Ask any urban cop working a two person unit what factor is most important on a day to day basis and he/she will tell you: their partner. There is no place where that is truer than in Chicago.Now there are partners, and then there are regular partners. A partner can be for a day, or a week, or even a month as sickness, days off, and vacations dictate.
A regular partner however is an all together different thing. It’s mostly a matter of choice and lasts for months or even years. In my nearly 30 year career, I count only three regular partners.
As a rookie, my partner was Tony… another rookie. Between us, we didn’t have a year on the job. What was the Department thinking? Nevertheless we made it through a year and a half without making any major mistakes, under the watchful eyes of a more than attentive supervising sergeant and field lieutenant.
When I was selected for a plain clothed tactical team, I paired up with John and somehow we survived the King Riots in Cabrini and the ’68 Democratic National Convention in Lincoln and Grant Parks without a scratch. We were truly kindred spirits. We were both engaged to be married and eventually started families while working together. Our wives became good friends. After a couple of years I was promoted to detective and assigned to a homicide unit. The first two years as a new guy, I bounced around from partner to partner in sort of a haphazard training program.
The third year I began working with Mike. We were both detail oriented, good writers and enjoyed working complex cases requiring lengthy investigations and reports. We would remain a team for over seven years until my promotion to sergeant forced me to move to another unit.
Mike was a college grad and a history buff with a somewhat offbeat sense of humor that on occasion would sink to the depths of irreverence and obscene outrageousness. While that is common to cops in general and homicide detectives in particular, Mike carried it to a whole new level. In short, working with him was fun.
One of his specialties was parody lyrics invented on the fly…
“Attention cars on city-wide… that shooting in the 11th District now has multiple victims. Fire is calling for an EMS Plan 1.” (multiple ambulances).
Mike’s rich baritone singing to WWII tune of “Bless ’em All:”
Shoot ’em all, shoot ’em all
Shoot the long the short and the tall
We’ll handle the case with ease and grace
Including the ones who are shot in the face
Shoot ’em all, shoot ’em all…
The dispatcher interrupted. “Homicide 7403, your office wants you to handle the morgue on that shooting in 11. There should be two victims en route there now.”
“7403, 10-4, we’re on the way.” We headed to the old morgue, a drab building behind the Cook County Hospital where the bodies were housed in the basement in large refrigerated walk-in crypts. We would do a preliminary examination to determine the number and location of wounds and relay that information to the primary detectives on the case.
Mike sang to the Wizard of Oz tune “We’re Off to See the Wizard:”
We’re off to see the bodies
At the beautiful Cook County Morgue
They go where bodies go
Songs were sung on more mundane occasions also.
“Jim, take me to the Henrotin.” The Henrotin was a near north side hospital that was cop friendly and offered a “Police Room” with an ever present pot of hot coffee and clean staff washrooms.
“And why, may I ask, are we going to the Henrotin?”
Sung to the tune of “I Feel a Song Coming On:”
I feel a shit coming on
My asshole it rumbles and grumbles its song
[Finale, rising crescendo]
I feel a shit coming onnnn!
“Do you need lights and siren?”
“No, just don’t take any detours.”
In the course of our regular work-day we had jargon to describe three classifications of murders.
The “smoking gun” is the easiest of all. For instance; after years of domestic abuse, Mom uses a butcher knife to stab Dad to death. Upon completing the dastardly deed, she calls 911, reports the crime, and awaits the arrival of the police. That’s a “smoking gun.” The weapon doesn’t matter; these types of cases are all “smoking guns.” Mike and I once suggested to our fellow homicide detectives that we add the classification of “dripping knife” but the group wouldn’t buy it. Then we’d have to have the “broken bat” and the “rusty tire iron.” Where would it all end they opined? Nope, they’re all “smoking guns” regardless of the weapon. Mike and I could knock out a “smoking gun” in most instances without incurring any significant overtime. Invariably as we pulled the last page out of the typewriter, Mike would push back from the desk and announce:
“I don’t like it Jim… it’s too simple.”
A “known but flown” was similar. Jack shot Fred at a family party in front of a dozen witnesses and then fled the scene. It became a high stakes game of hide and seek, but most of our clients would cross paths with law enforcement sooner or later and the game would be over.
A “mystery” was just that… a body would be discovered. We’d have to piece every element of the case together from the start. Most times after identifying the remains we would begin with a complete background investigation of the victim. Odds were that the killer was family, friend or acquaintance. On some occasions we would discover that the deceased had been living a double life that contributed to their death. It was homicide investigation at its best.
Homicide also investigated all suicide cases and they could get messy, especially if the family could not accept the incident as a suicide, opting instead for outlandish foul play conspiracies. The other common scenario was the incomplete suicide. Many of these were meant to be incomplete of course, a dramatic call for help on the part of a distressed individual. Attempts with firearms however were generally accepted as being a genuine suicide attempt. Too many tried it the Hollywood way, the classic gun to the temple. What they didn’t realize was the frontal lobes of the brain are least critical for life functions and the forehead area also houses the sinus cavities. Depending on the caliber and exact angle of the gun, one ran the risk of inflicting a critical but non-fatal wound. Many would die a slow death days later, but we were certain that was not their original intent.
Mike and I facetiously discussed writing a public service pamphlet, “Suicide: Get it Right the First Time.” We would discuss proper gun placement and also other less obvious factors such as how not to leave a mess in your home and insuring your remains would be discovered relatively promptly. The very idea of such a bizarre publication was perhaps a new low in irreverent, gruesome, macabre police humor, but such was the inclination of homicide detectives with too much time to think outlandish thoughts.
In addition to pounding the streets of the city on a daily basis, sometimes a murder case would generate an extradition. The killer would be arrested in another state and Mike and I would fly out and transport the prisoner back to Chicago for trial. Over our many years together we traveled the country bringing back bad guys and soaking up local history wherever we had the opportunity. We walked the Independence Mall area of Philadelphia and climbed the walls of the El Murro Fortress in Puerto Rico. We loved every minute away from the ghetto.
Mike and Mary Rita had no children but he enjoyed interaction with our sons and since we car pooled he had an opportunity to see them several times a week. On Christmas he would come by early to play with their gifts. He was fascinated by some of their toys and of course the boys loved it.
Every day when we left, my oldest boy would be at the door for inspection. He would lift our suit jackets on each side.
“Gun, bullets, handcuffs. Okay Mike.”
And again, “Gun, bullets, handcuffs. Okay Dad.”
Only then would he allow us to leave for work.
After over seven years together I accepted a “temporary” assignment outside of Homicide and shortly thereafter I was promoted to sergeant. Department policy mandated that I be reassigned to another unit. Mike and I would never again work together.
Over the next several years I found it difficult to stay in touch with Mike. He would break dates for lunch and he missed my surprise 60th birthday party. Since he no longer car pooled with anyone, Mike was in not in any hurry to get home after work. My homicide buddies told me he was stopping with the guys every day and drinking heavily. They implored me to do something and I redoubled my efforts at re-establishing contact but Mike would have none of it.
Mary Rita left him, promising to return if he could remain sober for two years. She remained in regular contact with him, offering support from afar to avoid enabling his addiction. During crisis times, Mike would call her and she would respond to arrange hospitalization or whatever was necessary for his immediate welfare. At one point she told me he was in the rehabilitation unit of a local hospital. Visiting was encouraged. I visited and we had a candid and congenial conversation, most of it centering on his battle with alcoholism. His “demon” he called it. He promised to meet for lunch after his release from the hospital. It never happened.
On a brisk spring day in early May, 2003 during the mid morning hours Mike left his modest bungalow on Chicago’s far northwest side. He sat in the driver’s seat of his compact pick-up truck, placed the barrel of his snub nosed revolver in his mouth, pointed it at the roof of his mouth and pulled the trigger. It was just the way we would have written the pamphlet.
I was in Kansas City attending a week-end meeting for a professional law enforcement organization when my wife called. Mary Rita had immediately reached out for me, but I wasn’t there for her.
“Be sure to call our boys… they need to know.” I said. My wife promised she would. Then I closed the drapes and sat on the edge of my bed in the hotel room over 500 miles from Chicago. I was shocked, numb and alone. The group I was with was in a hospitality suite two floors above, but that hardly seemed to be an appropriate place for me to be at this point in time. The Police Chaplain back in Chicago was a personal friend. I sat in the darkened hotel room and slowly dialed his number, but I had no idea what to say or even how to start the conversation. He answered on the second ring.
“Tom? This is Jim…” I started hesitantly.
“I’ve been expecting your call,” he said. So he knew. Of course he knew. It was one of his all too routine call outs.
“I’m in Kansas City. Tom… I should be there… I should have…” I started into a spontaneous litany of shoulda’ woulda’ coulda’ but he cut me short.
“Don’t!” The sharpness of his voice startled me. “Don’t try to take ownership of this. I’m sorry you’re out of town but only because you need to be with other coppers now.”
I explained I was with other coppers. They were having cocktails just up two flights.
“Then get yourself up there now! Tell the person you know best what has happened, get a drink and go sit in the corner. If they’re the real police, they’ll know what to do.”
I walked into the noisy room hesitantly, trying to retain my composure… I wasn’t quite sure how this was going to work. Chuck, a local Illinois Chief of Police and my traveling companion for this trip, spotted me from across the room. He made his way to me.
“My partner…” I started to speak but my eyes welled and the words stuck in the back of my throat. No sound could come out. Chuck grabbed my elbow and pushed me out to the hallway.
“What the hell is wrong?” he asked as he half pushed me against the wall.
“My partner committed suicide.” I managed to get the words out. The enormity of saying it aloud hit my whole body and I allowed myself to sag against the wall behind me.
“Oh shit! Are you okay? Shit! That’s a dumb question!” He grabbed my arm and ushered me back into the room to an empty table. “What are you drinking?”
The table didn’t remain empty for long. Marital problems, alcoholism, and suicide are the trifecta of police hazards… far more common than the public’s perception of a tough cop facing an armed assailant. (More than twice as many law enforcement officers succumb to suicide as do from violence on the street.) Mike was unfortunate enough to have run the gamut of each of them. Most of the cops in the room had been touched in some way by all three. There was no gallows humor, no outrageous comments, not one irreverent moment. For those few hours in Kansas City, at that corner table, we were family, police family, and together we mourned a Chicago cop that only one of us knew. Tom was right… they knew what to do.
This week-end the anniversary of Mike’s death will coincide with the Chicago Police Annual Saint Jude’s Parade to honor all officers who have passed away. Thousands of off duty officers will march in full dress uniform and a brief service will follow at the Chicago Police Memorial on the lakefront just east of Soldier Field, a spectacular venue. Mary Rita, my wife and I will attend and one of my sons will march with his fellow officers. After the service, we’ll find Mike’s memorial brick among the hundreds that pave the area in front of the water wall. I’ll brush my fingers across his brick and sing the real words to myself…
Bless ’em all, bless ’em all
Bless the long and the short and the tall…
Postscript from Mary Rita—
“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” –Charles Dickens
Jim was very concerned about even allowing me to read this piece and doubly concerned about sharing the story on his blog. I have a very strong feeling that Mike’s story should be shared because it may help to bring the horrific thought of suicide “out of the darkness”. Mike’s story is not an easy read as, unfortunately, his life was not an easy one. I had to read it over a few times because a flood of memories washed over me causing some few tears.
Jim captured the essence of Mike’s life. The JOB was Mike’s life. The years that Jim and Mike were partners were his happiest times. Mike was an only child, and it seemed to me that their relationship was very much like brothers. In fact, many times Mike enjoyed telling me that either a bad guy or a witness would ask “…are you guys brothers?” Once, after Jim gave a speech at the St. Jude’s hall a lieutenant came up to Mike and complimented him – “great speech!”
Mike suffered for many years with depression and alcoholism. These two diseases made it extremely difficult for him to function well on a daily basis and it’s a testament to his great intelligence and strong will that he worked for over 25 years. The combination of course, made it very difficult for me to live with him. Jim tried many times to help Mike, as did others, including me. Mike was in tremendous psychic pain for such a long time; tragically, the depression won out. He could only see one way to stop the pain of mental illness.
Unfortunately, Mike’s death by suicide allowed me to become a member of a club no one wants to join. Fortunately, Father Charles Rubey of Catholic Charities of Chicago formed an organization “Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide (LOSS) Program. The LOSS Program started in the late 1970’s and has become a model around the world to help those of us who have lost a loved one to suicide. I am so filled with gratitude that I was able to speak without embarrassment to Father Rubey and the other mental health professionals at first, when I was scarcely capable speaking clearly to anyone else. The beauty of this program is that there are monthly and weekly meetings, along with counselors who are available to help.
After being a LOSS member and attending meetings, going through training, I was able to become a facilitator and this allows me to give back a portion of the gift I’ve received. And so, I feel that sharing Mike’s story will shed light on the terrible problem that affects so many of us. I don’t want Mike to be remembered for how he died, but rather for his life. And just as we can call 911 for help from the police- you can call 312-655-7283 for help from LOSS.
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