It is one thing to see dead bodies and gory images on TV and in the movies. It is quite another to see them in real life. Despite yellow tape and police lines, reporters often see more at crime scenes that can ever be shown on the air. I’ve lost count of how many bodies I’ve seen over my decades of reporting in major cities. It never gets less haunting.
I saw the body of a 38-year-old murder victim last week and the image is seared into my brain along with many other victims. The man and his brother had been shot and killed in a gang-infested neighborhood on Chicago’s Far South Side. Police had surrounded the bodies with their squad cars. But we found an angle where we could clearly see one of the victims. The man had been shot in the chin and he fell sideways onto the street. I may not remember his name, Leandre Cooper, but I will never forget his face. His eyes were closed and his head was resting on the street curb as if it were a pillow.
Just a few weeks ago, I saw the body of a 23-year-old newspaper vendor who’d been shot and killed right near a ramp for the Dan Ryan Expressway. From beyond the crime tape I could see his legs and shoes. The newspapers and fruit he’d been selling were right next to him. An especially gory image in my mind is from 2001 after I first started working in Chicago. Hit and run on the West Side. I can’t remember which street but I’ll never forget the scene. Woman in her 50’s. Dress. Walking shoes. Face down. Brain matter on roadway.
Most stations refrain from showing graphic images. We are instructed not to include shots of bodies, body bags or anything too bloody. I saw a trail of blood on Thursday in the West Pullman neighborhood where a homeowner had stabbed and killed a burglar. Blood on a knife. Blood on the house where the offender obviously tried to right himself. Blood on the fence. Blood on the front gate. A clear trail of blood stretching over a block to a getaway car. The guy died at the hospital.
Another image I can’t shake is from a New York City murder scene back in the 90’s. A disgruntled former employee opened fire at a Chinese restaurant in Queens, killing two people. Because I was able to speak with others in the neighborhood in Chinese, I learned that the restaurant owner was unaccounted for. We went to his home and found the door ajar. The killer had obviously stopped there before the restaurant and we had arrived ahead of police. We knew not to touch anything and stayed back. But I will never forget the image of a lifeless Chinese man, on his knees and collapsed forward as if he was kowtowing. Had he begged for his life?
While working with photographer Kevin Cassidy this week, he reminded me of another South Side scene from 2011. An armed man had tried to steal the copper wiring from an air-conditioning unit. He was shot and killed by the off-duty police officer who lived there. Police blocked off the street. But a neighbor allowed us into his home where we saw the suspect’s body in a backyard. It’s another face I won’t forget. African-American man in his 20’s, khaki shorts, no shirt, muscular physique, semi-fetal position.
Being around so much death and heartbreak can be emotionally draining. A few reporter friends agree that we have to compartmentalize in order to move on. While chatting about this with Kevin on our way to a story he concluded, “I don’t consciously push it away. But I do as a survival mechanism.”
On Friday, I was at a DuPage County Court bond hearing for a 23-year-old man who allegedly tried to hire a hitman to kill his relatives. The suspect appeared via video link and kept his head down for most of the proceeding. A tip led police to set up an undercover sting to foil the plot. I won’t forget how that guy looked as he heard the charges against him. Or the conversation I had with one of the targeted victims. But there were no murders or a crime scene to report from. Thank goodness.