By David Heinzmann
Just days after the recent murder of Chicago Police Officer Alejandro Valadez, detectives had tracked down two suspects and secured charges against them.
As Chicago cops mourned the loss of their promising 27-year-old colleague, an expectant father, they also breathed a small sigh of relief. This one appeared to be in the can for keeps. It hasn’t been so in the last two investigations of murdered police officers.
Two years ago, Jose Vazquez was shot dead in the snow-covered alley driveway behind his West Side townhouse. And detective Robert Soto and a woman friend were shot as they sat talking in his SUV outside her West Side home in the wee hours of a morning last August.
In both those killings, investigators were onto robbery suspects early, but the cases slipped away. In the Soto case, authorities actually charged a guy, only to have the case fall apart when grand jury witnesses flip-flopped and a key piece of security video from the neighborhood showed that the suspected getaway car was a different make from the suspect’s Buick.
The fact that both West Side murders remain unsolved has been a point of deep embarrassment for the Area 4 detectives charged with investigating the cases. (There have been a couple other police murders over the last year, but in both cases the killers were apprehended at the scene and the outcome of the investigation was obvious from the start.)
The big difference separating the Valadez case from the two that remain unsolved comes down to witnesses. When Vazquez was killed on a snowy February night there were no known witnesses. When Soto was murdered last August, a handful of people in the neighborhood said they saw the getaway car speeding off, and offered police a nickname, “J-Rock.” But their stories ultimately fell apart. Some said gang rivalries may have led to bogus indentifications.
However, when Valadez was shot in Englewood on the South Side, his partner witnessed the whole thing, and immediately called for help and gave an accurate description of the killers’ car. Within minutes, the car was abandoned, found by police—with the murder weapon in the trunk—and traced to a nearby address and owner. The evidence piled up and the gunman and driver were soon at Area 1 headquarters, giving videotaped confessions.
It was a very lucky break, because there was no real motive. The accused men, both Gangster Disciples, allegedly told police they didn’t even know Valadez was a cop. They claimed to believe they were shooting at rival Black Disciples, retaliation for earlier gunfire.
It was the lamest, most senseless brand of gang violence. But murders like this happen all the time in Chicago—street-gang nonsense, with no logical motive and no specific target. Add to that mix completely unreliable witnesses, who are either deeply mistrustful or openly hostile to the police, and you can understand why detectives solve only about half of the city’s murders in any given year.
As soon as I heard Valadez was killed, I contacted a source with whom I have had a long and fruitful relationship, asking for details. In a text message, the reply was apologetic: Sorry, the last two got screwed up; not going to do anything to mess this one up.
The source was talking about Vazquez and Soto. I understood and let it go. Then when charges were announced against the two Gangster Disciples from Englewood, I sent another text to the source saying the case seemed solid. Rock solid, came the reply.
The pride was obvious. Valadez’s colleagues would at least be able to offer his grieving family the promise of justice for his killers.
That’s a comfort the families of Jose Vazquez and Robert Soto are still waiting to feel.