There are not many occupations where a person can get some idea of how their workday is going to be by merely listening to the news on the way to work. Homicide detective is one of them.
It was an end-of-season summer day in the late 70’s and as I drove to work that morning, the local all-news radio station was reporting breaking news. A passenger on an eastbound Lake Street elevated train had apparently been shot as the train proceeded past a public housing project en route to the famed Chicago Loop. A reporter was on the way to the hospital to determine her condition, police were unable to confirm that the shot came from a sniper. Details to follow…
Hmmm, I thought to myself. On a heater scale of one to ten, that’s definitely a ten.
“Heater case” is police jargon for an incident likely to garner unusual media attention for any number of reasons—a sniper shooting at passing trains would definitely qualify.
Once in the office, the sergeant didn’t waste any time with preliminaries.
“Padar, Shull… take a supposed gunshot victim from the el at Pres/St Luke’s hospital .”
Just the two of us? No multiple teams fanning out?
“You’d better get over there right-away. She wants to get on to work and they’re fixin’ to release her.”
Okay, okay, maybe not a ten.
“You got a name sarge?” I asked. “Ya know it’s on the radio?” I continued, trying to maybe work it back up to a ten. Or at least a nine.
“Here’s what we have…” he said as he handed us some notes. “…and the media doesn’t know any more than we do—probably less.”
Mike and I read the 1 ½ pages of handwritten notes on the case. Gertrude Engstrom, 33, of Oak Park was sitting in the window seat of a Lake Street elevated train when a gunshot struck the window next to her, striking her in the right upper arm. She was to be released after treatment in the Emergency Room of Presbyterian/St Luke’s Hospital. Passengers pulled the emergency stop at the Ashland Avenue platform and notified the conductor, an ambulance was called and the train was evacuated and removed from service. The train was deadheading to the Forest Park terminal where it would be met by Chicago Police Crime Lab personnel.
“Shull, you and Padar head to the hospital first before she gets away from us,” said our sergeant. “Then go straight to the terminal and interview the crew. I’ll call the Crime Lab guys and see if they can hold the crew until you get there.”
* * *
At the hospital, Mrs. Gertrude Engstrom’s “gunshot wound” was several notches below minor. Her upper left arm bore the telltale signs of an orange Betadine scrub that had highlighted perhaps a half-dozen very superficial abrasions. A precautionary x-ray was negative for any foreign matter, according to the preliminary read by the ER resident. She would be released when a radiologist confirmed the findings. I had a feeling this 9 or 10 heater case was rapidly cooling.
Gertrude presented a mixture of embarrassment and anxiety. Embarrassed at all the attention she was receiving and anxious about proceeding on her way to work. She worked at a downtown publishing firm and we offered to call them for her. No need, she had already called from the hospital and left them a message, giving them a brief description of what had happened to her.
“Can you tell us what happened?” we asked
She took a deep breath—she had already told her tale many times this morning.
“I was sitting on the Lake Street elevated. We were on an “A” train so we went right past the Damen platform and before we got to the Ashland stop, I heard a loud snapping sound and a bullet came through the window and hit me in the right shoulder… at least I thought I got hit by a bullet…” gesturing to her upper right arm. “But now they tell me I just got hit by some glass.”
“But you heard the shot?” asked Mike.
“No, not a shot… more like loud snapping sound when a stone hits your car windshield on the highway… and I felt the pain right away and I saw the bullet hole at the same time.”
“And then what happened?”
“I screamed and some other passengers had heard and seen what happened and everybody started to get excited. When we pulled into the Ashland station someone pulled the emergency handle over the door and told the conductor what had happened. I was holding my arm and crying. They made everyone get off the train and then the ambulance came. That’s all I really know.”
“Can you estimate where the train was when you got shot?”
“Oh God no!” she laughed. “I was just riding in kind of a trance… you know how you do… especially in the morning on the way to work. All I can tell you is we were past Damen and coming into Ashland.”
“Mrs. Engstrom?” interrupted a nurse. “Your office is on the phone. Do you feel well enough to take the call out at the nurses station?”
We couldn’t help but overhear the one-sided conversation.
“Yes! That was me!”
“No, no, I’m coming to work.”
“I’m fine—No, I’m not going home.”
“Oh my goodness!” she giggled. “Well okay.” She hung up the phone.
“They’re sending a car for me…” she giggled again.
“If you play your cards right, they’ll probably buy you lunch,” I said.
She laughed and then suddenly she burst into tears.
“I thought I had been shot… I really did… and now I’m joking about it.”
The emotional roller coaster… she composed herself once again.
“I’m alright, I’m really alright.” she said as though trying to convince herself.
The nurse reappeared.
“Mrs. Engstrom,” she said. “The radiologist said there is nothing there—you can go now.
* * *
Out at the Forest Park terminal we learned that the train crew had been sent home but we connected with our Crime Lab personnel. They were scouring the elevated car for the bullet.
“There’s no question it was a gunshot,” said the lab man. “Looks to be a small-caliber, maybe a .32, it penetrated the window, but we can’t find the damned bullet!” They had apparently been at it for some time.
“Well it’s not in the victim.” I said. “All she has is a few scratches from the glass.”
“Screw it.” said his partner. “It’s not here. Maybe someone picked it up… or maybe it got caught up in someone’s clothing.”
“If it came from the projects, those windows are at least 30-40 yards from the tracks. Ya think a .32 would have pretty much expended its energy by the time it penetrated the window?” I asked.
“To tell you the truth, I’m surprised a .32 even went through the window from that distance,” said the lab guy.
“Maybe it didn’t,” said his partner. “That’s reinforced safety glass. Maybe it almost made it through and then fell back to the street. You say all she had was scratches from glass particles?”
The four of us peered closely at the window. There was no way to tell if the bullet had actually entered the el car or not, but the hole in the glass was just about where a passenger’s upper arm would be, however apparently the bullet never touched her.
“Chalk it up to one of the mysteries of life.”
“Yeah, that’s it… a mystery of life. You’re never going to find the offender anyhow.”
* * *
Mike and I called our office and brought them up to date. We headed back to Lake Street to canvas for any possible witnesses.
We walked Lake Street, under the elevated tracks, heading east from Damen on the south side of the street, adjacent to the Henry Horner Housing projects. There were literally hundreds of windows, but the horizontal distance from the windows to the tracks was about 40 yards. Quite a distance for a .32 caliber bullet to be effective on safety glass. Every time a train passed, the noise was intense, intense enough to certainly drown out of the sound of any gunshot. It was early afternoon now and we decided to return to our office and bring the sergeant up to date.
* * *
In the office we grabbed some coffee and sat down to review our notes. The media had not called all morning, probably due to the minor nature of Gertrude’s injury. The #10 Heater Case had rapidly dissolved to a routine Aggravated Battery, to be vigorously investigated by our office of course, but not worthy of intense media attention… or so we thought.
“Padar! Shull! One of you guys pick up the PAX.” The PAX was the restricted Police Auxiliary Line, an internal phone system for the department. We picked up simultaneously.
“You guys handling that el shooting from this morning?” asked a 012th District patrol officer.
“That’s us.” We replied.
“Listen, I would have called you guys sooner, but I didn’t know about your case. I think maybe I got your shooter.”
“Who is he, where is he?” we asked at the same time.
“He’s in the lockup here at 012. He had a beef with his girlfriend early this morning and he took a shot at her and missed—then he took off, and ran to his momma’s down the hall. We arrested him with an old .32 caliber Colt Police Positive loaded with .32 caliber shorts. It’s a pissant gun with pissant ammo so I don’t know if it fits with what you’re looking for…”
“It sounds like exactly what we’re looking for!” we interrupted. “Put a hold on him, don’t let him bond out. We need to know exactly where this happened. We’ll want to talk with the girl and look over the apartment to see if it could fit what we think the trajectory is.”
“Oh the apartment fits alright. We looked for the bullet hole but the girl told us she thought it went out the window… right towards the elevated tracks. She never mentioned a passing el, but she was pretty shaken up… and he’s not going anywhere, the gun is stolen and he’s on parole. He’ll be held over for court.”
“Thanks officer—great pinch and thanks for calling us!” We were grinning ear to ear when we hung up.
“Padar! Shull!” pick up the PAX came the shout out from our sergeant.
“Sarge, we’ve got something going on this el sniper. Can you give it to someone else?”
“It’s the Homicide Commander, he asked for you specifically—pick it up!”
“Hey boss, what’s up?” we asked. Both of us were on very good terms with the Commander.
“Listen guys, I want you to meet a reporter and camera crew at Ashland and Lake, eastbound platform and give ‘em an interview on this el shooting from this morning.” He mentioned the reporter and I recognized her name. She was relatively new in town, an attractive blonde. Maybe the Commander was as big a sucker for blondes as I was.
We briefed him in detail on what we had going.
“Well, talk to her first and then go over and talk to the girl in the projects—but don’t tell her about this lead. It might not pan out. Give me a call when you finish the interview.”
* * *
We met the major network newgal reporter and camera crew on schedule. They set the scene so the camera was facing westbound, toward any oncoming trains and the cameraman stood at the very edge of the platform so he could get a shot of Mike and me and newgal, with the eastbound tracks as a backdrop. I didn’t realize it at the time, but they apparently timed the start of the interview to coincide with an approaching elevated train.
Newgal asked some very general questions about the shooting and we answered likewise, giving her some indication that we were working on some leads. Then she took a strange tangent and asked a series of question of both Mike and me as to how often these incidents happened. Well, never before to our knowledge. She pressed the issue, a train was approaching, I glanced at the cameraman as I heard the train. He was standing, I thought, dangerously close to the edge of the platform. Newgal couldn’t seem to believe that this was an isolated incident, I kept glancing at the cameraman expecting him to be momentarily sucked onto the tracks by the oncoming train. The train came and went and I heaved a sigh of relief.
* * *
At the Henry Horner apartment we interviewed the girlfriend and scoped out the apartment. Physically everything fit. The apartment was on level with the elevated track outside, but the rails did appear to be at least 50 yards away.
Without ballistics we would have a weak case, but with added charges, badguy would be more inclined to negotiate a plea with some of the charges being dropped in exchange for a guilty plea. The case of the el sniper would be cleared by arrest before the end of the day. I called home and alerted my wife to set the VCR to record the afternoon news. Mike and I were going to be on TV!
* * *
I arrived home late, after the conclusion of the early evening newscasts and my wife reported that our story had not been aired. But, the station was hyping the story repeatedly in promos, billing the incident as some sort of battle between the police and CTA motormen. Stay tuned—details at ten! Had my roller coaster heater case regained another life?
At ten o’clock I sat on the edge of my seat. Newgal appeared with Mike and me on the Ashland el platform. As she spoke with us, I kept glancing at the cameraman, expecting him to disappear at any moment. I was, without a doubt, the most shifty eyed cop ever to appear on the ten o’clock news. Newgal harped on how unusual we thought the incident… “never occurred before” according to our experience. Cut to an interview in the office of the president of the CTA motorman’s union where he regaled newgal with how dangerous the job of motorman was…
“My men get shot at every day,” was his closing line.
It was not true of course, but Mike and I had been setup in a trumped-up story for the sake of creating a headline.
I called the Homicide Commander at home. He was laughing.
“Well she snookered us.” he said light-heartedly.
“What ‘us’ boss? I replied. “I didn’t notice your name mentioned in this story.”
He laughed again.
“We’ll check our facts with our records, but I’m sure we’ll be able to have news affairs issue a statement in the morning to correct the situation. But the station won’t cover it, so we lose this one.”
He was taking it much more lightly than I, for certain.
Newgal remained in Chicago for the rest of her broadcasting career, but I never spoke to her again. She would never get one scintilla of information from me ever again. And given my prestigious position in the department… I’m sure she never noticed.