Janitors in a Drum—Part 1Posted: March 22, 2013 Follow @JimPadar
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.”