Just after midnight the black limo with heavily tinted windows pulled to the curb in front of White’s Shrimp House on Chicago’ west side. Before the chauffeur could exit, Leon Woods opened the door, stepped out to the sidewalk and turned to help Theresa Dodson from the car. Before she could slide across the seat to grab his hand, Woods turned suddenly and exchanged words with a young man. A shot punctuated the Saturday night noises and for a moment everyone was quiet. Woods crumpled to the ground, curled into a fetal position and moaned softly. The young man fled east towards Kedzie Avenue.
“Woody! Woody!” screamed Theresa as she stumbled from the car and knelt next to her boyfriend.
The chauffeur ran around the front of the car and started east after the gunman, but he had disappeared, so he ran into White’s to call the police.
I was working days with another new homicide detective. Even though we were both experienced street cops, between the two of us, Jason Moore and I had less than 18 months homicide experience, but we perceived ourselves to be sharp and we worked well together.
At the Sunday 8:30 AM roll call the Sergeant called our names.
“Padar, Moore, you guys have a fresh one from last night. We just got the call that he died on the table at Cook County. See the midnight crew, they can bring you up to speed. The midnight detectives were just finishing a lengthy Aggravated Battery Supplemental Report when they got the word that Woods had expired.
“You guys are fresh,” they told Jason and me. “Why don’t you retype this and reclassify to a Homicide/Murder Supplemental?”
Jason and I looked at on another… we were new but not dumb and the last thing we wanted to do was spend the next several hours retyping someone else’s report.
“Why don’t you guys just retype the first page reclassifying? The rest of the pages will be the same. We’ll cover the new information in our report at the end of the day.”
They looked at us as if we were trying to trick them somehow.
“That’ll work,” said the older detective after a moment’s reflection.”
Jason and I headed out the door to re-interview Theresa Dodson.
“Hey! You guys!” shouted the midnight crew. “They found this under his body… don’t know what it means, but we’re going to inventory it as possible evidence.
We stopped and looked at an extension cord that had been wrapped in black electrical tape.
“Looks like a homemade blackjack. Are we sure it was his?”
“We don’t know, but it was under his body, so most likely it belonged to him.”
After some difficulty, we found Theresa at her sister’s apartment where she had gone after leaving the hospital while Woods was still in surgery. Thankfully, she had been notified of Woods death before we arrived. Although distraught, she agreed to talk with us about the shooting. She seemed sincere and anxious, but she couldn’t tell us much.
It was the one year anniversary of their first date and her boyfriend wanted to make it a special night. He hired a limousine and driver and they were to spend the night hopping from club to club. Around midnight they were hungry and they stopped at White’s Shrimp House for a late night snack. Her dear Woody was shot as he exited the limo.
She had the impression that Woods had exchanged words with the shooter, but she didn’t hear the conversation. After the shooting, she went to Woods side and did not pay any attention to the gunman. She thought he appeared young and was wearing jeans and a tan tee-shirt. Woods lay moaning softly until the ambulance arrived—he did not speak. The homemade blackjack belonged to Woody—he carried it for protection. To the best of her knowledge, he did not own any firearms.
Leon Woods worked with his father in a wholesale import business on Pulaski Road. It was family owned and he spent 5 ½ to 6 days a week at the warehouse. He had no enemies to her knowledge.
As we were concluding Theresa’s interview, we received word that Woods’ autopsy was about to begin and since our “morgue man” was day-off, our office sent us to observe.
As we arrived, Woods had just been moved from a morgue tray to an examination table. There was evidence of the large closed surgical incision, but as the diener (the pathologist’s assistant) opened the abdominal cavity, it was filled with free blood. A single bullet hole was located about four inches above the naval. After clearing the blood, examination of the liver showed evidence of a lacerating bullet wound and attempted surgical repair.
“They should have had a successful outcome… it’s unusual for County to drop the ball on a case like this,” said the pathologist as he gave us a running narrative.
He gently removed the liver and handed it off to the diener.
“Ah, but they were doomed along with Mister Woods,” said the doctor as he suctioned residual blood .
“Look here!” he exclaimed. The bullet transversed the liver and lodged at the edge of the anterior spine, but look, look right here.”
He took the handle of the scalpel and gently probed the aorta, exposing a small ¼” laceration.
“The bullet nicked the aorta. The surgeons were dealing with a blood filled abdominal cavity and a lacerated liver. But hidden deep behind the liver was a second more serious hemorrhage source, the aorta. I doubt anyone could have saved him.”
After photographs, he gently removed what appeared to be a .25 caliber bullet. We would be looking for a .25 caliber semi-automatic pistol as the murder weapon, but if it was a semi-auto, where was the shell casing?
We checked back with the office where the midnight crew had finished their report. No casing was mentioned—in fact, the scene had not been processed as a homicide. At the time of the initial investigation, Leon Woods was a shooting victim, not a murder victim.
Jason and I headed back to the sidewalk in front of White’s Shrimp House. With the aid of bright sunlight, we found a shiny.25 caliber shell casing nestled in a crack of the sidewalk. The mobile crime lab responded, took pictures and recovered the casing.
We looked to the east. Witnesses had reported that the shooter had fled in that direction and quickly disappeared. Several doors down was a shoe shine parlor. It was a large establishment with about a dozen shine stations along one wall and chairs for waiting customers along the other. Manned mostly by teenagers from the neighborhood, it was a thriving business. The owner did not tolerate alcohol or drug use on the premises and the boys worked hard and probably made a good buck. It was favored by cop and civilian alike, some coming from great distances. In my estimation, it was by far the best shoe shine in the city.
Jason and I decided we both needed a shine and as we walked in we were immediately descended upon by the boys.
“Shine officer?” they shouted over one another. They recognized detectives and uniformed officers with equal accuracy. They knew that the owner would not charge the police and most officers tipped generously, double the cost of the shine. We were desirable customers.
We settled into our chairs and casually inquired if our polishers had been working last night. We dared not ask anything more with the other boys all ears. We finished and tipped the boys and approached the owner at the counter. He waved us out, indicating that the shines were on the house, but we stopped and asked him if he was there last night at the time of the shooting.
Yes, he had been there, no, no one had seen the shooting from inside the shop. Yes, he would call if he learned anything. Fat chance. We left business cards.
Jason and I had inherited the case from the midnight crew. It was technically their case, but it would be difficult for them to do any in depth investigation during midnight hours. We tackled the assignment with great enthusiasm.
Witnesses were re-interviewed and then interviewed again. The best of the lot was the limo driver who described the shooter as 5” 10”, dark complexion, wearing a tan tee-shirt and blue jeans. He had run east on Madison and disappeared quickly.
After a week, the investigation languished. We felt the key to the case was in the shoe shine parlor. It was a community gathering place and while the gunman might not be one of the boys, we felt that they knew who it was and in fact we strongly suspected that the shooter may have fled through the store to the alley to make good his escape. But no one was talking.
Eventually, our nearly constant pressure in the 3200 block of west Madison made enough people so nervous that bits and pieces of anonymous tips and clues began to filter into us. It was all second or third hand information, none of which could be attributed to any individual:
- The shooter was not from the neighborhood
- The shooter was not one of the boys at the shoe shine parlor
- The shooter did run through the store to the alley behind
- Most all of the workers at the shoe shine parlor knew who he was
Most of the information came from emissaries of business people in the area. In short, they didn’t want us hanging around constantly—it was bad for business. We could care less of course—we would continue to stop in every day until we got something substantial enough to clear the case. We needed to step up the pressure somehow.
Jason and I came up with a plan. We would find one of the shoe shine workers who most closely matched the description of the offender and bring him in for questioning. It was certainly a legitimate thing to do, question someone on the basis of a physical description. Hopefully skilled questioning would yield information that would help us identify the real killer. It all seemed so simple, but in reality it would lead us down the path of multiple errors in judgment, born in part of our inexperience. Would we blow the case entirely?
The hapless lad was Larry Wilson, age 17. He was 5’ 10”, dark complexion and on the day we snatched him from the shoe shine parlor, he was wearing a tan tee-shirt and blue jeans. We put the word out on the street that Larry was our man and he would be charged with murder. Nothing could be further from the truth of course—we had no case against him other than his physical description.
Back at the homicide office we cajoled Larry with the promise that if he was the wrong guy, giving us information leading to the right guy would earn his immediate release. Larry was a pleasant young man, but he told us nothing. Time to increase the pressure—thus began our series of mistakes.
We could have held a faux lineup and told Larry he was identified as the offender. But we contacted our best witness, the chauffeur, and held a real line-up and much to our surprise, the chauffeur positively identified Larry Wilson as the shooter. Because Jason and I were inexperienced, our supervisors were doing their job and watching us closely. Of course we had not advised them of our masterful scheme and they were convinced we had cleared the case by the arrest of Wilson. Department regulations required us to notify the States Attorneys’ office in any case where a lineup identification was made. Jason and I were convinced that the chauffeur was basing his identification solely on the clothing Larry Wilson was wearing but the Assistant States Attorney wasn’t buying it. He advised us to book Larry and charge him with murder.
Our pleas for release, or at least delay, fell on deaf ears. Both our supervisors and the ASA felt we had done a fine job wrapping up the case and making an arrest. Larry Wilson had remained silent, offering neither a denial nor an alibi. He was transported to Central Detention to await a bond hearing.
For the next several days at morning roll call when the sergeant asked each team what homicide they were working, we would respond.
“Woods is cleared. Pick another case.”
“But we got the wrong guy!”
“You can’t work a cleared case, pick another one.”
We would reluctantly give him another name, but when we hit the street, we worked the Woods homicide.
Back at the shoe shine parlor on West Madison, if we were greeted coolly before, we definitely were persona non grata now. Our shoes had been shined about a half dozen times in the preceding days, but when we walked in now, none of the boys pleaded for our business.
“Look,” we told the owner. “We don’t think Larry did this either, but if you want to help him, you’ll have to help us find the right guy.”
A week went by and Larry Wilson was assigned an initial court date well into the following month. It was a Friday about noon when we popped into the shine parlor once again. The owner nodded to us, the first recognition he had afforded us since Larry’s arrest. Then he looked to the far end of the counter and nodded to an older gentleman who had watched us walk in. We approached him and he held out his hand as if to shake ours. I felt a slip of paper in my palm, but I kept my fist closed.
“What’s this?” I asked in a low voice.
“It’s the right guy,” he answered as he turned and walked away. We needed to know who the old man was so we headed back to the owner.
“Who is that?” we asked.
“Larry’s grandfather. Don’t worry man… he’s solid… to the bone, but he won’t talk to you. Ya jus gotta take what comes to ya.”
We drove several blocks away before we stopped and opened the crumpled piece of paper. Scribbled in pencil was:
“Herman Wilson, Goldmine, Apt 510”
Both Jason and I had worked the Cabrini projects and we recognized “Goldmine” as being the ghetto designation for the building at 714 West Division Street. We stopped by the 018th District, cornered a friendly Youth Officer, and ran an alpha name check on Herman Wilson. He had a juvenile record for burglary and a couple of curfews and he lived at 714 West Division in Apartment 510. He was now 17, which under Illinois law made him an adult.
Jason and I stopped for lunch and took a booth in a far corner of the restaurant.
“What do we do now?” I asked.
“We pick him up, of course,” said Jason.
“And then what.”
“He must suspect that we know something,” said Jason. “If he’s the right guy, he might even be expecting us… you know, the homicide mystique.”
“Yeah, we’re so mysterious we arrested the wrong guy.”
“Let’s just come on strong and confident, let him think it’s all over except the paperwork, and see were that takes us.”
“Oh I love these crystal clear plans,” I said. “What could go wrong?”
“That doesn’t sound ‘strong and confident,’ Jim. Do you have a better plan?”
“You mean a better plan than no plan?” I answered sarcastically.
“Okay, I’m listening…” said Jason… silence.
“Alright, let’s do it, but I just don’t want to dig ourselves a bigger whole,” I answered, not exactly strongly or confidently.
We had a Task Force unit meet us at the 714 building and on the fifth floor we pounded on the door to apartment 510. A heavyset black woman answered.
“Herman Wilson,” we said without further explanation. She held the door open and we cautiously stepped in.
“Herman!” she called. “You ‘all come here boy… they’re here for you.”
Jason and I glanced at one another with raised eyebrows. Mama didn’t seem surprised. We searched Herman thoroughly and then cuffed him behind his back, looping the handcuff chain through his belt.
“Herman,” I said, “You’re under arrest for murder, you have the right to remain silent, you have the right…” I ran through the Miranda warnings, mostly for effect—we normally did that back at the station in the interview room.
“How’d you find him?” asked Mama.
“We’re detectives ma’am’, it’s what we do,” I answered curtly. This “strong and confident” thing was growing on me.
Once out in the squad, Herman tried to speak…
“We don’t want to hear it,” I cut him off. “It’s all over, Herman.”
We pulled out onto Division Street and headed west. We caught the red light at Halsted and Herman tried again.
“You probably won’t believe me, but…”
Jason was driving but he turned in his seat.
“Believe what, Herman?”
“I threw the gun off the bridge right up here”
We stopped just short of the single lane bridge over the Chicago River.
“I’ll show you… right up here.”
We exited the car and the Task Force unit pulled up behind us.
“He’s showing us where he threw the gun,” we explained.
“What kinda gun was it?” I asked.
“A little one, a 25 automatic. On the way home I got scared and threw it in the river.”
“What happened that night?” asked my partner in a kinder gentler tone.
“I was coming out of the Shrimp House when this gangster pulls up in a black limo with tinted windows. He looked at me and reached under his coat and started to pull out something black… I got scared and shot him.”
“How many times?” I asked.
“Just once, he went right down and I ran.”
“What was he pulling on you?”
“I don’t know, but he dropped it when I shot.”
“Where did you run?”
“Towards Kedzie Avenue, but I cut through the shine parlor. Those kids in there didn’t have anything to do with this, I swear… I just ran through there to the alley and then walked home. I threw the gun in the river when I crossed the bridge.”
Ten minutes later we were marching Herman Wilson into the Area Four Homicide office on west Maxwell Street.”
“Who’s this?” asked the sergeant.
“The right guy… the Woods homicide… and his story is corroborated by what actually happened.”
It was mid-afternoon on a Friday when I found myself and a States Attorney along with Larry Wilson standing in front a bewildered judge explaining why we wanted Larry released immediately.
“Well…” said the judge as he pondered the facts. “This case is not on my docket, but I understand that Judge Murphy has left for the day. I won’t interfere in his case, but I’ll release Larry Wilson to your custody, Detective. You have him back in Murphy’s court first thing Monday morning, do you understand?”
I nodded, but I didn’t understand. Released to my custody? What the hell did that mean? Was I supposed to bring this kid home with me for the week-end?
Back at our Maxwell Street office I walked in with Larry in tow and as we passed the interview room where Herman was manacled to the wall, they caught each other’s eye and almost imperceptibly nodded to one another.
In the office, out of earshot I asked Larry Wilson if he knew Herman Wilson.
“He’s my cousin,” answered Larry.
“Did you know he did this?” I asked.
Larry hung his head and nodded.
“And you were going to take a murder rap for him?”
“Well, when we was kids, we burglarized a factory. He got caught and I got away… he never told on me, so I wasn’t going to tell on him.”
“Larry,” I said patiently, “Do you understand the difference between a juvenile burglary and an adult murder?”
Larry looked at me, totally mystified.
I dropped Larry off at his home near Central and Lake Streets… with the warning that I would hunt him down and kill him if he wasn’t waiting for me Monday morning.
“Larry, do you know that if you go back to court with me Monday, this will all be over… but if you don’t, you’ll either be dead or back in jail depending on who finds you first. Understand?”
Larry nodded silently. He met me at the appointed time Monday and his case was dismissed. I bought him lunch and drove him back home.
Herman Wilson went to trial for murder about 2 ½ years after his arrest. He spent the whole time in custody. At a bench trial, the judge found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter, based upon the “black object” that victim Leon Woods was pulling from under his coat. Herman was sentenced to 5 years in prison, but the remaining portion of his sentence was suspended.
And the two rookie homicide detectives, Jason and me, considered the whole case a learning experience. Jason left the department a few years later in a major career change. I stayed on of course, vowing never to repeat the same mistakes twice.