Chester Hornowski survived tours of duty as a Marine in Vietnam and 34 years as a patrol officer on the streets of Chicago — not to mention a long line of bouts on the city’s unforgiving political scene.
But it was in rural Arkansas where the 71-year-old retiree’s generosity likely led to his fatal shooting earlier this month, authorities say.
Police were called the morning of Dec. 5 for reports of an active shooter at the low-cost boardinghouse Hornowski ran in rural Mountain Home, Arkansas, a sleepy town about 20 miles south of the Missouri border and a popular retirement destination for Chicago cops.
Baxter County deputies arrived to find a pickup truck peeling out of the driveway with Robert Penny — the 59-year-old man now charged with Hornowski’s murder — at the wheel as it slammed into a police cruiser, according to court documents.
Deputies arrested Penny and found Hornowski dead in the house with 22 gunshot wounds across his chest, hands and face.
Earlier in the morning, Hornowski had gone to Penny to discuss a noise complaint, police said. It ended with Penny grabbing his pistol, emptying a cartridge of 18 bullets into Hornowski, going back to his room for more ammunition and returning to fire four more rounds into hid landlord’s motionless body, police said.
“Yeah, he’s dead,” Penny allegedly told another boardinghouse resident, waving the gun around. “You want some of this too?”
Penny, who has pleaded not guilty, claimed Hornowski had repeatedly punched him in the chest while threatening to evict him, documents show.
Penny didn’t have any marks on his body, police said. He remains jailed on $1 million bail.
The boardinghouse Hornowski was running in Arkansas was similar to one he had on his native Northwest Side of Chicago, an enterprise that was about providing shelter more than it was making money, according to George Mocodeanu, who grew up down the street from Hornowski in Old Irving Park.
Hornowski was a constant presence in the neighborhood during three decades as a 17th District patrolman and, later, as a political hobbyist-turned-operative. Mocodeanu shared countless mornings with Hornowski in the front seat of his patrol car in the 1970s and ’80s, discussing politics over cups of coffee.
“He was like a big brother to me,” Mocodeanu said.
Mocodeanu followed in the Marine veteran’s steps to the Illinois National Guard, where their coffee chats continued in Army Humvees.
On top of his police beat, he started dabbling in politics, eventually becoming a perennial candidate for the better part of two decades. He threw his hat in the ring for everything from mayor to state representative to alderman — in three different Northwest Side wards.
Tina Butler, retired City Council sergeant-at-arms and longtime loyalist in former Ald. Richard Mell’s 33rd Ward Democratic organization, remembered Hornowski as Mocodeanu did — “like a brother.”
She first got to know Hornowski in the early 1980s when he would stop by the Northwest Side ward office, ever ready with a handful of jokes and a box of doughnuts.
“I think his hand was formed permanently in the shape of a Dunkin’ Donuts cup,” Butler said.
The only political position he ever held was as a 35th Ward Republican committeeman.
“He never thought he had a chance at anything,” Butler said, describing how Hornowski would print campaign signs with the position blank, and then fill it in later when he found a race to join.
“It was not ego. It was because he wanted to be in a position where he could help more people,” she said.
“What I’m good at is law enforcement,” Hornowski told the Chicago Sun-Times in the middle of an ill-fated run for 35th Ward alderman in 1991. “I know how to bridge the gap between the community and law enforcement.”
His political leanings landed him in hot water in 2003, shortly before he retired from the police department, in an alleged case of old-fashioned Chicago political greasing. Hornowski and a fellow police officer reportedly staked out the home of a challenger to Ald. Mell, asking her what it would take to get her to drop out of the race and offering up her choice of state jobs.
The incident resulted in an internal CPD investigation. Hornowski never commented publicly on the matter.
But his abilities as a cop were unquestioned.
“He could defuse a situation with humor and calm, or toughness if he needed it,” Butler said.
“Here’s a guy who puts his life on the line in the jungle [as a Marine]. He puts his life on the line for 34 years on the streets of Chicago. And he’s killed in Arkansas by a guy he’s trying to help,” she said. “It’s devastating.”