By Rick Kogan
CHICAGO — What should have been such an easy murder case to solve has instead become a puzzle, and an exciting book which takes us compellingly back in time and into some of darkest corners of Chicago.
“Murder in Canaryville: The True Story Behind a Cold Case and a Chicago Cover-Up” ( Chicago Review Press) by Chicago Tribune reporter and editor Jeff Coen travels to a warm spring night many years ago. There is a dust-up between Italian and Irish teens at a party. Nothing unusual about that, in these neighborhoods of ancient feuds. “The Italians and the Irish. Bridgeport and Canaryville. Oil and water. It went back as far as anyone could recall,” Coen writes. “It was the same with their fathers and in prior generations.”
These feuds usually erupted in the form of fisticuffs but not on this night, as some from a house party gathered in a neighborhood park to cool off. A green car cruised by and a shot was fired. It hit a 17-year-old named John Hughes, the “tall, good-looking football player and member of the student council. … He had college on his mind. He was going places.”
The place he went that night, the last place he would ever go, was Mercy Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. It was 1:20 a.m. on May 15, 1976.
Who killed him?
The complicated answer to that question is at the heart of Coen’s book. It is a book with many good guys, most of them cops, and many bad guys, a few of them cops too, abetted by crooked judges, politicians exercising clout, mobsters and their families, and many other nefarious types who have long operated in the sordid shadows of the city.
The towering hero of the book is a lifelong member of law enforcement named Jim Sherlock. In 1976 he was a sixth grader at the former St. Adrian Elementary School near Marquette Park and so didn’t learn of Hughes’ murder for decades.
But he was, if such a genetic occurrence is even possible, born to be a cop. Both his great-grandfather and grandfather had been police officers. (His father was somehow detoured into another profession though Sherlock’s two sons would join the Chicago Police Department.)
He came to this case near the end of what had been a distinguished career during which, Coen writes, he “would prove to have a knack for being in the orbit of major events in the department’s history, including some of its great tragedies.”
Many of those are powerfully recounted by Coen as Sherlock rose to became a detective in 1997 and was later on loan from the CPD to the FBI, worked various chores including investigating cold cases. (There was also a time he was moonlighting for the “Jerry Springer Show,” once traveling to Missouri to interview a man who claimed to have married and slept with his horse.)
Sherlock had heard whispers about the Hughes case for years on the force but it was not until 2018 that he took the suggestion of a retired police commander who thought he might want to look into it, but warning that if he did so, he had better “buckle up.”
And he did, first going to explore the files from the case. “What should have been a massive file with notes and transcripts from dozens of interviews had been reduced to a few seemingly random sheets of paper and a couple of photographs,” Coen writes. “He could have left the records center without the folder and cruised into retirement without taking on the case at all, no one would have noticed.”
“Instead, he tucked the envelope under his arm and carried it outside.”
And then, as Coen writes, “The secrets would not come easily. Jim Sherlock knew it and that was fine. … Whatever truth was buried here, whatever the streets of Bridgeport and Canaryville would dish out, he would take.”
But these two distinctive Chicago neighborhoods were unaccustomed to dishing out secrets or deep feelings. What Sherlock and Coen, who did many follow up interviews with the principals in the case (at least with those still breathing), encountered was this sentence from those they interviewed: “I don’t want this to be about me.” Others did not talk at all.
The cast of characters is vividly captured. You will remember many of them and not like more than a few. And, even though he died of a heart attack late in 1976, Mayor Richard J. Daley casts a large shadow on Bridgeport and members of the CPD.
This is Coen’s third book. In 2009 he published “Family Secrets: The Case That Crippled the Chicago Mob” ( Chicago Review Press) and in 2012, in collaboration with former Tribune reporter John Chase, “Golden: How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself Out of the Governor’s Office and into Prison” ( Chicago Review Press).
He is aware of the ways of the city, covering for years its crimes and punishments. Coen is not a flashy writer and that’s a benefit for this story and for readers. He is a forceful writer and a master at structure and detail. On one level, this story must have presented him with an organizational nightmare, a dusty decades-old tale filled with dozens of twists and turns. (Added to that was he and his wife, Tribune reporter Tracy Swartz, had just welcomed a new baby girl named Sloan.)
But Coen was more than intrigued when Sherlock first approached him with this story. The two had not known one another before. They know each other now and they have delivered a potent story.
There was a time in this business when half the reporters’ desks held the pages of a possible book. The city has always intrigued those of us who get paid to write about it. It ever fascinates. It ever frustrates.
So, who killed John Hughes?
I am sure I know, thanks to Coen, though the answer, which I won’t give away here, is unlikely to result in a trial. As Coen writes, “In many ways, Sherlock gave the family Hughes family a gift. … He cared. He recognized what they had gone through and the vacancy in their lives and tried to give them answers. … He was not the first — nor will he be the last — to end his effort without getting absolute fairness and true justice.”
But Coen and Sherlock have done right by John Hughes, this young man long gone.
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