straight face—I stifled a laugh.
“You bastard!” shouted Tony, “You son-of-a-bitch!”
I laughed, but it was a few minutes before Tony was able to crack a smile.
It wasn’t the last we heard of poor Mr. Ramsey.
About a month later, we got a Mayor’s Inquiry. Mrs. Ramsey had written to the Mayor’s office complaining as to how her husband came to be arrested. In her letter, she detailed how Earl had been at work as a security guard on the northwest side. While at work, he developed a sudden severe headache and his coworkers sent him home in a cab. The next she heard, he had been arrested and was in Cook County Hospital.
Tony and I went back to the tavern and interviewed the bartender.
“How did Ramsey arrive? How much did he have to drink?” we asked.
“A cab dropped him off,” said the bartender. “That was unusual… I don’t get many customers that arrive by taxi. He walked in and seemed disoriented and asked for a glass of water. I don’t normally give people off the street a glass of water; but he was nicely dressed, even though very drunk. So I gave him a glass of water and he went over to the table, sat down, drank his water and passed out. That’s when his jacket opened and I saw the gun and I called you guys.”
“So he didn’t have any alcohol?” we asked.
“Not here,” said the bartender.
Tony and I were never able to determine why the cab driver detoured and dropped Ramsey at the tavern. Perhaps Ramsey even told him to do so in his disoriented state. That question was never answered. But each step of the way, the people he came into contact with did what they thought was the right thing based on what seemed to be reasonable assumptions at the time.
In truth, the bottom line to the whole situation was the moment that aneurysm in his head burst, he was slowly and inexorably dying. CT scans to pinpoint the site of the bleed were still ten years off. Less invasive radiologically-guided intervention techniques were 30 years in the future. Simply put, the state of medical science in the 60’s did not provide many options for victims of subarachnoid hemorrhages. Of course none of that provided any solace to Earl Ramsey’s wife or family. It did offer a small bit of comfort to Tony and me that in spite of our flawed assumptions the outcome was inevitable. Hopefully, it was an experience that made us better police officers somewhere down the line.
Most occupations carry their own specific hazards. The automobile mechanic knows that sooner or later a wrench is going to slip and he’s going to skin some knuckles. The carpenter knows that once in a great while he’s going to hit his thumb with a hammer. And so it is with law enforcement officers, except the specific nature and severity of their injury can vary widely from the mundane to the catastrophic. I don’t think most officers spend much time contemplating how they might get hurt, although I’ve heard more than one express their greatest fear is that of an automobile accident. Strangely, none that I have ever talked to expects to get shot.
I don’t think my history of injuries on duty (IOD) is anything more than the unexciting. My first documented injury occurred in the police gym at the Training Academy. I am fond of telling other officer’s that the infamous Stanley S. broke my foot. Stanley probably caused more widespread hurt during his gym classes, to more officers, than any other person in the department. But the truth of the matter is, Stanley didn’t do it. My partner broke my foot during an “over the shoulder toss,” a judo maneuver that to my knowledge no officer has ever used on the street. As he held me around the waist and my body crossed over his shoulder, instead of releasing me and allowing me to fall flatout to the mat, at the very last moment he held on to my waist momentarily in an effort to “let me down easy” as he put it. The result was I was released at a 45 degree angle and my entire body weight impacted the mat on the outside of my left foot, causing a hairline fracture in the fifth metatarsal bone.
Hairline or not, the pain was excruciating. Two cadets were summoned and I hopped out on their shoulders to one of the cadet’s Volkswagen Beetle. Somehow they maneuvered me, painfully I might add, into the rear seat of the Bug and drove me to the Medical Section at 11th and State. Again I hopped into the waiting room where I sat and waited for over two hours. Eventually one of the nurses took notice of my presence and after inquiring as to why I was there, called a wagon to transport me to the hospital.
After another hour’s wait two First District wagon men ambled into the waiting room. They were like cartoon caricatures of what a Chicago Police wagon men should look like—husky… no overweight might be more accurate, slightly unkempt, with well-worn leather that belied the fact that it might once have actually been black. The nurse gave them the particulars and they looked over my Chicago Police recruit khakis. By this time I was weak from the pain, probably on the verge of passing out. I stared at them, glassy-eyed.
“Police officer?” one of them said. “We don’t haul no police officers. We haul drunks, we haul stiffs, we haul stinkers, but we don’t haul police officers.”
“Well what are we supposed to do?” snapped the nurse.
“Call an ambulance!” said the wagon man. “Like they should have done at that silly-ass Police Academy.”
And so it came to pass that some four hours after my injury, I found myself in a Fire Department ambulance, careening south on State Street toward Mercy Hospital with siren screaming. I pleaded with them to slow down to no avail. They were transporting an injured Chicago Police officer and they were on a mission!
At Mercy Hospital I was triaged and put on the waiting list for x-ray. It was just past midnight when they taped my foot, gave me some pain pills and crutches, warned me not to drive and told me I could go home. I was single, living alone. I hobbled into the police room and asked a beat officer how I could get home.
“Call your unit,” he responded as he dashed out to answer a call.
Call my unit? The Training Academy? At 12:15 AM?
So I phoned a high school friend who groused a bit at being awakened on a work night. He drove to Mercy Hospital from the northwest side. We left my car at the Academy. It was 1:30 AM when he helped me into my apartment. I fell into my bed fully clothed. At 10:30 the following morning, the door buzzer rang incessantly. I slowly made my way to the door to find a district Lieutenant checking on me to be certain I was not abusing the medical role.
Many years later, as a Lieutenant at the Police Academy, I determined that it was now department policy to call for an ambulance any time a recruit was injured. I added one more paragraph to the policy mandating that an Academy Staff member be assigned to any injured recruit until it could be ascertained that they were being admitted, or that family members were at the hospital even if it required overtime.
My first injury on the street was more dramatic but no less mundane and with an added element of embarrassment. It was summertime and we were in short sleeved shirts. We responded to a call of a “man with a gun” in the Cabrini projects where the high rises bordered on what we called the low rises. When we arrived we saw a man with a shotgun in a cinder play lot and as we exited our car he fired a shot in our direction and turned and ran west toward the low rises. He had a good lead on us, but we drew our weapons and ran after him. There were children playing on the far side of the lot and it was impossible to get a clear shot at him without endangering the kids. I ran, revolver in hand, to the point my body got ahead of my feet. I sensed I was going down and I kept my finger out of the trigger guard and attempted to tilt it skyward. I hit the cinders hard and fast with my right forearm and knee taking the brunt of the resulting six foot skid. The gun did not discharge but the sharp black cinders abraded a great deal of skin and left behind black residue. My arm took the worst of it and was bleeding. My right knee was only a bit better, having been protected by my trousers. It really hurt.
At the Henrotin Hospital, the nurses worked to clean the wounds as best they could and when they finished the only cinders remaining were deep in the wound on my knee. The doctor came in with a kit which he unwrapped on a mini tray-table.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing at an item that looked suspiciously like a small wire brush.
“It’s a wire brush,” he replied. “I’m going to get those cinders out of your knee.”
“No you’re not!”
“If I don’t get them out, you’ll have a mark like a tattoo and you run the risk of infection.”
“I’ll tell you what doc,” I replied. “I’ll live with the tattoo and you do your magic to prevent infection.”
He shrugged and put the wire brush down.
Back at the station I reported to the Watch Commander who excused me for the day and told me I would not be permitted to return to work until the Medical Section cleared me. On my way out, the desk sergeant handed me a teletype boldly listing my name, star number and district of assignment.
ATTENTION – ATTENTION – ATTENTION – ATTENTION – ATTENTION
INJURED OFFICER NOW AT HENROTIN HOSPITAL
CUTS ON HAND AND KNEES
I cringed, knowing it would take weeks to outlive what my fellow officers perceived to be clever jokes.
The doc was right; I carried a tattoo-like series of black parallel lines on my knee for many years, but eventually they disappeared. Oral antibiotics and antibacterial ointments crushed any lingering infection and I was cleared for return to work about a week later.
Perhaps my most serious IOD was never reported to the department. On thefirst day of the King riots in April of 1968 a fellow officer braced himself on my shoulder as we were pinned down by sniper fire from a Cabrini high rise. I didn’t know he was using me as a support as he prepared to fire a shotgun blast at the building. The 12 gauge discharged inches from my left ear literally knocking me off my feet and causing ringing for over a week. We were in full scale urban warfare, what would I report?
“Pardon me doctor but my ear is ringing.”
So I ignored it and it went away, but unbeknownst to me it would leave me with permanent noise induced hearing loss in my left ear.
Those incidents were what I call spontaneous injuries, that is situations that develop quickly where you are thrust into action without the benefit of analyzing what is about to happen. There is another type of incident where circumstances advance at a more rational pace, where the officer has an opportunity to at least fleetingly consider what is about to occur. Some of those are what I call “oh boy, I’m about to get my ass kicked” moments.
I was working the tactical unit in soft clothes with my partner John one warm summer Saturday. We were in the Old Town area heading east on North Avenue, approaching Wells Street. In a doorway, Brent Marshall, a stock broker from Detroit was punching his girlfriend repeatedly in the face. Her glasses broke as she vainly tried to shield herself from his blows. As I curbed the unmarked squad, John jumped from the passenger seat and shouted.
The girl fell to the ground and Brent took off running east on North Avenue. John ran to aid the girl and I jumped back into the car. Brent turned south through an empty lot at Wells Street and I drove about 25 yard past him and jumped from the car to confront him.
“Police! You’re under arrest!” I shouted at a somewhat surprised Brent Marshall.
He stopped and assumed the traditional pugilist stance. I had a moment to size him up. He was about 5-11, medium build, flat athletic stomach and biceps that strained the edge of the sleeves on his short sleeved shirt. I was probably about the same size and weight but I strongly suspected that I had at least met my match. I was about to get my ass kicked.
At that point in my career, I was probably in the best shape of my life. John and I worked out regularly at our local YMCA, weights and swimming before we headed off to work each day. The two of us up against Mister Marshall would be a struggle but we would prevail. But by myself? Yes, there wasn’t much doubt that I was about to get my ass kicked.
A small crowd had quietly gathered around us as Marshall and I faced off for a moment. I pulled my handcuffs from my belt and wrapped them around the knuckles of my right hand.
“Turn around, drop to your knees and put your hands behind your back,” I said loudly.
Brent did a little boxer dance on his toes as if to say, “It ain’t gonna happen.”
The crowd waited expectantly. I moved a half-step closer.
“Come on, you don’t wanna do this,” I said with as much confidence as I could muster.
Marshall took a wide swing at me that most likely would have at least broken my jaw, but he missed his mark. He lost his balance for just a moment and I realized that he was drunk. Maybe I had half a chance. I countered with a right to his jaw. The handcuffs connected, firmly I thought, but he barely flinched. He shook it off and eyed me just a bit more warily. The fight was on and I was afraid the shot to the jaw had just sobered him up.
Suddenly from the back of the crowd came the prolonged scream of a banshee. I glanced up and saw John—I would later swear that he was at least ten feet in the air—as he came crashing down on Marshall’s shoulders. The two of them crumpled to the ground and I put my knee in Marshall’s back. Before he could collect himself I had him cuffed, tightly, very tightly.
When you are about to get your ass kicked it helps if you have a super-hero as a partner. Decades later, John and I were reminiscing and I told him this story. As I got to the end, with him ten, no maybe even twelve feet in the air hurtling down upon the hapless Brent Marshall, he was smiling broadly as he shook his head—he had absolutely no recollection of the incident.
Okay, maybe he didn’t jump quite that high…
“Life is not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s the way it is.
The way we cope with it is what makes the difference.”
As the horrific events at the Boston Marathon unfolded before our eyes, we couldn’t help but gaze in complete dismay at our tiny smartphones and large flatscreen televisions. Is there not a shred of decency in this world? The unspeakable evil bombarded us from all sides.
But angels quickly emerged, first in resplendent robes of lime green, emblazoned with “Police,” “Fire,” “Physician,” and “EMS,”
Undercover angels materialized from the smoke, less elegantly clad in running shoes and shorts.
Chariots of Fire, red and blue, rolled in accompanied by trumpets taking the form of wailing sirens.
Nearby, legions of angels in white mobilized in citadels dedicated to saving lives in the aftermath.
These angels in the arena of dust, sweat and blood, spent themselves in a labor of love and service to their fellowman. At that moment in time, there was no higher calling.
And they coped, without the distraction of blame, bigotry, judgment, or intolerance. That’s what made the difference. And, that’s what made them angels.
Saturday, July 6, 1974
Finally home after a 13 hour shift I was bone tired, but I lingered in the shower in a futile attempt to wash the smell from my body and nostrils. Your skin does well with a good deodorant soap, but the odor in the hairs of your nose just seems to hang on forever. I knew from experience that when I woke up, the smell would be gone. Until then there was nothing to do but attempt to ignore it as a temporary annoyance. In six short hours I would need to leave for work; my next shift would begin at 12:30 AM. My poor wife’s task would be to try to keep our three young children quiet enough for me to get some semblance of sleep. It was a Saturday—maybe she would take them to her sister’s house for the rest of the day.
Most folks think that homicide detectives spend a large part of their time with bodies, but nothing could be further from the truth. Most cases of course start out with a body and a crime scene, but the real work, the fun part of the job, is always the investigation and as my head hit the pillow, that’s where my mind was going. I knew teams from our office were following up at this very moment and that was frustrating. My part for now would be to get some sleep and be fresh for my next tour of duty in a few hours and that meant, for the time being, I wouldn’t be part of the fun. Mike and I had spent about four hours with the victims in this case—an unusually long period of time, but the bizarre circumstances demanded it. Now, with that behind us and as our teams from Area Four Homicide embarked on the investigative journey, I don’t think any of us realized that the trip would take some two months. No less than 14 investigators would work crucial portions of the case in an effort that exemplified the team spirit of our unit. During the course of the investigation we would be aided by other units within our department, suburban departments and the FBI, not to mention witnesses (some reluctant) and confidential informants.
The pieces of a case like this never develop in a chronological order and our first clue that we would be dealing with a long term time span was of course the fact that our bodies were dressed for winter and we discovered them in July. Identification of the victims is always of prime importance and in this case there was a bit of a delay due to the condition of the bodies. Our crime lab personnel came up with partial prints from each victim and by the end of the first day we identified the person in drum #2 as Sam Marcello, reputed to be a juice loan collector for the mob. Marcello had been reported missing to the Rosemont Police back in February. Rosemont had information that indicated a Joseph Grisafe had been reported missing that same day in another jurisdiction. Late in the first day of investigation an anonymous informant called our office and told us that our victim #1 was in fact Grisafe. The following day the lab would confirm Grisafe’s identity from a partial print lifted from the body and the pathologist confirmed that both had died as a result of gunshot wounds to the head. We had the solid information we needed to start the grunt work that makes up every murder investigation. In addition, we were fortunate to have a “date marker” that would help people remember when certain incidents had occurred; both men had disappeared on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 24th, 1973, over 7 months prior to the discovery of the bodies.
Reconstructing Saturday, November 24, 1973—
The Little Old Lady in the Window
“Knock on one more door…” was the homicide supervisors’ mantra. They would preach to us at roll call:
“There’s always a little old lady in the window who saw what we need to know.”
Sophia Conti lived in the 900 block of South Claremont, scarcely a block from The Korner Sandwich Shop at Taylor and Western. We didn’t find her by knocking on doors, but rather from a radio dispatch card. During the course of the investigation, we learned that Grisafe’s car had been ticketed and ultimately towed for parking at a hydrant at 930 South Claremont. On a hunch, we searched through the November 1973 dispatch cards stored at the 12th District and there it was: November 24, Parked at a hydrant, 930 S. Claremont, complainant Sophia Conti. We knocked on her door.
Sophia was old school Italian and a one woman neighborhood watch. She was well into her 80’s and walked with a stoop but she spoke with a strong voice and Italian accent.
“Did you call the police for a car parked at the hydrant November of last year?” we asked.
She looked at us quizzically. How could we possibly expect her to remember something like that?
“It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving.”
Her face lit up.
“Yes! Yes, I called. Hoodlums! Mafiosi! They park like they own the street!” She flicked her fingers under her chin in a gesture of distain. “And I called the next day and the next until they towed the car.”
“Do you remember what time you saw them?” I asked.
“I don’t know… it was dark.”
“Maybe around 7?” I asked, looking at the dispatch card; 1856 hours (6:56 PM).
“Could be, maybe,” Sophia shrugged. “They do something bad? Those hoodlums?”
“No ma’am, not anymore—they’re dead.”
Her demeanor changed visibly—she had spoken ill of the dead—she made the sign of the cross as she showed us to the door.
About 8 PM that same evening, Don Borman, a neighborhood regular at the Korner Sandwich Shop stopped by to grab a cup of coffee and visit with the owner, Sam Rantis. The lights were on but the front door was locked. It was unusual for the shop to close this early. Borman knocked insistently. He saw Sam peer around from the back room and disappear. Borman knocked again. Eventually Sam came to the front door.
“I was wondering if he was in some kind of trouble and I just kept knocking until he answered the door,” Borman said. “He only cracked it a bit and he looked nervous and he was perspiring. He told me he was closed and then he locked the door and went back to the rear of the store.”
“Did you think that was unusual?” we asked.
“Absolutely. Since we were friends, he would have talked to me instead of closing the door and just walking away. I thought that was rude, considering we were friends. At our next meeting, he made no mention of it and I didn’t ask him.”
Which came first? The bodies or the drums?
Sam Rantis had a problem; well really two problems. He had two bodies in the walk-in freezer of his sandwich shop. Teenage part time employees recalled seeing a couple of drums at some point around the Thanksgiving holiday but they didn’t think anything of it and they couldn’t recall if it was before or after Thanksgiving. Sam reached out to a couple of friends, James Erwin and Wayne (Billy) Cascone and asked for their help in disposing of the bodies. Just what help they provided is open to speculation, but somehow Grisafe’s legs were chopped off and Grisafe and Marcello were stuffed and sealed into 55 gallon drums. It is unlikely that Rantis could have accomplished this physical feat by himself; both victims were big men. The major problem was that Erwin and Cascone talked about helping Rantis… and they talked where others could overhear them.
The best laid plans…
No one knows exactly what Rantis’ plan was, or if he even had one. Was he making it up as he went along? Or was his plan merely unraveling before his eyes? Whatever the case, at some point, the sealed drums and Grisafe’s legs were moved to the unused storeroom at the rear of the sandwich shop and concealed behind the bread racks. Rather hastily one could assume, because the legs were merely wrapped in heavy plastic and set atop an empty Baby Ruth candy box. In fact, in the aftermath, it was most likely the legs that people smelled and not the drums, as the drums had been very tightly sealed.
On Wednesday, December 5, 1973 attorneys for the families of Grisafe and Marcello served a Writ of Habeas Corpus on the FBI, seeking the immediate release of Joseph Grisafe and Sam Marcello who were assumed by the family to be in Federal custody. They of course had been murdered 11 days previous and lay moldering in drums at the rear of Sam Rantis’ sandwich shop. Apparently the mob grapevine had not yet reached the families with that information, but the hierarchy most certainly were aware that Marcello and Grisafe had gone missing and further that their last business call had been to Rantis.
Retribution can be a terrible thing…
Two days later on Friday, December 7th, Sam Rantis disappeared. His frozen and partially decomposed body was found 2 ½ months later in the trunk of an auto parked at O’Hare Field . His throat had been cut.
On February 26th the body of Wayne (Billy) Cascone was found in the rear seat of his car. He had been shot in the head.
The mob was closing the ring around all those involved with the deaths and the disposal of their two trusted couriers.
Have a sense of decency…
The only one still alive was James Erwin, but he didn’t seem worried. At his friend Billy Cascone’s wake he stood with friends singing the chorus of the Beer Barrel Polka:
Roll out the barrel
We’ll have a barrel of fun…
Some laughed and some chastised Erwin for his lack of sensitivity, but the fact was that at that point in time, March, 1974, the drums containing the bodies of Marcello and Grisafe had not yet been discovered, so perhaps some did not understand the significance of his little joke. Nevertheless, it was an important break for our yet to be discovered case. Erwin’s tasteless gag rankled certain people and encouraged them to come forward and give us statements as our case got underway some three months later.
Our Area Four Homicide teams continued to chase down the numerous minutiae that makes up a complex case. Each statement we took, each interview we did continued to draw us closer to the conclusion that Marcello and Grisafe had been murdered by Sam Rantis on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, 1973. It seemed unlikely to us that Rantis had any accomplices at the time of the actual shooting, rather it appeared to be a simple crime of opportunity. Rantis knew they were coming and he got the drop on them. If there was some master preparation behind the deed, it was indeed a poorly executed plan, pardon the pun.
In late August, 1974, Mike and I spent a whole day reviewing the entire file, along with the homicide files of Rantis and Cascone. On the wall in our office hung a handwritten chart of all of the recent homicides. At the far right of the page were two columns; “Not Cleared” and “Cleared.” The Not Cleared column bore X’s optimistically drawn in pencil. The X’s in the Cleared column were in ink. Every homicide detective in the city understood that their job was to “move the X.” The Marcello/Grisafe case was especially significant; there were two X’s.
Our review of the total body of evidence convinced Mike and me that if Sam Rantis were alive, we would have a strong enough case to arrest him and charge him with the double homicide. Rantis was himself a murder victim of course and so was not amenable to prosecution. There was another way to clear murders however; Exceptional Clearup. We would present our detailed evidence to a Coroner’s Jury, seeking a finding of “Murder, by Sam Rantis, now deceased.”
We typed a summary report that ran five typewritten pages. Perhaps too complex we thought, so we prepared a single secondary page enumerating the major points. Then, just to cover our bases, a day in advance we visited the Deputy Coroner who would be hearing the case. Tony Scafini was one of the more talented deputies in a sea of deputies where, all too often, innate intelligence was not a consideration. Tony reviewed the case with us in detail.
“You’re good to go,” he announced. “See you tomorrow.”
The next morning the coroner’s inquest into the deaths of Marcello and Grisafe was duly convened at 9:00 AM. Tony guided me through the preliminaries and then threw the testimony open to me. As I methodically presented the facts I glanced over and suddenly realized that there was one crucial area over which I had no control; the actual members of the jury. Coroner’s jury members were made up of groups of six very elderly men, most likely friends or relatives of staff of the coroner’s office. As I proceeded, I noticed that at least two of them were sound asleep. The others looked, at best, glazed over by the complex case. The court reporter dutifully clicked away as I talked, but I honestly felt that she was the only one paying any attention to what I was saying.
At the conclusion, Scafini dutifully inquired if there were any more witnesses. There were none. He then charged the jury with the case and they woke up and slowly shuffled out to deliberate in the hallway outside the hearing room. They always took 5 to 10 minutes. I think that most of them took this as an opportunity for a bathroom break. After the semi-obligatory 10 minutes, they shuffled back into the hearing room.
“Gentlemen of the jury have you reached a verdict?” intoned Scafini.
“We have,” responded the most alert of the six.
“And what say you?”
“We find this case to be murder, by person or persons unknown.”
My heart sank—there went our clearup—but Scafini lept out of his chair.
“No! No! No!” he shouted as the jury suddenly awakened at his outburst. “You’ve got it all wrong. Go back out in the hallway and I’ll come out to help you.”
Tony Scafini waited until they had oh so slowly shuffled out of the room and then he rapidly followed. He returned in a few minutes and once again we waited several minutes until the men laboriously hobbled back in.
“Gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?” intoned Scafini as though he was saying it for the very first time.
“We have,” responded their leader.
“And what say you?”
“We find this case to be murder, by Sam Rantis, now deceased.”
I heaved a sigh of relief as I gathered my papers.
“Thanks Tony,” I said.
“My pleasure,” he responded.
Back at the office, Mike and I reviewed our summary report. No less than seven homicide teams, comprised of fourteen men, had participated in this intense two month investigation. Together we had brought a most bizarre case to a successful conclusion.
Two years later the Cook County Coroner’s Office was replaced by the Office of the Medical Examiner, thus doing away with inquests and coroner’s juries.
James Erwin was the only participant in this case to survive… for a time. In May of 1976 he was killed in a hail of gunfire, hit thirteen times as he stepped from his car at 1873 North Halsted Street. I wondered if anyone sang “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here…” at his wake?
Author’s Note: This story is dedicated to my long time homicide partner, Detective Michael Shull. Upon his passing some ten years ago I “inherited” his personal files and case notes—without those, this story would not have been possible.
Friday, July 5, 1974
Tony Russo sank into his bed bone tired. His wife was asleep instantly, but Tony stared at the ceiling.
This sandwich shop was draining him physically and emotionally. It was one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time. When the owner, Sam Rantis, disappeared the previous December, Sam’s wife tried to continue the business on her own, but when Sam’s body was found in February with his throat cut in the trunk of an auto parked at O’Hare Field, the widow Rantis found everything too much. She implored Tony and his wife to take over the operation of the shop just to keep the business running.
It wasn’t bad initially, but now, in early summer, business had picked up and the hours became longer. Between him and his wife, they spent almost every waking moment in the kitchen and behind the counter.
And now there was that damned smell. Not strong, but lingering, and neither Tony nor his wife thought it was food related. Of course they cleaned the kitchen and the walk-in refrigerator. They even moved every piece of equipment and cleaned again. The faint but putrid smell persisted. Tonight, after a long day, he and his wife got into it.
“Tony!’ she shouted. “You’ve got to do something. Maybe I’m more sensitive to it but that kitchen stinks!”
Tony had to admit, silently, that although faint, the odor seemed to be slowly getting worse.
As he tossed and turned, his mind drifted back to his days as a corpsman in the Navy. He had several occasions to deal with decomposed bodies, but over the years he had successfully blocked it from his mind.
It was nearly midnight when Tony Russo sat straight up in bed. That was it! This was the same smell as a decomposing body.
He eased himself out of bed and dressed quietly and drove the short distance back to the shop. He kept most of the shop lights out—he didn’t want people to think they were open for business. Tony didn’t waste his time searching all the places they had already covered, but he stood in the kitchen scanning the overall area. His eyes came to rest on a door to an unused storage area under a stairwell in the very back corner of the kitchen. They had looked in there earlier but they hadn’t moved anything. He opened the door slowly in the dimly lit kitchen.
Empty plastic bread racks from their previous vendor were stacked almost to the ceiling, filling the cramped little room. Was it his imagination or was the smell just slightly stronger in this unused closet? He began to slowly remove the layers of bread racks, revealing two tightly sealed 55 gallon drums, lids securely clamped with bolt rings. About 12 inches of heavy plastic sheeting hung over the edges of the drums. Was it his imagination, or was the smell definitely stronger in here?
Tony searched the junk drawer in the kitchen and found a small crescent wrench. He dearly wanted to turn on some lights but he also knew he didn’t want any visitors. He stepped into the dark, cramped area and began to gingerly loosen the bolt ring on the closest drum. Someone slammed a car door in the alley and he jumped a foot. He could hear his own heart beating and realized he was perspiring profusely. He paused and took a deep breath and then slowly broke the seal on the lid and raised it very slowly. He peered inside and the hair crawled up the back of his neck. He retreated from the kitchen and called the police. The odor, now strong and pungent, filled the little sandwich shop.
Saturday, July 6th
It was a warm summer evening when Mike and I reported a bit early for the 12:30 AM First Watch roll call. Roll call would be informal—there were only four of us working tonight; a Friday night/Saturday morning summertime shift. With only two teams working, the odds were that at least one would draw a fresh homicide before we finished our tour of duty. The phone rang and the sergeant answered and started taking a notification. When he hung up, he looked at the four of us.
“The 12th District has a body in a garbage can.” He looked at us expectantly waiting for the four of us to determine who was going to take the first assignment of the night.
“We’ll take it,” said Mike. I looked at him quizzically. But moments later we were en route to the Korner Sandwich Shop at 1015 South Western.
“And tell me again, just why we’re taking this job?” I asked facetiously as we drove the nearly deserted streets.
“Because…” he feigned the part of a patient teacher speaking slowly… “It’s summertime and it’s not going to be a body. It’s going to be a dead dog… or rotten meat… or something like that. And that will be our job and the next one… the real murder… will go to the other team.”
It was nearly 1:00 AM when we pulled up to the corner of Taylor and Western and it was immediately apparent that we had something more than rotten meat. There were two beat cars and a field sergeant, along with a wagon, all clustered at the corner. Mike was quiet as we climbed from our car. The one beat car was covering the front door to secure the crime scene. The second beat officers and the sergeant were inside talking to Tony Russo. All the lights were on now and when we entered, we immediately recognized the all too familiar stench.
The field sergeant nodded toward the kitchen and walked back to the tiny closet with us. The beat officers had fully removed the lids of both drums. The contents of one drum appeared to be nothing more than clothing, winter clothing. The other drum revealed two feet sticking up, covered with winter galoshes.
“I told the wagon guys to wait for you guys before emptying the drums,” said the sergeant.
“Empty the drums?” I asked incredulously.
“Yeah, we really don’t know what we have and we have to empty them to transport whatever it is. We don’t know whether we have two bodies, or half a body in each drum, or just one body and some clothing. How will we know until we empty them?”
“In my kitchen?” asked Tony from the front counter. “Please! No!”
“Officer, get that man outside!” shouted the sergeant.
“Sarge, he’s right,” said Mike. “First off, the Crime Lab should empty the drums and secondly, I don’t think they should be emptied here in this kitchen.”
“Well the last time I looked, I was a sergeant,” he said looking down at his sleeve. “And you’re a detective, so I think I win.”
It was one of those moments of marvelous providence…
“Jimmy, Mike, what you guys got?” came a voice from the front counter.
We looked out to see William Keating, the Chief of Organized Crime walking into the kitchen. Keating was the Acting Street Deputy for the night and as such was the ranking department member on the street. More than that, he had been the City-wide Homicide Commander for the past several years, having just recently being promoted to Chief. Mike and I knew him well and he knew us well. Now it was my personal protocol to always address command members by rank whenever in the presence of other officers no matter how well I knew them, but I felt this moment called for an exception.
“Hey Bill!” I said. “We were just talking about that. We’re not sure what we have, but I was thinking to have the Crime Lab shoot some pictures and then take the drums over to the morgue.
“You can’t take anything to the morgue that hasn’t been pronounced dead.” said the obviously irritated sergeant. “And we don’t know what we have!”
“Good point,” said Keating. “Have the wagon transport the drums to the morgue intact. On the way, they can stop at the back door of County and have each drum pronounced dead.”
“No doctor’s going to do that without knowin’ what’s in the drums.” said the sergeant, growing even more agitated.
“You know what?” answered Keating, showing a bit of his own irritation. “I think my guys can handle it.” as he nodded toward Mike and me.
The field sergeant glared at us.
Keating walked to the entrance to the closet and peered in and then looked up. The back wall of the room was actually the backside of a stairwell and the ceiling was unusually high, 12 feet or more. There were very high shelves on the back wall.
“Check all those shelves,” said Keating. “There might be the murder weapon or who knows what up there. And go to the hospital and the morgue with the drums. I don’t want these drums out of your sight and I want you to be there when the drums are emptied. Then give me a call with what you’ve got. I’ll be on the street all night.”
Mike and I looked up at the shelves, wondering how we were going to get high enough to search them.
The Crime Lab arrived and started shooting pictures, while Mike and I looked for a ladder. Tony Russo located a ladder for us and we examined the empty shelves and had the lab shoot pictures. The lab groused.
“What are we doing this for?” they complained as they teetered on the ladder.
“Because the Chief wants us to,” we replied.
As we prepared to leave, we double-checked the very upper areas of the closet again just to be certain we hadn’t missed anything. It was almost 4:00 AM when we sealed the premises and slowly followed the wagon over to the Cook County Hospital. We still didn’t know exactly what was in the drums.
At the back door of County Hospital the wagon pulled up on the driveway close to the entrance while Mike and I parked several car lengths ahead. We walked back to the wagon.
“Why don’t you guys wait here,” we said. “We might have to finesse this a bit.”
“Hell,” they answered. “Just have ‘em pronounce each drum DOA. Ya know… whatever is in this drum is dead and whatever is in that drum is dead.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said laughing. “But there’s the paperwork thing—they do like to know who they’re pronouncing.”
Inside the Emergency Room we grabbed the first nurse we could.
“Hey, we got a stinker in the wagon out back—I don’t think you want us to bring him in. Who can pronounce him for us?”
“That would be Markie,” she said, fluttering her eyes towards a very handsome, very young looking resident on the other side of the room. The blonde, blue eyed doctor appeared to be so much younger than his actual years. I made a note in my notebook, pronounced DOA by Dr. Markie.
“Markie,” she called across the room. “These gentlemen have a stinker for you… out on the driveway.” She fluttered her eyes again but the resident was obviously not interested or amused. As he approached us he took his stethoscope from the front pocket of his scrubs and put it around his neck.
“I don’t think you’re going to need that, doc.” I said.
Mike nudged me and tapped his finger on his left chest and nodded at the resident. I read his nametag: Mark Wolf, ER Resident. I crossed off Markie and wrote “Wolf” and we explained to Dr. Wolf what we had out in the wagon.
“Well… this is highly unusual,” said the resident, trying to salvage some dignity by using his most officious tone. “You know we have to fill out some paperwork and we need to know exactly what you have out there.”
“Well… I suppose…” I said speaking very slowly, “I suppose… we could just bring the drums inside and empty them here rather than the morgue.”
Mark Wolf stiffened a bit and pursed his lips while fingering his stethoscope.
“Well let me take a look before you do that,” he said with all the authority he could muster.
Outside on the driveway, we swung open the wagon door and all the pent up odiferous fumes spilled out into the warm summer air. Doctor Wolf had no choice but to climb into the cramped unvented wagon to at least take a cursory look. He climbed in and took a hurried look into each drum and then, pale as a ghost, he literally staggered out of the wagon to the curb, squatted, and threw up. And then he threw up again, and again, until there was nothing left but wretching. He steadied himself with one hand on the curb and looked up at Mike and me, vomitus spittle dripping off his chin and onto his scrubs, narrowly missing his shiny stethoscope. Mike and I truly felt sorry for him.
“Well, what say, doc? Should we bring the drums in?”
He shook his head feebly and gave a single wave at the wagon.
“No… go,” he said weakly.
“Should we make the time 4:40 AM” asked Mike.
The resident nodded his head and gave an I don’t care wave.
“We’ll call you in a bit and tell you what we find. You can hold the paper until then,” said Mike.
Mark Wolf had crawled up the side of the wagon to a standing position. He was a mess and looked like an underage 4:00 AM Rush Street drunk as he walked slowly back toward the door to the ER. Mike and I took no pleasure in his condition—we knew our turn might be coming soon as we really emptied the drums.
The Crime Lab team was waiting for us when we got to the morgue with the two 55 gallon drums, but before we started, we had the same argument with Freddie, the midnight attendant.
“What do you have? How many toe tags? How do I register this?”
“Freddie! Just give us a few minutes. We’ll come up and let you know as soon as we know.”
In the basement, we laid two body trays on the floor and positioned a body tray at the end of each tray. With the help of the wagon men, the Crime Lab team slowly tipped the contents of each drum onto the trays.
Drum #1 was a medium build male Caucasian fully dressed in heavy winter clothing, but we were surprised to find both legs were missing as we gingerly untangled the clothing. The drums were double checked, the clothing carefully examined, but there were no legs.
The contents of drum #2 was a heavyset male Caucasian fully dressed in heavy winter clothing, wearing the rubber galoshes we had observed earlier at the sandwich shop.
We stood for a moment and pondered the situation. Strangely, the smell did not seem to be overpowering. We were in a large room with excellent ventilation and maybe, just maybe, we were getting used to the disgusting odor. More photos were in order. I won a coin test and elected to go upstairs, leave the Street Deputy a message, notify our office, and get two toe tags from Freddie. The missing legs were a problem and our sergeant elected to send a Second Watch team back to the sandwich shop to do a leg search. Almost as an afterthought, I called County Hospital to notify Dr. Mark Wolf of our findings so he could complete his paperwork.
“Is Doctor Wolf available? This is the homicide detective with some information for him.” I sensed I was talking to the inappropriate flirty nurse. She muffled the phone but I could hear her shout across the room.
“Where’s Markie? Showering? With who?” she giggled when she came back to the phone and put on her professional voice: “I’m sorry, Doctor Wolf is not available.” I left a message and felt even sorrier for the hapless resident. The nurse was sorely in need of some supervisory correction, but that was not my battle.
Back in the morgue basement, the crime lab crew was trying to lift at least partial fingerprints from the badly decomposed bodies. In the far corner of the room, Mike and I spotted a mop bucket and a wringer. Next to the bucket was some “Janitor in a Drum” cleaning solution packaged in a green container shaped exactly like a 55 gallon drum. From that moment on, Mike and I dubbed the case “Janitors in a Drum.”
Neither body bore any jewelry or identification. In the shirt pocket of body #2 we found three checks payable to “Sam Marcello” and signed by Sam Rantis, the deceased owner of the sandwich shop. Once we were able to get them dried out and copied, these checks would be a good starting point for our follow-up investigation.
Back at our office, we spent several minutes in the men’s room scrubbing as best we could. Afterward we felt good enough to grab a cup of coffee as we set ourselves up in a side room to begin our report. The second watch personnel were already out on the street, and one of the teams had broken the Coroner’s seal at the sandwich shop and was beginning their search for body #1’s missing legs.
We started our report, which would wind up as nine typewritten pages, but we made good progress with minimal interruptions… the other dicks claimed we stunk and they wouldn’t come near us. One unwelcome interruption was a call from the “leg search team.” They had found the missing appendages to body #1 in a large Baby Ruth Candy Bar box in a corner of the floor in the same closet where the drums were found. Mike and I were surprised and embarrassed. There was no excuse for an oversight like that, except that we perhaps concentrated too much on the search of the upper shelves.
About an hour later Chief Keating stopped by our office on his way home and stuck his head in our room for a quick briefing on what we had working. He already knew about the legs and I knew I had to at least mention it; perhaps I could turn it back on him, jokingly of course.
“And,” I concluded my briefing of our Janitors in a Drum case, “We sure did miss those legs didn’t we boss?” He stared at me for just a split second and my heart sank… maybe he didn’t see any humor in my wisecrack, but then he laughed out loud.
“Yes we did—we certainly did,” said the Chief with a broad smile.
We finished our report about 1:00 PM—a thirteen hour shift—and we typed our final line at the bottom of page nine:
I called my wife:
“Honey, take my robe and slippers and hang them in the garage. Make sure the washer is empty—I’ve got clothes that need to be washed… the rest dry cleaned.”
“Ya don’t wanna know.”
Less than an hour later I walked in the back door of our home in my bathrobe, carrying my clothes under my arm.
“Where are your shoes?” she asked.
“In the garbage…”
“I really don’t think you want to know honey… at least not right now.”
On Monday, October 21st, 1974 shortly after 1:00 AM, a heat alarm began blinking on a console at the Wells Fargo Central Alarm Company. It indicated excessive temperature in one of two money vaults at the nearby Purolator Armored Express building. Wells Fargo notified the Chicago Fire Department alarm office on the first floor of Chicago’s city hall as well as an official of Purolator. Responding firemen were met at the door by a Purolator guard, armed with a shotgun. The guard, Ralph Marerra, 31, initially refused them entrance, insisting he had no indication of trouble and he was not authorized to admit anyone to the building. That was quickly resolved with the arrival of the Purolator executive.
Upon opening the vaults, firemen were greeted with heat and heavy smoke. Inside the vaults they found gasoline bombs attached to time delay fuses. Only a portion of the gasoline bombs ignited as lack of air in the vaults had quickly extinguished the flames. Purolator officials and police quickly determined that a burglary had taken place and the fires set to cover the crime.
Later that morning, Chicagoans awoke to muddled news accounts of a fire and possible theft at the Purolator Armored Express vaults on the near north side at 127 West Huron Street. When the facts all shook out of the initial confusion it would become the largest cash heist in the history of the world; some $4.3 million in unmarked bills, weighing over 700 pounds had vanished. As a cop of course I devoured all the news accounts of the burglary but I was homicide and reading about it was as close as I would get to the case… or so I thought.
Early on, the thieves were just half a step ahead of Chicago, state and federal law enforcement—but in the first few days that half step was enough to enable them to secrete some of the cash locally and physically move a large portion to the Cayman Islands. But by Thursday the 24th, a task force of local and federal agencies was formed to play catch-up and avoid duplication of efforts. On Sunday, the 27th authorities made their first arrest; the Purolator guard on duty at the time of the theft was arrested at his mother-in-law’s home in Oak Park by Chicago Police and FBI agents.
As the first arrestee in the case, Ralph Marerra was considered to be at risk. He was the inside man and no doubt knew details of the overall plan as well as exactly who was involved. He would be a prime target for people who would want to silence him as well as those who might want to squeeze him for information on the location of the loot. Federal Marshall’s refused to disclose where he was being held except to say that he was “under tight security at a military installation near Chicago.” As dramatic as that sounded, in reality, Ralph Marerra was being held at the Winnebago County Jail in Rockford.
Federal indictments and arrests quickly followed in the subsequent weeks and ultimately 6 individuals were arrested and charged with the Great Purolator Heist. On Thursday, November 21st the FBI recovered $1.4 million under freshly laid concrete in Marerra’s grandmother’s home.
With everyone charged and in custody I fully expected the case to slowly grind its way through the courts, but on Thursday November 29th Ralph Marerra attempted suicide at the Winnebago County jail. Although he was not seriously injured in the attempt, he was promptly transferred to the Cermak Memorial Hospital at the Cook County jail. On Thursday December 5th, my partner Mike and I were ushered into a closed door meeting with our Area Four Homicide Commander.
“You guys been following this Purolator thing?” he asked.
“Just what we read in the newspapers.” was our response.
“Well you’re about to get involved. You know he attempted to hang himself at the Winnebago County Jail and was transferred to Cermak.”
We craned our necks to view a Hospitalization Case Report that was sitting on his desk. This type of report was a catch-all that was used to record unexplained deaths, suicides and attempted suicides among other things. A Hospitalization Case very often provided homicide detectives with interesting investigations that did not involve murder. See “Suicide by Ulcer” on this blog.
“A Hospitalization Case?” I exclaimed. “That happened in Winnebago County—it’s theirs!”
“Will you just calm down and let me explain?” said the boss as he quickly turned the case report face down. “Since early this morning Marerra has been in Intensive Care at the Cook County Hospital—he’s in a coma and in critical condition. And just to stir the pot, our very own Cook County State’s Attorney just held a news conference and said he thinks Marerra was poisoned. So… since he’s been at Cermak for this past week, that makes it ours… or I should say ‘yours.’”
He smiled as he slid the paper across to us. Mike and I scanned the case report in seconds—it told us nothing except that Marerra had been transferred from Cermak to County Hospital.
“Look,” said our Commander. “This is a heater case—there’s a lot of people that would like to see Marerra dead. He may die. We need to get a jump on this. I’ll give you free reign and whatever help you may need, but we need to find out exactly what happened to him at Cermak. If he dies, we’ll have to regroup and meet with the feds. They’re pretty much running the rest of it but we’ll be doing any homicide investigation. Murder is not a federal crime.”
“Listen,” he paused and looked directly at the two of us. “Do it right… wherever it takes you. There’s going to be a lot of people looking at your report. Understood?”
Mike and I nodded solemnly.
One of the neat things about working homicide was that it often forced you to develop microcosms of expertise in order to understand what you were dealing with. This would be one of those cases.
“We’ll need to start at Cermak,” I said. “It’s kinda the crime scene—using the term loosely.”
“They’re expecting you,” he said with a smile that indicated he had anticipated us. “I called the warden, use his name when you get to the gate.”
Warden or not, getting into a jail is almost as difficult as getting out. Mike and I surrendered our weapons, extra bullets and handcuffs and then were subjected to a thorough search before being assigned a guard to escort us to the Cermak Hospital section of the institution. We traversed countless corridors and massive sliding barred doors before arriving at our destination.
The medical staff was subdued but cooperative. At that point in time they also had no idea what had happened to Ralph Marerra while he was in their care. Having attempted suicide in Winnebago County he was placed in restraints once he arrived at Cermak. He was agitated and he was administered drugs to calm him. His room was small and the windows were covered with a heavy mesh screen. Immediately under the window was a radiator that emitted an enormous amount of heat. Even though it was December the room was stifling hot. The nurses explained that the heating system was either full on or full off and on more moderate days all the rooms became very warm.
We learned that Marerra was being medicated with Thorazine, a tranquilizer with a sedating effect and Cogentin, used ostensibly to reduce the side effects of the Throrazine.
On the evening of Wednesday December 4th, Marerra developed a 106º fever, and began to suffer seizures. While nurses sponged him and arrangements were being made to transport him to Cook County Hospital he became comatose and was in critical condition by the time he arrived at the County Hospital intensive care unit.
The medical staff at both Cermak and County were aware that Ralph Marerra was an “at risk” inmate because of the nature of charges against him. They immediately sequestered the drug containers from which he was being medicated. At the Cermak Hospital they impounded the food stuffs that had been served to the inmates. At County Hospital blood, urine and gastric contents were collected for analysis. All samples were sent to the Hektoen Institute, a medical research facility, where the samples would be independently tested. For the time being the bases were covered and we played the waiting game for test results.
Back at our office, Mike and I broke open our personal copy of the Physician’s Desk Reference. In those pre-internet days, the PDR was a dictionary size tome listing all drugs commonly in use by the medical community. The reference book listed dosage, indications, contraindications, precautions and side effects for each drug. We looked up both Thorazine and Cogentin.
The Thorzine precautions stated in part: “Use with caution in persons who will be exposed to extreme heat…”
The Cogentin precautions stated in part: “Cogentin may produce anhidrosis . For this reason it should be given with caution in hot weather.”
We couldn’t find any dictionary with the word anhidrosis so we headed to our primary medical advice resource, the Cook County Morgue, where we collared our favorite neighborhood pathologist. We learned that anhidrosis was the inability to sweat, which could lead to overheating and sometimes to heatstroke—a potentially fatal condition. Could it be that Ralph Marerra suffered a medically induced heatstroke in that extremely warm room at the Cermak Hospital?
“Most likely,” opined the pathologist “But don’t quote me.”
The pieces were falling into place but at this point in time we had no choice but to wait for the lab results from Hektoen Institute.
Four days later the results were in and we interviewed the Chief of Toxicology. She told us that all tests had been completed with no surprises. Marerra’s blood and urine showed levels of Thorazine and Cogentin that would be commensurate with the doses being administered. No traces of any other drugs were found. The containers for the drugs showed them to be pure and of the proper strength. Gastric contents and foodstuffs were negative for any type of spoilage or adulteration. She agreed with our theory of a medically induced heatstroke but she stopped short of letting us use it in our report.
“It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to offer that opinion in an official capacity.” she told us.
So now we had two expert medical interviews that corroborated our “medically induced heatstroke theory,” but neither would go on the record for our official report. There was high placed, authoritative medical agreement as to what had occurred, but knowing it and being able to put it on paper was proving to be a stumbling block. We needed a medical professional willing to authenticate what we knew.
We had one more interview to attempt to officially confirm our theory; the Chief of Medicine at the Cook County Hospital. Mike and I had crossed paths with him on numerous occasions as he practiced hands-on care at County’s Trauma Unit. His medical skill was a phenomenon to watch.
The Chief had been expecting us and he had reviewed the charts. We looked at all the official test results with him and he concurred with those conclusions. There was a pause… this was it… we had to put forth our admittedly layman’s theory for his consideration. We laid it out and then, after several moments of chin stroking, the Chief of Medicine agreed to craft a statement that we could include in our report:
“The symptoms exhibited by Marerra upon his arrival at Cook County Hospital were consistent with those that might be observed in a patient suffering from an anhidrosis due to the cumulative effects of the drugs and a warmer than average ambient temperature of his room. Absent any toxicological evidence to the contrary, this appears to be the best medical explanation available.”
Less than a week after being assigned to the case, Mike and I sat down to type our final report. We had developed a very rudimentary knowledge of Thorazine and Cogentin. We learned more than we ever wanted to know about anhidrosis. Before this case, we had never heard of the Hektoen Institute and the advanced work they did in clinical investigations. Our very small part of The Great Purolator Heist investigation was complete and when we put the pieces together we felt confident we had determined what had happened to Ralph Marerra that fateful week in December, 1974. We felt good when we typed the final line:
Case closed. Non-criminal in nature.
In 1974, this case was the largest cash theft in the history of the world. It has since been surpassed.
Ralph Marerra recovered from his medical ordeal but was left with permanent disabilities both to his speech and his ability to walk.
In March of 1983 he was the last of the group to be convicted for his part in the Purolator heist. He was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison, but with credit for time in custody he was paroled in 1989.
In December 1996, in connection with this incident, Marerra was awarded $650,000 in a medical malpractice suit against Cook County.
As of this writing, of the $4.3 million stolen, $1.2 million has never been recovered.
Good judgment comes from experience,
and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.
It was December 23rd and Tony and I were working midnights on Beat 1801. Each of us had less than four months on the street, but the department in their infinite wisdom saw fit to pair us as regular partners. Make no mistake, we were sharp—at least we thought so—but woefully inexperienced. We did however have an excellent beat sergeant who shepherded us in an almost fatherly manner, not to mention a field lieutenant who I would later come to recognize as fitting the true definition of the word “mentor.” But that being said, as fine as these two supervisors were, they were certainly not able to be nearby at all times, and in urban law enforcement, situations can turn disastrous in a split second. For Tony and me, it very nearly did so this particular night.
We reported for the 11 PM roll call and by 11:30 we were on the street. In those days, 1801 was probably the largest beat in 018, covering the far northwest corner of the district, roughly North Avenue to Fullerton and the river east to Halsted Street. We started a lazy zigzag pattern, cruising the nearly deserted streets. Aggressive, preventive patrol was the department mantra but the word “aggressive” always seemed to be a non sequitur to me. There was nothing exactly aggressive about leisurely driving the streets and chatting about nothing in particular. At 1:15 AM I was driving slowly northwest on Clybourn toward the triple intersection with Sheffield and Willow where we were stopped by a traffic light.
On the far northwest corner of Willow and Clybourn was Ke-K’s Drive-in, a non-descript sandwich shop on a triangular lot set back from the street with a small parking lot out front. It was just past their closing time and dark except for the glow from the neon light. The proprietor was at the cash register collecting the night’s receipts. I turned on our spotlight and swept it in his direction—just a friendly hello, we’re here gesture. We would be looking for a return wave. My grip on the handle slipped a bit and the light momentarily swept across and then past him. I changed my grip and brought the light back to the cash register. There was nobody there! Tony and I stiffened and leaned forward in unison.
“Did you see him?”
“Yeah, where the hell did he go?”
“Maybe he’s not who we think he is!”
Our pulses quickened as I killed the lights on the squad and coasted silently into the parking lot. It was only then we saw the gaping hole in the broken plate glass window. Tony beat me to the mic.
“Go 1801,” was the dispatcher’s immediate response.
“Yeah, squad, we have an on view burglary in progress in Ke-K’s drive-in, Willow and Clybourn. Offender in the store—we’ll need an assist to cover the building.”
“Attention cars in 18 and on the city-wide, 1801 is calling for an assist… that’s a burglary in progress at Clybourn and Willow.”
Well… we really only needed one or two cars to cover the building while we entered and searched for the burglar, but with that city-wide call we knew Ke-K’s lot would be full in less than two minutes. Tony and I stationed ourselves at opposite corners of the building, but there did not appear to be any other entrance or exit except the front door…and the broken plate glass window. In moments the scene was a madhouse of squads and very shortly Tony and I found ourselves inside the sandwich shop, revolvers drawn, with several other officers.
The cash register drawer was open. The store was small and cramped but there were a lot of nooks and crannies in which to hide. Slowly we cleared them all, save for one. There was a washroom door behind the counter and the door was either jammed or locked from the inside. Tony and I pounded hard on the door.
“Police! Come out and keep your hands where we can see them!”
The restricted area leading to the door made it impossible to stand to the side. Standing directly in front of the door was not a good tactical situation and Tony and I struggled to keep ourselves as much to the side as possible. Was there more than one bad guy? Did they have the owner in there with them? Were they armed? Were they high on drugs? All unanswered questions that only added to the extreme pressure of the moment.
Silence. More pounding.
“Come out a’ there, asshole!”
There were no supervisors on the scene yet, but from behind us came the voice of a senior and more experienced officer we both recognized.
“Put a couple of shots through the door,” he said. “Go ahead, shoot!”
I glanced at the door, at my revolver and then at my rookie partner. He glanced back at me, his rookie partner. I can’t say how long I may have considered the suggestion—perhaps only for a split second, but it was wrong on so many levels. It was a two-bit burglary of a hamburger joint, a forcible felony to be sure, where deadly force might possibly be used. But department policy strictly prohibited shooting through doors. Deadly force was a last resort measure in life or death circumstances. This did not qualify, no matter what we might think… unless something happened to escalate the situation. Tony and I were sharp enough to know all that. Our inexperience and the adrenaline coursing through our veins was fortunately not enough to cloud our judgment in a moment stress. There was a pause for a second or two and then a canine unit pulled to the front door of the building, the dog barking excitedly.
“Nah,” I said loudly. “Let the dogs go in and get him,” intentionally using the plural. Just how the dog could accomplish that through that locked door was unanswered of course.
“No! I’m coming out!” cried a weak scared voice from behind the door.
Dogs were more convincing than bullets?
“Keep your hands in the air where we can see them!”
A scared, slightly built 17 year old stepped out with his hands above his head. He wore a thin, ragged winter coat covering nothing more than a tee-shirt and jeans. He exited without incident, crying and shaking with fright. We cuffed and searched him then turned him over to the wagon men. The young man was about to spend his first Christmas away from home. We never asked him why the dog frightened him more than a couple of shots through the door.
Tony and I talked about the incident at length later. We agreed that the suggestion of the senior and far more experienced officer was completely out of order, even if it was said in jest, or as a bluff for the benefit of the burglar. How could he have possibly known that, in the stress of the moment, we two rookies wouldn’t have thought it to be a reasonable course of action? It could have been career ending for us of course and maybe life ending for the 17 year old. But in that split second, without benefit of discussion or deliberation, we made the correct decision and we survived to serve and protect for several more decades.
The incident turned out to be our first Honorable Mention and a Salute from the Burglary Unit in the Daily Bulletin, even though, for just that instant, it could have become a complete disaster.
“All’s Well That Ends Well” is the name of a play by the great bard, written over 400 years ago. It still rings true today.