Shootout at the High Roller’s Pool HallPosted: April 15, 2011
Note: Communications tapes of this incident are included at the end of this story.
“There is nothing better than getting shot at and missed. It’s really great.”
— General James (Mad Dog) Mattis
It was 1974 on a cold February afternoon in Chicago as I headed for the 4:30 roll call at Maxwell Street, Area Four Detective Headquarters. The red brick building at Maxwell and Morgan was built in 1889 and was a classic old Chicago Police Station. The single long flight of marble steps leading to the second floor detective squad room had paths worn an inch or two deep at each side rail where cops with bad guys in tow had trudged over the previous 85 years. It would become known to a nation of television fans as the “Hill Street Blues” precinct because this is where the opening scenes of the popular 1980’s show were filmed. To those of us who worked the murders it was just Maxwell Street Homicide.
I would be with my steady partner Mike Shull. Mike and I worked together with comfort and confidence that had developed after spending many months together, cruising the west side in search of the killer du jour. And as a bonus he had an offbeat, intellectual sense of humor that made our hours together pass quickly.
“Padar, Shull… you’ve got 13,” announced the sergeant as he read the assignment sheet. That meant our radio call for evening would be 7413. Seven designated the Detective Division, four was Area Four, and thirteen would be our homicide car for the eight-hour tour. It wouldn’t be the last time that the number 13 figured in events of the night.
As was customary, incoming cases would be rotated among all the homicide units working that night. My wife, already hospitalized, was scheduled for surgery early the following morning and I wanted to be sure to visit with her before they took her to the OR. We asked the sergeant for the first assignment of the night so as to lessen the chance of getting stuck with a late job. He obliged us a little over an hour later with a shooting victim at the Cook County Hospital. We interviewed the victim of a minor gunshot wound along with two witnesses, put out an all-call for the offender and stopped by a few locations he was known to frequent. Being a chilly February night it was highly unlikely that we would draw another assignment. Our chances of having to work overtime were now very slim.
As the tour of duty drew to a close, a forecast “light snow” started to dust the drab west side landscape. Mike and I decided to make one last semi-circle of the Area and then head into the office for the 12:30 AM check-off roll call. I’d be home and in bed by 1 AM. It was shortly after midnight and the radio was dead quiet and the streets were deserted as we coasted to a stop at the westbound traffic light at Madison and Homan. A man ran down the center of the street and when his feet hit the ground there was a momentary puff of the new fallen snow. He left a trail of giant footprints running straight toward our car. As a long time ghetto resident, he could spot an unmarked squad at a hundred yards.
Mike glanced at me as Mr. Citizen approached our car; “This guy done jus’ got robbed.” said Mike.
I rolled down my driver’s window. It was exactly 13 minutes past midnight. In police time, 0013 hours.
“In da pool hall! Dey dere right now stickin’ up everybody!”
“How many are there?” I asked.
“Dey’s like fo’ of em. An’ dey got guns!”
“Okay, okay we got it.” I replied as I picked up the mike from the dashboard. “Seventy-four-thirteen emergency.”
“Go ahead seven-four-one three,” was the instant response from our City Wide 2 dispatcher.
“Yeah, there’s a robbery-in-progress…” I glanced across Homan to the south side of the street through the snow. No chance of getting an address. “…at Madison and Homan in the pool hall.”
I killed the headlights and pulled our car slowly across Homan to the north curb of Madison directly across from the pool hall.
“Madison and Homan in the pool hall, a robbery-in-progress,” barked the dispatcher.
A moment before Mike and I could have believed we were the only police unit on the streets of Chicago’s west side but the quiet radio jumped to life as the Task Force and Canine Units on our frequency responded in a flurry of overlapping jumbled transmissions, sirens screaming in the background. There was lots of help out there!
City-wide dispatch took the air again, “All right, quite a few units pretty close to that, they’re comin’ there, so units be careful now, that’s a robbery-in-progress called in by seven-four-one- three, that’s a homicide car. Madison and Homan in the pool hall.”
Those were the last words we heard as we got out of the car, leaving our communications firmly affixed to control head mounted under the dashboard. In 1974 the department was in the final stages of transitioning from car-mounted radios to personal radios that would clip to your equipment belt. The Detective Division was last on the list for the new radios. In the parlance of the day, we were “leaving the air.”
As we left the squad, we looked across the street at the “High Roller’s #4 Pool Hall.” The plate glass windows were completely fogged with condensation. It would be best to stay on the north side of the street and use the squad for at least partial cover. Mike and I drew our 2″ barrel, five shot, snub nose revolvers and rested our arms on the roof of the car as we peered intently through the light snow at the doorway of the pool hall. A total of ten rounds of ammo against four armed robbers seemed to put us at a decided disadvantage. By now our city-wide dispatcher had notified the district dispatcher and in the distance we heard the distinctive wail of city-wide and district units approaching. Good ol’ Area Four! But for a few seconds the scene was almost idyllic; the red neon of the pool hall reflecting on the undisturbed snow softly falling on a deserted tranquil street. It would have made a great urban streetscape painting that you might find in an upscale gallery on North Michigan Avenue.
We didn’t have long to wait before all that changed. Four robbers with dark clothing strangely punctuated with red ski masks burst through the door onto the sidewalk, broad shouldering each other as they competed for space in their haste to exit.
“Halt, police!” We yelled to the very much-surprised group. They paused in a moment of indecision. One of them raised a weapon, and fired a shot in our direction. It went wild into the park behind Mike and me. They too heard the sirens in the distance and while I have no way of knowing if it figured into their decision, they turned east and as a group fled southeast through the parking lot next to the pool hall. Using the squad roof to steady our arms and with a firm two handed grip, Mike and I squeezed off several rounds. The department’s regulation high pressure ammunition was designed for four inch barrel revolvers and as a result each round squeezed out of the two inch snub-nose seemed to envelop my hands in a burst of flame and unburnt powder as it spewed from the cylinder and barrel. One, two, three rounds I counted and 16-year-old Tyree Brewston hit the ground as if a Bears fullback had hit him. In reality it was only a 38 Special +P Hollow Point entering his left buttock and exiting his scrotum. Tyree wasn’t going any further tonight but his older companions fled south on Homan never looking back. I made a mental note that I had only two rounds left if should they return for their wounded companion. In retrospect it was a ludicrous thought… attempting to imply a Marine mentality to a rag-tag group of ghetto robbers. I fingered the bullet pouch on my belt for a split second but the approaching sirens convinced me that a reload would not be necessary.
The first assist unit was now pulling up, westbound on Madison. They stopped between the parking lot and us. Fate ruled that they just happened to be a canine unit. With a light snow falling, and two dogs, pursuit shouldn’t be a trick.
“Shots fired, shots fired!” I shouted to them. “We’ve got one down in the parking lot.” I was hoping that they would relay the information to dispatch. Our radio was firmly attached inside our locked vehicle. Unfortunately that did not happen. With a fluid situation that was still developing, the initial units arriving elected to take care of business on the street and pursue the escaping robbers. The result was several minutes of confusion for the poor dispatchers. The second assist unit was a district beat car and they cautiously approached Tyree who lay writhing in the snow. They collared a passing wagon for transport to the hospital. Mike and I headed into the pool hall. We had just shot a guy. The next order of business was to corral victims and witnesses and phone our boss!
Time swirled around us. The scene was almost surreal but neither Mike nor I would recall any excitement or panic. Behind the scenes our citywide dispatcher had notified the district zone dispatcher of the robbery-in-progress, still unaware that shots had been fired. Additional 11th District beat cars were en route from all directions. The wagon loaded up Tyree and headed to Mount Sinai Hospital. As more beat cars arrived with lights and sirens the street was literally wall-to-wall squad cars parked askew, mars lights still flashing. The previous scene of a lone unmarked homicide car pulling quietly to the curb had been transformed in a matter of a few moments to one worthy of the ten o’clock news. Given the hour however the news crews were thankfully tucked in for the night.
We started to gather vital information, victims, witnesses, and addresses. Canine and Task Force reported apprehending two additional offenders. It was becoming apparent that several of our robbery victims and witnesses had disappeared in the confusion. Our concern was very real… we had just shot a man and our cast of eyewitnesses was slipping away. We heard some talk that the canine unit had also recovered a weapon. In the pool hall Mike grabbed a personal radio from a district officer.
“Seventy-four-thirteen on the Zone…” Mike called.
“Seventy-four thirteen go ahead,” responded the District dispatcher.
“We’re here at the scene of the robbery in the pool hall, and any beat cars that are out in this area workin’ on this, would they bring the patrons back to this location for interview. Any of those beat cars that have any of those patrons and victims of the robbery would they please bring them back to the scene.”
Out of a packed pool hall of multiple victims we would wind up with only six robbery complainants/witnesses. Weeks later, only one would show up in court to testify to the robbery.
It was a full 18 minutes before we were able to return to our radio and give a report to our City-Wide 2 dispatcher.
Outside once again in our squad I keyed the mike, “Seven-four-one-three, do we have the canine car that recovered that weapon from that robbery-in-progress? Please return to the scene here with that weapon.”
“Yeah he is on the way to ya and also four-thirteen clarify… were there shots fired by the police?
It was now almost 20 minutes into the incident and our citywide dispatcher and the district dispatcher had no details of the shooting. The ten year old “state of the art” communications center was located in the headquarters building just south of Chicago’s loop. District zone dispatchers were housed on one floor and the city-wide dispatchers were on another floor and the detective units at the scene had radios, but they were firmly anchored to the dashboard of their vehicles. Such was the state of Chicago Police communications in the mid-seventies.
“Yes, there were shots fired by the police,” I replied “…and there is one offender who is hit, he is on his way to Mount Sinai Hospital, his condition appears to be good at the present time.”
“All right, is this by four-thirteen?”
“The shots were fired by four-thirteen, that is correct.”
“All right, were there any shots fired back at the police?”
“Yes sir, there were shots fired at us,” I said.
“All right that’s what I had to find out here… ah four-thirteen… there’s no police officers injured though?”
“Negative, no police officers injured.”
There was a flurry of questions, who was going where, command personnel who were responding and then there was a momentary break in radio traffic. An anonymous unit broke silence.
“Police one… offenders nothing”
Back at the Maxwell Street station there was all the fanfare that accompanies a police shooting; Commanders, Deputy Superintendents, Internal Affairs, States Attorneys, and a court reporter to take official statements from Mike and me. We would later recall that we probably experienced more stress during the next several hours than we did in those fateful few seconds on West Madison Street.
The “occasional snow” continued falling throughout the night. I glanced anxiously at my watch. It was after 5 AM and my wife’s surgery was scheduled in less than three hours. I felt a need to go home before heading for the hospital and the snow would be a problem. After a few consultations the bosses agreed to let Mike complete the remaining paperwork and I was released from my tour of duty shortly after 5:30 AM.
The occasional snow now amounted to several inches but I hit the expressway before the rush hour and made it home while it was still dark. In the bathroom I scrubbed my hands vigorously and discovered tiny reddish black marks that burned under the soap and brush. I dashed cold water in my face and then I tiptoed into the boy’s room and touched each one of them. Chris 5, Craig 3½, and Jay just 8 weeks old were sleeping soundly. I stroked their backs ever so gently. For the first time I felt some emotion as tears welled up. I brushed my eyes and was surprised at the faint smell of gunpowder residue that remained on my hands.
My mother-in-law was taking care of the children… “Jim?” she called from the other bedroom. “Are you okay?”
I moved to the hallway before answering, “Yes,” I whispered. “I had to work late… it’s snowing pretty good. I’m heading out to the hospital.”
It was going to be along day.
Notes on the communications tapes
The communications tapes here are an edited composite of both the City Wide and District Zone radio traffic. The original length of almost 40 minutes has been reduced to less than 14 minutes by eliminating blank times and radio traffic that did not concern this incident. Note that the dispatcher’s microphone is always live and as a result some of what you hear is dispatcher conversation that was not necessarily broadcast. It is included to illustrate their occasional frustration with lack of detailed information from the street. To listen, click on Play Button below: