The lion vanishes: a Lincoln Park crime story | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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The lion vanishes: a Lincoln Park crime story

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Audrey Reich is convinced that the fellow in blue jeans she saw hopping over her front fence had something to do with the theft of her lion. Unfortunately for her, she has no proof. The fence jumper--who works for a construction company that's rehabbing the row house next to Reich's--denies her accusations, and police have cleared him and his coworkers of all her charges.

Nonetheless, someone stole her lion. It's been missing from her Lincoln Park home since June 23, and a 400-pound stone lion does not simply stand up and walk away--particularly after it's been resting in the same spot for the better part of 15 years.

Reich wants her lion, actually a lion's bust, back. She wants it back so bad that she's peppered the city with posters offering a $500 reward for information leading to its recovery (call 935-4809, if you have any clues). She's talked to the papers, police, and politicians. If the case doesn't crack soon she swears she'll hire a private eye.

"It's a gorgeous lion. I've had it for years," says Reich, who manages several north-side apartment buildings. "I think it came from the old Garrett theater, which used to be a movie theater downtown. I can't remember where I got it. I can't remember exactly when I got it. And I can't remember how much it cost. I know it's worth at least $4,000--some appraisers might say $8,000. But money's not the point. It's my lion. I love it. And I want it back!"

Reich and the renovators had clashed several times before the day her lion was stolen. The renovators park their trucks on the sidewalk, Reich complains. They don't always clean up. And they aren't nearly as efficient or professional as she thought they should be. "I know something about rehab--I've been in real estate since 1963," she says. "Just look at my house. This house is completely gutted and rehabbed. You should have seen it before I moved here--what a mess."

Now her house is filled with sculpture, African masks, and paintings. "The Tribune wrote this house up," she says. "They called it the 'collector's house.' Animals are part of my collection. I love animals, including lions. Especially lions. I have an affinity for lions. I just love them because they're so big and beautiful. The lion at the Lincoln Park Zoo knows my voice. Actually, it's a tiger. Tigers, lions--they're all part of the cat family. I have a cat--Rusty. I found him outside all beat up and bloody one day, and I took him in. I also have a dog. I like wolves, too. My dog may be part wolf. He's from the hills of North Carolina, and he howls constantly."

It was that howling dog that she says told her something was wrong with her stone lion. "My dog was barking and barking. I thought he was barking because the workers had dropped some debris. So I walked over to the window to see what the fuss was about--and I noticed this fellow jumping over the fence. I went outside and I said, 'Why were you jumping over my fence?' And he said, 'I dropped my keys.' That's when I looked down and noticed my lion was missing."

She immediately ran back into the house and called 911. "I told the operator that someone had stolen my lion. They said, 'A real lion?' I said, 'No, a stone one.'"

Within a few minutes, a police officer was at her door.

"I was crying, I was upset," Reich says. "There were these three workers standing on the doorway of the renovated house, and they were laughing at me. The police officer was nice, but he said, 'Lady, there's nothing I can do.'"

After that policeman left, Reich called 911 again. "The same police officer returned, but this time he was with a policeman in a white cap--that means he's a superior. The superior told me that there was nothing he could do, because he hadn't seen the man with the lion and neither had I. He was trying to pacify me. But he wasn't doing police work. I told him, 'Look in their trucks.' He didn't look in their trucks. I said, 'Question the men.' He didn't question the men. I said, 'Tell me their names.' He wouldn't tell me their names."

At this point Reich was fuming. It wasn't so much that her lion was missing--though that troubled her deeply--as that the entire incident suggested a breakdown in law and order. For months her neighborhood had been shaken by reports of break-ins, robberies, muggings, and murders. Admittedly, her complaint was not nearly so dramatic. Still, it was a crime.

"This is not the first time I've questioned the quality of police service," says Reich. "On February 9 I was walking my dog through the park. I remember the sidewalk was clear and my dog was about 50 feet ahead of me. That's the last thing I remember. When I woke, I was bleeding. My doctor said everything on my right side had been crushed. He couldn't wire the bones together. They were so crushed, he had to take bone and cartilage from inside my nose and put them in my cheek. That's called reconstructive surgery. I'm still being seen by a neurologist.

"A young fellow found me in the park about 50 feet from the sidewalk. Either I was pulled there or I had crawled there--I can't remember. The doctor said someone must have bashed me in the face with a bat or something. The point is that the police did nothing. There was a patrol car sitting there too. They watched me. They didn't get out of the car. They assumed I had fallen on the ice. But I didn't fall. If I fell, I wouldn't have sustained those injuries. You can understand why I was so angry when I didn't get much help with my lion."

Reich called the police at least five times in the days following the theft. Eventually, detective Mark Reiter came to her home. "Reiter said he was going to look into it, but that he would be gone for two days," says Reich. "Only he was gone for four days. When he came back, he said he called a number. I said, 'What number?' He said, 'I can't remember.' He said, 'I talked to the contractor.' I said, 'Who is the contractor?' He said, 'I don't know.' I got upset. I said, 'Forget it. Give me the information you've uncovered, and I'll call a private eye.' He didn't like that. He said, 'Lady, I get four of these [complaints] a day.' I had to realize that was a lot. And then he hung up."

Reiter sighs at the mention of Reich's name. "There's nothing unusual about her case," he insists. "[Thieves] will take anything out of yards--barbecues, statues, birdbaths--anything that's not tied down. I investigate property crimes. I work out of Area Six--that's roughly from the Chicago River north to the city limits. I get five cases a day, and I work six days a week. So that's 30 crimes a week, 48 weeks a year--that's about 1,500 a year. Of which I clear maybe 400. So what happened to Audrey is not unusual at all."

With a few questions, Reiter found that the renovator is named Scott Mayer and that he runs a company called Division One Construction. The guy in blue jeans who hopped over Reich's fence is Mayer's secretary's brother. "This is a classic case of someone being at the wrong place at the wrong time," says Reiter. "I talked to Mayer, and I found that Audrey had had a beef with these guys before. She didn't like where they were parking their trucks and so on. So this Mayer guy was working on the house, and some debris fell into the yard. And he told the secretary's brother to go get it. That's when Audrey saw the kid jump over the fence.

"I told Audrey that, and she said, 'No, that's the guy who stole my lion.' Think about that. That lion must weigh about 400 pounds. How can one guy haul it away? And why would they want to? This is a fledgling construction company that the guy operates out of his house. Why is he going to jeopardize this kind of operation for a stone lion? I figure they happened to show up minutes after someone else stole Audrey's lion. Like I said, it was bad timing."

Mayer says he and his workers are innocent. "She has been a problem from day one--she's been complaining about everything," says Mayer. "Now she says we took her lion. Why would we take her lion? We've got more important things to do than take someone's lion. We have to finish renovating that house."

Undaunted, Reich drove past Mayer's office, which is not far from her home. "I should have rung the doorbell, but I was scared," she says. "So what I did was that I put my reward posters on the trees and poles in the front and back of the house. If the lion was anywhere, I thought it would be in the garage behind the house. Of course, I didn't look in the garage."

But Reiter did. "The lion wasn't in the garage," he says. "I don't know where the lion is. The case is suspended--which means the leads we followed up on were negative, and that no one's actually working on the case. But if something comes up, we'll look into it."

But Reich is still on the case. "For all I know, my lion could be in California by now," she says. "But I'm not giving up. I'll continue to circulate the reward fliers. I even put them on the south side--at 1800 S. Indiana. A lot of cabs park there, and I figured those cabbies are, you know, all over the city. They see a lot of things."

So far the fliers have generated a few phone calls, but no firm leads. One of them was anonymously sent to her with the following message scrawled on its back: "It's been sold for twice that. Bye, bye." Reich dismisses the letter as a prank.

"My cousin suggested that I call the historical society, which I did," she says, laughing. "I figured their curator might have heard something. I called and this lady said, 'He's in the basement for the whole day, and he can't come out.' I said, 'Can he take a phone call?' She said, 'There's no phone down there.' I said, 'Can you take a message?' She said, 'I don't know if he takes messages.' I said, 'Can I come there?' She said, 'I don't know.' Something special must be going on in that basement.

"But seriously, I'm not giving up. Everyone's mad at me because I won't walk away. They ought to know I'm not the type who just walks away."

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

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