For at least one Oak Lawn police detective that witnessed the immediate aftermath of Ricardo Harris’s carnage on a village liquor store in 1999, the Illinois legislature’s repeal of the death penalty is justice denied for victims and their families.
“My thoughts are with the families of the victims and the surviving victims who went through this tragedy,” said Division Chief Michael Murray of the Oak Lawn Police Department. “Just to have their justice pulled out from under them, I don’t know how they feel. For me, it’s a bit frustrating.”
On May 13, 1999, convicted killer Ricardo Harris walked into the Extra Value Liquor Store at 90th Street and Cicero Avenue to rob it. Before Harris left, he murdered two store employees and shot a pair of sisters who stopped by the store to buy a case of beer. Harris was ultimately convicted of his crimes and sentenced to Death Row in 2004. It became one of the most notorious murder cases in recent Oak Lawn history.
Earlier this week, Illinois lawmakers voted to abolish the state’s death penalty after hours of impassioned debate on the state senate floor. Senators who supported repeal of the state’s capital punishment law pointed to numerous examples of exonerated Death Row inmates and the state’s broken criminal justice system, Illinois Statehouse News reported.
A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections told Patch the ban if enacted would not apply to those now on Death Row. Instead, the governor could keep the current execution moratorium in place or commute the sentences to life in prison. Still, Quinn could also lift the moratorium and let the currently scheduled executions take place, according to Sharyn Elman.
Harris was the first killer sentenced to death after Gov. George Ryan cleared Death Row by commuting all the death sentences to life in prison.
A second Southland killer also sits on Death Row—Oak Forest's Paul Runge, convicted of killing a mother and daughter and suspected of being a serial killer.
First on the Scene
The first call of a shooting at the Extra Value Liquor Store came into the village police department at about 7:25 p.m., according to a Illinois Supreme Court documents from 2007, when Harris tried to reverse his death sentence. Village police officers who were first to arrive on the scene discovered four persons shot inside the store. Dipak Patel, the store manager, was found lying on the floor and struggling to get up. He had been shot in the back.
Customer Helen Chisnick was leaning over her sister, Christina, applying pressure to her wounds. Both sisters had also been shot, Helen in the abdomen, and Christina twice in the abdomen and pelvic area.
The second store employee, Ambala Patel, was found in the back of the store in a sitting position leaning up against some shelves. Ambala had been shot once in the head.
Murray arrived on the scene 30 minutes after the first call came through.
“I went into the store and the victims had all been transported to the hospital by then,” the detective recalled. “There was a huge police presence with everything taped off. I was sent directly to the hospital to talk to the surviving victims.”
Dipak Patel was already in surgery at Advocate Christ Medical Center when Murray arrived. The store manager would die from his wound. Ambala Patel had been pronounced dead at the hospital.
Murray spoke briefly with the Chisnick sisters, who survived their wounds, although Christina would be touch and go during the next several days.
“Certainly they were traumatized but they were a significant help in getting initial information,” Murray said. “On the second day, Helen was able to (help police) develop a composite.”
The physical description Helen Chisnick provided sketch artists was later described as “dead on.”
Tipster Steps Foward
Three days later, a tipster with a history of drug abuse and criminal convictions stepped forward and told police of a man who asked him to sell him a .40-caliber Glock at the Aloha Motel.
“The man was able to identify the room number that Harris was staying in,” Murray said. “We went to the motel and pulled up room records. The desk card had the name of Harris’s brother Roderick. The card had some basic information. It was very sketchy and we were able to make out that (Harris) was from Michigan.”
After contacting the Genesse County, Mich., police, village investigators learned that Ricardo Harris had escaped police custody after overpowering a guard during a doctor’s appointment on May 7.
“He took the officer’s gun,” Murray said.
Oak Lawn police believe the stolen gun was the same weapon Harris used to gun down his victims inside the Extra Value Liquor Store. Murray said the weapon was never recovered.
The trail went cold until Aug. 4, 1999, when FBI agents nabbed Harris in North Carolina after his story appeared on America’s Most Wanted, the Daily Southtown reported at the time.
A jury sentenced Harris to death in 2004 after Ryan’s moratorium on state executions four years earlier that imposed new rules on prosecuting death penalty cases. Harris was also sentenced to 30 years each for shooting the Chisnick sisters.
“We went through all those rules and processes and followed it to the letter,” Murray said. “Mr. Harris was convicted and the jury agreed that he was a candidate for the death penalty.”
In 2007, Harris attempted to have his death sentence reversed in the Illinois Supreme Court. Of the 10 issues of appeal, his attorneys argued that Harris was denied effective defense counsel during his jury trial and sentencing hearing when his attorney referred to Harris escaping the custody of Michigan police wearing “jail jump greens.”
The Illinois Supreme Court upheld the death sentence and sentenced Harris to die on May 9, 2007.
Murray said it has been a long time since he last had contact with the Chisnick sisters. Both eventually recovered from their wounds. Helen Chisnick worked for a time in a store in Oak Lawn. Christina moved out of the area, concerned for her privacy and safety.
Despite the week’s turn of events in the state legislature, the Oak Lawn police detective still stands by the sentence handed down to Ricardo Harris.
“Ultimately, all 12 jurors voted that he receive the death penalty,” Murray said. “He could have pleaded to anything and gotten the death penalty and still had it commuted. To have things change down the line, that’s frustrating.”