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Walter Clifford, detective who nabbed burglars in stakeouts, dies at 85

Walter Clifford his wife Dorothy.

Walter Clifford and his wife Dorothy.

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Updated: May 19, 2014 2:02PM



When Detective Walter Clifford realized that wily burglars were breaking in to homes while mourners were at wakes and funerals, he had an idea.

Sitting in his living room, reading the death notices, he decided to place phony death notices in newspapers to smoke them out.

He arranged for police stakeouts at the homes of real and made-up mourners, and even established lookout posts at neighbors’ houses.

Then Mr. Clifford and other officers waited inside one of the “bait’’ homes for the fish to bite.

Sure enough, “They were in the basement and they heard someone busting in the window, and guess who was down there waiting for them?” said his son, John.

Mr. Clifford knew his craft. He could study a burglary and come up with a pretty good guess about the perpetrator, based on their style.

“Just by looking at the M.O. and how the burglary took place, he would know how they got in the house. He would know, ‘This looks like the work of so-and-so,’ and he would know where he would bring his stuff” to fence, his son said. In one case, “he went over to a fence, and he got all [the victim’s] jewelry back.”

Mr. Clifford loved and protected his late wife, Dorothy. He met her when she was a waitress at the Maplewood bowling alley on 111th Street. They wed and raised her two sons and had four more children.

Though he only stood about 5 feet 9 inches tall, “Wally was such a tough guy,” said his nephew, Bill Figel.

“One time at a police picnic [a drunken stranger] walked up and took a piece of chicken out of Dorothy’s hand, and he literally flipped that guy,” Figel said. “It was like something out of a Bond movie. He just took that guy’s wrist and flipped that guy. It was like the most subtle move, but none of us had seen anything quite that swift and athletic.”

Mr. Clifford died April 6 at age 85 at Little Company of Mary Hospital.

He grew up in the neighborhood around St. Columbanus church near 71st and Calumet. His mother was from Crossmolina in County Mayo, Ireland, and his father was from Cahersiveen in County Kerry.

His father operated a dump truck and a moving truck. “He could carry a refrigerator up to the third floor on his back on a bet,” said Mr. Clifford’s friend, retired police Sgt. Dick O’Connell.

Money was tight, so the Cliffords didn’t take pricey vacations. Instead, they went to the beach, day camps and cookouts in the forest preserves.

He started secondary school at De La Salle Institute, but after a clash with a Christian Brother with arms like Popeye, he decided to attend Parker High at 68th and Normal, Figel said, where he played varsity basketball.

After high school, he and O’Connell went to work at Norwich Pharmaceuticals.

Both young men were drafted into the Army and sent to Korea. They overlapped there for a week, during which O’Connell inquired about Mr. Clifford’s whereabouts and tracked his friend down.

“I just remember seeing these big feet coming down into the bunker followed by a bottle of Irish whiskey,” Mr. Clifford said in a nephew’s school essay. “And here it is Dick O’Connell.”

Both applied for the police force after they returned stateside. Mr. Clifford worked there, mostly in South Side districts and detective areas, from 1955 to 1991.

He received many commendations for his police work, O’Connell said.

But when the Burglary unit shifted to Property Crimes, he felt his expertise was sometimes misspent.

“He said, ‘Here I am, a burglary detective, and they send me out to write a report on stealing bikes,’ ’’ his son said.

And even a good burglary detective can get robbed. Once, while mowing the lawn, he stopped for a lemonade. A furious Mr. Clifford discovered his mower was stolen during his break.

He was “a heckuva softball player” at a time when the game attracted big wagers, his son said. “I remember him saying to me there was more money bet on those side games than what people make in a week.’’

He also was a quarterback on the Chicago Clowns, an amateur neighborhood football team. They were battered when a competing team lost a member to injury and tapped a hulking 16-year-old for their roster. The youth turned out to be Johnny “Red” Kerr, who became a 6-foot-9 NBA player and the first coach of the Chicago Bulls.

Mr. Clifford also is survived by his other sons, Kenneth Ward, Paul Ward and James Clifford; two daughters, Joan Rooney and Mary Regan; nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Services have been held.

In British Isles style, he used to call his grandsons by a fond nickname, “Governor.” As his family said their last goodbyes, his grandson, Brian Rooney, said: “Until we meet again, Governor.”

Email: modonnell@suntimes.com

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