It was the summer of 1967 and I was working the tactical team in the 018th District. Celebrity encounters were not unusual in 018 with the Rush Street night clubs providing popular watering holes for upscale patrons. For my part, none of them were particularly memorable, except perhaps one.
We had a rape pattern working just north of the Rush Street neighborhood, along State and Dearborn streets, between Division and North Avenues. There was a mix of attempt entries along with actual rapes that had occurred during early morning hours from about 3:00 AM to dawn. The bad guy struck mostly on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays for some odd reason. The tact team hours were shifted to allow for intensive plain-clothed foot patrols during the target hours. None of us were too happy, first with being on foot for the entire night, but also because in 1967 there were no hand-held personal radios. We would be completely devoid of any communications with the rest of the district except for four operating call boxes, two on Division Street and two on North Avenue.
The beat cars were alerted to our mission in the event we attempted to wave them down for an assist. Two tact sergeants would be in unmarked vehicles and would cruise State and Dearborn Streets exclusively making frequent visual contact with the foot teams.
The powers that be wanted each two man team to be bi-racial. We were a well-integrated unit, but never-the-less I was separated from my regular partner and assigned to work with Alex, a dark-skinned Louisiana Creole man. We would work well together without a problem but it just added another wild-card to the overall situation. My regular partner and I could anticipate one another in an almost uncanny manner—Alex and I would not enjoy that sixth-sense advantage.
Because there had been several incidents in this pattern, we had a fairly reliable description of the rapist. He was a male black, about 5-10, with a slightly stocky build. Victims and intended victims described his clothing as shabby and unkempt. He had a scruffy beard, bushy hair and body odor. Indications were that we were likely looking for a homeless person.
Alex and I were about an hour into our first night’s assignment. The brightening sky to the east, a precursor to dawn had not yet appeared, if anything, it was the extreme pitch-blackness just prior to sunrise. We were walking south on Dearborn, approaching Division, glancing down each gangway as we proceeded when suddenly we noticed a dark figure hurrying down the gangway toward us. First glance into the shadows told us only that he was a male black.
“Stop, police!” I shouted.
“Let me see your hands!” shouted Alex.
The shadowy figure stopped instantly.
“Whoa,” he said as he held his hands away from his side. “I’m cool.”
“Walk toward us—slowly.”
During street stops, officers are constantly evaluating any threat potential. He walked toward us slowly, as directed as we observed and evaluated.
“I’m cool, I’m cool,” he kept repeating.
As he stepped out of the shadows, we quickly concluded two things. One, he was over six foot tall with a very muscular build. Two, he was clean shaven, well-groomed and well dressed—he was definitely not who we were looking for. I looked at his arms again and thought to myself, let’s not piss him off.
He was now near the sidewalk and Alex and I stood on either side of him.
“You have some ID?” asked Alex
“Sure, sure,” he said as he reached for his back pocket.
“Hold on, hold on,” I said. “Let me pat you down.”
He nodded and held his arms out without saying anything while I gave him a quick pat down. No, I thought to myself, we definitely do not want to piss this guy off.
“Okay, let’s see some ID…” but I was suddenly interrupted by Alex.
“Cassius?” he asked.
The subject nodded I looked quizzically at Alex.
“Cassius Clay,” said Alex.
“Sorry Cassius… didn’t know it was you. We’re looking for a rapist…”
“I know who you’re looking for—my girl told me all about it. She’s on the second floor and all locked up tight—I just dropped her off. Do you want to talk to her?”
“No, that’ll be okay, but we’ll have to do a contact card to show we talked to you,” I said.
“Not that they’ll believe us back at the station,” added Alex as he jotted down the information.
* * * * *
Several things struck me about that night as I reflected on it later. First, Cassius Clay had changed his name to Muhammad Ali some three years earlier to great fanfare in the press, but his official ID in 1967 still carried the name Cassius Clay. And second, even though he was viewed by many as a controversial and polarizing individual, in my personal contact with him on that particular evening, I found him to be personable and self-effacing.
Later I talked to others that had casual social contact with Muhammad Ali over the years and they made the same observations. The brash bravado when the cameras were rolling was, in my mind, a well-crafted marketing hype designed to revitalize the waning sport of boxing. I think he succeeded, not to deny that he was also probably one of the best, if not the best heavy-weight boxer in history. And in light of that, I’m still glad I didn’t piss him off.
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