Search continues for LaneBryant gunman
BY BECKY SCHLIKERMAN
Tinley Park police continue to chase tips and review leads in hopes of finding the man who killed five women and wounded another inside a Lane Bryant store Feb. 2, 2008. | File photo
Updated: January 27, 2011 3:35PM
He's still out there.Two years later, the lone gunman who executed five women and wounded another inside a Tinley Park Lane Bryant store has yet to be caught.
Though police continue to chase tips (5,515 have poured in sinceFeb. 2, 2008) they're no closer to catching the person responsible for the Southland's worst mass murder on record.
In the past year, the number of investigators assigned to the case has been cut in half as the amount of information coming in wanes.
Police are now checking the remaining 100 tips and rechecking old leads, Police Chief Michael O'Connell said.
"The issue is we don't know what will give us the break in the case," he said. "It can be a phone call away - it could be the next door we knock on, we just don't know."
Police still maintain their theory that a round-faced gunman with braids grabbed the women as they arrived at the store, tied them up in a room in the back and then became enraged when he feared his robbery plan was failing, O'Connell said.
That means the case is largely based on information provided by the shooter's lone survivor - a Lane Bryant employee who escaped the massacre with only a minor neck injury.
But their long standing motive hasn't narrowed the scope of the investigators work.
Police are checking every tip and following every theory, with some unanswered questions from the survivor's account.
Why would an armed robber pick a woman's clothing store at 10 a.m. on a Saturday?
Why would the gunman leave a survivor after shooting store manager Rhoda McFarland in the front of the head and executing to the back of the head shoppers Sarah Szafranski, Connie Woolfolk, Carrie Hudek Chiuso and Jeni Bishop?
"We have left every door open," the chief said.
That's led police to Texas, North Carolina and Ohio while following tips.
In Texas, police looked into the falling out between McFarland and her former church, Embassy Christian Center, in Crest Hill, which in 2005 moved to Austin after a schism over suspicions of financial misconduct among church leadership.
A 20-minute telephone call, reportedly placed by a former church member, was routed through the cell phone tower nearest the store just an hour before the murders.
Police also have looked into possible links to shootings in Dolton, Chicago and North Carolina.
All the while, the lone survivor has been in contact with police, though O'Connell has remained tight-lipped on the woman's life since the tragedy.
"We want her life to get back to normal," he said. "We're going to keep pounding the pavement until we get to the bottom of it."
STILL NOT A COLD CASE
Two years in and investigators are no closer to solving the grisly mass murder.As the number of new leads wane, investigators are being reassigned - they're no longer needed to chase tips.
A case that was once staffed by 50 investigators is now down to six Tinley Park officers and two assisting investigators from the South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force, police said in a news release.
Last year, police said they had a "minimum of 12" people working on the case.
There's barely any tips coming, and there aren't many unchecked tips, so police are rechecking old ones, Tinley Park Police Chief Michael O'Connell said.
In spite of the dead ends, investigators are staying motivated, he said.
"They have not buckled," O'Connell said. "They're looking at every tip as if that's the one that's going to solve it."
But nothing has broken the case yet.
One expert said a snitch is likely what will lead police to the murderer.
"Somebody knows who this guy is," former Chicago Police Department homicide investigator J.J. Bittenbinder said. "The only way we're going to find out who did this is one of his buddies who knows will be grabbed" and use the information to help himself.
"This is somebody's boyfriend, son brother or co-worker," he said. "We need them to step forward."
As for the case itself, Tinley Park police refuse to call it a cold case.
"It's nowhere near a cold case," O'Connell said. "There is still work that has to be done."
And Bittenbinder, who was also a detective for the Cook County Sheriff's department, said that's a fair assessment of the investigation.
"If you've got leads, you work it," he said. "The trail is cold but they're still working on it."
'YOU'RE ALWAYS LOOKING'
'You're never quite ready to deal with something of that magnitude'
Police Chief Michael O'Connell was in a parking lot at 159th Street and Harlem Avenue that fateful Saturday morning.
As soon as he heard the call of a shooting over the radio, O'Connell rushed to Brookside Marketplace.
Five minutes later, the chief descended onto what would soon become a massive manhunt and mass murder investigation.
The professional cop attitude took over, though O'Connell admits it's overwhelming.
"You're never quite ready to deal with something of that magnitude," he said.
But with this - and most other cases - O'Connell is always on the lookout to see if he spots the braided gunman.
"You're always looking," he said.
And the head of the police department is confident in his officers.
"I come to work confident that the guys and gals are doing the job," he said. "I know we will break this case. It's just a matter of time."
BY THE NUMBERS...
6 - Number of Tinley Park investigators working on the case full time and two members of the South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force who assist them.
5,515 tips have come in over the course of the investigation.
48,000 cell phone records are being investigated. Those are all cell phone numbers that used the cell towers near the scene of the crime at the time and date of the incident.
$201,293 spent in overtime by Tinley Park police on top of the officers' regular salaries.
$18,095.79 on supplies and other expenses
$1 million or more spent by all the member agencies in the South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force that have been assisting to help catch the killer.
$100,000 reward for information leading to the killer.
Lane Bryant massacre on Dipity.