- Amber Huff
It could have been a metaphor, a cliché even, except it was real. Someone threw her away. Literally folded her small body into a garbage can, covered her in grass clippings, and shut the lid. This was in an alley, in a Black neighborhood, on Chicago’s distant south side. Those details are not meant as shorthand to signal murder and mayhem. The alley was free of debris and sat behind a chain of tidy single-family homes, the compact houses and yards as neatly arrayed as place settings. An owner of one of the homes took out her trash over the weekend and noticed nothing out of the ordinary, except that her garbage can was full, and teeming with maggots—she’d never seen so many maggots, she later told detectives.
On September 10, 2018, a Monday, a garbage truck trundled along 95th Street, past the expanse of Trinity United Church of Christ, past a tire repair, and began its lurch up the alley, emptying can after can. A Streets and Sanitation worker, spotting a hand in the truck’s hopper, assumed it belonged to a mannequin. Then he saw the rest of her. A young woman, petite, curled in the fetal position, with dark brown skin, her hair pulled into a tight ponytail. She wore a red T-shirt, purple-red pants, and white socks with no shoes. Her head rested to one side, like someone dreaming. He called to the truck’s driver, who said he knew before he made it around back—by the smell—that they had a body.
The death of this woman disposed of like garbage went largely unnoticed, only a brief mention in the news. A fingerprint matched a 2016 arrest: the body belonged to Reo Renee Holyfield, age 34, a mother of two, a likely homicide by asphyxiation. A toxicology analysis showed she had alcohol, cocaine, and opiates in her system. Officers canvassed the area around the alley, interviewed a boyfriend. The case, like so many others, quickly went cold.
African Americans, at less than a third of Chicago’s population, make up 66 percent of the domestic violence victims and nearly 75 percent of the murders. Of the 5,000 murders in the city over the past decade, the Chicago Police Department has arrested a suspect in fewer than a third. According to a WBEZ analysis, the CPD solved homicides of Black citizens at half the rate as those of whites.
Months later, Pam Zekman, an investigative reporter with CBS News, took a closer look at the killing of Reo Holyfield, seeing in it the possibility of a much larger story. Zekman tracked down one of Reo’s relatives, Riccardo Holyfield, and showed him the autopsies of dozens of other women murdered in Chicago. Riccardo, four years younger than his first cousin, called Reo his big sister, and growing up together in Englewood people assumed they were siblings—they had the same cheeks as round as a child holding her breath, the same high, illuminating foreheads. Riccardo couldn’t comprehend what he was now being shown.
CHARLOTTE W. DAY, 42, Vacant lot, 3432 W. Monroe, 3/28/01
PRECIOUS SMITH, 23, Alley, 6918 S. Carpenter, 1/13/05
LaTOYA BANKS, 29, Alley, 3334 W. Congress Parkway, 7/5/09
DIAMOND TURNER, 21, Garbage can, 73rd St. and S. Kenwood, 3/3/17
The list went on. The victims, almost all of them Black, many with histories of drug use and sex work, had been strangled or asphyxiated. Their bodies were discovered on the south side or west side. Some of the crimes were 20 years old.
Riccardo was also grieving the killing of another cousin, 17-year-old Natwan Holyfield, who was on his way home in South Shore when he stopped to talk with friends and an unidentified gunman fired into the crowd. Riccardo at first thought that the murders of his two cousins meant his family must be under attack. And now he was looking at all these other crimes against women. “Hold on. Who told them to put Reo in that group?” he demanded. The reporter tried to explain that an algorithm had.
The list included 51 unsolved homicides. Fifty-one women murdered in Chicago, zero arrests. No public emergency alarms had sounded. The body count multiplied and few seemed to care. That is, until speculation grew that the same person might have murdered Reo along with all the rest of these women. The crimes were perhaps the work of a serial killer.
A suspected serial killer could also be a metaphor. If there wasn’t some homicidal fiend in Chicago who picked off women without detection for decades, then the city was broken in a way that gave off the illusion of one. Serial killers, often evoked to conjure the most deviant human behavior, were sensationalized, even romanticized. They were the stars of “true crime” and TV shows and films, they and their victims almost always white. And they drew attention in a way that murders in Chicago rarely did. “There is a dreadful magic to the words ‘serial killer,'” Thomas Hargrove, who wrote the computer code that connected Reo Holyfield to the 50 other murdered women in the city, said. Hargrove runs the Murder Accountability Project, a nonprofit that tracks the country’s unsolved homicides, and he believed the serial killer in Chicago was a reality.
A former journalist, Hargrove is in his 60s and speaks with a studied dispassion, apologizing every so often for the macabre nature of his work. He began specializing in serial killers after the 2001 arrest of Gary Ridgway, the “Green River Killer,” who was linked to the murders in Washington state of more than 70 women and girls, most of them runaways or involved in sex work. Looking back at Ridgway’s crimes, Hargrove felt certain that the similarities in their locations, methods, and victim profiles could have been pieced together sooner, like a puzzle, to reveal the handiwork of a single suspect. Lives could have been saved. So he created an algorithm that crunches the nation’s crime data and sorts unsolved murders by their shared characteristics.
Cities like Chicago with exceptionally low homicide clearance rates have the potential to throw off the Murder Accountability Project’s serial-killer algorithm. From inside a labyrinth of unsolved death, with so much dark material at hand, it was possible to construct all sorts of groupings, to see patterns where there were none. Hargrove called these false positives the “Flint effect,” for the infrequency with which police in Flint, Michigan, arrested murder suspects.
But Hargrove said the Chicago cluster was no accident. Even in Chicago, he contended, most murders of women were committed by intimate partners and solved. And the strangulations and the “high-risk” lifestyles of the victims lined up with what Hargrove knew about serial killers from the thousands of cases compiled in the Radford/Florida Gulf Coast University Serial Killer Database. In 2010, Hargrove had warned authorities in Gary, Indiana, about strangulations of women there that suggested a single perpetrator, and he was proven right—a man later confessed to killing seven women he’d met on sex work ad websites or picked up on the street. “We know this is a series,” Hargrove said about the 51 unsolved murders in Chicago. “We have no doubt.”
A suspected serial killer was also a kind of conspiracy theory. It was the belief that a malevolent force of one was the secret source of much suffering and cruelty. Conspiracy theories thrive in times, like our present, in which the aggrieved and anxious and alienated want desperately to perceive hidden patterns that at least make sense of the senseless or oppressive world. Most of these beliefs are preposterous (the rigged election, the weaponizing of the coronavirus or its cures). But a conspiracy theory doesn’t have to be false. Consider how here in Chicago the racial boundaries were literally drawn by a network of bankers and federal officials whose redlined maps denied home loans to African American borrowers. Or how the CPD’s Jon Burge and his subordinates really did torture and frame over a hundred Black suspects for decades, while politicians, prosecutors, and police officials pretended that the mounting evidence didn’t exist.
Fifty women preyed upon by maybe as many different people who simply considered the victims expendable was mayhem. But a single actor, as terrifying as it was, suggested an orderliness. And just as a powerful cabal or the Big Lie could be exposed, a shadowy bad guy could be tracked down and apprehended.
CPD officials listened to Hargrove when he first presented his findings to them in 2017. They reviewed the full Murder Accountability Project report, the charts, maps, and spreadsheets. But the officers remained unconvinced. They didn’t see the same patterns as Hargrove. The predominantly Black neighborhoods where the bodies were found spanned much of the south side and west side, a total area the size of Philadelphia. The killings stopped in 2014, and then picked up again three years later. To Hargrove that suggested the killer was likely incarcerated and then released, but the police saw only the randomness of a violent city in which a lot of different people committed horrible crimes and few witnesses came forward to help catch the offenders.
“We don’t work that way with, like, the dots on the map, and this says x, y, z, so it must be this,” the city’s Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan said about Hargrove’s findings. “We can only work with what we know and what we can prove.”
HBO’s Vice News Tonight visited the south side in 2017 for a segment on Chicago’s potential serial killer, focusing on the most sensational of the crimes in Hargrove’s database: several of the strangled women who were stripped naked, stuffed in garbage cans, and set on fire. Strangulation, the feminist philosopher Kate Manne writes, is “paradigmatic of misogyny,” because of the intimacy of the violence, its enactment of male dominance, and physical silencing of women.
In 2018, the Tribune ran a front-page story about the extraordinary number of women on the west side and south side who had been choked or smothered to death since 2001. But the Tribune wasn’t reporting on another Gary Ridgway, on an individual psychopath whose capture might provide some closure. The paper was telling the far less splashy story of the constancy of the violence against women whose social position, race, and criminal records left them ever more vulnerable and ignored. “In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the bodies of dozens of women were found, the Police Department responded by forming a task force that solved the slayings of forty women. The task force was eventually disbanded even as, the Tribune review shows, the attacks continued at a steady pace.”
It took more than a year after Hargrove alerted the CPD for the story to break in the city. “Serial Killer” in large type appeared on the CBS Chicago evening news in 2019 above the faces of the women in the Murder Accountability Project’s Chicago cohort. The special report showed photographs of Reo Holyfield smiling broadly. “Her body was dumped in a garbage can,” CBS’s Pam Zekman said to Riccardo Holyfield on-air. Riccardo replied, “She’s not trash. She’s loved by many.”
The police, in a provided statement, repeated that they saw no “actionable evidence” linking these murders. But people from the neighborhoods where the 51 bodies were found suddenly saw reasons to take action. A hundred serial killers couldn’t account for the relentlessness of the violence faced by Black women and girls in the city. But the CBS report somehow crystallized the threat.
A coalition of activists, religious leaders, and violence interrupters soon rallied outside FBI headquarters in Chicago to “demand justice for the 51 murdered.” In television and radio interviews, community organizers said they wanted crimes taken as seriously in their neighborhoods as they were on the north side, in the suburbs, in white communities, where accountability and protection were the norm. Why weren’t these 51 cases investigated properly? Where were the alerts? The dragnets?
Patricia Van Pelt, a state senator whose district includes the west side, hosted a public hearing at which she railed against a backlog of 13,000 DNA samples from murder cases statewide that had yet to be tested. U.S. Congressman Bobby Rush assembled a forum in his district on the south side, adding to the pressure on the police to review the cold cases. Congressman Rush declared, “We all must continue to think that there is a possible serial killer or killers that’s living among us.”
Beverly Reed Scott didn’t just see the 51 murdered women whose faces flashed on the CBS broadcast; she felt their energy enter her and fill her stomach. “It’s like I knew them and could feel them,” she said. “I knew that I had to do something because they wanted to be acknowledged.”
Scott, who calls herself an eco-agri-spirit muse, is 60, married and living in Olympia Fields, the well-to-do, mostly African American suburb south of Chicago. Yet she remembered being similarly possessed by a portent back in 1997, when she was on public aid, a single mother of five working at a community development nonprofit on the south side. Back then she saw the headline of yet another Cabrini-Green tragedy—a nine-year-old raped and choked, doused in roach repellent, and left for dead in a public housing stairwell. Disposed of like trash, the girl survived, but she was blinded and brain-damaged.
Scott couldn’t merely suck her teeth and complain to friends, repeating rituals of empty outrage. She organized a rally. “Rest well, Girl X,” Scott recited as part of a poem she wrote, giving the child a public name and turning her into a civic cause. The unknown variable performed a kind of alchemy, the victim no longer disregarded as Project Girl/Black/Poor/Garbage but transformed into every nine-year-old. Scott had no intention of raising money. “I was raising consciousness. That’s my calling,” she said. But a lady handed her a check. Scott registered as a charity and opened a bank account, the fund swelling to more than $300,000. Then Girl X’s mother sued her, winning a summary judgment, since Scott had used $40,000 from the donations for expenses and a salary for herself.
The media that had sensationalized the crime turned on Scott. Her rap sheet was printed on the front page of the Sun-Times—a possession of a controlled substance, a conviction for writing a bad check. A lawyer quoted in the paper compared Scott to the man who raped the child. That’s when Scott decided to kill herself. She heard an ad on the radio for burial plots and called to purchase her own grave. But the man selling the plot realized who Scott was. He said anyone who could raise all that money could sell anything, and he offered her a job. Another sign? Scott took the job and recovered her will to live.
After her premonition in 2019, Scott went to the Murder Accountability Project website and copied down the information about each of the Chicago victims. “That could have been me,” Scott said. “I’ve been in situations. I’ve been almost murdered, choked on the railroad tracks and played dead to survive.” Some of the women identified by Hargrove’s algorithm were Scott’s age now. Some were her age at her lowest points. Some were her age when she left home. Scott grew up in Englewood and from the ages of eight to 12 a neighbor sexually abused her. Over the next few years, she said, she heaped every kind of abuse upon herself to validate a sense of worthlessness.
In her 20s, as a single mother living in the Chicago Housing Authority’s Hilliard Homes, she had a drug dealer named Cash who before selling to her would first check Scott’s cabinets and fridge to make sure she could feed her children. One day she tried to buy from him with $7 in food stamps. It wasn’t just that he said no; it was the way he said it. “Like I was pathetic,” Scott recalled. The rebuke forced her to take stock: “This can’t be my life.” She pulled out the yellow pages (it was 1991) and looked up drug-treatment centers. She later went on to work at the Defender, first as a reporter for the newspaper and then for its charity arm. She took a class in community organizing from a young Barack Obama, and she played a part in connecting the aspiring politician to Chicago’s wider African American community. She now had a fluorescent garden, a sunroom with walls covered in photographs of Toni Morrison and Lorraine Hansberry. Scott knew that the women on Hargrove’s list could have gone on to lead different lives as she had.
There were others in the city compelled to humanize the 51 women and raise awareness about their fates. John Fountain, a professor at Roosevelt University, assigned his journalism class portraits of the victims for a collection called “Unforgotten: The Untold Stories of Murdered Chicago Women.” Medill students filmed a documentary about the continual threat faced by women in the city’s sex trade. Scott called the public memorial she hosted the #50WomenGone Community Awareness Soul Session. She persuaded aldermen from the wards where the bodies were discovered to join her in reading the women’s names aloud. She brought out Riccardo Holyfield, too, and Pam Zekman, who filmed the event for CBS. Scott met with Chief of Detectives Deenihan at police headquarters, sharing with him a “remembrance quilt” that described each of the 51 victims. She distributed whistles that women could blow to call for help, her flyer for the campaign announcing, “Give as many whistles as you can to at-risk girls & women. Basically all girls & all women.”
In a TED Talk Thomas Hargrove delivered, he spotlighted Scott’s work on behalf of the murdered women. Scott believed that, like her, most anyone could see themselves in Reo Holyfield and the other women identified by the algorithm. They just needed to find the connection and then put some love there, put some energy into making things better. “But do something,” she urged. “Stop thinking you have to solve the case to matter. If you got some money, send some money to one of the organizations that do that kind of work.” She heard herself and laughed. “Don’t send me nothing.”
Murder cases are never closed, even ones that feel forgotten. In the spring of 2019, the CPD announced that it would conduct a thorough review of all 51 of the cold cases linked by Hargrove’s algorithm. The city’s homicide detectives were overwhelmed by fresh cases, mostly involving men and teenage boys killed by gunfire on the south side and west side, so the department could spare only four detectives who teamed up with agents and analysts from the FBI Violent Crimes task force. The CPD detectives and FBI agents read through the case files. They followed up on old leads, reinterviewed witnesses and suspects. They found that a few of the crimes seemed not to fit the same profile: they looked domestic-related, not women at “high risk” because of drugs or sex work or itinerancy.
The police, somehow, had taken or kept DNA samples from fewer than half of the victims. But the 21 pieces of DNA that were now tested came back with 21 different male profiles, none of which was in the police database. Forensic evidence suggesting 21 killers at-large and still unknown to the police could be seen as an indictment of law enforcement. What it wasn’t, however, was evidence of a lone offender.
Chief of Detectives Deenihan, who oversaw the investigation, believed the findings nearly conclusive. At police headquarters, behind a desk topped with pictures of his five red-headed children and fat files labeled “SHOOTINGS,” he said, “They didn’t find any links that linked all of these cases together, or even five of them, or any at this time.”
The Chicago Police Department, however, has not built up a great deal of confidence in the neighborhoods where these crimes occurred. The federal probe of the CPD prompted by the murder of Laquan McDonald and the ensuing cover-up found longstanding practices of civil rights abuses and dereliction of duty. “I have to call somebody! This is not right! I don’t even know what you’re doing!” Anjanette Young, handcuffed and naked, shouted between her wails as a dozen police officers moved about during the mistaken raid of her apartment documented in the body-cam video released this past December. Violent crime in Chicago in 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic and the protests sparked by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, was way up—murders, shootings, domestic violence, carjackings. The terror of feeling both overpoliced and underprotected in the communities most affected by crime persisted.
While the FBI agents were reviewing the 51 murders identified by Hargrove’s computer code, a police research firm was also wrapping up a yearlong evaluation of the way the CPD investigates homicides. The aim was to improve upon the department’s meager clearance rate. “Chicago spiraled out of control when it started solving only a third of its murders,” Hargrove said. “Murder begets murder.” The research firm recommended an overhaul. The CPD needed to add more homicide detectives, allocate and train them differently, and bolster its cold case division. But this meant additional funding. Chicago already spends $1.6 billion annually on law enforcement, about 40 percent of the city’s total operating budget. Those demanding that the CPD be defunded wanted to redirect significant portions of the existing police budget to alternative forms of public safety. Sending counselors or social workers and not armed officers to calls involving people struggling with mental illness and addiction. Deploying community mediators to preempt retaliatory violence. Investing in the city’s underfunded social services.
“Black girls in schools can’t be safe if they have no one to talk to about how they might not be safe,” Asha Ransby-Sporn, a founding member of the activist group Black Youth Project 100, said of the Chicago school system’s shortages of full-time counselors and social workers. “But there’s more than one police officer for every school? What does that say about us, our understanding of safety and our priorities?”
It turned out most of the protests that sprung up didn’t confine themselves to the horrors of a possible serial killer. One deranged predator couldn’t sum up the dangers imperiling women on the margins in the city, let alone a range of traumas that were commonplace and systematic. The same racism and inequality that allowed the women’s murders to go unsolved and unexamined for 20 years had also torn apart Black and Brown communities in myriad other ways.
At a demonstration on the third floor of City Hall, the father of Kierra Coles, a pregnant U.S. postal worker who went missing in 2018, spoke about searching for her in the glut of abandoned homes in Chatham that were still boarded up more than a decade after the foreclosure crisis.
Kam Buckner, a state representative whose district stretches for 90 south-side blocks along the lakefront, spoke on the House floor in Springfield in May 2019 about Kierra Coles and two other missing pregnant women from the south side, both of whom were later found murdered with suspects arrested. “These women may not be from your district, your city, or even your region,” he told his colleagues, “but they all belong to all of us.” That fall, Buckner introduced a bill to create the “Task Force on Missing and Murdered Chicago Women,” which would examine the “underlying historical, social, economic, institutional and cultural factors” contributing to the “disproportionately high levels of violence” against Black and Latino women and girls in the city.
Senator Van Pelt, at her public forum, said she also hoped to redress the root causes of institutional racism, beginning with the hundreds of people returning to her west side district each month from prisons who had received little in the way of counseling or job training during their incarcerations. “With all the violence and murders and unemployment, it’s a keg waiting to explode,” she said.
In late 2019, in front of a public housing building for seniors in Woodlawn where a 65-year-old was killed by her 72-year-old boyfriend the previous year, a woman named Latonya Moore stood alongside a west-side pastor named Reverend Robin Hood, which was his real name, and a dozen people hoisting hand-drawn signs that declared “51 WOMEN DEAD WE THINK THERE’S MORE” and “WE NEED ANSWERS I’M SCARED.” Moore spoke about her daughter, Shantieya Smith, who was murdered in 2018, her body discovered in an abandoned garage two weeks after she was last seen with a man from their neighborhood.
That man, Charlie Booker, was also the last person seen with a west side 15-year-old named Sadaria Davis whose lifeless body was dumped in a vacant building, and he was later arrested for stabbing a sex worker in the back and sexually assaulting and shooting another woman. As far as Charlie Booker being the serial killer, though, he was born in 1995 and in kindergarten when the crimes linked by the Murder Accountability Project began. But that wasn’t the point. When Shantieya Smith’s family reported her missing, the police told them Shantieya had left on her own volition and would more than likely be back. Statistically, the police weren’t wrong. According to the FBI‘s National Crime Information Center, some 200,000 Black people are reported missing in the United States each year, the vast majority of them under the age of 18, and almost all of them eventually return. Almost. When Booker sent menacing texts to Shantieya’s family, boasting of the crime to come, the police didn’t seem interested in that either.
Reverend Robin Hood had recently turned his full attention to what he called an epidemic in Chicago of murdered and missing Black women. Before that he was preoccupied with protecting his flocks from a reverse-mortgage racket, a devious throwback to both the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis and the predatory housing contracts of the previous century that had robbed more than $3 billion from the city’s African American communities. Asked about the common denominator of the many protests precipitated by the reports of a serial killer, Robin Hood said it was the treatment of Black women. “Black women are not important to the Chicago police department,” he said. “They’re just not on top of the food chain.”
At the protest in Woodlawn, a woman next to Latonya Moore shouted, “We should never have to worry if something happens to us, are they going to come look for us.” Moore was now in tears. She said, “Every time we call a detective, they never call us back. I leave voicemails. It takes two months. I’m sitting up here, I’m crying. It feels like no one gives a damn about us, period.”
Aziyah Roberts, a round-cheeked teenager, with doleful eyes and an endearing gap between her two front teeth, saw the many posts on Instagram and Snapchat about missing Black girls. “I just felt for them, like it could have been me,” she recalled recently. At the offices of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, KOCO, one of the south side’s oldest Black-led community groups, flyers for missing girls are taped to the front window, and a large mural inside depicts Ida B. Wells, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and Margaret Burroughs, the artist who founded the DuSable Museum of African American History.
Aziyah was meeting there with two other girls, Kayla Chavers and Esi Koomson, then seniors at nearby Martin Luther King College Prep. Aziyah attended Dyett, one of the 49 Chicago public schools closed by the city in 2012, all of them in Black and Latino communities; hers reopened only after protestors, including organizers from KOCO, went on a hunger strike, ingesting nothing but water and other liquids for 34 days. Aziyah, in a quiet way, recounted how she finished school one day and noticed a white van following her. She said she turned up one block and down another, and the van still trailed behind her. When she ran, a man hopped out of the vehicle and chased her on foot. She said he had on a bright yellow vest, the kind worn by city workers or crossing guards, people who were supposed to help. Aziyah spotted a group of friends. Only when she reached the crowd did the man retreat and the van disappear.
In the spring of 2018, Aziyah, Kayla, and Esi organized a march, #WeWalkForHer. Some 150 people joined them, blocking traffic on King Drive as they chanted, “Stop . . . and listen / Our girls . . . are missing.” They were inspired by their mentors at KOCO and by other political education organizations, such as BYP 100 and Assata’s Daughters. A year after the march, on the same date, the girls led a second one. And a third one a year after that. “It’s not like a one time and done thing, you have to keep doing it and get more attention, get more things,” Kayla said. “It wasn’t like girls stopped going missing,” Esi added.
The three girls were deep into their organizing when they heard that a serial killer might be menacing their neighborhoods. Naturally, it scared them. But they also heard talk about missing Black girls all the time. Leaders at KOCO had discussed developing an app, an Amber Alert specifically for Black girls. There was even a nonprofit called the Black & Missing Foundation, founded in 2008 to provide ways to report and search for missing persons of color nationwide. But that each incident wasn’t splashed all over the mainstream media, that there wasn’t as much as a public-service announcement, made Aziyah and her friends wonder which threats were real. Compared to other conspiracy theories, a suspected serial killer didn’t sound that far-fetched. There was the belief that girls in the city were being abducted off the streets and trafficked into intricate sex rings. There was the chatter, too, that people were being killed in Chicago for their harvested organs, an idea that some thought proven true, in 2017, when a 19-year-old west sider named Kenneka Jenkins went missing after going to a party at a hotel in Rosemont, near O’Hare, and was later found dead in the hotel’s freezer.
“So finding out that there was a potential serial killer was, like, wow, you weren’t just making stuff up,” Esi explained. “It was like a validation of what we’re doing.”
Kim Foxx, Cook County’s first African American state’s attorney, said she also heard all the same conspiracies. “I have four teenage girls, and they send out alerts to each other on our family group chat,” Foxx said. She was alarmed but not surprised by the speculation about a serial killer. “I can’t fathom the murders of 51 white women going unsolved without a level of urgency,” Foxx said.
People on the west side had been approaching Foxx at events for the past few years, pleading for help—their daughters or friends or friends of friends had gone missing. Foxx said, “They’re saying, ‘There’s a guy who is supposedly in a car going back and forth. I don’t think it’s folklore, right?'”
Foxx, who grew up poor in Cabrini-Green and was sexually assaulted as a child, said she regularly discussed her own background to demonstrate to other women of color who’d been victimized that they weren’t invisible or unimportant. She wanted to show that the justice system could also work for them. “It doesn’t take magic ink for me to be able to see them,” Foxx said. “I see them because I am one of them.” As for illicit organ harvesting, Foxx insisted she could dispel that as pure myth. As the county’s top prosecutor, she said, she would know if the medical examiner was finding corpses without kidneys, livers, hearts, or lungs. “I haven’t seen that,” Foxx said.
Deenihan, the chief of detectives, said there were also “false narratives” circulating about Black and Hispanic girls being abducted. “If people were getting snatched off the street, there would be much more media attention on that,” he asserted. And yet within 24 hours of his reassurances, Chicago news outlets reported that two men in the west-side Austin neighborhood forced a 15-year-old girl into a gray van at knifepoint and that a woman in Little Village tried to entice an 11-year-old girl into a white van; two days later a man grabbed a teenage girl in Lawndale—snatched her—and carried her into a van.
Shannon Bennett, KOCO’s executive director, described the scope of the problem in a way that explained Chicago as well as much of the country at this time: “It’s a hysteria and a legitimate threat both.”
In the weeks before someone killed Reo, Riccardo Holyfield had chance encounters with his cousin at a McDonald’s on the south side, on the Red Line platform by Wrigley Field, at a liquor store on 79th Street. The randomness of the sightings made him think he could have saved her. “If I would have been driving down the street and seen Reo that night, I could have pulled over. She wouldn’t have bumped into that person who hurt her,” he repeated to himself.
Riccardo was in his early 30s, with ringleted dreadlocks that he wore well past his shoulders. As little kids, Reo was the one who made peanut butter and jelly on crackers for him at their grandmother’s Englewood house. In their teens, he used to tag along with Reo when she competed in rap battles. “She was like Nicki Minaj way before Nicki Minaj,” he raved. Later, she moved to the north side, in a city in which north and south were still code for white and Black. “She would walk anywhere, go anywhere,” he eulogized. “She was never scared.”
When Riccardo first learned that his cousin’s death might be part of a serial killing spree, it felt to him like a tragedy not only of opportunity and chance, but also of decades of neglect and indifference. Reo wouldn’t be on that list if the person who did it was caught in 2001 or 2009 or at any point up to her death in 2018. Riccardo worked as a security guard for Chicago Public Schools, but he was also one of many ordinary citizens who felt a responsibility to make the city safer and more humane. He started his own community organization in 2013, God’s Gorillas, which hosted youth basketball tournaments on the south side and threw parties they called “peaceful turn ups.” Riccardo taught boys how to box, with the message “gloves up, guns down.” He took teens to feed the homeless who slept in encampments beneath Wacker Drive. He didn’t know what was real or imagined as far as a serial killer, but the threat gave him more purpose.
“I booted up. I was ready,” he said. He canvassed where several of the other bodies in Hargrove’s cluster were found. He was determined to help the “aunties” walking home, the mothers working third shift. He taped up posters with a warning and a plea: “Help Protect Our Women.” He said, “If we don’t do anything, then outsiders will think we don’t care. But if nobody is helping us when we care, then it means they don’t care.”
In January 2020, police arrested a 52-year-old Chicago man named Arthur Hilliard for the murder of Diamond Turner, one of the women identified by the Murder Accountability Project algorithm as a victim of a potential serial killer. Turner, like Reo Holyfield, had been asphyxiated, her body discovered in a garbage can on the south side. Detectives had suspected Hilliard of Turner’s 2017 murder from the start. He and Turner were in some form of a domestic sexual relationship, and her body was found behind his building. A witness reported seeing Hilliard clean blood stains that led from his bedroom to the back door, and police learned that Hilliard soon got rid of his mattress. So much evidence pointed to him, in fact, that it’s hard to fathom how he was allowed to walk the streets for three more years. But it took that long to process a specimen of DNA, extracted not from Turner’s body but from the crime scene, and the match led, finally, to the arrest.
Chief of Detectives Deenihan said nothing linked Hilliard to the other 50 cases. Hilliard knew Diamond Turner. He was suspected of a second homicide, but it was of a man. Deenihan reiterated that the police still had zero evidence of a serial killer, although the city was deluged, generally, by a scourge of unsolved crime. In terrible ways, however, whether or not the 51 murders were connected seemed almost beside the point. Either the racial and economic divides in the city were so deep, the abandonment and indifference to Black suffering so profound that a serial killer was able to operate for decades without anyone noticing. Or the racial and economic divides in the city were so deep, the abandonment and indifference so profound that it just looked like the work of a serial killer. Either way, the conditions were real. The threat of serial homicide, at least, made visible the city’s capacity to inflict harm as well as its power to deliver grace. But systemic crimes were more mundane, depressing, and difficult to solve.
Arthur Hilliard’s arrest did give Riccardo hope that the police were still investigating these crimes and might someday find out who murdered Reo. The not knowing, he said, was torture. He struggled with what to tell Reo’s children about their mother’s death. “When you lose a family member to unsolved murder, it’s so heartbreaking you can’t understand,” he said. It kept him up at night, made him look over his shoulder. Both his grief and love were pending. v