Chicago’s West Side, 1975. The radio call was a man stabbed.
Mike and I trotted in between the buildings of the Henry Horner Homes, but we instinctively slowed approaching the play lot. There was a crowd as one would expect on this warm summer evening especially at the scene of a stabbing—but the people were strangely quiet—there was clearly something else going on here. Just a few months earlier a Chicago Police Officer had been shot and killed by a sniper from these buildings. It was not a nice place to be and tonight we were the first officers on the scene.
We slowed and unsnapped our holsters, keeping our hands on our snub nose revolvers as we continued more cautiously toward the group. Our uniform was “summer homicide,” short sleeve dress shirts, ties and slacks. Our sport coats hung on the rear seat hooks in our unmarked sedan now parked at the curb on the south edge of the housing project. Our lifeline, our radio, was firmly affixed to the dashboard of the car; the Detective Division would be the last in the department to be upgraded to the new handheld personal radios.
As we got closer, the crowd took note and created a path for us. In the center of the group lay a muscular teen-ager, staring wide eyed at the sky. No one was within 20 feet of him and we stopped in our tracks when we saw why. The shirtless young black male had been stabbed in the neck—the right carotid artery to be exact—and with each contraction of his heart a stream of blood shot 10 to 15 feet from his body. He writhed about from time to time and the direction of the blood would shift slightly with each movement. The crowd would murmur and shift even further away. We snapped our holster straps closed.
“Oh shit!” Mike and I exclaimed simultaneously. No matter how many first aid movies you may have seen, nothing can prepare you for this sight in real life.
“I’ll get a compress,” said Mike as he headed back to the car.
“And call for an ambulance!” I yelled after him as I approached the young man.
In our police careers both Mike and I had witnessed people bleed out from massive head wounds or other horrendous trauma that simply could not be staunched with the 4″ gauze compresses we carried in our case. But this was different. The point of bleeding was immediately identifiable. If I could just get my fingers on that point and apply pressure until Mike retuned, he might have a chance. I wasn’t quite sure how we would apply a compress with enough pressure and avoid strangling the young man at the same time, but that was not the present problem.
Somehow I got close enough to his body without getting a direct hit. I knelt next to him and placed the fingers of my right hand directly on the wound. I could feel the carotid pulsing but miraculously the bleeding stopped. With that accomplished I had time to contemplate our next move, but I didn’t have the faintest idea what that would be. I looked at his face, still wide eyed but conscious. Primal fear was the only way to describe his expression. The crowd stared silently. In the background I could hear the wail of responding sirens. What seemed like several minutes was in reality probably only seconds.
Mike, 12th District uniform personnel and two paramedics burst through the crowd at the same time… and they stopped in their tracks.
“Oh shit,” said the paramedics as they looked at streams of blood spatter that had streaked across the concrete.
“No shit,” I muttered to myself.
They showed a light on the man’s neck and my hand.
“Don’t move your hand!” they said as they opened their case of magic.
“Flatten your palm against his neck, but don’t move your fingers. Pressure! Maintain pressure!”
Okay I’m doing that I thought to myself.
Imagine my surprise when their magic appeared to be yards and yards of Ace bandages wrapped around my hand and the victim’s neck.
“And your plan is?” I asked
“You’re coming with us,” they said. “And don’t move your fingers!”
One of the paramedics retreated to the ambulance and returned with the stretcher. It wasn’t easy but somehow they maneuvered the patient, now totally unconscious, onto the stretcher, raised it to about waist high and all of us began to glide slowly toward the street. Once at the ambulance it was apparent that I was on the wrong side for conventional transport.
“You’ll have to kneel next to him.”
I looked at the corrugated steel floor. “Not without a pillow.”
“Give the pussy a pillow,” said one of the paramedics with a glint in his eye.
“Don’t fuck with me or I’ll move my fingers.”
Once inside the ambulance it was all business. The one paramedic started oxygen and was attempting to start an IV line while the other was radioing vital signs to the hospital. It was the first time I recall hearing the term “hypovolemic shock” amongst other medical terms and the hospital responded in a terse exchange with the paramedic on the radio.
The silent crowd had come alive and surrounded our vehicle and began pounding on the sides.
“What choo doin?”
“Ain’t you goin a take em?”
“Go! Go! Go!” They began to chant, all the while pounding on the sides of the ambulance.
The paramedic was still struggling with the IV.
A blue and white checkered hat appeared at the sliding window on the rear door.
“Hey guys, ya gotta move. There’s too many of them here.”
“Godammit!” cursed the paramedic on the radio.
“Stand-by, we have to move!” he shouted into the radio.
He climbed into the driver’s seat and we sped a few blocks to a parking lot on the far side of the Chicago Stadium.
“If we don’t get an IV started we’re going to lose him.” he said as he climbed back with us.
“Negative on the IV” ordered the hospital. “Transport stat!”
“Give me five more seconds,” said the paramedic next to me.
And then miraculously, “Got it!”
I had never ridden in anything other than an old fashioned Cadillac ambulance and was astounded to observe that the newer ambulances were built on a truck chassis. Every block of our ride reminded me of that fact.
At the back door of County we once again had to gyrate and contort to get the two of us out of the ambulance, my right hand and his neck remaining securely fastened together. That accomplished we snaked our way through the corridor of the Emergency Room—which strangely was not our destination. We rolled out into the hallway where an elevator took us to the second floor Trauma Unit known simply as Ward 32. I had been there dozens of times investigating various shooting and stabbings. The Cook County Trauma Unit was probably one of the most competent in the world, but this visit would be quite different for me.
If I thought the patient and I were to be immediately released from one another I was mistaken. The paramedics described the incredulous scene to the doctors and they turned to me questioningly.
“That’s right,” I said, “He was pumping 10 to 15 foot streams.”
“And that’s where your fingers are now?”
“Don’t move your hand.”
And they started to work their medical magic. The victim was smoothly transferred from the fire department stretcher to the trauma unit gurney. His blood pressure was perilously low, called out with a single number rather than the pair of figures we are used to hearing. “Sixty!” And a few moments later, “Fifty-five!” Pulse was rapid. There were no breath sounds in his right lung. A urinary catheter was inserted—that always caused me to shudder no matter how many times I had seen the procedure. They couldn’t start their own IV and the one started in the parking lot of the Chicago Stadium was now being used to push a unit of blood while they started a cutdown in his groin to provide for a more rapid infusion of blood.
At any given moment there were four or more persons working on him, the medical terms being thrown about by doctors and nurses alike sounded like foreign language to me. I understood enough to know that they suspected that internal bleeding may have drained into his plural cavity causing the right lung to collapse. They called for a chest tube to be inserted immediately next to where my right elbow was positioned. I shifted away a few inches, but I couldn’t move any further. The incision and insertion without anesthetic resulted in a low moan and some movement on the patient’s part and I took that as an encouraging sign. But when the tube was finally inserted bright red blood flowed out, confirming internal bleeding.
“Clamp it! Clamp it!” someone shouted. “We need to get more blood into him.”
Every step was a balancing act but slowly I began to get the general impression that the plan was to prepare him for transport to the operating room. A vascular surgery team had been assembled and was in place. How far would I go, I wondered silently.
Suddenly they were concentrating on the ace bandages around my hand and his neck.
“Don’t move your hand until we tell you!” Maintain pressure!”
They started to unwrap several feet of blood soaked elastic bandages.
“Okay… when we tell you… remove your hand and step away.”
I checked the path behind me and nodded my head.
“Now!” shouted the doctor.
I pulled my hand away and stepped into the pathway behind me without looking back at the patient. We had been joined together for well over an hour. As I flexed my hand and elbow, he and his gurney were disappearing out the door on the way to the OR. I found a wash station at the back of the Trauma Unit and scrubbed with a Hexachlorophene impregnated sponge for several minutes. While I was drying, Mike appeared at my side.
“Where’s that 4″ compress I sent you for?” I said with mock indignation.
“Go fuck yourself,” he responded. “Can we leave now, doctor?”
We laughed and the medical people still in the trauma unit shot us a look.
I had blood on my shirt and I was sure there had to be some on my trousers. We only had about 90 minutes left on our shift.
“Let’s go in to the office. I’m going to ask to be excused so I can go home and cleanup. Do we have any idea who this guy is?”
“I know who he is,” said Mike facetiously. “Wiggins. Larry Wiggins. He’s 19 and he lives in the Henry Horner Homes.”
“Well I’m glad you were doing something useful while I was… tied up.” We both laughed again.
Back at our Maxwell Street office, Mike started typing a Serafini Report, an unofficial note detailing what we knew, in the event Wiggins expired before we returned to work the next afternoon.
I headed home to shower and throw in a load of laundry.
• • •
For the next two days we immediately checked on Larry Wiggins’ condition when we arrived for work. The first day post-op they carried him as “critical.” The second day he got a half notch upgrade to “critical but stable,” a meager improvement.
We attempted some interviews at the Henry Horner Homes but the attitude toward the police was several steps beyond hostile. The offender was nick-named “Pookie” and we got a general physical description, but nobody would identify him beyond that. We enlisted the help of a robbery detective from our adjoining office. He was an encyclopedia of ghetto nicknames. Problem was, he told us, there were about a dozen Pookies on the west side. But with Larry Wiggins very slowly improving, he began to drop lower on our priority list. Homicide was the game and our Maxwell Street unit had earned the nickname “The Murder Factory” the hard way. Wiggins was alive and improving—time enough to interview him in person in a week or so.
The third day when we arrived for work, there was no need to call the hospital. The sergeant handed us a report from our morgue man reclassifying the Wiggins Aggravated Battery to Homicide/Murder. Larry Wiggins had expired suddenly during the early morning hours. The autopsy listed his cause of death as “Cerebral Thrombosis secondary to Traumatic Laceration of the Right Carotid Artery (Stab Wound). In short, Larry had suffered a stroke from a blood clot that had probably originated from the site of the knife wound. That put Larry back at the top of our priority list for the evening.
After roll call we trekked over to the Henry Horner Homes once again, but this time we went directly to the apartment where Larry had lived with his mother and sisters. As we entered, the mood was quiet and somber. A girl I would later learn was Larry’s younger sister turned to her mother.
“Mama, this is the detective I told you about,” as she nodded toward me.
“Oh sweet Jesus!” she shouted as she took about three steps and put me in a bear hug. “You saved my baby! You saved my baby!” She sobbed as she held tight to me.
Didn’t she know? Hadn’t they told her? Her son had been dead now for well over 12 hours. I held her tight, not knowing what her reaction was going to be, but she had to know the truth.
“Ma’am! Ma’am!” I put my mouth close to her ear. “Larry passed away early this morning.”
She released me and put her hands on each of my arms just above the elbow.
“Don’t you understand?” she said. “You gave him a chance, oh Lord, you gave him a chance!”
I stared dumbly at her as she regained her composure.
“Jesus put you there so we would could see him and tell him we loved him… and say good-bye. You did that for us.”
“Yes ma’am,” was all I could say.
“We’re looking for Pookie,” I added lamely after a short pause.
She stood straighter and stronger, taking on the persona of the tough, resilient black matriarchs that I had seen so often in the ghetto.
“We know Pookie,” she said. “We’ll bring him in to you.”
“Mrs. Wiggins, that’s our job. We don’t want anything happening to you… or to Pookie.”
She smiled, indulgently I thought.
“His mama and I—we bring him in to you—ain’t nothin’ goin to happen to him. We be doin’ the right thing.” Her tone left no room for argument.
Two hours later an entourage arrived at the Maxwell Street Homicide office with Pookie in tow. He was a big young man, but with his mama at his side he looked meek and bedraggled. They stayed at the office while we took statements from Pookie and several witnesses. The Assistant State’s Attorney from the Felony Review Unit arrived, reviewed the case and approved murder charges.
It was well after midnight when we called for Pookie to be transported to the lock-up. The two mamas, Larry’s sisters and two witnesses left together. Everybody’s lives had changed the past few days, but the mamas walked out arm in arm, solid and straight. In a very real sense, they had each lost a son to ghetto violence, but no pair of mothers ever appeared more resolute in adversity.
I should have felt good… investigation… arrest… a cleared homicide… but in one way it was a hollow accomplishment—I really hadn’t “saved” anybody.