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Murder Cases Go Cold in Chicago Suburb

As Harvey police deal with rising gangs and internal investigations, last year's homicides remain unsolved.

March 19, 2006|Tom Rybarczyk | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — A year after Norma Dart's slaying, the details still sound as sketchy as a call over a police radio: 81-year-old female bludgeoned to death at home, no forced entry.

That is about all Dart's relatives, friends and neighbors can say, because it is all Harvey, Ill., police have told them. The families of the other eight people killed in the rough-and-tumble Chicago suburb in 2005 are in a similar situation; the crimes committed against their loved ones also remain unsolved.

Harvey murder cases have gone cold as the department has wrestled with the expanding reach of street gangs and dealt with a series of internal investigations. Meanwhile, survivors continue to hope for justice.

"My husband has been really upset about it. [Harvey police] are just kind of horrible," said Doris Stanback, whose brother-in-law, Anthony Stanback, 37, was shot to death in June. "It's pretty sad. It's sad for the families."

Some politicians and the city's former mayor question why people may be getting away with murder in Harvey and what has happened to a department that typically posted homicide clearance rates above the national average, which the FBI placed at 62% in 2004. Generally, a case is considered cleared when charges are filed or when officers believe they solved the case, even if no charges result.

"This is an era of lawlessness," Alderman Ronald Waters said. "Something is very definitely wrong."

The city of Harvey issued a written statement that said, "The Harvey Police Department is pleased that in 2005 there were only nine homicides versus the 13 in 2004. Our detectives are working diligently to bring closure to those homicides and will continue their efforts until each case is closed.

"There are times when a case becomes what is known as a 'cold case,' but it will remain open until a suspect is arrested and charged. Detectives revisit 'cold cases' frequently.... Sometimes, a case is investigated to its conclusion, including the arrest of a suspect, but the state's attorney's office will fail to give felony approval."

The Cook County state's attorney's office, however, said its records showed it was not contacted about any of the nine cases cited.

The failure to clear Harvey's slayings comes on the heels of a 40% increase in homicides for the three years ending in 2004 in the Markham district of Cook County Circuit Court, which includes Harvey, Ford Heights, Robbins and 32 other towns. Those three gang-plagued suburbs accounted for nearly 45% of the district's homicides during that period, an analysis shows.

Law enforcement officials and criminologists warn that if towns don't solve their murder cases, they invite more mayhem.

But experts caution against judging a department solely by its clearance rate, because gangland slayings can be difficult to solve.

"Gangs tend to be secretive about [killing]. It's just the culture," said Joe Kosman, deputy supervisor of the state's attorney's gang-prosecution unit. "There could be 15 witnesses, but no one, mysteriously, sees anything."

Harvey, which has about 29,000 residents, has 10 full-time detectives, according to department records. Spokeswoman Sandra Alvarado said five were assigned to homicides.

Harvey, Ford Heights and Robbins are the only towns in the district that don't belong to the South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force, which has a homicide clearance rate of about 80%, state police officials said. The task force provides experienced detectives to help run down leads.

Experts say Harvey's 0-for-9 clearance rate for the year could be a blip, a run of bad luck.

"It could be a fluke -- they just got hit with a dozen tough cases," said Dennis Rosenbaum, a psychologist and criminologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "That's improbable, though."

Rosenbaum said a host of factors could be responsible for the department's inability to clear homicides, including the relationship with the community and the type of crimes.

Reducing crime was one of Mayor Eric Kellogg's promises when he took office in the spring of 2003. But from 2003 to 2005, Harvey had 34 homicides, contrasted with 26 from 2000 to 2002, according to state and city statistics. Kellogg could not be reached for comment.

The department rehired Merritt Gentry, an officer who was fired under former Mayor Nick Graves' administration, and made him commander of the detective bureau. Gentry was recently accused in court of intimidating a murder defendant by opening his shirt to expose tattoos that matched Vice Lords gang symbols. Prosecutors were forced to drop the case and opened an investigation into the allegation.

Gentry has since been transferred to the patrol division.

Cmdr. Darnell Keel was also rehired in Kellogg's term, after resigning under the Graves administration amid accusations of misconduct, according to records obtained by the Tribune. Keel was linked recently to a rogue parking operation and bus shuttle from a parking lot to a concert hall.

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