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Shot in the Dark

It's been nearly a year since Barry Cunnane was inexplicably gunned down, but his friends haven't given up on finding the killer.



In the next few days the posters on the CTA trains will come down. They haven't elicited a single clue as to who was responsible for killing 27-year-old Barry Cunnane last May.

The posters--which have been up since mid-February on the Brown, Red, and Purple lines--offer $15,000 for information leading to the conviction of the shooter. "We still have hope," says David Olsen, who helped put up the posters. "We're hoping there's someone--anyone--out there who has something to offer us to help find these killers."

Cunnane had moved to Chicago in 1997 after graduating from the University of Wales. "His older sister Kathryn had come here in the early '90s," says Olsen. "Barry used to visit her in the summer. Barry's older brother, Frank, also lived in Chicago."

Cunnane took a job temping for a PR firm, where he met his girlfriend, Christine Pascual. "I always noticed him, but I didn't really get to know him until we went to a baseball game," she says. "I later heard he arranged to sit next to me at that game."

It was a Cubs game in the summer of '97. "I don't remember who was playing," Pascual says. "I'm not really into baseball. But I knew more than him, which didn't take much. He was 22, and I was 33. I thought he was older then he was, and he thought I was younger than I was. The age difference kind of scared us at first, but we realized it didn't matter--it felt right."

They moved in together. Pascual found work as a costume designer, and Cunnane started auditioning for acting roles. In 1999 he went to work at a large downtown firm, where he met the people who became his closest friends--Olsen, Mike O'Malley, and M., who's afraid to use his full name because he was with Cunnane the night he was murdered.

"Barry was a great friend," says M. "We liked to go to baseball games. He was a good guitar player. We'd get together and practice. Potluck and wine. Our favorite song to sing together was 'All of My Friends Were There' by Ray Davies. It's about this singer who makes a fool of himself onstage in front of his friends. Davies would sing it with a thick cockney accent--'My big day, it was the biggest day of my life.' Barry and I loved singing that song."

They went together to summer festivals and concerts. "He was a spoofer, as the Irish say--always cracking jokes," says M. "But he could laugh at himself. He was very self-effacing. We teased him all the time. He'd be wearing long black pants even in the summer. I'd say, 'Dude, it's 90 degrees out--wear some shorts.' He said, 'No, I'd blind everyone with my pale legs.'"

His friends say Cunnane was always auditioning for shows. "He played an alcoholic loser named Len, who was such a pathetic piece of scum he kicked his pregnant wife in the stomach," says M. "Nothing like Barry. We went to see it, and afterward we went to Miller's Pub and we were teasing him--'I don't know if I want to sit next to Len.'"

Cunnane always read newspapers and stayed up on politics and current affairs. "He loved reading the Onion," says M. His politics were liberal, and he was vehemently opposed to the war in Iraq. He occasionally wrote letters to the editor under pseudonyms such as Angus Podgorny, the name of a Monty Python character.

Cunnane and his friends liked to gather at Simply Ray's, a bar on Damen not far from where he and Pascual lived. "That's where we went to drink Guinness and Harp," says M. "They have a good jukebox. Gwen and Ramona were the servers. Ray, the owner, is a White Sox fan."

On the evening of Friday, May 23, 2003, M. and Cunnane went to a party in Andersonville. "A couple of friends were getting married, and this was the prewedding party," says M. "We hung out there and then tried to go to the Hopleaf, a bar on Clark. It was too crowded, so we went next door to have a drink or two. Everyone dwindled out, leaving just me and Barry-- which was pretty common."

They left in the early morning. As M. recalls, Barry suggested they flag down a cab. "I suggested we walk home. It was a nice night--60 degrees, breezy. I used to walk all the time. I didn't feel unsafe."

They walked south along Clark to Winnemac, west to Wolcott, south to Leland, then west toward Damen. "We were walking on Leland, shooting the breeze, talking about all the stupid stuff you talk about after you've had a few drinks," says M. "I can't really remember what we talked about. I wish I could."

They were about halfway between Winchester and Damen on Leland around 1:30 AM when they saw two men walking toward them. "They were two black guys," says M. "I don't remember what they were wearing. Right as we were crossing them on the sidewalk Barry stepped ahead of me to make way. And one of the guys very quickly shot him in the head. I remember the look on his [the shooter's] face--this excited look. He said something when he did it, but I don't remember what he said. Something like 'What's up?' Then boom! The gun fired. Whatever he said was not meant for a response. The bullet went right into Barry's head, right behind his ear. He immediately dropped to the sidewalk. The other two--I don't really know what they did. As soon as they shot him I wasn't aware of them. I know they didn't run the way they came. A witness later told police she saw two young black guys get into a car and drive off to Lawrence."

For a few seconds M. stared at Cunnane's body in disbelief. "He was lying on his stomach, blood spreading out," he says. "A lot of it went into the grass. I called his name a couple of times. His eyes were open. Then I got hysterical. I ran around the corner. I ran to the bar. I screamed, 'Call 911--my friend's been shot.' Then I ran out. When I got back to him I pretty much lost it. It's all a blur. I remember Ray came out and Gwen came out. I remember she was hugging me. This guy and a girl came out--I don't know who they were. He offered me a jacket. I had started to shiver. Next thing I know a bunch of patrol cars were there. The ambulance came and took Barry away."

A policeman asked M. if he knew where Cunnane lived, and he led two officers to the apartment, less than a block away. "I was watching TV, just drifting in and out of sleep, and then the doorbell rang," says Pascual. "I said, 'I'm coming, I'm coming.' Then I saw the officers there, and I knew something was bad. They looked distressed already. One of them said, 'You need to come outside--Barry's been shot.' I kept asking them, 'Where?' You know, was it in the leg or the arm? They were trying not to tell me. When they finally told me I knew that was it. I remember falling to the floor. My legs just gave out."

A neighbor got a cab and took Pascual to Illinois Masonic, where she joined other friends. "I wanted to tell his parents, but I didn't have their number," she says. "So we called information in Ireland. When I finally got through I started to tell them, and then I couldn't really finish what I was trying to say."

Cunnane's parents immediately caught a plane from Ireland, but by the time they landed in Chicago their son was dead. "He was officially declared dead at 4 PM on Saturday, though in my mind he had been dead a lot earlier," says M. "In my mind, the last thing he was aware of in his life is that someone was saying something to him--whatever it was that the killer said. As far as his soul and his mind, I don't think he experienced any pain. I think he was gone before he hit the sidewalk."

Cunnane's parents stayed in Chicago for a week. "We had a wake and a memorial service," says M. "His parents went to his workplace and viewed his desk. They went to the sidewalk where he was killed. They saw his apartment. They met his friends." Then they took his body back to Ireland, where they buried him.

"I have no hatred for any group of people because of this," says M. "People might say, 'Oh, but the killers were black.' That's just ridiculous to make any kind of larger conclusions about people as a group based on that. I mean, we have to get real, people--this is happening in our city. I mean, we had 600 people get killed in Chicago last year. Talk about terrorism. But I guess since it's mostly drug dealers and minorities, it's acceptable. Believe me, I've played out the circumstances many times. If we hadn't walked, if we hadn't had that last beer, if we hadn't taken Wolcott, and so on. You can think these things to death. But it wasn't circumstance that killed Barry. It was the two killers, who had no value for life."

Not long after the murder M. attended a community-policing meeting where an investigating detective mentioned the case. "He said, 'All we have is the testimony of an unreliable witness,'" says M. "Afterward I introduced myself and said, 'I'm the unreliable witness.'"

M.--who was considered unreliable because he wasn't sure he could identify the killer--and the detective talked about the case. "There was this theory floating around that the killers were gang members doing a random murder as part of an initiation," says M. "But the detective told me he didn't subscribe to that. He said gangbangers don't kill innocent people for initiations--they kill each other. Then he kind of ran down the list of possibilities. He said it could have been an attempted robbery that went bad--you know, the guy was about to demand our money, and the gun just went off. He said maybe the shooter didn't like the way we were walking down the street--our body language--and it was total impulse. Or maybe he was high, and it just sort of happened. Another cop told me, 'Anyone who would just walk up to somebody and shoot him is probably going to end up in prison or dead.'"

Last fall Cunnane's friends decided to hold a fund-raiser to pay for a reward. "Ultimately our goal is to catch whoever did it," says Mike O'Malley. "You know, maybe the killers talked about it. Maybe someone will come forward like with the Brown's Chicken murders."

They held the fund-raiser on October 5 and took in around $21,000. About $5,000 of it went for the posters: "$15,000 reward for info leading to conviction in Ravenswood slaying," reads the red-and-blue headline. "Anyone with information is urged to call Chicago Police Area 3 Detectives: (312) 744-8261." They also created a Web site,

"We haven't had any leads, but we get all sorts of e-mail," says O'Malley. "Someone wrote, 'I saw this on the el, and I'm sorry that this happened.' Another woman wrote, 'This happened to a friend in LA.' I don't know. If the ads don't catch Barry's killers, at least they'll cause people to pause and think."

Cunnane's friends plan to hold a candlelight vigil on Leland on the anniversary of his death. "I want the killers caught," says Pascual. "One of the main reasons is that I want them to be punished. But I also want to know why they did this. Maybe they don't even have an answer. Life's not as disposable as what you see on TV and in the movies. Barry was a real person. He had a family. He had a life. They just took it away--for no reason."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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