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Sun-Times’ Joe Reilly, who debunked ‘bullet holes’ photo in Black Panthers’ slayings, dead at 81

His reporting found that a photo showing the supposed ‘bullet holes’ — suggesting that the Panthers had fired on police — actually were only nail heads.

Joe Reilly, who was a reporter and metro editor for the Sun-Times.
Joe Reilly, who was a reporter and metro editor for the Sun-Times.
Provided

When a tipster urged the Chicago Sun-Times to investigate the 1969 police raid in which Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were gunned down, reporter Joe Reilly was assigned to check it out.

He found that the photos of “bullet holes” in their West Side apartment, suggesting that the men had fired at the police, actually were just nail heads.

Mr. Reilly, who rose to be Sun-Times metro editor and later trained generations of Chicago journalists when he headed the storied City News Bureau of Chicago, died in his sleep Monday at the Cordia Senior Residence in Westmont, according to his son Brian. He was 81.

After the Chicago Tribune printed a police photo purporting to show the bullet holes in the raid, Sun-Times Editor Jim Hoge got a tip that the story was dubious.

Mr. Reilly, Hoge and a Sun-Times photographer toured the apartment at 2337 W. Monroe St. to examine the scene where Clark and Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, were killed in the Dec. 4, 1969, predawn raid led by the Cook County state’s attorney’s police. Hampton was found dead in bed. Clark was in the living room.

The investigation led to a front-page story in the Sun-Times that ran under the headline: “Those ‘bullet holes’ aren’t.”

In it, Mr. Reilly wrote: “Nail heads and not bullet holes were shown in a police picture of a West Side flat where two Black Panthers were fatally shot by police, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office acknowledged Thursday.”

Joe Reilly’s story reporting that a police photo purporting to show bullet holes from shots fired by two Black Panther Party members actually were nail holes, undercutting the official account of the predawn raid in which Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed.
Joe Reilly’s story reporting that a police photo purporting to show bullet holes from shots fired by two Black Panther Party members actually were nail holes, undercutting the official account of the predawn raid in which Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed.

It was one of the biggest stories in the country. But Mr. Reilly said he was just doing his job.

“Hoge went to the city editor and said, ‘Who’s free?’ ” he told the Sun-Times in 1999. “And I wasn’t doing anything.”

Young Joseph grew up on 76th Court in Elmwood Park. His father Wilfred operated a butcher shop nearby. He attended St. Mel High School before transferring to Elmwood Park High School, where he graduated in 1957.

He was in the Air Force from 1957 to 1961, editing a base newspaper and working as a disc jockey at military assignments that included Saudi Arabia.

“He loved jazz music, and that’s what he would play at the base,” his son said.

Mr. Reilly especially enjoyed the recordings of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.

After the Air Force, he worked as a reporter for the now-defunct City News Bureau.

In 1961, he went to work for the Sun-Times, where, in addition to the Panther raid, his reporting included work on Florida land swindles and the challenges of a wife of a Vietnam POW.

In the early 1960s, he married the former Celeste O’Connor. They raised their children in Hillside and Hinsdale.

“He loved my mom as much as when she died 21 years ago, and, when she died, he loved her as much as when they got married,” their son said.

Mr. Reilly advanced to the rank of metropolitan editor before taking a buyout when Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch bought the paper in 1984. Mr. Reilly later was general manager and editor of the City News Bureau.

When City News hit its 100th anniversary in 1990, Mr. Reilly told the Tribune that reporters first must learn the basics.

“It’s important for young people to learn to get their facts straight,” he said. “After you learn to be a reporter, then you can learn to be a poet.”

He also was a keeper of City News lore, including oft-told stories about how a germ-conscious editor sterilized his workspace in pre-Purell days. “He would really clean his desk very diligently, and in fact pour a little benzene on his desk and set it afire,” Mr. Reilly once recalled.

He devoured multiple newspapers.

“He was all news all the time,” his son said. “We’d have giant stacks of papers out at the curb every garbage day.”

In addition to his son, Mr. Reilly is survived by daughters Patti Comenduley and Kirsten Sullivan and nine grandchildren. A private family funeral is planned.