The phone call is brief but resonates with emotion.
“911, emergency,” a police dispatcher says.
On the line is Rhoda McFarland. She is minutes from death, a captive in the back room of a women’s clothing store along with four customers and a co-worker.
It’s a frigid morning in suburban Chicago, February 2, 2008. Store manager McFarland, 42, had planned for a busy but normal day with a clearance sale at the popular plus-size clothing chain.
Instead, she’s fighting for six lives as a stocky man with a semi-automatic handgun melts down.
“Lane Bryant,” she whispers on a police recording.
The gunman’s voice breaks in. He’s agitated and appears to yell, “I’m losing it.”
The phone goes dead. A few minutes later, he shoots the women, one by one in the back of their necks.
It’s one of the worst mass murders in Chicago history, and 12 years later, the murderer is still on the loose, accentuating the pain for the victims’ families.
“You want closure,” McFarland’s brother Maurice Hamilton tells A&E Real Crime. “This person is still out there and could do harm to other people.”
It’s not for want of tips or effort that the Lane Bryant massacre remains unsolved. Binders of information with more than 7,000 leads and tips fill a room at the Tinley Park Police Department. The F.B.I., Illinois State Police and South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force joined Tinley Park police in the hunt, with a $100,000 award offered for information leading to an arrest.
Local TV and newspapers covered the story for weeks. A sketch of the suspect was widely circulated. And the massacre’s lone survivor provided a detailed description of the triggerman—down to the shade of the light green beads securing his hair.
“There’s a strong likelihood somebody knows,” University of Illinois at Chicago criminology lecturer Marc Buslik tells A&E Real Crime.
The silence could mean the suspect’s circle doesn’t want to recognize him, thinks Buslik, a retired Chicago police commander. Or maybe his associates won’t give him up to authorities, “even for something like this.
The Lane Bryant shop, located in an outdoor mall in Tinley Park, opened for business at 10 a.m. that fateful morning of February 2, 2008. Shortly after, a tall man with a husky build who appeared to be a delivery person sauntered in and chatted with the women there.
Then, the “unfathomable” happened, the survivor told police.
The man brandished a high-powered .40-calibre Glock handgun and announced he was robbing the store. He ordered the two employees and two shoppers who were in the store at the time to the back, tied their hands and feet with duct tape and forced them to lie face-down.
When two other customers entered, he ambushed them. Police confirmed he fondled one woman.
‘Focused on you’
Despite the terrifying circumstances McFarland, a U.S. Air Force veteran and former pastor, somehow loosened her bonds and called 911 on her cell phone at about 10:44 a.m.
A Tinley Park police officer rushed in a few minutes later. He found five bodies and no offender.
Miraculously, the part-time employee shifted her head just as the suspect pulled the trigger and the bullet grazed her neck. She lay as if dead, waiting for help.
In a statement later, she addressed the families of the five victims: “Please know that during the unfathomable events of that day, their thoughts were focused on you and coming home. My heart aches that they were unable to do so.”
‘So hard to take’
Hamilton remembers a big sister with a “glowing personality” and a “great laugh” who mentored young girls and made them feel special. It’s typical of Rhoda that she would have risked her life to call police, he says: “She was trying to save those people.”
Two of the victims were parents of young children. Jennifer Bishop, 34, a nurse from Indiana, left behind two boys and a girl ranging in age from 7 years old to six months old. “She was my best friend. We laughed all the time. She was a fantastic nurse,” Bishop’s sister Michele Talos tells A&E Real Crime.
Multiple doctors from the intermediate intensive care unit where Bishop worked attended the funeral. “They said Jeni was one of their favorite nurses, and they knew when she was on duty their patients would get the best care,” Talos recounts.
Connie Woolfolk, a 37-year-old single mom of two boys ages 10 and 16, was a “beautiful person,” relatives said in 2008.
Another shopper was Sarah Szafranski, 22, a recent college grad looking for the right clothes for her first job at a downtown Chicago financial firm. Family friend Pete Inorio still carries a police sketch of the suspect on his cell phone. His daughter and son roomed with Szafranski at Northern Illinois University.
Sarah “was a doll—a sweetheart” who worked hard for her good grades, he tells A&E Real Crime. “That’s what makes it so hard to take.”
And victim Carrie Hudek Chiuso, 33, was a beloved high school counselor, who “had so much left to do,” sister Jennifer Hudek said in 2008.
‘Why shoot them?’
Former Tinley Park Police Chief Steve Neubauer joined the force in 2011 and grappled with the Lane Bryant murder mystery until his retirement in 2018. “It was frustrating. Everyone wanted it solved…it was a horrific crime and really changed the community,” Neubauer tells A&E Real Crime. “Every time you got one step forward, you’d go two steps back. There was no clear motive and a lot of leads.”
Buslik notes that typically, “all a robber wants to do is get your stuff. The question is, ‘why shoot them?’ My guess—not based on evidence, just experience—is something caused the offender to panic. It could have been he thought he was recognized…it could have been a strange noise.”
As to the current whereabouts of the shooter, Buslik theorized he was either in jail or more likely deceased. Or—he could have just gotten away. The store, which closed after the murders, “is right at the exit for I-80, and I-80 runs across the country,” Neubauer said.
“It’s so bizarre he hasn’t been caught,” Talos said. “At first I focused a lot of time on that…and I had to let it go. Now, 12 years later, I feel rather angry because there have got to be a few people out there who know who he is.”
The deaths of five women and the ordeal of the sixth have spun such a web of anguish, “justice would be nice,” Talos says.
‘Not a cold case’
Tinley Park police officials said they weren’t releasing any new statements on the tragedy. But “the case is still being investigated,” Detective Ray Violetto tells A&E Real Crime. “It’s not a cold case.”
A wanted poster describes the suspect as an African American, 6 feet to 6 feet, 2 inches tall, with a husky build, between 25 to 35 years of age, with hair braided in corn rows—one with four light green beads.
Anyone with information is asked to call Tinley Park police at (708) 444-5394 or email email@example.com.
For Hamilton, “you keep the faith. You live every day and never forget their memories. God willing, they will bring this man to justice.