1974 was a deadly year in Chicago

The alarming spike in Chicago homicides this year raises the specter of the city's murder epidemic that began about 1970 and didn't abate until the late 1990s. While 1994 saw the highest per-capita homicide rate in city history, 1974 saw the largest number of people killed: 970.

This is the story of that year.

Chicagoans had seen a precipitous rise in murders since the city registered 395 people killed in 1965. The death toll in the city by the lake topped 800 in 1970 and 1971. And in 1973, the city hit a cruel new record of 864 homicides.

It took 80 minutes for 1974 to post its first homicides (60-year-old Gilbert Glass at 78th Street and Cornell Avenue), and the rate of killings for the rest of the year must have felt unrelenting as sensational slayings grabbed the headlines.

On Jan. 3, an 81-year-old man suffering from dementia shot and wounded an officer before police returned fire and killed him.

Less than two weeks later, residents were confronted with the shocking slaying of a school principal, allegedly by the 14-year-old son of a policeman. The boy, who was upset about being transferred, also allegedly shot and wounded three others.

In a separate incident the next day, a 12-year-old girl vanished, and another 14-year-old boy was held in her beating death. The two high-profile homicides in quick succession, with youths as the alleged perpetrators, must have shaken many residents.

It was just the beginning.

In early February, Chicago police Officer James Campbell was shot in a robbery attempt. The father of five died eight days later. About 1,200 people attended his funeral. On Feb. 27, patrolmen Bruce Garrison and William Marsek were shot and killed in the Raven's Pub on West Foster Avenue after they followed a suspected fugitive into the tavern. The suspect escaped, prompting a massive manhunt that ended in Milwaukee after police killed him during a hostage standoff.

The onslaught continued, and no area of the city was spared. In mid-March, three elderly people were killed in an apartment in an apparent burglary in the 1900 block of North Clark Street. A sergeant on the scene called it, "the cowardliest sort of crime." In early June, a North Side doctor was stabbed to death, allegedly by his 50-year-old son, and that same week police hunted an ex-convict suspected in a triple slaying in the 5700 block of North Winthrop Avenue.

In mid-June, Officer Robert Strugala was killed and his partner was wounded after a ferocious gun battle in a tavern on 26th Street near Kedzie Avenue, and in August, police Sgt. Otha LeMons was killed during an armed robbery at a bar on East 103rd Street. He was off duty.

What was going on? The nation's social net appeared to be tearing apart. The Tribune published a three-part series on the homicides in January 1975 that found, in part: "Police and criminologists express chagrin at what they see as a change in the nature of homicide, long thought to be something that mostly happens indoors among people who know each other, and on hot summer nights."

"There are more senseless, irrational killings," First Deputy Police Superintendent Michael Spiotto told the Tribune for the series. "There are more cases of murder for which we can't determine any motive."

Today, experts point to myriad factors for the homicide epidemic. The nation was in the middle of a recession in 1974, but that could only have exacerbated a murder rate that had jumped before the economic malaise hit.

University of Illinois at Chicago professor John Hagedorn last week pointed out other factors, not the least of which was "a growing desperation of black people as the promise of the '60s died, and deindustrialization ravaged both jobs and hope."

He also said street gangs were battling each other to control the drug trade once held by mobsters. And Chicago wasn't alone, Hagedorn said, with homicides spiking in New York City, Los Angeles and especially Detroit.

And what was to be done about it? Letter writers in the Tribune demanded a return of the death penalty; Perspective articles called for better gun control. Other experts called for stepping up the war on drugs.

But in September 1974, city officials and residents must have exhaled, confident that at least the worst was behind them. Traditionally, most homicides happen in the summer. But 1974 was about to deliver another disturbing surprise. Instead of quieting down in the fourth quarter, Chicago actually experienced two of its three worst months.

The killings came in bunches. Over Columbus Day weekend, 26 people were slain. The Tribune reported that seven states had fewer killings in all of 1973. In early November, 11 more people lost their lives, and a South Side homicide sergeant called it a "quiet weekend." Two weeks later, the weekend toll was 15, including one victim who was thrown out a window.

On Nov. 26, the Tribune reported the city's death toll had surpassed the 1973 record of 864. There was still a month to go.

The year began with high-profile, sickening crimes. It ended with equally as disheartening events.

The 900th homicide victim was reported on Dec. 8. He was a former University of Illinois football player who started on the 1964 Illini Rose Bowl team. William Pasko, 33, was stabbed to death by "two men who chased him and dragged him into a gangway. ... Police said no motive had been learned," the Tribune reported. Pasko, a sales representative for a manufacturing firm, left behind a wife and daughter.

Two days before Christmas, off-duty policeman Harl Meister was finishing up last-minute holiday shopping with his 8-year-old son when he was shot to death during an attempted robbery. His son was critically injured.

A year in which 970 people would be cut down in Chicago was unusually lethal for the city's police force. By year's end, six officers had been shot and killed. Two others would die in a traffic accident chasing suspects, and a ninth would die of a heart attack hours after a violent altercation with a deranged man.

Meister's death in late December typified Chicago's murderous 1974: Another family was left without a father, a husband, a loved one. The city bled.

sbenzkofer@tribune.com

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