Theresa Bunn (left) and Hazel Marion Lewis, both died in 2007 in unsolved murders (Sun-Times file photos)
For nearly 20 years, Black women on the South and West Sides of Chicago have been terrorized. Not just by gang violence and police brutality. Not just by rampant unemployment and poverty. Black women in Chicago have been terrorized and methodically stalked by a serial killer. Since 2001, more than 50 Black women have been murdered in cold blood. Though the women’s ages and neighborhoods varied, each slaying had one thing in common: the bodies were stuffed in garbage bins or left in an alley — often in a large, discarded container.
I first learned of the serial killer in 2017, when Vice News published an article about the crime wave. In the article, they credit Black feminist writer Mikki Kendall as the first person to vocalize this murder pattern as far back as 2007. Vice reports Kendall “began noticing a pattern in dead bodies that were dumped on the South Side — women who were stripped naked, stuffed in dumpsters and burned.” In its own investigation, Vice found an additional four cases of Black women dying in this fashion. None of the murders over the last 18 years has been solved.
Chicago has one of the worst murder clearance rates of a major city at 26 percent. Chicago police often obfuscate their failures by pointing to the equally abysmal murder clearance statistics of all cities. But for those of us who can do basic math, we do not ignore that Chicago’s population and murder rates are significantly larger than that of most cities. Granted, a larger population means the murder rate is dispensed more evenly across the population. However, as the third largest city in the country, Chicago is held to a higher standard of clearance but has done very little to achieve it. In fact, the sheer size of the city’s population and the former mayors’, unquestioned, pro-cop, neoliberal agenda should necessitate a robust interest in crime solving.
However, the Chicago Police Department’s allegiance to proper policing isn’t nearly as deep as its commitment to racial discrimination, anti-blackness and demonstrations of power through brutality. (The department is notorious for over-policing and failing to protect Black and brown communities.) Chicago police have proven they are content with chalking up the murders of Black and brown people to gang violence. They have made it clear that they refuse to do the necessary work to investigate the deaths of these 50-plus Black women who certainly did not perish due to gang violence.
Kendall’s revelation was startling, but not surprising. The only people truly looking out for Black women are Black women ourselves. We can’t depend on any institution or government agency to consider the lives of Black women valuable or worth protecting. Black people and people of color know this to be true. What is more disconcerting is knowing that, until Kendall’s investigation, Black women were left vulnerable to fact that each and every one of them – every one of us – could be the victim of a killer our police department denied even existed.
When you live on the South or West side of Chicago there is a certain level of danger to which you are accustomed. There are also certain precautions, as a Black woman, you must take to stay safe: walk quickly down well-lit streets; use major thoroughfares, not side streets; check behind you if you hear someone coming up on your six; avoid walking through alleys; keep your head down, mind your business; cross the street if you come upon a large group of rowdy, agitated people — especially if they are men; and look like you belong, because you do. These are just some of the rules to live by in our neighborhoods. But of all the street knowledge associated with the hardscrabble “hoods” of Chicago, we never thought to actively watch out for serial killers.
I lived in Chicago for almost a decade. When I first moved to the Windy City in 200,9 I had no idea that a serial killer had been preying on Black women for at least eight years by then. It wasn’t until seven years of residing in the city that I learned about this particular danger. After Vice published its investigation and accompanying video in November 2017, I began tracking reports of Black women’s deaths and kidnappings more closely. I noticed the same pattern Kendall had been warning the city about for years. What’s more, by 2015, Kendall was not alone in her revelations that a serial killer is on the loose in Chicago.
The Murder Accountability Project, a small organization founded by a former White House Correspondent and a former FBI agent, has been tracking the number of homicides of Black women by strangulation and/or asphyxiation since 2015. The organization’s work is well-known and has bolstered community cries for deeper investigation into the heinous murders. The small non-profit has concluded what Chicago police have denied for almost a generation – there is at least one serial killer roaming the streets of Black communities across Chicago killing women in the most gruesome fashion and getting away with it.
Eighteen years is an insultingly long time to deny such a serious threat. But then again, the people in danger would have to be considered valuable, worthwhile individuals worth protecting for an outfit like the Chicago Police Department to lend it’s time and efforts to investigating these deaths. The sad truth is nowhere – especially in the city of Chicago – are Black women and girls valued.
On April 11, Superintendent Eddie Johnson announced the department would finally launch a probe into the murders to determine whether the killings are related or the workings of one perpetrator. It seems the 51 murdered women may finally receive the justice they and their families deserve, but no one in the targeted communities is celebrating. Families and community members from both sides of town have been decrying these unsolved cases as gross police neglect for years. Teachers, residents, pastors and others invested in Chicago’s Black communities have noticed this pattern of violence against Black women and girls, and often express fear for the young women with whom they interact on a regular basis — hoping they won’t suffer the same fate as the murdered women.
As Dr. Martin Luther King told us, justice delayed is justice denied. The Chicago Police Department has a well-documented history of fueling racial segregation, community antagonism, police misconduct, distrust between police and community residents. The police force in Chicago is far more interested in harassing members of the Black community than actually protecting them.Their apathy toward these communities has created the perfect canopy to shroud the evil deeds of a methodical killer. It is only due to the unrelenting nature of activists and the victims’ families that now the department is finally willing to consider these murders as related events.
I am inclined to ask: how many times does a particular crime have to occur before police recognize a pattern? How hard is it to notice that all of these things are just like the others. It seems it is easier for the police to declare every murder “gang-related” than to apply themselves and solve the murders.
Of the many dangers that lurked around every corner during my time in Chicago — in a neighborhood fraught with gun violence, I’ll admit — I never suspected a serial killer. Looking back, I’m astonished at my naiveté and overall lack of awareness amid the existence of such a murderer. When four young Black women mysteriously went missing in June 2018, one of whom was friends with another young Black woman found dead in a hotel refrigerator, I reflected on how incredibly alone Black women seem to be in this world.
Our safety is predicated on the Mikki Kendalls of the world and their resilient clarion calls for justice and accountability for our people. If we can learn at least one lesson from this horribly under-investigated crime spree, it’s that one of the most important ways to be proactive in thwarting violent crimes is to always believe Black women. Black people have always been the canaries in the coal mines, warning of potential danger to befall the larger society. Black women have always carried a wisdom that both sustains and protects from harm. Of the many ways we, as Black women, have learned to protect ourselves — physically, mentally and spiritually — simply trusting our instincts and believing our inner voices is perhaps our most trusted line of defense. For it is when we listen to the analysis of Black women, when we heed the warnings of Black women, when we follow the lead of Black women do we truly guard ourselves from danger.
There’s a serial killer in Chicago. They are targeting Black women and girls of all ages. Superintendent Johnson is considering whether they are connected. But Kendall told us years ago they are connected. It’s time Superintendent Johnson learned today what I learned years ago: believe Black women.