Sketch of suspect
Updated: January 27, 2011 3:37PM
It's a chilling anniversary that Tinley Park Police Chief Michael O'Connell and his officers would do anything to have prevented.
But as of 10 a.m. Monday, the ruthless killer who gunned down five women and left a sixth for dead in an apparent robbery at a Lane Bryant store in the village will have been on the run for one year.
Though a dozen detectives from the South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force continue to chase down 5,600 tips that have seen them travel as far as Texas, North Carolina and Ohio - they've even sent evidence to NASA scientists for expert analysis - the authorities have never come closer to capturing the Southland's worst-ever mass murderer than they did in the minutes after the Feb. 2, 2008, slaying.
The killer missed crossing paths with a responding police officer by a matter of seconds at the Brookside Marketplace crime scene.
"We don't have a suspect," O'Connell acknowledged last week. "There are hundreds of names we are still checking out."
A year on, the picture that emerged in the hours and days after the killing - of a lone, round-faced, black gunman with braids who grabbed women one-by-one as they arrived at the store, tied them up in a room at the rear of the store, then became enraged and started shooting when he feared his small-time robbery plot was unraveling - is still at the center of the investigation, O'Connell said.
"We have no reason to disbelieve it," he said.
Based in large part on the account of the sixth, surviving woman - a Lane Bryant worker from Mokena who miraculously escaped with only a minor neck injury, while the five other women were shot in the head - the story raised many questions.
Why would an armed robber pick a woman's clothing store early on a frosty Saturday morning, when more lucrative targets were available?
How, when store manager Rhoda McFarland was shot in the front of the head after she bravely dialed 911, and shoppers Sarah Szafranski, Carrie Hudek Chiuso, Jennifer Bishop and Connie Woolfolk all were shot at close range in the back of their heads moments later, did the surviving victim cheat death?
These questions and others, combined with a determination to leave no lead unchecked, prompted police to chase dozens of alternate theories.
Notably, they included an ugly falling out McFarland had with her former church, Embassy Christian Center in Crest Hill, which in 2005 moved to Austin, Texas, under a cloud of acrimony.
A 20-minute phone call, reportedly placed by a former Embassy member, that was routed through the cell phone tower nearest the Lane Bryant store just an hour before the murders also prompted hope of a breakthrough.
Investigators also chased down possible links to shootings in Dolton, Chicago and North Carolina without success, although O'Connell said officers have "not ruled out" a Texas connection.
Hair and fingerprints recovered from the store also have yet to yield a viable suspect, although a forensic technician permanently assigned to the case at the Illinois State Police crime lab in Joliet continues to examine a mountain of evidence removed from the shop during several painstaking sweeps of the shuttered store, the most recent of which was led by the FBI in September.
Although the team of 50 investigators who hunted the killer in the first weeks after the shootings is now down to "a minimum of 12," O'Connell said, "tips are still coming in and there is something for them to do every day when they come in to work - they are looking at things two and three times, and we are constantly working with outside agencies to make sure there isn't something we missed.
"The crucial piece of evidence has yet to emerge; it may be something we already have, or it may be a phone call we have yet to receive, we just don't know.
"But this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime cases that officers devote their careers to solving."
A village ordinance passed less than two months after the killing requires convicted felons to pay for the cost of the investigation that led to their capture. And with more than 30,000 hours of officer time logged on the Lane Bryant case, the killer conservatively faces a bill of millions of dollars, in addition to life behind bars, if he is ever caught.
But police have come no closer to making an arrest in the case than they came one year ago.
An officer responding to a car break-in in the Super Target parking lot next to the murder scene was within 200 yards when the killings took place. Although the gunman did not start shooting until after McFarland dialed 911, he escaped by the time officers arrived at the scene.
And then he vanished.
Kim Janssen can be reached at email@example.com or (708) 633-5998.