Silence is a killer in Chicago crime investigation
In Chicago, forty people were shot in a span of 59 hours between April 18-20 in 2008; not one has faced charges
By Mark Konkol and Frank Main
CHICAGO — On an alarmingly bloody weekend in April 2008 — a weekend so violent it put Chicago on the national news — Angel Ramirez was the last to die.
The burly 26-year-old whom friends called "Buttercup" was next door to his buddy''s house in a gang-infested corner of Little Village where a birthday party was breaking up.
It was 10:25 p.m. A blue light glowed atop a police surveillance camera across from the party as a gray Chevy Impala slowly crept down 21st Street.
Someone in the back seat unloaded a flurry of shots. One bullet hit Angel in the face. He collapsed on the broken front stoop and died an hour later at Mount Sinai Hospital on April 20, 2008.
Angel was a hardworking muffler shop manager who counted cops among his best friends.
He wasn''t a gang member, but this still was a gang-related shooting, police say.
Satan Disciples were aiming at Latin Kings. They even bragged about it on Facebook.
Angel -- whose murder anchored a 2008 Chicago Sun-Times series on the 59 hours of gunshots that hit 40 people that weekend, killing seven -- was an innocent caught in the line of fire.
Days after he was killed, it looked like police would quickly catch his killer.
The detectives found the car used in the drive-by and talked to the owner.
They watched the surveillance video.
They identified a suspect.
But no one has been charged with Angel''s murder.
Police "told me they would do as much as possible to find the ''responsibles.'' They would do their job," Angel''s mother, Felipa Ramirez, said. "For me, I put everything in God''s hands."
When it comes to murder in Chicago, sometimes there''s a frustrating reality for police: Even when you think you got ''em, you ain''t got ''em.
In 2008, Angel''s slaying was one of 342 unsolved murders.
Police cleared 33 percent of murders that year, the department''s second-lowest single-year homicide clearance rate since 2004.
Detectives say a code of silence among witnesses -- and even victims -- is making it hard to solve murders, especially gang-related ones.
"The clearance rate will go up if witnesses come forward," Chief of Detectives Thomas Byrne said. "There is more pressure on people now not to snitch than there was traditionally.
"Although the clearance rate is an indicator of how well we are doing, the detectives that I have encountered are some of the hardest working and fair people I have met on the job," Byrne said. "They put a lot of time and effort into these cases. They are starving for people to come forward."
Like most of the other shootings during that weekend in 2008, reluctant witnesses have kept police from making an arrest in Angel''s murder, even though detectives have identified the suspected shooter.
Witnesses are key because the physical evidence, including video from the blue-light camera, wasn''t strong in Angel''s murder.
The camera showed Angel and his friends standing outside the house before the shooting.
Then, the camera automatically panned away.
"It was facing a different direction during the shooting," Detective Roberto Garcia said. "It''s too bad. The street light could have illuminated the inside of the vehicle. The camera might have caught an image of the shooter."
Even so, detectives were able to track down the car through interviews. The owner said he lent his Impala to the suspected shooter a few blocks away from the murder.
"He was not telling the whole truth," said Garcia, who suspects the owner was driving the Impala during the shooting.
While in police custody, the car owner threatened to kill himself and was admitted to a hospital for psychiatric care.
"He was released without charges," Garcia said.
The detectives were unable to identify a woman they think was in the passenger seat during the shooting.
They weren''t empty-handed, though.
One witness, Robert White, identified the driver and the shooter, a Satan Disciples member who was in the back seat.
Detectives believe the shooter was targeting two Latin Kings standing near Angel that night in the 2800 block of West 21st.
The detectives learned the suspected shooter and driver were at a Satan Disciples party before Angel was killed. The shooter returned to the party after the slaying, Garcia said.
"We have ID''d several individuals at the house party, but they are not cooperating," Garcia said.
Then, another bad break.
White -- the key witness -- became a murder victim, too.
In September 2008, the ex-boyfriend of White''s girlfriend allegedly burst into her apartment, fatally shooting White and stabbing her.
Angel''s case isn''t cold, though, Garcia said.
"There are people in the neighborhood who have knowledge but have not come forward," he said. "We hope they will see the light and come forth."
Or, Garcia said, someone may get in trouble with the law and use information about Angel''s killing as a bargaining chip.
If any of that happens, police are ready.
"Our suspect is in custody, waiting for trial on other, unrelated cases. He is a strong suspect," Garcia said. "I still have high hopes."
Silence is a killer
Ultimately, time is on investigators'' side.
Unlike other crimes, there''s no statute of limitations for murder, so detectives keep pursuing cold cases.
The clearance rate for murders hit a low-water mark of 30 percent for 2009. But in coming years, that figure will climb as more of 2009''s killings are solved. Last year, for instance, detectives solved 95 murders from prior years.
"If there is a gun left at the scene, or a hat, we are looking for DNA or prints, and that may slow the progress of the investigation," said Byrne.
"I know the detectives want a solid case. We are not going to compromise the integrity of the case to rush people into getting people charged. If that means our homicide clearance rate is
a little lower than a year ago or five years ago, so be it. We strive to present the best case possible."
But with budget woes, there are fewer detectives to investigate those cases.
This year, about 1,060 detectives are on the job, with nearly 270 vacancies -- about 20 percent below budgeted strength, city records show.
The number of detectives has been shrinking since at least 2004, when there were 155 vacancies and a 15 percent shortage. The city hasn''t held a class to promote new detectives since 2007.
That leaves a lot to do for a short staff.
And getting physical evidence linking a shooter to a murder isn''t as easy as it appears on TV.
There often isn''t a bullet casing, blood evidence or a shred of clothing left behind to help identify a shooter through DNA.
When detectives do find forensic evidence at the scene, linking it to an offender is a difficult and lengthy process.
And even though there are thousands of surveillance cameras in Chicago, they''re not always working. And when they are, they aren''t always pointing in the right direction, or the images
aren''t always clear, as in Angel''s murder, police said.
Then there are the recent court cases that have created more hurdles for detectives.
Responding to a civil rights lawsuit, the department in 2004 started requiring detectives to charge suspects within 48 hours of their arrest or let them go.
And a 2007 court decision requires detectives to tell witnesses they have the right to leave the police station at any time, even if they haven''t provided any information.
So when a witness -- or even a victim -- won''t talk, that''s big trouble.
"The lack of cooperation from the witnesses is far and above the biggest issue in clearing these [shootings]," Harrison Area Cmdr. Anthony Riccio said. "It allows killers to walk the "neighborhoods."
Fighting against vigilante justice
Of all the shootings on the weekend when Angel was killed, only one is heading for trial. The witnesses, in that case, were police officers.
Bennie Teague is in Cook County Jail on charges that he murdered his boss, Marcus Hendricks, on April 18, 2008.
Teague covered his face with a T-shirt that day, marched into a plumbing office near 115th and Halsted in the Roseland neighborhood, and killed Hendricks with an AK-47, police say.
A few hours later, after a shoot-out with three police officers, Teague was found hiding under a porch of a house. Police said they found the assault rifle there, too.
Detectives are still hunting for the killers of that weekend''s five other murder victims: 18-year-old cousins Melvin Thomas and Rhonell Savala in the part of South Shore that some call "Terrortown," retired steel worker Ricardo Sanchez in South Chicago, paroled felon Michael Giles in Garfield Park, and former gang-banger Raul Lemus in Chicago Lawn.
Meanwhile, Angel''s family continues to wait for justice.
The wait hasn''t been easy.
When Gonzalo Ramirez saw his fun-loving older brother dead in the hospital, he immediately wanted revenge.
"I saw him passed away on a gurney. I saw his body, and I already knew who did it. It was the Disciples. I thought, ''I''m gonna get ahold of a gun,'' " Gonzalo Ramirez said. "But my mom told me, ''I don''t need to lose another son.'' She was crying. That stopped me from doing anything."
Angel''s mother, Felipa Ramirez, said she continues to pray that her son''s murder is solved.
She even prays for the shooter.
"I lost my son, but he [the shooter] is lost in the world," she said. "Whatever they do to him, it will not bring my son back."
She denounced the desire for revenge that even her middle son felt after Angel was killed.
"That''s not worth it because they''re destroying families," she said. "They want to take the law in their own hands, but they don''t realize they are the problem."
Police said the revenge factor is big on the street and a major obstacle to solving murders, especially gang murders.
Witnesses often clam up because they want to "take care of business" themselves.
''Be a man''
Angel hasn''t been forgotten.
His mother said her niece and Angel''s best friend, Temo Perez, have named their babies after him.
Customers at Diaz Mufflers still come in and ask his brother Gonzalo, "Where is the husky guy?"
And his other brother, Roberto, a linebacker on his high school football team, thinks of Angel all the time.
"Before games, I pray to Angel to help me to sack the quarterback," Roberto said. "I tell him to watch over me. I ask him for guidance."
Gonzalo prays for a break in the silence that keeps Angel''s killer from justice.
"I just wish someone would step up and be a man like my brother."
About this series
In 2008, the Chicago Sun-Times took an in-depth look at the victims, shooters and neighborhoods from a particularly bloody weekend of gun violence in Chicago -- April 18-20, when 40 people were shot, seven fatally.
Copyright 2010 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.