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Special Report: One Year Later

One year after we reported that the Chicago Police Department was undercounting the city’s murders, the problem persists—and top brass are up to some

New Tricks

One year after we reported that the Chicago Police Department was undercounting the city’s murders, the problem persists—and top brass are up to some

Above: Photo: Clint Blowers

Photographs and mementos pack every cranny of Alice Groves’s otherwise tidy two-story house in West Pullman, on Chicago’s Far South Side. A deeply religious health care aide, Groves, 60, is the matriarch of a large and close-knit family. Birthday parties, church events, graduations, deaths: She chronicles them all. “This is Tiara, that’s her,” she says, pointing above her family room sofa to a framed poster depicting a smiling young woman in a sassy, confident pose, head tilted toward the camera. “She was looking so forward to her 21st birthday.”

In July 2013, Groves learned that the lifeless body of her missing 20-year-old daughter Tiara—the fifth of her six children—had been found naked and gagged on the floor of an abandoned Chicago warehouse. As if that weren’t tragedy enough for one family, four months later, Groves’s youngest child, Kenneth, was fatally shot after a melee broke out at a house party in Kankakee. (His alleged killer is currently on trial.)

 

Devastating as her son’s death was, Groves understood it. Kenneth was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. But she has no such closure with her daughter, whose death was ruled a homicide by the Cook County medical examiner. The summer heat had decomposed Tiara’s body so badly that the pathologist couldn’t even pinpoint an exact cause of death, deeming it simply a homicide by “unspecified means.”

At first, baffled and traumatized family members called the Chicago Police Department every day to see if it had made any progress in tracking down Tiara’s unknown killer. “We just heard a lot of ‘We’re investigating it,’ ” says her older sister Kenyatta, 24.

As this magazine first reported last year, on December 18, 2013—only 13 days before the police department’s final homicide numbers for the year would be tallied—a lieutenant overseeing the case seized on the phrase “unspecified means” to reclassify the case of Tiara Groves from a homicide investigation to a “noncriminal death investigation,” which is not counted in the murder statistics. After Chicago’s story was published last spring, police quietly reclassified Tiara’s case yet again, to a new death-investigation category that it had just put in place (more on that later). Groves family members say that the police never told them about either reclassification.

Finally, last November, Alice’s daily prayers appeared to have been answered: A police detective called to tell her that he had evidence that would bust the case wide open, she recalls. “I asked him, ‘Is it good?’ He said, ‘Yes, it’s good.’ ” He told her that he’d have the case closed in a couple of months, she says.

Sure enough, in March, police arrested Leondra “Red” Martin, 30, who had lived next door to the Groves family; she was on surveillance video arguing with Tiara outside a Cicero liquor store the last time Tiara was seen alive. Police also arrested Desmond “Wicked” Collins, 38, a convicted sex offender with a long rap sheet. His DNA was found under Tiara’s fingernails.

But the Cook County state’s attorney’s office didn’t charge Martin and Collins with murdering Tiara. It charged them only with concealing her death—the state’s lowest-level (Class 4) felony. According to court records, Collins told police that Tiara had overdosed on heroin while the three were at a Cicero motel. He and Martin, he said, wrapped her body in a sheet, drove her to a house in an undisclosed area, and later hid her in the warehouse in Austin, where they staged the scene to make it look as if she’d been murdered.

Alice Groves and her family
Alice Groves (with children Kenyatta and Tyshawn) can’t understand why her daughter Tiara’s 2013 death still isn’t classified as a murder.   Photo: Allison Williams

The Groveses aren’t buying it. For one thing, the medical examiner’s report states that Tiara—who was a drinker but not a drug user, her family insists—did not have enough alcohol or drugs in her system to kill her. (The report notes that asphyxiation was a possible cause of death.) And even if Tiara did die of an overdose, why would Martin and Collins go to such great lengths to make her death look like a murder? “It don’t make no sense,” says Alice, shaking her head in frustration.

While prosecutors have discretion to charge what they like, it’s unusual for them to charge anyone with a homicide when the police say there was no homicide. Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, told Chicago that Martin and Collins are being “properly charged.” (The medical examiner’s office has not changed its ruling of homicide.)

If convicted, Collins would serve a maximum of three years. Martin, given that she has no felonies on her record, could escape prison time altogether. Says a furious Kenyatta, who is convinced that Martin killed her sister: “She got away with murder.”

“It reminds me of three-card monte”

A full year has passed since Chicago raised serious questions about the accuracy of the Chicago Police Department’s crime statistics under Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his handpicked top cop, Garry McCarthy. The investigation found that the department underreported homicides in 2013 by misclassifying at least 10 killings, including that of Tiara Groves. We also revealed how the department systematically downgraded other violent felonies and serious property crimes. More than 40 current and former police officers of various ranks told us that the misclassifications resulted from intense pressure that top police superiors put on rank-and-file officers to produce crime numbers that go in only one direction: down.

After publication, did the police superintendent’s office check into the truth behind the cases we flagged? It doesn’t appear so. According to scores of internal emails we obtained through a request filed under the Freedom of Information Act, top officials in the police department and in Mayor Emanuel’s office, working in unison, focused on damage control.

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The day the article was published, a producer from WTTW’s Chicago Tonight reached out to Adam Collins, then the director of the police department’s Office of News Affairs. Collins turned down the producer’s request for a police official to appear on the show and tried to persuade her to cancel the segment altogether. “What a joke,” he updated his City Hall counterparts. “Spent all afternoon arguing with the people who air Sesame Street.”

“Quash this,” Sarah Hamilton, then Emanuel’s top press aide, directed a staffer two days later. “I told [Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed] that it was all bullshit and lies.”

Meanwhile, a furious McCarthy launched a vigorous hunt for anyone in the department who might have contacted the magazine. In a series of department meetings, say sources, he used terms like “traitor” and “traitorous act” to describe the sharing of information with the press. The police department’s current director of news affairs, Marty Maloney, declined to name who ordered the internal probe—now more than a year old—or to provide other details because “the investigation is still ongoing.”

Throughout this period, Superintendent McCarthy got the unflinching support of his boss, Mayor Emanuel. Asked last June by MSNBC host Chris Hayes if he had “full faith” in the department’s crime statistics, Emanuel answered, “Absolutely.”

North Side alderman Scott Waguespack and South Side alderman Willie Cochran weren’t so confident. They called for City Council hearings on crime-statistic accuracy. But only one hearing was scheduled, for a Friday in August, when many aldermen were on summer recess. During the sparsely attended session, McCarthy insisted that he has made Chicago’s crime statistics more accurate, not less.

And that was basically that. With no meaningful oversight (unlike Los Angeles, Chicago lacks an independent inspector general for the police department) and without political pressure to shape up, police brass appear just as willing now as before to engage in or tolerate statistical sleights of hand to lower the city’s official crime tally. In 2014, the department not only continued many of the same practices it used to keep murders off the books in 2013 but also devised some new tricks that stretched the crime-counting guidelines in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s rule book thinner than ever.

Police officials “keep coming up with new creative ways to mislead people,” says Eli Silverman, a professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and an expert on big-city crime statistics. “It reminds me of three-card monte.”

“Lowest murder rate since 1966”

We analyzed the department’s internal and publicly available crime data for 2014, poring over dozens of police reports, court documents, and medical examiner’s reports and interviewing 40 current and former police sources and crime-reporting experts. In doing so, we found 21 cases that, according to FBI rules and other expert sources we consulted, are “counters”—meaning that they should have counted in the city’s murder totals—but that were not classified as such on the city’s data portal, the database of crimes that the Chicago Police Department shares with the public (data.cityofchicago.org). The department “put[s] every criminal incident up on the city data portal,” McCarthy assured the City Council last summer. (See a list of the 21 uncounted “counters” below.)

As a result, Chicago’s actual 2014 murder total is not 407, as listed on the department’s end-of-year CompStat crime report. (In a January 1 press release, the department declared that murders declined by 3 percent in 2014 and trumpeted “the lowest murder rate since 1966.”) Nor is the murder total 415, the number listed on the data portal at presstime. (The number went up because the department reclassified existing cases about which it gathered new information. It didn’t issue a press release about those eight extra murders.) According to our investigation, 2014’s total is at least 436 murders—two fewer than in 2010, the last full year under previous police superintendent Jody Weis. So much for the city’s claims of historic lows in homicides—and for the highly touted success of McCarthy’s policing strategies, including those “summer surges” of cops to violent neighborhoods, which racked up some $200 million in overtime over the last two years.

 

Currently, Chicago’s official figures show a 0.7 percent drop in homicides from 2013 to 2014. Curious, given that there was a 14 percent increase in the number of people shot. “Generally speaking, if your shootings are going up, then your murders should be going up, and vice versa,” says John Eterno, a criminologist at Molloy College on Long Island.

Maloney told Chicago that the department stands behind the accuracy of its murder statistics, adding, “The [city’s] inspector general has approved and validated the way CPD tracks homicides.” Really? Not according to a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, who says that the office “has not issued any audits or other reviews of CPD’s tracking of homicides.”

The  21 uncounted murder victims Chicago found had a lot in common. Most were black or members of other minority groups. And most were killed on the South or West Sides, where the vast majority of the city’s homicides occur. “[The Chicago Police Department] ain’t concerned about the safety of people out here,” contends Alice Groves. “If they were, ain’t no way in the world that they’d let a lot of these cases just go past.”

Neither Superintendent McCarthy nor Mayor Emanuel agreed to be interviewed for this story. At presstime, the police department had delivered only 17 of the 28 files of questionable cases we had requested under the Freedom of Information Act eight weeks earlier, despite repeated promises to provide them (see “The Big Stall”). One day before this article was supposed to close, Maloney finally responded to a list of emailed questions. Maloney’s predecessor, Collins, now a spokesman for the mayor, said he would provide a statement but never did.

“That thing was designed to hide murders”

On March 12, 2014, Anthony Riccio began to write an email. A longtime member of the Chicago Police Department, he had been promoted by McCarthy in 2013 to deputy chief of the detectives division. Riccio wanted to update a select group of high-ranking colleagues—the heads of the police department’s three detective bureaus, plus his boss, chief of detectives John Escalante—about a change that the department had just made to its crime-reporting categories.

If you’re a police chief, the Uniform Crime Reporting program is a big deal. Run by the FBI, it collects and publishes the incidents of eight serious violent and property crimes, including homicide, in virtually every U.S. city and from virtually every law enforcement agency in the nation. (These eight are known as “index crimes.”) The FBI gives detailed guidelines about which crimes to count in which category so that the bureau can accurately track changes in public safety over time.

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The homicides that the FBI counts have a UCR code of 0110 in Illinois, meaning first-degree murder. (This gets complicated, but hang in there.) Until last year, longtime police detectives say, at a scene where there was a dead body, cops would almost always give the case one of two codes: 0110 or 5084, which means a “noncriminal death investigation.” Obvious murders or highly suspicious deaths would be coded 0110 right away. Deaths that weren’t suspicious (such as apparent accidental deaths at home) or in which the cause seemed somewhat questionable (such as apparently healthy young people dying in their sleep) would be coded 5084. In a typical year, 5,000-plus cases got classified as noncriminal deaths.

After detectives investigated, they might decide that a particular 0110 case should change to, say, involuntary manslaughter or justifiable homicide. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report tracks all these categories, but the only one it publishes—the only one that’s an all-important “index crime”—is murder. And the only murder numbers that Chicago police share with the public are the 0110 numbers.

Which brings us back to Riccio. On that March day, he was emailing his colleagues about “a new classification/UCR for some of our death investigations,” according to the email obtained by Chicago. The classification, known simply as “death investigation,” would have a UCR code of 5078 and would “be ideal for cases in which we cannot make a determination on the scene (body in a garbage can/body in a decomposed state/body rolled in carpet, etc.),” the email continued. An “additional benefit” to the code, Maloney told Chicago: “CPD can now submit evidence to the ISP [Illinois State Police] lab in any suspicious or unusual death and explore it as being possibly criminal.”

Not a bad idea, right? The new 5078 code could theoretically flag cases like Tiara Groves’s, helping detectives prioritize those investigations over less suspicious deaths. But the new code deeply disturbed detectives we interviewed. First of all, the police department had already been able to submit evidence to the state crime lab, regardless of a case’s classification number. Second, they reminded us, when deciding between classifying a highly suspicious death case as either a noncriminal death or a homicide, they would typically err on the side of homicide. “That’s always been protocol,” says one veteran (who, like most other internal CPD sources who spoke to us, requested anonymity for fear of retaliation). “You work it as a homicide until your investigation can prove otherwise or reveal otherwise.”

Now,  says a retired high-level detective, “you can put everything in [the new category]. You can put cases in which a guy was shot or tied up. Now, it [can be] like, ‘Let’s just call it a death investigation.’ ” If coded to the new 5078 category, suspicious death cases that might otherwise have been classified as 0110 escape both the UCR count and the public data portal. Opines one detective we interviewed about the new code: “That thing was designed to hide murders, plain and simple.”

 

“What else could it be?”

The Chicago Police Department retroactively classified the cases of Tiara Groves and gunshot victim Patrick Walker—another case we wrote about last year—to the 5078 category. For a while, it also used the category for the case of Jacob Klepacz.

Like thousands of other Chicagoans, Klepacz, a 32-year-old carpenter, spent the afternoon of April 27, 2014, watching the Blackhawks playoff game at a bar. Then he headed from Streeterville to another bar in Wrigleyville. Around 4 a.m., he and an acquaintance were walking down the sidewalk near the 1500 block of West Fullerton, in Lincoln Park, when two men jumped them.

They brutally beat Klepacz, repeatedly kicking him, stomping him, and punching him in the head. (The medical examiner’s investigator reported that he had “apparent facial trauma with a deformed nose.”) The attackers made off with the duo’s wallets and cell phones; Klepacz’s companion, who escaped serious injury, summoned help. Emergency crews found Klepacz unresponsive. Half an hour later, he died.

The next day, a pathologist said that Klepacz’s autopsy was inconclusive. Toxicology tests were ordered, which came back on May 6, documents reveal, eight days after his death. Turns out Klepacz was drunk, sure, but he hadn’t consumed a lethal quantity of alcohol. Puzzlingly, even then, the medical examiner’s office did not make a ruling on the cause of death. A spokesman for Stephen Cina, Chicago’s chief medical examiner, refused to answer questions about this case or any of the cases described in this story, citing a recent change in the office’s “communications policy.”

The police department could have ruled the Klepacz case a murder anyway, given that the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting manual expressly states that a police department’s classification of a homicide should be based solely on a police investigation, not on the determination of a medical examiner or a prosecutor’s office. Instead, the case was initially put in the old noncriminal death category, then moved to the new death category sometime before mid-June, according to internal police documents provided to Chicago via a public-records request.

With each passing week, Klepacz’s father, Chester, grew more and more frustrated that police weren’t calling his son’s case a murder. “What else could it be?” he says. At a community meeting with police a month or so after Jacob’s death—a week after that toxicology test had been completed—a sergeant told Chester and a large group of Jacob’s friends that the case had not yet been ruled a homicide because, Chester recalls, “they were waiting for ‘science.’ ”

On July 9, more than nine weeks after Jacob’s death, the medical examiner finally ruled the case a homicide due to “blunt head trauma from assault.” Nine days later, Marco Alvarado, 21, reportedly a member of the Latin Kings street gang, was charged with Jacob Klepacz’s murder. (The trial is in progress.)

The April in which Klepacz died was an unusually violent one in Chicago. That month saw 33 murders in 2014, nine more than the same month in 2013. Make that 10 more if you include Klepacz, who was killed two days before the end of the month. The delay in calling his death a homicide meant that there were no headlines about a double-digit murder rise in April.

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Last summer, the department added hundreds more cases to the new 5078 category. According to Maloney, there were a total of 797 in 2014. Seven hundred and ninety-seven? In a category created for those rare cases—a body found in a garbage can, a body rolled in a carpet—in which the immediate cause of death can’t be determined? “I can’t see how, under what circumstances, that’s possible,” says a South Side detective.

Just as strange, almost all of the 20 current police officers we asked about the new 5078 category had never heard of it. None could recall receiving anything official, no departmental directive, no training, not even a roll-call announcement. (Maloney says, “On March 12, a department-wide general message was sent out to all units . . . [with] instructions to review the new classification for seven consecutive days at roll call.”)

When we showed one longtime detective a list of code 5078 cases, he was shocked to find some of his own cases listed there. He says he never classified them as 5078; how could he, when he didn’t even know the code existed? “I have no explanation for it,” he says. “The police officers are pulling the old number [5084] and [someone is] changing it to 5078, but I don’t know who is changing it or why.”

Maloney maintains that the area detectives are the ones making the classifications, “with the approval of detective supervisors and area commanders.” Not according to numerous detectives we interviewed. Opines one: “It’s all coming from downtown.”

Without analyzing the full case reports on each of the 797 cases, there’s no way of knowing how many of them might otherwise have been counted by police as homicides rather than as noncriminal death investigations. And that’s precisely the problem. The department tucked some murders into the new category, detectives say, and then shoveled so many other nonmurders in there, too, that for any outsider, ferreting out the murders is like finding needles in a haystack.

“Mutual combatants”

Two days before Christmas last year, shortly after 2 a.m., police rushed to a shots-fired call from near the Sky Box Sports Bar in Homan Square, on the West Side. Lying in the middle of South Central Park Avenue, bleeding to death, was a 23-year-old man.

According to police, that man, Youman McKenzie, belonged to a gang called the Unknown Vice Lords. Here’s the narrative from the police report: McKenzie “was running . . . exchanging gunfire with an unknown offender . . . until he was hit three times and fell.” Police found 16 spent shell casings and a 9 mm handgun at the scene. At McKenzie’s autopsy the next day, the pathologist discovered gunshot wounds in his chest, abdomen, and left thigh. A murder, the medical examiner’s office quickly concluded.

But how should the police department count it? “As a general rule,” states the Uniform Crime Reporting manual, “any death caused by injuries received in a fight, argument, quarrel, assault, or commission of a crime” is a murder. The handbook provides helpful examples of the kinds of cases that police should count as murders, such as: “While playing cards, two men got into an argument. The first man attacked the second with a broken bottle. The second man pulled a gun and killed his attacker.” Cops have a name for these people: “mutual combatants.”

Sure sounds similar to McKenzie’s situation. (See “The Victims Behind the Numbers” above.) Accordingly, the detective on the scene promptly logged the incident as a 0110, records show. But just after 5 p.m. that same day, December 23—a week before the department’s year-end murder numbers would be tallied—the code got changed to 5078. Maloney’s explanation: The case “was reclassified as a death investigation when it was revealed that the victim was exchanging gunfire with other offenders.”

That statement confounds a source familiar with the case. “So if someone is alleged to have shot back, it doesn’t count as a murder anymore? That’s ridiculous,” the source says. “Gangbangers are pulling guns on each other all the time. So [is the department] going to start saying [all gang shootings] aren’t murders either?”

The counting practice is all the more strange given Superintendent McCarthy’s claims that any changes to Chicago’s crime-reporting policies were made only to bring them into accord with state and federal guidelines. “It’s not up to me how we categorize murders,” he declared on a WGN news program last July. “It’s up to the Uniform Crime Report. That’s the standard we use.”

McKenzie’s case was omitted from the city’s 2014 murder statistics. It appears on the public data portal as—wait for it—criminal damage to a vehicle. Apparently at least one car near the shootout was hit by bullets.

“It’s apples and oranges”

On the afternoon of April 25, 2014, Hazel Jones-Huff, then 90, was gardening in her backyard in the South Side’s Gresham neighborhood. Her next-door neighbor, Cathy Hill, 54, was tending to her yard, too. They began arguing, records show, shouting back and forth over the tall fencing separating their properties.

Their bickering wasn’t unusual. Over the years, according to police and court records, the two women (and their husbands) had fought over anything and everything: litter in their yards, snow on the sidewalks, stolen jewelry. According to police, when the husbands—86-year-old Joe Huff Jr. and 44-year-old Courtney Hill—heard raised voices, they went outside and joined the argument. And then things got more heated than usual.

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Courtney Hill, a police officer who was off duty at the time, claimed that he saw Hazel Jones-Huff—who was 90, remember—throwing dirt at his wife and striking her with a broom. At this point, police say, Huff went back inside his house, returned with a shotgun, and fired at Cathy Hill, hitting her in the arm and hand. (Jones-Huff told police that she didn’t see this happen.)

Things quickly went south from there. Courtney Hill, who was also packing heat, shot Huff eight times, seven when his back was turned. (According to the medical examiner’s records, seven of the shots went straight into the back of the older man and out the front of his body.) When it appeared that Jones-Huff was reaching for her husband’s shotgun—she later said that she was trying to comfort him—Hill shot her twice.

Hazel Jones-Huff survived, as did Cathy Hill. But Joe Huff was pronounced dead right there on his property. The medical examiner’s office ruled his death a homicide.

Wasn’t it legal for Courtney Hill to kill Joe Huff? you may be thinking. After all, according to Illinois statute, a person “is justified in the use of force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm . . . if he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or another, or the commission of a forcible felony.”

But remember: The UCR rules are about counting, not charging. Laws on what can be charged as a crime vary by state. The whole raison d’être of the Uniform Crime Reporting program is to provide uniform statistics from across the country, Eterno points out. If the UCR says something is a homicide, then a police department needs to count it as a homicide, whether or not anyone gets charged.

Ignoring that distinction, Maloney gives the following explanation for why this crime was not classified as a murder: “This was a police-involved shooting and closed as a noncriminal justifiable homicide.” Strangely, though, the Independent Police Review Authority—which investigates all police shootings—did not include this case in its public investigation reports. What’s more, records show that the Chicago Police Department did not even count Joe Huff’s killing as a justifiable homicide. It counted it as an aggravated battery with a firearm.

Courtney Hill was never charged with a crime. But the newly widowed Hazel Jones-Huff was: two misdemeanor battery counts and a misdemeanor charge of aggravated assault against a police officer. In November, she was acquitted on all charges. The Huff family currently has a wrongful-death lawsuit pending against the police department.

If the Chicago Police Department stops following some of the UCR rules, as it may have done in this case and others, “it’s apples and oranges,” Eterno says. No one would be able to accurately track changes in Chicago’s safety over time or compare it with that of other cities—details of keen interest to politicians and the media, among others. “What they’re doing is changing the game,” Eterno says. “They’re changing the entire game.”

“Take advantage of any ambiguity”

Another dubious crime-counting practice at the Chicago Police Department involves cases in which victims of vicious attacks die immediately afterward from heart issues. Cases like that of Michael Tingling.

Tingling, a 59-year-old native of Belize, was walking with his 15-year-old daughter, Masharah, to get a doughnut before her doctor’s appointment on March 19, 2014. Near the 7100 block of North Clark Street, in Rogers Park, Joseph Firek, 59, walked past them. According to the police report, he brushed his shoulder against Masharah, staring and making “inappropriate gestures.”

Tingling, who was black, stepped in front of Masharah and asked Firek, who is white, “What are you doing?” Firek replied, “What, nigger?”

Police say that Firek then punched Tingling in the chest. The two traded blows, but Firek gave worse than he got, hitting Tingling several more times in the chest. Masharah called 911. Though Tingling had had some heart troubles in the past, he was able to flee; he and his daughter ran down an alley to a body shop. Short of breath, he sat on a bucket, collapsed, and soon died. The medical examiner’s office ruled that Tingling died of “hypertensive cardiovascular disease”; stress from the altercation, the pathologist noted, was “a significant contributing condition.”

This crime was an aggravated battery, the police department decided, nothing more.

True, the UCR manual states that “situations in which a victim dies of a heart attack as the result of a crime are not classified as criminal homicide.” But according to FBI spokesman Stephen Fischer, the rule is meant simply for those proverbial “scared to death” scenarios: a sleeping person is awakened by an intruder and dies of a heart attack, for example. “A person being assaulted or beaten and [who] dies,” Fischer says unequivocally, “should be counted as a homicide because it was as a direct result of that assault.”

But he also goes on to say: “These situations are open to interpretation [depending] on what the LE [law enforcement] investigation determines.” That seems to give police departments a little wiggle room. And “with homicide, they try to take advantage of any ambiguity they can find,” says Eterno. “Anything.”

You’d think that the FBI would be concerned about all this rule stretching. And it is. But with some 18,000 law enforcement agencies reporting numbers to the bureau—which audits them just occasionally—there’s only so much it can do. Even those audits are voluntary, meaning that police departments can refuse to cooperate. So the FBI emphasizes training rather than enforcement, says Fischer: “We rely on the good faith and integrity of the police departments.”

“Put the body in the previous year’s count”

On March 5 of last year, a city water department worker went out looking for the source of a leak. The worker noticed something in the sewer system under West 107th and South Loomis Streets, in the South Side neighborhood of Morgan Park, blocking an underground valve. It resembled a human hand.

The hand turned out to be part of a severely decomposed corpse. The body, a woman’s, arrived at the medical examiner’s office frozen, in the fetal position, wrapped in garbage bags. A scarf was tied around her eyes like a blindfold. Her legs were bound with a cell phone charging cord.

Through dental records, the medical examiner confirmed that the woman was Latashia Nevitt, a 32-year-old mother of three who had gone missing more than two years before, in October 2011. The examiner concluded that Nevitt’s death was a homicide by “unspecified means,” the same finding as in the Tiara Groves case. While police at first classified the case as noncriminal, in April they changed it to a homicide, the city’s public data portal shows.

Several months later and a few miles away, in a Hegewisch garage, police found the chopped-up body of a 51-year-old electrician named Milan Lekich. One plastic bag contained Lekich’s right leg. Other body parts filled more bags. Under a truck was a chainsaw and a bloodstained blade.

Lekich had been missing since the spring of 2013. At the autopsy, a pathologist discovered two bullets in his head. A homicide, everyone agreed, including the Chicago police.

Plenty of gruesome details here, but no counting problems, right? Not so fast. The Uniform Crime Reporting program dictates that murders be included in the year in which the body is found, not the year in which the person was last seen alive. Makes sense: How can there be a murder until you have a dead body? Yet the Chicago Police Department put neither of these murders in 2014; it put Nevitt’s in 2011 and Lekich’s in 2013. That doesn’t shock an expert source on the department’s statistics: “Better to put the body in the previous month’s or previous year’s count, which people have already accepted.”

Then there’s the case of Anthony Higgins. A couple of weeks after Nevitt’s body turned up, Higgins, 53, who had recently been released from prison, suddenly collapsed in his Austin home. His girlfriend and daughter found him lying face-down and unresponsive. There were no signs of trauma or violence. Higgins’s death appeared to be completely natural.

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But Higgins’s personal doctor refused to sign the certificate of death, recalling that his patient had been shot in the head decades earlier. Old emergency room records showed that Higgins had indeed taken a bullet while driving in Chicago in 1987. An autopsy confirmed that he had died not of natural causes but of complications from that old gunshot wound. Accordingly, a pathologist ruled Higgins’s death a homicide.

The Uniform Crime Reporting program is very clear on how to count such cases: in the year in which the victim dies, not the year when he or she was injured. Nevertheless, Higgins’s case does not show up in the city’s 2014 homicide total. According to Maloney, the case is counted in 1987.

When asked how many of these cases—“delayed homicides,” in copspeak—were counted by the Chicago Police Department in the year of injury rather than in 2014, Maloney replied, “Eight.” Meaning that there are five more than the three we’ve uncovered. Maloney did not provide details about them before presstime.

“This is about transparency”

Now take murders that happen within city limits but on the expressways patrolled by state police. The Chicago Police Department doesn’t count them. McCarthy has repeatedly insisted to reporters and to the City Council that the department stopped counting them decades ago, back when he was a young beat cop in the Bronx. For proof, he points to a 1985 special order issued by the department transferring patrol duties on Chicago’s expressways (except Lake Shore Drive and the Skyway) to the state police.

He’s right . . . kind of. Yes, the Chicago Police Department did issue a special order, No. 85-23, to be specific, on December 4, 1985. But if McCarthy had been living here at the time, he might know the history behind that directive. It wasn’t done to improve highway policing or improve crime-reporting accuracy. It was an old-fashioned Chicago-style political deal.

 

Here’s what happened. Mayor Harold Washington needed more cops on the streets, but the cash-strapped city didn’t have money to hire more officers. Governor James Thompson wanted lottery tickets to be sold at O’Hare, but the city banned such sales. So the two pols agreed to an exchange: Lottery machines would go into Chicago airports, and state police would take over the job of patrolling the city’s expressways. The deal put more money in Illinois’s coffers and freed up about 100 Chicago police officers from the traffic unit to work neighborhood patrols.

News stories of the day, as well as several veteran police sources who served on the force back then, say the same thing: Illinois police replaced Chicago police simply to enforce traffic laws on the expressways—to write tickets, nab drunk drivers, that kind of thing. Not to investigate, much less to count, murders that occur on them.

In areas of overlapping jurisdictions like this, the Uniform Crime Reporting guidelines generally leave it up to the respective agencies to figure out which one counts and reports incidents. However, the UCR manual says: “The jurisdictional guidelines provide for the most local reporting. Whenever possible, the local [law enforcement agency] of the geographical area in which the crime occurred should report the data.”

In the case of the 60-odd miles of state highways inside Chicago’s city limits, that sure sounds like Chicago: A city is a heck of a lot more local than a state. As recently as two years ago, McCarthy seemed to agree. In a February 2013 interview in the Sun-Times, he said that he had revamped how the department counts murders that occur in Chicago but on property that is technically under another law enforcement agency’s jurisdiction, including the expressways. According to the article, McCarthy declared that any killing that occurs in Chicago should be counted by Chicago’s police department: “This is about transparency, this is about reality. I don’t think John Q. Citizen really cares [who has jurisdiction over a killing]. That’s a murder in the city of Chicago.”

Nevertheless, his department did not include the murder of Jasmine Curry, a pregnant mother of five, which occurred on the Dan Ryan Expressway in 2014, in the city’s homicide count.

“My car! My car!”

Pill Hill, said to be named because many doctors once called the South Side community home, is normally quiet in the wee hours. That’s the time of day when Sharon Bonds, 54, would arise to get ready to start delivering newspapers.

Well before dawn on June 24, 2014, Bonds was making her drop-offs to customers near 91st and Euclid when a man jumped inside her parked Pontiac Aztek. (Bonds had left the motor running.) He began to drive away. A neighbor later told reporters that he heard a woman screaming, “My car! My car!”

Bonds desperately tried to stop the carjacker—even leaping on the vehicle, reports show—but failed. He ran her over and dragged her down the street, leaving her corpse so mangled that it was reportedly nearly unrecognizable. During the autopsy, “brush-burn abrasions” were found all over Bonds’s body, and she had multiple broken ribs, a fractured pelvis, and a punctured lung. The pathologist ruled her death a homicide.

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This case is a classic example of yet another situation that the FBI’s UCR rules provide for: If someone kills while committing another felony, even if that killing isn’t necessarily intentional, that killing counts as a murder. Vehicular hijacking counts as a felony; therefore, Bonds was murdered. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of ambiguity here. But this case isn’t categorized as a murder on the data portal. The department considers it “a hit-and-run traffic accident,” Maloney says.

The Bonds case is not a fluke. We turned up three more cases of homicides committed in the course of other felonies in the previous year, 2013, that the Chicago Police Department did not categorize as homicides but that crime experts told Chicago it should have. (Read about them here.)

“Every incident is on the data portal”

Even if you were living far from Chicago last summer, you may have heard about what happened to tech company CEO Steven LaVoie. The 55-year-old seemed to be living the dream: degrees from Berkeley and Yale, a house in the affluent western suburb of La Grange, a wife and three kids, and a company that he had founded, ArrowStream, headquartered in the Loop.

On the morning of July 31, ArrowStream’s chief technology officer, Anthony DeFrances, arrived at LaVoie’s office on the 17th floor of the Bank of America building. The meeting was bound to be somewhat tense: The week before, LaVoie had told the 60-year-old DeFrances, a longtime employee, that he was being demoted, according to multiple news sources. Just before 10 a.m., employees heard gunfire. DeFrances shot LaVoie in the head and stomach with a handgun, police said, then turned the weapon on himself, with fatal results.

LaVoie spent weeks in the hospital, finally dying on October 13. That’s when police should have reclassified his case from an aggravated battery with a firearm to a homicide. But as RedEye noted in a January roundup of the city’s 2014 murders, the department didn’t include LaVoie’s killing in its count. Marty Maloney had a peculiar explanation for that, according to RedEye: “Maloney said police believe the case will be classified as a murder but ‘a few additional investigative steps are being taken to confirm this because there were no witnesses to the incident.’ ”

That’s not what the police superintendent told the media. Shortly after the shooting, while speaking with reporters outside the building where the shooting occurred, McCarthy described what had happened and added, “There’s 10 witnesses up there on the floor who are being interviewed by police.”

When we asked Maloney why the department hadn’t classified this seemingly cut-and-dried murder right away, he replied that the department had to wait for forensic testing from the Illinois State Police “to rule out suicide.” He continued: “While it was never really believed to be suicide . . . [we] needed the results to confirm what we believe happened.”

The day after the LaVoie shooting, McCarthy assured the City Council that the Chicago Police Department “put[s] every criminal incident up on the city data portal.”

Not exactly. Shortly before publication of this article, the department gave us an internal list of 2014 homicides. When we compared it with the data that police share with the public, we found four discrepancies. Four cases were classified as murders inside headquarters but not outside it.

One of the missing murders is LaVoie’s. Until early January, the incident was classified on the city’s public data portal as an aggravated battery with a firearm. By mid-January, the incident had vanished. There’s now no public record of any crime. It’s as if nothing ever happened.

Two other cases that the police count as murders internally but not externally are especially gruesome. Before sunrise on August 15, police and firefighters rushed to Gresham to find a silver Land Rover engulfed in flames. Once the fire was extinguished, officers found a man “burned beyond recognition” in the back of the car, with the seats folded over him, according to the medical examiner’s report. Using the vehicle’s license plates, police identified the man as Revester Davis, 51, from South Holland. Investigators determined that the fire began in the front of the car and was “incendiary in nature.” The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.

Less than three hours after Davis was found, residents in the same neighborhood reported another flaming SUV. Underneath it, half naked and burning alive, was Sherita Smith. The 46-year-old mother of three worked at the Chicago Park District and at a nonprofit for the blind. The Chicago Police Department never provided the case reports of either Davis or Smith.

When asked why some criminal cases appear in internal records but not in public ones, Maloney responded: “Some data remained inaccessible because of case confidentiality. . . due to case sensitivity or in any instance deemed necessary to maintain case integrity or operational security.” He said that a total of “13 incidents were flagged as confidential in 2014.” He wouldn’t say how many are homicides.

“In years past,” says a veteran detective, “[classifying a case as confidential] hardly even happened. It was something you’d do for a celebrity or a police officer who got caught up in something.”

“We did not have any notice”

Of the many reasons why the police department’s homicide classifications matter, one of the most compelling is public safety. Consider what has happened with one of the uncounted 2013 cases that we wrote about last year: that of Michelle Manalansan.

The decomposed body of Manalansan —a 29-year-old student at Harold Washington College who had been raised by her immigrant Filipino grandparents—was found stuffed inside an air mattress in the Pilsen apartment of Faramarz Bakhshi. Manalansan had been dating Bakhshi, a 21-year-old who had attended the University of Chicago for a couple of years. Bakhshi’s roommate, who found the corpse on March 17, 2013, hadn’t seen the young man in weeks. Within a few days, police learned that Bakhshi was wanted by the Cook County sheriff for a 2012 probation violation and that his sister had bought him a ticket on a train to Los Angeles that left six days after Manalansan disappeared.

Strangely, despite the suspicious circumstances of Manalansan’s death, police classified her case as a noncriminal death investigation. They did, however, issue an investigative alert for Bakhshi, records show. While not an arrest warrant, an investigative alert gives officers probable cause to stop and question. In the meantime, a detective suspended the Manalansan case until Bakhshi could be “located and interviewed.”

That opportunity presented itself just a few weeks later. On May 17, officers of the Whittier Police Department in Southern California arrested Bakhshi for a drug felony. When they entered his information into a national crime database, he came up as a “wanted person” in Illinois.

According to records from the Los Angeles County sheriff’s office, on July 9, 2013, Bakhshi was arraigned in court and signed a waiver of extradition, meaning that he agreed to turn himself in to authorities in Chicago. But when the paperwork reached the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, an assistant state’s attorney reviewing the case did not recommend extraditing Bakhshi. His superior agreed. He disapproved the extradition order.

What a colossally dumb move, you may be thinking. But keep in mind: At this point Manalansan’s killing was classified as a noncriminal death investigation, not as a murder. So Chicago police initially put out that investigative alert not as a homicide alert but as a missing-person alert, records show. That factored into the state’s attorney’s decision not to approve Bakhshi’s extradition, says Sally Daly: “When we initially reviewed this case for extradition, we did not have any notice that Bakhshi was the person of interest or a suspect in a missing person’s investigation . . . as opposed to him being the actual person who was missing.”

Wasted opportunities to corral Bakhshi continued. The Chicago Police Department didn’t send any detectives assigned to Manalansan’s case to California to question him. Had the case been classified as a murder rather than a death investigation, a detective would most certainly have headed out west, sources told us.

 

Police finally reclassified Manalansan’s case as a murder on April 9, 2014, according to the city’s data portal—two days after we posted our story online. (The department says that it changed the classification internally on March 23, a few weeks after we filed a public-records request for the case file.) Because the department waited more than a year to reclassify the case as a murder, Bakhshi was able to remain in California and commit more crimes. The Los Angeles sheriff’s office arrested him in September 2013 for grand theft; the Whittier police arrested him again, in January 2014, for home burglary. Records show that he pleaded guilty to the latter crime and on February 3 was sentenced to two years in prison in El Centro, California.

In early January of this year, while Bakhshi was locked up on the West Coast, Chicago police detectives hauled him back to the city, where prosecutors charged him with Manalansan’s murder. He was denied bail; his court hearings are still in the early stages.

When asked why the state’s attorney’s office approved Bakhshi’s extradition this time around, Daly said, “When CPD later identified Bakhshi as the suspect in Michelle Manalansan’s death and requested felony charges against him, we then moved to extradite.”

In other words, when the case wasn’t classified as a homicide, it wasn’t considered worthwhile to extradite Bakhshi. Only when police switched the classification to murder did prosecutors bring him back to face justice.

Yet another reason why classifications matter: They can affect whether victims or their families receive compensation. Just ask Lateafah Webb. Her son, Patrick Walker, was killed by a gunshot to the head, according to the medical examiner’s office, while he was driving early in the morning of November 29, 2013. Walker’s death certificate says that he died by homicide. Police classified his death not as a homicide, however, but as a noncriminal death investigation. (For more on the case, read our report from last year.)

To help cover her son’s funeral costs, the grieving Webb applied for a payment under the Illinois Crime Victim Compensation Act. This law says that the family of a crime victim is eligible for up to $7,500 in reimbursement for funeral and burial expenses. The attorney general’s office, which makes recommendations to the Court of Claims on whether to issue such payments, relied on an early police report that did not classify Walker’s death a homicide. Webb’s request was denied.

“We’re going to go by the law!”

On April 1, Alice Groves and about a dozen of her relatives sat quietly on rows of benches in a public area at the back of a courtroom in the Leighton Criminal Courts building at 26th and California. Seated opposite them were several members of Leondra Martin’s family. They were all waiting for a status hearing for Martin and Desmond Collins, the duo who the Groves family believe killed Tiara.

Everyone watched as accused criminals were led in for their hearings. Finally, Collins, wearing a beige jail jumpsuit, approached the bench. So did Martin, clad in street clothes (she was free on bail). Their hearing ended minutes later. Only one thing was accomplished: setting a date for the next hearing.

Martin walked out of the courtroom first—right past where the Groveses were sitting. One of Alice’s relatives yelled, “Murderer!”

Angry words flew. People spilled into the hallway. Soon Cook County sheriff’s deputies had to separate the Groves and Martin families before a full-fledged fight broke out. “Don’t, don’t!” Alice Groves shouted at her furious flock. “We’re going to go by the law!”

As he was being led out of the courtroom, Collins turned to see the commotion. He smirked.

 

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