A Mugging on Lake Street
FROM SEPTEMBER 2009: A veteran investigative reporter looks into his own beating and finds himself confronting harsh and lingering questions of race
(page 5 of 6)
The wounds have healed, but a deep sense of betrayal remains.
I decided to hold off the second meeting with Larry and Doris until after my knee surgery. This past January 19th, the surgeon cut. My new physical therapist, bless her, held me to a high standard, which meant that the rehab got more painful. Bending the knee until the pain was excruciating, and then holding it for a minute, had me thinking of Larry, and not charitably, twice a week.
On February 8th, I phoned Doris and she promised she’d call back the next day after she had a chance to look at her schedule. I have since become accustomed to her voice mail message, wishing callers mercy, peace, and love. Ten calls, one more promise, no interview.
I reached Larry in March, and he said he was about to leave town to visit his grandmother, but we could talk when he returned. When I next called, his aunt answered and was clearly hostile. “Larry,” I heard her say, “it’s the man you so-called beat up.” When Larry took the phone, I suggested a meeting after school the next day or on the weekend. He said he wasn’t in school, that he was working at McDonald’s. I proposed meeting him there. “I’ll have to check with my manager,” he said, and hung up without another word.
I called seven more times, trying at hours when I thought I might catch Larry but not his aunt, but had no success. Finally, I called on Memorial Day. Larry’s aunt answered and said her husband wanted to talk to me. “I don’t see what it is that you want to know,” he said. “You got mugged, he got in trouble. So what is it that you want to know?”
“I’d just like to know what is behind it, what happened that day.”
“So, what you writing—a book, a movie, or what?”
“No, I’m just trying to write a magazine article. I’m not using—”
He interrupted before I could explain I wasn’t going to use Larry’s name. “Oh, you just writing a magazine article? That means you gonna get paid.”
“So is he gonna get paid?”
“Okay, then he ain’t gonna do the interview. I am his uncle, and that’s the end of that. Thank you. Have a nice day.” He hung up.
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So what happened here? When I told Kotlowitz how the story ended, he said, “They kind of got one over on you.”
Officer McCoy, the African American cop in District 15, took it further. “They were bullshitting you. They told that guy what to say. ‘To squash that shit, you better show some remorse.’ His mother was afraid they would put his young ass in the penitentiary. He intentionally tried to hurt you, and you let them get off the hook. Trust me, he attacked you because of the color of your skin.”
I reminded McCoy that Larry claimed he wasn’t the actual perpetrator. “He is a damn liar.” If he didn’t do it, McCoy said, why not clear his name and say who did? “If you say you know the guy but you don’t give me the guy, you are the guy.”
Not long after that conversation, I came upon the article “Youth Hate Crimes: Identification, Prevention, and Intervention” by Annie Steinberg, Jane Brooks, and Tariq Remtulla in The American Journal of Psychiatry’s May 2003 issue. Most hate crimes, the authors concluded, are committed by young males unaffiliated with organized hate groups. The authors cited one study that found that juveniles committed 70 percent of all hate crimes. Steinberg classified offenders into three categories: reactionists (people interested in protecting their resources from intruders); mission offenders (people who believe they “are appealing to a higher authority by eradicating an inferior group”); and thrill seekers (which “most often consists of youths and most often represents individuals who commit such crimes because of boredom, to have fun, and to feel strong”). Thrill seekers were the largest group.
The state’s attorney’s office had declined to provide police reports about my case because it involved a juvenile, but as presstime approached, I managed to secure some redacted documents from the Chicago Police Department after filing a Freedom of Information Act request. Although what I was given doesn’t provide a great deal of information, it listed a witness to the crime: the off-duty officer who stopped to help me. A 23-year veteran of the department who started his career on the West Side, he now works undercover. Since he was concerned about being exposed, I agreed to identify him only as Robert, his first name.
He said he was in backed-up traffic on Lake Street as I pedaled past, but he’d already noticed a group of eight to ten kids. One in particular was “acting goofy, screamin’ and hollerin’. . . . He was acting kind of obnoxious . . . and the next thing I know, I saw him wind up and basically coldcock you. You went right down. It almost was like the impact stopped your bike and you went right over. . . . I would have thought they were waiting for you and it was premeditated.”
In the police academy, he said, you’re instructed to tend to the injured first, and that’s what he did. When help arrived, Robert said, he cruised the neighborhood with other officers and spotted the group. “He didn’t run. They were all walking together. I can tell you the clothing he had on—that is how sure I was. He had on a very distinct jacket. I mean, if you showed me a photo spread of him right now, I could tell you who he was. No doubt in my mind.”
The investigating officers asked him if he heard the kids say anything before the attack—given the circumstances, he thought they might have expected something that could lead to a hate crime charge. “I said I didn’t hear it. My windows were up.”
The incident, he said, “really bothered me that night when I got home. . . . There was no reason for it.”
I wanted to confirm that Larry was required to call his probation officer only once every three months, but calls to Assistant State’s Attorney Carroll of the victims’ assistance program weren’t returned. A juvenile probation officer who spoke on condition of anonymity told me that such an arrangement was indeed possible. She said that in informal supervision, probation officers work very minimally with their clients. The officer might refer the kid for some social service if he needed it, but “it is all individualized; it’s not as if every kid is required to go through the same program. So maybe that kid didn’t have a lot of needs.”
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Photograph: Matthew Conroy