I'll link to my episode when it goes up, but for those who don't listen to podcasts I thought I'd reprint the text version.
I handled my first crime scene evidence the summer I was 14. Specifically broken pieces from a yellow Walkman, a Walkman that 48 hours earlier had been in the ears of Kathy Lombardo. We knew the Lombardo family from our parish church, St. Edmund’s. Kathy was ten years older than me, too big a gap to really know well, but the general impression was that Kathy was a straight arrow girl, a shy pleaser. It was August 1984. Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” was everywhere. I loved the song. It was the perfect anthem for a 14-year old girl about to enter high school who spent her time scanning for signs of what it meant to be cool.
We lived in Oak Park, just west of Chicago. Native Ernest Hemingway famously called the town the place of “wide lawns and narrow minds,” but truthfully the lawns weren’t that wide and by 1980s Oak Park had a reputation for a kind of privileged liberalism, progressive at a remove. Imagine tasteful prairie style homes filled with Northwestern graduates who put in two years in the Peace Corps before law school.
Kathy Lombardo probably wasn’t into “Sunglasses at Night.” She was more likely a “Stuck on You” by Lionel Richie kind of person, another song big in August 1984. Maybe she’d been listening to it when the moment occurred, the moment that led to my furtive handling of her broken Walkman, the moment when she’d been jogging a block and a half from her family’s house and a man’s hands shot forth suddenly in the darkness; there was the shock of his hands and the brutal force with which he brought her down, dragging her into the alley, away from the prairie homes and the cozy summer post-dinner wine get togethers on the screened porches, slamming her into the garbage cans where he raped Kathy, stabbed her, and slit her throat. Then disappeared.
I remember it was very hot. I was on the third floor, in the refurbished attic bedroom with the orange shag rug that was decorated in the various styles of my five older siblings, who’d all been teenagers in the 1970s. I remember a rustling and commotion. I remember knowing just from the way my mother and sister stood looking out the second floor window that something terrible had happened. Terrible things never happened. I felt in the truest sense of the word gripped --- like an unseen force had locked onto me, refusing to let go.
Kathy Lombardo’s murder gripped everyone in Oak Park those last weeks of summer 1984. Word was that her killer had gotten off the El train, the train that brought back the lawyers and bankers from the city; he’d exited the train, spotted Kathy jogging, and followed her. Near the El stop in question was a convenience store, the White Hen Pantry, and for years I associated the store and the El stop and the section of tunneled street under the train that shook and was dark with dread, foreboding, the awful, charged instant an animal spots its prey.
By fall talk of Kathy’s murder, an aberration inflicted on us from an outside force, faded. Not for me. I was still gripped. In fact, I was changed. I was a 14 year old in Tretorn sneakers with Duran Duran posters on my bedroom wall that sneaked away not to smoke cigarettes or see a boy but to an alcove in an alley .3 miles from my house where I searched and found and handled the broken pieces of Walkman that had belonged to a murdered girl.
Never again would I tune out when the words “homicide” or “missing” or “mystery” came on the news. I greedily collected details of true crimes big and small. I spent hours lying on my side in bed poring over true crime books. I had a murder habit, and it was bad. I would feed it for the rest of my life.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why. For many reasons the fascination makes no sense. I’m extraordinarily squeamish about visual depictions of violence, and frequently have to leave the room at what many would consider mild episodes of physical roughness on TV. I don’t fall defiantly on one side of the justice vs. mercy question. No on in my family has murdered, or been murdered.
I think the narcotic pull for me is what I think of as the powerful absence that haunts an unsolved crime. Murderers lose power the moment we know them. We see their unkempt shirts, the uncertain fear tightening their faces as they’re led into a courtroom. You know their names now, and it’s often just…Dave. But if you commit a brutal murder and then vanish, what you leave behind isn’t just pain but absence, a great, supreme blankness that triumphs, obscenely it seems to me, over everything else.
When I’m puzzling over the details of an unsolved crime I’m like a rat in a maze given a task, and I mean that in the best possible way. The world narrows. The search propels.
I trace my obsession to the moment in the alley with the pieces of Walkman when I was 14. Kathy Lombardo was gone. She wasn’t coming back. But he, whomever he was, was still out there. The hollow gap of his identity was violently powerful to me.
I wanted to see his face. I wanted to know who he was.
As it turns out, I may have known him all along.
Twenty-seven years after the murder I called the cold case detective in charge of Kathy Lombardo’s still unsolved case. I wanted to write about the story, and I had some questions. I casually mentioned the fact that the killer had been spotted exiting the El and following Kathy.
“Don’t know where you got that,” he said. “Never happened.”
We decided someone in the neighborhood had probably started the rumor to perpetuate the idea that the threat came from outside Oak Park.
In fact, clues point to the killer as someone who probably lived close by, someone who may have been a familiar face.
Who was he? In the maze, the world narrows. The search propels. On August 1, 1984 a man who showed one face to the world had someone else crouched inside him, as many people do, someone coiled and seething, waiting to spring, listening for the approaching footsteps of a girl jogging by in the dark.