Detective James K. Cornelison has passed away. Jimmy C as he was affectionately known was a champion prankster, he had an innate talent for making you laugh…usually at your expense. He was a member of the legendary Maxwell Street Homicide unit. I say that without hesitation because I believe the detectives in our unit were the finest investigators ever assembled in one place in the history of the world. Now other homicide detectives from other areas in the city might say that we suffered from delusions of grandeur, but we had the caseload and stats to back us up. And if Jimmy C wasn’t the ultimate prankster he was pretty close to the top.
Jimmy and I never worked as steady partners but we did work together on frequent occasions and one of those tours of duty developed into an extradition to Sacramento, California in the summer of 1975. A person we wanted for murder here in Chicago had been arrested in Sacramento and we would fly out to California to bring him back to face trial.
Jimmy was also a social planner so he naturally took charge of our travel arrangements. Early on he asked me if I would consider taking an extra day of my own time to spend a day in Los Angeles on our way to Sacramento. He had a friend in the LAPD helicopter unit he thought maybe we could snatch a ride on one of their air patrols. I readily agreed—I had never flown in a copter and it would be a great experience. Jimmy would make all the arrangements.
A few weeks later found us landing in Los Angeles on an early Sunday afternoon. We would rent a car, drive to the heliport, located just west of the Los Angeles River. There were releases to sign and we needed to be outfitted in helmets and flame retardant jumpsuits. The helmets had a built-in headset and microphone. Once aboard the copter we would jack into the on-board audio system so that the crew could speak to one another above the noise of the engine. By mid-afternoon we were suited up and ready to go. The only thing unexpected was that the copters carried four and the crew consisted of the pilot, copilot and observer, leaving one empty seat. Jimmy and I would need to ride in separate aircraft. A minor glitch to be sure. In short order, we were both in the air heading east to Los Angeles. That would be the last I would see of Jimmy C for the next seven hours.
I was accustomed to flying in light single wing aircraft and I found helicopter flight to be much smoother. Police patrol from the air was fascinating. Early on we nabbed a speeder on the freeway—I was surprised to learn that the helicopter unit was originally a traffic enforcement unit. They spotted a yellow Corvette below weaving in and out on the freeway and clocked him from the air at 91 miles per hour. They followed the unaware speeder until he exited the freeway and then had a ground unit intercept him at a much reduced speed. We made wide circles above the scene as the ground officer spoke with the speeder. It seemed as though the violator was protesting until the officer pointed up at us. The Corvette driver looked up at us and stopped arguing. The copter observer would appear in traffic court.
For the next two hours we assisted ground units on patrol assignments, providing an eye in the sky for support. It was a fascinating experience, from both a personal and law enforcement perspective but all good things must come to an end. The pilot announced that our scheduled mission was coming to an end and they would be heading back to the heliport. Did I want to do a second mission he asked? A new aircraft and a fresh crew would be heading out shortly. After confirming that Jimmy C was also opting for a second mission I readily agreed.
There was some chatter on the radio and I was told the new crew was coming from another facility and it would be best to drop me off downtown and have them pick me up. I envisioned a grassy park area or the roof of a bustling police station. I gave them a thumbs up, happy to be continuing the experience for another few hours. Suddenly our aircraft was circling a skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles and we quickly landed on wide gravel rooftop. The observer opened my door and told me to keep my back to the copter as they took off.
“Don’t go anywhere!” he called after me. Did I detect just a hint of mirth in his voice? I watched as the unit flew west toward the heliport we had departed from some three hours earlier.
I was now alone, atop a building some forty or fifty stories in the air in downtown Los Angeles. There were two or three maintenance buildings on the roof, all with securely locked access doors. There was a retaining wall around the perimeter, maybe twenty-four inches high and I carefully edged close to look down over the side. It was a late Sunday afternoon and the streets were mostly deserted. A cabbie far below was arguing with a passenger, but I could not hear a word. I walked the perimeter and checked the heavy grey metal doors again and confirmed that were securely locked. I had no radio and cell phones hadn’t been invented yet. Suddenly it hit. This was classic Cornelison!
Jimmy you son-of-a-bitch! You dirty rotten bastard! But I was smiling. It was a classic prank, well-conceived and perfectly executed. I had to have appreciation for the overall scheme. It would go down in history.
It was a pleasant summer afternoon, the sky was clear, temperature moderate and the sun was getting closer to the horizon. In an hour or two it would be dark. Dark? It would be dark? What was the end game here? I walked the perimeter of the roof again scanning neighboring buildings. Were they watching from someplace? I didn’t think so…I seemed to be on the tallest building in the vicinity. Could they land atop a building without any sort of lights to guide them? The sun sunk slowly closer to the horizon.
I walked the roof perimeter continuously scanning the sky for signs of an approaching copter. Nothing.
Jimmy you son-of-a-bitch! There was no smile on my face now. You can carry a good thing too far you know…
Far to the south I a saw some kind of aircraft with its bright marker lights on. I stared intently and after a minute or two I heard the soft chop, chop, chop of the rotor blades. I moved closer to the maintenance buildings as the copter headed directly for my building. They landed, the door flew open and I fully expected to see Jimmy C come tumbling out in hysterical laughter. Inside there was the standard three man crew and one empty seat. I climbed aboard and strapped myself in as the rotor revved up.
“Come on officer,” said one of the crew. “Let’s go see if we can catch some bad guys!”
The second patrol mission was even better than the first. We watched the sun sink away and when we finished and headed back to the base it was completely dark. On the ground I stripped off my jumpsuit and turned it in along with my helmet. Someone told me Jimmy’s unit was about five minutes out. I went to the ready room and grabbed a cup of coffee. Jimmy entered with a huge grin.
“Wasn’t that the coolest shit man? said Jimmy “I’ve never had so much fun in my life!”
“Me too,” I said. We chattered about our day and no mention was made of my forty minutes atop an LA skyscraper.
Not to say that Jimmy C wasn’t the ultimate prankster, it was just that this wasn’t one of his capers.
So we sent him off last week with a Memorial Mass, well attended by his homicide buddies. And if you heard some giggles echoing across the sky, it was the angels laughing when Jimmy somehow managed to lock Saint Peter on the wrong side of the gate.
James K. Cornelison—1939-2015—Rest in Peace my friend—you made us laugh