Chicago police discovered the body on a Monday night in November 2007, but they couldn’t identify her as 21-year-old Theresa Bunn until Thursday. The woman—who had been missing since earlier that day—had been strangled, stripped naked and stuffed into a dumpster, where her eight-month-pregnant body was covered in a flammable accelerant and then set ablaze. She was so badly burned by the time police found her, they needed dental records to confirm her identity.
But before the police had even made the positive match, they already had a new body on their hands. This one, later identified as 52-year-old Hazel Lewis, suffered an eerily similar fate. She was discovered by firefighters tasked with putting out the flames from the garbage can where she’d been stuffed.
Both women were strangled. Both were found within a few blocks of Washington Park on Chicago’s South Side. Both were African American. And, given the uniquely gruesome way their bodies were incinerated in garbage receptacles, investigators acknowledged the possibility of a serial killer at work.
“There are similarities,” Chicago police spokeswoman Monique Bond told local media at the time, adding that the department was looking into the possibility of a single perpetrator.
More than 10 years later, the two cases remain unsolved. But in addition to those two murders, there have been many others. According to a recent report by The Chicago Tribune, there were 51 strangulation murders of women that went unsolved between 2001 and 2017.
But since the garbage-fire strangulation murders at Washington Park, the Chicago police department has since been reticent to acknowledge they may have a serial killer on their hands.
Chicago Chief of Detectives Melissa Staples pointed to the fact that DNA evidence is regularly collected at homicide scenes and entered into a national database, the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). None of the DNA profiles at the strangulations have matched with one other or with anything else in the database. Nor have detectives found any other evidence in their investigations that link the crimes together.
In commenting to Vice News about the alleged serial strangler, a Chicago PD spokesperson said, “there is absolutely no information to suggest this is the work of a serial killer.”
“It would be irresponsible [of Chicago police] not to consider these linked,” says Thomas Hargrove, founder and chairman of the Murder Accountability Project, a nonprofit organization that maps homicide patterns nationwide.
Hargrove’s mapping project flags potential serial murderers by noting when a jurisdiction has an exceptionally low “clearance” rate on a particular kind of homicide. The hypothetical correlation between low clearances and serial killing is predicated on the idea that, in the case of most non-serial homicides, the perpetrator knows the victim, allowing cases to be more easily closed. In serial murders, by contrast, the victim and perpetrator are almost always relative strangers to one another, creating more challenges to investigators.
In Chicago there were 24 closed strangulation murders of women in the 16-year window during which those 51 unsolved homicides occurred, meaning a clearance rate of 32 percent. That’s well short of the national clearance rate, which is more than 59 percent, according to the FBI. And although there has also been an uptick of homicides in Chicago in recent years, the strangulations do not correlate to that pattern.
But the question of Chicago’s alleged serial killer is complicated by the fact that the city’s police force has such a terrible homicide-clearance rate to begin with. In 2017, the city’s clearance rate fell to 17.5 percent, according to an analysis by the Chicago Sun-Times. That’s the lowest murder-clearance rate in the city’s modern history.
“Serial killers tend to go to large cities,” says Hargrove. “It’s easier for them to get away with it there.”
But beyond the numbers, it’s hard not to see similarities in the individual cases. Like that of 20-year-old Amy Martinez, whose body was discovered by firefighters in May 2013, strangled and burning in a dumpster on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Like Lewis and Bunn’s murders from six years prior, Martinez’s case remains unsolved.
Ariana Figueroa, one of the reporters who covered the strangulations for the Tribune, is careful with her words when asked if she believes her reporting points to a potential serial killer.
“It’s hard, because I’m not a cop,” Figueroa says. “Our main concern [in the Tribune newsroom] was we didn’t want to make assumptions and create unnecessary fear.”
Besides, Figueroa says, both a single serial strangler and multiple single-homicide stranglers pose threats to general safety. In either case, it’s a problem to be addressed.
What Figueroa would definitely say was, in speaking to Chicagoans, there was a general feel among community members that police weren’t doing enough to try to put the pieces together themselves.
“[The neighbors] would say no police ever came,” says Figueroa.
The Chicago Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.