MURDER MYSTERY: As the Jewish residents of West Rogers Park feel a sense of fear, police are no closer to finding the killer of Eliyahu Moscowitz

Eliyahu Moscowitz

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

An autumn of fear has yielded to a winter of uncertainty for Far North Side Jews in the wake of an unsolved murder of an Orthodox Jew in Rogers Park.

A reward of $150,000 for information leading to the capture of the masked murderer, depicted in several surveillance videos, has so far gone unclaimed.  Chicago police said ballistics tests showed Eliyahu Moscowitz, 24, was shot in the head Oct. 1 on the Loyola Park path.

Police at first speculated that the assailant, noted for his unique sideways gait in the videos, was a local resident lying low once his images were disseminated.  However, one former Chicago police officer familiar with the neighborhood said the assailant could have fled, possibly out of town, once the heat was on. No similar assaults have been reported in Chicago or elsewhere since the murders.

Almost all police, along with community and Jewish leaders handling the murder’s aftermath, said the murder of Moscowitz, identifiably Orthodox in his appearance, was not a hate crime. He was not robbed.

Nevertheless, the unrelated massacre of 11 synagogue worshippers – worst mass crime against Jews in U.S. history – on Oct. 27 hard on the heels of the Moscowitz killing added to an unprecedented feeling of foreboding among many longtime Jewish residents of both Rogers Park and West Rogers Park.

Top Chicago police officials and Jewish security experts tried to reassure the community in two separate meetings that Jews do not walk around with targets on their backs just leaving their homes or walking to synagogue on Shabbat. However, amid an apparent new “normal” of more violent street crime and hate fueled by inflammatory political rhetoric, they urged a heightened sense of awareness to one’s surroundings and more care taken to synagogue security.

“West Rogers Park is still one of the safest districts in the city,” said Bruce Rottner, a native of the neighborhood and one of the most prominent former top Jewish police commanders in recent decades.

Rottner, who came out of retirement briefly to work as interim Lincolnwood police chief this year, had served the 24th District, covering both Rogers Park and West Rogers Park, as both neighborhood relations officer in the 1980s and, a generation later, commander in the mid-2000s.

“You’re only as scared as you think you are. You can’t let fear of hooligans disrupt your life,” he said. “I don’t think the Orthodox community will allow their lives to be disrupted.   I think people have gotten better at situational awareness.”

Added Michael Masters, national director and CEO of the Secure Community Network, a security adjunct of the national Jewish Federations: “It never hurts to be more vigilant and careful. Take safety and security more seriously. Take it in a serious way.  Every synagogue should consult with local experts to see that their security precautions are up to date.”

Bruce Rottner

But reassuring words won’t be enough to purge worries that are becoming even more embedded in the community.

“Fear still presides over Rogers Parkers,” said a middle-aged Jewish woman, a decades-long resident of the neighborhood. She did not want her name used for fear of being targeted by the still on-the-loose killer.

“Although many of us continue our daily routines, we, and our neighborhood, are different. We’re suspicious. We’re constantly looking around and over our shoulders. Some people are staying home when they would have gone out, as least for a walk in the park or on the lakefront. We’re not living in the blissfully safe world we once did.

“Everyone is scrutinized, looked at. One day, someone walking behind me coughed and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Maybe they were just trying to let me know they were there and not scare me. But it did just the opposite.

“At first after the recent murder, the streets of East Rogers Park were bare. It seemed as if no one was going out, especially at night. Now, some sense of normalcy has returned. But I did notice with my neighbors, some, particularly those with children, are staying closer to home. The moms walking babies in the park are not as plentiful. I don’t see as many women— or for that matter men — walking alone. Folks are teaming up to walk their dogs and to have someone with them to and from work.”

The Moscowitz murder was not a total outlier in a sea of tranquility. Although Rottner was correct in claiming West Rogers Park, a traditional city Jewish stronghold, is generally safe, murders were not unheard of in the neighborhood. However, Rottner said they were more likely to be the result of domestic disputes and not street crime.

Meanwhile, Rogers Park east of Ridge Avenue has been more rough-hewn than its quieter, more affluent neighbor to the west. Parts of the area, such as the “North of Howard” mini-neighborhood in the far northeast section and around the Morse-Ashland Avenue intersection, had its troubles as early as the 1980s. In spite of the crimes, longtime residents like the unnamed Jewish woman gladly took up roots in the area.

“I remember when I moved into Rogers Park, many decades ago,” she said. “It was such a peaceful and beautiful community, far removed from crime. I think it was the 1980s when the son of the owner of a small, mom-and-pop grocery store on Sheridan Road was shot and killed by a mentally-ill man. Our neighborhood’s world was rocked. These things just didn’t happen here.

“Now, they happen regularly.”

Indeed, just a day before the Moscowitz murder, Douglass Watts, 73, was shot and killed in the 1400 block of W. Sherwin Avenue. Ten days after the Moscowitz death, South Sudanese immigrant Ali Kahbab was fatally shot twice in the back in an apparent robbery attempt by two men in the 6100 block of North Talman Avenue.

Less than a month before the Moscowitz murder, Shane Columbo, an incoming Ph.D. student at Northwestern University was shot and killed in apparent gang crossfire while waiting at a bus stop near Howard Avenue and Clark Street.

Eleven months earlier, Rogers Park resident Cynthia Trevillion, 64, a popular teacher at the Chicago Waldorf School, was killed in an apparent gang drive-by aimed at another individual near the Morse L station.

Rottner said the fracturing of gangs into smaller factions, fighting over small sections of turf to sell drugs, has ratcheted up the violence. When Al Capone-like leaders such as Jeff Fort and Larry Hoover presided over mega-gangs, a certain code of conduct was expected – mainly not indiscriminate killing of innocent bystanders. Police were certainly off-limits. But with Fort, Hoover and others long imprisoned, there is no one at the top to enforce gang discipline.

Levi Staal

But the Moscowitz killing seemed far more sinister, once the hate-crime angle was put aside. It seemed he was the victim of a serial killer nipped-in-the-bud by the videos. The gunman appeared to be a “lone wolf,” according to Rottner, with Moscowitz simply in the “wrong place at the wrong time.”

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, State Sen. Ira Silverstein and Levi Staal, a mortgage broker who doubles as a synagogue security consultant, quickly headed up a community meeting at the Loyola Park Fieldhouse. A Chicago Police Department Facebook video of the meeting can be accessed at www.facebook.com/ChicagoPoliceDepartment/videos/287905728746962/B

Staal said a “conglomeration” of several groups put together the $150,000 of reward money. A private donor who contributed on behalf of the Moscowitz family, who wants to remain anonymous, is one. Also contributing were the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, Crime Stoppers of Cook County, the Rogers Park Builders Association and Raul Montes, Jr.

Although the reward on the head of the killer is considerable, human nature tends to hold out for an even higher price, said Staal.

“This is known from previous experience — those who know (the killer) wait for the reward money to bump up,” he said. “That could be what they are waiting for.  We don’t know that no one has come forward yet. The police need to make a solid case. The worse thing they can do is make a false arrest. A sister or brother could be weighing a decision to turn in a relative. Money makes the world go round.”

Dozens of Chicago police detectives, along with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, are on the case. In the Loyola Park meeting, Johnson said more than 400 leads have been pursued.

“Will this person surface again?” asked Rottner. “Everyone says cops love a mystery. No, we don’t love a mystery. Hopefully he will be brought in by the large reward.

“I think we have the best detectives in the country.  Basically it comes down to police work, talking to a ton of people — that and people calling in with tips, that’s how he’ll get caught.”

A candid assessment was offered by another former Chicago officer, who had suggested the suspect “got the (bleep) out of Dodge and left the city.

“I think he…was smart enough to stop once he was caught on video. It’s obvious he lives in the neighborhood or was visiting somebody and went back (out of the area).”

The alleged killer’s sideways gait shown in the video prompted “guys that are not cops … (going) out there looking for this guy in the way he walks to try to get the reward. He has such a distinct walk I doubt if he’s around there any longer…If he told somebody they are stupid not to take the $150,000. But you never know.”

Again, under the cloak of anonymity, the former officer noted “no similar cases like that in the suburbs or anywhere in Chicago since the second homicide…I think he got freaked because of the video of him walking down alleys and down the street.”

He hoped the murder will not turn out like the ongoing, 10-year-old unsolved Lane Bryant killings in Tinley Park. “It took (nine) years to solve the 1993 Brown’s Chicken murders when that girlfriend (Anne Lockett) finally opened her (bleepin’) mouth.”

Michael Masters

The Rogers Park murder and other acts of violence were a “micro” incident while a “macro” rise in hate crimes, highlighted by the Pittsburgh massacre, dovetailed to heighten the Jewish community’s anxiousness. To put the latter issue into perspective, Masters’ Secure Community Network, Chabad of River North & Fulton Market, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Anti-Defamation League Midwest staged a symposium at the East Bank Club.

Masters once was chief of staff to former Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis and deputy chief of staff to former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. He also was former executive director of the Dept. of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for Cook County, and serves on the Secretary of the Dept. of Homeland Security’s Faith-Based Security and Communications Advisory Committee.

He was joined on the panel by Rabbi Avraham Kagan, co-director of Chabad River North & Fulton Market and director of government affairs of Chabad of Illinois. Bringing an inside-out perspective on the origins of hate was Christian Picciollini, who was just 14 when he joined the Hammerskin Nation, a neo-Nazi, white-power group. Picciolini escaped the group’s grip after eight years to co-found a non-profit that counsels members of hate groups while helping them disengage.

Masters said undiagnosed and untreated instances of mental illness colliding with easy availability of guns, provoking mass shootings and hate crimes, are “fantastic questions” that need long-term answers. However, they are also issues that cannot be solved immediately.  “No one is going to remove millions of guns” from the populace, he added.  He stressed situational awareness and improved synagogue security as aspects that can immediately be improved.

Kagan said Jews and others simply need “direction” amid the new normal.

“People are resilient and resolute, to continue celebrating Judaism proudly and openly and not bury their heads in the sand,” he said. “All the panelists agreed to continue celebrating Judaism with pride, but also take the proper protocols.”

Masters cited the infamous 1958 Our Lady of Angels tragedy that prompted a sea change in the way educators conducted business.  Soon afterward, fire drills were instituted in 1,600 schools.  Jews can make similar adjustments in their daily and synagogue activities without interfering with their celebration of Judaism.

“Are they empowered to be more safe?” Masters said. “My reality is I don’t want any member of our community, whether they are wearing a black hat or a kippah, no individual should feel harassed to be who they are.”

Left unsaid is how much safer people in or near a traditional Jewish neighborhood will feel when someone finally cashes in the price on the head of a stone-cold killer.

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