It was a balmy afternoon last July when the call came in: Dead body found inside empty warehouse on the West Side.
Chicago police officers drove through an industrial stretch of the hardscrabble Austin neighborhood and pulled up to the 4600 block of West Arthington Street. The warehouse in question was an unremarkable-looking red-brick single-story building with a tall barbed-wire fence. Vacant for six years, it had been visited that day by its owner and a real-estate agent—the person who had called 911.
The place lacked electricity, so crime scene technicians set up generators and portable lights. The power flickered on to reveal a grisly sight. In a small office, on soggy carpeting covered in broken ceiling tiles, lay a naked, lifeless woman. She had long red-streaked black hair and purple glitter nail polish on her left toenails (her right ones were gone), but beyond that it was hard to discern much. Her face and body were bloated and badly decomposed, her hands ash colored. Maggots feasted on her flesh.
At the woman’s feet, detectives found a curled strand of telephone wire. Draped over her right hand was a different kind of wire: thin and brown. The same brown wire was wrapped around each armrest of a wooden chair next to her.
The following day, July 24, a pathologist in the Cook County medical examiner’s office noticed something else that had been obscured by rotting skin: a thin gag tied around the corpse’s mouth.
Thanks to some still-visible tattoos, detectives soon identified this unfortunate woman: Tiara Groves, a 20-year-old from Austin. She was last seen walking alone in the wee hours of Sunday, July 14, near a liquor store two miles from the warehouse. At least eight witnesses who saw her that night told police a similar story: She appeared drunk and was upset—one man said that she was crying so hard she couldn’t catch her breath—but refused offers of help. A man who talked to her outside the liquor store said that Groves warned him, excitedly and incoherently, that he should stay away from her or else somebody (she didn’t say who) would kill him too.
Toxicology tests showed she had heroin and alcohol in her system, but not enough to kill her. All signs pointed to foul play. According to the young woman’s mother, who had filed a missing-person report, the police had no doubt. “When this detective came to my house, he said, ‘We found your daughter. . . . Your daughter has been murdered,’ ” Alice Groves recalls. “He told me they’re going to get the one that did it.”
On October 28, a pathologist ruled the death of Tiara Groves a homicide by “unspecified means.” This rare ruling means yes, somebody had killed Groves, but the pathologist couldn’t pinpoint the exact cause of death.
Given the finding of homicide—and the corroborating evidence at the crime scene—the Chicago Police Department should have counted Groves’s death as a murder. And it did. Until December 18. On that day, the police report indicates, a lieutenant overseeing the Groves case reclassified the homicide investigation as a noncriminal death investigation. In his writeup, he cited the medical examiner’s “inability to determine a cause of death.”
That lieutenant was Denis Walsh—the same cop who had played a crucial role in the alleged cover-up in the 2004 killing of David Koschman, the 21-year-old who died after being punched by a nephew of former mayor Richard M. Daley. Walsh allegedly took the Koschman file home. For years, police officials said that it was lost. After the Sun-Times reported it missing, the file mysteriously reappeared.
But back to Tiara Groves. With the stroke of a computer key, she was airbrushed out of Chicago’s homicide statistics.
The change stunned officers. Current and former veteran detectives who reviewed the Groves case at Chicago’s request were just as incredulous. Says a retired high-level detective, “How can you be tied to a chair and gagged, with no clothes on, and that’s a [noncriminal] death investigation?” (He, like most of the nearly 40 police sources interviewed for this story, declined to be identified by name, citing fears of disciplinary action or other retribution.)
Was it just a coincidence, some wondered, that the reclassification occurred less than two weeks before the end of the year, when the city of Chicago’s final homicide numbers for 2013 would be tallied? “They essentially wiped away one of the murders in the city, which is crazy,” says a police insider. “But that’s the kind of shit that’s going on.”