“Life was hard for Ruthie Mae,” said the bulletin handed out at Ruthie Mae McCoy’s burial service, on April 30, 1987. Death didn’t give her any breaks, either: on the evening of April 22, 1987, the 52-year-old McCoy was shot four times and left to expire on her bedroom floor, on Chicago’s west side.
McCoy had mental problems, paranoia one of them. The way she was killed sounds like a hallucination, but she lived in a Chicago Housing Authority project, where nightmares aren’t just dreams. Her killer or killers climbed into her apartment through her bathroom wall–through the hole in the wall where the medicine cabinet ordinarily is situated. (He or they took down the medicine cabinet in the adjacent apartment, climbed through the pipe chase, and either kicked in McCoy’s cabinet or just crawled out of the hole into her bathroom; whether she had a medicine cabinet in place at the time is not clear.)
The horror story doesn’t end there. McCoy heard someone coming through her wall and called police, reporting a break-in. They arrived at her door 25 minutes later. By this time, she almost certainly had been shot. But whether she was still alive will never be known, because the police failed to enter her apartment that night–even though they had received two other 911 calls from neighbors reporting gunshots and hollers from McCoy’s apartment. The officers knocked on her door and got no answer; they asked a CHA janitor for a key to the apartment, but the key didn’t work. About 40 minutes after they arrived at her door, they simply left the project.
The following evening, a concerned neighbor phoned police and asked them to check on McCoy. A half dozen cops and several CHA security guards gathered outside McCoy’s door. This time the police wanted to force their way in, but the security guards talked them out of it: if you do break in, the tenant might sue, one guard warned. McCoy’s decomposing body finally was discovered the next afternoon, when the same neighbor called the project office and convinced a manager to enter the apartment.
I wrote about the McCoy murder in a September ’87 Reader article. What made the slaying particularly tragic was the progress McCoy had made during her final months in coping with her mental illness. She was close to earning her high school equivalency degree, and planned to seek work once she got it. She told everyone she knew that the main difficulty left in her life was the project and the young people there who harassed and threatened her. She was on the verge of moving out of the project when she was killed.
Two young men, both of whom had spent some of their formative years in the project, were arrested and charged with McCoy’s slaying–one the day after her body was found, the other two weeks later. But if McCoy was in line for some sort of posthumous “justice,” it would only come, like the police, eventually: the case was continued again and again and again. Finally, late in March of this year, almost three years after the crime, Ruthie McCoy’s murder case made it to trial.
There were no TV-news artists or daily-newspaper reporters in the gallery when the trial began, on the morning of March 27 in courtroom 604 of the Cook County Criminal Courts Building at 26th and California. A housing-project slaying is not the kind of murder that elicits widespread interest or prompts an outcry for punishment of the offenders; the trial would not earn so much as a mention in the mainstream media. Likewise, in ’87 the dailies and the broadcast-news staffs had paid scant notice to the McCoy murder. The circumstances of the slaying may have been intriguing, but it still was just another housing-project killing, of which there are too many to scrutinize.
Most of the benches in the courtroom’s gallery were empty throughout the trial. (More crowded by far was the courtroom across the hall, where a death-sentence hearing was held for a cop killer.) A handful of friends and relatives attended in support of the defendants. Only one person was there on behalf of the victim–her brother, Willie McCoy.
“There was a time when I could not eat or sleep knowing what had happened to my sister,” the 57-year-old McCoy told me the first day of the trial. “I’d think about how she used to walk, how she used to talk. She would help anybody–she would give you her shoestrings off her shoes if it would help you. She used to help me with my schoolwork–I used to copy off her paper. I was older, but she was smarter.”
McCoy had last seen his sister about three months before she was killed, when he visited her in her project apartment. Ruthie Mae complained at the time that her medicine cabinet was loose, and her brother jammed some pieces of wood in along the edges to brace it. “She didn’t say she had a fear of someone coming in through there,” he told me. “If she had, I would have did whatever I could to get her out of there.
“I didn’t worry too much about her, because my sister knew how to fight,” he said. “She learned it from me–I fought a lot coming up. She wouldn’t let people mess her over–she would tell them, ‘You’re not gonna do nothing to me.’ That can create a personal vendetta, too–‘I can’t stand that so-and-so, man, let’s go in there and take everything off her.’ That’s the way they talk in the gangs, you know. They probably knew that in order to subdue her they would have to kill her.”
Ruthie Mae grew up in the south side’s impoverished Black Belt. She quit school in the tenth grade. In her 20s, she started talking to herself from time to time, and snapping at strangers. The only documented diagnosis I could find of her was from 1986, when a psychiatrist classified her a “residual type schizophrenic” (meaning there was continuing evidence of some symptoms of schizophrenia, but no prominent behavioral problems). Her paranoia was noted by staff members of the outpatient psychiatric clinic where she was treated during her final months.
She never married. She was 27 when she gave birth to her only child, Vernita. Ruthie Mae functioned all right when she was taking her medicine–singing in church choirs, working occasionally as a laundromat attendant or housekeeper. Mostly, she subsisted on public aid in slum apartments, and occasionally she required institutionalization.
In 1983 her basement apartment in Humboldt Park flooded, and she applied to the Chicago Housing Authority for emergency housing. She asked specifically not to be placed in a high-rise project; those places terrified her. But the waiting lists are long for the CHA’s row houses and walk-ups; for years the only immediate openings have been in the high rises. Ruthie Mae was offered an apartment in the Grace Abbott Homes–an 11th-floor flat in a 15-story building at 1440 W. 13th St. With nowhere else to go, she moved into apartment 1109 in May of ’83.
In a way, the wrong people were on trial for his sister’s murder, Willie McCoy told me; the defendants ought to be the people who designed projects like Abbott. “When they stack people in boxes like sardines, of course there’s gonna be violence–what do they expect? All them people’s lives in danger. They need to close all them CHAs down.”
(For the crime of packing Chicago’s poor in mammoth projects such as Abbott–and Cabrini-Green, and Robert Taylor Homes, and Rockwell Gardens, and Stateway Gardens–the defendants would be the city’s aldermen of the late 40s and early 50s and their constituents, who blocked the CHA’s attempts to scatter much smaller projects throughout white middle-class neighborhoods.)
Like the CHA’s other large projects, Abbott is a world apart: a community isolated from its surrounding neighborhood–segregation to perfection. Bounded by Roosevelt and 15th, Loomis and Ashland, it has no through streets; outsiders drive around it, never through it. The more than 3,000 people who live within its borders (in seven 15-story towers and 33 two-story row houses) are typical CHA residents: almost without exception black and extremely poor. The typical Abbott family pulled in $4,527 a year according to the 1980 census; and if the 1990 census shows people here to be better off, computer error will be the likely explanation. About 85 percent of the families were headed by females, according to that 1980 census.
Toilets back up frequently in Abbott, ceilings and walls are crumbling, and the elevators work only occasionally. Almost as tangible is the widespread oblivion–the glassy eyes and listlessness of a population hooked on coke, PCP, and TV. A detective who investigated McCoy’s killing told me in ’87: “One of the most difficult parts of this case was that none of our witnesses were aware of what time things occurred. Since they don’t do anything all day and all night, they’re just not worried about what time it is.”
Violence is about the only regular interruption of the numbness. And regular it is: the violent-crime rate in Abbott is more than double that citywide. “It’s animalism over here–that’s the prevailing life condition of the people,” an Abbott janitor told me in ’87. “Animalism–where you worry about those who are stronger, and you care nothing about those who are weaker.”
Abbott’s laws are enforced by youthful dope dealers, law number one being you don’t tell the authorities anything about anything. (The woman who asked the police and then a CHA manager to check on McCoy did so even though her children cautioned her not to.) The many charred front doors one finds in Abbott high rises are evidence of the dope dealers’ intimidation: the pushers frequently remind potential witnesses of their right to remain silent by pouring gasoline on their doors and setting them ablaze. The dealers also often take over abandoned units for their operations, or offer a tenant the opportunity to move from the project in good health in exchange for the keys to her apartment.
McCoy was known as “Miss Mae” in Abbott, the “funny” lady who packed a stick. She waved the stick at the youngsters who blasted their radios in the hallway or who ridiculed her. Occasionally the police intervened when McCoy and some youths were on the verge of slugging it out. “She was just trying to protect herself,” Willie McCoy told me. “Kids seen her walking down the street with a stick in her hands, and they labeled her strange. They’d make remarks–‘Oh, that crazy old woman.’ But they didn’t know her motives.”
Abbott at this time was run by a gang of dope dealers who called themselves the Paymasters. The Paymasters wore lots of jewelry and fine clothes, toted big radios, and toured Abbott buildings saying, “We got what you want, we got what you need.” Non-Paymasters foolhardy enough to peddle dope in the Abbott project were often beaten and sometimes shot.
But the Paymasters weren’t the only concern of Abbott tenants in the mid-80s. Sometime in ’86, the medicine cabinet break-ins began. The pair of apartments at the end of each floor in the high rises have adjacent bathrooms, their medicine cabinets back-to-back, with only a pipe chase of about two and a half feet between them. Remove six screws from one medicine cabinet, pull the cabinet out of the wall, crawl through the pipe chase, and kick in the other cabinet, and you’re in the next apartment. People who live at the end of a corridor with a vacant apartment adjacent are particularly susceptible. (Nearly 30 percent of the 148 units in McCoy’s building were vacant in ’87.) After the bathroom break-ins began, some residents of the Abbott high rises took to pulling couches in front of their bathroom doors, or securing their bathroom doorknobs with rope, before turning in for the night.
Late in 1986, McCoy became a regular visitor to the nearby Mount Sinai Hospital Community Psychiatric Center. It was there that she took General Educational Development (GED) classes, while also participating in craft projects and group therapy. Neighbors in Abbott noticed a different, less ornery Miss Mae. When she was approved for Supplemental Security Income–federal aid for the physically and mentally handicapped–in February of ’87, it doubled her monthly income and made her dream of escaping the project a possibility. She planned to begin looking for a private apartment sometime that spring.
But meantime, early in ’87, the woman who lived next to McCoy–in apartment 1108–moved out. Numerous youths–Paymasters for the most part–began using the place to sell and use drugs.
Willie McCoy had been summoned to the trial to testify as a witness for the prosecution. But after testifying, he would stay and watch the proceedings. He wanted to see justice done for his sister. A tall, mild-mannered south-sider, McCoy makes his living as a janitor but describes himself as a preacher. He was born again as a Christian in the mid-60s, and in recent years he has preached at County Jail and at numerous Baptist churches on the south side and in the south suburbs–“wherever the Lord lead me.”
“I don’t have a vendetta,” he told me the first day of the trial. “I don’t have malice in my heart. I prayed every night for [the defendants]–Lord, save them. And I prayed that He would keep the bitterness out of my heart. And He’s doing that. God is a merciful God, even to the wicked. But–there comes a time when you must pay for what you’ve done.”
The defendants, both in dark suits, sat at either end of the defense table, four assistant public defenders between them. Edward Turner, 21, a medium-complected black, his hair closely cropped and his chin smoothly shaven, sat stiff and sober-faced; John Hondras, 25, a light-skinned black (nicknamed “Whiteboy”) with wire-rimmed glasses, a spare goatee, and a wisp of a ponytail, displayed a slight smile and a more confident air. The standard legal maneuvering, and the complications typical of a multiple-defender case that had delayed the trial, had tested the defendants’ patience at times, as they were stuck in County Jail in the interim. (No bond was set for Turner; Hondras’s was $10 million.)
Turner was a high school senior when he was arrested for this murder. In grammar school, the fights he had gotten into repeatedly had landed him in Montefiore, a school for chronic truants and those with discipline problems, winning him the nickname “Montefee.” He had no convictions, but a charge for unlawful use of a weapon had been pending against him at the time of his arrest. Hondras had three felonies on his rap sheet–one for robbery, two for auto theft. Now they both were being tried for murder, armed robbery, home invasion, and residential burglary. With his prior convictions, Hondras faced as much as 80 years if convicted of McCoy’s slaying. Because the prosecution had somewhat more evidence against Turner–specifically, a statement he made to a friend that he had shot someone–it was seeking the death penalty against him, but this was a long shot: the state would have to prove that Turner himself did indeed pull the trigger. More likely, a murder conviction would get Turner 20 to 40 years.
Turner opted for a jury trial while Hondras chose a bench, trusting his fate to Judge Michael Getty. The trials were conducted simultaneously, with Turner’s jury escorted from the courtroom when arguments were made or evidence introduced pertaining only to Hondras’s case.
A 19-inch RCA television and a cane-backed rocking chair sat on the carpet near the prosecution table. They had belonged to McCoy, Assistant State’s Attorney William Connelly told the jury and Judge Getty in his opening statement, and the defendants were seen carrying them to other apartments the night McCoy was killed. The evidence would show, Connelly said, that it was Hondras and Turner who climbed through McCoy’s bathroom wall; that it was they who were “responsible for the murderous robbery of a 52-year-old grandmother.”
Turner did indeed carry McCoy’s television set to another apartment the night of the murder, Crystal Marchigiani, one of Turner’s attorneys, told the jury in her opening statement; but he was only giving Hondras a hand. Turner had nothing to do with killing McCoy; those culprits were Hondras and another man named Howard Goven, Marchigiani said. Yes, Turner had told a woman in the project he had shot someone, Marchigiani said; but he only did this to try to impress her. “He told her a lie–a lie that was stupid, but understandable for a 19-year-old boy.” When the evidence was in, she said, “You may be convinced that Edward Turner was very stupid . . . but what you will not find is that you are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he had anything to do with the murder of Ruthie McCoy.”
Hondras did indeed carry McCoy’s rocking chair to another apartment that night, attorney Allan Sincox, representing Hondras, told Getty; but he was only giving Turner a hand. Any of the numerous people who frequented apartment 1108 could have killed McCoy, Sincox said, “including some of those who will testify.”
Willie McCoy was the first witness called. He identified the TV and rocking chair as his sister’s. Next, the project manager who had finally opened McCoy’s door described finding McCoy’s body. She didn’t know why the key police were given for McCoy’s apartment the night she was shot hadn’t worked.
Then it was time for the state’s key witness–Tim Brown.
The prosecution’s case hinged on a statement Brown gave police a day after McCoy’s body was found. Brown told police he had been in apartment 1108 most of April 22–the day of the murder. He had arrived there around 1 PM, he said. A friend, Corey Flournoy, came by around 3, and the two of them lifted weights on and off into the early evening. What occurred there that night, according to Brown’s statement:
At about 8 PM, Hondras, Turner, and Ronald Coleman, whom Brown knew as “Bo,” came by. Everyone sat around and listened to music. Around 11:30 PM, Hondras and Bo walked to the bathroom, where Bo told Hondras how you could break into the adjacent apartment through the medicine cabinet tunnel.
Bo and Flournoy left the apartment soon after. Then Hondras and Turner returned to the bathroom. Hondras tugged on the medicine cabinet, and it came out of the wall easily. You could now see straight into the bathroom of 1109, because there was no medicine cabinet up in that apartment.
Hondras guessed that the place next door was vacant, but Brown told him he had heard an old lady named Miss Mae lived there. Well, it doesn’t seem like anyone’s home, Hondras said. Then Hondras climbed onto the sink and through the hole, into the bathroom of 1109.
Brown heard a woman’s voice call, “Who’s there?” He watched Hondras run out of McCoy’s bathroom and further into her apartment. Then he heard a knock on his front door; it was Hondras. He asked Brown to toss him his jacket. Brown did so. Hondras then put the jacket over his head, and went back into 1109 through its front door.
Brown returned to his bathroom in time to see Turner climb through the hole into 1109. He heard Turner yell, “Get down!” Then he heard four shots.
Brown saw Hondras and Turner leave 1109 by the front door five or ten minutes later. Turner had a television and Hondras a rocking chair. “We’re gone, man,” Hondras told Brown. “We’ll see you later.”
Two or three hours later, Hondras and Turner returned to 1108. Hondras told Brown they needed to go back into 1109 “to get the shells from the gun.” Brown had seen Hondras flick a latch on the front door of 1109 before leaving, so that the door would be unlocked. Now Hondras and Turner entered the apartment through the door. They were inside about five minutes. When they came out, Hondras told Brown he had found three of the shells; then Hondras and Turner ran down the hallway.
Brown agreed to repeat his story to an assistant state’s attorney, who put it in writing. Several hours later, Brown told a grand jury the statement was true and accurate. No one had threatened him or promised him anything for his cooperation, he said in the six-page document.
Brown was hardly an ideal witness on which to rely. He was, for starters, a convicted drug peddler–he had been transported to the court from the Vandalia Correctional Center, where he was serving a sentence for possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. At the time McCoy was killed, he was on probation for a similar offense.
In addition, Brown’s six-page statement was the second story he gave police. The first time they questioned him about the McCoy murder, Brown had said that while he frequented 1108, he and Corey Flournoy had spent the evening of April 22 and much of April 23 partying at a lounge on the far west side. Flournoy, interviewed separately, had told police the same thing. But Brown said they stayed at a friend’s house overnight, while Flournoy maintained they stayed in a motel. It was only after they were questioned again and pressed on the inconsistency that they had admitted being in 1108 the night McCoy was killed.
According to Brown’s statement, Hondras and Turner did not enter McCoy’s apartment until after 11:30 PM; but McCoy had called police at 8:45 PM that night, and the other 911 calls police received, reporting gunshots and hollering from 1109, came in around 9 PM. And Brown’s claim that Hondras flicked a latch on 1109’s door, leaving it unlocked, did not jibe with the police’s inability to get through the door.
But the prosecutors had no idea just how bad a state’s witness Brown was to be.
A scrawny man with an unremitting smirk, Brown told the court he was living on the south side in April ’87, but visited Abbott Homes regularly because he had grown up in the area and had friends there. One friend was the woman who held the lease to 1108. She wasn’t living there anymore then, he said, but she had given Brown the keys. He partied there with friends occasionally, and sometimes stayed overnight.
He was among a bunch of people in 1108 during the evening of April 22, 1987, he testified. He was lifting weights, listening to music, drinking a little beer, smoking a little grass. Sometime during the evening, two of the men in the apartment, Hondras and Bo, went into the bathroom together, he said. “When did they come out of the bathroom?” prosecutor Tim Joyce, Connelly’s partner, asked. “They didn’t come out of the bathroom,” Brown said.
Brown heard three or four shots next door after Hondras and Bo went into the bathroom, he told the court and a stunned Joyce. “Then I seen the mirror of the bathroom was missing, so I figured they went through there.” Joyce asked where Turner was when Brown heard the shots; Brown said he was sitting on a couch in the living room. Brown and Turner and everyone else still in 1108 ran out of the apartment and downstairs when they heard the shots, Brown said.
Joyce, struggling to hide his bewilderment and ire, asked Brown if he recalled talking to an assistant state’s attorney on April 26. Brown said he didn’t.
“You signed a statement, about six pages long, didn’t you?” Joyce asked.
“And you signed every page, didn’t you?”
“Yes, with the abuse of the police that was standing there,” Brown said.
Turner’s lawyers, of course, couldn’t have been more elated with Brown’s latest version of the events of April 22. Bernard Sarley, Turner’s other attorney, let Brown elaborate on his claim of police brutality in his cross-examination. The police had compelled him to go to Area Four headquarters for questioning on April 24, Brown said; there, they kept him handcuffed to a ring on a wall in a small interrogation room for most of the day. One detective who questioned him “grabbed me between the legs and squeezed.” The detectives also threatened to charge him as an accessory in McCoy’s murder. They said they thought Hondras and Turner were the killers. Finally, he told the detectives what he knew they wanted to hear: that it was Hondras and Turner who had gone through the wall into McCoy’s apartment. But that wasn’t true, Brown insisted; it really had been Hondras and Bo.
“You’re going home, boy!” a man in the gallery called to Turner in a loud whisper. Turner, expressionless, looked away.
(Brown and Turner were housed in the same division of County Jail for a period in 1987 and ’88, according to evidence introduced later in the trial by Hondras’s attorneys; Hondras was never in the same division as Brown.)
Brown’s surprising testimony was almost as good news for Hondras as for Turner. Counting what he told police the first time he was questioned, this was Brown’s third tale of events on April 22. Sincox, in his cross-examination, chiseled away further at Brown’s believability.
“Did you tell any of the police officers that Bo was one of the ones who did this?” Sincox asked.
“You told them that Bo was the person who came through that hole and may have committed this crime?”
“How many times did you tell them that?”
“I don’t know. It might have been just once. They asked so many questions day after day that I don’t remember.”
Brown also maintained, in response to Sincox’s questions: that he hadn’t known McCoy, hadn’t even known that anyone lived next door (though in his statement to police, he had said he told Hondras “an old lady named Miss Mae” lived in 1109); that besides his girlfriend, he didn’t know the names of any of the several women who were in 1108 on the evening in question; that he had had no idea you could break into apartments in the building via the medicine cabinets until the night McCoy was killed; that the music they were listening to wasn’t loud at all, because “We got neighbors up there. We give neighbors our respect.”
“This is a total liar,” Judge Getty wrote in the margin of his notes sometime during Brown’s testimony.
“There been so many lies,” said Aletha Turner, Edward Turner’s mother. Court had recessed for lunch; she was leaning against a wall in the hallway, frowning and shaking her head repeatedly. “They take a truth, and they wrap it up in a lie. Then they take a lie, and they wrap it up in a truth. My son wouldn’t be here if it weren’t so many lies. They said they were taking him for questioning. They kept him three years for questioning.
“I know he did not kill anyone,” she told me. “He would not do something like that. I know he wouldn’t, because I whupped his ass when he was coming up. His last ass-whupping I gave him, he was 18 years old. And if he was gonna whup somebody or try to do anything, why didn’t he do it to me?”
She lives in an Abbott row house. For most of Edward’s teen years, the family lived in an Abbott high rise–the same one Ruthie McCoy lived in. Because of all the bad influences in the building and the project, she said, she was especially strict with Edward during those years. “Lot of my friends told me I was gonna turn him into a sissy. ‘Cause I didn’t like him having any dealings with the young mens in this area. He was in church mostly. He’d go out, sit with some of his friends listening to the radio. But as far as ripping and running up and down these projects–I didn’t allow that. They would always threaten him to join a gang, but he never did let that bother him. Every time they asked him what he was riding [what gang he was with], he’d tell them he was riding Jesus Christ, and they didn’t understand that.”
Then he turned 18, she loosened the reins, and he started hanging with the wrong crowd, she said. When police contacted her in April ’87 and told her they wanted to question her son, she thought they might want him for peddling drugs.
He was arrested on April 25–his 19th birthday. When Edward turned 16, Aletha, who lives on public aid, started giving him “a crisp $100 bill” on every birthday, she said. “I don’t care if I’m broke behind it, I make sure he gets it. ‘Cause, see, I love my children.” Aletha’s birthday is the day before Edward’s; he always gave her a nice gift, too, she said. In 1986 he had given her a radio-cassette tape player. Though it would not come up in the trial, a woman told detectives she was with Edward Turner on April 24 when he phoned his mother and told her he was going to bring her a TV set for her birthday.
Aletha Turner’s faith in God kept her going these last three years, she told me. Her pastor directed her to the Bible’s 35th Psalm, and she read it every day. The psalm is a prayer for the falsely accused. “May those be shamed and humiliated who are hunting for my soul,” said the verse that resonated most strongly with her; “May those be turned back and be abashed who are scheming calamity for me.” Now that Brown had changed his story, she felt her prayers had been answered.
“My brother’s been in trouble, but I know he wasn’t capable of anything this malicious,” Darnell Dean told me during the recess. Dean, a 28-year-old south-sider, is Hondras’s half brother. “I just know his patterns, how he responds to things. He was not the type to do this.”
When Dean talked with Hondras after he was jailed, “He’d tell me, ‘They ain’t got nothing on me–they know I ain’t did nothing,'” Dean said. “He’d say, ‘But they want to find out who did it–that’s why they’re holding me.’
“I do feel he know who did it,” Dean said. “But the code of the land over there is, if you know who did something and you tell, and somebody find out you told, then you die.”
According to Dean, Hondras lived in an Abbott Homes high rise from the time he was five until he was about ten. He continued to frequent the area after the family moved, because of the friends he still had there. Youths around the project “don’t have any direction,” Dean said. “They don’t have no place to channel their energy because nobody want to be bothered with the projects. Nobody want to go over there to try to develop programs–it’s like, ‘Forget that, no way, I’m not gonna endanger my life.’ That’s why a lot of crime comes out.” The project “is like a prison,” he said. “It’s too many people there packed up in a three-block radius. Those people who are real poor are put with the people that maybe have talent. It should be spread out.”
Dean visited Hondras and phoned him frequently during his three years in jail. “I was concerned about keeping his head level, keeping him thinking in the right direction. You can become real bitter, and hurt one of the prisoners, hurt one of the guards, and end up doing time anyway, even if he came to be found not guilty. I was scared for him–I was thinking he might not really get out. But he read the Bible, kept himself together. He said, ‘I’m gonna get out of here, man, and when I do, everything’s gonna change.'”
Hondras lost three family members while he was awaiting trial. His grandfather, “the only real male role model he had in his life,” according to Dean, died in his second year in jail. His mother succumbed to cancer in June of ’89. Two days after her funeral, Hondras’s younger brother was shot to death on the south side by a police officer. (Stephen Hondras, 16, armed with a gun, was involved in a gang-related incident, according to police; when he aimed the gun at officers who arrived on the scene, one of them shot him.) John Hondras’s requests to attend the funerals of these family members were all denied. “They said he was too dangerous,” Dean told me bitterly. “They were holding him for something he didn’t do, and they wouldn’t let him go to the funerals.”
“Are you gonna put on any of the other guests of Governor Thompson?” Judge Getty asked the prosecutors before the jury was brought back to the courtroom that afternoon.
Besides Brown, two other young men who had been in 1108 the night McCoy was killed, and who are now in prison, had been summoned here by the state. But the prosecutors, perhaps fearing a repeat of Brown’s performance, opted not to put them on the stand.
Instead, the jury heard first in the afternoon from Dr. Eupil Choi, the assistant medical examiner who performed the autopsy on McCoy. Choi rose in the witness stand and, pointing at various parts of his navy suit, showed where the bullets had struck McCoy: in her shoulder, her chest, her abdomen, and her leg. The fatal bullet was the one that entered her chest; it severed her pulmonary vein, a principal vessel in the lung. The cause of death was internal bleeding. Choi recovered one bullet from McCoy’s body; the others apparently had exited the body.
Lynette Fitch testified next. She had been Tim Brown’s girlfriend in ’87, and said she still was. In April ’87, she was living in McCoy’s building, on the sixth floor. She was in her apartment with several girlfriends at about 2 AM on April 23 (a few hours after McCoy was shot) when Turner and Hondras came to her door. She said Turner had a television and Hondras a rocking chair. They asked her if they could leave the things in her apartment. She wanted to know first where they got the stuff, and when Hondras told her it was none of her business, she refused to take the goods. She suggested they try “Sweetie”–Sonya Moore–down the hall. Sweetie was Turner’s girlfriend, she said.
Moore followed on the stand. She sneaked a look out into the courtroom after she was sworn in, and was unable to suppress a smile when she spotted Turner. Turner grinned back shyly.
On the evening of April 22, Moore testified, at 10:30 PM, she was in her apartment–number 603, at 1440 W. 13th St.–with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend. Turner came by at about that time, and the four of them sat and talked in the living room. During the conversation, Turner “said that he had shot someone,” Moore told the court. “He said it was a lady. I asked him who was she, where did she live and did she have any kids. He said she had a daughter and she was about my age.” Then he said he hadn’t been serious, he hadn’t really shot anyone.
He left after a few hours, Moore said. She was in bed in the middle of the night when someone pounded on her door and she heard Turner call her name, but she didn’t get up.
Theola Archibald, who said she was Hondras’s girlfriend in April ’87, then told the court that Hondras and Turner came to her apartment–on the first floor of another Abbott high rise–at about 3:30 AM on April 23. Hondras had a rocking chair and Turner a television. They wouldn’t tell her where they got the items, she said, but she agreed to let them keep the things at her place. Before they left, one of them plugged the TV in to see if it worked. It didn’t.
“No offense,” Tom Adams, a friend of Turner’s family, said to Willie McCoy in the hallway after the trial was recessed for the day, “but can I ask you–do you think [Turner] did this?”
“Because I’ll tell you truthfully,” Adams continued, “I don’t believe he did. But if he did do this–I hope he burns. Because if someone did this to my mother, they wouldn’t be here in court–I’ll tell you that.”
McCoy smiled. “I know what you mean. I used to feel that way too–but I’ve grown some.”
“I understand,” Adams said.
McCoy wasn’t always as forgiving as he is today, he told me. Had his sister been murdered like this when he was younger, “I would have gone over and tore the whole west side up,” he said. “I’d have found the people who did it and blew their brains out and kept walking.”
Before he was born again 25 years ago, “I was a bad boy,” he said. “I just had the devil in me. God did a great thing when he saved me.”
A heroin addict beginning in his late teens, McCoy himself spent much of his life peddling dope, shoplifting, and cashing forged checks to support his habit. He did time in Stateville, Joliet, and Menard, mostly for robbery. Each time he got out of prison, he vowed to clean up his act. But his heroin habit kept pulling him down.
One afternoon in the 60s he was telling another sister–not Ruthie Mae–how tired he was of shooting drugs. “If you trust in the Lord, he will save you,” he recalls her telling him. “Those words was like fire breathing in my soul. I needed a fix then. I went in the front room and fell on my knees and said, ‘Lord, save me.’ Then I felt a force–it was like a vacuum cleaner was sucking something out of me. I felt new, clean, empty–delivered. I didn’t have a taste for narcotics anymore.”
He understands what can motivate a person to break in on people and rob them: the power of drugs and of “the wrong company,” he told me. But killing someone in the process was something he never would have considered, he said. Today’s thieves “just don’t have no hustle qualifications,” he said. “They can’t get what they want without doing something hideous.”
The prosecution played a tape of McCoy’s 911 call to open the trial’s second day.
“Give me Chicago police,” McCoy’s frantic voice began. “I’m alone and live at 1440 W. 13th St., and some people living next door have pulled their cabinets out–”
Dispatcher: “What are they doing, ma’am?”
McCoy: “They want to break in on this side where I live at.”
Dispatcher: “They want to break in?”
McCoy: “Yeah, they–they throwed the cabinet down.”
Dispatcher: “They threw a cabinet down. Where?”
McCoy: “I’m in the projects. They come on the other side, but you can–you can reach–can reach my bathroom, they want to come through the bathroom.”
Dispatcher: “All right ma’am, at what address?”
McCoy: “1440 W. 13th St., apartment 1109. The elevator’s working.”
Dispatcher: “All right. What’s your name, ma’am?”
McCoy: “Ruth McCoy.”
Dispatcher: “All right, I’ll send you the police.”
The call came in at 8:45 PM. At 8:47, the dispatcher assigned a 12th District patrol car to respond to a “disturbance with a neighbor” complaint at McCoy’s address. Had it been clear to the dispatcher that a break-in was being reported, a police official told me in ’87, the call would have been accorded a higher priority and the response would have been faster. Police had not yet arrived at McCoy’s door at 9:02, when another 911 call came in regarding apartment 1109: gunfire had been heard coming from within the apartment. Two minutes later, another caller reported gunshots and hollering from 1109.
Several officers made it to McCoy’s door at about 9:10. When no one answered their knocks and calls, they radioed the dispatcher and asked him to dial McCoy’s number. “We think somebody may be in there holding somebody,” one officer told the dispatcher. The phone just rang and rang. Two officers drove over to the project office to get a key to 1109, but the key they returned with didn’t fit the lock. The officers knocked on the door to 1108–no answer there, either. One apartment down the hall was vacant, and the neighbors farther down the hall said they hadn’t heard or seen a thing. They just knew that an elderly woman lived in 1109. “They say that she always answers her door,” an officer told the dispatcher hesitantly over the radio. “And there’s no answer . . . so–I don’t know if maybe she answered to the wrong person or what.” The officers contacted the project office again, but the janitor said he had no other key for 1109. And at 9:48 PM, the police left the project.
When McCoy’s body was discovered a day and a half later, it was on its side in a pool of blood, a hand over the chest, one shoe on and one off, amid papers and magazines scattered across the floor. McCoy probably hadn’t lasted long after she was shot, because of that bullet that struck the pulmonary vein, assistant medical examiner Choi told me in ’87; he thought she probably wouldn’t have survived even if she had been rushed to a hospital.
Small change was the only money found in the apartment, though McCoy’s daughter, Vernita, told police her mother recently had cashed a large SSI check (retroactive to her date of application for SSI, it was for $1,979), and had kept the money in the apartment. When Willie McCoy arrived on the scene, he noted the missing TV. Vernita also told the police her mother’s phone was gone. Recall that the police had heard the phone ring the first night they came to 1109; someone, therefore, entered McCoy’s apartment after the police left that night (or was still in 1109 when the police arrived). The phone was never recovered. Though papers were scattered across the floor, some tidying had been done in 1109: the place had been wiped clean of fingerprints. Detectives found a damp sheet and blouse top in a plastic bag under McCoy’s mattress, probably used for this purpose. The gun used to kill McCoy never turned up, and only one bullet (beneath McCoy) and one cartridge case (behind the bedroom door) were recovered. The lack of physical evidence left police little on which to build a case–the account of Tim Brown was about it.
The detectives who first surveyed 1109 noted the missing medicine cabinet in the bathroom. When they interviewed Brown and others in 1108, one detective tugged on the medicine cabinet in that apartment, but it didn’t budge; someone had resecured it. It wasn’t until Brown and Flournoy told them about the medicine cabinet tunnel that detectives realized McCoy’s killer or killers hadn’t come through the front door.
The Police Department declined to identify the officers who came to McCoy’s door that first night when I inquired about their actions in ’87. Instead, they produced a police official who defended their decision not to enter McCoy’s apartment. The police have to believe a crime is in progress, or that they are in “fresh pursuit” of a criminal, before they can bust down a door without a warrant, Captain Raymond Risley, an assistant to the superintendent, told me. In determining this, he said, the responding officers have to gauge the believability of the reports they have received from witnesses. Had McCoy lived in a middle-class neighborhood, Risley said, and had police received three similar 911 calls, the patrol officers no doubt would have forced their way in to check things out; but the high proportion of phony 911 calls from the projects may have persuaded the officers not to do so in McCoy’s case.
His assertion that 911 calls from the projects are more frequently hoaxes was based not on some Police Department study, Risley allowed, but on the prevalent belief of officers who have worked in the projects. People who live in the projects have their own prevalent beliefs about how the police respond to their calls. “It’s poor peoples in here–they’re not concerned with poor peoples,” a resident of McCoy’s floor told me in ’87. “Maybe they don’t care–or maybe they’re afraid, too.”
“The police, they really don’t give a damn,” Hondras’s half brother, Darnell Dean, told me during a recess in the trial. “It’s like, whatever goes on in a project, well, fuck it, let ’em kill themselves.”
But Dean quickly added that he could understand police officers’ wariness of calls from the projects. “Just think about it: You’re a police officer and you get a 911 call. You know those projects are pretty bad. How do you know that 911 call isn’t a setup, somebody gonna come and ambush and blow all the police officers away? And it can happen, believe me–police officers run up in there real quick, and people done knocked the lights out in the hallway, and they don’t see what’s coming, and they gun ’em down. And they wouldn’t never know who did it. So believe me, they took their time, checked out the building, looked at the lights, looked to see if people was hanging out before they went up in there. And they wasn’t gonna stay too long. Because they’re people too–they want to go home and eat dinner, they don’t want to go down to the morgue on a slab. So you got two sides of the coin over there. It’s just a sad situation.”
William Wright, one of the Area Four detectives who had investigated McCoy’s murder, was first to testify after the 911 tape was played. To his knowledge, Brown was not handcuffed any of the time he was at Area Four headquarters, he told the court. Quite the contrary, Brown cooperated voluntarily with the investigation, Wright said.
According to the stipulated testimony of a Chicago Police Department firearms examiner, introduced next, the bullet recovered from McCoy’s body and the one found in the bedroom were both fired from the same small semiautomatic pistol.
Assistant State’s Attorney Linda Woloshin, next on the stand, said there weren’t any police present in the room when she took down Brown’s statement at Area Four. She said Brown told her he had been treated well by police.
Prosecutor Connelly asked her to read Brown’s statement to the court, and she did so, after which the state rested its cases against Hondras and Turner.
Howard Goven was the first witness called to the stand by Turner’s lawyers. He was the man whom Turner’s attorney had named in her opening statement as Hondras’s accomplice in the killing of McCoy.
Goven told the court he currently was serving a sentence for possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver and for two counts of bail jumping.
He was in apartment 1108 during the evening of April 22, 1987, he said, along with Hondras, Turner, Flournoy, Brown, Bo, a man he called “KK,” and “maybe seven or more” women.
Sometime that evening, Hondras took him to a bedroom and closed the door, Goven said. Then, Hondras “raised up the mattress and showed me a variety of guns under there”–at least ten–he said. Hondras picked up a chrome-plated automatic at one point, then put it back down and dropped the mattress over the arsenal, Goven said. Then the two of them returned to the living room.
Shortly thereafter, Goven told the court, Hondras asked Goven to accompany him to the washroom, where Hondras shut the door and took the medicine cabinet down, after which “I was able to see from this washroom into another apartment.” Goven said he then returned to the living room while Hondras replaced the cabinet.
Goven left 1108 and went down to the first-floor lobby not long after, he said. About half an hour later, most of the people who had been in 1108 came running down the stairs. He wasn’t sure whether Turner was in this group; he was certain Hondras wasn’t. Hondras came downstairs sometime after everyone else, he said.
Bernard Sarley called Turner to the stand next.
Turner took a deep breath while waiting to be sworn in. He fidgeted nervously with the knot of his tie as he sat down.
“Mr. Turner, did you shoot Miss McCoy in apartment 1109?” Sarley began.
“Mr. Turner, were you in apartment 1109 when Miss McCoy was shot and killed?”
According to Turner: He was in 1108 for a couple of hours on the night in question, listening to music. He was sitting on a couch in the living room when he heard three or four gunshots next door; then, “I left with everyone else.” He went down to the first-floor lobby, where he stood around with a bunch of people, including some of those who had been in 1108. Hondras came down to the lobby by himself about half an hour after everyone else.
He had known that “this older lady they called Miss Mae” lived in 1109. He knew this because he used to live in the building.
He hadn’t been Sonya Moore’s boyfriend but he wanted to be. He told Moore he had shot a lady “to brag,” he said. Then “I seen it wouldn’t impress her, and I told her I didn’t do it.”
After he left Moore’s apartment, around 2 AM, he was headed toward another building when “I turned and looked up at the 1108 window, and I seen the light on. So I turned around and went back into the building, and catched the elevator to the 11th floor.”
He saw a television sitting outside the doors to 1108 and 1109. A guy he knew as “Belder” was coming out of 1108, carrying a rocking chair. “Then Belder asked me would I help him carry the TV or the rocking chair down to 610 [Lynette Fitch’s apartment],” Turner said. He agreed to help. Then he noticed the door to 1109 was slightly ajar. “I was curious about the apartment, so I kicked the door open a little bit and walked in a few feet, saw a body in the bedroom. Came back out, picked up the TV, John Hondras was coming out of 1108.” Belder put the chair down then and walked away, and Hondras picked up the chair.
He and Hondras went down to apartment 610. When Fitch wouldn’t take the stuff, they tried Moore’s apartment; but no one answered. Then Hondras said they could take the things to his girlfriend’s apartment, and they headed to Theola Archibald’s. There, Turner “set the TV down and walked back out the door,” he said, while Hondras stuck around.
Cross-examining, Tim Joyce asked Turner whose property he thought the TV and rocker were when he saw Belder with it. “I thought it was his,” Turner said. “He had it.”
“You went into the lady’s apartment, and you saw her dead body,” Joyce said.
Turner replied that he saw McCoy’s body and saw blood, but couldn’t tell if she was alive or dead. “I didn’t get close, I was standing at the front door.”
“And you ran downstairs and called the police,” Joyce said.
“You ran downstairs and told the CHA people.”
“You ran to a neighbor’s house and told them to call the police.”
“You walked back to the hallway and picked up the TV.”
After an hour on the stand, Turner, his brow glistening, was dismissed. He got a smile and a pat on the back from Sarley when he returned to the defense table. Then Sarley announced the defense for Turner was resting its case. Hondras’s attorneys said they were considering calling one additional witness on behalf of their client (who would not testify himself.) Judge Getty set closing arguments in Turner’s trial for the following morning and adjourned court.
“Those people ain’t never lived in the projects, so they can’t understand how it is,” Aletha Turner said after her son’s testimony. She was still sitting on a bench in the gallery. “Those state’s attorneys? Where I live at, they wouldn’t have done no different for her. That judge? He wouldn’t have done no different either. Where I live at in the projects, the rule is–” and she put a finger to her lips. Then she pointed at Willie McCoy, sitting on a bench behind her. “And he know what I’m talking about. He know about them projects.”
McCoy nodded. “Yes–I know about them projects. They would have probably hurt him.”
Turner walked back to McCoy’s bench and put a hand on his shoulder. “My son should have done something about her [Ruthie Mae] if he seen her like that. But I understand why he just left with that TV. He did what he had to do. If I see somebody shoot you, I cannot run and tell police, because, you see, I got to live there. If they can’t see that, they should come live in the projects like we do.
“I feel satisfied now,” she said. “I wanted to know–did my son have anything to do with killing her? And now I know he didn’t. I feel satisfied because it’s all coming out now.”
“Well, God is the only true judge,” McCoy said.
“That’s right,” Turner replied. “And you know what the good thing about that is?” She pointed at Joyce, who was gathering some papers into a file at the prosecutor’s table. “The man can’t do nothing about that.”
In his closing argument, prosecutor William Connelly tried to shift the jury’s attention from the dubious tales of the state’s star witness to the suspicious aspects of Turner’s story. Would an innocent person who hears shots fired in an apartment wander into that apartment just a few hours later? No, Connelly said–in truth, Turner and Hondras “do their foul deed, and then they see if the heat comes–if the heat doesn’t come, they go back and get the proceeds.” If Turner was merely helping someone move a rocking chair and a TV, wouldn’t he take the lighter item? No–Turner took the TV because it was “part of his booty,” Connelly said. “And he wants the color TV! He doesn’t want the chair–the TV’s got a lot more value!” Would somebody really think they could make points with a woman by telling her he had shot another woman? No, Connelly said–Turner told Moore that because “it’s human nature that if you do something bad, you talk about it. You want to get it out of your system.”
Connelly reminded the jury that Turner testified he knew McCoy; that’s why she was killed, the prosecutor maintained–because “she could identify him at a later date if she were left alive.”
Connelly allowed that the prosecution’s witnesses gave inconsistent testimony as to what times the critical events occurred. This wasn’t really important or surprising though, he said. “Do you think the crowd in room 1108 cared about the time? Do they look like the Timex crowd?”
The prosecutor gestured toward the rocking chair and TV behind him. “This is all that Miss McCoy had of value that was taken. This is what her life was worth.” Then he jabbed a finger at Turner. “He went in that hole in the wall. He’s the one there with John. This man killed this 52-year-old woman”–he held a close-up photo of McCoy in front of the jury, then pointed again at the TV and rocker–“for this.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Sarley began in his closing, “we all have our own realities. Our perceptions of reality are often different. Our perceptions of reality are all based on our lives. The reality of Edward Turner and some of the people who testified here was that they lived on the west side of Chicago, in the projects.”
Things rarely go according to Hoyle in the projects, Sarley told the jury. The way the police responded to the 911 calls about McCoy’s apartment is a good example, he said: If police had shown similar indifference “in Arlington Heights or on the southwest side or something, it’d be all over the news! But what happens in Ruthie McCoy’s neighborhood is not considered news. If there are things that seem stupid or seem strange that Edward Turner might have done–consider that 911 tape, too, please.”
A middle-class person wouldn’t consider trying to impress a woman by taking credit for a shooting, Sarley said. “But we’re not Edward Turner. We don’t live where he lives.”
It would rightly be judged “shameful conduct” in most neighborhoods to spot a bloody body in an apartment and not call the police, Sarley said. “But Edward Turner lived on the west side in a project. If Edward Turner calls up police and says, ‘Hello, I’m Edward Turner, I just walked into an apartment and found a body there’–he probably becomes the number-one suspect.”
When witnesses told police they saw Turner and Hondras with McCoy’s TV and rocker, the police leaped to the wrong conclusion, Sarley said. “They said, ‘Case closed, they did it.'” Then they prodded Brown to name Turner and Hondras “so we reach the right end of the story.”
According to Sarley, the police abuse of Brown was another example of the different reality of a project resident: if a middle-class person was treated that way, “I guarantee you Walter Jacobson would be talking about that on the ten o’clock news,” Sarley said. “But that is what happens on the west side of the city of Chicago. And if that’s your reality, ladies and gentlemen, you’re gonna do everything you can to get out of that police station as fast as you can.”
Before the trial began, Sarley said, he thought Hondras and Howard Goven went through the wall and killed McCoy. “Now we’ve heard all the evidence, and maybe it was John and this person Bo. Maybe it was John and Howard. Maybe it was John by himself. But I would submit that it was not Edward Turner.”
Joyce, in rebuttal: “I don’t know about perceptions of reality, ladies and gentlemen, whether you’re from Winnetka or Chicago Heights or some projects on the west side of Chicago. All I know is what is reality. And that is that someone brutally murdered Ruthie McCoy.”
The police don’t leap to their conclusions, Joyce told the jury. “They are people just like you–and none of us want to see an innocent man convicted”–not just because it wrongs the innocent, Joyce said, but because it lets the guilty get away.
The jurors stole some last looks at Turner as Joyce finished up, with a quote prosecutors often employ in multiple-defender cases: “Edmund Burke once wrote that when bad men join together and conspire, good men must associate, else they will fall one by one–like Ruthie McCoy fell. The only good aspect of this case was the fine work done by the Police Department–good men and women who came together to find the guilty parties. Now it’s time for your association.”
“My nephew is an all-right person,” Brenda Turner, Aletha’s sister, said. She was waiting patiently in the gallery while the jury deliberated. “I watched him being born, and I grew up with him. He’s well mannered. He’s very understanding. He likes people. That’s what got him in trouble. He likes to be around his little friends–and you know how guys can get hyper when they get together.
“My right hand to God, I told him that same week this happened–I say, ‘Edward, those people you hanging with are no good for you. You say they’re your brothers, but if something happens, they’re gonna leave you in the mix.’ But he just laughed at me. He just say, ‘I’m not gonna do nothing wrong.’ I say, ‘Edward, you can be influenced to do something wrong without even thinking it’s wrong.’
“The environment is no good over there [in the project],” Brenda Turner said. “Ain’t nobody good from the old to the young.”
She lives in another Abbott high rise. Things are no better today in Abbott than they were in April ’87, she said. Violence and drugs still predominate. She frequently hears the sickening screams of a woman down her hall whose boyfriend comes by to beat her. The hallway itself usually is dark, because of the kids who break the light bulbs and the janitors who don’t bother replacing them. “People throw shit out the windows and bust little kids’ heads,” she said. Recently, a child in her building had her head split open by a can of corn that sailed out an upper-floor window.
She worries that what happened to Ruthie McCoy could happen to her; she lives at the end of a hall, and the adjacent apartment is vacant and unlocked. She hears “these dudes coming in there [the adjacent apartment] at night–cooking up their ‘caine, packing up their shit.” The screws holding her medicine cabinet in place are loose; she has taped up the cabinet’s edges to hold it in place. “It is really scary,” she told me. “They could come in on you anytime. Hell no, you don’t get used to it. But you have to live with it if you have no other choices.”
When she moved into this apartment last year, she found syringes and razor blades scattered about the place. The previous tenant, a woman of about 40, had died of a drug overdose, neighbors told her. She had been dead at least two days before her body was discovered.
The jury returned to the courtroom with its verdict less than four hours later. Turner, his face beaded with sweat, stared down at the table in front of him. To a hushed courtroom, Getty’s clerk announced the verdict on the murder charge first: not guilty.
Turner’s supporters whooped. This caused Judge Getty to turn red; six months in jail, he angrily warned the gallery, to anyone he heard reacting to the verdict. Aletha Turner sat silent, her head bowed. The clerk resumed reading: Turner was not guilty of armed robbery, not guilty of home invasion, not guilty of residential burglary. Public defender Marchigiani squeezed Turner’s arm; Turner reclined in his chair and smiled.
“Oh, Jesus!” Brenda Turner hollered jubilantly as she stepped out of the courtroom into the hallway.
“My child coming home!” Aletha Turner said, hugging her sister. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
Willie McCoy strode past them to the elevators, looking relieved, not disappointed. “Maybe he was innocent,” McCoy said with a shrug. “But even if he wasn’t, you can’t convict an individual on such little evidence.
“But there’s a higher court,” he said, smiling confidently. “They might get past these mortal judges right here–but there’s gonna be retribution one day.”
Detective William Wright, on his way out of the courtroom, found the verdict harder to swallow. Sure, Brown was a liar, he said; but the statement he gave to police, and then to the state’s attorneys, “was as close to the truth as he got–without implicating himself.” Brown gave that statement freely, Wright said; his claims on the stand of intimidation and brutality were all fabricated. “We don’t do that sort of thing,” the detective said.
Numerous people may have crawled into McCoy’s apartment after she was killed, to see what they could get, the detective said; but he was confident the right men had been charged with McCoy’s murder. In interviews of many witnesses, “the only two names that constantly came up were John Hondras and Edward Turner.”
He was struck by Turner’s claim that he was trying to impress Sonya Moore by telling her he had shot a lady. “If I want to impress someone, I’m gonna take her out to dinner. But I guess that’s just my middle-class thinking. I guess it’s hard for us to stand in Edward Turner’s shoes.”
This slaying wasn’t typical of the 200 murders in his area each year, Wright said. “Usually the dope user shoots the pusher because he doesn’t get his dope or the dope pusher shoots the user because he doesn’t get his money. This time you really had an innocent victim. That makes it especially frustrating that this guy got off.”
Hondras’s attorneys called no further witnesses. Closing arguments were heard by Judge Getty early on Tuesday morning, April 3, before a gallery of five spectators.
Tim Joyce waived the right to go first, so Allen Sincox began. “The whole case comes down to Tim Brown,” Sincox said, “who is an inveterate and unquestionable liar.”
Brown had good reason to lie, Sincox told Getty: he held the keys to 1108, and could easily have been considered the prime suspect. Maybe he was physically abused by detectives, Sincox said, but more likely it was the threat of being charged himself at least as an accessory in McCoy’s murder that made him finger Hondras and Turner. “All Brown was concerned with was taking himself out of it. The people he puts into it are interchangeable.” First he said it was Hondras and Turner; then, after spending time in the same division of County Jail as Turner, Sincox pointed out, he said it was Hondras and Bo. “There is absolutely no way any human being could tell what of what he says is true. You’d have to be a psychic.”
Joyce spoke only six minutes in rebuttal, and seemed to be just going through the motions. A latecomer to the gallery might have thought Tim Brown was on trial rather than Hondras. “Knowing Tim Brown, judge, as you do now, I suspect that you wouldn’t want him in your neighborhood, let alone your house, let alone your courtroom,” the prosecutor said. The detectives in this case “are honorable men who conducted an honorable investigation into a brutal crime. They didn’t choose their witnesses, and neither did we.”
Getty had no kind words either for Brown in his ruling. “He was thoroughly, totally, and completely impeached,” the judge said.
But it wasn’t Brown who let McCoy’s killers get away with it, in Getty’s mind.
“There’s more than one tragedy in this case,” he said. “The most obvious is the brutal murder, robbery, and home invasion of Ruthie McCoy. The second is the failure of the Chicago Police Department to respond in a professional manner to Ruthie McCoy’s impassioned plea for help.
“Had the Chicago Police Department performed with minimal competence,” Getty said, “they would have, in all probability, recovered evidence–and since it was almost immediately after the event, possibly even the perpetrator. They would not have sustained the obvious removal of evidence and property. The police may have solved the case based upon the evidence, not the ever-changing tales of the perjurious felon, Tim Brown.
“This case was lost not by the state’s attorneys. This case was not even lost by the detectives, who got the only evidence that they got in a damaged and sanitized crime scene. This case was lost by the patrol division of the Chicago Police Department, who stood by with a deaf ear to the multiple reports of gunshots being fired in 1109. They just couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of entering a locked door. So they let them get away with it.
“This defendant may or may not be guilty, but the state has clearly failed to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This court must, accordingly, find the defendant not guilty. He’s discharged.”
“I feel good about him getting out, but there’s no reason to celebrate,” a sober-faced Darnell Dean told me in the hallway after the acquittal. “You wanted the truth to come out as to who really did it. But everyone over there [in Abbott Homes] knows who killed that lady. Just ain’t nobody at liberty to say. But it wasn’t John, and it wasn’t Montefee.”
“I was scared when the jury came back,” Edward Turner told me a week after his acquittal. “I would have went off if they told me I was guilty. I wouldn’t have known how to take that garbage–life in prison for something I didn’t do.”
He still didn’t know who really killed McCoy, he maintained. He didn’t regret any of his actions of the night she was killed, not even his failure to call police after seeing McCoy’s body. If he had it to do over, “I would’ve seen it and didn’t seen it, just like I did. I wasn’t gonna jeopardize my family’s life.”
He was planning to get a high school equivalency degree and then seek work–just as Ruthie McCoy had planned. He felt that what he most needed was to get away from the project–which is what McCoy had felt. He was staying here and there with friends when I spoke with him; when he found a permanent place it would probably be “farther out west–or hopefully on the south side or out east. Got to get off the west side period–being around there was my problem.” He admitted that he had been peddling drugs with the Paymasters in ’87. The Paymasters are no more, he said; most all of them are in prison.
He was bitter, he said, about being held three years without bond for a crime he didn’t commit. He was planning to talk to a lawyer about suing.
Ruthie Mae’s daughter, Vernita, who didn’t make it to the trial, has already sued the CHA over her mother’s death. Vernita, 28 now and living in a south-side project, charges in the suit that the CHA should be held liable for her mother’s death because it allowed the medicine-cabinet access to apartments to exist. The suit is still in court.
Hondras declined to be interviewed. Dean said his brother came out of jail “just anxious to get on with his life.” He is living on the north side and seeking work. He still visits friends and relatives in the Abbott Homes on occasion, but doesn’t hang around there as much, Dean said. One of the first things he did after leaving jail was visit the grave sites of his grandfather, mother, and brother.
No perjury charges would be brought against Tim Brown, prosecutor Joyce said, because perjury is “pretty tough to prove.”
Willie McCoy didn’t attend court for the closing arguments in Hondras’s case. Joyce had told him after Turner was acquitted that Hondras undoubtedly would go free, too. When I informed him of the verdict on Hondras, McCoy at first leaned again on his religious faith. “God will take care of them eventually. I believe that. The killers are free–but they’re not free in spirit. They know what they did, and it’s always gonna be in their mind. They can boast, they can say, “Oh, man, we beat it.’ But that’s just gonna open a trapdoor for them. They’ll think they can get away with something again, but sooner or later the ax will fall.” Too bad someone else probably would get hurt before that ax fell, he said.
The more McCoy talked, though, the more his anger seeped out. “Judgment does not proceed the way that it should,” he said. “If that had been a white woman had been killed like that with two black guys charged, they would have been convicted. If that would have been a white woman that called police like my sister did, you know they would have gone in [her apartment]. You know it.
“This whole system we’re living in is corrupt,” he said. He tries not to dwell on the injustices in it. “If you do, you will explode! You will explode.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.