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They Came in Through the Bathroom Mirror

A Murder in the Projects

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Ruthie Mae McCoy was the type who talked to herself and cursed strangers on the street. When she called 911 to report that someone was coming through the medicine cabinet of her Abbott Homes apartment, she might have been hallucinating. But she wasn't.

Ruthie Mae McCoy was terrified. "Someone has threatened my life!" she gasped to the woman next to her. They were riding in a van that was taking them home from an outpatient psychiatric center at Mount Sinai Hospital. The woman urged McCoy to relate her fears to a staff member at the clinic, but McCoy said she didn't want to get anyone else involved.

McCoy, 52, went through much of her life afraid; she was hounded by paranoia. Her fears weren't soothed by her dwelling place the last four years—a high-rise building in a near-south-side Chicago Housing Authority project known as ABLA, where the van dropped her off this Wednesday afternoon, April 22. She lived in one of the seven 15-story, brown, Y-shaped towers named the Grace Abbott Homes—the most dangerous buildings in ABLA. A claustrophobe in a closet might be more at ease than a paranoid like McCoy in an Abbott high rise; the buildings feature dark, malfunctioning elevators, pitch-black stairwells, and cocaine and PCP addicts on nearly every floor. Fiends really are lurking in the shadows here; in these towers, you're crazy if you're not always looking over your shoulder. McCoy lived at the end of a corridor on the 11th floor of the building at 1440 W. 13th St.

At a quarter to nine this April evening, Chicago police got a 911 call from McCoy. "I'm a resident at 1440 W. 13th St. and some people next door are totally tearing this down, you know—" the frantic voice began.

"What are they doing, ma'am?" asked the dispatcher. McCoy's response is unintelligible on tape, but apparently the dispatcher caught her gist. "They want to break in?" he asked.

"Yeah, they throwed the cabinet down."

Dispatcher: "From where?"

McCoy: "I'm in the projects, I'm on the other side. You can reach—can reach my bathroom, they want to come through the bathroom."

Dispatcher: "All right ma'am, at what address?"

McCoy: "1440 W. 13th St.—apartment 1109. The elevator's working."

Dispatcher: "1109? All right. What's your name, ma'am?"

McCoy: "Ruth McCoy."

Dispatcher: "All right, I'll send you the police."

The dispatcher wasn't certain what McCoy had been trying to report—what could she have meant by "they throwed the cabinet down" and "they want to come through the bathroom"? Nevertheless, he closed the phone call in order to send a beat car on its way. He assigned a 12th District car to answer a "disturbance with a neighbor" complaint at 1440 W. 13th St., apartment 1109. That he didn't report the call as a break-in attempt may explain why police hadn't yet arrived at McCoy's door at 9:02, when another 911 call came in concerning apartment 1109. This one was from a woman who said she had been walking through the hallway and heard gunshots from the apartment. At 9:04, another neighbor called to report gunshots and hollering from 1109. Two more police cars headed to the scene.

Four officers apparently arrived at McCoy's door around ten minutes after nine. They pounded on the door, announced their presence, called for McCoy. No answer. They asked the dispatcher to call McCoy on her phone. "We think somebody may be in there holding somebody," an officer told the dispatcher over the radio. The officers listened to the phone ring and ring.

There were two more officers downstairs, and they drove over to the project office, a block away on Loomis, to get the key to 1109. But the key didn't fit McCoy's lock.

This left the officers wondering what to do—should they break into the apartment? Talking with neighbors didn't help much: nobody answered across the hall, the apartment next door was vacant, and the neighbors in the apartment down the hall said no, they hadn't heard or seen a thing. Other neighbors on the floor said an elderly woman lived in 1109. "They say that she always answers her door," one of the officers told the dispatcher in a hesitant voice. "And there's no answer … so—I don't know if maybe she answered to the wrong person or what."

The officers contacted the project office again, but the janitor there said he had no other key for 1109. And so, at 9:48 PM, the police left McCoy's building and the project.

The following evening, police got a call from Debra Lasley, an 11th-floor neighbor of McCoy's. Lasley said McCoy normally stopped by her apartment on her way out of the building every morning and upon her return in the afternoon. But this day, she hadn't stopped by at all. Lasley had seen police at McCoy's door the night before, and was worried.

About a half dozen police officers and four or five CHA security guards arrived on the scene. Their knocks and calls for McCoy went unanswered. Most of the police officers thought they ought to break down the door, neighbors say, but the security guards discouraged them. One of them raised the possibility of the tenant suing if the police broke in. And if you bust down the door, the security guards told the police officers, you will have to get someone up here to secure it. The police officers shrugged and left.

The next day, Lasley notified the project office of her concerns. At about 1 PM, a project official arrived at McCoy's door with a carpenter, who drilled through the lock. They found McCoy in the bedroom lying on her side in a pool of blood, a hand over her chest, one shoe on and one off. Papers, magazines, and coins were strewn around her on the floor. When police later turned McCoy slightly, the faint smell of rotting flesh rose through the apartment.

She had been shot four times, probably with a gun of medium caliber, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy, Dr. Eupil Choi, told me. One bullet passed through her left shoulder, another passed through her left thigh. A third entered the right side of her abdomen, pierced the liver, and exited the left side of the abdomen. The fourth and fatal bullet passed through her right upper arm, then entered her chest and severed the pulmonary vein. Choi listed the cause of death as internal bleeding. McCoy probably didn't die immediately, Choi says, but because of the injury to the pulmonary vein, a principal vessel in the lung, he doubts she lasted long. She probably wouldn't have survived even if she had been taken quickly to a hospital, he says. She was pronounced dead at Cook County Hospital at 4:35 PM Friday, April 24.

Unless there's something extraordinary about it, or unless there's a news hole needing plugging, a murder in a CHA project isn't going to make the Sun-Times or Tribune. Project killings just aren't news ordinarily; CHA residents are blown away, knifed, and kicked to death almost every week—two or three times a week in warmer weather. McCoy was only one of three ABLA residents murdered in the waning days of April. Two days after her body was found, unknown assailants used a stick and their hands and feet to beat to death a 40-year-old man who lived in an ABLA row house. The killing occurred on a street just two blocks east of McCoy's building. Three days after that, a 25-year-old female resident of one Abbott high rise ended an argument with a 20-year-old resident of McCoy's building by plunging a knife into her chest. That killing took place just outside McCoy's building.

The murder of a middle-aged, mentally ill CHA tenant merited coverage soon afterward only in the black-owned Defender. McCoy probably knew her attacker or attackers, police said in the Defender story, because there was no indication they had forced their way in.

The Tribune did run a brief story on the McCoy murder on June 10, after a second suspect had been arrested and indicted. The killing apparently had been made newsworthy by a new fact: detectives had determined, and the Tribune reported in the story's lead, that McCoy's killers had entered her apartment through her medicine cabinet. They removed the cabinet in the adjacent apartment, broke through McCoy's cabinet, and climbed through the wall into her apartment, according to the story.

The article also noted that McCoy had heard the intruders attempting to break in and called 911, that someone else also called 911 and reported gunshots from the apartment, but that when police arrived, they "knocked on the door, got no answer and left." Her body was discovered two days later, the story said.

The facts disclosed in the Tribune article raised some intriguing questions: What kind of place is it where a person can get killed by people coming through her medicine cabinet? And how could police, having received those 911 calls, neglect to enter McCoy's apartment that first night?

But these angles apparently did not captivate news editors. The Tribune article, which ran deep in its "Chicagoland" section, would be the last story on the killing in any Chicago daily, the Defender included.

The editors' indifference is understandable. In CHA towers, babies have been tossed out of windows and teenagers shoved down elevator chutes; intruders sometimes bust right through apartment walls to rape and murder tenants. So what's so unusual about a medicine cabinet murder?

News of who got killed and how had quickly buzzed through the Abbott high rises, long before the Tribune story. Not many were shocked, says an Abbott janitor. (He prefers anonymity—we'll call him simply the Janitor.) "You get desensitized by what goes on here every day," the Janitor says. "It's animalism over here—that's the prevailing life condition of the people. Animalism—where you worry about those who are stronger and you care nothing about those who are weaker."

The mode of entry didn't startle residents of the high rises; Abbott intruders have been breaking into their apartments through medicine cabinets for at least a year. Even the dullest youth here knows you can slither from one apartment to the adjacent one through the pipe chase, about two-and-a-half feet across, between the cabinets. The cabinets themselves, secured by only six nails, are no obstacle. In some areas of the building you can even climb vertically in the pipe chase to an apartment above or below the one you start in. "It's the way to go from one apartment to the next even if you're not killing nobody," the Janitor says.

Gang bangers who take over a pair of adjacent vacant apartments now often link them by taking down the medicine cabinets, providing an escape route should security or police enter one of the apartments. This escape hatch is particularly effective, says Area Four detective Ray Leuser, who investigated the McCoy murder, because the medicine cabinet opening is small—only about a foot-and-a-half wide—and there are pipes to squirm past. "A lot of policemen wouldn't be able to make it through there," Leuser says. "I think I wouldn't be able to make it through."

As for the police officers' failure to enter McCoy's apartment—well, some 911 stories are just more significant than others. The death of Nancy Clay, a white, suburban white-collar worker, in a Loop high-rise blaze in May, and indications that the 911 system had failed her, prompted weeks of media coverage, a City Council investigation, a council hearing featuring testimony by the fire commissioner—broadcast live on public radio—and several proposed ordinances. The performance of the police in the McCoy case didn't even merit a departmental investigation.

A Police Department spokesperson first told me she couldn't discuss the officers' actions in the McCoy case because a full-scale investigation was in progress. Everyone would be interviewed, she assured me—the officers, the security guards, neighbors. When I inquired later about the progress of the investigation, the spokesperson said she had been mistaken—there really was no investigation, nor a need for one. Captain Raymond Risley, an assistant to the superintendent, said an informal check he conducted to answer my query satisfied him that the officers had acted properly in not breaking into McCoy's apartment, though their decision was "a tough call, a coin toss." Had the 911 calls come from somewhere other than a housing project, the officers perhaps would have forcibly entered the apartment to check on the resident, Risley says; but so many 911 calls from the projects are hoaxes, he says, and officers have to consider that when choosing their course of action. No neighbors or security guards were contacted for his inquiry. The department would not disclose to me the identities of the responding officers.

But, then, in Abbott Homes, where elevators sit out-of-order for days, and burned-out light bulbs in the corridors and stairwells aren't replaced for weeks, and apartments remain vacant for months, finding a body in a day and a half is pretty efficient. Like other CHA projects made up mainly of high rises, Abbott Homes is characterized mostly by its stagnancy. Bounded by Roosevelt and 15th, Loomis and Ashland, it's a little island with no through streets; the project's designers thought that by eliminating the streets, they could give residents more recreational space and a heightened sense of community. Today, Abbott's open spaces are seldom used, save by residents trying to get home before they get jumped. The lack of through streets has helped isolate the project from the rest of the world—no one can even drive through the development. For Abbott residents, there's no need for streets; most of them aren't going anywhere. Fear of crime keeps them pinned to their apartments day in and day out. Something harder to understand welds many residents to this place for generations; they have kids and grandkids down the hall.

Beneath the more sensational details of the McCoy murder is the story of Ruthie Mae herself, a mentally ill woman trying to survive in a CHA project. "Miss Mae," as she was known at Abbott, used to dress like a bag lady, curse strangers, and wave a stick at teens in her path. But she had turned over a new leaf in the months before her death, neighbors say: she was dressing decently; she was less ornery—often even pleasant; she left the project early most weekday mornings, said she was going to school.

Mentally ill residents of CHA projects face a double struggle: they have demons inside them to battle as well as the ones around them. But McCoy was on the verge of escaping the project madness also. Two months before her death, with the help of a social security field representative and staff members at the Mount Sinai psychiatric center, McCoy had gotten approved to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI)—federal aid for the physically and mentally disabled. This raised her monthly income from the $154 she had been receiving from general assistance to $340. SSI is paid retroactive to the date of application and McCoy applied in September, so the first check she was sent, dated February 10, was a big one—for $1,979. McCoy intended to use most of her windfall to get out of public housing. But she also bought a few things: a plain winter coat, a few other clothes, some inexpensive household items. People in the project, very observant, noticed; detectives think the killers invaded her apartment because they figured she had a tidy sum stashed there. The money she planned to use to get out of Abbott Homes got her killed instead.

McCoy's killers weren't the only ones after her money. "I am not kidding about loving you!" a Baptist preacher from Fort Lauderdale wrote her. "I feel like you are part of my actual family—yes I do. … Will you look into your pocketbook and give Jesus a beautiful love-offering of the largest bill you have? … Or maybe you want to write a nice check?" An Ohio minister offered to send her a "special, personal bottle" of water from the River Jordan, in exchange for a donation. A New York minister sent her a piece of "sacred, anointed wood" that she was to knock on three times and sleep on "for ONE (1) night only," then return in the mail with a donation of $18.

Solicitations from fundamentalists predominated among the papers still scattered across McCoy's bedroom floor more than a month after her murder, when I was able to survey the inside of her apartment. Directives from public agencies relating to her welfare grants comprised most of the remainder of her papers. There were also a math workbook and civics work sheets, which McCoy had been using in general educational development (GED) courses at Mount Sinai in pursuit of a high school-equivalent degree.

Her daughter, Vernita McCoy, 25, hated to see Ruthie Mae send any of her few dollars to preachers. "Don't you understand, it's just a big con," she'd tell her mother. Ruthie Mae would respond, "You don't have any faith—you don't believe in anything." "It's not that I don't believe in anything," Vernita would say, "I just know a con when I see one." But Ruthie Mae would send the money anyway. "She had a mind of her own," Vernita says.

The apartment was nearly bare otherwise—relatives had come weeks before to pick up her belongings.

Through the opening in her bathroom wall where the medicine cabinet ought to have been you could see the pipes that her killers wriggled past, and beyond that, the bathroom of 1108. (The medicine cabinet in 1108 was confiscated by the state's attorney's office as evidence.) McCoy's cabinet was never found and it's not known whether it was in place before the intruders came through the wall. Vernita maintains that burglars broke into her mother's apartment through the medicine cabinet once before, last year, and that although Ruthie Mae reported the break-in, no one from CHA ever resecured the cabinet. Margaret Burrage, Ruthie Mae's next-door neighbor until she moved out in early April, says she recalls seeing the cabinet leaning against the tub in the bathroom earlier this year. There is no record in McCoy's housing file of her ever reporting a break-in or problem of any sort with her medicine cabinet, a CHA spokesperson says.

Still taped to McCoy's white cinder-block bathroom wall, on either side of the space for the medicine cabinet, were pages from religious magazines describing miracles. "God will be your dentist!" declared the clip on the left. Under that banner was a photograph of a young girl, mouth agape, a finger on the teeth that God had filled with silver, according to the accompanying story. On the other side of the opening was a story from The Power of the Holy Ghost magazine—"Thyroid Condition Vanishes"—disclosing how the bulges in a woman's neck disappeared during Holy Week. The woman had discovered that the lumps were gone, the story said, when her husband, who had taken the bathroom mirror down to wallpaper, put it back up. A spooky clip to see, knowing what happened to McCoy; was she waiting for some similar redemption to come through her bathroom mirror?

A few relatives attended the church service held for her on the south side April 30. She was buried in Homewood that afternoon. "Life was hard for Ruthie Mae," noted the bulletin distributed at the service.

She was born in Hughes, Arkansas, one of eight children. When she was small, her family—like numerous southern black families then—moved to Chicago's south side, looking for a more prosperous life. But the promise of the big city was sweeter than the reality: just scraping along was a challenge for a large family in the teeming Black Belt. Ruthie Mae's father, now 87 and still living on the south side, loaded coal onto wagons in various yards, earning a meager wage.

Ruthie Mae attended Phillips High School for a little more than a year. Signs of mental illness began appearing when she was in her twenties. Her relatives say they don't know the exact nature of her illness, and offer only hazy accounts of how it showed itself—she talked to herself, she would burst with anger unexpectedly.

Her mother, a devout Baptist, "chased us into church and taught us the way of the Lord," says a brother, Haywood McCoy. Now her siblings propose mainly spiritual explanations for what went wrong with Ruthie Mae. "There's such a thing as a devil, you know," says Beatrice Gilbert, a sister. Haywood believes Ruthie Mae's problems began "when she got out of God." A street preacher who says he can "heal the sick and cast out devils," Haywood prayed for his sister. "But, you see, people have got to want help."

Ruthie Mae never married. She was 27 when Vernita, her only child, was born at Cook County Hospital. The father didn't stick around long, and his desertion left Ruthie Mae bitter at men in general. Vernita had to stay with relatives off and on as a child because her mother was institutionalized several times. She managed OK when she was taking her medicine; when she wasn't, she talked to herself, and sometimes swore at strangers on the street. "I'd say, 'Mama, why are you cussing these people? You don't know them—you might get hurt,'" Vernita recalls. Ruthie Mae's hulking frame may have discouraged others from retaliating. (She was 251 pounds, 5 feet 11 inches at her death, the coroner would determine.)

She worked some menial jobs—laundromat attendant, housekeeper—but her mental problems prevented her from holding a job more than a month or two, and she spent most of her adult life on aid. She and Vernita lived in Dearborn Homes, a south-side housing project, during Vernita's early years, and then in cramped ghetto apartments on the south and west sides.

Vernita spent some time in Cook County Jail in 1983 after being convicted of aggravated battery—the circumstances of which she'd rather not discuss. Ruthie Mae took care of Vernita's one-year-old while Vernita was in Cook County Jail. When her basement apartment in Humboldt Park flooded, Ruthie Mae applied for emergency CHA housing. She asked in one letter to the CHA to be placed in Wentworth Gardens, on the south side and near relatives; in another letter she asked specifically not to be placed in a high rise. But beggars can't be choosers; she was offered an 11th-floor unit in the Abbott Homes. In May of '83, she moved into apartment 1109.

From her fifth-floor apartment in an Abbott high rise, Pat, 32, a client at the Mount Sinai psychiatric center, has a view of all the action: "I hear shooting, I'm looking out the window and I see police coming. And I say, 'I wonder who done got shot now?' I see 'em come out of 1440 with two bodies covered up, and I say, 'What happened, Buddy?' 'They found somebody dead in an apartment.' 'What happened to the other one?' 'Oh, he got shot. Do you know that woman over there in the other building got shot earlier today?' I say, 'What's wrong with everybody?' You think all that don't make people nervous? I better stay crazy."

The place Ruthie Mae was offered by CHA—her home of last resort—percolates with violence. Children here are raised amid the tumult and grow accustomed to it. I was discussing McCoy's murder one morning with a young man in the lobby of her building when a young woman walked by, a toddler in tow. She asked to speak to the man. "Soon as I finish my b'ness," he told her. "I don't give a fuck 'bout yo' mo' fuckin' b'ness!" she screamed at him. "You gimme my mo' fuckin' money!" The toddler didn't even look up.

"When I first came here, I used to feel so sorry for the children that I almost would cry," the Janitor says, "just to know the terror they see. But they're so animalistic in their own right, in the games they play—I see little kids throwing bricks and bottles at each other, and this is their game. Now I get mad—'Goddamn these little bastards.'"

About 3,600 people live in the Abbott Homes, all of them black, most of them younger than 18. Except for a few top drug pushers, everybody is poor—the average family in this census tract was pulling in a cool $4,527 a year, the 1980 census found, and times certainly haven't improved around here since. About 85 percent of the families are headed by females. The lucky few—about 580 people—reside in 33 two-story row houses; everyone else is in the seven high rises.

Residents of ABLA are beaten, raped, and murdered more than twice as often as they are citywide (47.8 violent crimes per 1,000 ABLA residents in 1986, compared with 22.9 per 1,000 residents citywide; there are no crime figures specifically for the Abbott high rises, but the rate in those buildings—ABLA's most hazardous—is undoubtedly far worse).

Even by public housing project standards, the place is bad news. ABLA ranks fifth among CHA developments in violent crime, its rate significantly worse than that of Cabrini-Green (37.9 violent crimes per 1,000 residents last year). But you don't hear anywhere near as much about this near-south-side project as you do about Cabrini-Green, which sits not far from the Gold Coast, the lakefront, and downtown. "The news media's offices are closer to Cabrini—it's easy to drive over there," Area Four detective Leuser says. "They never come over here—they might call on the phone, but they never come."

Abbott Homes' layout is a gang banger's dream—designed as if to facilitate crime. In a 1972 study of New York City high rises, renowned housing expert Oscar Newman found that crime rates increased with the height of the buildings, the size of the projects, and the distance of the buildings from streets. Superblocks of high rises like Abbott Homes were, in terms of crime, the worst possible combination for public housing, Newman wrote in his '72 book Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design. The high rises promote anonymous living, he wrote, making it less likely that residents will look out for their neighbors; the lack of streets isolates the project and makes routine police surveillance difficult. Writing specifically about the Abbott high rises, Devereux Bowly Jr. echoed these sentiments in The Poorhouse, his 1978 book on Chicago's public housing. "More than any project built in Chicago to that date [1955], the overall feeling [of Abbott Homes] is forbidding, and the human scale completely lost."

Unfortunately, Abbott Homes was the precursor of the towering slum-site developments built in Chicago in the late 50s and early 60s—Cabrini-Green, Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, and Rockwell Gardens—projects Bowly called "an unfortunate legacy" of Elizabeth Wood's years as executive secretary at the CHA. Indeed, Wood directed the CHA in the late 40s and early 50s, when most of these massive slum-site projects were conceived. But she proposed such developments only after the City Council blocked her attempts to build smaller projects in various neighborhoods, many of them white, throughout the city.

In no project will you find stairwells darker or more forbidding than those in the Abbott towers. Other projects have screened-in ramps, allowing some natural light to filter into the stairwells, but Abbott's corridors are completely enclosed; so when the light bulbs are burned out or missing in the stairwells, it's pitch black there. And the light bulbs are burned out or missing most of the time. There used to be three janitors per high rise at Abbott, the Janitor says; now there's usually just one. "You got too much work to do to keep going over [to the supply room] to get light bulbs," he says, "and then when you go, there's not any light bulbs, or they give you five or six. And then you put the bulbs in and the tenants steal them."

Spiraling drug addiction in ABLA has of late made the high rises even more hazardous, say residents and others whose work takes them into the project.

"A year ago we hardly ever had anyone involved in coke here," says Sandy Siegel, clinical coordinator of the Mount Sinai Hospital Community Psychiatric Center, which serves mainly ABLA residents. "You had people doing reefer and PCP, and some heroin junkies. But cocaine addiction is rampant in those buildings now, and so the need for money has soared. You put that on top of an already bad situation and it's a nightmare."

Major drug dealers have operated out of ABLA for years, says Detective Leuser, who has worked in and around the project since 1970. Before, though, drug dealing was limited mainly to young males; today, many women in ABLA supplement their welfare checks by selling cocaine and marijuana. Even elderly residents are dealing drugs now, Leuser says, though the seniors usually only sell marijuana. In the early 70s, the typical call for police service at ABLA was for drunk-and-disorderly disturbance involving husband and wife, he says; now, the calls are often for drug-related shootings and stabbings.

The chief drug sellers at ABLA are a group of Black Gangster Disciples who call themselves the "Paymasters." "They walk through the buildings saying, 'We got what you want, we got what you need,'" Siegel says. They tend to wear new clothes and lots of jewelry and carry hulking radios, the benefits of their trade thus on display for ABLA youth, many of whom serve gladly as bootlickers for the gang. Grown-ups in ABLA are terrified of the Paymasters, to the extent that most of the residents I spoke with would not discuss, even anonymously, anything about the gang's operations. A 26-year-old ABLA resident was shot to death in May, apparently for selling drugs in Paymaster territory.

Suffice it to say you can get narcotics in ABLA a lot quicker than you can get light bulbs. "The drugs are out there 24 hours—four o'clock in the morning you can find something," says a 28-year-old ABLA resident and Mount Sinai center client—call him Tony. A recovering cocaine addict, Tony used to buy at least five nickel bags ($5 each) of coke a day. But when his SSI check came, he'd blow almost the whole $340 on one day's high. He says he never stole from strangers to support his habit—he was too frightened of jail—but he did rip off family members incessantly, taking cash and marketable goods from their homes. Most junkies he knew, though, had already progressed to burglaries and street stickups. Near ABLA, he says, "You can't walk down the street without somebody asking you for money or trying to rob you to support their habit."

Tony and other addicts would often get high in one of the numerous vacant apartments in Abbott that have been commandeered by the pushers. Apartments are supposed to be boarded whenever they're expected to be vacant more than a few days, but because of the shortage of supplies, and because there are so many other pressing jobs, janitors don't always get around to it quickly, the Janitor says. And even when an apartment does get boarded, he says, if the pushers really want to use it, they'll get in. "They kick the whole frame of the door in. Boarded up doesn't mean a damn thing—you got to put somebody [a legal tenant] in there." But that's easier said than done, the Janitor acknowledges. Tenants descend on vacant, unboarded apartments like piranhas, stripping them in no time of everything of value—sinks, cabinets, doorknobs, light bulbs. Then there's not adequate time or supplies to make the place habitable again. In the building where McCoy lived, 42 of 148 units are vacant.

The pushers also reside illegally in many other apartments whose leased tenants have "sublet" their units, though this is not allowed by the CHA. "Like, if you move, you sell your apartment to one of these peoples around here, and they sell dope out of it," says Viola Good, an 11th-floor resident of the building McCoy lived in. "You're still on the lease, but they pay the rent on it. Housing don't know who's staying in here—they don't come check these apartments."

The rise in drug addiction and desperation, along with the increase in vacant and illegally tenanted apartments, made almost inevitable this latest project discovery: that tunnels between medicine cabinets could be used to loot neighbors.

The bathroom break-ins began occurring a year to a year and a half ago, Abbott residents say. Four of ten apartments on every floor are vulnerable—the pairs at the end of each floor's two main corridors; the other apartments don't have the back-to-back medicine cabinets. If you live at the end of a hall, and the adjacent apartment is vacant or housing some unsavory squatters, you're easy prey. "It's real scary—the idea that locking your door might not be enough," says Lena Elberton, a resident of McCoy's building. Her apartment is at the end of a floor, and the adjacent unit is vacant and not even locked. (It lacks a doorknob.)

But even if the adjacent apartment isn't vacant, there's cause for worry. Alice Johnson (not her real name), who lives on the fifth floor of the building in which McCoy lived, was watching TV one February evening with a friend when she saw a figure dart out of her bathroom and race out the front door. Noises in the bathroom alerted her to a second intruder, a 13-year-old boy whose girth slowed him as he attempted to squirm out of the opening where Johnson's medicine cabinet had been until the first intruder removed it. Johnson's friend held the 13-year-old while Johnson called the police. The 13-year-old confessed that he and the first boy had climbed up the pipes in the chase from a vacant apartment below, and that two more boys had been behind him in the wall, but had retreated.

For several months, Johnson tied a rope to the bathroom door at bedtime, pulled the door shut, and tied the other end to her kids' bunk bed. She put out a pail of water for her kids to use as a nighttime toilet. Other Abbott residents position furniture in front of their bathroom doors before going to bed.

The buildings were designed with the pipe chases behind the medicine cabinets to provide easy access to the plumbing; if something's leaking, janitors simply have to remove the medicine cabinet to check the pipes. It's hard to fault the architects; as the Janitor says, they "probably weren't thinking that people were gonna be totally animalistic." Deverra Beverly, president of ABLA's advisory council, says the medicine cabinet break-ins only show "that if people are poor enough and need something enough, they will figure out a way."

Her first two years in Abbott Homes, Ruthie Mae shared her two-bedroom apartment with Vernita (who completed her jail sentence in mid-'83), Vernita's two young children (she had a second in June of that year), and Vernita's boyfriend, Lewis Butler.

Ruthie Mae and Butler didn't see eye to eye. "At first she liked me, but then she started comparing me with [Vernita's father]," Butler says. The way Vernita's father had deserted, Butler says, was Ruthie Mae's favorite subject. "She thought black men was all no good—all they wanted to do was flirt and run around." In '85, largely because of the tension between Butler and Ruthie Mae, Vernita, Butler, and the kids moved out.

Vernita's departure depressed Ruthie Mae, neighbors say; she especially missed seeing her grandchildren daily. She grew more ornery toward people in the project, especially the kids. She gave no quarter to those who blasted their radios in the hallways, threatening them with a stick she carried with her. They in turn threatened and ridiculed her. Police had to intervene several times when Ruthie Mae got into a scrape. By the time you got on the scene it was hard to tell who started what, says Area Four detective Anthony Mannina, who later would investigate McCoy's murder but who then worked in 12th District patrol. "I wouldn't say she was a violent person, but she was a little argumentative," Mannina says. He thinks she mainly tried to stay to herself.

She lived in constant fear of being mugged or burglarized. She had her lock changed by the CHA at least twice, her housing records show. She seemed obsessed with locks; several neighbors described how she sometimes toured the 11th-floor hallway, turning doorknobs, lecturing tenants whose doors she found unlocked. If you heard a car alarm blaring near Abbott Homes, chances were it wasn't a real thief but Ruthie Mae, trying to lock a car door.

Living alone aggravated Ruthie Mae's fears and intensified her mental problems. She began eating irregularly and her weight dropped quickly. Her behavior was becoming more bizarre, neighbors informed Vernita when she visited ABLA: in the winter, she was seen lying in the snow near the building, spreading her arms and legs and making angels; and on hot summer days, she wore a winter coat and several pairs of pants.

On August 10, 1986, Ruthie Mae arrived at the emergency room of Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center with Vernita's older child, four-year-old Bobbi. The child had deep cuts on his face, arms, and legs. Ruthie Mae said she had been sitting for him and that he had fallen down some stairs. Apparently Ruthie Mae was acting somewhat peculiarly, and someone in the emergency room wondered if she had pushed the child down the steps. The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) was called. When Ruthie Mae got wind of this, she went berserk; she had to be put in leather restraints. The hospital was able to reach Vernita, who came to pick up Bobbi and sign the commitment papers for Ruthie Mae. She was taken to the nearby Illinois State Psychiatric Institute (ISPI).

(DCFS has no record of ever investigating to see if Ruthie Mae had abused her grandchild. Vernita says she saw no signs of abuse by Ruthie Mae. On her worst days, neighbors say, Ruthie Mae could be a little hard on her grandchildren—hollering at them, pulling them roughly by an arm; most times, though, she was warm and caring toward them, they say.)

She was diagnosed at ISPI as a residual-type schizophrenic. Residual-type schizophrenia is characterized by an absence of prominent behavioral problems but continuing evidence of some of the symptoms of schizophrenia, such as marked social isolation, distinctly peculiar behavior (talking to oneself in public, collecting garbage), vague or digressive speech, or odd beliefs (superstitiousness, belief in clairvoyance). Ruthie Mae was discharged on September 18, with a recommendation that she get follow-up care at the Mount Sinai psychiatric center.

The vast majority of the clients at the nonprofit, state-funded center are ABLA residents. Some are not suffering from mental illness as it is traditionally defined, clinical coordinator Siegel says, but are "caught up in the deprivation and stress" of life in the project. Clients can participate in group therapy sessions, GED classes, arts and crafts projects, and community meals. The center provides a social network for clients and somewhere to go to outside of the project. "We strive to make it a place where people can trust each other," Siegel says.

There isn't much trust in ABLA, Siegel says, nor reason for it. "One way of surviving there is not to be too friendly, to stay to yourself. You don't want people to know your business, because that can cause you trouble. And if you get to know people you're liable to get mixed up in something negative, like drugs."

Ruthie Mae came to the center of her own accord on September 23. The psychiatrist who interviewed her found indications of schizophrenia, but not enough to make it clear she was suffering from that illness. She definitely was not beyond the pale, Siegel says. "She integrated quickly, her hygiene was good, her communication skills were good."

But she was also extremely frightened and distrustful, wary of the other clients, Siegel says. "She'd say, 'Can I trust so-and-so to get my lunch and bring me my change?' And we'd tell her, 'Hey, you can trust anybody here—they're not gonna take advantage of you like they do in the projects. Even though these people are from the projects, they don't act that way here.'"

Ruthie Mae would get frustrated and upset by some of the business she had to attend to in order to run her life, Siegel says. "She'd get a letter in the mail from some agency, and she wouldn't know what the heck it said—and she'd get in a panic, think her [welfare] money was going to get cut off. She wasn't illiterate, but some of these letters are so complex, anyone would have trouble reading them. So she'd bring in letters and I'd interpret them for her, and help her with follow-up, write a letter if necessary. This way she knew we were looking out for her, that we would take care of her."

Shown this kind of help, Ruthie Mae "warmed up very quickly," Siegel says. By the beginning of this year, she was coming to the center three times weekly and participating in the GED classes, the crafts projects, and the group therapy sessions.

Because of Ruthie Mae's age, the GED teacher, Linda Norman, was skeptical when she signed up for the classes. Ruthie Mae scored at only the seventh-grade level on the placement test. But she proved to be "an alert, bright student," Norman says, as well as a dependable one: she rarely missed any of the three weekly sessions. By April, she was up to the ninth-grade level; six months more, Norman says, and she probably would have earned her GED certificate.

She was assertive and opinionated, Norman says, a "mother figure" for the younger women, offering them advice on parenting. If she got into a debate with someone else "she would stand her ground," Norman says. "She wasn't one to turn and run or be meek and quiet about it. Others here respected her."

Ruthie Mae "would always go on the men when they flirted with the women—she told them that was no good," says Mack Hill, who leads group sessions in which clients discuss problems in relationships. She regularly advised the women to be leery of men in the projects, Hill says. "There's this project mentality a lot of guys have, that they have to 'get over'—it's a hustle life, don't respect anybody, get what you can, if it's money, if it's clothes, if it's stealing, if I can take a woman to bed without responsibility—if you can get away with it, go." Ruthie Mae "really detested" this attitude, Hill says. "A younger woman might say, 'I'm living with a guy, I give him money, and I want him to stay around,' and she'd say, 'I've seen men like this before, and they're no good—stay away from 'em. You may think you love him but let him go.' She wouldn't talk about her personal relationships, but I assumed that in her past she probably had guys who misused her."

She managed to offer these opinions without alienating others; the staff and clients at Mount Sinai saw little evidence of the belligerence Ruthie Mae was known for at ABLA. "She was warm and considerate and very well liked," Siegel says.

She talked about religion occasionally, which was nothing surprising to Siegel; most of the center's clients, she says, particularly the older women, follow the TV preachers. But religion "wasn't something she obsessed about" at the center.

Her progress was unquestionable, Siegel says. An adjustment in her medicine helped, but Siegel thinks the main thing was the opportunity the center gave Ruthie Mae to just sit and talk with others. "She had gotten really isolated in the project, because she was so afraid to leave her house. The center gave her a feeling of being more connected to the people around her. She was learning to trust people here, come to them with her troubles. I'm not saying Ruthie didn't have problems. But she was doing things to conquer those problems."

Neighbors in her building noticed the changes. Debra Lasley (the 11th-floor neighbor who would alert police and CHA officials that Ruthie Mae hadn't been seen) noted Ruthie Mae had gained weight and was dressing and acting more appropriately. Her contentiousness surfaced less and less frequently. For the first time, she seemed enthusiastic about her life. Before, she mainly talked about "how much she missed her daughter and her grandbabies," Lasley says. But, of late, she had begun discussing her own future. "She said she wanted to be a nurse. She said, "When I get my GED I'm going to get me a job, get myself together.' She was getting back on track."

But what she talked about most, to neighbors and to clients and staff members at the center, was how dreadful she continued to find life in Abbott Homes. "She said, 'Peoples are coming into my house and taking my money,'" says Rosie, 32, a client at the center. "She was afraid to stay there by herself—she used to say, 'I wish somebody'd come and live with me.'"

If she had to be in the project, she at least wanted to be on a lower floor or in a row house. She asked CHA officials several times for a transfer, Siegel says; Siegel wrote one of the letters herself for Ruthie Mae. Because Ruthie Mae had high blood pressure and heart problems as well as her mental disability, Siegel thought such a transfer was more than reasonable. But Ruthie Mae's request was never granted. (A CHA spokesperson says she's not sure why.)

Ruthie Mae realized, Siegel says, that what she really needed was to get out of the project altogether. But she couldn't afford to leave. Her CHA apartment cost her just $46 a month, and on a general assistance grant of $154 a month, she couldn't pay for anything better. When she started receiving SSI in February, Siegel says, she started planning her move out of the project.

"When I grew up, doing something to someone else's mother was totally taboo," Lewis Butler says. "But these guys today are a different breed. They knew she had mental problems, they knew she lived alone. They saw they had the advantage. And they used the advantage."

Project criminals often prey on the mentally ill, Detective Leuser says, because they know that even if they get caught, their victim will make a poor witness, one whose credibility will be questioned by a judge or jury.

The two defendants in the McCoy case were charged with murder, home invasion, armed robbery, armed violence, and residential burglary. The home invasion charge indicates the state believes the killers knew McCoy was home when they broke in. Butler thinks the killers wanted McCoy there so she could tell them "where she had her money stashed." She didn't flee when she heard the noises in the bathroom, Butler speculates, because "she probably figured if they're comin' in the bathroom, they waitin' outside the door, too. So she sittin' there, don't know which way to go. So she got on the telephone. That's the only security she had, to try to use the telephone to get the police there."

The phone was one of at least three items stolen from McCoy's apartment. Detectives don't know whether money was also stolen, but only change was found in the apartment. Police recovered a television and a rocking chair that belonged to McCoy in the home of one of the defendants' friends. The phone has not been found.

The fact the phone was taken is intriguing; remember that the dispatcher called her number the night she was shot, and the police officers outside her door heard the phone ring. So the phone had to be stolen after police left that night. It also means, Detective Leuser acknowledges, that the killers might still have been on the 11th floor when police arrived, hiding out in an apartment, perhaps the adjacent one. Possibly they were still in McCoy's.

Criticism of the officers for not entering McCoy's apartment is unfair second-guessing, says assistant to the police superintendent Risley. "You have all this information ex post facto. You know that a person has been killed as a result of somebody breaking through a medicine cabinet. It's much more difficult for you to see this thing dispassionately."

Police officers can only break into an apartment without a warrant under certain circumstances, Risley says: they have to believe a crime is in progress or be in "fresh pursuit" of a criminal. "We live in a litigious society," he says, "and people are much more willing to seek redress in courts" when they believe police have improperly entered their apartment.

Says Detective Leuser: "Ten years ago, we woulda knocked the door down, never even thought about it. But today, it's entirely different—you're not supposed to do this, you're not supposed to do that."

When I first spoke with him, Risley put the blame on the CHA—for not coming up with a key to McCoy's apartment the first night, and for their security guards' opposing the police officers' desire to break into the apartment the second night. "We can't answer for the CHA," Risley said.

A CHA spokesperson said McCoy apparently had her lock changed on her own, against CHA rules, and didn't give the project office a key.

Tenants can get their lock changed by the CHA under certain circumstances—say, if they have a purse snatched and file a police report. But because it takes the CHA weeks to get around to the job, tenants often have the job done themselves, rather than worry about a thief who may be walking around with a key to their apartment.

Vernita McCoy believes her mother never had the lock changed herself, but that the CHA just failed to file the key, or misfiled it, when it last changed Ruthie Mae's lock, in '86. That certainly is a possibility, the Janitor says. "We got just three carpenters [in ABLA] for 3,790 apartments. So every key cannot get labeled. Every key cannot get put in its proper place."

I called the security firm, Guardian Security Services, to ask why the guards were adamant about police not breaking in. Operations manager Les Lamb referred me to Winston Moore, director of CHA security. "Well, I don't have any answers," Moore said. He told me to call Guardian.

Whether the guards opposed the idea or not, the police still had the authority to enter the apartment, I pointed out to Risley the next time we spoke. He acknowledged this, but said two other factors weighed against breaking in the first night as well as the second night: that some 11th-floor neighbors told the responding officers the first night that they hadn't heard gunshots or seen anything suspicious; and that the 911 calls had come from a housing project, from which prank calls are the rule, not the exception.

The neighbors had to hear the gunshots, Vernita McCoy says. "Those walls are so thin, if you drop a pan everyone hears it. Nobody's gonna get shot four times, and the neighbors don't hear anything. They might've been afraid to talk about it." (This seems particularly plausible considering the killers may still have been on the 11th floor when police arrived.)

You have to be skeptical anytime a resident says he's seen and heard nothing, cops who have worked in the projects will tell you, given how rampant intimidation is. Police looking for witnesses here often find that no one knows nothin' about nothin'. "If you get labeled [an informant] over there, you gotta move," says Perry Smith, who lived on McCoy's floor until last year, when he and his family moved out of the project. "I've seen people [who talk to police] get gasoline poured on their apartment door and set on fire. And, you know, there is no back door, just the windows." The numerous charred front doors in the Abbott high rises attest to this.

Besides McCoy's apartment and the one across the hall, from which the killers came, only one apartment in that wing of the floor was occupied. The elderly woman and her two grown daughters who live there apparently were the ones who told police they hadn't heard any gunshots. They stuck to that story when I talked with them: they hadn't heard or seen a thing. But would they have told police if they had heard gunshots, I asked. Well, probably not—the risk of retaliation would be too great, they said.

The high proportion of hoax calls the police department receives from housing projects "is something an officer has to consider in determining what his appropriate action is," Risley says. He bases his assertion that 911 calls from projects are more likely to be unfounded not on a study the department has conducted but "on empirical evidence—the experience of the officers who regularly work those beats. We could drag that stuff out [in a study], but it would be kind of expensive."

Jim Beutelspacher, chair of the 911 committee for the Association of Public Safety Communications Officers, a national organization, says he knows of no study indicating that calls from housing projects or poor neighborhoods are more likely to be unfounded.

There are, on the other hand, several studies indicating that police officers are unduly distrustful of reports of crime from the poor and black.

And housing project residents have their own notions, also supported only by "empirical" evidence, about how police tend to respond to their calls. "It's poor peoples in here—they're not concerned with poor peoples," says one resident of McCoy's floor. "Maybe they don't care—or maybe they're afraid, too."

Margaret Burrage, McCoy's former next-door neighbor, says she used to call police frequently when she heard fights in the halls or sounds like someone was trying to break into an apartment. "After a while I didn't bother no more—they wouldn't never come up. I think them police is scared of that buildin' just as well as we were."

Says former resident Perry Smith: "They'll come, find out the elevator's not workin'—they go back out the door. They're not walkin' up those stairs." It's probably because of this belief, widely subscribed to in the project, that McCoy made a point of saying the elevator was working when she called 911.

The two men arrested by police in the McCoy murder both were residents of ABLA. Edward Turner, 19, was arrested in his row house apartment a few days after the killing. Unemployed, Turner has no convictions, but had been out on bond on a charge of unlawful use of a weapon. On June 9, police caught up with the other suspect they were seeking, 25-year-old John Hondras, after getting a tip he was in a ninth-floor apartment of an Abbott high rise a block from the one McCoy lived in. Officers found him hiding under a bed. Also unemployed, Hondras has previous convictions for robbery and possession of a stolen vehicle.

Apartment 1108—the one from which the killers came—was leased, and the rent had been paid on it through May, but Leuser says its tenants were not the lessees. Addicts frequented the apartment, neighbors told me. Detectives found no drug paraphernalia in 1108, but "they had two days to remove any stuff," Leuser says. "They knew the police were going to come sooner or later." The residents of 1108 included relatives of Hondras.

When Leuser inspected McCoy's apartment after her body was found, he noted the opening in the bathroom wall where the medicine cabinet ought to have been. Beyond the pipes, he could see the back of the medicine cabinet in 1108. When he was in that apartment interviewing its residents, he went to their bathroom and tugged on the medicine cabinet. It seemed secure.

But after repeated interviews by Leuser and his partner, Detective Mannina, several residents of the building fingered Hondras and Turner, saying they had used the medicine cabinet route into McCoy's apartment. Sometime after killing McCoy, and before she was found Friday, they nailed the cabinet in 1108 back in place, the witnesses alleged. This mode of entering an apartment was new to Leuser, but after 17 years of working in ABLA, nothing surprises. Someone comes up with a new crime technique, he says, "and then they spread the good news to all the others."

The case against Hondras and Turner is in its pretrial stages. Neither defendant has yet entered a plea.

It would be nice to report that McCoy's death has at least prompted the CHA to resolve the medicine cabinet dilemma. "They usually wait until someone dies—then they jump," Butler says. Indeed, the agency took no steps toward remedying the problem before McCoy's death, even though several such break-ins had been reported to it. But it doesn't appear the CHA is doing much even now.

CHA public affairs director Helene Colvin minimized the extent of the medicine cabinet problem when I spoke with her in July. The agency had received "only isolated reports" of such break-ins, "fewer than ten and probably only seven" in the last 18 months.

But even just a half dozen reports of such break-ins in 18 months indicates a serious problem, says James Maurer, commander of Area Four detectives. At least three times as many such break-ins as have been reported have probably occurred, Maurer says, because of how often crimes in housing projects go unreported. Employees at ABLA consider Maurer's estimate conservative.

Colvin told me in July that the agency had begun securing medicine cabinets in apartments "where there is a potential risk." Colvin wouldn't say how the cabinets were being secured, or how she defined "potential risk." A month later, I spoke with numerous residents of McCoy's building and other Abbott high rises who live in apartments at the ends of the halls; these included six tenants whose apartments are adjacent to vacant ones. None had had a CHA carpenter or janitor even look at their medicine cabinets. My subsequent phone calls to Colvin seeking an explanation were not returned.

Vernita McCoy is considering suing the CHA over her mother's death. While landlords in Illinois have no special obligation to safeguard tenants from criminal acts, they have been held liable for crimes that were directly related to the condition of the premises, when such crimes were foreseeable.

The CHA's paucity of funds prevents it from providing better security for residents, Colvin told me in July. "This agency desperately wants to provide even better security than is provided in the private market. But we are hampered by the extraordinary deferred maintenance costs that we've inherited. As we can, we will begin to address these problems step by step. We obviously cannot address a $750 million problem in one year." (As with everything else in this beleaguered agency, the public affairs department is in disarray. After receiving a highly critical performance review, Colvin recently quit as director.)

The Janitor says the medicine cabinets could be bolted together and attached to the masonry, so that they could be removed only with a power tool. This would make it more difficult for janitors and plumbers to check the pipes, but at least it would stop the break-ins, he says. It would be fairly simple and inexpensive. So why isn't it being done? "Hey, c'mon!" the Janitor says, laughing. "We can't even get wood to put over the openings!"

Siegel and the Janitor marvel at the grip of a project—how firmly it hangs on to residents, how it squeezes the life from them.

"People living in them become hopeless and helpless," Siegel says. "They stop dreaming—they don't even have a concept of what it would be like not to be there." Nobody enjoys being there, but "it's like the abused child—they're more comfortable, at least they know what to expect."

The Janitor: "They call this the ABLA development? It's the ABLA settlement. It is a place to keep people out of the mainstream. The system really doesn't intend for these people to go anywhere. It's 'put 'em there and keep 'em there.'"

High-rise projects are no place for the healthy, let alone the mentally ill, Siegel says. "If we could just move our clients to a decent place, where they weren't surrounded by crime and drugs, most of them would do OK." Had McCoy been able to leave her hellhole, Siegel believes her outlook would have been good: she pictures Ruthie Mae continuing to visit the center, completing her GED courses, perhaps getting a simple part-time job, and managing, even enjoying, her life. She was headed in that direction.

"I need help now getting an apartment somewhere else—I gotta get outta there," Ruthie Mae told Siegel on Wednesday, April 22, not long before she got in the van that took her back to her high-rise home.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg; photos/Mike Tappin.

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