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20 years later, murder victim unidentified

🕐 5 min read

This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by the (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald.

NAPERVILLE, Ill. (AP) — The man’s body was found damp and curled up in a wooded area, shot execution-style, with a bullet to the back of his head.

Roughly 20 years old, he was wearing a blue mesh shirt, black pants and black boots — all of brands popular in Mexico.

But this wasn’t Mexico. This was Naperville.

The first question police had when they arrived at the scene on Oct. 20, 1996, remains the biggest question two decades later: Who is he?

Deputy Chief Brian Cunningham still wonders.

Ten years into a career as a detective when the body was found, Cunningham hasn’t given up hope.

“It’s not that I expect to solve it someday,” Cunningham said. “But I’d like to know who he is. … Where did he come from?”

Three months into the investigation, Cunningham thought he came close to figuring it out.

So 20 years later, he’s cracking open the big blue binder of reports and records, distributing a flier with the victim’s picture, putting out another call for information.

As a cop, it’s what he’s paid to do. But as a father — especially one whose two sons were born about the time of the case — it’s what he says he must do. This, then, is a story of a cop’s tenacity to find the identity of a young man who likely lived at least 1,400 miles away, and likely was dealing pot.

The case began on a chilly afternoon when a Kankakee man walking through a forested area north of Ogden Avenue near Sherman Avenue discovered the body. A storm had just moved through; the body was cold and wet.

Police wondered if the victim had been dumped there, in the small wooded site across from the nondescript Stardust Motel, now townhouses. But when they found shell casings from a pistol, they knew they were at the crime scene.

Authorities determined the man likely had been dead less than 24 hours when his body was discovered.

His eyes were brown, as was his collar-length hair and faint mustache.

He had a mole on his right cheek and a pronounced overbite.

He had no identification, nothing bearing his name or address, no more clues as to who he was.

The man was 5 feet, 6 inches tall and 130 pounds, clad in pants by the Mexican brand Javolis and boots by Once — Spanish for the number 11.

Cunningham soon would make marked improvements in his Spanish as he visited restaurants, dances, social clubs — anywhere he could find Hispanics throughout Aurora, Naperville and other nearby areas.

He’d taken two years of Spanish in high school and another two years in college and thought it important to show his sincerity by speaking the language.

He never made it to fluency and always brought an interpreter, but “I got pretty good by the end,” he said.

The work was round-the-clock at first. Police had baseball cards printed with the victim’s image, and Cunningham passed them out as he made his rounds to talk with landscapers and restaurant workers.

Many of those he approached were hesitant to speak at first, but then it began to turn around.

“I started to get help,” he said.

The locals told him the victim looked like he might be from the Mexican region of Michoacan. But something closer to the crime scene proved more helpful.

Cunningham got records from the Stardust and other motels, looking for vehicles in town at the time of the murder. He identified a van from Texas registered under different names that visited the Stardust every three months. Soon, he found the same van was visiting a motel in Elgin with about the same frequency.

Cunningham learned the visitors were involved in the marijuana trade, bringing loads of it to the suburbs for distribution in Chicago.

With a list of four suspected marijuana traffickers who came to the motels in the van, Cunningham and another officer traveled in January 1997 to McAllen, Texas, a border town not far from the Gulf of Mexico.

Naperville cops and Texas Rangers tracked down one of the men, but he wouldn’t talk. The other three had left for Mexico.

Hindsight says that was the best lead of the case. Now all Cunningham can say with some certainty is he believes the victim to be a Mexican man who was involved in dealing marijuana.

But he can’t be sure.

Even when the Texas lead went cold, police weren’t through seeking answers.

Naperville Crime Stoppers got involved and offered a reward. Cunningham said the department investigated at least 100 leads — each a dead-end.

As each lead fizzled, so did public interest. Without knowing who the man was, there was little else to do.

It has remained that way for years.

But just last month, Cunningham said there was a technological breakthrough in fingerprint processing. Dutifully, he sent through the victim’s prints, hoping they would align with someone who had been fingerprinted somewhere before the man’s 1996 death.

If nothing is the result of Cunningham bringing up the case again on its 20th anniversary, so be it, he says. He knows the odds of a true solution are slim. Yet he wonders if a family member is out there somewhere, still troubled by the man’s disappearance 20 years ago.

Anyone who has information about the victim is asked to call Naperville Crime Stoppers at (630) 420-6006. There remains a reward of up to $1,000 for information that helps the investigation and maybe even answers the first and last question of this two-decade-old case.

“The big thing is,” Cunningham still wonders, “Who is he?”

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