A stranded man's death brings probe of Ill. police Pleading victim allegedly was left by officers

November 04, 1995|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

FORD HEIGHTS, Ill. -- The body was still smoldering well past midnight when police in this gritty suburb responded to a report of a person set on fire.

The man the two officers found lying near death on Greenwood Avenue was not unfamiliar to them. They had left him there -- a stranger in a dangerous neighborhood -- just 15 minutes earlier.

They left him there, one witness said, although he was "shaking like a leaf" and pleading not to be abandoned.

The violent death of Richard Will two weeks ago has prompted investigations into the conduct of the two police officers and raised questions about whether race was a factor in the incident.

The two officers, both black, left a white man to fend for himself in a black neighborhood frequented by drug dealers. Two of the five teen-agers now charged with Mr. Will's killing reportedly told police he was beaten and set ablaze because he was white.

The Oct. 18 incident now is under investigation by the Illinois State Police. The probe is being monitored by the U.S. Justice Department and the Cook County Commission on Human Rights.

Detective Vincent Hunter, spokesman for the Ford Heights police, declined to comment.

The fatal evening began with Mr. Will, 32, and his old high school buddy, Cecil McCool, in a joint called D.J.'s Sports Grill and Bar near the Indiana state line, about four miles east of Ford Heights.

From there they traveled west on U.S. 30, which cuts across the swath of industrial suburbs that form Chicago's underbelly. The police stopped their blue 1981 Oldsmobile Cutlass just near the western town limits.

Why were they stopped?

Reports differ. The dead man's family and their attorney said they have been told it was for a broken headlight or because the car backed up a one-way street. No tickets were ever issued.

Before the Ford Heights police stopped commenting, they said that the two men were acting suspicious in "high-crime, drug area."

A computer check by the officers showed that Mr. McCool, visiting from Colorado, was wanted for failing to pay child support. They arrested him. Though the car belonged to Mr. Will, the officers discovered that his license was suspended and said he appeared drunk. They had the car towed.

Mr. Will asked for a ride to the police station so that he could call for a ride a home, according his family's attorney, William Braverman.

"The police told him [to] 'hit it,' " the lawyer said.

Mr. McCool told a local newspaper that Mr. Will was "shaking like a leaf" as he begged for a ride. He didn't want to be left out there alone."

A preliminary police report said Mr. Will "was advised to call for a ride home" by the two officers and one of them, Lt. E. K. Haynie, told a reporter that he last saw Mr. Will walking toward a telephone.

While the officers were booking Mr. McCool at the station, they were called back to the scene.

They found the body at 1:35 a.m. in the middle of Greenwood Avenue. An empty 8-ounce can of lighter fluid sat near the body.

"It was a smoldering fire, and he was semiconscious," Lieutenant Haynie said of the man. "There was no one around him. Some people who live there were the ones who called police."

Badly beaten and with burns covering 90 percent of his body, Mr. Will died at a hospital five hours later.

Five Ford Heights youths, ranging in age from 13 to 17, have been charged in the killing. Detective Hunter told the Daily Southtown newspaper that two of the boys said they attacked Mr. Will because he was white. Before he declined to comment further this week, Detective Hunter denied having said that.

Ford Heights is the nation's poorest suburb, according to a 1993 study by Roosevelt University in Chicago. The community's population of slightly more than 4,000 is virtually all African-American. There is no grocery store or movie theater. The most prosperous-looking business is a funeral home on the edge of town, and there are several shoddy, concrete block taverns and liquor stores lining U.S. 30.

In a preliminary report to the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office, Ford Heights police said that Mr. Will "may have been trying to buy drugs."

Mr. Braverman, the Will family's attorney, said that may be true. But he said police did not find any drugs on either Mr. Will or Mr. McCool, who has since returned to Colorado. Nor was either man charged with a drug-related offense.

"Whether he came there to buy drugs is irrelevant to the conduct of the police," Mr. Braverman said. "He was left in hell in the middle of the night -- the only white boy in town. That's acting like judge, jury and executioner."

Mr. Will's cousin, Deborah Tidd, said that Mr. Will had 2-year-old daughter and had been living with the little girl's mother. He worked at nearby Balmoral Park racetrack.

There are no consistent guidelines for police officers in similar situations in many other communities. It is frequently left up to officers to decide what to do with the passenger of a car once the driver is arrested.

Six years ago, two white Chicago police officers were fired after it was determined that they had deliberately abandoned a black teen-ager in white Southside neighborhood. The youth was beaten by a white gang, and there was widespread news coverage and a criminal investigation.

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