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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.
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 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.”
“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…
“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.
“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.
Mae Beth Jefferson eased her late model sedan slowly down the dark country road. She had driven west from Chicago for over an hour, avoiding the expressways—she couldn’t risk being stopped by the police.
Miles of farmland were on each side of the road, crops plowed under for the winter. It was bitter cold and her headlights picked up occasional flakes of glistening white snow. She had no idea where she was.
The man slumped awkwardly in the front seat beside her moaned softly and it startled her. She knew he was there of course—she had shot him an hour earlier as they sat parked at the edge of Chicago’s Douglas Park. This would be the end of his journey.
Mae pulled the car onto the frozen shoulder, walked around and opened the passenger door. The man was quiet now as she tugged on his arm. He didn’t budge. Leaving the door open, she returned to the driver’s side and pushed, still there was very little movement. She glanced nervously up and down the deserted road; her white nurse’s uniform contrasting with the surrounding night. No one was in sight.
She seated herself in the driver’s seat, braced her back against the door and her feet against the body and pushed with all her strength. He tumbled silently out the door onto the solid cold ground. She went back around the car to close the passenger door, but the body was blocking it so she pulled the car ahead a few feet and finally got the door closed. For a final time, she returned to the driver’s seat and proceeded slowly down the road.
Mae Beth was an intelligent and educated woman. A licensed registered nurse no less. Where others may have struggled with the curriculum, things came easy to her. With little effort she had graduated, passed the state license exam, and took a job at a local hospital on Chicago’s west side.
Her supervisors would tell you that she was a pleasant woman and an eager worker, but she needed close supervision. She was just shy of being the complete package and the element that was missing was common sense, a flaw that would stalk her relentlessly over the next 48 hours.
Twenty-four hours later Mike and I were cruising the west side when we were paged to call our office. We found an outdoor public phone and I stood shivering in the cold as I spoke to our sergeant.
“Padar, Shull… you guys have a homicide, one in custody, now at the Kane County Sheriff’s office.”
“Kane County?” For chrissake how can that be ours?”
“It’s ours and now it’s yours.”
“Where’s the body?” I asked.
“Kane County Coroner’s Office.”
“Wait!” I yelled into the frozen phone. “There’s a homicide in Kane County, and a victim, and an offender, all in Kane County and it’s ours?”
“That’s right,” replied the sergeant. “Call me when you get out there.” He hung up the phone.
Mike was incredulous.
“How in the hell can that be ours?”
I don’t have the faintest idea,” I said. “But do you want to call the sergeant back and argue?”
Silence… both Mike and I knew that would be a lose-lose scenario.
We stopped at the 012th District and called Kane County for detailed directions on how to get there. Less than an hour later we walked into the sheriff’s office.
The Chief Deputy ran it down for us—
Early that morning a local farmer found a partially frozen body along a county highway. Examination showed the man had died from a single gunshot wound to the abdomen. A wallet on the body tentatively ID’d him as Deshawn Carter. They were waiting fingerprint confirmation but a name check showed that he had a record in Chicago for Battery and Burglary as well as several arrests for Disorderly Conduct.
“So you had a mystery,” Mike interjected.
“Yep, a stone cold who-done-it with no leads, but that changed fairly quickly. The little lady in there…” he nodded toward an interrogation room, “…started calling local hospitals out here inquiring about a Deshawn Carter. One of the nurses recognized the name as the homicide DOA from this morning and she had the lady on the phone call our office.”
“And she did?” I asked in amazement. “Who is she?”
“She claims to be Deshawn’s girlfriend. Her name is Mae Beth Jefferson and she’s an R.N. at one of your local hospitals. But she was evasive when we asked why she was calling out here… so we sent a couple of our guys into the city to talk to her. They sweet-talked her into coming back here to ID the body.”
“And so now, you not only had a lead, you had a hot suspect.” I said smiling. I always liked it when a mystery began to unravel.
“Sure did, and when she saw the body she broke down and admitted to shooting him during an altercation, driving him out here and dumping the body, although she claims he was alive when she dumped him at the side of the road.”
“So let me get this straight,” Mike said as pleasantly as possible. “You’ve got the body, you’ve got the offender and you’ve got a confession and you want to turn it all over to us?”
“Well… he was shot in Chicago…”
“Yeah but he was transported to Kane County… hell he might have even died in Kane County, but regardless, the venue for prosecution lies anywhere along the path of the body.”
“But the real crime scene is the car and that’s back in Chicago,” said the Kane County Chief Deputy. “And there’s one other thing… our Assistant State’s Attorney talked to your Assistant State’s Attorney and they agreed that you should take it just from a logistical point of view.”
That was the trump card—I knew this would be our case.
“Just one more thing,” I said. “She’s in custody in Kane County. We’ll have to bring her before a judge to get an order permitting us to take her back to Cook County.”
“Ah, but she’s not in custody.” said the Chief Deputy. “We haven’t charged her. There’s a possible element of self-defense and the investigation is ongoing. She’s free to go, but we brought her out here and I’ll bet she’d really appreciate a ride back to the city.” He was smiling broadly now.
“Let us call our Assistant Sates Attorney.” Mike said.
A quick call to our Felony Review Assistant State’s Attorney confirmed he was up to date on the case.
“Look,” he said. “Tell her she’s free to go—make sure the Chief Deputy and your partner are in the room when you tell her. Then offer her a ride back to the city. She’ll go for it—they tell me she’s as dumb as a box of rocks. Then suggest she come back to the homicide office to talk to me and clarify a few things.”
“And if she insists on going home?” I asked
“Then take her home. We’ll pick her up tomorrow morning… but if that happens, and I don’t think it will, we’ll have to post a car on her vehicle until the mobile crime lab can process it.”
And so it came to pass that Mae Beth, Mike and I found ourselves in an unmarked squad heading back into Chicago. She chatted amiably—she was indeed intelligent and educated.
She jumped at the chance to accompany us to our office to tell the Felony Review ASA her story. She really wanted to straighten the whole mess out.
At the Maxwell Street Homicide office Mae was Mirandized in writing in the presence of the ASA. She told her story willingly and without hesitation, but when the ASA asked if she would give a formal written statement to a court reporter she was thrown for a moment.
“That would make me very nervous.” she said. “Can’t I just write it out for you in my own words?”
The ASA, Mike and I stared at one another for a moment. Neither Mike nor I had ever taken a handwritten statement.
“That’ll work,” said the ASA after a brief pause. “Let’s get you some paper.”
Pads of lined paper were not to be had in our office, but the ASA managed to dig one out of the bottom of his briefcase.
Mae Beth Jefferson began to write in earnest as we watched from a distance in the squad room.
“Let’s see what she comes up with,” said the ASA. “We can always go back to a formal court reporter statement if we need to.”
Mae wrote for nearly an hour and the results were nothing less than eloquent… and incriminating.
She wrote of a relationship that was “steeped in passion but punctuated with tumultuous tirades.” On the day of the incident Deshawn had called her at work and asked to see her. She took a break from her duties and met him in the park where her car was nearby. They sat in her car and the conversation became “…intense and irrational and thusly a scuffle ensued.” Mae had a .25 caliber automatic in the side pocket of the driver’s door. She shot Deshawn once in the stomach. She returned to work briefly and asked to be excused for the rest of her shift. Then she went back to her car and drove Deshawn to a “dark and desolate road” where she “pushed him out of the car into the stygian night and hoped he would get help in time.”
Mae had written an elegant essay of murder and she appeared pleased with her composition, but would it stand on its own as a confession for court? It was detailed, but if it had been a Q & A court reporter statement, there were items that would have been clarified:
What was the exact nature of the “scuffle?”
Why didn’t she seek help at the hospital less than 100 yards away?
How did she expect him to get help on the dark and desolate road in the ”stygian” night?
A copy of the hand written statement was FAX’d to the Chief of the Felony Review Unit. It was now well past midnight and while he was not thrilled with being awakened he studied the document carefully. Ultimately it was decided that the raw power of a coherently hand written statement would carry more weight in court than a sterile typewritten page transcribed by a court reporter. Mae Beth Jefferson was charged with murder and sent to the women’s lockup.
The bond court judge initially set a very high bond in spite of the fact that Mae had no previous record. Later, her attorney petitioned for a reduction in bond which was granted, but she was still unable to make bail.
Months later as a trial date was being discussed, a negotiated plea was suggested. The defense attorney felt he would be unable to surmount the fact that Mae had driven Deshawn over 50 miles and dumped his body on a deserted road, believing he was still alive.
Mae ultimately pled guilty to a reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter in return for an indeterminate sentence at the bottom of the sliding scale. She would do penitentiary time, but as a relatively young woman she would be out with time to rebuild her life.
Over the next several years, Mike and I would often lift a phrase from Mae’s handwritten statement. When writing a case narrative recounting an altercation, we would begin the paragraph with…
“Thusly a scuffle ensued.”
Saturday, July 6, 1974
Finally home after a 13 hour shift I was bone tired, but I lingered in the shower in a futile attempt to wash the smell from my body and nostrils. Your skin does well with a good deodorant soap, but the odor in the hairs of your nose just seems to hang on forever. I knew from experience that when I woke up, the smell would be gone. Until then there was nothing to do but attempt to ignore it as a temporary annoyance. In six short hours I would need to leave for work; my next shift would begin at 12:30 AM. My poor wife’s task would be to try to keep our three young children quiet enough for me to get some semblance of sleep. It was a Saturday—maybe she would take them to her sister’s house for the rest of the day.
Most folks think that homicide detectives spend a large part of their time with bodies, but nothing could be further from the truth. Most cases of course start out with a body and a crime scene, but the real work, the fun part of the job, is always the investigation and as my head hit the pillow, that’s where my mind was going. I knew teams from our office were following up at this very moment and that was frustrating. My part for now would be to get some sleep and be fresh for my next tour of duty in a few hours and that meant, for the time being, I wouldn’t be part of the fun. Mike and I had spent about four hours with the victims in this case—an unusually long period of time, but the bizarre circumstances demanded it. Now, with that behind us and as our teams from Area Four Homicide embarked on the investigative journey, I don’t think any of us realized that the trip would take some two months. No less than 14 investigators would work crucial portions of the case in an effort that exemplified the team spirit of our unit. During the course of the investigation we would be aided by other units within our department, suburban departments and the FBI, not to mention witnesses (some reluctant) and confidential informants.
The pieces of a case like this never develop in a chronological order and our first clue that we would be dealing with a long term time span was of course the fact that our bodies were dressed for winter and we discovered them in July. Identification of the victims is always of prime importance and in this case there was a bit of a delay due to the condition of the bodies. Our crime lab personnel came up with partial prints from each victim and by the end of the first day we identified the person in drum #2 as Sam Marcello, reputed to be a juice loan collector for the mob. Marcello had been reported missing to the Rosemont Police back in February. Rosemont had information that indicated a Joseph Grisafe had been reported missing that same day in another jurisdiction. Late in the first day of investigation an anonymous informant called our office and told us that our victim #1 was in fact Grisafe. The following day the lab would confirm Grisafe’s identity from a partial print lifted from the body and the pathologist confirmed that both had died as a result of gunshot wounds to the head. We had the solid information we needed to start the grunt work that makes up every murder investigation. In addition, we were fortunate to have a “date marker” that would help people remember when certain incidents had occurred; both men had disappeared on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 24th, 1973, over 7 months prior to the discovery of the bodies.
Reconstructing Saturday, November 24, 1973—
The Little Old Lady in the Window
“Knock on one more door…” was the homicide supervisors’ mantra. They would preach to us at roll call:
“There’s always a little old lady in the window who saw what we need to know.”
Sophia Conti lived in the 900 block of South Claremont, scarcely a block from The Korner Sandwich Shop at Taylor and Western. We didn’t find her by knocking on doors, but rather from a radio dispatch card. During the course of the investigation, we learned that Grisafe’s car had been ticketed and ultimately towed for parking at a hydrant at 930 South Claremont. On a hunch, we searched through the November 1973 dispatch cards stored at the 12th District and there it was: November 24, Parked at a hydrant, 930 S. Claremont, complainant Sophia Conti. We knocked on her door.
Sophia was old school Italian and a one woman neighborhood watch. She was well into her 80’s and walked with a stoop but she spoke with a strong voice and Italian accent.
“Did you call the police for a car parked at the hydrant November of last year?” we asked.
She looked at us quizzically. How could we possibly expect her to remember something like that?
“It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving.”
Her face lit up.
“Yes! Yes, I called. Hoodlums! Mafiosi! They park like they own the street!” She flicked her fingers under her chin in a gesture of distain. “And I called the next day and the next until they towed the car.”
“Do you remember what time you saw them?” I asked.
“I don’t know… it was dark.”
“Maybe around 7?” I asked, looking at the dispatch card; 1856 hours (6:56 PM).
“Could be, maybe,” Sophia shrugged. “They do something bad? Those hoodlums?”
“No ma’am, not anymore—they’re dead.”
Her demeanor changed visibly—she had spoken ill of the dead—she made the sign of the cross as she showed us to the door.
About 8 PM that same evening, Don Borman, a neighborhood regular at the Korner Sandwich Shop stopped by to grab a cup of coffee and visit with the owner, Sam Rantis. The lights were on but the front door was locked. It was unusual for the shop to close this early. Borman knocked insistently. He saw Sam peer around from the back room and disappear. Borman knocked again. Eventually Sam came to the front door.
“I was wondering if he was in some kind of trouble and I just kept knocking until he answered the door,” Borman said. “He only cracked it a bit and he looked nervous and he was perspiring. He told me he was closed and then he locked the door and went back to the rear of the store.”
“Did you think that was unusual?” we asked.
“Absolutely. Since we were friends, he would have talked to me instead of closing the door and just walking away. I thought that was rude, considering we were friends. At our next meeting, he made no mention of it and I didn’t ask him.”
Which came first? The bodies or the drums?
Sam Rantis had a problem; well really two problems. He had two bodies in the walk-in freezer of his sandwich shop. Teenage part time employees recalled seeing a couple of drums at some point around the Thanksgiving holiday but they didn’t think anything of it and they couldn’t recall if it was before or after Thanksgiving. Sam reached out to a couple of friends, James Erwin and Wayne (Billy) Cascone and asked for their help in disposing of the bodies. Just what help they provided is open to speculation, but somehow Grisafe’s legs were chopped off and Grisafe and Marcello were stuffed and sealed into 55 gallon drums. It is unlikely that Rantis could have accomplished this physical feat by himself; both victims were big men. The major problem was that Erwin and Cascone talked about helping Rantis… and they talked where others could overhear them.
The best laid plans…
No one knows exactly what Rantis’ plan was, or if he even had one. Was he making it up as he went along? Or was his plan merely unraveling before his eyes? Whatever the case, at some point, the sealed drums and Grisafe’s legs were moved to the unused storeroom at the rear of the sandwich shop and concealed behind the bread racks. Rather hastily one could assume, because the legs were merely wrapped in heavy plastic and set atop an empty Baby Ruth candy box. In fact, in the aftermath, it was most likely the legs that people smelled and not the drums, as the drums had been very tightly sealed.
On Wednesday, December 5, 1973 attorneys for the families of Grisafe and Marcello served a Writ of Habeas Corpus on the FBI, seeking the immediate release of Joseph Grisafe and Sam Marcello who were assumed by the family to be in Federal custody. They of course had been murdered 11 days previous and lay moldering in drums at the rear of Sam Rantis’ sandwich shop. Apparently the mob grapevine had not yet reached the families with that information, but the hierarchy most certainly were aware that Marcello and Grisafe had gone missing and further that their last business call had been to Rantis.
Retribution can be a terrible thing…
Two days later on Friday, December 7th, Sam Rantis disappeared. His frozen and partially decomposed body was found 2 ½ months later in the trunk of an auto parked at O’Hare Field . His throat had been cut.
On February 26th the body of Wayne (Billy) Cascone was found in the rear seat of his car. He had been shot in the head.
The mob was closing the ring around all those involved with the deaths and the disposal of their two trusted couriers.
Have a sense of decency…
The only one still alive was James Erwin, but he didn’t seem worried. At his friend Billy Cascone’s wake he stood with friends singing the chorus of the Beer Barrel Polka:
Roll out the barrel
We’ll have a barrel of fun…
Some laughed and some chastised Erwin for his lack of sensitivity, but the fact was that at that point in time, March, 1974, the drums containing the bodies of Marcello and Grisafe had not yet been discovered, so perhaps some did not understand the significance of his little joke. Nevertheless, it was an important break for our yet to be discovered case. Erwin’s tasteless gag rankled certain people and encouraged them to come forward and give us statements as our case got underway some three months later.
Our Area Four Homicide teams continued to chase down the numerous minutiae that makes up a complex case. Each statement we took, each interview we did continued to draw us closer to the conclusion that Marcello and Grisafe had been murdered by Sam Rantis on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, 1973. It seemed unlikely to us that Rantis had any accomplices at the time of the actual shooting, rather it appeared to be a simple crime of opportunity. Rantis knew they were coming and he got the drop on them. If there was some master preparation behind the deed, it was indeed a poorly executed plan, pardon the pun.
In late August, 1974, Mike and I spent a whole day reviewing the entire file, along with the homicide files of Rantis and Cascone. On the wall in our office hung a handwritten chart of all of the recent homicides. At the far right of the page were two columns; “Not Cleared” and “Cleared.” The Not Cleared column bore X’s optimistically drawn in pencil. The X’s in the Cleared column were in ink. Every homicide detective in the city understood that their job was to “move the X.” The Marcello/Grisafe case was especially significant; there were two X’s.
Our review of the total body of evidence convinced Mike and me that if Sam Rantis were alive, we would have a strong enough case to arrest him and charge him with the double homicide. Rantis was himself a murder victim of course and so was not amenable to prosecution. There was another way to clear murders however; Exceptional Clearup. We would present our detailed evidence to a Coroner’s Jury, seeking a finding of “Murder, by Sam Rantis, now deceased.”
We typed a summary report that ran five typewritten pages. Perhaps too complex we thought, so we prepared a single secondary page enumerating the major points. Then, just to cover our bases, a day in advance we visited the Deputy Coroner who would be hearing the case. Tony Scafini was one of the more talented deputies in a sea of deputies where, all too often, innate intelligence was not a consideration. Tony reviewed the case with us in detail.
“You’re good to go,” he announced. “See you tomorrow.”
The next morning the coroner’s inquest into the deaths of Marcello and Grisafe was duly convened at 9:00 AM. Tony guided me through the preliminaries and then threw the testimony open to me. As I methodically presented the facts I glanced over and suddenly realized that there was one crucial area over which I had no control; the actual members of the jury. Coroner’s jury members were made up of groups of six very elderly men, most likely friends or relatives of staff of the coroner’s office. As I proceeded, I noticed that at least two of them were sound asleep. The others looked, at best, glazed over by the complex case. The court reporter dutifully clicked away as I talked, but I honestly felt that she was the only one paying any attention to what I was saying.
At the conclusion, Scafini dutifully inquired if there were any more witnesses. There were none. He then charged the jury with the case and they woke up and slowly shuffled out to deliberate in the hallway outside the hearing room. They always took 5 to 10 minutes. I think that most of them took this as an opportunity for a bathroom break. After the semi-obligatory 10 minutes, they shuffled back into the hearing room.
“Gentlemen of the jury have you reached a verdict?” intoned Scafini.
“We have,” responded the most alert of the six.
“And what say you?”
“We find this case to be murder, by person or persons unknown.”
My heart sank—there went our clearup—but Scafini lept out of his chair.
“No! No! No!” he shouted as the jury suddenly awakened at his outburst. “You’ve got it all wrong. Go back out in the hallway and I’ll come out to help you.”
Tony Scafini waited until they had oh so slowly shuffled out of the room and then he rapidly followed. He returned in a few minutes and once again we waited several minutes until the men laboriously hobbled back in.
“Gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?” intoned Scafini as though he was saying it for the very first time.
“We have,” responded their leader.
“And what say you?”
“We find this case to be murder, by Sam Rantis, now deceased.”
I heaved a sigh of relief as I gathered my papers.
“Thanks Tony,” I said.
“My pleasure,” he responded.
Back at the office, Mike and I reviewed our summary report. No less than seven homicide teams, comprised of fourteen men, had participated in this intense two month investigation. Together we had brought a most bizarre case to a successful conclusion.
Two years later the Cook County Coroner’s Office was replaced by the Office of the Medical Examiner, thus doing away with inquests and coroner’s juries.
James Erwin was the only participant in this case to survive… for a time. In May of 1976 he was killed in a hail of gunfire, hit thirteen times as he stepped from his car at 1873 North Halsted Street. I wondered if anyone sang “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here…” at his wake?
Author’s Note: This story is dedicated to my long time homicide partner, Detective Michael Shull. Upon his passing some ten years ago I “inherited” his personal files and case notes—without those, this story would not have been possible.
Friday, July 5, 1974
Tony Russo sank into his bed bone tired. His wife was asleep instantly, but Tony stared at the ceiling.
This sandwich shop was draining him physically and emotionally. It was one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time. When the owner, Sam Rantis, disappeared the previous December, Sam’s wife tried to continue the business on her own, but when Sam’s body was found in February with his throat cut in the trunk of an auto parked at O’Hare Field, the widow Rantis found everything too much. She implored Tony and his wife to take over the operation of the shop just to keep the business running.
It wasn’t bad initially, but now, in early summer, business had picked up and the hours became longer. Between him and his wife, they spent almost every waking moment in the kitchen and behind the counter.
And now there was that damned smell. Not strong, but lingering, and neither Tony nor his wife thought it was food related. Of course they cleaned the kitchen and the walk-in refrigerator. They even moved every piece of equipment and cleaned again. The faint but putrid smell persisted. Tonight, after a long day, he and his wife got into it.
“Tony!’ she shouted. “You’ve got to do something. Maybe I’m more sensitive to it but that kitchen stinks!”
Tony had to admit, silently, that although faint, the odor seemed to be slowly getting worse.
As he tossed and turned, his mind drifted back to his days as a corpsman in the Navy. He had several occasions to deal with decomposed bodies, but over the years he had successfully blocked it from his mind.
It was nearly midnight when Tony Russo sat straight up in bed. That was it! This was the same smell as a decomposing body.
He eased himself out of bed and dressed quietly and drove the short distance back to the shop. He kept most of the shop lights out—he didn’t want people to think they were open for business. Tony didn’t waste his time searching all the places they had already covered, but he stood in the kitchen scanning the overall area. His eyes came to rest on a door to an unused storage area under a stairwell in the very back corner of the kitchen. They had looked in there earlier but they hadn’t moved anything. He opened the door slowly in the dimly lit kitchen.
Empty plastic bread racks from their previous vendor were stacked almost to the ceiling, filling the cramped little room. Was it his imagination or was the smell just slightly stronger in this unused closet? He began to slowly remove the layers of bread racks, revealing two tightly sealed 55 gallon drums, lids securely clamped with bolt rings. About 12 inches of heavy plastic sheeting hung over the edges of the drums. Was it his imagination, or was the smell definitely stronger in here?
Tony searched the junk drawer in the kitchen and found a small crescent wrench. He dearly wanted to turn on some lights but he also knew he didn’t want any visitors. He stepped into the dark, cramped area and began to gingerly loosen the bolt ring on the closest drum. Someone slammed a car door in the alley and he jumped a foot. He could hear his own heart beating and realized he was perspiring profusely. He paused and took a deep breath and then slowly broke the seal on the lid and raised it very slowly. He peered inside and the hair crawled up the back of his neck. He retreated from the kitchen and called the police. The odor, now strong and pungent, filled the little sandwich shop.
Saturday, July 6th
It was a warm summer evening when Mike and I reported a bit early for the 12:30 AM First Watch roll call. Roll call would be informal—there were only four of us working tonight; a Friday night/Saturday morning summertime shift. With only two teams working, the odds were that at least one would draw a fresh homicide before we finished our tour of duty. The phone rang and the sergeant answered and started taking a notification. When he hung up, he looked at the four of us.
“The 12th District has a body in a garbage can.” He looked at us expectantly waiting for the four of us to determine who was going to take the first assignment of the night.
“We’ll take it,” said Mike. I looked at him quizzically. But moments later we were en route to the Korner Sandwich Shop at 1015 South Western.
“And tell me again, just why we’re taking this job?” I asked facetiously as we drove the nearly deserted streets.
“Because…” he feigned the part of a patient teacher speaking slowly… “It’s summertime and it’s not going to be a body. It’s going to be a dead dog… or rotten meat… or something like that. And that will be our job and the next one… the real murder… will go to the other team.”
It was nearly 1:00 AM when we pulled up to the corner of Taylor and Western and it was immediately apparent that we had something more than rotten meat. There were two beat cars and a field sergeant, along with a wagon, all clustered at the corner. Mike was quiet as we climbed from our car. The one beat car was covering the front door to secure the crime scene. The second beat officers and the sergeant were inside talking to Tony Russo. All the lights were on now and when we entered, we immediately recognized the all too familiar stench.
The field sergeant nodded toward the kitchen and walked back to the tiny closet with us. The beat officers had fully removed the lids of both drums. The contents of one drum appeared to be nothing more than clothing, winter clothing. The other drum revealed two feet sticking up, covered with winter galoshes.
“I told the wagon guys to wait for you guys before emptying the drums,” said the sergeant.
“Empty the drums?” I asked incredulously.
“Yeah, we really don’t know what we have and we have to empty them to transport whatever it is. We don’t know whether we have two bodies, or half a body in each drum, or just one body and some clothing. How will we know until we empty them?”
“In my kitchen?” asked Tony from the front counter. “Please! No!”
“Officer, get that man outside!” shouted the sergeant.
“Sarge, he’s right,” said Mike. “First off, the Crime Lab should empty the drums and secondly, I don’t think they should be emptied here in this kitchen.”
“Well the last time I looked, I was a sergeant,” he said looking down at his sleeve. “And you’re a detective, so I think I win.”
It was one of those moments of marvelous providence…
“Jimmy, Mike, what you guys got?” came a voice from the front counter.
We looked out to see William Keating, the Chief of Organized Crime walking into the kitchen. Keating was the Acting Street Deputy for the night and as such was the ranking department member on the street. More than that, he had been the City-wide Homicide Commander for the past several years, having just recently being promoted to Chief. Mike and I knew him well and he knew us well. Now it was my personal protocol to always address command members by rank whenever in the presence of other officers no matter how well I knew them, but I felt this moment called for an exception.
“Hey Bill!” I said. “We were just talking about that. We’re not sure what we have, but I was thinking to have the Crime Lab shoot some pictures and then take the drums over to the morgue.
“You can’t take anything to the morgue that hasn’t been pronounced dead.” said the obviously irritated sergeant. “And we don’t know what we have!”
“Good point,” said Keating. “Have the wagon transport the drums to the morgue intact. On the way, they can stop at the back door of County and have each drum pronounced dead.”
“No doctor’s going to do that without knowin’ what’s in the drums.” said the sergeant, growing even more agitated.
“You know what?” answered Keating, showing a bit of his own irritation. “I think my guys can handle it.” as he nodded toward Mike and me.
The field sergeant glared at us.
Keating walked to the entrance to the closet and peered in and then looked up. The back wall of the room was actually the backside of a stairwell and the ceiling was unusually high, 12 feet or more. There were very high shelves on the back wall.
“Check all those shelves,” said Keating. “There might be the murder weapon or who knows what up there. And go to the hospital and the morgue with the drums. I don’t want these drums out of your sight and I want you to be there when the drums are emptied. Then give me a call with what you’ve got. I’ll be on the street all night.”
Mike and I looked up at the shelves, wondering how we were going to get high enough to search them.
The Crime Lab arrived and started shooting pictures, while Mike and I looked for a ladder. Tony Russo located a ladder for us and we examined the empty shelves and had the lab shoot pictures. The lab groused.
“What are we doing this for?” they complained as they teetered on the ladder.
“Because the Chief wants us to,” we replied.
As we prepared to leave, we double-checked the very upper areas of the closet again just to be certain we hadn’t missed anything. It was almost 4:00 AM when we sealed the premises and slowly followed the wagon over to the Cook County Hospital. We still didn’t know exactly what was in the drums.
At the back door of County Hospital the wagon pulled up on the driveway close to the entrance while Mike and I parked several car lengths ahead. We walked back to the wagon.
“Why don’t you guys wait here,” we said. “We might have to finesse this a bit.”
“Hell,” they answered. “Just have ‘em pronounce each drum DOA. Ya know… whatever is in this drum is dead and whatever is in that drum is dead.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said laughing. “But there’s the paperwork thing—they do like to know who they’re pronouncing.”
Inside the Emergency Room we grabbed the first nurse we could.
“Hey, we got a stinker in the wagon out back—I don’t think you want us to bring him in. Who can pronounce him for us?”
“That would be Markie,” she said, fluttering her eyes towards a very handsome, very young looking resident on the other side of the room. The blonde, blue eyed doctor appeared to be so much younger than his actual years. I made a note in my notebook, pronounced DOA by Dr. Markie.
“Markie,” she called across the room. “These gentlemen have a stinker for you… out on the driveway.” She fluttered her eyes again but the resident was obviously not interested or amused. As he approached us he took his stethoscope from the front pocket of his scrubs and put it around his neck.
“I don’t think you’re going to need that, doc.” I said.
Mike nudged me and tapped his finger on his left chest and nodded at the resident. I read his nametag: Mark Wolf, ER Resident. I crossed off Markie and wrote “Wolf” and we explained to Dr. Wolf what we had out in the wagon.
“Well… this is highly unusual,” said the resident, trying to salvage some dignity by using his most officious tone. “You know we have to fill out some paperwork and we need to know exactly what you have out there.”
“Well… I suppose…” I said speaking very slowly, “I suppose… we could just bring the drums inside and empty them here rather than the morgue.”
Mark Wolf stiffened a bit and pursed his lips while fingering his stethoscope.
“Well let me take a look before you do that,” he said with all the authority he could muster.
Outside on the driveway, we swung open the wagon door and all the pent up odiferous fumes spilled out into the warm summer air. Doctor Wolf had no choice but to climb into the cramped unvented wagon to at least take a cursory look. He climbed in and took a hurried look into each drum and then, pale as a ghost, he literally staggered out of the wagon to the curb, squatted, and threw up. And then he threw up again, and again, until there was nothing left but wretching. He steadied himself with one hand on the curb and looked up at Mike and me, vomitus spittle dripping off his chin and onto his scrubs, narrowly missing his shiny stethoscope. Mike and I truly felt sorry for him.
“Well, what say, doc? Should we bring the drums in?”
He shook his head feebly and gave a single wave at the wagon.
“No… go,” he said weakly.
“Should we make the time 4:40 AM” asked Mike.
The resident nodded his head and gave an I don’t care wave.
“We’ll call you in a bit and tell you what we find. You can hold the paper until then,” said Mike.
Mark Wolf had crawled up the side of the wagon to a standing position. He was a mess and looked like an underage 4:00 AM Rush Street drunk as he walked slowly back toward the door to the ER. Mike and I took no pleasure in his condition—we knew our turn might be coming soon as we really emptied the drums.
The Crime Lab team was waiting for us when we got to the morgue with the two 55 gallon drums, but before we started, we had the same argument with Freddie, the midnight attendant.
“What do you have? How many toe tags? How do I register this?”
“Freddie! Just give us a few minutes. We’ll come up and let you know as soon as we know.”
In the basement, we laid two body trays on the floor and positioned a body tray at the end of each tray. With the help of the wagon men, the Crime Lab team slowly tipped the contents of each drum onto the trays.
Drum #1 was a medium build male Caucasian fully dressed in heavy winter clothing, but we were surprised to find both legs were missing as we gingerly untangled the clothing. The drums were double checked, the clothing carefully examined, but there were no legs.
The contents of drum #2 was a heavyset male Caucasian fully dressed in heavy winter clothing, wearing the rubber galoshes we had observed earlier at the sandwich shop.
We stood for a moment and pondered the situation. Strangely, the smell did not seem to be overpowering. We were in a large room with excellent ventilation and maybe, just maybe, we were getting used to the disgusting odor. More photos were in order. I won a coin test and elected to go upstairs, leave the Street Deputy a message, notify our office, and get two toe tags from Freddie. The missing legs were a problem and our sergeant elected to send a Second Watch team back to the sandwich shop to do a leg search. Almost as an afterthought, I called County Hospital to notify Dr. Mark Wolf of our findings so he could complete his paperwork.
“Is Doctor Wolf available? This is the homicide detective with some information for him.” I sensed I was talking to the inappropriate flirty nurse. She muffled the phone but I could hear her shout across the room.
“Where’s Markie? Showering? With who?” she giggled when she came back to the phone and put on her professional voice: “I’m sorry, Doctor Wolf is not available.” I left a message and felt even sorrier for the hapless resident. The nurse was sorely in need of some supervisory correction, but that was not my battle.
Back in the morgue basement, the crime lab crew was trying to lift at least partial fingerprints from the badly decomposed bodies. In the far corner of the room, Mike and I spotted a mop bucket and a wringer. Next to the bucket was some “Janitor in a Drum” cleaning solution packaged in a green container shaped exactly like a 55 gallon drum. From that moment on, Mike and I dubbed the case “Janitors in a Drum.”
Neither body bore any jewelry or identification. In the shirt pocket of body #2 we found three checks payable to “Sam Marcello” and signed by Sam Rantis, the deceased owner of the sandwich shop. Once we were able to get them dried out and copied, these checks would be a good starting point for our follow-up investigation.
Back at our office, we spent several minutes in the men’s room scrubbing as best we could. Afterward we felt good enough to grab a cup of coffee as we set ourselves up in a side room to begin our report. The second watch personnel were already out on the street, and one of the teams had broken the Coroner’s seal at the sandwich shop and was beginning their search for body #1’s missing legs.
We started our report, which would wind up as nine typewritten pages, but we made good progress with minimal interruptions… the other dicks claimed we stunk and they wouldn’t come near us. One unwelcome interruption was a call from the “leg search team.” They had found the missing appendages to body #1 in a large Baby Ruth Candy Bar box in a corner of the floor in the same closet where the drums were found. Mike and I were surprised and embarrassed. There was no excuse for an oversight like that, except that we perhaps concentrated too much on the search of the upper shelves.
About an hour later Chief Keating stopped by our office on his way home and stuck his head in our room for a quick briefing on what we had working. He already knew about the legs and I knew I had to at least mention it; perhaps I could turn it back on him, jokingly of course.
“And,” I concluded my briefing of our Janitors in a Drum case, “We sure did miss those legs didn’t we boss?” He stared at me for just a split second and my heart sank… maybe he didn’t see any humor in my wisecrack, but then he laughed out loud.
“Yes we did—we certainly did,” said the Chief with a broad smile.
We finished our report about 1:00 PM—a thirteen hour shift—and we typed our final line at the bottom of page nine:
I called my wife:
“Honey, take my robe and slippers and hang them in the garage. Make sure the washer is empty—I’ve got clothes that need to be washed… the rest dry cleaned.”
“Ya don’t wanna know.”
Less than an hour later I walked in the back door of our home in my bathrobe, carrying my clothes under my arm.
“Where are your shoes?” she asked.
“In the garbage…”
“I really don’t think you want to know honey… at least not right now.”
Levi Wilson sat back on the living room couch of his brother-in-laws’s second floor apartment on South Lawndale Avenue. A beer in hand, snacks on the coffee table, the smell of a ham cooking in the kitchen—it was turning out to be fine Saturday afternoon. Levi and his wife Lativia thought they were just going to Lattie’s sister for an early evening dinner, but when they arrived it was a full blown anniversary party for Levi and his wife. Thirty years of marriage, three successful daughters and the family had gathered to help them celebrate.
“Lattie!” shouted Levi. “Bring me a beer.”
The women were all in the kitchen, alternately hovering over the side dishes and basting the ham. The men and older boys were in the living room watching the Bulls game. The younger children were playing board games on the dining room table.
“You kids are going to have to clear that table soon… we’re fixin’ to set out dinner.”
Levi was annoyed as he pushed himself up from the couch. He strode purposefully through the house to the kitchen.
“Bitch!” he shouted at Lattie. “I tol’ you to get me a beer!”
He took a wide swing at his wife. He connected, but the previous beers and Lattie’s evasive action caused the blow to harmlessly graze the back of her head. The family had seen this side of Levi all too often.
“Daddy!” shouted Delilah, their oldest daughter. “Not here! Not today!”
Delilah stepped between her mother and father as Levi prepared to swing again, but instead he shoved his daughter aside and she momentarily lost her balance and fell to the kitchen floor. Even Levi realized that he may have just crossed some unspoken line. In their entire marriage, he had never laid a hand upon his daughters.
“Bitch!” he repeated as he grabbed himself a beer and retreated to the living room. Moments later the women heard the men-folk laughing.
Lattie helped her daughter up, unhurt, from the floor, but both were crying. The other women tried to direct the group’s attention to the final preparations of the afternoon meal, but Lattie scanned the kitchen counter and picked up a 6” narrow bladed boning knife. If any of the women saw her they said nothing as she marched toward the front of the house.
Lativia stood in front of Levi. He waved her to get out of his view as he strained forward to see the television. He never saw the knife as his wife took a half step forward and struck him once on his left shoulder. She turned and went back to the kitchen, still holding the knife.
“Goddam crazy woman!” exclaimed Levi as he brushed his shoulder as if to straighten his shirt.
“Levi, you be cut man!” shouted his brother-in-law.
Levi looked at his fingertips and saw just a trace of blood.
“It ain’t shee-it, man,” he said as he tried to look at the top of his shoulder. He couldn’t quite see the wound.
His brother-in-law pulled his shirt aside and observed a small 3/8th inch laceration with just a trace of blood at the edges.
“You’ll be all right man, but stay in here. Let her cool off and we’ll all have supper.”
Levi nodded silently as his fingers traced his left collar bone area.
There was silence in both the kitchen and the living room with the only sounds coming from the television. The entire apartment was still, save for the sound of the Bulls announcer. Levi dropped his hand to his upper left chest area now, just below the collarbone. He rubbed it slowly.
“Hurts,” he said, just before he lost consciousness.
* * * *
“Seventy-four-o-seven, call your office,” the dispatcher paged. We found a phone nearby.
“Listen ya guys, sorry to give you a late job, but the next shift is short tonight. Take a DOA stabbing victim at Mount Sinai—one in custody now at the 010th District.”
It had been a quiet Saturday afternoon up to that point, but with less than 90 minutes to go we were now stuck for the evening.
At Mount Sinai Hospital the ER personnel directed us to a private examining room where Levi Wilson awaited transportation to the Cook County Morgue. His shirt had been cut away but treatment had not proceeded much beyond that. He was pronounced dead on arrival. There was a single 2” X 2” gauze patch on his left shoulder on the hollow just above the collarbone.. When we removed it we saw a very small laceration with clean edges and a trace of blood. An ER nurse came into the room to retrieve some supplies.
“Is this what killed him?” we asked with a dubious tone of voice.
“We’re guessing yes, unless they find some surprises at the morgue tomorrow.”
“Maybe heart attack?” asked my partner. If it was a heart attack, we might get to go home relatively on time.
The nurse shrugged and left the room.
We looked over the ER report. The only injury noted was a “laceration of the left supraclavicular hollow.” Chalk up another mini-lesson in anatomy—that cavity on top of your shoulder is really a “supraclavicular hollow.”
The 010th District was a madhouse with not only our case, but all the other flotsam that makes up a normal Saturday afternoon in a busy district. The Watch Commander was only too happy to give us permission to move all parties to the Area Four Homicide office on Maxwell Street and we wound up transporting Lativia Wilson.
Mrs. Wilson was a somewhat heavyset woman 53 years of age, well dressed with salt and pepper hair, obviously extremely distraught.
“Please, sweet Jesus! Tell me Levi’s not dead,” she pleaded. “I just hit him on the shoulder.”
“Hit him on the shoulder with a knife,” countered the uniformed patrolman as he removed his handcuffs from her wrists. He looked expectantly at us but we shook our heads. Lativia would ride with us without handcuffs, but I would ride in the back seat with her.
At the area office we separated the witnesses as best we could and succeeded in reconstructing the incident with very little disparity in the accounts:
Levi hit Lativia and then pushed Delilah who fell to the floor. Neither were injured. Lativia took a kitchen knife, followed Levi to the living room and struck him on the left shoulder with a knife. Levi most likely died within 5-10 minutes of the incident. Levi had a documented history of domestic abuse over the last 25 years.
We called the Cook County Felony Review unit for a recommendation on charges. The Assistant States Attorney was working a double homicide on the far south side. Could we review the case with him over the phone? He listened patiently as my partner ran down the particulars.
“Listen,” replied the ASA. “Normally I would call out someone else from home, but this seems pretty cut and dried. Charge her with murder. Put my name down as approving”
“Uh… well…,” my partner was at a momentary loss for words. “Uh… I don’t think we were exactly looking for a murder charge here.”
“What!” shouted the ASA. “All the times I fight with you guys when you don’t have a complete case and now I’m giving you a murder and that’s not what you want?”
“Well we’re just sayin’, she’s 53 years old, never had so much as a parking ticket and he’s been beatin’ on her for years…”
“Yeah, but this time she’s not hurt, she picked up the knife in the kitchen, followed him all the way to the living room and stabbed him. That’s murder. Let her defense attorney bring up that other crap and maybe we’ll plead it out when it comes to court.”
“Well…” (my partner wasn’t quitting) “…we’re not even sure she caused his death. He’s got a tiny laceration on the top of his shoulder. Maybe he died of a heart attack, or a stroke or something.”
“Yeah, right after she stabbed him. Charge her with murder.”
My partner and I looked at one another and shrugged. So be it.
In total violation of our normal practice Delilah was in the interrogation room with her mother when we entered to explain what was going to happen. Lativia would be charged with murder and removed to the women’s lockup to await a bond hearing the following morning. We knew it would not be a pleasant experience for her. The women embraced and cried.
“Don’t they have something like ‘accidental murder?’” cried Delilah.
* * * *
Sunday morning roll call came too soon. The sergeant tossed us the Wilson case file.
“We’ve got no morgue man today. One of you will have to take the autopsy and the other the bond hearing. Work it out between you.”
“I’ll take court,” replied my partner.
Since I was the junior man on the team, that left me with morgue. It might be interesting, I told myself. I still wasn’t convinced that that tiny cut had killed Levi Wilson. We’d find out soon. I decided to skip breakfast for the time being.
I had only been in homicide a few months but I had at least half dozen autopsies under my belt. The initial shock of watching a pathologist’s assistant cut into a human body had worn off after the first two or three. Revulsion had been replaced by inquisitiveness.
At the morgue I learned that the Wilson case was number three in the morning line-up—the double homicide from the night before would be first. While I waited, the morgue office paged me. It was my partner from court.
“Have you got a cause of death yet?” he asked.
“No, we’re number three. What’s up?”
“Well the judge is a friend of mine. I’m thinkin’ maybe we can get Lativia a personal recognizance bond.”
“On a murder?” I asked skeptically.
“Well we’re not even sure it’s a murder. Call the court bailiff on this number as soon as you get something.”
About 20 minutes later Doug the diener rolled Levi Wilson into the room. He was naked now and we both looked at the small cut on his left shoulder and then scanned the rest of his body. Doug turned Levi to each side but we found no other wounds.
“What do you think? I asked.
He shrugged and called the pathologist over. The pathologist shrugged also.
“Get started” he told Doug.
At the Cook County Morgue a pathologist’s assistant did most of the initial work opening the body. “Dieners” they were called, and Doug was one of the best.
The shoulder laceration was relatively close to where Doug would start his “Y” incision to open the chest, so he called for some photos before he started.
He cut a long incision from each shoulder to the center of the chest where they joined. He then extended the incision downward to the pubic area. Next came the saw. Doug cut a triangular section of the rib cage out and then lifted it free.
“Oh yeah!” he exclaimed.
Looking into a normal chest cavity, one could readily discern the major organs of the chest, most prominent the heart and lungs. But Levi Wilson’s chest was filled with free blood.
“Doc!” called the diener.
The pathologist nodded for Doug to proceed. He carefully used an oversized soup ladle to remove and measure the blood volume. The three of us were peering at the chest cavity intently now. The doctor placed the handle of a scalpel lightly into the wound and then inserted his gloved hand into Levi’s upper left chest and found the wound from the inside. He nodded to Doug and Doug used a hose to gently rinse the injured tissues. The trajectory of the knife blade was clearly visible now, from the left shoulder supraclavicular hollow directly down to the ascending aorta and left ventricle of the heart. Levi Johnson had quite simply died of a stab wound to the heart.
I called my partner at court to give him a report.
“You’re too late,” he told me. “The judge already gave Lativia a personal recognizance bond on my recommendation.”
“Is that on the record?” I asked.
“No, I talked to him in chambers before the court call. The ASA is having a fit. I’ll wait until the next recess and tell Kenny… I mean the judge, maybe we goofed.”
“I don’t think we goofed. She’ll show up in court. Tell ‘Kenny’ I said hello.” I laughed.
* * * *
Weeks turned into months, seasons changed and the Bulls didn’t make the playoffs.
“Padar, you’ve got a court notification, the Civic Center downtown. That’s the Wilson Homicide, how come its downtown?”
“The defendant’s out on recognizance bond, Sarge. Maybe that’s why they sent it to the Civic Center.”
“Recognizance bond on a murder charge? How did that happen?”
“Hey, she’s a nice lady. We pulled strings.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet,” replied the sergeant sarcasically.
It was my first time in court at the relatively new Chicago Civic Center, later to be renamed the Richard J. Daley Center. The ambience was more genteel than the gritty antiquity of the Criminal Courts Building at 26th and California. The courtrooms were small and new and lacked the “prison smell” of 26th Street. I could get used to this real quick, I thought.
Lativia Wilson had arrived before me and was accompanied by two of her three daughters. When Delilah saw me she slid into the bench and sat next to me.
“Thank you for getting mama out on bail,” she said.
“Who told you that?”
“Our lawyer. He said someone put a word in to the judge.”
“Well it wasn’t exactly me,” I replied.
“Well thanks anyway, detective. Our family really appreciated it,” she smiled.
Lativia’s case was the first called.
“Your honor, may I approach?” asked her attorney.
“In camera,” replied the judge. “Court reporter please come to chambers.”
The judge, the Assistant States Attorney, the defense attorney and the court reporter disappeared into chambers. Hey, this was Cook County; nothing surprised me, well not too much. But I was surprised when the bailiff appeared and asked me to step into chambers.
Lativia’s attorney introduced himself to me.
“Delilah works for us,” he said with a smile. “We’re very fond of her.”
So… Lativia’s getting pro bono representation from a downtown law firm I thought to myself. Not too shabby.
The judge spoke…
“Detective, we have been reviewing the circumstances of this case. The state and the defense have agreed to a plea bargain to Voluntary Manslaughter, if I concur. What do you think of that?”
“I think that’s appropriate in this case,” I responded.
“And regarding sentencing… if I pronounce sentence today, this case will be off my docket. I’m thinking of a prison term of two years with five years felony probation…”
Whoa, I thought… I didn’t know what to say, but he wasn’t quite finished.
“…and I’m going to suspend the prison sentence, pending completion of her probation—if she can keep her nose clean,” he smiled at himself. “What do you think of that?”
“I think that’s appropriate in this case,” I repeated myself and returned the judges smile.
“Then it’s done. Let’s return to court.”
It was the first and only time in my police career that I ever attended a criminal trial at the Civic Center. It was also the first and only time in my career that a criminal court judge ever asked my opinion on anything.
Once back in open court, the plea and sentencing was repeated. Lativia Wilson would walk out of court essentially a free woman. Her daughters hugged her and they cried together.
Accidental murder. Sometimes the system works in mysterious ways…
Ask most any homicide detective in Chicago and they will probably tell you that they are there by choice. At least during my tenure I never ran across any that did not want to work in a homicide unit. Murder is the ultimate crime and working the various cases is both interesting and challenging.
Continue on and ask them their least favorite thing about working in a homicide unit and many will tell you, paper jobs. Back in the day, the full title of the unit was Homicide, Sex and Aggravated Assault. That meant we also investigated rapes and sexual assaults along with shootings and stabbings where the victim was not killed. These assignments were typically passed out to individual detectives at roll call in the form of case reports previously submitted by the district beat cars. They came with a deadline for resolution and oft times the pressure of murder investigations, or just plain procrastination, resulted in a backlog of paper jobs on your clipboard.
It was just such an assignment that was passed out to Mike one day. After roll call we were flipping through our newly assigned paper jobs, prioritizing them as best we could when I heard a long sigh from Mike.
“What is it?” I inquired. He answered in a sing-song voice.
“Heard a shot,
Felt a pain,
Story number nine again.”
Paper jobs were enough of a distraction in and of themselves, but when the victim demonstrated a total lack of cooperation, they became a colossal waste of time. Mike had long advocated that we be authorized to dispose of such cases with a large rubber stamp that merely read:
Our supervisors did not agree of course. Each case required at least a cursory investigation before it could be suspended, even if the victim continued to be uncooperative.
Mike handed me the case report and I scanned it quickly. Carlos Diaz was walking on Division Street when an unknown person ran up behind him and stabbed him in the back for no apparent reason. Carlos could not offer any description—he didn’t even know if the offender was male or female—nothing was taken from him. His story screamed #9. There was one thing however that would require we give the case more than passing attention. The beat officer indicated that Carlos was being admitted to the Cook County Hospital.
“We’d better stop by and check his condition Mike. We don’t want any surprise bodies showing up at the morgue.”
“Yeah, I hate when that happens.” said Mike
“So does the sergeant—let’s buzz by the County… but not ‘til after we eat.”
“I like the way you think.”
After breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s, we headed for the Cook County Hospital. We learned that Carlos had just come out of surgery and wouldn’t be able to talk to us, but we asked to speak with anyone who could update us on his condition. Our only concern was, “is he going to live?” For the most part CCH was a cop friendly hospital and the surgical resident agreed to speak with us.
“Is he goin’ to die?” was our very first question.
“No,” laughed the doctor. “He’s going to do just fine, but he’s going to have some permanent disability in his left arm because the stab wound severed a nerve… and he wants to talk to you guys to tell you what really happened.”
“Did he tell you what happened?”
“Yeah,” replied the doctor. “He said it happened in the half-way house where he is living but he didn’t want to get anyone in trouble. Now he’s pissed because he’s only going to have partial use of his left arm.”
Mike and I looked over the original case report. Carlos Diaz had listed his residence in the 1800 block of North Humboldt Boulevard. If that was true, this wouldn’t be our job. It would belong to Area 5 to the north. On our way back to the office we stopped by the half-way house and learned that Diaz in fact lived there. Great! We would just bounce this paper job back to the proper Area.
Back in our Area Four office, the sergeant wasn’t having any.
“It’s your case. You started it, you finish it.”
“But it’s not our job and we haven’t done anything on it yet. Just send it over to Area 5,” we pleaded.
“You heard me! It’s your case…” he waved his hand dismissing us from the office.
The desk man followed us out into the squad room.
“He’s just being a jerk, it’s really not our job,” he said. “Give me the case and I’ll take it off the log and send it over.”
Mike and I pondered his offer a bit. For the most part we were blessed with good bosses in Area Four. There were just two sergeants that gave us problems from time to time and on a scale of 1 to 10, this was about a 1.5. No point in riling him up over a pissant paper job. We would pick our battles, and this wouldn’t be one of them.
“Thanks, but we’ll keep it,” we told the desk man.
We kept tabs on Carlos Diaz and on the third day post-op he was well enough to be interviewed in his hospital bed.
Carlos was mister cooperation when we spoke with him. The fight happened in the kitchen of the half-way house where he and about 15 other men were completing their prison sentence. It was very late and an inmate by the name of Freddie Rivera had been drinking and was arguing with the group. Carlos sensed things were going from bad to worse so he started to leave the kitchen when Freddie grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed him in the back. Carlos never saw it coming, but he knew for certain that it was Freddie. There were several witnesses, friends of Carlos that would back up his story. The only problem was that his friends told him that Freddie had left the half-way house the night of the incident and hadn’t been seen since.
We stopped by the half-way house and found it to be a large residential building on the west side of the street. The first floor, immediately to the left, had an expansive living room and dining room that had been combined into a sort of recreational area with couches, game tables and a large television in the far corner. Toward the rear of the first floor was a large community kitchen. The right of the large foyer was a desk that sat just outside what had become the director’s office. The second and third floors were bedrooms for the inmates. It was a magnificent building in its prime, but now it was definitely showing its age and years of hard use.
The secretary at the desk was reluctant to even tell the director that we were there, but when we told her we were looking for Freddie Rivera the door quickly opened and we were ushered into a large office with oversize leather chairs and a very bulky wooden desk, all of which appeared to have come from the “distressed merchandise” section of a thrift shop.
The director, John Lawson, was about 50 years old and dressed in a suit and tie… his appearance definitely commanded respect. He closed the door behind us and opened Rivera’s file which was already on his desk.
“Right now we’re getting a warrant for parole violation,” he said. “But if he doesn’t return within another day or two, we’ll tack an escape charge on top of that. At the moment, we’re carrying him ‘overdue.’”
We explained that we would be seeking an Aggravated Battery warrant if the State’s Attorney approved, but first we needed background information on Rivera and we would need to talk with the inmates that had seen the incident.
Lawson passed Rivera’s file across the desk to us and told us to paper clip any pages we wanted Xeroxed. From the file we learned that Rivera had been working for a local butcher and his sister lived in the neighborhood.. That would be helpful for whoever wound up looking for him, but we did not envision ourselves pounding the bushes for him. It was, after all, a paper job and it didn’t even belong in our Area. The Special Operations Group and the 014th District Tactical Team would be happy to find him and bring him in once we got the warrant.
The majority of the residents were at work, but Director Lawson would make them available for interview over the week-end. Carlos Diaz was well liked, Freddie Rivera much less so. Cooperation would not be a problem he thought, especially since they were all so close to release.
The next week we sandwiched the Diaz case in between our other cases and ultimately got the warrant and published Freddie’s picture in the Daily Bulletin. That’s the last we expected to hear of the case—someone else would find him, arrest him and lodge the warrant. In total, we probably hadn’t spent more than four or five hours on the case. Four or five hours more than we should have, being that it was a paper assignment and it wasn’t our job.
Mike and I rotated shifts a few times over the next several months and the Carlos Diaz case became a distant memory of no importance. Then came the telephone call from Carlos.
“Do you know what that bastard did?” Carlos literally exploded over the phone. He didn’t wait for a response. “That son-of-a-bitch applied for unemployment compensation!”
“How do you know?” we asked.
“One of the other guys works for the butcher. He heard the owner complaining—they sent the paperwork over here to the house, but the director won’t tell me anything… he says it’s confidential. Ain’t that a crock?”
A few days later we found ourselves back at the halfway house sitting in front of Director John Lawson’s oversized desk. This time, he had to retrieve Rivera’s file from a battered file cabinet along the wall.
“Yep. You’re right. Freddie has filed for unemployment. That’s a lot of nerve. How did you guys find out?” Lawson peered over his glasses at us.
Mike grimaced a bit and shifted in his seat. No telling exactly how Carlos got his information, but it wouldn’t do anyone any good to reveal our source.
“Ah… not really at liberty to say,” said Mike haltingly. “But we sure would like to know where Freddie wants his checks sent.”
It was Lawson’s turn to play coy, but he did so with a warm friendly tone.
“That’s information I can’t divulge. I’m sorry but there’s just no way I can tell you that.” Rivera’s file was open in front of him.
“It’s really a shame, because it’s right here,” he said pointing at the open page.
“Will you excuse me just a minute or two?” he continued as he pushed the file across to our edge of the desk. He abruptly left the room and closed the door behind him.
Mike and I jumped from our chairs. I read and Mike wrote rapidly; claim number, current residence… whoa! New York City! Calm down, calm down—we were like a couple of kids stealing candy before the proprietor returned. Quickly, re-read, confirm… no errors permitted!
We sat back in our oversized badly worn leather chairs. It was another minute or two before the director returned to his office. He took Rivera’s file and closed it.
“It’s really a shame that I can’t share this information, I hope you understand my position,” he spoke with sincere regret. He was dead serious.
“We understand,” said Mike, “It’s a shame, but we know you have to play by the rules.” Sincere regret. Dead serious.
“We’ll let you know if we find him,” I said as we left.
“I would appreciate that,” Lawson responded.
Out in the car Mike and I tried to contain ourselves.
“Do you smell extradition?” said Mike.
“I used to live in New York City,” I replied. “We can have a good time there!”
It wasn’t cut and dried. We needed to get the State’s Attorney’s Office to review the case and approve it for extradition, but it turned out Freddie Rivera had really riled people by being a fugitive and applying for unemployment. Approval was easier than we thought.
New York City police were notified and their fugitive unit replied about a week later. Freddie Rivera had left their jurisdiction and the unemployment authorities would not tell them where he had gone. Another dead end.
But who could get into those files legally? Two phone calls later we had an answer. The FBI. Get an Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution (UFAP) warrant and if Freddie was receiving unemployment checks, they would find him. Once again, our State’s Attorney’s Office readily gave us approval to seek a federal warrant. We set up a meeting with a Special Agent in our office.
“How did you determine that he was receiving unemployment?” he asked.
“Confidential informant,” we replied.
“Has this CI given you reliable information on previous cases?” asked the agent.
“No…” there was a long pause. “But we were able to examine a document that confirmed the CI’s information.”
“Do you have that document?” This agent wasn’t giving up.
“Then how did those papers confirm the CI’s reliability?”
“The document pointed to New York City and the NYPD verified Rivera was there but now he’s left their jurisdiction,” we replied.
“And you’re not going to reveal your source?”
“Does Coke tell Pepsi?” I replied, tiring a bit of this extended conversation.
The agent paused for what seemed like an eternity before he replied. Had I overstepped?
“I’ll run it by our legal, but I think you’ve got your UFAP.”
Ten days later we had a federal warrant charging Freddie Rivera with Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution. If the FBI mystique was anywhere near a match to the homicide mystique, all we had to do was wait for our extradition trip. Overall, it was a strange turn of events and it was only a paper job that didn’t even belong in our Area.
Every day in homicide is a new day and as the current cases came in, the old ones migrated to the bottom of the priority list. We had wrapped up the Diaz/Rivera case, tied it in a bow and presented it to the feds. It was off our radar and as always Area Four Homicide, affectionately known as the murder factory, presented us with an abundance of fresh murders… and yes, the bane of all homicide detectives—paper jobs.
It was a pleasant surprise a few months later when our Special Agent from the fugitive squad called to tell us that Freddie Rivera was in custody.
“So ya’ found him, heh?” said Mike.
“”Find’ is a strong word,” replied the agent. “I think our guy stumbled over him on the beach.”
“Beach?” queried Mike. “Where is he?”
Mike and I beamed at one another—this paper job just kept getting better and better and it wasn’t even supposed to be our job. It was an Area Five case.
The FBI does not extradite on UFAP warrants. Such a warrant acts merely as a device to justify federal assistance when a bad guy flees a local jurisdiction. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office would be responsible for putting the extradition papers together and the investigating detectives would be dispatched to return the prisoner to our jurisdiction. That of course would be Mike and me.
We needed to confirm that we still had contact with our victim and witnesses, but that proved to be an easy task. We garnered all the approvals, stamps and signatures and when the extradition package was complete we presented it to our sergeant. As luck would have it, it was the same sergeant who had insisted we handle the case many months before.
“Hey! This is an Area Five case!” he exclaimed. We had no idea if he remembered that months previous it was he who had personally insisted we continue the investigation, even after we had complained.
“Yeah, it’s not our job, how strange is that?” replied Mike.
“It’s only a paper job and you’re going to Puerto Rico?” The sergeant was incredulous.
“Yeah, how strange is that? And it’s not even our job.” I chimed in, maybe with more than a hint of sarcasm.
The desk man stifled a laugh, but it resulted in something that sounded like a combination of a snort and a sneeze. Mike and I decided to step out of the office if for nothing more than to contain our pleasure at the turn of events.
It was a cold winter day in Chicago when Mike and I stepped off the plane in sunny San Juan, Puerto Rico. We had arranged to take an extra day compensatory time, so we would have time to do the tourist thing. The frosting on the cake was when we stopped in the office of del Departamento de Justicia in downtown San Juan and discovered that a judicial signature was missing from one of the extradition documents. The gentleman apologized, but it would take an extra day to get the papers in order. Mike and I feigned disappointment and asked if they would FAX our office to explain the delay. A quick two day extradition had turned into four.
Mike and I filled the days with a few of the normal touristy things, but concentrated mostly on historical sites, the highlight being Fort San Felipe del Morro, or Morro Castle. By evening we explored restaurants in downtown San Juan, daytime would find us at a beachfront cabaña enjoying our favorite rum drink.
The fourth day we “returned to work” when we picked up Freddie Rivera and headed for the airport. On most of our extraditions we had little trouble with our prisoners and Rivera was no exception. He was too frightened to be any trouble. Once on board our flight he bowed his head as if in prayer. After takeoff, beads of sweat appeared on his brow as moderate turbulence buffeted the Delta plane.
“Freddie, surely you have made this trip before?” I asked as we bounced about the sky.
“Si señor,” he replied. “But never before sober!”
The turbulence gradually increased to the point it became the roughest flight Mike and I had ever experienced. Loose objects bounced about the cabin. An overhead popped open several rows ahead of us spilling the contents on the passengers below. We could feel our bodies straining against the seatbelts as the plane plummeted, only to be immediately followed by a feeling of soaring in a rapid ascent. The pilot warned us periodically to keep our seatbelts snug and not to leave our seats. Even the flight attendants had themselves strapped in.
“Is this our punishment for manipulating the system?” I thought. “Plunging to our deaths in the Atlantic Ocean?” It seemed a bit harsh to me. But as we approached the coastline, the flight became silky smooth. Thoughts of Divine retribution evaporated. “Hey, we were only doing our job, and a very fine job at that!”
- Epilogue: Freddie Rivera never went to trial, He elected to plead guilty to the plethora of charges that were awaiting him, parole violations, escape and Aggravated Battery among them. He was 43 years old—he would be an old man before he would walk the streets again as a free man.