MURDER FROM ROGERS PARK
Perpetrators, victims, bystanders on Chicago's north side
BY STEPHEN ELLIOTT
In the summer of 1987 I was fifteen and living in a group home in Rogers Park. Rogers Park is an entry point for Chicago. When Operation Exodus was bringing Jews over from Russia, many of them were shipped to Rogers Park. When Saddam Hussein came to power in Iraq, a flood of Kurds settled along Western Avenue. Thousands of Indians settled along Devon. They were followed by Lost Boys from the Sudan. It was a neighborhood full of immigrants, most of them on their way to somewhere else, although there was half a square mile of Orthodox Jews who had dug in for the long haul.
The group home was a two-story bungalow on a quiet residential street, with four bedrooms, a backyard, and a basement. There were two boys per room in three of the bedrooms, and the fourth bedroom had a king-sized bed that was used by the staff. It wasn’t the best way to spend an adolescence, but it was a lot better than the places I’d already been. A year earlier I’d spent a few days in Central Youth Shelter, which was like a gladiator arena with thirty children per room and staff watching from behind bulletproof glass. Shortly after that I did three months in a public mental hospital, and then six months in a violent boys’ home on the edge of Hyde Park, not far from the Robert Taylor Homes, the largest housing project in the world.
The group home was a big step up, with a mixture of private children who expected to go home one day and public children like me of whom the state had assumed custody. It was one of five homes in the neighborhood run by the Jewish Children’s Bureau (three for boys, two for girls), which also had its own school. All of the children were designated with behavior disorders.
I had grown up in Rogers Park, so when I moved into the group home I reconnected with all my old friends. We would drink upstairs while the staff were sleeping — grain alcohol mixed with Hawaiian Punch. We would smoke pot at the canal and start fires in the woods that often burned much longer than we meant them to. And we would play basketball in Green Briar Park. We were so high it was like tossing stones in the lake.
One of our dealers also hung out at that park. His name was Ted Light. He was seventeen and chubby, with smooth, tan skin. He wore preppy shirts, which was unusual for the neighborhood, and he sat on the benches with a local Greek gang called the Popes. I didn’t like Ted. He liked to start fights, and he thought he was cool, but he didn’t look cool. I was younger than my crowd, and he and I probably felt like we could score points on each other in that subconscious adolescent male way, but nothing ever came of it. We hardly exchanged words. He lived alone with his mother in a two-flat nearby, and when he was in the other room weighing drugs, my friend Nicko would lift the blankets on Ted’s bed to show us the rubber sheet underneath. Ted was a bed-wetter.
One night just before the start of the school year, Ted Light took a drive with a twenty-seven-year-old car thief named Dwight Lambert. They went south past the high-end condominiums in Lincoln Park and the shops along the Miracle Mile. Ted had a crossbow in the car. They dipped into Lower Wacker Drive, where the homeless slept on the loading docks of the city’s great department stores. There, lying on his side on top of a cardboard box, was Gaylord Tolbert. He could have been anybody — an out-of-town drifter, a schizophrenic lost by the state’s under-funded psychiatric wards — but he wasn’t. Gaylord had a family. He’d just fallen on some hard times.
Ted fixed an arrow in the bow, stretched the wire back, and stuck the crossbow out of the window. The arrow whistled quickly through the air, and Gaylord flipped onto his back, convulsing wildly. Ted and Dwight sat in the car and watched him die.
“You know the killer instinct, right?” Ted asked my friend Eddie* a couple of days later. “Everyone wants to know what it’s like to take another man’s life.” Ted explained how he’d had the crossbow for a while. He’d started shooting at telephone poles, then small animals, then dogs. It seemed like a natural progression. Eddie and Ted were smoking Ted’s pot. Ted explained how Dwight flopped onto his back so it looked as if someone had plunged the arrow into his chest. He told Eddie he would never get caught.
Eddie also lived alone with his mother; all of my friends were from broken homes. I’d known Eddie since the third grade. He asked me what he should do, and I said he should tell the police. It’s what he wanted to do, anyway. We were all aware of the notice on the back of the coupon pages offering up to $1,000 for information leading to an arrest. Besides, Ted had told everyone; Eddie wasn’t the only one to make the call.
Soon after, maybe six months or so, I quit doing drugs. I had gotten lucky, ending up in the right home at the right time, a place where I could make the changes I needed to make. I started actually going to high school for the first time. I was able to transfer from the JCB school to the public school across the street, although that school wasn’t so great either. I joined the chess team and petitioned to have the behavior disorder designation removed from my records.
Ted wasn’t the only person I knew who had committed murder, but his story has always stayed with me, partly because of the strangeness of the crime, and partly because we didn’t seem to have cared as much as we should have. We still bought our drugs from Ted. He was never particularly popular, but he didn’t seem to lose any friends. Everybody knew what he’d done, and we all talked about it, although only a couple of people would admit to calling the police hotline; snitching was looked down upon.
Two years later, Ted was finally arrested. In a plea for mercy he told Judge Earl Strayhorn, “I’m not an evil person. My face may not show it, but my heart is filled with sorrow.” By then, Eddie was in the air force and I was downstate at the University of Illinois on a full ride. (It’s easy to pay for college when you’re a ward of the state — you just have to make it there.)
My friend Albert was in the holding cell after the sentencing, waiting on his own trial for criminal property damage. There were fifty men in that cell, and Albert said Ted sat on the floor like an affectless Buddha.
“How’d it go?” Albert asked.
“They gave me sixty years,” Ted replied.
“He didn’t seem to care,” Albert told me later. “Maybe he was relieved.” &
*Not his real name.