“The defining moments of our lives don’t come with advance warning.”
–Sally Yates, Former Acting Attorney General of the U.S.
May 24, 2017
As we prepare to leave the town that has been our home for the last 19 years, there’s a story that some people know and some don’t that traces the arc of our years here that bears retelling. I’ve been asked to tell it many times over the last 12 years. In its immediate aftermath, I couldn’t leave the house without being asked to tell it or in some way be reminded of it. With the passage of time and the inevitable turnover of neighbors and friends, I’m asked about it much less frequently. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about that day almost every time I walk down our street. I retell it here not for any purpose other than posterity and to share some reflections about that day that have grown more refined over time.
We moved to Wilmette in 1998, shortly after I dodged a work-related bullet by not moving to Charlotte, NC for a job working with people I didn’t think I would have enjoyed in a place that didn’t feel right for our family for a variety of reasons. Our family of five had outgrown our three-bedroom, 1923 French Tudor in Arlington Heights, and we had been looking to move within that community when the Charlotte opportunity first appeared. I took the call to discuss the job on an April day after a storm dropped four inches of slush and I was walking to the train without any boots, ruining my shoes. Frustrated by the seeming endlessness of winter, Charlotte seemed like a good idea at the time. Despite my misgivings about the position, we were willing to entertain moving for the financial rewards it offered. Before accepting the position, I spoke to my boss, telling him that I didn’t want to go, but felt I had no economic choice. To my surprise and relief, the firm matched the offer and made me feel warm and also fuzzy. With the economic deal neutralized, I could focus on working with the people I liked, in a place I felt comfortable.
But our willingness to relocate raised a question: why were we willing to move 800 miles away, but only look for a new home within a one square mile area of Arlington? It was time to broaden the search. With a helpful sister-in-law in Evanston, the new search area included Wilmette and after a couple disappointments in both towns, we landed here.
Six months later, that decision to avoid the Charlotte job came full circle as the Charlotte firm bought us out, and the people who had tried to hire me and whom I disappointed by not coming were suddenly my bosses. Having already said “no” to them and their town once and understanding that the future of the group was in Charlotte, I knew the next segment of my career wouldn’t be easy.
Our transition to Wilmette was eased by the fact that there were several people in my group who lived in town, as did a couple other people I knew around the firm. One was an Arlington native. The other was a Canadian. Both played tennis and invited me into their regular games. We’d frequently meet at a park in Southeast Wilmette that was walking distance from our homes.
The Canadian had been with the bank for many years, and was stationed for a time in Brazil. It was there that he and his wife adopted a small boy. I think he was about three years old when they took him in. Whenever anyone spoke of the boy’s life before the adoption, it would invariably include tales of how challenging it had been, including references to the child wandering the streets alone and scavenging for food. Through the years, I’d hear stories from my colleague of his adopted son’s challenges in school or sports with his fiery temper, and how it taxed my Canadian friend’s essential Canadian-ness.
Knowing that the bank’s long-term plan was to aggregate the people they wanted in Charlotte and get rid of the rest, I began looking for another job in Chicago shortly after arriving in Wilmette. Despite no longer working together, the tennis games continued, even though I saw the Canadian less frequently.
Three jobs later, and for reasons more complicated than bear telling here, we arrived on Beechwood Avenue in April 2005. I had started working for a group that covered the mortgage industry. Even then, there were signs of a looming collapse (although it was viewed as “another mortgage cycle,” and not yet as something that would break the world’s financial system). I had a client from South Carolina who had their annual bank meeting at Westmoreland CC in Wilmette. I’ve forgotten exactly why a Greenville, SC company would do such a thing, but they enjoyed the facility and it made it much easier on their Chicago bankers, so we embraced it. It was May 23, 2005.
We had always had dogs growing up. I loved animals in general, and always seemed to connect with them. If you’re walking your dog down the street chances are good that I’ll greet your dog before acknowledging you. Having the love of a dog is an irreplaceable feeling for me. Their need for you to care for them is matched by their desire to care for you. The way they hug you with their eyes, and know when you need some of their kindness. Their unrestrained joy when they see you after an absence of any length is infectious to me.
Our first dog arrived when I was in kindergarten; a black dachshund named Schatzie. She made it until I was in 5th grade, when she succumbed to something I can’t remember. I recall having to walk the three blocks home at lunch on days when my mother was substitute teaching to tend to her during her last days. I remember being tremendously sad and lonely in the days following her death. I was ten.
A couple years after Schatzie left us, we adopted Mindy, a rambunctious Scottish Terrier. She was with us from 7th grade until I was out of college and married.
My wife wasn’t a dog person. I’m told they had a dog for a very short time when she was very young (only long enough to take one picture, I think). As a result, the absence of a dog in her life left her with no pressing need to get one as our family grew. Knowing that she’d be the one to tend to the pet most of the time, I deferred to her on the subject. As the kids grew, the demands for a pet grew more incessant. At one point, the girls asked for a cat. It led to the only real lie we’ve told our kids. We told them that we were allergic to cats. While Midge wasn’t a dog person, she was definitely not a cat person. (Cat people tell me often about how great their cat is, and proclaim their pet’s canine qualities. If the best thing you can say about your cat is how much it’s like a dog, you should have gotten a dog and saved yourself the trouble.)
By the fall of 2004, we could wait no longer, and contacted a breeder in Indiana for a cockapoo. Born in September, Tillie arrived at Thanksgiving. She was everything we wanted. Calm, cute, and playful, she was great in all respects. I think she only barked a dozen times in her horribly short life. We found that she had calcifying discs in her back at age three that left her in need of surgery when one of them ruptured. Given her very young age, we thought she deserved a chance, so she made it through the surgery and recovery, only to have another disc go out two years later. With six more deteriorating discs, and a deteriorating quality of life, it was clear that she couldn’t go on. She was so sad at the end. We waited for our oldest to come home from college at Thanksgiving for one final goodbye. The last month, November 2009, was an emotional nightmare. I remember everything about the last walk we had and the last time I saw her. The fundamental unfairness of having that happen to such a sweet little dog breaks my heart. She and her sad eyes were looking to me for help and I feel like I failed her. I’m (obviously) still not over it.
With our move to Beechwood in 2005, Tillie, then about 8-months old, needed to learn her new boundaries, so we’d take her in the back yard on a leash and walk her around while we waited for the infernal invisible fence to be installed. On that May morning, having returned from one of my infrequent trips to Life Time Fitness and with some time on my hands before my meeting, I walked Tillie around the backyard. The street was buzzing with activity as kids were on their way to school. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the last day for seniors at New Trier.
You grow familiar with noises. The ones from your neighborhood and those from the inventory of sound you’ve accumulated over a lifetime. The way the neighbor kid screams at her brother. The teenagers yelling for their friends. The neighbor’s car and the way they zoom away. While we’d not lived there long, one thing was certain. The level of activity on the street and the high number of little kids meant that it was impossible or simply dangerous to drive fast. But as I stood holding the leash in my backyard that morning, I heard what had to be a truck coming down the block from east to west at a high rate of speed and accelerating. I knew it was a truck not just because of the volume of the engine, but from the sound the knobby tires made as they raced up our concrete street. It got my attention. I began to walk toward our back door.
Then suddenly there was a quick series of other sounds; two quick thuds, a crash–a small but unmistakable one, then screaming.
Running the last few steps into our kitchen, I yelled at our daughter to get the dog off the leash and headed for the front door. By the time I got out the front door the screaming had stopped. I looked to the west to see that a black pickup truck had jumped the curb and had hit a car parked at the end of the driveway three doors down. It was stopped at an angle to the car in the driveway on the grass. Next to the truck, I saw a man in a white t-shirt standing over a woman, kicking her repeatedly. While that was bad enough, I also saw that she was making no effort to defend herself. I took off running toward him, screaming something really smart like, “Hey, stop that!” The clear thinking had already stopped.
I’ve heard criminal lawyers talk about the misconception that eyewitness testimony is detailed and accurate. The Innocence Project, a place I volunteered while between banking gigs, says that faulty eyewitness testimony is responsible for 70% of false convictions. In the minutes that followed, I gained a firsthand appreciation for how confused and foggy memories can be. While I wrote most of what you’re about to read down contemporaneously, there were details I couldn’t remember even five minutes after it was over.
As I got to the site of the incident, I saw two people standing near the front step of the house. I identified them as older, like my parents’ age. The man was wearing a jacket and tie. I have no idea what the woman had on. Even though I was thirty feet from them, I couldn’t tell you what they looked like. It was a little like a Magritte painting, except their faces were pixelated rather than covered with apples. I couldn’t understand why they were just standing there, as the young woman lay motionless.
“Call the cops!” I yelled as I ran by, in a voice that implied, “you idiots!” It was the last I saw of that couple for three or four months. I later found out that they were just standing there because the older man had tried to stop the beating and had been attacked himself by the young man.
Having started running as soon as he heard me yelling, the assailant had a three-house lead on me, heading west down the sidewalk. I yelled at him. “We have your car. We’ll find out who you are,” never even thinking that it might be a stolen vehicle. He looked back, but kept running down the sidewalk. Two houses down from the incident, a delivery guy walked into the front yard and asked what was going on as I ran past. I shouted something and saw him start running with me, about a house and a half behind me.
It was only as he approached the corner that it occurred to me that he might be armed, but for some reason, I didn’t think he had a gun. I recall thinking, “He might have a knife.” Weird, no? Afterword, I thought I’d never seen anyone that angry before and if he’d have had a gun he would have already used it. Thank god that wasn’t the case.
The gap between us was growing. I’ve always hated running and never do it. As a high school tennis player, our coach would make us run 2 1/2 miles if practice didn’t go as he’d intended, so I always associated running with punishment. “I’ll take up running the next time I see a runner smiling while they do it,” said Joan Rivers. I felt the same way, but on this day, I wished I had been better at it. He’d rounded the corner and was heading south on Hunter, with his speed increasing as I was fading.
Instinct is a funny thing. A couple weeks ago, I was in an Uber going to O’Hare and got rear-ended in heavy traffic on the Kennedy Expressway. Already late and unable to get to a CTA stop without a long walk, I got out of the car and hailed a taxi in the middle of the highway. I didn’t really sit there and think about it. I evaluated my options (sit there and wait, go get on the L, get in another car), checked them off one by one (the insurance information exchange was going to take a while, the L was too far and it was raining, let’s try to get another ride) and just did it.
Once I got to the corner, the chasee was already across Kenilworth Avenue, still running down the sidewalk. It was looking hopeless.
I don’t know why I stepped into the road and started waving my arms to get someone to stop, but I did. In some ways it was brilliant, but I was flagging down cars going in the wrong direction, so it wasn’t that brilliant. A car with a mom and a young girl in the back-seat heading north slowed, and I approached the drivers’ side and quickly give her the story, asking her for a ride to catch up to the guy running south in the white t-shirt. I was convincing enough for her to agree to give me a ride, but not without some precautions. She ordered her daughter into the front seat, and me into the back. She whipped the car around to go head south. As we started, we passed my delivery man friend, still running after the guy.
“Stop and pick that guy up. He’s helping me catch him.” I said. To her great credit, the woman refused. “I’m not letting two strange men into my car,” she said. Smart woman. I’d never seen her before, and haven’t since that day. I later found out her name was Nancy.
Now southbound, we passed him as he crossed Chestnut, still running down the sidewalk. Nancy pulled over at Thornwood and let me out. We now had him bracketed, with the delivery man coming up the rear and me in front.
He was surprised to see me in front of him, thinking he’d lost my old ass a couple blocks back. It is at this point that I have only my third conscious thought since opening my front door: “Now what?”
He came directly at me. The distance he’d covered running seemed to have no effect on him. My time commandeering a vehicle and sitting in the car gave me enough of a break that I could now function, although I was still 20 years his senior. Getting my first up-close look at him, I now see that he’d never neglected arm day at the gym. Not a good sign.
Again, my instincts kicked in. Growing up in the era of Ali, I began to circle clockwise, backpedaling with my hands up like the Greatest of All Time once did. After ducking a couple punches from him, he surprised me by saying, “I give up” a couple times. I think he was waiting for me to drop my guard, because every time he said it, he’d throw a couple more errant punches. At some point, I was able to grab his arm. He spun and as I hung on, I lost my footing. I’m not sure how, but I ended up on top of him, but on my back. I was lucky to get my chin down before his well-toned arm came around to choke my pencil neck. His arm stayed over my mouth and chin, squeezing.
Now on my back, I could see the handful of people gathered around; all but one of them women. While the attempted choking continued, I asked the assembled group, “Is no one going to help me?” It wasn’t meant as a rhetorical question, but it unfortunately functioned as one.
At some point there was a shift of position, and I ended up on top of him, with him on all fours, in the starting position for a wrestling match, again, professing to give up. (I later found out that he was a high school wrestler.) Still fully flexed and ready to spring if I let up on him, I asked, “If you give up, why are you still struggling?” He offered no reply. I think that the only advantage I had was my weight. Finally, a reward for being a fat ass. Having modest control of the situation, I felt a very strong urge to hit him. I didn’t though, fearing that disconnecting from him would give him an opportunity to either escape or attack me. I was content to hang on and ride it out.
Suddenly three squad cars came to a screeching stop. Officers come out with their hands on their guns. Unsure of what they encountered and who was the “bad guy,” there was a moment’s hesitation. Then I felt the kid relax, knowing the end had come. Seconds later, he was handcuffed. It was over.
Starting with the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, we’ve grown sadly accustomed to the grotesque site of police officers beating civilians–or worse. Following the King beating, fellow LAPD officers were quoted as talking about the adrenaline of the chase and how that affects officers once their assailant is caught. At the moment at which my assailant was cuffed and controlled by authorities, it was then that I wanted to kick his ass. It was an almost out of body experience. I remember hearing myself yelling at him. I’ve not hit anyone since I was in 7th grade, but at that moment, I really wanted to go at him. I’m very glad I didn’t. I’m not in any way excusing those officers who participate in those terrible incident. They’re professionals and supposed to be able to control those emotions and act professionally to protect the community and the rights of the accused, but in that moment, I understood a little better what those LA cops were talking about.
I asked the officers about the status of the victim. They looked at each other, perplexed. I was later told that 9-1-1 had received 16 calls from people along the route of the chase, so the police had no clear idea of where they were going or what they were going to find. Unfortunately, in the chaos, apparently no one had called for an EMT. Grabbing a ride home from one of the officers, we stopped in front of the scene of the initial incident. The young girl was still lying there, motionless. A woman was standing over her. I later found out that it was her mother, who had inadvertently witnessed her daughter’s beating, without knowing it was her daughter being victimized.
I walked the remaining distance home. My wife, who had been upstairs drying her hair when I flew out the front door, was still up there with a jet engine in one hand and a brush in the other. Jazzed on adrenaline like never before, I couldn’t sit down. Panting like a dog on a hot day when she finally saw me, she thought I was having a heart attack. Over the next several minutes, I told her what had transpired. We watched the paramedics arrive down the street and the crime scene tape strung up around the yard.
I went to my meeting. I stood in the back and paced for most of it, still unable to sit still and still fighting a racing heartbeat. I played golf that day, too. Unlike most days, I remember nothing of that round, other than talking to my wife who had been contacted by the police, asking me to come in that evening.
When I went to the police station to talk to the Assistant State’s Attorney, I told my story, but I also had some questions about the assailant. Would his family know about my involvement? Was there any reason to be concerned for the safety of my family? How was the victim? Why did this happen?
No, the young lawyer told me, there was no reason to be concerned about your safety. She said, “The young man lived in Southeast Wilmette and…” A bomb went off in my head. I didn’t hear anything after that, for I knew that it was my Canadian friend’s son. A feeling of sadness overcame me, as concern for my friend and his family was added to my concern for the victim and her family.
Over the course of the next few weeks, more of the questions about what had happened and why were answered. We learned he had been romantically involved with the girl, who was two years younger, during their high school days. They had broken up, but he hadn’t handled it well, harassing her in various ways. He eventually left high school early, a departure that was in some way linked by some to his inability to get over their relationship. After that, his life apparently hadn’t worked out as he’d planned and he held her responsible. I was told that since this particular Monday was to be her last day at the high school that caused him such trouble, it seems he had decided to ruin her high school experience as she had ruined his. He was lying in wait for her to walk to school, and he planned on doing harm to her with his truck. When in custody, he told the police, “I was trying to kill her.”
When the ASA told me that during my interview, I responded, “This kid clearly doesn’t watch enough TV.” It was an unfortunate thing for him to admit.
Like many people, I really don’t like those interviews you see on TV where the reporter asks victims or witnesses about what they’re thinking or feeling in the immediate aftermath of something awful. I was hoping that no call would come for me to give one of those interviews. It did. I was reluctant to talk, knowing that the story was much more complicated than people could know, given my connection to the father of the attacker, and I was sensitive to both families. I knew of the need for a pithy quote and worried sounding foolish or flippant. I knew that the story would contain errors–not deliberately, but rather a misstatement or an omission of a meaningful fact. I understand that the number of column inches available isn’t infinite and parts of the story don’t fit, but those factors left me reluctant to participate. The interview request came from the son of a friend of ours. He was a young journalist for the local paper, looking to get started. He was introduced to me as his father’s son. I relented to do the kid a favor. As the interview progressed, I realized that I should have trusted my instincts. Ultimately it was probably fine, because people have short memories and don’t take those things as seriously as I do, but it was still uncomfortable and not something I’d do again.
I don’t remember the exact extent of the victim’s injuries, but I think she at least had a concussion and a broken jaw. There may have been a skull fracture and a collarbone injury in there, too. She was hospitalized for quite a while. We had some friends who had children the same age as the victim. High school graduation was coming. As the day approached, I was told that it wasn’t clear if she’d be able to walk with her class. The day after the ceremony, I was told of the tumultuous ovation she received as she was the final graduate presented, having gone directly from the hospital to the ceremony.
We had no contact with her or her family for an extended period; an almost uncomfortable length of time. But later that summer, we got a call from her mom with a request to come by for a visit. We sat in our back yard and talked. She’d never heard the story of what happened that day. Her mom hadn’t walked down toward our end of the block since it happened. She was quiet and still dealing with all of it when we met. It would have been a lot for an adult of any age to handle, let alone an 18-year old. She was off to college in the fall and anxious to get out of Wilmette. Her mom was anxious to sell the house and get off the block that almost took her daughter. No one would blame either of them for wanting to get out.
In the years since 2005, I’ve received a few Christmas cards from the victim, who is now married and living out of state. We exchanged emails a few years ago, but nothing more. I’m fine with that. I represent a bad day for her. No one should have to relive that experience indefinitely. I hope she’s ok. I think about her when I pass her old house to our east, and pass the site of the incident to our west. We all move on.
Given my relationship with his father, I was uncomfortable with the fact that charges were filed in my name against him, but in the larger scheme, I suspect they meant little. After that first day, I never had any more contact with the police or those prosecuting the case. I heard through friends that he would going to plead guilty to attempted murder and a sentence and prison location were being worked out. He would eventually be sentenced to 7 1/2 years in state prison. During the case, there was a young woman from a nearby suburb who decided to end her life. The method she chose was to get in her car and speed through a crowded intersection. When she did that, she hit another car and killed three people in the same family. She survived. She was sentenced to 3 years in prison. After that, I stopped looking for rational conclusions from the criminal justice system.
My Canadian friend was eventually transferred to Charlotte. I only saw him once after the incident, at the birthday party of a mutual friend. We talked for a short time. I was surprised that he thanked me for being there that morning. He told me that I saved his son from doing worse damage. Until that moment, I’d never really considered that, even after hearing about what he told the police. I heard that retirement was coming soon, and that they hoped to return to Canada. There was one last complication.
While my Canadian colleague and his wife had become U.S. citizens, their son had not. When non-U.S. citizens are released from jail, they are deported to their home country. That meant a trip loomed to a country that he’d not been to since he was a toddler; a place to which he had no connection. Through negotiations with the Canadian government, a deal was cut to let the now 30-year old live in British Columbia with relatives, a few miles north of the U.S. border, while his parents live in Washington on the U.S. side, a few miles south of the Canadian frontier. In 2013, the family was at last reunited in British Columbia.
I concluded early on that the young man wasn’t a truly bad person, despite his actions. He was just someone who’d gotten twisted up and made a series of increasingly horrible decisions. I knew it because of the way he fled. He didn’t cut through yards or scale fences. The entire time, he stayed on the sidewalk. What serious criminal does that? He was scared and he, too, resorted to an instinct bred into him by years of obeying—he ran down the sidewalk. Perhaps that’s overly generous . I don’t know. It really doesn’t matter what I think. He received the punishment the judicial system set out for him and he’s moved on, trying to lead a productive life. I wish him well.
As parents, we’re prisoners to our kids’ actions. No matter how well they’re raised, kids occasionally make poor decisions. We’re just hopeful that no one gets hurt in the process and any damage done is fixable. Most of the time they don’t go as far as this nightmare did, but we’ve all heard stories of the really dumb things kids do that land them in serious trouble. This story is just on the extreme end of that scale. This made me think differently as I watched the news or read stories about crimes. The circle of victims doesn’t just include those involved in the incident. The perpetrator’s family is also sucked into the wake of the event and its long-term complications.
In the first few months after the incident and the story spread, I found myself in conversations with many people about the incident. People who had also adopted children told me that the story exemplified their worst fears; that no matter how good they were at parenting their children, there was something innate, something deep inside the child they couldn’t manage. Something that might lead them to something like what I’d witnessed. Nature or nurture? Then there were those who focused on the fact that we had just moved to the area, looking for deep meaning in the linkage between our move to Beechwood and my being in the backyard that morning to hear the truck race down the street. Do you think that God put you there? Those and others are great questions. I don’t know that I’ll ever land on answers to any of them.
Many people have asked me why I ran toward the incident rather than toward the phone to call the police. That’s a question I’m ready to answer.
Without thinking about it, I’d helped two people avoid a worse situation than each was currently in, which is why we’re here, isn’t it? If you’d have seen it, you’d have done the same thing. I hope that if it was my kid lying there, you’d step in.
Everyone is someone’s kid.