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Who Killed Carlos Portis?

Who carked three Ks into his belly? And why are the police calling it an accidental death?



Saturday, May 9, 1987: A woman reports seeing six white males hang a black man from a telephone pole in a vacant field east of 7400 South Kedzie. "I have not been able to sleep since I saw that man hanging from the pole," said the woman in an interview with the Chicago Defender (the only paper to report her story). "Those white men lynched him right here in Chicago in the year 1987."

Monday, May 11: About three miles away from the reported hanging, in an alley running along a railroad embankment that separates the white south-side enclave of Canaryville from the black neighborhood to the east, a Conrail security officer discovers the body of a young black man under a pile of plywood and other debris.

"There were numerous marks (possibly bruises) on the hands, arms and trunk of the victim's body," reads the initial police report. "On the forehead there were three (3) letter Ks embedded in the flesh of the victim. . . . Also, on the abdomen of the victim were three (3) letter Ks embedded in the flesh manner also unknown."

Wednesday, May 13: The dead man is identified as Carlos Portis, an autoworker from the south side. Police dismiss the possibility that a lynching has taken place. Although an autopsy has determined that the victim was beaten and sustained six broken ribs, Detective Thomas Quinn is quoted to the effect that police have ruled out foul play and are not investigating Portis's death as a homicide. Soon the police are discounting both the woman's account of a lynching and the letters scratched in the dead man's flesh. The initials are said to be not "KKK," but gang-related lettering. Detectives reportedly believe that the witness concocted the lynching story to cover up for her lateness in reporting to work at a nearby factory. The Cook County medical examiner is quoted as saying, "I would say the victim was not hung but of course it could be argued"; he determines the cause of death to be an overdose of cocaine and alcohol. The death is classified as accidental.

"Tosh" was Carlos Portis's nickname among friends and family. "How could someone so full of life be so dead?" asks his mother, Mrs. Elsie Ward. She's sitting in the living room of her neat middle-class home on Martin Luther King Drive. Her three other sons, all younger than Tosh, walk or run through the house as we talk. "I'm so thankful to God I had him as long as I did. He lit up my life."

Carlos Portis grew up in this house, Mrs. Ward having moved here when he was less than a year old. As he got older and went to work, he took the apartment upstairs; his mother could hear him moving around when he was home, and his brothers often visited. Elsie Ward hands me snapshots; they show a lively man with a bright, expressive face. "He had that type of personality," she comments. "He liked people, all colors. He even had friends of all colors." Carlos Portis would have been 29 years old on May 15, four days after his body was discovered.

Mrs. Ward is confused and angry. "You have three different stories here," she says, referring to the intimations of a lynching, a drug overdose, and gang-related violence. Her son was not, to her knowledge, involved with either gangs or drugs. "They say he ODed. Did he also beat himself up and put himself under the plywood?" She looks restlessly around the room. "They was too quick to say what it wasn't and they haven't really said what it was." Mrs. Ward looks at me. "What do you think about all this?" she asks insistently. "What do you think?"

The police in the 3rd Area Violent Crimes division, which handled this case, are not anxious to talk about it. Detective Michael Kill, one of the officers who investigated Portis's death, does not want to speak to me because of previous "misrepresentations" by the press in this case. He will not say just what these have been, but he does comment that the KKK "phraseology" was "an unfortunate result" of said misrepresentation. Detective Kill refers me to his unit commander for a public statement.

Sergeant Francis Lee, the division's unit commander, insists the police never reported that "KKK" had been scratched in Portis's stomach. How did the newspapers get this information, then? "The same way they get most of the rest of what they print." How is that? "By guessing." Well, what is his theory of this case? "I don't give theories." Finally Sergeant Lee says he will have someone review the police file on the case and answer my questions about it.

Detective Drew Englert does not seem to offer much more than Sergeant Lee. Based on his knowledge of the case, what does he believe happened? "I can't answer any hypothetical questions." He has not worked on the case, he has simply been assigned to look up in the file those things I might ask about. The woman's account of a lynching was discounted because there was "no evidence that it had occurred." The Portis case was closed because the victim had died of an overdose, which made it an accidental death and not a case of homicide. (Since this conversation I've been told that the case is still open.) Concerning the letters cut in the body, the file contained nothing about possible gang significance. "The only thing I can find is a description." What is it? "That there were three Ks, or what appeared to be three Ks, scratched in the stomach."

Maybe it takes something like this to bring home some of the relations between race and violence that exist in this city, in this country, at this moment in history. In a city with a black mayor and a black superintendent of police, a black man dies under flagrantly suspicious circumstances. Many clues seem to point to white racist violence. Yet within days it's all been swept under the rug. No muss, no fuss. Just another gang/drug-related death. It's been rendered neutral, put under a label that tells us not to care too much and not to inquire at all.

I don't know how and why Carlos Portis died. But I do know that there are a score of unanswered questions here--questions that no one in authority seems interested in even asking, let alone trying to answer. The official explanation of the death is full of holes and uncertainties--and it doesn't take too much poking to find them. None of the major media, none of the arms of government, none of the official and quasi-official agencies in this city has been interested in supplying those pokes--it's just another violent death of another young black man. But I've spent several months looking into the case, off and on, and I'm not comfortable with what I have learned.

The woman who said she saw a lynching will not talk to anyone about it now; several other people who knew or had information about Carlos Portis were also reluctant to talk, apparently fearful of becoming involved. And, as I have said, the police have been reluctant to share what they know. But from what I have been able to determine, it seems that the authorities have turned away from the possibility that this was a racist murder with unseemly haste. No doubt the evidence pointing in this direction is less than clear-cut. But as we'll see, the evidence for Portis's death having been drug- or gang-related is also very far from clear-cut.

Let's look first at the most crucial clue, the lettering scratched on Portis's stomach. These are the symbols that police soon began describing as gang signs; there are two different (and mutually incompatible) versions of the gang-sign theory.

One version was relayed to me by Dr. Robert Stein, Cook County medical examiner. Already on Wednesday, May 13, Stein was quoted as saying, "I think the letters 'KKK' are just a red herring. This connotation probably has nothing to do with the man's death. Those letters appear to have been scratched on the victim's stomach before he died." When I asked Dr. Stein why he had called the lettering a "red herring," he said that the police had pointed out to him that the first letter showed a "devil's fork upside down"--this, they'd informed him, was a gang symbol.

Now there are problems with this explanation on the face of it, for Stein at first appears to be saying that the lettering was "KKK" but that it was scratched there in order to mislead as to the true reason for Portis's death ("a red herring"); then he seems to claim that the letters were not "KKK" after all. Leaving this inconsistency aside, however, what about the "devil's fork" theory? It is true that the Latin Kings often append an upside-down devil's fork to their own "LK" insignia in order to put down the rival Disciples (or Devil's Disciples), who have the three-pronged fork as one of their insignia. But it's hard to see how this sort of gang sign can apply to the lettering on Carlos Portis's stomach.

If you pay attention to the gang graffiti in the Humboldt Park area, a Latin King stronghold, you'll see that the upside-down devil's fork is consistently drawn with square corners and with the middle prong longer than the side prongs (the same is true, actually, of the devil's fork as drawn by Disciples adherents too); also, the fork is always appended to the right "leg" of the K. Neither is true of the first letter cut into Carlos Portis's stomach. And even if this were a correct reading of the first letter, how would one explain the second and third letters, both clearly Ks, on this theory?

The second version of the gang-sign theory does take the second and third letters into account. In this version the lettering is purported to be "LKK," standing for "Latin King Killers" (or Killer). This is indeed a slogan used by rival gangs to show an intent to kill members of the Latin Kings (or to boast of having done so). But again it is hard to see how it applies to the lettering in question. First, although the first of the three symbols is undoubtedly confused, it's almost impossible to see how it can be construed as an L. Second, in Portis's neighborhood the graffiti logo for "Latin King Killers" virtually always involves the two Ks standing back to back (however Dr. Stein showed me a photograph, given him by the police, showing some "LKK" graffiti in which the two Ks were not back to back).

Finally there's the matter of the motivation for the lettering. Right from the first, police were quoted as theorizing that "the initials may have been used to confuse detectives." This, of course, was when the initials were presumed to be "KKK." But later, shortly after the gang-lettering theory was put forward, police were once again speculating that "the suspects carved the initials on the victim to mislead the authorities." Now the issue becomes confused. Did the killers (presuming there were more than one) carve "KKK" in order to mislead police? Then what becomes of the gang-lettering theory? Or did they carve "LKK" to mislead police? Then what happens to the gang connection? Can the police have it both ways?

Without the mystery of the letters, the police case would be relatively straightforward--or at least as straightforward as a hundred other such deaths. The medical examiner's office determined that Carlos Portis's blood contained 113 milligrams of alcohol (per deciliter), 0.17 micrograms of cocaine (per milliliter), and 2.01 micrograms (per milliliter) of benzoylecgonine, an intermediate product of cocaine. On this basis Medical Examiner Robert Stein ruled that the death was caused by acute cocaine toxicity and classified it as accidental. Yet this aspect too is a lot less clear-cut than it might first appear.

The above level of alcohol would have meant that Carlos Portis was mildly intoxicated. (One hundred milligrams is the legal level of intoxication.) And the cocaine and benzoylecgonine levels by no means support an automatic judgment of death by overdose. Researchers say there is in actuality no predictable level at which cocaine will cause death. A stimulant of sorts, cocaine sets off spasms of the blood vessels and can thus cause heart attacks, but the circumstances under which this occurs are not well understood; in any case they are extremely variable. Although there is a generally accepted "lethal dose" established of one gram, "it doesn't mean anything," according to Ronnie Lonoff of the national Cocaine Hotline. Some people can take that amount and survive, Lonoff says, while others can take much less and die from it. According to Roger Brown, a pharmacologist with the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the use of cocaine induces tolerances in some respects and sensitivity in others. There is great individual variability due to presently unknown factors.

Arthur McBay, chief toxicologist of the state of North Carolina, told me "There's no particular concentration that you can say will or will not cause death." McBay characterizes the amounts found in Carlos Portis's blood as "a minor amount of cocaine and a moderate amount of benzoylecgonine." This case would fall on the lower end of the curve of cocaine-related deaths correlated with levels of the drug and its derivatives. "If he didn't take a long time to die," concludes McBay, "then I wouldn't expect a person to die from these dosages." Michael Peat, director of toxicology for a California drug company, agreed that the amounts of cocaine-related substances found in Portis's bloodstream were "not particularly large," being along the lines of "what you'd expect to find from recreational use" of the drug.

Of course none of this proves that Carlos Portis did not die from the cocaine found in his bloodstream, so let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that he did. Does it follow that it was an "accidental death"? Remember he was beaten so severely as to break six ribs. Someone scratched letters into his flesh. He may have been hanged. His body was thrown in an alley and covered over with debris. None of this was accidental. Isn't it possible that the cocaine was ingested under force?

Police say that Portis was a narcotics dealer, that he was beaten after a drug deal went sour and subsequently died of an overdose. In the final newspaper accounts of this case (on May 20), police were said to have evidence that Portis was unable to pay for 20 bags of cocaine that he had bought on consignment. They theorized that after those who beat him realized that he had died unexpectedly, they carved the letters to mislead authorities.

But this account conflicts with the medical examiner's report that the letters were scratched in before death. If the medical examiner is right about this, then the whole police scenario becomes most implausible, for putting in the letters before death would seem to imply the intention to kill him and leave the letters as a sign.

Was Carlos Portis a drug dealer? His mother doesn't think so. And she says that, in any case, if he had needed money in an emergency (to pay for the alleged 20 bags) he would surely have come to her for it. According to those I've been able to talk to who knew him at the plant where he worked, "Tosh" was generally thought to be someone who used drugs (as do many there), but was not known as a dealer.

One way or another, this was a violent death. There are problems, at the very least, with the theories that attribute it to gangs and drug deals. But could it have been a racist murder? Is that not equally implausible?

The police seem to think so, but I wonder. White racism is not exactly a stranger to Chicago. From the race riot of 1919, in which 38 people died, through the Washington-Byrne-Daley-Epton mayoral contest of recent memory, this is not a city that has ever lacked for public expressions of an intense desire to keep blacks down; nor does one have to travel far today to find neighborhoods, bars, and households in which "nigger" is the noun of choice for referring to black people.

Perhaps more significant, Chicago has been a center for organized white racist groups. The Nazis in Marquette Park are an old story, of course, but northern Illinois historically has been, and still is, the home of several Ku Klux Klan groups as well. In recent years Chicago has also been a center for an alliance of Nazis, Klan, and other groups under the umbrella of the "Christian Identity" ideology, which holds that white Americans are the chosen people of God, Jews are agents of the devil, and blacks are subhuman tools of the Jews. This is what Chip Berlet, a longtime watcher of right-wing extremists, calls Chicago's "white racist alliance"--a loose network of action-oriented organizations and individuals built around the shared ideal of white supremacy. "These new racist ideologues think Chicago is a good place to organize the white revolution," says Berlet.

The coalition of right-wing racist organizations in the context of Identity theology has been a nationwide phenomenon of the 1980s. These groups have suffered setbacks over the past year or so--arrests and indictments of members of Identity groups such as the Order and the Posse Comitatus--leading some to see this as a movement in decline. A recent report on The Hate Movement Today by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (ADL), for example, is subtitled "a chronicle of violence and disarray," and concludes that "in consequence of the superb job done by the Department of Justice and law enforcement agencies in reacting to the criminal violence of the hate groups, and thanks to the good sense and decency of the great majority of Americans in rejecting their message of bigotry, the hate movement is weaker today than in many years." The report goes on, though, to mention "exceptions to the overall pattern of decline," including gains by Klan and Nazi groups in the greater Chicago area such as "two of the most visible and active factions of the Tuscumbia-based Knights of the KKK" and the skinhead youth group "Romantic Violence." The report also mentions a "recent gathering in Chicago to honor Adolf Hitler's birthday."

Others who research this subject comment that the ADL has a history of downplaying the strength and vitality of racist and right-wing groups. But whatever the relative robustness of these organizations, it is clear that they continue to exist and in some sense flourish in the Chicago area and that their violent hatred is directed mainly against black people. As far as the death of Carlos Portis is concerned the activities of these groups may not even be the main point. It would be quite possible for his death to have been a racist murder without the participation of any such organization. "KKK" is a very widely known symbol, and someone could use it quite "sincerely" without being a member of any Klan group.

Earlier this year a group of white youths attacked three black men whose car had broken down in the Howard Beach section of Queens, New York, chasing one man (Michael Griffith) onto a busy highway where he was struck by a car and killed. Many have pointed to this attack, as well as to the acquittal of Bernhard Goetz in the shootings of four black youths, as evidence of a renewed racism in the United States. Black leaders have linked these occurrences, along with increasing racist incidents of a less violent nature on college campuses, to a national climate in which many gains of the 1960s have been attacked or reversed by the Reagan administration.

The Howard Beach attack, the Goetz shootings--these are widely known and have received national and international publicity. Yet how many other violent racist attacks take place in this country that are never even known as such? In the summer of 1964 national guardsmen and FBI agents conducted an intensive search of swamps and rivers in Mississippi. They were looking for the bodies of James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Michael Goodman, three civil rights workers who had disappeared at the onset of "Freedom Summer," during which hundreds of students went to Mississippi to help in the struggle for basic civil rights among the black people of that state. As soldiers dragged one river they found a black man, drowned, with an anvil tied to his neck. His family knew he was missing, but no one had known he'd been killed, nor was anyone ever prosecuted for his murder. How many other "unnoticed" murders of black men were there before this--and after?

Last March, a couple of months before the death of Carlos Portis, a black man was found hanging by the neck from a tree in Central Park, his hands and feet reportedly bound with nylon rope. Within a week, police were saying that it was probably a suicide. New York's Amsterdam News, the only paper in the city to give the case extensive coverage, reported that two other black men had been found hanged over the previous year, both classified as suicides over the protests of their families. In Chicago this September a black man was found dead in his cardboard "bed" near a loading dock beneath the Executive House hotel on Wacker Drive. A hollow aluminum arrow, the cause of his death, protruded 11 inches out of his chest. Not too far away, on lower Columbus Drive below the Hyatt Regency, was pasted a sticker from the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group with a post office box in Bridgeview, Illinois, warning of the danger of white children becoming a minority in the future. Police first suggested that the arrow had been shot from a crossbow, a favored weapon among survivalist and right-wing groups. Later they changed their minds about the crossbow and called the killing an "isolated incident."

Carlos Portis is dead. White racism is still very much alive in Chicago, in America. Do the two facts have anything to do with each other?

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

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