Tag Archive for Chicago

“She Reveled in Death…”

Louise Vermilya, poisoner

Maybe we should not be surprised that poisoner Louise Vermilya of Chicago had a fascination with death that transcends understanding. After all, she probably did kill at least 8 people.
But Louise’s all-consuming death worship went beyond just enjoying the sufferings of people dying from arsenic poisoning: her favorite place to hang out was the local funeral parlor.
After Louise was arrested in Chicago in November 1911 for the poisoning death of Chicago patrolmen Arthur Bissonette, an undertaker came forward and revealed that Louise enjoyed bathing and preparing corpses and was particularly fond of watching the embalming process.
“She appeared to revel in death,” said Barrington, Ill., undertaker E.M. Blocks. “I never knew so strange a woman. For years before the death of her husband it was notorious in Barrington that Louise…seemed to delight in being in the presence of death.”
Blocks said that after her first husband died, Louise began to show up regularly at his establishment and performed volunteer work. Her fascination with the business of death bordered on monomania.
“Displaying a morbid desire to be near and to handle dead bodies, she would wash and dress the bodies, dress the hair and she even watched the process of embalming with the keenest interest and without a tremor.”
According to Blocks, Louise would visit families in mourning even when she did not know the deceased.
“She would go to the home and almost force herself upon them,” Blocks said. “She would help to dress and prepare the body for burial and appeared to delight in it.”
Bissonette, a boarder in Louise’s home, died in agony a week after ingesting arsenic-laced food. The autopsy revealed a more than sufficient quantity of the heavy metal poison to cause death and prompted an investigation into the cop’s and several other deaths.
Since Louise reveled and delighted in death, she must have been a very happy woman:

  • Fred Brinkamp was Louise’s first husband. A wealthy farmer from Barrington, Ill., he died several years before Bissonette was murdered and left her an estate of $5,000 (equal to the buying power of about $120,000 today).
  • Cory Brinkamp, Louise’s daughter, died in Barrington when she was 8 years old.
  • Florence Brinkamp, 4, also died while the family lived in Barrington. The deaths of Florence and Cory occurred in the same year as their father’s.
  • Lillian Brinkamp, a step-granddaughter through her marriage with Fred, died in 1906 while under the care of Louise.
  • Charles Vermilya, her second husband, preceded Bissonette in death by two years and left his not-so-grief-stricken widow $2,000.
  • Frank Brinkamp, Louise’s son and her only surviving link to Fred, died in 1910, leaving his mother $1,200.
  • Harry J. Vermilya, a step-son, also died in 1910 after a quarrel with Louise over the disposition of his father’s house.
  • Richard Smith, another boarder in her home died in 1910. His landlady was named his insurance beneficiary, receiving a death benefit of $2,000. Some believe that Smith, a conductor on the Illinois Central Railroad, was actually Louise’s third husband.

Richard Smith’s estranged wife recalled that when she came to Chicago to claim her husband’s body, Louise was acting strangely.
“Mrs. Vermilya insisted on remaining in the room with the body of Smith,” said Detective Roy Hessler. “Mrs. Smith also said her husband’s death appeared very suspicious to her.”
Louise claimed that Bissonette was her fiance, despite the fact that the cop left his entire $1,500 estate to another woman who was his actual betrothed.
Detectives and reporters looking into the mysterious deaths briefly pursued a red herring when another undertaker, C.C. Boyson, was discovered to be the beneficiary of a life insurance policy on Louise herself. Why this raised eyebrows is not clear, and police quickly announced that Boyson’s only connection to the case was that he was a one-time beau who managed to escape from her web. Not surprisingly, Louise often assisted her intended victim with his funeral work.
“Our suspicions of Mr. Boysen were apparently unfounded,” said Cook County Coroner Peter Hoffman. “He has explained to us in detail his entire connection to Mrs. Vermilya. At one time he throught that he himself was about to become one of her victims.”
Boysen added through his lawyer that while he was not making a direct accusation, he was convinced the woman he had once planned to marry was a poisoner.
Most of the deaths occurred in Barrington with just Smith and Bissonette killed in Chicago where Louise, using the money from Fred Brinkamp’s estate, purchased a boarding house.
When Louise was arrested for the murders of Bissonette and Smith, witnesses came out of the woodwork to assist police in their investigation. Elizabeth Nolan, fiancee of Frank Brinkamp, told police that Frank made statements inculpating his mother in his death.
Merely eating at her home was dangerous, others reported. Arthur F. Bissonette, father of Arthur, testified that he had been poisoned by Louise, but there are indications that he was just collateral damage in her plan to kill the patrolman.
“I went to visit my son the day before he was taken to the hospital,” he said. “I had two meals at the Vermilya home. After eating ham and eggs…I had severe pains in my stomach. I got an emetic at a drug store and was relieved for a while, but the pains are still with me.”
Louise herself led police to the actual instrument of murder when she tried to kill herself after her arrest.The weapon was revealed shortly after Louise was confronted with the results of Bissonette’s autopsy.
“A small, innocent looking pepper shaker is alleged to be the death weapon,” wrote an anonymous wire service reporter. “Instead of pepper it has been discovered that this shaker contained powdered arsenic.”
As she was being interviewed by police, Louise took out a couple of hard-boiled eggs for lunch and directed one of her servants to bring her a box of pepper from the pantry. The pepper’s quality, she said, was of the highest order.
“Taking this box in her hand, she carefully sprinkled part of the contents on one of the eggs, and when it was liberally coated, ate the egg as calmly as if it were an everyday occurrence,” the article continues.
Almost instantly she was subjected to seizures and frothing at the mouth. Detectives summoned medical help and prevented the suicide. For the next 48 hours, as Louise slowly recovered, she was questioned by authorities about her alleged crimes. She denied everything.
The bodies of Smith, Fred Brinkamp, and Frank Brinkamp were exhumed and examined and all were found with higher-than-normal amounts of arsenic. However, at the time arsenic was a component of embalming fluid, so it was impossible to prove that the poison was given to the men before they died. Not so with Bissonette’s case.
Louise’s trial in 1912 was a perfunctory affair and she was quickly convicted of the police officer’s murder. She received 25 years in prison and from there her fate is unknown.

To Serve or Protect

Steven Zirko

Police agencies across the country have adopted the Los Angeles Police Department’s motto of “To Protect and Serve,” but for the most part the motto is just something painted on a cruiser or printed on letterhead.
The question for today is just how much protection does any particular citizen deserve from law enforcement? In other words, when are the cops obligated to serve as bodyguards? Just to make it more interesting we’ll also think about how much a private citizen owes to another when the possibility of serious harm is in play.
To help answer the question, we’ll look at the tragic story of Glenview, Illinois, residents Mary Lacey, 38, and her 60-year-old mom Margaret “Dolly” Ballog. They were murdered shortly before Christmas 2004 by Mary’s common-law husband.
Their family would later claim that the police failed to protect the women despite a collection of strong circumstantial evidence that Steven Zirko, 42 years old at the time, was planning on killing Mary. Most of that evidence was in the hands of the Glenview Police Department long before the women were slain in Mary’s home.
In the end we’ll examine how the Illinois Supreme Court addressed the problem.
Mary and Zirko met and began dating in 1994. Mary had two children from an earlier marriage, and by 1998, the couple had two children together.
At Zirko’s trial for the murders in 2009, Mary’s older children both testified that after the youngest child was born, Zirko began physically abusing their mother. The children were witnesses to at least a pair of incidents. In 2000, the boy testified, he was visiting his aunt when Mary ran into the house crying that Zirko had hit her. On the day after Christmas 2002, both children saw Zirko hit Mary in the mouth. The blow was strong enough to knock her to the ground.
That punch ended the relationship and led to Mary obtaining the first of several protection orders against Zirko. She moved with the four children to Park Ridge, Illinois, while Zirko returned to live with his parents in Richmond, Illinois when he wasn’t working at his job as a piano player on cruise ships sailing the Caribbean Sea.
The ex-couple set up a system that allowed Zirko to have the children for visitation from time to time by meeting at the house of Mary’s sister. The agreement allowed Mary to keep her residence a secret from Zirko because she was so afraid of him. It was a good system in theory but not in practice.
By September of 2003 witnesses saw Zirko outside Mary’s Park Ridge home. On the 13th of September, testimony at the trial revealed, Zirko broke into Mary’s minivan and took something. Later that day, Mary’s older son saw Zirko’s car near the Park Ridge apartment as the young man was driving to visit his girlfriend. According to his testimony, Zirko spotted the boy and began following him. Rather than lead Zirko to his girlfriend’s house, the boy returned home.
Those acts resulted in Zirko’s arrest for violating the P.O. and in Mary relocating to Glenview. The arrest, which didn’t lead to any conviction, clearly infuriated Zirko, who was already taking court-mandated anger management classes. His fury led him to begin plotting Mary’s death.
The first evidence that Zirko was planning to kill the mother of his children arose in early December 2003 when Zirko complained to his chiropractor, Dr. Chad Larson, that Mary was getting parking tickets in the minivan that was registered to him. At that time Zirko asked Larson if the doctor knew of anyone who could help him regain custody of the vehicle. Larson gave Zirko the telephone number of a friend, Perry Mazlo. It’s unclear whether Larson intention was to help Zirko get the van back by fair means or foul, but Mazlo’s limited participation did not lean toward fair. As for Larson, eventually he went to the police with his suspicions that Zirko was doing more than just venting.
Mazlo met with Zirko in January 2004. He later testified that Zirko complained about Mary and said that he wanted his kids back. Mazlo also testified that Zirko said that he wanted to “off” Mary. Mazlo told Zirko that he would have to think about it and that they should have another meeting.
At their second meeting, Zirko brought a picture of Mary and said again that he wanted her “offed.” Mazlow suggested planting drugs on Mary instead, but Zirko refused and said that he still wanted her “offed.” In the end, Mazlo agreed to run surveillance on Mary for $1,000. Zirko paid him and after Mazlo followed Mary once, he asked Zirko for more money. Zirko refused and Mazlo’s role in the scheme ended.
Zirko continued to visit Larson’s office and the chiropractor became increasingly alarmed at his patient’s seething hatred for Mary. At first Zirko asked Larson if he knew anyone willing to break Mary’s legs (if you want bones broken, who better to ask than a chiropractor?) but the doctor just shrugged it off as vented frustration.
In their next appointment Zirko continued to pester the doctor for help, but raised the stakes: breaking bones wouldn’t do, he said. Zirko wanted someone to kill Mary. Larson replied that he would “look into it,” but said on the stand he had no plans to follow through. He added that he believed by promising to help but delaying things, eventually Zirko would come to his senses.
That’s not an unrealistic belief, but this was an unrealistic case.
When Zirko offered the doctor part of a $25,000 insurance policy and ten grand in cash to do the job or find someone to do it, Larson realized that things were out of control, but still he did nothing. We can argue whether Larson was acting in a moral fashion, but it is not debatable whether he violated any law by his inaction — there was none.
In the summer of 2004, when Zirko told Larson that he would be out of the country and that this would be the perfect opportunity to kill Mary, Larson again told Zirko he would look into it. Zirko called the doctor several times from Australia and even left messages asking if “it was time for him to come home.” When Zirko did return home in July, Larson finally told him that he had no intention of helping Zirko in any way kill his ex. Larson said he never expected to see Zirko again, but was surprised in October when Zirko showed up for an appointment.
This time Zirko told Larson that he had a plan to kill Mary and he needed Larson’s help in establishing an alibi. According to court documents, Zirko told Larson that he would start a pattern of visits to Larson’s office, and once the pattern was established, he would need Larson to swipe his credit card to show that he was at Larson’s office when he really was not there.
Unlike most criminals, Zirko was really thinking this through. He told the chiropractor that all of this would need to take place at the office in Palatine that did not have security cameras.
Finally sufficiently frightened, the good doctor reached out to a friend who was a Chicago detective and told him what was going on. As is typical in these types of situations, the cop decided to set up a sting operation because there was no real evidence to show that Zirko was looking for co-conspirators in his murder-for-hire plot. Larson went along with the plan and told Zirko he had found a potential killer, but perhaps something spooked Zirko because he told the chiropractor that he had made other plans and didn’t need the doc’s help anymore.
At this point (October 15, 2004) the Palatine police department became involved because the conversations between Zirko and Larson had taken place in its jurisdiction. Detectives at the department asked Larson to consider wearing a wire, and set up surveillance of Mary’s home. They briefed her on what was happening and when Larson opted not to stay involved, the cops brought Zirko in for questioning.
During that interrogation — Zirko wasn’t under arrest — he denied that he said his father was a bagman for the Chicago mob and that he had worked out a plan with his dad to whack Mary. The cops warned Zirko that they were on to him and released him, closing their case.
However, at the same time the Glenview Police Department made some promises that it may or may not have ended up keeping. That’s what the courts had to decide.
According the Mary and Dottie’s family, both Palatine and Glenview officers assured Lacey when she received her protective order that they would protect her by placing a 24-hour watch over her. The family claimed that this 24-hour watch was to include an officer posted outside Mary’s home when she was there, and an officer to follow her when she left her house.
The family also claimed (there were never any facts of this entered into evidence) that Mary called the cops multiple times requesting that they either arrest Zirko or provide the supervision and protection they promised. The departments never disputed that they did not provide her with the police protection, but later said that it didn’t matter because when Mary and Dottie were murdered, the promise had “expired” any way.
When Zirko told Larson that he had made other arrangements he wasn’t entirely lying. It’s fair to say that Zirko was aggressively trying to make other arrangements. It is clear from his actions that autumn that he was going to try to kill Mary.
Zirko approached two members of his anger management class. One he asked to procure a gun, and the other he offered $10k to “intimidate” Mary because she was keeping him from his children. He also mentioned that he had $50,000 available for anyone who might be willing to kill her. The classmate testified that Zirko repeatedly used the word “exterminate.” Fearing he was being set up for something, the man refused to help.
Evidence produced later in court showed that Zirko was planning a murder. A computer forensic investigator testified that he found the following activity on Zirko’s computer:

  • A search was made on www.MapQuest.com for Mary’s Park Ridge residence at the time;
  • A search for “GHB” was made;
  • The web site www.legalsteroids.com/google/GHB was accessed;
  • A Map Quest search from Zirko’s house to Mary’s old residence in Park Ridge was made;
  • The web site www.anesthesia-nursing.com/ether was accessed;
  • Searches were performed for “nitrous oxide,” “unconscious” and “liquid,” and “contract” and “killer”;
  • The web site www.evidence-eliminator.com was accessed;
  • There were searches performed for “hire plus mercenary,” “private detective,” “private detective Chicago,” “Chicago, private detective,” and “mercenary for hire”;
  • The web pages www.privateinvestigator.com and www.youspystore.com were accessed;
  • Searches were made for “hire a hitman.”

In addition there were life insurance policies on Mary and Dottie worth a total of $600,000 that also served as motivation apparently, because Zirko was also searching on real estate sites for homes for sale for more than $300,000.
On December 13, 2004, Zirko put his plan in motion. Taking matters into his own hands, he drove his girlfriend to the train station and then took her Jeep to Mary’s residence. Maybe he knew it or maybe he didn’t, but Mary had recently broken her ankle so Dottie was staying with Mary, her daughter’s new boyfriend, and her grandchildren.
It was easy for police to set a window for the time of the murders. At 10:22 a.m. Mary’s nephew heard his aunt leave a message for his mother on the answering machine, and at 11:05 a.m., Mary’s boyfriend received a phone call from a Comcast technician who was at the house to install a telephone saying no one was answering the door.
Ten minutes later Mary’s sister, Tracy, arrived and with the tech entered the house to find Mary’s bloody body lying in the doorway of her bedroom. Dottie was found near the front door, also dead. She had been shot three times in the chest.
Mary received the brunt of Zirko’s rage. The autopsy revealed that she had been stabbed 48 times mostly in the chest area with some defensive wounds on her hands and arms, sliced across her throat, and shot three times. Take a moment and think about how long it takes to stab a person 48 times and the fury a person must feel to become so violent.
With the plethora of circumstantial evidence that tied Zirko to the murder a conviction was a foregone conclusion.

  • First, who else would want Mary dead that bad, and who else had made such an effort as Zirko to bring about Mary’s death.
  • Next, there was evidence that bleach had been used to clean up the vehicle Zirko was driving that day and in such a fashion that damaged the carpet and fabric inside the Jeep.
  • There was blood found inside the Jeep although it could not be definitively linked to anyone.
  • There was all of the evidence on the computer.
  • There was Zirko’s history of violence.
  • There were the life insurance policies as additional motive.
  • Gunshot residue was found on Zirko’s right hand.
  • His cell phone pinged off a tower less than 4 miles from the crime scene around the time of the murder, although Zirko told the cops he was with his family in Chicago.

Despite the evidence, the wheels of justice would grind exceedingly slow in this case and in fact a civil suit against the cities of Palatine and Glenview went all the way up to the Illinois Supreme Court and was decided before Zirko went to trial. Zirko was convicted and sentenced to life+ in prison, where he remains to this day. He has doubtless appealed his case, but as of whenever you are reading this, he is still rotting behind bars.

What Does “Protect” Really Mean?

So, did the cities of Palatine and Glenview fail to protect Mary and Dottie? We can discard two things right away: the crimes didn’t take place in Palatine, and under the terms of the Illinois Domestic Violence Act of 1986, the courts found that Dottie wasn’t entitled to the special protection afforded under the law. The Act protects “any person abused by a family or household member” and “any person residing or employed at a private home or public shelter which is housing an abused family or household member.”
The fact that Dottie had not been listed in the original protective order trumped the fact that she was temporarily living with her daughter at a place other than her legal residence, the courts found. Because Mary was covered under the act, the court addressed the question of what duty the police have to protect any particular individual.
Section 305 of the Domestic Violence Act provides “Any act of omission or commission by any law enforcement officer acting in good faith in rendering emergency assistance or otherwise enforcing this Act shall not impose civil liability upon the law enforcement officer or his or her supervisor or employer, unless the act is a result of willful and wanton misconduct.”
Of course, there’s a legal definition of willful and wanton misconduct at play here which must be explained to the jury prior to deliberation.
One never knows when one will be asked to serve on a jury, so one should not skip the next section. Referring to oneself in the third person may help one avoid jury duty…
According to the Illinois Jury Instructions, this instruction provides: “When I use the expression ‘Willful and wanton misconduct’ I mean a course of action which [shows actual or deliberate intention to harm or which, if not intentional,] shows an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for [a person’s own safety] [and] [the safety of others].”
The parts in brackets are optional; the decision to use them is the judge’s after hearing arguments from the prosecution and defense. The last set of options is either/or, or both.
At first the trial court found that the police action (or lack thereof) did not constitute willful and wanton conduct and dismissed the suit against the police. The appeals court differed and said the Glenview PD’s actions (or lack thereof) constituted willful and wanton misconduct and sent the matter back to the court for trial.
Enter the Illinois Supreme Court.
The court described the duty of law enforcement to protect vulnerable members of society — particularly those who already at risk like victims of domestic violence.
Basing its decision on an earlier case, which held that a police department’s duty to preserve the safety of the community is owed to the public at large, rather than specific individuals, the court ruled in favor of the municipalities: “Were this court to hold to the contrary, we would create a situation where once officers were aware of the potential for violence, they would remain liable for the prevention of that violence for an indefinite period of time.”
In reality the Court had no other option when we look at recent domestic violence case statistics.
So if you wonder why — as I do from time to time — people feel the need to carry concealed weapons, or if putting more cops on the street really will prevent crimes and not just boost statistics, remember Mary Lacey and Dolly Ballog left to fend for themselves against a relentless monster.