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Death of Man Left by Police in Crime-Ridden Area Probed : Illinois: Family and friends want to know why white victim was left in harm’s way by black officers. Moments later he was set on fire.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was after 1 a.m. when the Ford Heights police impounded Richard Will’s car and arrested the friend who’d been driving--he was wanted for failing to pay child support.

They left Will, who had had a drink or two, stranded in the nation’s poorest suburb, in a neighborhood frequented by drug dealers and gangs.

Fifteen minutes later, police responding to a call about a prone person on fire saw Will again. He’d been beaten, doused with lighter fluid and set aflame.

Five hours later, he died of the burns covering 90% of his body.

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The police officers were black, as are nearly all of Ford Heights’ 4,200 residents--including two teen-agers who have been charged in Will’s Oct. 18 death.

Will, 31, was white, as is Cecil McCool, the friend who was with him that night.

Now, the Illinois State Police are investigating the incident, and Will’s family has hired an attorney to file a civil-rights lawsuit, contending that race played a role in the events that led to Will’s death. The FBI is keeping an eye on developments. The U.S. attorney’s office here is consulting with the Justice Department in Washington.

And the police in Ford Heights, 25 miles south of Chicago, are mostly keeping mum--even to the man who heads the village police and fire commission. “The police chief is supposed to get us a report, but he told me they’ve been pretty busy,” said commission Chairman J.T. Cole.

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Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko has wondered in print if there might have been a greater public uproar and faster action had the facts been reversed--had the victim been black and the police white. The city’s two main daily newspapers have not given the story big play. But since the Royko column, callers have lit up radio talk show phone lines.

McCool has told Will’s family that Will begged police for a ride to the station--and that they refused. And McCool told the Daily Southtown, a newspaper covering Chicago’s South Side and suburbs, that Will was “shaking like a leaf.”

"---- you, you walk,” was the police response, according to the family’s version.

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“I believe that,” said Will’s cousin, Deborah Tidd. “I think the police stopped them to hassle them because they were white. And you don’t leave someone who might be drunk on the street. If anything, he could have been run over by a truck.”

Will lived with his girlfriend and 2-year-old daughter in nearby Chicago Heights, his hometown. He loved horses and took a job in the barns at Balmoral Park racetrack to be around them, Tidd said.

His high school buddy, McCool, was visiting from Colorado, and the two went out for drinks at D.J.'s Sports Pub and Grill near the Indiana state line.

To return to Will’s house, they headed west on U.S. 30, passing through Ford Heights.

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Situated at the divide where Chicago’s industrial suburbs begin fading into farmland, Ford Heights was long a mecca for Southerners who moved north for factory jobs but were uncomfortable in dense urban quarters, said Pierre deVise, associate director of Roosevelt University’s Institute for Metropolitan Affairs.

For the past 20 years, as those jobs disappeared, it has been ranked the poorest suburb in the United States in a survey that deVise has repeated every five years since 1959. He first listed the town as East Chicago Heights. After the 1987 results were reported, it changed its name to one inspired by a Ford Motor Co. stamping plant that actually is just over the border.

“It’s just been getting poorer and poorer over the last several decades,” deVise said. His most recent study, in 1992, placed the per capita annual income there at $4,660. Only 36.6% of residents older than 16 were employed. Only 2.3% of adults age 25 and older were college graduates.

Police salaries are low. In 1988, 12 of the village’s 18 police officers stayed off the job one weekend because they had not been paid at all for two weeks.

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“On Route 30, ever since I was a little girl, when we went through Ford Heights my father would tell everyone in the station wagon to lock the back doors,” Tidd said.

Cole doesn’t think Ford Heights is quite that dangerous. “I have been here many years and nothing bad has happened to me,” he said. “But then,” he added, “I come home and go to bed at night.”

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In the wee hours, Cole said, plenty of narcotics are sold. “You see a lot of white people come by trying to buy drugs,” he added.

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And indeed police, in the few interviews they granted when the case came to light, have hinted that they thought Will and McCool were in town to do exactly that.

A spokesman for the Cook County medical examiner said that an autopsy did not find any cocaine. Morphine was detected, but Loyola Hospital of Maywood used the opiate in treating Will for his burns.

Police stopped Will’s blue 1981 Oldsmobile Cutlass, though where and for what reason are in dispute. McCool told attorney William Braverman that he was pulled over on U.S. 30, but the towing company picked up the car south of the main road. McCool said police talked of a broken taillight, Braverman said, but a preliminary police report filed to the medical examiner cited improper backing of the vehicle. No tickets were issued.

Police denied to Royko that Will asked for a ride, but confirmed that they wouldn’t let him drive because his license was suspended and he appeared intoxicated. The autopsy showed alcohol in Will’s blood just under the legal limit, but the level could have been substantially higher five hours earlier.

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A police spokesman was quoted in one news report as saying that the suspects said they’d killed Will because he was white, and in another as denying that he’d ever said that.

“They left him. That is clear. The only white kid around in the middle of crack heaven,” Braverman said. “We know he got killed shortly thereafter.”

Like many towns, Ford Heights has never addressed the matter of how to deal with people left stranded in the area. “This is the first time it ever came up,” Cole said. “The village is going to have to make a policy.”


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