Sunday, August 8, 2010

What REALLY Happened On Argyle and at the Broadway Armory on Sunday, August 1 (Rumors Be Damned)

Exclusive Report by Tom Mannis - The Chicago Police Department’s Bomb and Arson unit is probably still laughing about this - nervously. This story is about two of the most bizarre events I’ve written about in Chicago. It's about two separate incidents, joined by wild rumor. The only real connection is the commonality of Bomb and Arson's involvement. We’ll talk about crazy rumors, drunken poker players, a refilled grenade, an imaginary meth lab, a pizza box filled with something very disgusting, a lucky blanket and x-rays. Who could ask for more? A rumor spread quickly on Sunday night, August 1 from Uptown north into Edgewater. According to street buzz, there was a bomb threat at an apartment building on W. Argyle Street, in which police supposedly found three dead bodies, grenades, and a meth lab -- all in one unit. According to the rumors, the dead guys were shot in the back of their heads execution style in the white residential building on the southeast corner of N. Kenmore and W. Argyle in Chicago’s “Little China Town.” The rumor was already making the rounds when, coincidentally, a suspicious package caused CPD’s Bomb and Arson unit to block off streets around the Broadway Armory at 5917 North Broadway, nine blocks north of Argyle (see map). Both incidents happened in the 46th Aldermanic Ward. The rumors so distorted reality that explanation is needed. Since nobody else has done so, we will. Here’s what really happened, and what did not, thanks to a conversation we had on August 6 with Sergeant Jeffrey Sacks, Chicago Police Department and CAPS Beat 2024. (Their next meeting will be at 7:00 p.m. on August 19 at Margate Park.) Sgt. Sacks told Chicago News Bench that "It all started with a poker game gone bad." Three men were drinking and playing cards all night, beginning late on Saturday, July 31. They were in a third-floor apartment at 1027 W. Argyle Street. A disagreement led to a fight. In anger, one of the men fired one bullet from a semi-automatic pistol at the floor, sometime around 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, August 1. The bullet went through the floor and into the second-story apartment below. The noise of the gunshot awakened the woman who lives there. She looked around and noticed a bullet resting on her blanket. She and the blanket were unharmed because the bullet was slowed down as it passed through the floor-ceiling, enough so that it merely dropped softly onto her bed. Later, around 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, that woman waved down a police officer who regularly patrols the neighborhood. She told him about hearing a gunshot, finding the bullet on her blanket, and a mysterious hole in her ceiling. The officer, with backup that arrived quickly, paid a visit to the third floor apartment. That was at 3:33 p.m., according to the police report. The police officers knocked on the door of the third floor apartment and were allowed to enter. All three poker players were still there, and one of them admitted to firing a gun at the floor. The police now had probable cause to search the apartment for a firearm, and they soon found a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol under a dresser. But that’s not all they found. During the search, the police found a “small caliber rifle,” ammunition and magazines (ammo clips). The item that probably caused the rumor to blow up (pardon the expression) was the makeshift grenade that was also found. According to Sgt. Sacks, it was originally the kind of “fake” grenade that you can buy at many novelty stores. They are hollowed out and harmless, but according to the police report that Sgt. Sacks consulted for us, this one had been filled with... something, and replugged. Was it filled with explosive material? Sgt. Sacks said the police report did not say, and here’s why: Fearing the possibility that the grenade might actually be explosive, the officers on scene called for Bomb and Arson. The building was evacuated as a precautionary measure at approximately 4:30 p.m. What had been a quiet investigation now spilled out onto Argyle Street in a big way. Shoppers, tourists and merchants suddenly became aware that something was wrong in the building and on the street. Seeing the evacuation, and hearing about “a grenade,” plus the sight of the Bomb and Arson van, some folks exaggerated the story until it morphed into the rumor about three murdered men, a meth lab and a bomb threat. In fact, nobody was dead, not even injured. There was no meth lab and nobody had threatened to blow up the building. One of the unlucky poker players was charged with reckless discharge of a firearm. The other two were released after questioning without being charged. Sgt. Sacks said that none of the men admitted to owning the any of the guns, so for the time being there are no additional charges. The suspicious, maybe-explosive grenade was destroyed by Bomb and Arson when they exploded it in a special container in their van on the street. Therefore, charges will probably never be brought against anybody for possession of the grenade because there is, literally, no longer any evidence of it. It was blown to smithereens. Sgt. Sacks justified this action by saying the threat of people being injured by the grenade, whether on site or later, was too great not to destroy it immediately. He said that this is the usual procedure with such dangerous items. This is where we segue to another Bomb and Arson incident, a few hours later, nine blocks north, at the Broadway Armory. There, at approximately, 10:00 p.m., a suspicious package caused a vigilant pedestrian to phone 911. The contents of the suspicious package were, shall we say, darkly amusing. In yet another case of the Big Media being unfamiliar with Chicago’s neighborhoods, ABC7 erroneously called the Broadway Armory the “Edgewater Armory” in an August 2 report. Let’s give Channel 7 some credit, however, as their lean report was the only one that any Big Media outlet thus far has run about the incident. Only one blog made mention of it: Edgewater Community Buzz referred briefly to the ABC7 piece and linked to it. Chicago News Bench, on the other hand, was actually on the scene about half an hour after the initial 911 call came in of a suspicious package. We arrived at Thorndale and Broadway just before 11:00 p.m. on Sunday night. Police had streets around the Armory area closed off with yellow tape from N. Broadway east along W. Thorndale to N. Winthrop, and south from Thorndale along Broadway to W. Rosedale Avenue. Winthrop was not closed off because the suspicious package was at the Armory's Broadway entrance. Now owned by the Chicago Park District, the Broadway Armory used to be a National Guard Armory, and it’s walls were designed to withstand small bomb blasts and explosions. Had the suspicious bomb actually exploded at the front door, the blast would have posed no danger to anybody on Thorndale east of Broadway. That also explains why the CTA’s Red Line trains, which pass nearby just east of the Armory, were allowed to continue running normally, and why shops remained open. I observed the CPD officers on Thorndale for about 45 minutes and I left just as the Bomb and Arson van pulled up. However, that van was on the Broadway side of the building, so we could neither see nor photograph it. I first became aware of the crazy rumors involving the Argyle Street incident as I stood on Thorndale. A local came up to me and said, "You know, this all started down on Argyle Street this afternoon." Despite the stench of alcohol on his breath, I was intrigued. "Oh?" I inquired. "There was three guys shot in the back of the head in a meth lab in an apartment building," he said. "The cops brought out tons of weapons and three grenades." (Over the next several days, I heard this rumor repeated at least a dozen times.) I left the area but kept my police scanner on. At exactly 11:53 p.m., one of the CPD officers at the Armory radioed a request for an ambulance to stand by just in case anybody happened to get injured by the could-be bomb. (It struck me as odd that nobody had thought to do this when the 911 call was made nearly two hours earlier.) What was actually in the package? Dana Fritz, Aldermanic Aide to 48th Ward Alderman Mary Ann Smith, told Chicago News Bench that it was a “pizza box wrapped oddly” and laid on top of a folded U.S. flag. Mr. Fritz is Ald. Smith’s Public Safety Liaison, and he added that the box was “blown up without looking inside.” (That's partially correct, as we will see in a moment.) As with the grenade, CPD wisely chose the safest option. To open the box would have been foolhardy. So... what was inside the pizza box? Sgt. Sacks told Chicago News Bench that the pizza box was filled with “human excrement.” That’s right, poop. In addition to the poop, there were “wires and metal things” that were probably put there to make the package look dangerous in case it was x-rayed. Although the box was not actually opened, the police know this, he said, because they actually did x-ray the box. They then analyzed the remains of the contents after it was exploded on the scene, in a special container similar to the one used for the grenade on Argyle several hours earlier. I asked Sgt. Sacks what brand the pizza was. He didn't say. There you have it, then. The rumors can be put to rest now.