For 34 years, Rudy Rios saw death, depravity and sorrow as an investigator with the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.
For a little over a year, he found love.
At Thanksgiving time, his widow is grateful for that. “We had 14 great months together,” she said, “no arguing, and talking, and laughing.”
“She made him so happy,” said Rudy’s sister Liz Conti.
After joining the M.E.’s office in 1978, Mr. Rios was on the scene when authorities dug up the Norwood Park Township home where John Wayne Gacy buried many of the 33 young men and boys he murdered.
He worked on the 1979 crash of an American Airlines DC-10 that killed more than 270 people after takeoff at O’Hare; seven people killed in the 1993 Brown’s Chicken massacre and hundreds of deaths in Chicago’s 1995 heat wave. “He said it was an awful thing,” his sister said. “We didn’t see him for a couple of days.”
He also worked on the 2003 E2 nightclub stampede where 21 died and the 2003 Lincoln Park porch collapse that killed 13.
“Rudy was a single guy. He lived his entire life at the morgue,” said Tony Brucci, a retired chief investigator with the office. “Every supervisor loved him.” When a call came in, “He was just jumping out of his chair, ‘Got it.'”
And if relatives showed up in the middle of the night to ID their loved ones after regular viewing hours, Rudy didn’t turn them away, Brucci said. He’d treat them with compassion, saying, “These people took the bus to get here.”
Rudy kept himself busy reading true-crime stories, studying forensics at the FBI Academy in Quantico and serving in the Army Reserves, where, inspired by the TV show “MASH,” he trained as a medic. Brucci said he also worked to professionalize his job, getting the M.E.’s office to certify it with the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators.
His sister said he loved the TV show “Quincy, M.E.,” which debuted in 1976 with Jack Klugman as a crime-fighting pathologist. Rudy “used to sign his name ‘Quincy, M.E.,'” said Liz Conti.
He retired in 2012. Four years later, he and Grace Velasquez, 64, reconnected through Facebook. They had lots of common friends and many relatives in the South Chicago neighborhood, where Rudy attended Our Lady of Guadalupe grade school and Chicago Vocational High School. He served in the Marines and worked in a steel mill before joining the M.E.’s office.
He started sending her music files. Eventually, “the music started getting romantic,” she said. When he sent her the Manhattans’ “There’s No Me Without You,” she asked, “What’s this about?”
“That’s how I feel about you,” he told her.
They met for dinner. He was having trouble walking, but “His condition didn’t scare me,” she said. “I still thought he was so cute.”
“Give me your hand,” he told her. “I’m going to make you my one and only. I promise never to hurt you.”
They started dating in July of 2017, moved in together a month later, and married last August.
Until his death on Sept. 30, “I swear they both glowed,” said Grace’s sister Bernie Burgos.
Though Rudy, 66, was unsteady on his feet from heart trouble, kidney failure and diabetes, “He would still try to pull her chair out for her. He would stand and wait for her to sit down, even though he had to hang on the table,” Burgos said.
When they reconnected, Grace remembered how Rudy had comforted her family after a tragedy that involved an eerie coincidence: a dead relative whose name was identical with Rudy’s.
In 1994, Grace said Rudy was the investigator who arrived at the scene when her 32-year-old nephew, Pablo Rios, was found dead of cirrhosis and alcohol poisoning in an alley near 90th and Commercial. Pablo had begun drinking heavily after his 29-year-old brother –– also named Rudy Rios –– was found shot dead in an alley at 87th and Commercial in 1989, Grace said. The crime was never solved, and Pablo “was very distraught and unhappy and lost,” said Burgos.
The family waited near Pablo’s body for what seemed like hours while police conducted an investigation.
Grace later learned Rudy’s shift had already ended that night, but he told his supervisors he’d stop and handle the case on his way home. He arrived and approached Pablo’s mother, Sylvia, saying he’d be the investigator escorting her son to the morgue. “He was exuding kindness,” Burgos said. “I could see it in his face. He was just so sorrowful for her.”
When he handed Sylvia his card, she saw he had the same name as her son who’d been shot in 1989, right down to the middle initial “J” for James.
Sylvia collapsed, crying out it was a sign her slain son Rudy had come back for his brother “Pablito.”
Grace’s marriage to Rudy was her third. It was his first.
It was a respite from the sadness in her own life, she said.
Her son Lawrence Cortez, a 43-year-old doorman at the Union League Club, died in 2016 of congestive heart failure. And On Dec. 31, 1994, her 21-year-old son Christopher was found fatally shot in his car at 84th and South Chicago Avenue. “They think maybe it was a drive-by and he was just there,” she said.
After both sons died, “I was at the point where I didn’t want to be here anymore,” she said. “Rudy helped me. When I seen his struggles –– he never gave up. He was so determined to be the man he used to be, for me.”
In August, he told her he’d like her to take off the next day from her job at a medical practice. When she asked if she needed to take him to a doctor’s appointment, he replied, “We have an appointment.”
He told her they were getting married Aug. 9 in the park across from their Whiting home, near Wolf Lake, where he loved to fish. He’d picked the words for the ceremony and hired the justice of the peace. Afterward, they celebrated at a party he arranged at Dos Sabores restaurant.
He went to the hospital Aug. 13 because of kidney failure and remained there until Sept. 6, Grace said. She retired two months early to care for him. When he said, “Promise me you’ll never let them put me in a nursing home,” she assured him, “Never, baby, never.”
Once, when Grace helped Rudy up after a fall, he said, “I don’t know what I did to deserve you, baby girl.” She reminded her husband of a terrible case that had haunted him: a little boy hanged by his own mother.
“I said, ‘Don’t you remember that little boy?” Grace told him. “God sent me to you to jumpstart your heart.’ And he did deserve everything, and I would do it all over again to have him back.”
“I have a few videos –– I can hear his voice,” she said. Rudy used to tease her, “I’m going to come back and haunt you with 200 nuns.”
He is also survived by his sister Carmela Rios, stepdaughter Claudia Cortez, nieces Eden Rodriguez and Lily Arambula and nephews Christopher Rios and Albert and Joseph Arambula. He was “Papa” to Grace’s seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Rudy used to joke that at his funeral, he wanted everyone to enjoy his favorite fast food: White Castle. His friends made sure to supply the sliders.
“He saved me, my life,” Grace said. “And now I need to live without him. I was blessed and I’m so honored to be his one and only.”
“It was easy to love him.”