Two Very Different Christmases by Jay

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* * * *

I awoke to a very familiar sound.  It was that little thump that I’ve grown so very accustomed to; the sound of my four-year-old daughter’s little feet hitting the floor as she slides out of bed.  On this day that sound brings a smile to my face.  I am not a morning person, however, my daughter is and this morning she will be even more bright and cheery than usual.  Today is Christmas, December 25th, 2013.  The pitter-patter of those little feet grows louder as my daughter runs into our room.  I smile and tense up just slightly knowing that she is about to jump into bed with me and my wife.  Her bright eyes, giant smile and big out-of-control bed-head make my grin grow wider.

“Did Santa come last night?” she asks.

“We have to wait for your brother to wake up and then we’ll check,” I reply.

She climbs under the covers and nestles in as I yawn and stretch, still tired from all of the Christmas Eve festivities.  I’m fortunate this year to have been off last night and today, but I lean over and grab my department issued Blackberry and start to check my emails.  I typically receive an email and numerous updates for each shooting, homicide or major event that has occurred across the city.  As I scroll through looking for anything that may have happened overnight in my area of responsibility, one catches my eye.  My fellow officers have responded to a call of a homicide on the 2500 block of North Kildare in the city’s Hermosa neighborhood.  Upon arrival they have apparently discovered a dismembered body in the basement.  I put down my Blackberry and think to myself, there will be a story behind this one.

The previous evening, Christmas Eve, was spent rushing from one family party to another.  My four-year-old twins were dressed in their best duds and stayed busy playing with their cousins, many of whom they haven’t seen since last Christmas.  My wife and I kept busy chatting and catching up with family we see far too infrequently.  After watching a play given by the kids in the family, complete with an emcee, makeshift costumes and a song from the recently released movie “Frozen”, we pack them back into the car and head to the next family party.  The snow is falling and the roads are getting more and more slippery, but we can’t be late.  We’ve heard that Santa Claus is coming and we can’t miss him.  It was another party with plentiful food, good cheer and a couple of presents from Santa just to whet the kids’ appetites.  As the evening came to a close, we hustled home, put out cookies and milk for Santa and carrots for his reindeer. We put the kids to bed and began bringing presents up from the basement and placing them under the tree.  By the time we made it to bed we were exhausted.

About eight miles southeast, Alex Valdez was slowly becoming exhausted as well, but for very different reasons.

About six months prior, eighteen-year-old Alex Valdez moved into the basement apartment on the 2500 block of North Kildare with his aunt and her boyfriend, Sylvestri Diaz.  Alex was to keep a job and contribute to the household expenses; however, he had recently stopped working and was asked to move out.  The tensions came to a culmination on Christmas Eve while Alex’s aunt was away at a holiday party.  Alex sat in the basement apartment drinking beer and becoming increasingly angry as the thoughts of the impending eviction loomed in his head.  At some point Sylvestri Diaz came home to the apartment and had Alex accompany him to the liquor store to buy more beer, but not before Alex hid a hammer by the front door.

Upon returning from the store, Alex retrieved the hammer and smashed Sylvestri in the head several times until he was dead.  But the brutality had just begun.  Alex cut off Sylvestri’s head and arms with a saw and used a butcher knife to slice off the ears, nose and mouth.  The chest of this dismembered body was sliced open from neck to pelvis.  The eyes were gouged from their sockets with Alex’s bare hands.  The head, ears and nose were left on his aunt’s bed, a “Christmas present,” according to Alex Diaz.  After becoming physically drained from this mutilation, Alex called 911 to report a dead body.  When asked if he had tried CPR, Alex simply laughed and told the 911 operator that his victim had been decapitated.  Responding officers arrived and found Alex Diaz outside covered in blood.  Diaz admitted to his crime, was placed in custody and directed officers to a horrific Christmas morning crime scene.

Details of this crime slowly came to light throughout Christmas day.  I was again with my family at another two holiday parties, but with each news update my thoughts returned to the officers who responded and made the gruesome Christmas morning discovery.  As I was surrounded by family and close friends I wondered how these officers were coping with their holiday.  Did they stop at a bar on the way home to clear their heads?  Will their families even know where they have just come from and what they’ve just seen?  Will they talk about it or lock it away until it disappears?  Will they contemplate man’s inhumanity and the vicious death they had just witnessed or will they focus on the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ and the promised salvation and everlasting life to come?  Whatever their response, I pray for them to recover quickly, move forward and cherish and embrace their loved ones on this Christmas Day and every Christmas Day to come. I grab my son and daughter as they scurry by, to give them an extra hug, but they squirm loose—they have new toys to explore.

Life goes on… in two different worlds.


Order in the Court

Author’s Note: Names have been changed or omitted to protect the foolish.

Many people are most accustomed to a grandiose vision of a courtroom, rich mahogany panels, distinguished black-robed judges, lawyers in freshly pressed suits and ties and police officers in crisp class A uniforms. On a daily basis, the reality was something entirely different—especially during the late 60’s and 70’s at the Cook County Criminal Court at 2600 South California on Chicago’s near south side.

Branch 57 was Narcotics Court and most mornings it was a zoo. Preliminary hearings were held here for the overnight arrests. Many of the officers in court had spent the previous hours working, or if not, they were short on sleep, having drawn the short straw on who was going to attend court.

Street uniforms were the order of the day, often soiled and dusty with the flotsam and jetsam that accumulates during a tour of duty on the streets of Chicago. No trials were held here, the judge listened to the circumstances of the arrest and rendered a decision as to whether or not the defendant should be held for trial.

The judge was a character who stood and walked more than he sat. His robe was seldom closed and when he gestured, wildly at times, it would fly open revealing an unkempt open collared shirt. He drank his coffee during the proceedings, but the cup always had a tight lid lest the hot liquid spill while he was flailing his arms.

George Grady, the state’s attorney was a sharp young man who would later also become a judge. He was not afraid to argue his point with great enthusiasm.

He guided one officer through the circumstances of his case:

“What was the nature of the call officer?”

“It was a man with a gun in the pool hall.”

“And will you tell the court what you found when you arrived on the scene?”

“Well we did not find a man with a gun, but we observed the defendant coming out of the men’s room.”

“And then what did you do?”

“We patted down his outer clothing and felt a suspicious bulge in his trouser pocket.”

“And did you have an occasion to determine what the bulge was?” asked Grady.

“”Yes sir,” replied the officer. “It was what is known on the street as a nickel bag of marijuana.”

“The state rests your honor.”

“That’s it?” asked the judge spreading his arms apart. “That’s all you’re going to give me?”

“I said the state rests judge.”

“Then I say no probable cause. That’s an illegal search.”

“Your honor! How can you say that?” responded Grady raising his voice. “They were responding to a man with a gun call!”

“You mean to tell me, Mister Grady, that if the police received a call of a man with a gun in this courtroom, they could search everybody?” The judge was shouting now, walking and waving, his robe flying.

“No, of course not, that’s different.”

“Then tell me Mister Grady,” still shouting. “What’s the difference between this courtroom and a pool hall?”

“Very little your honor—very little!”

The judge stopped in mid stride and whirled to face the state’s attorney. He paused a moment as laughter rippled through the courtroom and then he joined the laughter.

“Point taken Mister Grady, I guess I asked for that, but the case is dismissed.”

* * * *

In another courtroom and defendant had been found guilty of burglary and the judge sentenced him to two years in the Vandalia Correctional Center.

“But your honor,” protested the defendant. “Today is my birthday. It’s not right to sentence someone to prison on their birthday!”

The judge turned to the state’s attorney.

“Is that right? Is today his birthday?”

The state’s attorney paged through the arrest records.

“Yes, your honor, today is his 18th birthday.”

The judge rose. The odd conversation had captured the spectator’s attention. Would the judge even consider modifying the sentence based upon the fact that it was the defendant’s birthday? All eyes were on the judge as, still standing, he leaned over the rail toward the young man and began to sing in a rich baritone:

“Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Two years in Vandalia,
Happy Birthday to you!”

* * * *

It was a summertime homicide trial in the same building. We were on one of the upper floors and the heat was nearly suffocating. Two large fans ran in a vain attempt to cool the participants. I was on the stand and after questions from both the prosecutor and the defense attorneys, the judge stopped me as I was about to step down.

“Be seated detective,” he said. “I want to ask you a question”

I turned in my seat and for the first time I had a full view of him and it was a sight to behold. The judge had hiked his robe up to his waist, rolled his pants above his knees and his socks down to his shoes. His knees were widely spread and he was fanning his lower body with the morning paper.

I don’t remember what his question was, nor do I remember what I answered. But when I returned to my seat and looked back at him, he was a picture of dignity and decorum —at least from the waist up.


The Wrong Guy

Just after midnight the black limo with heavily tinted windows pulled to the curb in front of White’s Shrimp House on Chicago’ west side. Before the chauffeur could exit, Leon Woods opened the door, stepped out to the sidewalk and turned to help Theresa Dodson from the car. Before she could slide across the seat to grab his hand, Woods turned suddenly and exchanged words with a young man. A shot punctuated the Saturday night noises and for a moment everyone was quiet. Woods crumpled to the ground, curled into a fetal position and moaned softly. The young man fled east towards Kedzie Avenue.

“Woody! Woody!” screamed Theresa as she stumbled from the car and knelt next to her boyfriend.

The chauffeur ran around the front of the car and started east after the gunman, but he had disappeared, so he ran into White’s to call the police.

I was working days with another new homicide detective. Even though we were both experienced street cops, between the two of us, Jason Moore and I had less than 18 months homicide experience, but we perceived ourselves to be sharp and we worked well together.

At the Sunday 8:30 AM roll call the Sergeant called our names.

“Padar, Moore, you guys have a fresh one from last night. We just got the call that he died on the table at Cook County. See the midnight crew, they can bring you up to speed. The midnight detectives were just finishing a lengthy Aggravated Battery Supplemental Report when they got the word that Woods had expired.

“You guys are fresh,” they told Jason and me. “Why don’t you retype this and reclassify to a Homicide/Murder Supplemental?”

Jason and I looked at on another… we were new but not dumb and the last thing we wanted to do was spend the next several hours retyping someone else’s report.

“Why don’t you guys just retype the first page reclassifying? The rest of the pages will be the same. We’ll cover the new information in our report at the end of the day.”

They looked at us as if we were trying to trick them somehow.

“That’ll  work,” said the older detective after a moment’s reflection.”

Jason and I headed out the door to re-interview Theresa Dodson.

“Hey! You guys!” shouted the midnight crew. “They found this under his body… don’t know what it means, but we’re going to inventory it as possible evidence.

We stopped and looked at an extension cord that had been wrapped in black electrical tape.

“Looks like a homemade blackjack. Are we sure it was his?”

“We don’t know, but it was under his body, so most likely it belonged to him.”

After some difficulty, we found Theresa at her sister’s apartment where she had gone after leaving the hospital while Woods was still in surgery. Thankfully, she had been notified of Woods death before we arrived. Although distraught, she agreed to talk with us about the shooting. She seemed sincere and anxious, but she couldn’t tell us much.

It was the one year anniversary of their first date and her boyfriend wanted to make it a special night. He hired a limousine and driver and they were to spend the night hopping from club to club. Around midnight they were hungry and they stopped at White’s Shrimp House for a late night snack. Her dear Woody was shot as he exited the limo.

She had the impression that Woods had exchanged words with the shooter, but she didn’t hear the conversation. After the shooting, she went to Woods side and did not pay any attention to the gunman. She thought he appeared young and was wearing jeans and a tan tee-shirt. Woods lay moaning softly until the ambulance arrived—he did not speak. The homemade blackjack belonged to Woody—he carried it for protection. To the best of her knowledge, he did not own any firearms.

Leon Woods worked with his father in a wholesale import business on Pulaski Road. It was family owned and he spent 5 ½ to 6 days a week at the warehouse. He had no enemies to her knowledge.

As we were concluding Theresa’s interview, we received word that Woods’ autopsy was about to begin and since our “morgue man” was day-off, our office sent us to observe.

As we arrived, Woods had just been moved from a morgue tray to an examination table. There was evidence of the large closed surgical incision, but as the diener (the pathologist’s assistant)  opened the abdominal cavity, it was filled with free blood. A single bullet hole was located about four inches above the naval. After clearing the blood, examination of the liver showed evidence of a lacerating bullet wound and attempted surgical repair.

“They should have had a successful outcome… it’s unusual for County to drop the ball on a case like this,” said the pathologist as he gave us a running narrative.

He gently removed the liver and handed it off to the diener.

“Ah, but they were doomed along with Mister Woods,” said the doctor as he suctioned residual blood .

“Look here!” he exclaimed. The bullet transversed the liver and lodged at the edge of the anterior spine, but look, look right here.”

He took the handle of the scalpel and gently probed the aorta, exposing a small ¼” laceration.

“The bullet nicked the aorta. The surgeons were dealing with a blood filled abdominal cavity and a lacerated liver. But hidden deep behind the liver was a second more serious hemorrhage source, the aorta. I doubt anyone could have saved him.”

After photographs, he gently removed what appeared to be a .25 caliber bullet. We would be looking for a .25 caliber semi-automatic pistol as the murder weapon, but if it was a semi-auto, where was the shell casing?

We checked back with the office where the midnight crew had finished their report. No casing was mentioned—in fact, the scene had not been processed as a homicide. At the time of the initial investigation, Leon Woods was a shooting victim, not a murder victim.

Jason and I headed back to the sidewalk in front of White’s Shrimp House. With the aid of bright sunlight, we found a shiny.25 caliber shell casing nestled in a crack of the sidewalk. The mobile crime lab responded, took pictures and recovered the casing.

We looked to the east. Witnesses had reported that the shooter had fled in that direction and quickly disappeared. Several doors down was a shoe shine parlor. It was a large establishment with about a dozen shine stations along one wall and chairs for waiting customers along the other. Manned mostly by teenagers from the neighborhood, it was a thriving business. The owner did not tolerate alcohol or drug use on the premises and the boys worked hard and probably made a good buck. It was favored by cop and civilian alike, some coming from great distances. In my estimation, it was by far the best shoe shine in the city.

Jason and I decided we both needed a shine and as we walked in we were immediately descended upon by the boys.

“Shine officer?” they shouted over one another. They recognized detectives and uniformed officers with equal accuracy. They knew that the owner would not charge the police and most officers tipped generously, double the cost of the shine. We were desirable customers.

We settled into our chairs and casually inquired if our polishers had been working last night. We dared not ask anything more with the other boys all ears. We finished and tipped the boys and approached the owner at the counter. He waved us out, indicating that the shines were on the house, but we stopped and asked him if he was there last night at the time of the shooting.

Yes, he had been there, no, no one had seen the shooting from inside the shop. Yes, he would call if he learned anything. Fat chance. We left business cards.

Jason and I had inherited the case from the midnight crew. It was technically their case, but it would be difficult for them to do any in depth investigation during midnight hours. We tackled the assignment with great enthusiasm.

Witnesses were re-interviewed and then interviewed again. The best of the lot was the limo driver who described the shooter as 5” 10”, dark complexion, wearing a tan tee-shirt and blue jeans. He had run east on Madison and disappeared quickly.

After a week, the investigation languished. We felt the key to the case was in the shoe shine parlor. It was a community gathering place and while the gunman might not be one of the boys, we felt that they knew who it was and in fact we strongly suspected that the shooter may have fled through the store to the alley to make good his escape. But no one was talking.

Eventually, our nearly constant pressure in the 3200 block of west Madison made enough people so nervous  that bits and pieces of anonymous tips and clues began to filter into us. It was all second or third hand information, none of which could be attributed to any individual:

  • The shooter was not from the neighborhood
  • The shooter was not one of the boys at the shoe shine parlor
  • The shooter did run through the store to the alley behind
  • Most all of the workers at the shoe shine parlor knew who he was

Most of the information came from emissaries of business people in the area. In short, they didn’t want us hanging around constantly—it was bad for business. We could care less of course—we would continue to stop in every day until we got something substantial enough to clear the case. We needed to step up the pressure somehow.

Jason and I came up with a plan. We would find one of the shoe shine workers who most closely matched the description of the offender and bring him in for questioning. It was certainly a legitimate thing to do, question someone on the basis of a physical description. Hopefully skilled questioning would yield information that would help us identify the real killer. It all seemed so simple, but in reality it would lead us down the path of multiple errors in judgment, born in part of our inexperience. Would we blow the case entirely?

The hapless lad was Larry Wilson, age 17. He was 5’ 10”, dark complexion and on the day we snatched him from the shoe shine parlor, he was wearing a tan tee-shirt and blue jeans. We put the word out on the street that Larry was our man and he would be charged with murder. Nothing could be further from the truth of course—we had no case against him other than his physical description.

Back at the homicide office we cajoled Larry with the promise that if he was the wrong guy, giving us information leading to the right guy would earn his immediate release. Larry was a pleasant young man, but he told us nothing. Time to increase the pressure—thus began our series of mistakes.

We could have held a faux lineup and told Larry he was identified as the offender. But we contacted our best witness, the chauffeur, and held a real line-up and much to our surprise, the chauffeur positively identified Larry Wilson as the shooter. Because Jason and I were inexperienced, our supervisors were doing their job and watching us closely. Of course we had not advised them of our masterful scheme and they were convinced we had cleared the case by the arrest of Wilson. Department regulations required us to notify the States Attorneys’ office in any case where a lineup identification was made. Jason and I were convinced that the chauffeur was basing his identification solely on the clothing Larry Wilson was wearing but the Assistant States Attorney wasn’t buying it. He advised us to book Larry and charge him with murder.

Our pleas for release, or at least delay, fell on deaf ears. Both our supervisors and the ASA felt we had done a fine job wrapping up the case and making an arrest. Larry Wilson had remained silent, offering neither a denial nor an alibi. He was transported to Central Detention to await a bond hearing.

For the next several days at morning roll call when the sergeant asked each team what homicide they were working, we would respond.

“Woods.”

“Woods is cleared. Pick another case.”

“But we got the wrong guy!”

“You can’t work a cleared case, pick another one.”

We would reluctantly give him another name, but when we hit the street, we worked the Woods homicide.

Back at the shoe shine parlor on West Madison, if we were greeted coolly before, we definitely were persona non grata now. Our shoes had been shined about a half dozen times in the preceding days, but when we walked in now, none of the boys pleaded for our business.

“Look,” we told the owner. “We don’t think Larry did this either, but if you want to help him, you’ll have to help us find the right guy.”

A week went by and Larry Wilson was assigned an initial court date well into the following month. It was a Friday about noon when we popped into the shine parlor once again. The owner nodded to us, the first recognition he had afforded us since Larry’s arrest. Then he looked to the far end of the counter and nodded to an older gentleman who had watched us walk in. We approached him and he held out his hand as if to shake ours. I felt a slip of paper in my palm, but I kept my fist closed.

“What’s this?” I asked in a low voice.

“It’s the right guy,” he answered as he turned and walked away. We needed to know who the old man was so we headed back to the owner.

“Who is that?” we asked.

“Larry’s grandfather. Don’t worry man… he’s solid… to the bone, but he won’t talk to you. Ya jus gotta take what comes to ya.”

We drove several blocks away before we stopped and opened the crumpled piece of paper. Scribbled in pencil was:

“Herman Wilson, Goldmine, Apt 510”

Both Jason and I had worked the Cabrini projects and we recognized “Goldmine” as being the ghetto designation for the building at 714 West Division Street. We stopped by the 018th District, cornered a friendly Youth Officer, and ran an alpha name check on Herman Wilson. He had a juvenile record for burglary and a couple of curfews and he lived at 714 West Division in Apartment 510. He was now 17, which under Illinois law made him an adult.

Jason and I stopped for lunch and took a booth in a far corner of the restaurant.

“What do we do now?” I asked.

“We pick him up, of course,” said Jason.

“And then what.”

“He must suspect that we know something,” said Jason. “If he’s the right guy, he might even be expecting us… you know, the homicide mystique.”

I laughed.

“Yeah, we’re so mysterious we arrested the wrong guy.”

“Let’s just come on strong and confident, let him think it’s all over except the paperwork, and see were that takes us.”

“Oh I love these crystal clear plans,” I said. “What could go wrong?”

“That doesn’t sound ‘strong and confident,’ Jim. Do you have a better plan?”

“You mean a better plan than no plan?” I answered sarcastically.

“Okay, I’m listening…” said Jason… silence.

“Alright, let’s do it, but I just don’t want to dig ourselves a bigger whole,” I answered, not exactly strongly or confidently.

We had a Task Force unit meet us at the 714 building and on the fifth floor we pounded  on the door to apartment 510. A heavyset black woman answered.

“Herman Wilson,” we said without further explanation. She held the door open and we cautiously stepped in.

“Herman!” she called. “You ‘all come here boy… they’re here for you.”

Jason and I glanced at one another with raised eyebrows. Mama didn’t seem surprised. We searched Herman thoroughly and then cuffed him behind his back, looping the handcuff chain through his belt.

“Herman,” I said, “You’re under arrest for murder, you have the right to remain silent, you have the right…” I ran through the Miranda warnings, mostly for effect—we normally did that back at the station in the interview room.

“How’d you find him?” asked Mama.

“We’re detectives ma’am’, it’s what we do,” I answered curtly. This “strong and confident” thing was growing on me.

Once out in the squad, Herman tried to speak…

“You probably…”

“We don’t want to hear it,” I cut him off. “It’s all over, Herman.”

We pulled out onto Division Street and headed west. We caught the red light at Halsted and Herman tried again.

“You probably won’t believe me, but…”

Jason was driving but he turned in his seat.

“Believe what, Herman?”

“I threw the gun off the bridge right up here”

We stopped just short of the single lane bridge over the Chicago River.

“Where?”

“I’ll show you… right up here.”

We exited the car and the Task Force unit pulled up behind us.

“He’s showing us where he threw the gun,” we explained.

“What kinda gun was it?” I asked.

“A little one, a 25 automatic. On the way home I got scared and threw it in the river.”

“What happened that night?” asked my partner in a kinder gentler tone.

“I was coming out of the Shrimp House when this gangster pulls up in a black limo with tinted windows. He looked at me and reached under his coat and started to pull out something black… I got scared and shot him.”

“How many times?” I asked.

“Just once, he went right down and I ran.”

“What was he pulling on you?”

“I don’t know, but he dropped it when I shot.”

“Where did you run?”

“Towards Kedzie Avenue, but I cut through the shine parlor. Those kids in there didn’t have anything to do with this, I swear… I just ran through there to the alley and then walked home. I threw the gun in the river when I crossed the bridge.”

Ten minutes later we were marching Herman Wilson into the Area Four Homicide office on west Maxwell Street.”

“Who’s this?” asked the sergeant.

“The right guy… the Woods homicide… and his story is corroborated by what actually happened.”

It was mid-afternoon on a Friday when I found myself and a States Attorney along with Larry Wilson standing in front a bewildered judge explaining why we wanted Larry released immediately.

“Well…” said the judge as he pondered the facts. “This case is not on my docket, but I understand that Judge Murphy has left for the day. I won’t interfere in his case, but I’ll release Larry Wilson to your custody, Detective. You have him back in Murphy’s court first thing Monday morning, do you understand?”

I nodded, but I didn’t understand. Released to my custody? What the hell did that mean? Was I supposed to bring this kid home with me for the week-end?

Back at our Maxwell Street office I walked in with Larry in tow and as we passed the interview room where Herman was manacled to the wall, they caught each other’s eye and almost imperceptibly nodded to one another.

In the office, out of earshot I asked Larry Wilson if he knew Herman Wilson.

“He’s my cousin,” answered Larry.

“Did you know he did this?” I asked.

Larry hung his head and nodded.

“And you were going to take a murder rap for him?”

“Well, when we was kids, we burglarized a factory. He got caught and I got away… he never told on me, so I wasn’t going to tell on him.”

“Larry,” I said patiently, “Do you understand the difference between a juvenile burglary and an adult murder?”

Larry looked at me, totally mystified.

I dropped Larry off at his home near Central and Lake Streets… with the warning that I would hunt him down and kill him if he wasn’t waiting for me Monday morning.

“Larry, do you know that if you go back to court with me Monday, this will all be over… but if you don’t, you’ll either be dead or back in jail depending on who finds you first. Understand?”

Larry nodded silently. He met me at the appointed time Monday and his case was dismissed. I bought him lunch and drove him back home.

Herman Wilson went to trial for murder about 2 ½ years after his arrest. He spent the whole time in custody. At a bench trial, the judge found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter, based upon the “black object” that victim Leon Woods was pulling from under his coat. Herman was sentenced to 5 years in prison, but the remaining portion of his sentence was suspended.

And the two rookie homicide detectives, Jason and me, considered the whole case a learning experience. Jason left the department a few years later in a major career change. I stayed on of course, vowing never to repeat the same mistakes twice.


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.


You’re Gonna Get Hurt

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.

“Police!”

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…


The Great Purolator Heist

Purolator Truck

Oct. 21, 1974—Purolator truck blocks drive while police process crime scene.

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.

Epilogue

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.


Go Ahead, Shoot!

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

—Will Rogers

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.

Clybourn-Willow—© Google Maps

Clybourn-Willow—© Google Maps

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.

“1801 emergency!”

“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!”

Silence.

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.