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5 years later, killing of 5 women in clothing store haunts Chicago area

(MCT) — CHICAGO — The calls have been coming in for the last five years, some 6,689 since Feb. 2, 2008, the day five women died in the back of a Lane Bryant store in southwest suburban Tinley Park.

There were 5,600 calls in 2008 alone. Last year there were only 87.

The first call came from inside Lane Bryant, from panicked store manager Rhoda McFarland. McFarland whispered into the phone, then came the gruff voice of a man in the background. Then the line went dead.

A patrol officer had been only a few hundred yards away, in the parking lot of a Target store on the opposite side of the mall. He was at the store moments after McFarland called. Inside, he found McFarland, Carrie Hudek Chiuso, Sarah Szafranski, Jennifer Bishop and Connie Woolfolk dead, and a sixth woman badly injured, all shot with a .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun.

The man who shot them was gone. Five years later, he remains at large. To date, no one has called who knows the man who shot the six women, or why. The mass murder remains one of the most chilling unsolved cases in the Chicago area.

“That is the call we are waiting for at this point,” said Cmdr. Pat McCain, who has supervised the investigation for the last four years.

“There is somebody out there who knows who did this. Maybe their conscience is bothering them. Maybe they will get themselves in a jam and need to help themselves out. I don’t care what their motivation is. We need them to come forward.”

Each morning, one of the three Tinley Park detectives assigned full time to the Lane Bryant case arrives at the War Room, a former classroom at the police station that the department has set aside for the investigation. On the wall near the door are photographs of each victim and a sketch of the suspect on a newspaper front page headlined “HE’S STILL OUT THERE.”

In the early days of the investigation — even the early months, or years — authorities were often swept up with enthusiasm for a particular lead, Lt. Ray Violetto said. Tips came in more frequently and seemed more promising than they do now.

All of the physical evidence has been gathered. The rows of narrow tables in the War Room are covered with files and boxes. The walls are lined with white 6-inch binders; one or more labeled with the name of each of the victims; one for each store in the mall; dozens labeled “Tips.”

Two sketches of the killer are in circulation, the more recent a computer-generated image. Both show the somewhat round face of a black man in his mid-20s to mid-30s, further described as about 6 feet tall, with his hair pulled into corn rows, including one braid strung with light green beads that dangles next to his right ear.

Would-be tipsters have spotted the suspect, or someone who looks like him, thousands of times, with sightings surging if the case is featured on shows such as “America’s Most Wanted.” Violetto, the lead investigator on the case, recently fielded a call from North Pole, Alaska, where a woman had seen the sketch on television and reported she had seen the suspect at a skateboard park.

“I thought it was a joke until I looked on the Internet, and there is a North Pole, Alaska. And they do have a police department,” said Violetto. He called police in North Pole, who thought he was the one joking. Violetto persuaded his North Pole colleagues to canvass the skate park.

“We found teenagers, not someone 25 to 35,” Violetto said, smiling wanly.

Checking into the more bizarre tips is a task reserved for members of the investigative team whom Violetto singles out for more or less lighthearted punishment, said Detective Tim Poulos.

“If you’ve been bad, you have to listen to the messages,” Poulos said, pulling down a photograph from above his desk by way of explanation. It shows the front of a Piggly Wiggly grocery in Milwaukee. A few years ago, a woman called and said she had seen a sketch of the killer and stood behind him in checkout lane No. 5 the day before Thanksgiving. In 2007, months before the murders.

Poulos found the store and called the manager. The security video was erased long ago. Poulos may not know if the killer got groceries in Milwaukee six years ago, but the investigative team will check every lead.

“You have to check,” he said, shrugging.

Some tipsters call even when the suspect looks nothing like the sketch, investigators have noticed. Some callers seem intent on hassling a neighbor or an ex-boyfriend, and there may be no better way to get a Tinley Park detective to take an interest in your enemies than to finger them as the Lane Bryant killer.

“We seem to have been getting a lot more of that,” Poulos said.

Statistically, most murders are solved within days if they are solved at all, and that the probability of solving a case grows smaller the longer it takes to make an arrest, said Dave Pauly, a former Army criminal investigator and forensics instructor at Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C.

Most often, murder victims are killed by someone they know. Random murders are more rare, and far more difficult to solve, because there is no thread to tie the victim to their killer.

Early in the investigation, detectives seemed to focus on a split between McFarland and leaders of a church where she was associate pastor in Crest Hill.

McFarland and the pastor had a falling out over a six-figure mortgage on the church, and he had started a new congregation in Texas. Tinley Park sent 11 investigators to Austin in August 2008 but made no arrests.

“That lead did not take us where we wanted to go,” said McCain. “That one is pretty much not on our radar anymore.”

Pauly, who consults on cold cases and has followed news accounts of the Lane Bryant killings, also wonders about the idea the killings could have been a targeted hit on one of the victims, noting the killer spent an unprofessional amount of time — 40 minutes — inside the store.

Tinley Park investigators’ current hypothesis, that the killings were part of a random robbery attempt gone wrong — that a stranger decided to kill five strangers — is not an ideal scenario for narrowing down suspects, Pauly said. The perpetrator, Pauly said, was probably not even an experienced robber.

“A Lane Bryant is not even a good target for a robbery,” Pauly said. “How many people are going to have a lot of cash in there?”

There are 180,000 unsolved murder cases nationwide, Pauly said. A small percentage are solved once an initial investigation has gone cold, typically defined as a case in which police have no active leads or no longer have detectives working on the case.

Often, a case will break open only when new technology is able to glean new information from existing evidence, as when DNA science arrived as a forensic tool in the 1980s. Another factor that will heat up a cold case is when a witness, or the perpetrator, comes forward and simply tells investigators what happened.

Usually, after a years-long investigation, the eventual suspect is no stranger to investigators. The key evidence, the name of the perpetrator himself, is likely somewhere in a file in the War Room, Pauly said.

“Usually, they have the suspect in the first few days. Someone questioned them, and they ruled them out, and it went in a file somewhere,” Pauly said.

At some point, after the interview requests from the media that come in during January, and the flurry of tips that ensues, McCain, Violetto and Police Chief Steve Neubauer will discuss how the investigation will proceed in the coming year.

Last year, the department trimmed the number of investigators assigned to Lane Bryant from seven to three. The department has staffed as many as a dozen detectives to the detail, not including the hours put in by detectives from surrounding communities who have worked the case as part of the South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force. The department has spent nearly $2 million trying to find the killer.

The resources and time Tinley Park officials have devoted is exceptional, experts said. Tinley Park has so few murders — there have been two in the five years since the Lane Bryant killings, and police made arrests within hours — the village scarcely needs to spend money on training homicide investigators.

On a dry erase board next to Violetto’s desk, someone years ago wrote “WORK DAY NUMBER,” and at some point each day, someone will rub out the figure and add another digit, tallying the total work days since the Lane Bryant murders took place.

If the killer is not caught by Saturday, the five-year anniversary of the crime, the number will be 1,294.

“We were sure we were going to solve it the first day,” said Patricia Hawrysz, an analyst for the State Police who was called in that day to help with the investigation and has stayed on the case ever since.

“We thought that night we were going to solve it. We had a living witness. The first three or four weeks, we thought we were going to solve it right away.”

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