Chicago's unsolved murder mysteries
By Ben Winters
NOVEMBER 2, 1998:
"You got two selves, one that you know about and the other that you don't know about, because it's subconscious... Did I really do it, and not know it?"
It's 5am on a Sunday, and I'm standing under a streetlight in Kenilworth, Illinois, gazing up at the moonlit mansions while the wind sends a shiver deep into my bones. I pull my collar tight and take a long drag on my cigarette, watching the tip glow and tasting the poison as it circles into my gut. The darkness seeps into my tired psyche, and I begin to feel like an anonymous denizen of the underworld, full of menace and unspeakable secrets, waiting for the right moment to narrow my flinty eyes and do something awful - something that can never be undone - to one of the unsuspecting suburbanites sleeping peacefully all around me.
I shake the feeling, rub out my cigarette, and get in my car. I don't get out a glass cutter and break into the back door of one of these big, beautiful homes. I don't then climb the stairs and enter the bedroom where a young, beautiful socialite, the daughter of a rising star in the Republican Party, peacefully sleeps. I don't take out a jeweler's hammer and send her into a permanent slumber.
But on September 18, 1966, someone did exactly that, right here in Kenilworth, on a cold autumn night like this one. The victim was Valerie Percy, who before going to bed that night had been working on her father's campaign for the United States Senate. The murderer was a stranger, a stranger who broke into the Percy mansion, committed his crime for no motive that's ever been clearly identified, and disappeared into the night.
Disappeared - but not, as they say, without a trace. The murderer of Valerie Percy left five bloody palm prints on the banister; he left a black leather glove outside the mansion; and he left a permanent picture in the mind of Valerie's stepmother, who glimpsed the killer's silhouette for a split-second before he blinded her with his flashlight and sprinted down the stairs and back out on to the dark North Shore beach.
"Murder most foul, as in the best it is, But this most foul, strange, and unnatural."
There she might meet the ghost of Nan Toder, who was visiting the Chicago area from Florida in December 1996 and was cut, strangled and beaten to death in her Crestwood hotel room. And Karyn "Cookie" Kupcinet, daughter of the Sun-Times gossip columnist, who was beginning a promising Hollywood career when a still-unidentified assailant - probably someone she knew and trusted - strangled her to death in her Los Angeles apartment. And Lisa Kopanakis, and Gus Raftoponlos, and Patricia and Barbara Grimes, and Judith Mae Anderson, and Sherry Gordon, and Theresa Hall...
If none of these names ring a bell, surely you recall the Brown's Chicken and Seafood in Palatine, where seven employees were gunned down one January night five years ago for just over $1,000 out of the cash register, their bodies left stacked in the freezers.
Poring over the details of these cases, I begin to fear that unsolved homicides are the rule rather than the exception. I turn for reassurance to police spokesman Patrick Camden, who explains that the Chicago force does pretty well in closing homicide cases, particularly considering that ours is an area with a relatively high murder rate: at about thirty-three killed out of every 100,000 people, in 1994 we were outpacing New York by ten murders and Los Angeles by about seven. Ahead of us on the list were Detroit with 52.9 per 100,000 and the District of Columbia with a breathtaking 70.
"Our average is about 70 percent clearance on homicides," Camden says. "That's a closed case: arrest and conviction." The cops don't like to talk about the ones that got away, but by plugging in this figure to the above percentages, and factoring in the approximate Chicago population, I come up with 924 captures, which leaves 396 killers unaccounted for every year.
Three hundred and ninety-six killers...
I hear a disembodied voice, belonging no doubt to Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, urging me to warn you that all of these perpetrators are undoubtedly still out there, roaming the streets of Chicago, waiting for the right moment to strike again. But that would be, at best, a gross exaggeration. One can safely presume that many of these murderers have been killed themselves, caught up by their own dangerous lifestyles. And then there are surely those who have found new lives elsewhere, swallowed up, say, by New York or Los Angeles, or the quiet anonymity of rural America. And if the statistics on violent crime hold true, at least one in four of these killers weren't dark strangers at all, but the lovers, friends and family of their victims.
"When we want to read of the deeds that are done for love, whither do we turn? To the murder column."
Richard Speck, who in the same year as Valerie Percy's death set a new gold standard for serial murder, was caught after a nurse, prepping him to give blood, noticed the "Born to Raise Hell" tattoo that authorities had made infamous. William Heirens, a deranged killer of woman and little girls, helped investigators along with a chilling message left in lipstick on a victim's bedroom mirror: "For heaven's sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself."
An equally memorable case was that of Adolph Luetgert, the North Side sausage-maker who claimed that, on the first night of May, 1897, his wife ran away from him to start a new life elsewhere; this despite overwhelming evidence that he killed her with caustic potash and then crammed her body into the sausage machine.
And in 1995, while the rest of the world was following the hunt for the Unabomber and awaiting the denouement of the O.J. trial, Chicago police wrapped up the Schuessler-Peterson slayings: a triple murder that had occurred on October 16, 1955.
"They've come to see if she belongs to the parents Who are ready to hear the worst about their daughter's disappearance."
In reality, the FBI rarely becomes involved with local murder cases, but there are, as Illinois agent Bob Long explains, a couple of exceptions. If the victim, before being killed, is kidnapped and brought across state lines, the case falls under federal jurisdiction. Such was the situation with Tammy Zywicki. In September 1992, en route to her senior year at Grinnell College in Iowa, she was abducted, presumably in La Salle, Illinois, where her car was later found. Her body turned up weeks later in a roadside in Missouri.
The feds have had as little luck finding her assailant as local authorities had in cracking the Valerie Percy case thirty years earlier. Long details the investigation with the grim, passionless voice of the professional lawman, barely betraying the enormous frustration of the effort thus far.
"That case remains unsolved," Long says. "We don't really know exactly what happened, and if we ever do find out, it will probably be because someone comes forward. We've done interviews with every possible person who could know anything about this, any leads that have come in, anything at all, truck drivers that may have observed anything." All, at least so far, for naught.
Despite such setbacks, Long refuses to admit defeat. "These cases do remain open," he says flatly. "And they do get solved."
"Above the banner of the gang wars waved the bloody banner of Al Capone."
Like that of Bill "Little Mac" McSwiggin, the ambitious young DA with plenty of friends on both sides of the law; plenty of friends, but at least one determined enemy. Or Charles Gross, the alderman from the 31st Ward who played games with the mob, lost, and got a face full of hot lead as his consolation prize.
But the most infamous Chicago mob slayings took place in a converted garage on 2122 North Clark street, on the icy, cold morning of February 14, 1929. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre is by now as much a matter of mythology as history, but some points are beyond dispute.
We know that the target of the hit, Al Capone's arch-nemesis Greg "Bugsy" Moran, escaped his fate by arriving at the garage a minute or two late for an appointment with his underlings. We know that, in addition to the six hoods who lost their lives, there was a seventh victim: The unfortunate Reinhold H. Schwimmer, a local optometrist with a fatal taste for making pals in the underworld. And we know that the assailants, pretending to be cops, lined up their victims - who presumed it would be another routine shakedown, ending with the usual twenty-dollar handshake - and riddled their bodies with bullets.
All we don't know is who in the hell did it. As Long puts it, the perpetrators "came in with Thompson submachine guns and only stopped firing once everyone was laying on the floor and had been executed. Everybody was dead when those individuals walked out of there."
In point of fact, one of the victims survived the attack long enough to be rushed to the hospital, but not long enough to provide any useful information. But Long is certainly accurate in his conclusion: "It was really impossible to make a case."
Regardless, in the weeks following the murders, Chicago was aflurry with pointed fingers, suspicions and counter-suspicions. Moran said that "only Capone kills like that," to which Capone sneered, "The only man who kills like that is Bugs Moran." The local prohibition administrator claimed that "the murders were not gangsters. They were Chicago policeman." An Assistant State's Attorney named Walker Butler fingered the Purple Gang of Detroit, while one of his colleagues suspected a local hood named Joseph Lolordo, whose brother had recently been killed by Moran's North Siders.
Three men were finally charged, all members of Capone's gang. Two died, of very unnatural causes, before the trial could begin. The third, one "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn, walked, because he had an alibi with blonde hair and a knock-out body.
Because unsolved homicides are never officially closed, if you were to walk into a police station or FBI office with new information on the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, it would be the duty of the authorities to listen carefully. "However," Long says, "whoever is responsible is probably dead at this point."
"Murder may pass unpunished for a time, But tardy justice will o'ertake the crime."
It might have been Frederick Malchow, a career criminal who would die in 1967 during a Pennsylvania prison break. Malchow was one of a gang of burglars who preyed on affluent North Shore homes during the period in question. According to his pal James Evans, Malchow had bragged about the Percy murder while the two awaited trial for rape on the East Coast. Or perhaps the killer was Frances Leroy Hohimer, a member of the same criminal fraternity, who was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list at the time of the killing.
Then again, it could have been a third member of their gang, Norman Jackson, who shortly after being named by Hohimer took a mysterious - and fatal - fall from a Chicago high-rise. But as there was no evidence of burglary, it could have been someone else entirely, perhaps some lunatic who did away with the unfortunate Valerie for reasons entirely his own. Camden downplays this last possibility, insisting that a deranged killer who strikes with no warning and leaves with no trace is the rarest of phenomena. "I'm sure there are people that do, technically, get away with murder, but it's not something that amounts to a pattern of random violence," he says. "If somebody commits a murder in a moment of passion or rage, it's not something that society in general should be concerned with."
I pull out another cigarette, listen for the satisfying click of my door locks, and try desperately not to feel concerned.
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