Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Officers Down, and Still Unsolved

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.

19 comments:

abbourgoin said...

This is sad. It seems that with technology advancing at such a rapid rate, we should be seeing an INCREASE in clearance for murder cases. Unfortunately, in 1979 when the clearance rate was around 79% nationally, in 2005, that percentage fell drastically to around 62% nationally. I don't have any doubts that this trend goes hand in hand with the increase in senseless, raw violence that we are seeing from today's gangs. Unfortunately, I don't think there is any huge improvement on the horizon especially with the economy forcing police departments to cut forces. Any thoughts?

Sara Paretsky said...

Thanks for the post, Dave. I gather from another cop I know that it's really really hard to get people in the neighborhood to give testimony, whether because of some perverted sense of "anti-snitch" nobility, or for fear of reprisals, or a combination. I'm sorry for the death of Officer Valadez.

David Heinzmann said...

Abbourgoin,

I would agree there's no reason to believe anything will improve. Regardless of municipal budgets, police can only do so much.

The root of the problem in Chicago's toughest neighborhoods is that people live amid too much chaos driven by the staggering poverty of these places.

There's not much the police can do to fix that.

I once met a pair of English detectives who were touring the U.S. studying police practices. I took them on a little tour of the West Side around the old Rockwell Gardens housing project. I remember their mouths hanging open. They couldn't believe there were conditions like this in a cosmopolitan city in the richest country in the world.

While most criminologists believe the economy does have a direct impact on crime trends, the level of poverty in places like Englewood and Lawndale makes them pretty much recovery-proof. The depth of the despair in such places is so entrenched that I think crime patterns are less in sync with economic cycles. It's always reall, really bad.

In some ways, the only viable economy is the drug trade controlled by the street gangs.

And what really makes Chicago harder than most places is the gang situation. The level of control and organization among gangs here is pretty much unlike anywhere else in America, except LA.

The guns disappear. Nobody tells a straight story. Murders don't get solved.

abbourgoin said...

It is a sad story and I think that every part of the country has it's own little Englewood. I live in Connecticut and for us, it's Hartford.

Although "violent" crime in general has had a slight decrease, the murder and gun crime statistics have increased.

This weekend alone, 6 people were shot. Luckily, there were so many witnesses that somebody was quickly detained.

I think one reason I can relate so well to Chicago crime stories is because very similar stories happen in Connecticut. (i.e. John Rowland-corrupt politico-see Rod Blagoeivich.)

David, it's great to have you on the outfit, I look forward to more posts like this.

I am working on my first novel, which takes place in Simsbury, CT, another suburbia, but my next novel will most likely outline the rise in gang violence in Hartford.

I think these are important topics and it's good to see that we are all paying attention to them.

Again, great post David

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