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Touching the Void

When police said they had finally solved the 1981 murder of a young Lincoln Park woman, it brought a terrible crime closer to resolution, and stirred agonizing memories for her loved ones.


Marilyn Dods, pictured as a college senior


Until the police asked him to come back to Chicago, a quarter century after the fact, Dick Stevens would not set foot in the city. Over the years, Stevens, now 48 and living outside of Portland, Oregon, would pass through O’Hare International Airport at least a dozen times a year on business travel. But he never ventured into Chicago’s streets. He had no stomach for revisiting the past. It would have triggered too much pain. As for what happened here on that terrible day so long ago, only his wife and a few of his friends in Oregon knew. He hasn’t even told his children. “I don’t want to burden them,” he explains. “I want them to believe the world is a good place.”

Stevens was 22 and just out of college when he arrived in Lincoln Park in 1981 with a single suit, some secondhand furniture, and, like so many young dreamers new to the city, plans to set the world on fire. He didn’t even have a job. But he was deeply in love with a girl named Marilyn Dods, a brilliant young woman who had just graduated from Georgetown University. Stevens would have followed Marilyn anywhere she chose to begin her career. It could have been Columbus or Miami or Denver. But she chose Chicago. And so he chose it, too.

In January 2007, for the first time in 25 years, Stevens got off the plane at O’Hare and headed into the city. At the request of the police, he traveled to Lincoln Park, stepping back into a time that haunts him, and always will. “I don’t want to relive the worst part of my life,” he told Chicago police detective Bob Clemens. “But if it will help, I will do it.”

The detective took Stevens to 525 West Arlington Place, a brick apartment building just off Clark Street. It was there, in a third-floor studio on a warm Sunday afternoon in September 1981, that Stevens found Marilyn Dods’s body in a bathtub, a sock stuffed in her mouth, her arms bound behind her back, a small television set on her chest. She had been raped and murdered.

Marilyn Dods had just moved into an apartment building on Arlington Place when she was murdered in 1981.

The murder of Marilyn Dods had gone unsolved for more than two decades. But police now say a routine DNA test of prison inmates has linked Clarence Trotter, an inmate at Stateville Correctional Center, with the crime. Trotter, 48, is serving a life term for the 1986 rape and murder of a 40-year-old South Side woman, Betty Howard. In that case, Trotter was convicted of tying the woman to a radiator, raping her, stabbing her, and shooting her in the face. In January of this year, Trotter was charged with the murder of Dods. He has pleaded not guilty.

“This guy was completely under the radar,” says Detective Clemens. “Nobody considered him a suspect.” Trotter’s rap sheet goes back to an early age and includes a 1976 robbery and a 1978 burglary.

Dods’s family expressed relief that Trotter had been in prison, but wished that Marilyn’s father could have lived to see the case cracked. “I’m glad they caught the son of a bitch and he can’t hurt anybody else,” says Reynolds Dods, one of Marilyn’s brothers. “But I wish my father would have been alive to know this. It devastated him. He was never the same after that. None of us were, really.”

Like all big cities, Chicago is too familiar with random acts of brutality. But on the day that Dods was murdered, crowds gathered on the streets of Lincoln Park. Shaken residents, as if from a small, sheltered town, spoke in hushed tones about the horrific slaying of this remarkable young woman, a scholar and star field hockey player at Georgetown who was set to begin a new job at Northern Trust.

When the authorities called Stevens back to Chicago in January to bolster the case, he recalls, “the police wanted to talk about the day of the crime. But I wanted to think about all the days that led up to it.” A student at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, he had met Dods in 1979 while the two were studying abroad in the Netherlands. “I wanted to think about the times the two of us were together in Holland and Berlin and Paris.”

Today, Stevens is married and the father of three children. He is a successful executive, “a guy with a corner office in a skyscraper,” as he puts it, who does well and travels regularly to London for business. But the murder of Marilyn Dods changed him in profound ways.

“I’m not like a lot of other dads,” says Stevens, who has never talked to a reporter about the case until now. “I’m relatively remote, sort of distant. I’m not in a crowd socializing with people. And when I look at someone, I think, ‘Is this a good person or is it a bad person?’ It doesn’t matter if it’s a street person or somebody in a business suit. I look at them. And I wonder.”

* * *

In a family of high achievers, Marilyn was the star. A top student, she also excelled in field hockey, as this high-school photo shows.

Growing up in Delaware the youngest of four children and the only girl, Marilyn Dods was the baby in the family, known simply as “the Babe.” She grew into a five-foot-two young woman with dark hair and large brown eyes that danced in ways, as one brother describes it, “that showed her brain was awake.”

The Dodses were a family of high-stepping achievers. Kevin, the eldest, played football at Princeton. He now runs his own company in California. Reynolds went to Washington and Lee University and now is the chief financial officer for an insurance services company in New Jersey. Chris attended the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis and now is the chief operating officer of a Texas company. “But in a family of competitive, smart people, Marilyn was by far the smartest,” says Chris. “She was the star. The boys in our family could be loud and rude. We sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. But everyone liked Marilyn.”

Their mother, Muffie (a nickname for Marilyn), died of cancer in 1978, during her daughter’s first year of college. Their father, Lou, a business executive, went to his grave in 2001 wondering who had taken his prized Marilyn away from him. “Lou worshiped Marilyn,” says Reynolds. “Woe be to anyone who didn’t look out for the Babe. In our family, her word prevailed.” He recalls that when Lou sneaked cigarettes, a disapproving Marilyn would banish him to the garage. “Now, if one of us boys had told him to go to the garage, oh, man, he would have told us exactly where to go. But in his eyes, Marilyn could do no wrong.”

When Marilyn graduated from Georgetown, her father was reluctant to see her move away. He persuaded her to spend a summer at home with him before going off to Chicago to start her new job. The father and daughter sailed on a friend’s boat to the Caribbean. They went out for dinners and business parties. They played tennis. And Lou tried to teach her to play golf. “Lou told her, ‘If you’re going to make it big in business,’” recalls Chris, “‘you’re going to have to learn to play golf.’”

And everyone knew she was going to make it big.

* * *

The economy was sputtering in 1981, and most college graduates were struggling to find decent jobs. Marilyn, meanwhile, had her pick. She had majored in business, with an emphasis on international relations. On her résumé, she noted that she was fluent in German. During her interview with Northern Trust, says Reynolds, “this guy suddenly walks into the office and starts asking her questions in German.” It was a test, both of her language skills, and of her poise. Without blinking, Marilyn began chattering away in German. She got the job.

Marilyn had chosen Chicago to begin her career, her brothers recall, because she made it clear that she wanted to live in a big, exciting city, a place with culture and the arts. When she arrived here just before the fall of 1981, she found the apartment on Arlington and called home to tell her father about it. “Lou told her, ‘Don’t sign the lease yet-I want to come out there to check things out,’” says Chris.

Her father wanted to make sure it was a decent neighborhood for a young woman. In Lincoln Park, he scoured the streets. He even paid a visit to the local police district to ask questions about the area. When he returned home to Delaware, Chris recalls, he told his sons, “Your sister’s in a safe place.”

At first, Marilyn stored some belongings at the Lake Forest home of Joanne and Simon Unkovskoy, the parents of Marilyn’s close friend and roommate, Aleka Scott. The Sunday before her murder, Marilyn and Dick Stevens went to the Unkovskoys’ home for lunch. “I distinctly remember telling Marilyn, ‘This is a big, dangerous city, so be careful,’” recalls Mrs. Unkovskoy, who still has a house in Lake Forest. “Marilyn just smiled and said, ‘Oh, it’s fine.’”

As she recalls those days, Mrs. Unkovskoy breaks down in tears. “I’m sorry,” she says, her voice a whisper. “I can’t talk about it right now.” She struggles to compose herself. “It was the first time I ever saw my husband cry.”

The day after the murder, a letter arrived in the mail at the Unkovskoy home. It was a note from Marilyn, thanking Mrs. Unkovskoy for all her help. In the letter, Marilyn told her how excited she was to be putting her apartment together. “She had just hung the painting Sunflowers,” recalls Mrs. Unkovskoy. “It’s a small thing. But these are things you never forget.”

* * *

Police have linked Clarence Trotter, a convicted murderer, to Marilyn Dods’ death.

On that Sunday morning, Dick Stevens left Marilyn’s apartment at about nine. Marilyn was going to Mass at an Episcopal church, and the two of them would meet up later. When Stevens didn’t hear from her in the early afternoon, he called Marilyn’s apartment and got no answer. He called again and again. Finally, he went to the apartment. He saw a knife on the bed.

Detective Clemens says there was no sign of forced entry. He points out that it was a “warmish September day,” and Marilyn might have left the door to the hallway open. For that matter, she might have simply answered a knock. “We know this much: Marilyn Dods was a person who cared about other people,” says Clemens.

Trotter, a native Chicagoan, had led a troubled young life. A high-school dropout with a number of petty arrests, he had grown up mostly on the South Side. But he spent a period of his youth as a ward of the state in a home on North Clark Street. It was about a block from the site of the murder.

* * *

To hear the anguish in the voices of the family and friends of Marilyn Dods is to be reminded that murder does not end with a death. Her friend Aleka Scott recalls that when she was told of the killing, she “threw down the phone and just screamed and screamed.” Over the years, she has yearned so deeply to see her friend that she has imagined visions of Marilyn on the street, walking out of a shop, stepping onto a bus, too far ahead to catch her. “There are times when I’ve actually shouted, ‘Marilyn! Marilyn!’ And I’ve had to stop and remind myself, Marilyn is dead.”

So many times, Scott says, she has needed to talk to Marilyn for advice-when she married, when she had children, when she divorced. “You don’t realize how the absence of one person can rip a hole in your being,” she says. “I still have that hole. There are so many of us who have that void.”

Marilyn’s peers and three brothers are middle-aged now, as Marilyn would be, and they are left to wonder what her life might have been. “What if Marilyn had lived?” asks Scott. “What would she have done in her career? What would her children have been like? What causes would she have volunteered for? What difference in the world would she have made?”

There are eight nieces and nephews she never knew. Jordan Dods, the son of Chris, is now an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Virginia. He recalls growing up looking at the family pictures on the wall and seeing the face of the young woman whose life went unlived. “We were just told, ‘That’s Marilyn, and she was murdered.’ That was it. We didn’t talk about it. People can’t imagine what was done to her. Who’d want to imagine it? Nobody. And so we didn’t. I didn’t even know all the details of what happened to her until the last few months.”  

* * *

Lou Dods dances with his prized girl soon after her college graduation. “In his eyes, Marilyn could do no wrong,” says one son.

When Marilyn arrived in Chicago, Ronald Reagan was in the first year of his presidency. Jane Byrne occupied the mayor’s office. There were no lights in Wrigley Field. The el line that ran near her apartment was known as the Howard.

When Dick Stevens came back to Chicago in January, he stood and looked at the apartment building and was 22 again. The restaurant nearby, Jerome’s, was now a place called Mickey’s. Around the corner was a Caribou Coffee shop, a business that didn’t exist when Marilyn lived here.

Marilyn’s family kept in touch with Stevens for a while and wished him the best. “He had some deep scars,” says Chris. “He was the one who found my sister. He was the one who had to face my father. He was the one who the police told, ‘Don’t leave town.’”

Shortly afterward, Stevens went back to his family’s farm in Oregon to grieve. He never sought counseling. “My parents were Depression-era people,” he explains. “And my dad told me, ‘You’re a smart person. Go sit on a mountain and think. You’ll figure things out and get through things.’”

Stevens did get himself through, though he never figured it out. “I had two roads I could follow,” he says. “I could go down a downward spiral into a private hell trying to answer why. The other was to never ask the question. And that’s what I did. I stopped trying to figure it out. I finally decided, ‘You’re smart. But you’re not that smart.’”

In 1987, Stevens married a lovely young woman from England. Before they married, he made one last trip to visit Marilyn’s father in Delaware. Stevens called Lou and said he wanted to give him something. “It was the love letters that Marilyn had written me during the year we were apart,” Stevens says. “I felt awkward keeping them, since I had this new person in my life. But I couldn’t bear to throw them away. So I gave them to Lou.”

Stevens had hoped they might give the father something tangible to connect to his daughter. Maybe the letters would allow Lou to hear her voice once more. Stevens handed them over, collected in a box. It was the last time he and Lou would ever meet.

“Lou was grateful, but he was so very sad,” Stevens says. “I was closing a chapter of my life and moving on. It was a chapter that Lou didn’t want to close.”


 

Photography: (Image 1) Used by permission of Dods family, all rights reserved; (Image 3) Used by permission of Dods family, all rights reserved; (Image 4) Illinois Department of Corrections; (Image 5) Used by permission of Dods family, all rights reserved.

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