Death by Broken Fingers

Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”

–Will Rogers

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.”

“1818, ten-four.”

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.

No response.

“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.

“Officer Padar?”

“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.


17 Comments on “Death by Broken Fingers”

  1. Kent Erickson says:

    Coppers are the BEST at busting other peoples chops!

  2. Chris Karney says:

    I am always pleasantly surprised to see an item from Jim in my inbox, thank you for the story. I had something similar happen years ago myself.

  3. John Klodnicki says:

    Always did like your dry sense of humor, (remember the Timex watch on the guy who jumped in front of an El train?) Keep up the good work.

  4. Greg Bernacki (RET CPD) says:

    I think a lot of us had something like this or similar happen. After it’s (completely) over the kidding around starts, but when you are waiting for results it becomes all encompassing. Again another gem that brought back memories. Keep on writing.

  5. Richard says:

    Could it be that Ramsey was sober but his sudden illness gave the appearance of drunkiness? Thanks for another 018th District tale Jim.

  6. It’s why most prisoners with altered mental status get a checkup from the paramedics these days. “Yes, the patient has AMS and has an odor consistent with alcohol on or about his person. I cannot rule out injury, brain hemorrhage, metabolic derangement or other cause of the AMS however.”

  7. Fern. 012 tact guy. says:

    “Back on the street in little over an hour.”
    Man those were the days. A gun pinch now with all the protocols takes a very long time. I bet it was just two pieces of paper vs today’s packet.

  8. phil sangirardi says:

    Jim how do you remember all the details? I cannot remember my name sometimes but then I am much older than you. As always a great story. Keep them coming.

  9. Barbara says:

    How times have changed. Jerome Clement, East Chicago, Indiana; a diabetic seizure looked like drunkenness to the police…sad story all around.

    • jimpadar says:

      There are so many things that can mimic alcohol intoxication, sometimes it is very difficult for even a medically training individual to make a determination on the street.

      Thanks for reading Barbara.

      • Barbara says:

        Just want to make sure you know I wasn’t criticizing. My mom had an aneurysm and I know what happens; most folks die almost immediately. Just saying that it is good nowadays of the awareness of the other possible causes (diabetes) of what looks like drunkenness.
        I truly enjoy your stories. Raised on the South Side, but a Hoosier at marriage, altho 5 of my sons lived in Chicago (3 still do). I still believe I was raised (born ’53) in the greatest city, and love reading anything to do with it!! Keep up the good work, you have a way with words!!

  10. Bill Kushner says:

    Your stories resonate loudly! In spite of the craziness that I am dealing with at my new Department, a dose of your reality helps lighten my mood! Stay safe my friend!

  11. Mike says:

    Thanks for the story Jim.
    I had a death in custody when I was just off probation, maybe a week or so, but my partner was still on. I was fairly lighthearted, nervous of course, but ok since we had done nothing wrong. My partner was outside chain-smoking and looking like it was over for him. Amazing to me how the more you hear cops tell stories the more similarities there are in experience.

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks for reading Mike. My feeling over the past couple years on this blog is that the “police experience” in pretty much universal, across all jurisdictions.

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