I have heard many times people use the expression, “What does it take? A dead body?” Often, those questions are asked when residents of a certain area are pleading for officials to take some meaningful action regarding a specific problem.
Usually, bad things have already happened and, yet, the powers-that-be neglect to heed the calls of outraged and worried citizens. After multiple injuries or close calls, many people fear someone will die if authorities don’t take proper action ASAP.
That’s exactly what happened during my freshman year at DePaul University in Chicago.
For 18 months, residents of Corcoran Hall had urged the university administration to tighten security in and around the dorm, to no avail.
For those unfamiliar with the Lincoln Park neighborhood where DePaul’s main campus is located, it is a very nice area of the city with pricey 3-level Brownstones that could either be a spacious single-family home or broken up into a three separate condos. Not far from the DePaul campus are hip shops, trendy restaurants, a city zoo, a conservatory, some popular museums, and the intimate Park West concert venue.
Chicago’s elevated train system, informally known as the “L”, cuts the DePaul campus in half – from above. While Corcoran and McCabe residence halls, the music and theater buildings, the soccer and softball fields, and a few other buildings are situated east of the L-tracks, everything else is to the west.
In the ’70’s and ’80’s, the area around DePaul was much rougher than it is now. Many of the surrounding blocks have since been “gentrifide” which means students can venture further off of campus or in directions that would have been prohibitive in the past. During our freshman orientation, we newbies were instructed where not to go and how to defend ourselves in case we were ever attacked.
Basically, we’d be relatively safe if we either stayed on campus, remained east of the campus, or stopped at one block south of the campus. During my four years there, I had only two instances of trouble. First, my bike was vandalized when someone cut the wire to my generator outside the dorm. Because the Latin Kings always left their calling card – via spray paint – on the dorm’s brick walls, I figured it was them.
The second incident happened in broad daylight as I went for a walk along Lake Michigan which is east of the campus. Some punk started walking alongside me and then proceeded to threaten me. He told me he had a knife in his pocket and that he was going to rape me. Because it was a chilly winter day, there weren’t many passers-by. I finally sat down on a bench next to an older gentleman and waited for the bully to leave. Finally, he did. And an hour later, when I was sure he was long gone, I got up and walked back to the dorm.
The dorm was a safe haven for me that day. I could get in my room and lock the door behind me and feel safe.
It wasn’t always that way, however. During the first week of January in 1980, Corcoran Hall where I lived experienced a bit of a crime wave.
In that week, there were four break-ins, the master key to the dorm was stolen, a camera and money were stolen, two female students were robbed and one coed was propositioned in the laundry room by an unlawful intruder.
All of these incidents created a breaking point for Corcoran residents. After being essentially ignored by university officials for a year and a half, two Corcoran residents typed up a petition urging the school for more security and better safety measures for the dorm. The petition was dated January 8, 1980 and it was signed by 146 students. It begins as follows:
PETITION FOR SAFE CONDITIONS
“We, the students residing at Corcoran Hall request full-time, around the clock security. We believe that we are entitled to the same safety benefits that students residing at Clifton hall receive. In view of the incidents that have taken place at Corcoran recently, the added security would not be a luxury but a mandatory necessity. Furthermore, the amount of signatures should not bear any major importance in regards in the decision. After all, the question is not: Do we want security? The issue is whether or not we need security. The answer, we feel, is obvious. After all, did the students residing in Clifton ever have a hand in the decision? Clifton, a newer dormitory with better facilities, has been well protected by around-the-clock security since day one. Corcoran, on the other hand, is an older building, which is, suffice to say, dimly lit……”
On Friday, January 11, 1980, The DePaulia published an editorial titled, Security Needed At Corcoran Hall. In it, the student newspaper editor, Mark, J. Valentino wrote, “Too often action is taken to correct a problem only after a serious incident has taken place. Let’s only hope that the University does take swift action to avoid any further problems at Corcocan Hall.
The very next day, one of the signers of the petition, Corcoran resident Paul Kelly, was murdered outside the dorm’s main entrance. Before 7 o’clock that evening, according to sworn witness testimony, Paul was being chased by a man with a knife. (Witnessed did not know at the time that the man had a knife however Paul most likely did.) Paul ran to Corcoran for safety. Instead, he was viciously attacked, stabbed 30 times, and eventually pronounced dead at nearby Grant Hospital.
Not only was there no security guard in the vicinity but the light bulb that was supposed to illuminate the main entrance was burned out. The place where Paul ran for safety was pitch black.
After students realized Paul was hurt, they called DePaul security. The responding officer, Charles Bliss, had to use the headlights from his vehicle to light the area enough to find Paul who was at that point on the ground and near some bushes.
Of course, as is almost always the case, the 18-month effort of Corcoran residents finally succeeded. Within hours after Paul’s death, there was a brand new light bulb and a round-the-clock security guard posted at Corcoran Hall.
“Yet, why did it take eighteen months for the administration to heed the dorm students request?” A subsequent editorial in The DePaulia asked. “The DePaulia feels that in this instance the administration has not lived up to its responsibilities in making the necessary decisions to acknowledge student requests and guarantee student safety.”
At the time, DePaul spokesperson Jeanne Barry insisted any safety problems at Corcoran were “all taken care of” before the murder. She must have been talking about dorm room locks and not broken light bulbs and zero uniformed security.
Sheila Daley was in charge of all dorm operations at that time and even she was unhappy with the level of security at Corcoran. “I certainly was not feeling comfortable with the provisions of security that we had,” she admitted after Paul’s death. “We need regular patrol car patterns and routes, we need provisions for students walking late at night from the Music school or from Goodman, and we need the visibility of uniformed security.”
After Paul’s death, the entire security program at DePaul was re-evaluated, according to Donald Sitkiewicz, director of the physical plant on that campus.
The night after Paul was killed, a meeting was held to discuss the security problems at the dorm and the fact that nothing was done by the university despite over a year of pleading by residents.
“Someone’s been killed! Doesn’t anybody care?” yelled one student.
There were actually some comments by students suggesting that the lack of security at Corcoran had nothing to do with Paul’s murder. One described in as a “crime of passion” that was bound to happen, whether or not at Corcoran. Another described dorm security and Paul’s death as “two separate issues”.
Chief security advisor at DePaul, Jim Rey, said at the time, “The incident that occurred Saturday is not really a security problem”.
Oh, denial! What a comfort it can be when we are too afraid to face the facts or choose not to in order to protect an institution.
After reading some of the court documents from the murder trial and related newspaper articles, it seems to me the lack of security at Corcoran was not only an issue in Paul’s tragic death but a contributing factor.
We don’t know whether or not Frank Alerte planned to kill Paul that night but we do know that he had a history of unprovoked, out-of-the-blue “rage attacks”. We will never know if an illuminated entrance or the presence of a security guard would have kept Alerte from killing Paul, however the possibility that this was a crime of opportunity seems to be very strong.
Alerte was at Corcoran earlier that day and so he must have known of the level of security there – a level that even the dorm operations director confessed was sorely lacking. As a student and a visitor of the dorm, he could very well have read the editorial titled Security Needed at Corcoran Hall in The DePaulia’s latest issue. He would have also been aware, by the time of the attack, that most of Paul’s closest friends were out of town at a basketball game.
One of the witnesses to the attack stated that she noticed Alerte shift his body in order to block her view of Paul, so that she couldn’t see what was happening. It was Alerte’s intention to keep others from seeing what he was doing to Paul. Certainly, the fact that there was no lighting on that dark winter night worked in favor of the killer.
The lack of security at Corcoran that night – exterior lighting, uniformed guards, other measures for which students had begged DePaul officials – did indeed play a part in Paul Kelly’s death.
What the Corcoran residents were requesting before that fateful Saturday night are the very things that often act as deterrents to violent crime – a presence of uniformed security and proper lighting. Alerte was a coward, we know that from the photographs of him after his arrest (which will be included in tomorrow’s post).
Had DePaul responded to the students’ request more immediately, Alerte may have tempered his animalistic rage, deterred by the mere presence of effective security. Instead, conditions at the scene of the crime were ripe for a tragedy. Corcoran students knew that. It’s too bad the university heads were too arrogant to learn from them.
Tomorrow’s post will share more information about Frank C. Alerte, Paul Kelly’s killer.