On Monday, October 21st, 1974 shortly after 1:00 AM, a heat alarm began blinking on a console at the Wells Fargo Central Alarm Company. It indicated excessive temperature in one of two money vaults at the nearby Purolator Armored Express building. Wells Fargo notified the Chicago Fire Department alarm office on the first floor of Chicago’s city hall as well as an official of Purolator. Responding firemen were met at the door by a Purolator guard, armed with a shotgun. The guard, Ralph Marerra, 31, initially refused them entrance, insisting he had no indication of trouble and he was not authorized to admit anyone to the building. That was quickly resolved with the arrival of the Purolator executive.
Upon opening the vaults, firemen were greeted with heat and heavy smoke. Inside the vaults they found gasoline bombs attached to time delay fuses. Only a portion of the gasoline bombs ignited as lack of air in the vaults had quickly extinguished the flames. Purolator officials and police quickly determined that a burglary had taken place and the fires set to cover the crime.
Later that morning, Chicagoans awoke to muddled news accounts of a fire and possible theft at the Purolator Armored Express vaults on the near north side at 127 West Huron Street. When the facts all shook out of the initial confusion it would become the largest cash heist in the history of the world; some $4.3 million in unmarked bills, weighing over 700 pounds had vanished. As a cop of course I devoured all the news accounts of the burglary but I was homicide and reading about it was as close as I would get to the case… or so I thought.
Early on, the thieves were just half a step ahead of Chicago, state and federal law enforcement—but in the first few days that half step was enough to enable them to secrete some of the cash locally and physically move a large portion to the Cayman Islands. But by Thursday the 24th, a task force of local and federal agencies was formed to play catch-up and avoid duplication of efforts. On Sunday, the 27th authorities made their first arrest; the Purolator guard on duty at the time of the theft was arrested at his mother-in-law’s home in Oak Park by Chicago Police and FBI agents.
As the first arrestee in the case, Ralph Marerra was considered to be at risk. He was the inside man and no doubt knew details of the overall plan as well as exactly who was involved. He would be a prime target for people who would want to silence him as well as those who might want to squeeze him for information on the location of the loot. Federal Marshall’s refused to disclose where he was being held except to say that he was “under tight security at a military installation near Chicago.” As dramatic as that sounded, in reality, Ralph Marerra was being held at the Winnebago County Jail in Rockford.
Federal indictments and arrests quickly followed in the subsequent weeks and ultimately 6 individuals were arrested and charged with the Great Purolator Heist. On Thursday, November 21st the FBI recovered $1.4 million under freshly laid concrete in Marerra’s grandmother’s home.
With everyone charged and in custody I fully expected the case to slowly grind its way through the courts, but on Thursday November 29th Ralph Marerra attempted suicide at the Winnebago County jail. Although he was not seriously injured in the attempt, he was promptly transferred to the Cermak Memorial Hospital at the Cook County jail. On Thursday December 5th, my partner Mike and I were ushered into a closed door meeting with our Area Four Homicide Commander.
“You guys been following this Purolator thing?” he asked.
“Just what we read in the newspapers.” was our response.
“Well you’re about to get involved. You know he attempted to hang himself at the Winnebago County Jail and was transferred to Cermak.”
We craned our necks to view a Hospitalization Case Report that was sitting on his desk. This type of report was a catch-all that was used to record unexplained deaths, suicides and attempted suicides among other things. A Hospitalization Case very often provided homicide detectives with interesting investigations that did not involve murder. See “Suicide by Ulcer” on this blog.
“A Hospitalization Case?” I exclaimed. “That happened in Winnebago County—it’s theirs!”
“Will you just calm down and let me explain?” said the boss as he quickly turned the case report face down. “Since early this morning Marerra has been in Intensive Care at the Cook County Hospital—he’s in a coma and in critical condition. And just to stir the pot, our very own Cook County State’s Attorney just held a news conference and said he thinks Marerra was poisoned. So… since he’s been at Cermak for this past week, that makes it ours… or I should say ‘yours.’”
He smiled as he slid the paper across to us. Mike and I scanned the case report in seconds—it told us nothing except that Marerra had been transferred from Cermak to County Hospital.
“Look,” said our Commander. “This is a heater case—there’s a lot of people that would like to see Marerra dead. He may die. We need to get a jump on this. I’ll give you free reign and whatever help you may need, but we need to find out exactly what happened to him at Cermak. If he dies, we’ll have to regroup and meet with the feds. They’re pretty much running the rest of it but we’ll be doing any homicide investigation. Murder is not a federal crime.”
“Listen,” he paused and looked directly at the two of us. “Do it right… wherever it takes you. There’s going to be a lot of people looking at your report. Understood?”
Mike and I nodded solemnly.
One of the neat things about working homicide was that it often forced you to develop microcosms of expertise in order to understand what you were dealing with. This would be one of those cases.
“We’ll need to start at Cermak,” I said. “It’s kinda the crime scene—using the term loosely.”
“They’re expecting you,” he said with a smile that indicated he had anticipated us. “I called the warden, use his name when you get to the gate.”
Warden or not, getting into a jail is almost as difficult as getting out. Mike and I surrendered our weapons, extra bullets and handcuffs and then were subjected to a thorough search before being assigned a guard to escort us to the Cermak Hospital section of the institution. We traversed countless corridors and massive sliding barred doors before arriving at our destination.
The medical staff was subdued but cooperative. At that point in time they also had no idea what had happened to Ralph Marerra while he was in their care. Having attempted suicide in Winnebago County he was placed in restraints once he arrived at Cermak. He was agitated and he was administered drugs to calm him. His room was small and the windows were covered with a heavy mesh screen. Immediately under the window was a radiator that emitted an enormous amount of heat. Even though it was December the room was stifling hot. The nurses explained that the heating system was either full on or full off and on more moderate days all the rooms became very warm.
We learned that Marerra was being medicated with Thorazine, a tranquilizer with a sedating effect and Cogentin, used ostensibly to reduce the side effects of the Throrazine.
On the evening of Wednesday December 4th, Marerra developed a 106º fever, and began to suffer seizures. While nurses sponged him and arrangements were being made to transport him to Cook County Hospital he became comatose and was in critical condition by the time he arrived at the County Hospital intensive care unit.
The medical staff at both Cermak and County were aware that Ralph Marerra was an “at risk” inmate because of the nature of charges against him. They immediately sequestered the drug containers from which he was being medicated. At the Cermak Hospital they impounded the food stuffs that had been served to the inmates. At County Hospital blood, urine and gastric contents were collected for analysis. All samples were sent to the Hektoen Institute, a medical research facility, where the samples would be independently tested. For the time being the bases were covered and we played the waiting game for test results.
Back at our office, Mike and I broke open our personal copy of the Physician’s Desk Reference. In those pre-internet days, the PDR was a dictionary size tome listing all drugs commonly in use by the medical community. The reference book listed dosage, indications, contraindications, precautions and side effects for each drug. We looked up both Thorazine and Cogentin.
The Thorzine precautions stated in part: “Use with caution in persons who will be exposed to extreme heat…”
The Cogentin precautions stated in part: “Cogentin may produce anhidrosis . For this reason it should be given with caution in hot weather.”
We couldn’t find any dictionary with the word anhidrosis so we headed to our primary medical advice resource, the Cook County Morgue, where we collared our favorite neighborhood pathologist. We learned that anhidrosis was the inability to sweat, which could lead to overheating and sometimes to heatstroke—a potentially fatal condition. Could it be that Ralph Marerra suffered a medically induced heatstroke in that extremely warm room at the Cermak Hospital?
“Most likely,” opined the pathologist “But don’t quote me.”
The pieces were falling into place but at this point in time we had no choice but to wait for the lab results from Hektoen Institute.
Four days later the results were in and we interviewed the Chief of Toxicology. She told us that all tests had been completed with no surprises. Marerra’s blood and urine showed levels of Thorazine and Cogentin that would be commensurate with the doses being administered. No traces of any other drugs were found. The containers for the drugs showed them to be pure and of the proper strength. Gastric contents and foodstuffs were negative for any type of spoilage or adulteration. She agreed with our theory of a medically induced heatstroke but she stopped short of letting us use it in our report.
“It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to offer that opinion in an official capacity.” she told us.
So now we had two expert medical interviews that corroborated our “medically induced heatstroke theory,” but neither would go on the record for our official report. There was high placed, authoritative medical agreement as to what had occurred, but knowing it and being able to put it on paper was proving to be a stumbling block. We needed a medical professional willing to authenticate what we knew.
We had one more interview to attempt to officially confirm our theory; the Chief of Medicine at the Cook County Hospital. Mike and I had crossed paths with him on numerous occasions as he practiced hands-on care at County’s Trauma Unit. His medical skill was a phenomenon to watch.
The Chief had been expecting us and he had reviewed the charts. We looked at all the official test results with him and he concurred with those conclusions. There was a pause… this was it… we had to put forth our admittedly layman’s theory for his consideration. We laid it out and then, after several moments of chin stroking, the Chief of Medicine agreed to craft a statement that we could include in our report:
“The symptoms exhibited by Marerra upon his arrival at Cook County Hospital were consistent with those that might be observed in a patient suffering from an anhidrosis due to the cumulative effects of the drugs and a warmer than average ambient temperature of his room. Absent any toxicological evidence to the contrary, this appears to be the best medical explanation available.”
Less than a week after being assigned to the case, Mike and I sat down to type our final report. We had developed a very rudimentary knowledge of Thorazine and Cogentin. We learned more than we ever wanted to know about anhidrosis. Before this case, we had never heard of the Hektoen Institute and the advanced work they did in clinical investigations. Our very small part of The Great Purolator Heist investigation was complete and when we put the pieces together we felt confident we had determined what had happened to Ralph Marerra that fateful week in December, 1974. We felt good when we typed the final line:
Case closed. Non-criminal in nature.
In 1974, this case was the largest cash theft in the history of the world. It has since been surpassed.
Ralph Marerra recovered from his medical ordeal but was left with permanent disabilities both to his speech and his ability to walk.
In March of 1983 he was the last of the group to be convicted for his part in the Purolator heist. He was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison, but with credit for time in custody he was paroled in 1989.
In December 1996, in connection with this incident, Marerra was awarded $650,000 in a medical malpractice suit against Cook County.
As of this writing, of the $4.3 million stolen, $1.2 million has never been recovered.