Updated: October 29, 2013 6:05AM
The FBI’s recent announcement that Chicago has surpassed New York as the murder capital of the U.S. with its 500 homicides in 2012, compared with NY’s 419, got me to thinking about a certain night in April 1989.
My wife, my three children and I had just moved to an unincorporated area just outside the city.
It was an old two-story farmhouse surrounded by woods, with a couple of stone pillars holding up the dormer over the front porch.
The house sat adjacent to a Cook County forest preserve and was the first and only building you saw after traversing miles of woods.
So when our doorbell rang on the night of the 21st, and I saw three teenagers standing between those pillars, I assumed they had car trouble.
But a girl around 16 was weeping. Another girl and a boy the same age didn’t look a whole lot happier.
“There’s someone hurt by the road, mister,” the boy said. “Bleeding.”
I ascertained from him exactly where, and my wife Marianne took them inside and called 911.
It would be a while before the county police arrived, so I grabbed several towels and started down the stairs. I turned around, deciding to fetch the leash and take our black lab Biff along.
The path slanted left and down a slope. Ahead and to our right was a drainage ditch parallel to the highway. It had just turned dark. No moon, no stars, smudgy clouds.
Biff suddenly stiffened, panting, pulling me forward. And that’s when I realized there was a man on the ground.
Edging closer, I saw he was a big man. There was a black leather jacket and engineer boots.
He had what looked like a bullet hole in his left cheek. Another, probably, in his blood-soaked chest. Something told me I need not bother checking for a pulse. He was clearly dead.
I looked over this two-hundred-pound-plus man, killed and rolled into the mud. And though I read about shootings every day, it wasn’t until I came upon a murder victim — skin, teeth, fingers with rings, face against the dirt — that I felt the enormous blow against humanity. The indignity. The evil. The lonely end.
Nobody deserves to die this way, I remember thinking. Nobody.
The sheriff’s police arrived, the teens left; and after I gave my statement, I returned to our new old house. And that’s when worries set in: Was the shooter still out there? Was my family safe? Will the killers think I witnessed the crime?
I slept fitfully, got up at 2 a.m. and walked to the second-floor window. A lone squad car was parked where the body had been, guarding the crime scene.
That unforgettable night was almost 25 years ago. But I think about it each time I read of another shooting in this paper, such as the recent headline about 13 injured by gunfire in the Back of the Yards.
And every night, shootings seem to occur in many of the same neighborhoods, such as Austin, Woodlawn, Englewood, Roseland.
Those living there are like refugees in a war zone. When they’re not ducking bullets, they are locking their children indoors and looking over their shoulders. You might say they suffer from mass post-traumatic stress disorder, a syndrome that robs their freedom from fear, and their freedom to pursue happiness.
Most readers are fortunate to never stumble upon a shooting victim. And if you believe the comments posted online under most homicide stories, you learn that many believe that the shootings occurring in those other, distressed neighborhoods have little to do with their own lives. Or they say they see no point in wasting time reporting or reading about every single one.
They could not be more wrong. The relentless coverage, as painful as it reads, is necessary and impacting.
Newspaper pressure, brought to bear on those who run the city, already has led to a shift and increase in policing, particularly expanded foot patrols. This has been credited with a decrease of 20 percent in the number of fatal shootings in 2013 so far.
And to paraphrase the mission statement of the “Homicide Watch” section of this newspaper, the human suffering in each case cannot be ignored. The 500 murders in this city in 2012 forever changed the lives of tens of thousands of people. Not just the victims, but each and every person directly and peripherally affected, including neighbors, witnesses, police, lawyers, judges, counselors, schoolchildren, friends, relatives, people implicated, people betrayed.
No matter where we live in Illinois, we foot the bill for the bloodshed, for everything from trauma hospitals, to prisons, to the repair and care for families torn apart by bullets.
And we foot the bill figuratively, insofar as the devaluation of human life anywhere diminishes us all.
But when newspapers dig up the facts, we are empowered with the truth, which gets us nearer to the understanding that leads to solutions.
I did not learn the truth about the slain man those teenagers found until I read it in the paper two weeks later.
He was Martin Myers, 43, who had abducted his estranged girlfriend at gunpoint. Somehow she got the jump on him, shot him with his weapon, and then dumped him in the woods near my former home.
I do not need to be convinced that gun violence is the most serious ill threatening our community and our humanity.
Those who still doubt it don’t need to stumble upon a body. Just pay closer attention to the news.
David McGrath is emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage and the author of “The Territory.”