It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was carrying my sax as I headed for an audition at a theater company on the South Side of Chicago. I figured if I got off the el at 35th Street, I’d be just a few blocks from my Indiana Avenue destination.
I was in a crowd of people descending the steps from the train platform when I heard someone yelling, “Help, murder! Help! They’re killing me!”
The voice seemed to be coming from inside the station. As I came down the final flight of stairs, I saw a burly white man in shabby clothes standing in front of another, bigger white man who was down on the ground on top of a third man. This third man was Black. He was pinned flat on his stomach. There was a pool of blood all around his head, which was turned sideways toward the crowd passing through the station.
“Murder! Help!” the man on the ground was yelling.
The big guy on top of him pulled his head up and slammed it against the concrete.
Everyone in the station seemed to be ignoring the scene.
I was pretty freaked out, but I went up to the guy who was standing guard — he was half a head taller than me and twice as wide. “Hey, stop that,” I said.
“Keep walking, this is police business,” he barked.
I didn’t believe him. The two white men looked like regular slobs. The Black guy yelled again, “They’re killing me!” The guy on top — a monster of a man — punched him hard in the back of his neck. I now saw the Black guy’s arms were pulled behind him; the white guy was sitting on the Black guy’s arms. The pool of blood extended several feet in every direction.
Most of the people who’d come down the steps had passed through the station; I was the only rider left..
There was a payphone near the front entrance. I hurried to it and called 911. I spoke to an operator and she said she’d send police over right away. As I hung up, three uniformed officers and one man in street clothes came into the station past me and walked over to the standing white man. They started talking together in a friendly way.
I felt powerless to do anything else, and I knew I’d be late for the audition if I hung around, so I left .
That night, I told my girlfriend Chris what had happened in the el station. I assumed I’d stumbled on a common scene: White cops beat up Black guy. Horrible, because no one even considered it exceptional.
That week, I didn’t have any rehearsals or classes. I spent the days alone, practicing music and writing. I didn’t own a TV, so I wasn’t paying attention to the news.
Friday night, I went to a party at my friend Michael Edwalds’ apartment in Oak Park. I overheard some people discussing a rumor about a police-brutality killing. I broke into their conversation, and they were surprised I hadn’t heard about it. The police were denying stories that the death of a man in custody was the result of brutality. The arrest had taken place the previous Sunday, on the South Side.
“I saw that.” I told my story, and Michael’s guests said my version of the events matched some, but not all of the story confirmed by police. They also said a call was out for witnesses, but so far, none had turned up.
“But there were 50 people who got off the train when I did!” I said. I couldn’t believe that no one who’d seen this beating had stepped forward.
I realized suddenly that any Black person would be risking their life to stand up against the Chicago police, especially if they lived in the neighborhood where that beating had taken place. I was young and white, with no local family to be terrorized. I wasn’t from Chicago, so I didn’t have any history of being scared by the Chicago police. I decided to tell my story to whoever would listen.
Michael suggested I should start by calling police headquarters directly since it was the police who’d put out the call for witnesses. I went into his bedroom, looked in the phone book and called the main number. I was told to call Office of Professional Services. I did and spoke to someone who sounded very dubious. We made an appointment for an OPS officer to visit me.
On Monday afternoon, two men in business suits came to my apartment. I told them my story, and they took notes. They asked me a bunch of questions about myself. They said someone from the state’s attorney’s office would call.
The state’s attorney’s office asked me to come to them. I went downtown and told the assistant state’s attorney the same story I’d given the OPS guys.
On the radio the next day, news broke that an eyewitness had come forward in the 35th Street el case.
That was me.
A few days later, I received a call from the assistant state’s attorney. “Mr. Laties? We’re obliged to inform you that we have provided your address to the attorney for the defense.”
“What does that mean?”
“The officers who arrested the offender on the El have an attorney. By law, our office is required to turn over information about witnesses to this attorney.”
“So, the cops have my address?”
“That is possible.”
Now I was scared. Those murderers had not been charged or arrested. I was the only eyewitness who’d come forward.
Three days later, I was walking from my apartment down Clarendon Drive. I was thinking hard, looking at the ground as I often did when I walked. Clarendon was near the lakefront — green space with high-rises. Usually, there was no one around, but today someone was in my way.
I looked up, and there they were — both of them, blocking me. The burly man who’d said, “Keep walking, this is police business,” and, next to him, the huge guy who’d been hitting the Black man.
The first guy grimaced, leaned toward me, and, in a slow voice, said, “Don’t worry about us.”
The bigger guy opened his eyes wide and growled, “We’re just CRAZY!”
I whipped around them like a jackrabbit and tore off down the street. I ran for blocks, cutting through alleys, stopping behind dumpsters.
When I got to Chris’ house, I called Office of Professional Services, but they refused to take my report. I was mistaken about who had spoken to me, they said and the words (“Don’t worry about us”) had not been a threat.
I didn’t call the assistant state’s attorney. He was the one who’d given the cops my address. I was on my own here.
Chris and I had already bought one-way tickets to Indonesia. Good timing. The next day, I went to Morrie Mages sports store and got a baseball bat. I started to bring it with me everywhere.
I changed my habits. When I went around town, I stayed among people.
A couple of weeks later, the assistant state’s attorney called to say there were several witnesses, and the trial would take months to prepare. I told him I was leaving for Indonesia and wasn’t sure when I’d be back. He said I should keep in touch; when the prosecution needed me, I’d have to return.
The morning of my testimony, Chris and I went down to the courthouse at 26th and California. There were a couple dozen anti-police-brutality protesters chanting out front — Reverend Jesse Jackson was among them. Chris was allowed into the courtroom to sit with other spectators; I was sent to a waiting room.
When I was called to the witness box, I saw those cops from the 35th Street station sitting at the desk diagonally across from me. They were the same men who’d tried to intimidate me on Clarendon.
They didn’t meet my stare.
Ten eyewitnesses had materialized: the prosecution had a strong case. I told my story. During cross-examination, the defense attorney tried to get me to say something confusing about where the Black man’s arms had been when the big guy was sitting on him, but I didn’t change my words, and he gave up. I spent only a few minutes on the stand.
Chris told me afterward that just before me a police officer had testified. A week after the beating, he’d given a statement that implicated the cops I’d seen. In the witness stand he’d recanted, saying he’d been mistaken.
The story that emerged from the trial was that the victim was Richard Ramey, who’d been kicked out of a mental institution six months earlier after his state funds had been cut off. There was no one to take care of him, so he’d been wandering the city. The two white men, Fred Earullo and Louis Klisz (the huge one) — along with the other guy in street-clothes who I’d seen come in with the uniformed officers, Fred Christiano — were undercover transit cops.
Ramey had been smoking a cigarette on the el. The undercover cops had told him to stop, and he’d refused. When they’d tried to take the cigarette from him, Ramey had supposedly stabbed one with a pen. This had enraged them enough to give Ramey the five-hour beating that killed him.
Witness testimony said the cops had started hitting Ramey on the train, then taken him down the steps into the 35th Street station, where I’d seen them. Then, they’d put him in a squad car, where the beating had continued. Then, he was beaten in the front room of the stationhouse. Finally, in a holding pen, the beating had gone on.
The cops reported he’d died of a heart attack, and his injuries were self-inflicted, incurred resisting arrest.
The eyewitnesses persuaded the judge. My own actions had generated electronic evidence: an audiotape of me narrating the crime to the 911 operator.
Judge Cieslik convicted Earullo and Klisz of involuntary manslaughter and a few months later sentenced them to a couple of years in jail.
“This verdict does not meet the truest ends of justice, for Mr. Ramey was murdered,” Jesse Jackson told the media. “The only surprise in the ruling was that they were not exonerated absolutely. [The ruling is] a blanket endorsement for the police to engage in open-season abuse and killing of black and brown males.”
I was riding downtown after a jazz session with fellow sax-player Nancy Hazelton and I was telling her about the Richard Ramey murder.
“You saw that?” she asked me. “I was at Cook County that year. I was doing paperwork when I came across the x-rays of Ramey’s body: the same doctors had examined him. His ribs were all broken, contusions and bruises so severe. A bunch of us nurses passed those x-rays around. The cops had worked him over everywhere. Did you know that was a five-hour beating? I’ve never seen a body so messed up. And they claimed he died of a heart attack.”
“I should have hung around in the el station. Maybe they’d have stopped hitting him.”
“Are you kidding?” she said. “They’d have beaten you, too.”
That year, I was summoned to jury duty. In the courtroom, a couple dozen prospective jurors were asked to raise their hands if they were unable to serve for any of several enumerated reasons: health issues, personal economic hardship, hearing disorder or — to my surprise — “Do you have any reason to disbelieve the sworn testimony of a police officer?”
I raised my hand.
“What is your concern?”
“I was a witness in the Richard Ramey police brutality case.”
The prosecutor conferred briefly with his team, then asked, “For the defense?”
I had to consider. “No, for the prosecution.”
He shared a glance with the judge, then barked, “Get him outta here!” The bailiff waved energetically, and I squeezed down the aisle past my fellow citizens. Apparently, I’d found a way to avoid jury duty.
In February, I found myself again in a courtroom — this time, in Easton, Pennsylvania — along with several dozen prospective jurors, as questions were posed about incapacity to serve.
I was asked the same question that had come up in 1996: “Do you have any reason to disbelieve the sworn testimony of a police officer?”
I raised my hand.
Ten minutes later, I was seated in an antechamber, facing a stern judge, with the prosecutor to one side, the defense attorney to the other. “What’s the problem here?” the judge asked.
“I saw two police officers murder a Black man, in Chicago, in 1980. I testified against them, and they were sent to jail. During the trial, several officers testified falsely under oath.”
As I spoke, I realized these people were children back then — maybe, not even born.
The judge drew her eyebrows together sternly. “That was 40 years ago.”
“Things haven’t changed.”
“And you’re saying it’s the same here as in Chicago?”
“To me, the police culture doesn’t seem much different.”
They stopped wasting time. I was unfit to be a juror.
As I left the courthouse, I wondered: was I merely trying to avoid jury duty? Should I have kept my mouth shut — that is, lied — so as to be that juror who advocated skepticism of police?
Should questioning authority disqualify jurors?
Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” applies to fiction; it shouldn’t apply to testimony.
This essay has been adapted from Andrew Laties’ memoir “The Music Thief.”
Andrew Laties co-founded Easton Book Festival, Book & Puppet Company, Vox Pop, The Children’s Bookstore, Chicago Children’s Museum Store, and Eric Carle Museum Bookstore. He shared the 1987 Women’s National Book Association’s Pannell Award for bringing children and books together. His “Rebel Bookseller: Why Indie Businesses Represent Everything You Want to Fight For—From Free Speech to Buying Local to Building Communities” won the 2006 Independent Publisher Award and is available in a second edition from Seven Stories Press. He recently published “Son of Rebel Bookseller: A Very Large Homework Assignment,” co-written with son Samuel Laties.