Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Army Veteran Thomas Wortham

Remember Our Heroes

Officer Thomas Wortham was shot and killed after identifying himself as a police officer when four suspects attempted to rob him while he was off duty at 11:25 pm.

Officer Wortham was visiting his parent's home to show pictures from the previous week's Police Week activities that he attended in Washington, DC. As he was leaving, four men approached and attempted to rob him of his motorcycle. Officer Wortham drew his service weapon and fired at the suspects, but was fatally shot.

His father, a retired Chicago police sergeant, witnessed the shooting from his window. He exited the house, exchanging shots with the suspects, killing one and seriously wounding another. The remaining two suspects fled in a vehicle, but were taken into custody the following day.

Officer Wortham had served with the Chicago Police Department for nearly three years and was assigned to the Englewood District. He had recently returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq while serving with the Wisconsin Army National Guard.

Last week, as a soft rain fell, Tom Wortham stood on the Cole Park basketball courts across from the home his grandfather built half a century ago.

The 30-year-old Chicago police officer was proud of that home and his Chatham community. But lately trouble had been creeping in — two shootings at the park and gangs on the neighborhood's fringes.

Wortham, just back from a second tour in Iraq, had settled in for another fight. He and other residents were not going to let Chatham go easily.

Wortham did not seem angry as he spoke with a Tribune reporter last week. Hands in his pocket, he listened respectfully as two older Chatham residents talked. When he spoke up, Wortham displayed a quiet calm but a deep concern for the brewing violence.

"It's starting to feel like it's expected in this community," he told the reporter, adding later: "When people think of the South Side of Chicago, they think violence. In Chatham, that's not what we see. It's happened. And we're going to fix it, so it doesn't happen again."

Late Wednesday, Wortham became the latest casualty, fatally gunned down in front of his family home just steps from the basketball courts after four men tried to rob him of a brand-new motorcycle, Chicago police said. His father, a retired Chicago police sergeant, witnessed the attack from the front of his home and wielded his own weapon to try to defend his son.

One of the robbers was killed and a suspect was critically injured. A third suspect surrendered to police by late afternoon, and the last was picked up during a traffic stop Thursday evening, sources said.

Wortham was a three-year officer and a first lieutenant in the Army National Guard. He had returned from Iraq in March.

"That man had strong roots, the family structure. You are not going to uproot that,'' Marc Robertson, 48, who had stood with Wortham last week, said Thursday. "I don't find too many 30-year-old men that have the passion to do volunteer work for the community. It gave me a lot of hope that I wasn't by myself. … We're numb, stunned, angry, disappointed and hurt — and rightly so because the unimaginable has happened. He is a fallen solider, a fallen officer, a fallen community leader, a fallen son and a fallen brother.''

Police were awaiting ballistics tests for a more definitive picture of the shootout, which involved a volley of shots from Wortham, who was off-duty; his father, Thomas Wortham III; and at least one of the armed robbers. Some 15 casings were being tested.

Early reports from police sources painted a harrowing assault that the elder Wortham witnessed about 11:30 p.m. Wednesday. The two had just spent the night sharing photos from Wortham's trip last week to Washington, D.C., where he attended the annual national memorial to slain officers. He also wanted to show his father his newly purchased motorcycle.

After saying goodnight, Wortham walked to the bike, which was parked on the street in front of the house at 85th Street and King Drive. When he reached the street, two gunmen approached and put a gun to his head in an attempt to steal the motorcycle, sources said.

From the doorway, Wortham's father yelled at the attackers to leave his son alone, the sources said. One gunman told Wortham to shut the door, they said.

In that moment of distraction, Wortham pulled out his service weapon and identified himself as a police officer, the sources said. A burst of shots by the officer and his attackers followed, they said.

His father rushed to a ground-floor bedroom, returned with a handgun and open fire, the sources said. From ballistics tests, police will attempt to determine who exactly shot the two robbers.

Wortham, who was assigned to the Englewood District, was pronounced dead just after midnight. Wortham is the second Englewood District officer to be killed in the last year. Alejandro "Alex" Valadez, 27, was shot in West Englewood in June 2009.

One of the suspects, Brian Floyd, 20, of the 3700 block of South Princeton Avenue, lay dead on the street. A second suspect, Floyd's cousin Marcus, was critically injured.

Two other suspects who were inside a nearby red Nissan Maxima fled the area, striking and dragging Wortham with the getaway car, police said.

No charges were filed by Thursday night.

The criminal histories of three of the suspects include convictions for drug conspiracy, weapons charges and battery. Brian Floyd had a misdemeanor gun-related conviction.

Inside her Wentworth Gardens neighborhood apartment Thursday evening, Floyd's mother, Lucille, tried to make sense of the death of her only son. Her son's cousin was on a hospital ventilator in very critical condition with perhaps only days to live, she said.

The two cousins, the only boys in their family, were as close as brothers, she said. Floyd said the cousins went out Wednesday for a night of drinking with two friends. She said it somehow changed into a game of dare over who would rob someone at gunpoint, she said.

Neighbors gathered near the Wortham home all day Thursday as well-wishes and gifts were delivered to the family. Ministers and representatives from the Army also paid their respects.

The shooting sent shudders through an already rattled neighborhood.

Chatham has been a stronghold of Chicago's black middle class since the 1950s. Many of the families who moved in then have remained, creating a close-knit though aging community.

But it has been on the brink of transformation as reports of property neglect increased and — though the neighborhood was long considered safe — crime has been on the rise in the last few years.

After dark, Cole Park can become a scary place, filled with strange teenagers from different neighborhoods claiming the park as a part of their turf.

"It used to be something to be proud of," said Wesley Anderson, 44, who has lived most of his life in the neighborhood. "You'd stick your chest out and say, 'I'm from Chatham.'"

Just last month, after two recent shootings at Cole Park, Ald. Freddrenna Lyle, 6th, closed down the basketball courts.

That was why Wortham and others had come out in the rain last week — to explain to a Tribune reporter about the need to tackle these problems straight on.

The hoops would have to be shut down — for now, they agreed. But they planned to mobilize community support around the park. They'd talk to adults in the area and persuade them to use the park and help monitor activities. And they'd ask the city for help as well.

Wortham seemed confident that the neighborhood would respond and take care of the park — and Chatham.

At Cole Park on Thursday, children and fathers played baseball in the field. Women walked the park's track in pairs, dressed in sweats and rain jackets. Neighbors waved to each other, and families walked hand in hand.

And later, in a light rain, some 200 mourners gathered to pay their respects to Wortham.

Sunday was supposed to be the day Chicago police Officer Thomas Wortham IV was to join hundreds of residents in reclaiming the Chatham neighborhood, which has been plagued recently by gun violence.

Wortham never made it. He was shot to death Wednesday night in front of his parents' home after four men tried to steal his new motorcycle, police said.

But as neighbors continued to reel over Wortham's death, they came out to Cole Park on Sunday toting coolers of pop and sharing memories to show support for the officer's family and to send a message to those responsible for the rash of crime in the neighborhood.

"If we're in the park, the bad guys stay out," Ald. Freddrenna Lyle, 6th, said.

Wortham, who worked in the Englewood Police District, had become increasingly concerned with making the park, which is across the street from his parents' home, a safer place after recent shootings shut down the basketball court.

Wortham and others planned to hold a fellowship gathering there on the first 80-degree day to stake their claim on the neighborhood.

Many longtime residents of Chatham, one of Chicago's best-known black middle-class neighborhoods, have grown concerned over the increasing crime they attribute to Chicago Housing Authority residents moving to the area. According to the agency, 118 families have used vouchers to relocate from public housing to Chatham. That is less than 1 percent of the neighborhood's households.

Lewis Jordan, the CHA's chief executive officer, said complaints that former public housing residents are responsible for an increase in crime in Chatham are unsupported by the facts.

Kassandra Scott-Ward, 59, was 8 years old when her family moved into their Chatham home. Back then, children knew where their teachers lived and neighbors raised chickens or horses and grew fruit trees in their yards.

Now, "these people have moved into a community without having a sense of community," Scott-Ward said.

Jordan said the distribution of former residents of CHA high-rises has not been concentrated in any particular area, but throughout the city.

Though Wortham, who had just returned from a second tour of duty in Iraq as a first lieutenant in the Army National Guard, was absent from Sunday's fellowship meeting, the vision he had for it was honored, his friends and supporters said.

On Sunday, supporters included Chicago police Superintendent Jody Weis, who looked on as Little League players filled the baseball diamond. The Rev. Jesse Jackson arrived and shook hands, consoled Wortham's parents and expressed many neighbors' concerns.

"This is a state of emergency," Jackson said. "There needs to be a sense of urgency, not just a well-covered funeral."

No comments: