- Heater case: Police jargon for an incident likely to garner unusual media attention for any reason; notoriety of the victim or offender, location of the crime, or an infinite number of political considerations. Heater cases are always assigned to more experienced, seasoned Investigator teams.
Chicago, Monday, July 26, 1971
It was a warm summer day in Chicago and I was working out of Maxwell Street Homicide with Phil Ducar. I was the “senior” Investigator on the team, having been assigned to Area Four Homicide for some 18 months. Phil had been with the unit for almost three whole months, so between us we had less than two years experience investigating murders. In spite of the fact they called Maxwell Street Homicide “The Murder Factory”—averaging five or more murders a week—we we were definitely the most junior team in the lineup that day.
After roll call, we reviewed the active aggravated battery cases we had been assigned as paper jobs and discovered we had a hospital interview to do in Park Ridge and a witness to talk to on the far northwest side of the city. Perfect! We would head out, take care of business and stop at my house for an early lunch. I called my wife to tell her to expect us. It would be a great start to a beautiful summer day. We had no idea that before it ended, we would inadvertently become the lead investigators on a “heater case” that would later become the subject of a book and a made-for-TV movie.
The hospital interview turned out to be more time consuming than productive, and our witness interview was an elderly woman who was thrilled to have any visitors to her home, much less two real live Homicide Investigators. The morning’s activities dragged on much longer than anticipated. As a result it was nearly noon when we climbed the steps of my Chicago bungalow on the city’s northwest side to grab a quick lunch.
My two sons, age 3 ½ and 2, greeted us at the door but quickly lost interest as a roomful of toys drew them back to the living room. We sat down to a cup of coffee and a newspaper that proclaimed Mohammed Ali’s victory over Jimmy Ellis, the Apollo 15 “Endeavor” launch, carrying lunar module “Falcon” for another manned lunar landing and oh yes… folks were in an uproar that the price of gasoline had skyrocketed to just over 40 cents a gallon.
I called the office to check in and tell them we would be down for lunch. Phil and my wife were discussing recipes for deviled eggs when I hung up.
“Sorry to interrupt folks, but we have a body, partner.”
“We do? Where?” asked a very surprised Phil.
“The Viceroy Hotel, 1519 West Warren, room 201, on the scene.”
“Our job or are we the assist?”
“Nope, it’s all ours.”
We gulped our coffee and my wife put some toasted English muffins in a bag as we headed for the door. The boys, engrossed in play, never noticed us leave. We were farther away than we would normally be and when I reached the main street I hit the flashing headlights and siren on our unmarked car until we reached the expressway.
Once on the expressway, we killed the lights and siren—they would only confuse other drivers and wouldn’t save us any time. We headed inbound on the Kennedy and made the bend to the outbound Eisenhower. Midday traffic was light and we exited at Ashland and arrived on scene in a very respectable time. We parked at the front of the hotel just as the crime lab was arriving.
The Viceroy Hotel, opened in 1930 as the Union Park Hotel apparently named for the Union Park directly across the street. The building was an example of the modern art deco architectural style popular at that time. As ghetto hotels went, it was several cuts above the typical flophouses located within blocks. But it was what we called a “hot sheets” hotel where some of the rooms would be rented several times in a 24 hour period.
District personnel had secured the room and were awaiting our arrival. As Phil Ducar and I entered 201, we noted a putrid odor that we immediately identified as human decomposition, but it wasn’t as overwhelming as we had previously experienced in more extreme cases. The window on the far side of the room was open and the curtains waved lazily in the breeze. The closet in the room could only be opened by closing the door to the hallway. Closing that hallway door reduced the summer breeze and opening the closet intensified the smell. The source was a black female in a somewhat grotesque upside down position. She was clad only in a white girdle pulled up to her midriff. Atop her body were two bloodstained pillows.
Homicide Investigators lump their cases into three major classifications, smoking gun where the offender is on the scene, known but flown where there are immediate eyewitness accounts identifying the offender, and mystery where very little is known at the outset.
The crime lab technicians photographed and then removed the body from the closet, revealing that the woman had apparently been beaten about the head. Her upside down position facilitated the flow of blood to the floor of the closet where we found a small purse with no identification.
“Misss… tear… ree,” Phil elongated the word as we stared at the body.
District wagon personnel removed the woman for transport to the hospital and ultimately to the morgue. We gave the single bed a closer look. It appeared clean and freshly made even after removing the bedspread and sheets. The mattress was moderately soiled, but when we turned the mattress over we found it soaked with blood that had also contaminated the box spring. We left the lab personnel to gather and catalog pertinent evidence and headed down to the lobby to interview the couple that had discovered the body.
They could add little, reporting only that upon entering the room to enjoy some afternoon ardor, they noted a strange odor and opened the closet to discover the victim. We gathered their identifying information and sent them on their way. Since they were both married to other spouses, they would probably be unable to share their story with friends and family. We promised to be discreet if we found it necessary to re-contact them.
Mattie, the hotel manager was a bit more helpful. She recalled renting the room to a black couple shortly after midnight Saturday night, Sunday morning. At about 2 AM, the male left alone. Mattie called the room and receiving no response dispatched the night maid to check the room and remake it if it was vacant. The maid reported that the room was vacant but the sheets and pillows were missing. Mattie instructed the maid to remake the room with fresh sheets and new pillows. In short order, the room was ready to rent again. In fact, Mattie recalled that the room had been rented at least twice more before the couple with keen noses checked in this morning. Unfortunately, the registration tickets for the week-end had been sent to the property manager’s office downtown, as was the custom on Monday mornings.
Mattie had one other nugget of information, a golden nugget in fact. When the black couple had checked in Saturday night/Sunday morning, Rufus, a gentleman friend of hers, was keeping her company in the lobby. The man had waved at Rufus and Rufus smiled and waved back and at that moment Mattie sensed that the man was a deaf mute. An hour or so later when the man left alone, he again waved at Rufus. Yes, she knew where Rufus worked—Wieboldt’s department store downtown.
We called our office and gave them a verbal rundown of what we had. The office assigned us an assist, Investigator Frank Bertucci, a 6 year veteran in the unit. Frank would expedite the fingerprinting of the victim at the morgue and then head downtown to interview Rufus. Phil and I would go directly downtown to the property manager’s office to retrieve the week-end registration records for Room 201 at the Viceroy Hotel. We would all meet back at our Maxwell Street office to compare notes.
Frank, with years of homicide experience, as opposed to our months of homicide experience, would bring an extra hand to the investigation. Phil and I would remain the lead investigators but we welcomed Frank Bertucci’s help. He knew the streets and he was an indefatigable worker. None of us yet knew that we were working a “heater case.”
Phil and I arrived back at the office shortly after 5 PM, our quitting time. The case was still officially a Death Investigation, but Phil and I knew that as soon as the autopsy reports came back, it would become a murder. Still, pending those results, and with little else to go on, it was difficult to justify overtime at this point. That changed very quickly.
Pat Angelo, our man detailed to the morgue, had managed to expedite the autopsy. Preliminary findings were blunt trauma to the head and strangulation. At the same time, the records section called with a hit on the victim’s prints, a street prostitute well known on West Madison Street. We had a murder and the victim’s name was Earline Brown, 38 years old.
Almost simultaneously, Frank Bertucci came bounding up the long staircase with an enthusiastic announcement.
“The man you’re looking for is Donald Lang—they call him The Dummy. He’s probably working right now, over on South Water Market for Strompolis Produce.”
Phil Ducar and I were surprised. We knew Bertucci was good but…
Bertucci continued to explain to us that he learned the name from interviewing Rufus—who had known Donald for nearly 15 years and confirmed that Donald was indeed a deaf mute. In addition, Frank had just recently had conversation with an individual who worked the market stating that Donald “was back.” Back from a previous murder charge that he had somehow beat in court. “Police persecution” was the opinion of fellow workers in the market area. It was our first hint that the case was heating up, but we didn’t know it at the time.
Phil and I headed over to South Water Market and found Mario Pullano on the loading dock. Yes he knew Donald. Yes, Donald was here now. When Mario heard we were there to arrest Donald Lang, he exploded. We were treated to a diatribe, alleging harassment and persecution of a harmless deaf mute. Reluctantly, Mario brought Donald to us. Donald Lang was of slight but very muscular build. His eyes were intensely observant and he was obviously somehow absorbing what was happening, but we took him into custody without resistance. Our case was near boiling now, but we had no clue. We were only 6 hours into a mystery murder investigation and we were heading back to the office with an offender in custody! It was probably only seconds after we left the market that Mario made his calls to the newspapers.
On the second floor of the Maxwell Street Homicide office we handcuffed Lang to a heavy iron ring on the wall. Somehow we located a police officer who was fluent in sign language, having been raised by deaf parents. In a very short time he was there and our first real attempt to interview Donald began. We started with the Miranda warnings but he gave us no indication that he understood anything that was being said or signed to him. We wrote some words with paper and pen… nothing. In short order, our sign language expert had an opinion.
“He cannot read, he cannot write, he does not sign and I doubt very much if he can read lips to any extent.”
I looked at my watch. It was well after our 5 PM quitting time but it was obvious we were not going to be going home. I called my wife and told her not to expect me until late—very late. I said good night to our two sons, The 3½ year old seemed to grasp the conversation and I actually had a few words with him and he said goodnight. Our two year old just listened intently, smiling and at the end of the conversation responded with a single word. “Bye.”
Ducar, Bertucci and I returned to the interrogation room and went through the motions again.
CAN YOU READ OR WRITE? We wrote in block letters on a blank page.
DO YOU UNDERSTAND ENGLISH?
No cogent response. But Donald was an anomaly. I sensed that his eyes were intensely perceptive. If he was truly deaf and dumb and unable to communicate in a normal way, he must have learned to interpret what was happening by uncanny powers of observation.
Suddenly Donald grabbed the pen from Bertucci and began to draw. A crude drawing by any standard, but he was communicating! He drew three stick figures, pointing to one and then to himself, apparently indicating that was him. Two more stick figures, one with a mass of lines at the top to apparently indicate hair. He pointed to that figure and pantomimed breasts by cupping his hands to his chest. Then he drew a third figure, again with hair and he wrote a number above each figure, 5, 8, and 3. Then he drew a long line from the stick figure with breasts and redrew the figure at the far left edge of the page. He stopped for a moment and looked at the three of us, then he held up three fingers, pointed at the leftmost stick figure, X’d her out with great emphasis and threw the pen forcibly down onto the table. He almost appeared relaxed at that moment. He had told us his story! He looked at us with an aura of satisfaction.
The three of us were astounded. Something very profound had just occurred, but what? We each initialed the drawing preparatory to inventorying it for evidence. I stood there for a moment just gazing at Donald. He stared back at me with that uncanny intensity. Intensity, not hostility. Then I motioned Ducar and Bertucci out of the room and closed the door. We walked several feet from the interrogation room into our office area.
“There’s blood on his sock,” I said quietly.
“What?” exclaimed Phil and Frank simultaneously.
“Reddish brown stains, probably dried blood on his one sock.”
We returned to the interrogation room. Donald had rolled down both of his socks so that the stains were no longer visible.
“The son-of-a-bitch can hear! I’m tellin’ ya’, he can hear!” shouted Frank
“Frank! He couldn’t have heard us—the door was closed and we were all the way into the office,” I replied.
“Then how does he do it?”
“I think he just watches everything that is going on around him. Maybe he caught my glance to his socks, I don’t know… but I don’t think he can hear.”
We requisitioned a paper jump suit from the 012th District lockup and had Donald strip by pantomiming the motions. He was cooperative. We inventoried all of his clothing, including his socks.
“Padar!” It was the 3rd Watch sergeant shouting to me from the office. “It’s City News Service on the PAX. They want to know what’s up with Donald Lang?” The call on the restricted Police Auxiliary line confirmed it was an internal call, probably from the Press Office at Police Headquarters.
“Shit! How did they get a hold of this? Tell them we don’t know—it’s an ongoing investigation… tell ’em I’ll call back.” I knew it would only be a temporary ploy. No reporter worth his salt would believe that I would call back. They would call again for certain. But thanks to the sergeant, they now had my name.
Conference time. Ducar, Bertucci, the sergeant and I sat down and reviewed what we had so far. We would need to tie up some loose ends, but we all agreed once the details were put down on paper, we would have enough to charge Donald Lang with murder. The sergeant called the States Attorney’s office and requested a member of their Felony Review Unit respond to our office to review the case and approve charges.
Third Watch teams were dispatched to bring Mattie and Rufus in for formal written statements which we knew the States Attorney would insist upon. Another team was asked to cajole some local denizens into participating in a lineup with Donald Lang. Rufus had known Lang for years, but Mattie did not have the same familiarity with him. A pair of positive identifications from a lineup would be the icing on the cake and all it would cost us would be a few half pints of Richard’s Wild Irish Rose fortified wine for the shill participants.
Things moved rapidly with the additional manpower that the third watch provided. By the time Felony Review arrived, we had tied up what we thought was a very neat package but my heart sank when the States Attorney walked in. He was not one of my favorites, not at all what I would consider decisive. Other homicide Investigators had a history of problematical rulings from him—but he was the man for the day and we had no choice but to roll with it.
We sat down and began to review the case with him when he stopped us short.
“Donald Lang? he asked. “The deaf mute?”
“Yeah… I guess… if there’s only one of him.”
“Holy shit! I have to call my office.”
“Sure thing,” I replied. “You know where the phone is.”
“No, no, no.” I have to talk privately and he promptly disappeared.
The sergeant shouted that the press was calling again…
Phil Ducar and I looked at one another.
“Who the hell is Donald Lang?”
We corralled Frank Bertucci.
“What’s going on—what’s with this Lang guy? What is it we don’t know?”
Frank filled us in as best he could. Donald Lang had been arrested and charged with murder by our office several years previous in a very similar case. The case had languished in the court system because of Lang’s inability to cooperate with counsel. The Investigators on the previous case assumed that Lang had been dealt with appropriately, but suddenly, several weeks ago, Donald had reappeared in his old haunts and began working in the market area again.
“He must have beat it somehow.” Frank shrugged.
“Yeah, and now it looks like déjà vu all over again.” I said.
The Felony Review attorney returned from his clandestine phone call and we sensed immediately that there was trouble with this case—big trouble. He went through the motions with us, the line-up, the written witness statements, the mysterious drawing, the bloodstained sock. He made a second phone call, very brief, covering his mouth and the mouthpiece with his hand.
“Photograph him and fingerprint him…”
Was there a glimmer of hope?
“…and then release him!”
“Release him?” I almost shouted. “Who the hell is this guy?”
“Release him. Send his clothing to the lab and see if that’s really blood. See if you can find some more witnesses that saw him with the victim… but send him home tonight.”
I was incredulous, I was extremely upset and no doubt it was in part because I had little respect for this particular States Attorney. But I also knew that it had not been a unilateral decision on his part. His office, his superiors perhaps, were no doubt supporting his call.
We sent Lang back to the 012th District to be booked, printed and photographed, along with signed release papers. Phil and I sat down at a typewriter to begin what would be an eight page single spaced murder format report.
“Padar! For chrissake get this goddam reporter off my back!” The sergeant called me away from the typewriter. I was nearing the end of my patience. I talked to Philip Wattley from the Tribune and I am sure I was short with him but I gave him the basics of the case, including the fact that Donald Land had been released without charging.
Almost simultaneously a reporter from the Chicago Daily News showed up in our office. Barry Felcher was a pleasant, low key guy and I felt myself calm a bit as I reviewed the case for him. There was something about his physically showing up in the office that generated an element of respect.
Phil Ducar and I finished our report at 1 AM, but we knew we had to be back in a little more than 7 hours. There was a lot of work to be done on this case. It was 2 AM when I stumbled into my bed and I was exhausted, but sleep was fitful as I reviewed every angle of the case over and over. Somehow I would have to be ready for a very full day starting first thing in the morning…
Tuesday, July 27, 1971
Morning came way too soon but I was due at Second Watch Roll Call at 8:30 AM. We briefly discussed the Earline Brown Homicide. The Area Four Homicide Commander Charlie Azzarello and the second watch sergeant indicated that they had read our reports. Additional teams would be assigned to assist us in the follow-up on the loose ends. During roll call the unit secretary took a phone call on the PAX line. It was the City-Wide Homicide Commander Frank Flanagan calling for Charlie. Charlie took the phone and it was mostly a one-way conversation, with Azzarello scribbling some notes. When he hung up, he stared at me for a moment. That was never good.
“Padar,” he said, “Report to the Chief of the Criminal Division at the States Attorney’s office at 26th and Cal. Here’s the room number.”
“Is your name Padar? Yes, now!” He swiveled his chair away from me, conversation over.
I shrugged and drew a set of car keys. No, this couldn’t be good.
I was ushered into the office with very little wait. The Chief of the Criminal Division, had a very nice office, much nicer than the run of the mill Assistant States Attorneys’. But the imposing surroundings made me ill at ease.
“What’s this about?” He tossed the morning edition of the Chicago Tribune across the desk to me with an article about the Lang case circled. “Read the underlined part.”
The byline was Philip Wattley. The last two paragraphs were underlined.
“[Padar] said the assistant state’s attorney reviewed the evidence the police had gathered and ordered [Lang] released without explaining why.”
Padar said the police would drop the case, and said it would be up to the state’s attorney’s office to pursue the matter or prosecute the man.”
Well, I thought, that’s not too cool. The Felony Review attorney had given us specific instructions on what additional investigative steps he wanted us to perform, but it was true he never explained why he was releasing Lang. Still, it was police responsibility to continue the investigation. My mind was racing. I had been tired and pissed when I talked to Wattley the night before, but had I actually said that? I had also talked to Barry Felcher from the Chicago Daily News but that was a more relaxed in person conversation in my office. I looked large mahogany desk over… the Chicago Daily News was nowhere to be seen. Could I bluff? It would be a dangerous gambit for an inexperienced homicide Investigator, but how much worse could it be for me?
“Boss, I never said that. I talked to the Daily News at the same time.” (Well almost the same time, I rationalized to myself.) “I’ll bet they didn’t print that.” I thought I detected him soften a bit so I decided to try to shift the tenor of the conversation. I leaned forward in my chair.
“Chief, who is Donald Lang? What’s going on here? I must be missing something.” My body language and tone of voice was student to teacher. It worked.
“Donald Lang was charged with another murder in your area over five years ago, very similar circumstances.”
“I’ve heard about it in general terms, but I wasn’t even a police officer when that one happened.”
Gradually the Chief of the Criminal Division, Cook County States Attorney’s Office, shifted modes and became a mentor, a tutor that morning in his office. Now he leaned forward in his seat.
“You know Lang was in custody on that other case and it kicked around here for the last five years. Then about six months ago the Supreme Court of Illinois issued an opinion that ultimately resulted in Lang’s release just a few months ago. And now you guys call us last night and you’ve got him again for pretty much the same thing. You understand why we’re handling this with kid gloves?”
“Chief, honestly, my partner and I didn’t know anything about that previous case when we…”
“I know, I know.” he interrupted. “But that doesn’t change the circumstances. This is going to be a high profile case and you guys will have to dot your i’s and cross your t’s before we approve charges… you understand where we’re coming from?”
“We’re on it boss, really. We’re doing everything you asked last night.” I was feeling a bit more emboldened. “But just do us one favor?”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“When we finish everything you want and we call Felony Review again? Send us a different guy.”
He smiled as he stood, but he didn’t answer.
“Have a good day, Jim,” he said as he shook my hand. I took notice that he used my first name. “I’ll have my office send you a copy of that Illinois Supreme Court Opinion. If we go to trial on this one you should at least be aware of what’s in it.”
“Thanks, that would be great.”
As I left his office, I dashed down the stairs to the newsstand on the second floor. I had one more item of business to tend to. I bought a copy of the Chicago Daily News and sat down on a nearby bench to scan the articles. There it was:
FREE DEAF MUTE IN SECOND KILLING
By Barry Felcher
Barry had written a much longer story than Wattley had in the Tribune and while he quoted me extensively, there were no smart ass-comments about the police dropping the case. If the Chief of the Criminal Division took the trouble to read this story I was home free.
I went back to the Maxwell Street Homicide office.
“Well?” asked the unit secretary.
“Well what?” I asked innocently. I knew that if the States Attorney’s office had called the Homicide Commander downtown to complain about me, he was now calling back to tell him that everything was settled.
“What happened?” asked the sergeant.
“Oh yeah… 26th and Cal…” I answered absentmindedly. ” …yeah we’re cool. We talked about the case—he’s sending me some legal background—keep an eye out for it.”
They both looked at me quizzically as I left the office in search of my partner.
Phil and I spent the rest of the day looking for the couples that had rented Room 201 at the Viceroy Hotel after Lang had left but before Earline Brown’s body was found. Apparently some of them had used fictitious names… no surprise there. We called the Crime Lab for results on the blood tests. They told us that the blood on Donald’s sock was type B+. From previous medical records we believed Donald was O+, so if that could be confirmed we could prove that the blood on his sock was not his.. But they were having trouble determining the victim’s blood type… another day would pass.
Wednesday, July 28, 1971
The Earline Brown murder case dragged on for another day. We did a casual inquiry from some sources on South Water Market and determined that Donald Lang had returned to work there. If and when we got the green light from the States Attorney’s office it wouldn’t be hard to find him.
There was some problem with the blood samples at the Crime Lab so we stopped in for some face time. The lab technician was pleasant but the problem was typing Earline Brown’s blood sample from the Coroner’s Office. Because of decomposition it was proving difficult, but she seemed certain that they would eventually be able to make a determination. Only about 10% of the population have B+ blood. If Earline’s blood type turned out to be B+ it would be another factor to present in the case against Donald Lang. Of course there was no DNA analysis available in 1971.
While we were at headquarters we pulled the file on the previous murder for which Donald Lang had been arrested. A quick review showed marked similarities between the two cases.
We had no further luck locating the persons who might have rented Room 201 after Earline’s body had been stashed.
Another day of dead ends.
Thursday, July 29, 1971
Thursday and Friday were our days off for the week. While we wanted to work the case to conclusion, there was nothing that we were doing that made us indispensable and could not be accomplished by other members of our unit. Indeed, many of them had already provided valuable witness accounts that placed Donald and Earline together on the night she disappeared as well as other details that would become critical to the case.
Thus the arrest of Donald Lang became anticlimactic for Phil and I. The Crime Lab came through with a blood type for Earline: B+. Investigators from our office obtained a search warrant for taking a blood sample from Lang. They hand carried it down to the Crime Lab. It was indeed O+. Other investigators from our office obtained an arrest warrant for Donald Lang, with the States Attorney’s approval. Donald was arrested at the apartment of his father and step-mother at about 9 PM that evening.
While Phil and I were disappointed at not being present for the arrest, a reading of the case file these many years later is testimony to the total team effort that had taken place the previous four days. Phil and I were new guys of course and the assistance of our entire unit was testimony to the spirit that brought the investigation to a successful conclusion for us.
Now the ball would be in the States Attorneys’ court. This would become a history making case.