It was a warm summer night on Chicago’s west side. Mike Shull and I were working homicide out of the Area Four office…the “murder factory.” They called it that because our office handled more homicides than any other area in the city. We were working an old murder case, cruising the neighborhood looking for a distinctive car supposedly used by the killer. An all-call interrupted our search.
The incident was a man shot in the gangway—the dispatcher gave an exact address and Mike and I were just a block away. We pulled up to the front of a single family home on Chicago’s west side and we were the first unit on the scene. As we exited our unmarked squad we could hear the distinctive warble/wail of the mechanical sirens used on all Chicago Police vehicles at the time (LISTEN HERE). Assists from district and city-wide units would be on the scene in less than a minute.
We walked cautiously down the narrow gangway with our flashlights held away from our bodies, making wide sweeps of light. We slowed as we got to the yard entrance. The gate was askew but we saw nothing. We walked even slower and we heard marked squads pulling up both out front and in the alley. As I reached the basement stairwell I swung my light to the left and pointed it down the five short steps to a small landing.
“Mike! Body!” I called out.
We swung our lights in a wide arc across the backyard. It was clear. Then I walked slowly down the steps trying to watch that I didn’t step on a stray shell casing or anything else that might be of evidentiary value. I set my flashlight on the second stair and as I knelt next to the body, Mike shined his light on the body from his vantage point at the top of the stairs. The air was heavy at the bottom of the stairs and the body-odor of the victim was the prevalent smell.
There was a pool of heavy dark red blood about ten inches in diameter beneath the victim’s head and I watched it carefully for a moment. It was not expanding, an indication that the heart was not beating. I looked at his chest and there was no apparent respiration movement, then back at the blood. No change. He was warm to the touch as I searched for a radial pulse in his closest wrist—nothing—carotid pulse at his neck—nothing.
“He’s dead,” I announced as I began searching for any identification he might be carrying. Before I could climb the steps I heard a beat car call the zone dispatcher.
“Yeah, squad, this guy is DOA, give the ambulance a slowdown.”
I cringed just a bit when I heard that. “DOA” is generally accepted to mean “Dead on Arrival” but cops use it out of context all the time. The question might be asked, who’s arrival? The victim’s arrival at the hospital or the police arrival on the scene? The former is most likely the preferred and widely accepted use because only qualified medical personnel can make a formal pronouncement of death. No matter what, cursory opinions of homicide detectives don’t count.
In the distance, I heard the wail of the fire department ambulance. All the Chicago fire vehicles used the standard emergency vehicle sirens. I estimated they would be here in a minute or two.
I joined the group at the top of the stairs and we began to exchange pertinent information. Since Mike and I were the first homicide detectives on the scene, the case would most likely be assigned to us. We cleared the area at the top of the stairs when the paramedics arrived with their oversized case of magic. They peered down the stairwell.
“He’s DOA,” said one of the uniform officers.
“Oh?” said one of the paramedics with a raised eyebrow. “Who pronounced him?”
“One of the homicide dicks.”
The paramedics gave a sigh and a barely perceptible shake of their heads as they proceeded down the stairwell and opened their box of tricks. I watched them begin their examination for just a few seconds before I faded to the rear of the milieu of officers. Mike followed me with a big grin.
“Tell them Jim. Tell them you pronounced him dead. What was the time?”
“Shut up asshole,” I responded under my breath as I took a half step further back.
“He’s dead,” came the pronouncement from one of the paramedics in the stairwell.
I put my smart-ass hat back on, straightened up, and spoke a little louder this time…
“I told you so.”