When some activists on the far South Side looked around their neighborhood last fall, they saw a recipe for death.
A serial killer was preying upon women in a nearby neighborhood and the conditions in Greater Roseland were frighteningly similar: drugs, prostitution, abandoned buildings, weed-choked lots.
“We looked at Roseland and said to ourselves, ‘We are sitting here on a powder keg,’” said Michael Evans, an associate director with the church-based Developing Communities Project.
Their morbid prediction came true. The first body was pulled from one of Greater Roseland’s abandoned buildings in mid-May and five more have been found in the two months since.
“Now, the most horrendous things that could have happened have taken place,” Evans said.
A Serial Killer on the Loose?
The slayings mirror those around the Englewood neighborhood in the 1990s: The victims were all black women found in abandoned buildings, and most were involved with prostitution or drugs, or both.
Police believe the Englewood killings may have been committed by three separate people, all since arrested. The possibility of a serial killer in Greater Roseland has not been ruled out.
While residents absorb that prospect, they have tried to prod the city into doing something about conditions they believe generate crime in their neighborhood.
“Look there,” Evans said during a tour of the neighborhood last week. “Abandoned house, vacant lot, someone lives there, vacant lot, vacant lot, someone lives there, abandoned house.”
The abandoned buildings are “invitations to all kinds of dangerous stuff for neighborhoods,” according to George Kelling, a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Criminal Justice.
Kelling was one of the original proponents of the so-called “broken windows” theory of neighborhood crime — the notion that cleaning up disorder and signs of crime, such as graffiti and broken windows, actually helps prevent serious crime.
“Residents intuitively know that [abandoned buildings] are the kinds of settings that invite predators,” he said. “Now public officials have finally gotten the message that residents’ complaints are more than about tidiness but are at the root of some serious problems.”
A Neighborhood of Contrasts
Greater Roseland, about 12 miles south of the city’s gleaming skyscrapers, is a neighborhood of stark contrasts. Families raise their children in well-kept homes across the street from suspected drug houses. New housing is just down the road from where prostitutes walk the streets.
The neighborhood has the highest foreclosure rate in the city, attributable to a number of factors including predatory lending practices; the death of older homeowners; and absentee landlords and owners.
Chicago Building Commissioner Mary Richardson-Lowry estimates that 90 percent of the owners of the abandoned buildings live outside the area.
The city in April passed a measure that requires owners to register vacant structures and obtain liability insurance, or face fines.
Owners are encouraged to rehabilitate but the city will pursue demolition in court if deemed necessary, Richardson-Lowry said. Still, the city is relatively powerless if an owner boards up a building and is in no other way delinquent, she said.
“The difficulty is that many of the owners board it and don’t go back to those buildings for some time,” she said. “That in and of itself is not unusual.”
Drugs Used as a Lure?
Evans shook his head in disbelief during a visit to the two-story home where the body of a 32-year-old woman was found May 17. The first-floor windows were boarded up, but a basement entrance was wide open.
“What we’ve seen here is a situation that in all respects could have been avoided or at least minimized,” he said.
Police believe drugs were used in the killings in both neighborhoods to lure women into the abandoned buildings. They are warning women with high-risk life styles to be cautious, and have assigned an officer whose sole duty is to check on vacant structures.
Geoffrey Griffin, 29, has been charged with murder in the May 12 death of Angela Jones, 29. Police are awaiting the results of DNA tests to determine if he is linked to the others.
Lula Kidd, 62, a retiree who has lived in Roseland for 28 years, takes care of the vacant lot next door, making sure the grass and weeds are mowed and no one loiters too long. She plans to stick it out.
“This is my home. My husband and I moved here with four small kids and we struggled,” she said.