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.