CHICAGO — Detectives bolstered the Chicago Police Department’s murder clearance rate last year by more frequently blaming killings on suspects who were already dead, a WGN Investigates analysis of police data found.

CPD Supt. David Brown said the department’s clearance rate reached 50% in 2021 — the highest in a single year in two decades. The uptick in solved murders came as Chicago recorded more than 800 killings last year, a threshold not reached since the historically violent mid-1990s.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has called on the CPD to bring its murder clearance rate up to 60% in 2022, and, amid a wave of resignations and retirements, the CPD has promoted 200 officers to the rank of detective in the last 12 months.

The murder clearance rate is calculated by dividing the number of cases cleared in a year by the number of cases opened in a year. The clearance rate formula also includes older cases that are cleared during years other than when they occurred.

Say, for example, that 100 murders occurred in a year and police cleared 30 of them during that same calendar year, while also clearing 15 murders from previous years. In that scenario, the clearance rate would be 45 out of 115, or 39%.

There are three categories by which a murder case can be cleared:

  • A suspect is charged in the killing. The murder will remain “cleared” regardless of how the suspect’s criminal case is adjudicated
  • Police present evidence to prosecutors who then decline to bring charges, a “bar to prosecute” clearance
  • Police determine that the suspect in a killing has died, a clearance known as “death of offender”

CPD records obtained and reviewed by WGN Investigates show that, between 2013 and 2021, CPD detectives cleared 2,068 murder cases. Of those, nearly 10% — 202 cases — were cleared via “death of offender.” In that span of time, Chicago recorded more than 5,400 murders.

What’s more: almost a quarter of all “death of offender” clearances in that time period — 49 — were recorded in 2021. Thirty-seven of those 49 “death of offender” clearances were in murder cases that originated before 2021, WGN Investigates found. Between 2013 and 2019, CPD detectives recorded no more than 25 “death of offender” clearances in a given year.

CPD data also show that, as detectives cleared more murders, prosecutors more often declined to bring charges in those cases.

The following is the story of how, over 13 years, CPD detectives cleared four intertwined West Side murder cases without a single conviction.

*** 

A 2018 booking photo of Carnell Oliver. The phrase “5 Star Hustler,” a reference to the Four Corner Hustlers gang, can be seen tattooed on his chest. | Chicago police photo

Carnell “CC” Oliver had a reputation on the West Side — the epicenter of Chicago’s drug trade where territorial disputes among gang factions often lead to bloodshed. 

“People were scared of Carnell. He was a mac out here in these streets,” a close relative of Oliver’s — speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation — said recently. “He had no problem taking care of business, so he had that reputation. He had that murderer’s reputation.” 

On Aug. 3, 2008, three people were shot outside a corner store at Chicago and Hamlin avenues. One of the victims, 36-year-old Roderick Martinez, died of his wounds. Eight days later, another man — Joel “Snoop” Williams — was shot and killed less than two blocks away near the corner of Huron Street and Ridgeway Avenue.

Witnesses told detectives that Williams was standing on the sidewalk with a man and two females when a lone shooter walked up behind Williams and shot him in the head. After viewing photo lineups, two witnesses said Oliver pulled the trigger. One of those witnesses told detectives that they also saw Oliver kill Martinez.

Prosecutors in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, however, told detectives that Oliver could not be charged until police interviewed the man and two females who were with Williams when he was killed. Detectives were unable to find those three witnesses, police records show, and Oliver was never interviewed in connection with Williams’ murder.

In 2009, prosecutors brought a host of charges against Oliver in connection with the Martinez shooting, including murder, attempted murder and aggravated battery with a firearm. Four years later, a Cook County jury found him not guilty at trial. Despite the verdict, the Chicago Police Department considers the Martinez murder cleared.  

While he was in jail awaiting trial, court records show, Oliver was charged with subornation of perjury and communicating with a witness. Oliver’s relative said those charges were related to the Martinez murder case.

“He tried to take it upon himself to talk to a witness and they charged him with that,” she said. “He wasn’t being aggressive to the witness or anything. He just said, ‘When you come to court, just tell the truth. Don’t put stories on me.’”

In April 2013, two months after he was acquitted of murder, Oliver pleaded guilty to communicating with a witness. He was sentenced to seven years in prison, with credit for the 539 days he spent in jail, court records show.

He was out of custody by mid-2015, but Oliver was arrested in June of that year and charged with possession of a stolen vehicle. The next year, he represented himself at trial, where he was found guilty and sentenced to another six years in prison. A representative for the Illinois Department of Corrections said Oliver was released from custody on Dec. 26, 2017.

Oliver was once a high-ranking member of the Four Corner Hustlers, according to his relative. In one of his police booking photos, Oliver wore a V-neck t-shirt that revealed a tattoo on his chest: “5 Star Hustler.” Within the hierarchy of Four Corner Hustlers — one of the city’s largest gangs founded on the West Side more than 50 years ago — the rank of “Five Star Universal Elite” is reserved for those near the top of the organization, according to police records.

A CPD detective’s sketch of the crime scene from the Aug. 11, 2008 murder of Joel Williams on Chicago’s West Side. | Chicago police photo

Despite his standing in the gang, Oliver’s stints in jail and prison left him somewhat isolated after he was paroled, his relative said. 

“After doing so many jail bits, nobody had his back,” she said. “He had nothing in life because he had sacrificed so much of his life on the street.”

Through a temp agency, Oliver got a part-time job in west suburban Maywood. Before long, he was hired on full-time.

“He was on the right track,” Oliver’s relative said. “He was a street guy, but he changed his life.”

However, court records show, Oliver was again arrested in May 2018 for allegedly selling crack near Augusta Boulevard and Pulaski Road.

Oliver, 35, was shot and killed six months later near the intersection of Huron and Springfield — a stone’s throw from where Martinez and Williams each died. 

It was shortly after 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018 when a gray Hyundai hatchback with Minnesota license plates pulled up to Oliver as he and another man were standing on the sidewalk. Three men wearing masks got out of the car and opened fire, killing Oliver. An autopsy found 30 gunshot wounds throughout his body. 

Detectives soon canvassed the area. A nearby homeowner provided them with surveillance footage of the shooting, and the investigators soon deduced that the Hyundai was rented from an Enterprise Rent-A-Car in west suburban Forest Park.

Three days after Oliver was killed, one of the detectives on the case spoke to Oliver’s relative on the phone. She believed — then and now — that a former friend of Oliver’s set him up to be killed after the two had a falling out. She told the detective that the neighborhood was talking about Oliver’s murder, and she knew who the three shooters and the driver were.

“I gave them the suspect, the motive, the reason,” Oliver’s relative said.

After she told police who she believed to be involved, someone set her car on fire and she received death threats, she said.

“They told me if I tell the police anything they was gonna kill me and my kids,” she said.

She moved out of Chicago in 2019.

Jeremiah Murphy | Chicago police photo

That year, on Sept. 3, a shooting at 15th and Christiana left a man dead and prompted a lockdown of a nearby elementary school. The victim was 28-year-old Jeremiah Murphy — the man who, Oliver’s relative said, drove the Hyundai used in Oliver’s murder the year before.

In December 2020, detectives assigned to Murphy’s murder deemed the case cleared after prosecutors declined to bring charges against a suspect, police records show. Though the case is cleared, the CPD still considers the investigation to be ongoing.

The following March, detectives in the CPD’s Area 4 Cold Case Unit began a review the Aug. 11, 2008 murder of Joel Williams. Williams was standing with a man and two females when he was killed, and prosecutors insisted that detectives interview those three before they would bring charges against Oliver. Two other witnesses identified Oliver as the shooter, but he was never questioned in the case.

Detectives never interviewed the three people who were with Williams when he was shot, but the Cold Case detectives cleared the case less than two weeks after they opened their review. Their break came after they learned that Oliver was killed more than two years earlier. With the same evidence and witnesses developed by the detectives initially assigned to the case, the Cold Case investigators deemed Williams’ murder cleared 4,623 days after it occurred.

According to the CPD, Oliver killed Williams — a charge Oliver’s relative disputes.

“No charges was filed because it was not true,” Oliver’s relative said. “They lied on him to get him off the street … He had nothing to do with that.”

(Through the Freedom of Information Act, WGN Investigates obtained 155 pages from the CPD detectives’ case file on Williams’ murder. Twenty-two of those pages were redacted in full.)

Though the killings of Martinez and Williams were cleared, the CPD investigation into Oliver’s killing remained open until the Spring of 2021, police records show. That March, a friend of Oliver’s contacted Area 4 detectives to say he had details to share about Oliver’s death.

The man told police that he was just a block or so away when Oliver was killed in Nov. 2018. After hearing the gunfire, he ran to the scene and saw a crowd of people standing over Oliver, who was lying in a pool of blood on the sidewalk. The man ran to Oliver’s side, and he tried clapping his hands in front of Oliver’s face in a vain effort to keep him conscious.

An hour or so later, the man went to a nearby corner store. Inside, he said, another man mentioned that he and Jeremiah Murphy had just killed Oliver. He then showed Oliver’s friend a .40 caliber chrome handgun.

Oliver’s friend said that he came forward because another friend of Oliver’s had recently got out of jail. The recently released man, Oliver’s friend said, “wants to seek revenge for his friend’s murder.”

On July 22, 2021, CPD detectives cleared Oliver’s murder. Oliver’s relative said the police department did not tell her that the case was solved.

“You’re not giving families justice,” she said. “You’re just giving yourself a prop that you solved a murder you did not solve. Chicago PD is closing homicides with dead people.”