Facing pressure from activists over the unsolved killings of 51 women since 2001, the Chicago Police Department has begun to review those cases to determine if a serial killer was at work.
A report by the Murder Accountability Project, a Virginia-based nonprofit group that analyzes information about homicides, said the killings of the 51 women — all of whom were strangled or asphyxiated — “have characteristics of serial murder.”
On Thursday night, Gregg Greer of Freedom First International brought up the report during a Police Board meeting, saying, “We believe that there is a serial killer in Chicago that is on the loose.”
Police Supt. Eddie Johnson responded that there’s no evidence to suggest a serial killer is responsible for any of the 51 slayings, but he said his detectives have launched a review.
Detectives have spoken with officials from the Murder Accountability Project about its report and they’re doing an inventory of the evidence collected in the 51 killings, said Anthony Guglielmi, chief spokesman for the police department.
In the past, Chicago police had collected 21 separate DNA profiles of unidentified people other than the victims, Guglielmi said. There were no matches among the 21 profiles to point to a serial killer, he said.
Guglielmi said multiple DNA profiles were collected in some of the killings. That could be because some of the women were sex workers and had multiple sex partners, he said.
Detectives will coordinate with the FBI when they need technical assistance during their review of the evidence, Guglielmi said.
Police are doing an audit of all of the forensic evidence collected in the cases — everything from fingernails to semen to blood samples, he said.
“It could take a long time” to complete the examination of the cases, Guglielmi said.
According to the Murder Accountability Project’s report, most of the 51 victims in Chicago were found in alleyways, garbage cans, empty lots or abandoned buildings. Many of the cases involved prostitutes and appeared to have been sexually motivated, the report said.
“If you look at these, at the nature of the cases, it’s classic. It couldn’t be more serial-looking,” said Thomas Hargrove, founder of the Murder Accountability Project. “It’s got every element for a classic pattern.”
“It actually stretches credulity to imagine that these 51 women were killed by 51 separate men,” he said.
In an interview Friday, Hargrove said he’s “relieved” the Chicago police are “taking a hard look” at the 51 killings.
“It is extremely valuable to look at all the cases as a group. We are pretty confident there will be commonality,” he said.
The killings were identified using a computer algorithm “known to detect serial killings,” according to the Murder Accountability Project’s report.
Two of the victims, Theresa Bunn and Hazel Marion Lewis, were found dead in burning trash cans within a day of each other in November 2007 at Washington Park, the report said. Bunn was eight months pregnant. At least seven of the victims were found in garbage receptacles.
Most of the women were found on the South and West Sides. And most were African-American.
Hargrove turned over his findings to Johnson in March. He also gave the report to Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) and state Sen. Patricia Van Pelt, D-Chicago, who held a hearing in March to investigate the state crime lab’s backlog of DNA evidence from hundreds of murder cases.
At the Police Board meeting Thursday night, Greer urged Chicago police to begin issuing community alerts and offering other information to the public about the killings, even if the department isn’t ready to determine whether they’re linked.
“Fifty cases is too much. We need accountability posthaste. It’s gotta stop,” Greer said.
But Johnson stressed that there’s nothing to link any of the 51 cases so far.
“Trust me, if there was, there would be no reason for us not to share that with ya’ll,” he said. “What would we gain by not being transparent? Nothing.”
South Side serial killer
DNA evidence was the key to solving a murder spree by a serial killer on the South Side in the late 1990s.
Andre Crawford killed 11 women over the course of six years — strangling, beating or stabbing them in abandoned buildings. He raped them and returned to have sex with the corpses.
DNA connected Crawford to seven of the killings and he confessed to all 11. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2009.
Hargrove, a retired Washington journalist, founded the Murder Accountability Project in 2015.
In 2010, he was a reporter for the Scripps Howard News Service when he developed a computer code that uses FBI homicide data to identify clusters of murders with an elevated probability of containing serial killings.
The same year, Hargrove identified a pattern of 15 unsolved strangulations of women in northwest Indiana. He says he contacted Gary police officials but they didn’t respond.
Four years later, in October 2014, Darren Deon Vann was arrested at a motel in Hammond where police found a dead woman in a bathtub. Vann confessed to the killing and took police to abandoned buildings in Gary where they recovered the bodies of six more women.
He’s serving a life prison sentence for those seven killings.
Hargrove said he believes all seven killings occurred after he presented his analysis to the Gary police in 2010.
Asked whether he thinks the seven killings could have been prevented if Gary police had acted on his research, he said, “Who knows? But nothing will happen if you aren’t even trying.”