A Week In The Death Of America


Human beings are distressingly easy to kill -- soft bodies crammed with vital organs, crisscrossed by blood vessels whose precious contents slosh back and forth under pressure enough to make them spurt. Cut an artery, and the heart will heedlessly pump blood out through the wound until it runs itself almost dry. Something like that is going on in the body on the gurney coming through the double doors of Cook County Hospital. Thirty minutes earlier this was a man full of blood and dreams (thinking, perhaps, of the young daughter he left behind in another country, whose picture he always carried); now he is somewhere between life and death, his heart still and flaccid in the blood-filled hollow of his chest. All that stands between him and the grave are the members of the Cook County Trauma Unit, many of them now in their 21st hour of saving the people of Chicago from themselves.

He doesn't have a name. Or, rather, he has a temporary one, assigned from an alphabetical list that helps the staff keep track of the procession of unconscious victims, whose wallets, if they ever had any, are long gone by the time the ambulance brings them to the door. He is "Unknown Trauma, Igor," following by 20 minutes Unknown Traumas "Gerald" and "Harold." Igor arrives accompanied by a heavily sweating paramedic who trots alongside his gurney, compressing his chest with powerful thrusts. IV bags drip saline into his veins and a tube carries oxygen to his lungs. The paramedics worked on him for 20 minutes before risking the one-mile journey to Cook County, but by the end of that time they were losing the race to fill his arteries faster than his wounds can empty them. Someone has to get inside Igor's chest to sew him up, but you can't cut a man open while he's lying on the street.

Igor has been shot three times: once in each thigh and once in the back, clean through the trunk and out the front of the chest. Multiple wounds are increasingly common among the gunshot victims seen at the trauma unit. A decade ago, according to director Dr. John Barrett, only 5 percent of the gunshot victims brought to the trauma unit had been hit by more than one bullet; the figure has since risen to 30 percent. And the individual bullets are more powerful and deadlier as well. "What we used to call "war wounds,' we now see every day," Barrett says.

And in response, techniques developed on the battlefield have been brought home to Chicago's streets. The trauma unit practices a subspecialty that didn't even exist when Barrett was in medical school 25 years ago, saving the lives of people stabbed, crushed, bludgeoned, burned or, of course, shot on the streets of Chicago. About 4,400 patients came through these doors last year. No place on earth is better equipped or prepared to save Igor's life.

At 4:46 a.m., even as Igor's gurney is rolling to a stop in Shock Room B, a dozen residents and nurses are already at work on him. Patricia Panelli, a third-year resident in emergency medicine, probes the inside of his thigh for a vein into which to dump saline solution. Igor's most immediate need is for fluid to give his heart something to pump. Blood is preferable, because it carries oxygen, but it is also precious, and there's no point in filling him up with it only to have it spill to the floor.

While Panelli threads a catheter into Igor's femoral vein, two other residents, Michael Marmer and John Hipskind, open his chest. Without wasting even the seconds it would take to swab the skin with antiseptic, Marmer makes a swift incision from Igor's sternum to his left armpit, peels back the skin and fat, and cuts through the intercostal muscle between two ribs. All this takes less than 20 seconds. A few more seconds go by as Marmer inserts a device called a Finochetti retractor between the ribs and cranks them apart. He reaches into the chest and pulls up on Igor's inert heart to begin internal cardiac massage.

"Any fibrillation?" asks Hipskind, referring to the uncoordinated twitching of a heart no longer able to beat. Marmer shakes his head. A patient in fibrillation is close to death, but Igor is closer to death than that.

As he squeezes Igor's heart, Marmer peers inside his chest cavity. The bullet that passed through him -- police later conclude it was a .38 -- entered his back just to the right of the spinal cord and about 12 inches down from the shoulder, rupturing the superior vena cava and the right pulmonary artery. So much blood has been lost through these wounds and replaced by intravenous saline that the liquid in his veins is thin and more pink than red. It spurts in a low arc from his chest onto Marmer's instrument tray two feet away.

At 4:50, Marmer jams a syringe of epinephrine, a powerful stimulant, into Igor's heart, but he doesn't get even a twitch in response. Feeling his way amid the gore, he finds and clamps the descending aorta, the main blood vessel that supplies the lower half of the body, hoping to conserve what's left of Igor's circulation for his brain. This is a risky procedure for the surgeon, working blind near the jagged edges of bones; assault victims brought to the trauma unit have an alarmingly high rate of HIV infection, about one in 14.

Still no response from Igor's heart; Marmer gives him a second shot of epinephrine. Although he's still working frantically to repair Igor's wounds, the faces around the room begin to take on a stoic expression. At 4:57, a nurse glances across at Marmer and asks: "Call it?"

"Call it!" Marmer answers. Igor -- whose real name, police discover, is Barkatali Lakhani, a cabdriver from Pakistan -- is dead. Lakhani, according to friends, had been in America for three years and was planning his first trip home in December. He had been called to a nonexistent address near the Rockwell Gardens housing project right at the start of his shift and presumably was carrying very little money; the robber may have killed him out of frustration or because he resisted or for no reason at all. The doctors and nurses know none of this, of course. For 12 minutes they tried to save Igor's life as if their own depended on it, but in a moment they're gone; there's a whole Saturday night's worth of mayhem still awaiting their attention. After a few minutes a medical student arrives and, for practice, sews up the incision across Igor's chest.


Homicide is almost always a crime with multiple victims. There is the dead person himself, and those who loved him -- more and more often these days, his parents. There is no pain to compare to burying a murdered son or daughter, no rage so impotent as that of a parent who failed, through no fault of his own, in the elementary duty to protect his child's life. In Detroit, where 60 people under the age of 21 were killed last year, there are enough such parents to form their own support group -- Save Our Sons and Daughters (SOSAD). They come this hot summer evening to a nondescript building on the west side to bear witness both to the particularities of their loss and the universality of their grief.

Murder is crueler than disease by far; it grants its victims no leave to say goodbye. The survivors, therefore, must do it retrospectively. On the anniversary of the day in 1993 when 18-year-old Sean Brantley was killed, his mother, Sheila Higgins, pinned on a button she had made of Sean's photograph and drove to the place where he was shot, a freeway interchange near Tiger Stadium. There was no place to stop. She drove on to Detroit Receiving Hospital, and talked a clerk into letting her see the room where Sean died. The woman at the hospital told her she could have five minutes alone in the room, but after only a few sec-onds of staring at the tile walls, the banks of lights and trays of surgical instruments, she broke down in tears and left. "This is where part of my life ended, in that room at Detroit Receiving Hospital," Higgins told the solemn group.

Murder is crueler, too, because it is an act of will, not of blind fate. Adults are killed for a dollar, but teenagers die for even less, a word or a look. Sean was shot by a youth in a passing car who thought he was staring at him, and even at the trial, the killer's friends thought that was reason enough; "I would have popped him too," one of them remarked, loud enough for Sean's mother to hear. Parents demand justice, but their secret craving is for a validation of their grief, an acknowledgment that what they have lost is precious. Inexplicably, they often seek it from the killers themselves. After Doug Melonson's son was shotgunned to death (at his sister's Sweet Sixteen party, by a teenager who had been thrown out for rowdiness), Melonson made a 15-minute video about his son and gave it to the defense lawyer to give to the killer. "I wanted the defendant to see who he killed because he shot my son in the back and didn't even know him," Melonson said. Jackie Johnson, whose daughter Chandra, a college student, was shot to death by her ex-boyfriend, confesses an urge to confront the killer in jail "and ask him: why did you take her from us?" But she knows better than to expect remorse from someone who sat through his trial with a serene smile on his face, as if expecting to get off. It's a fantasy she can only share here, with the other parents who have experienced the loss that time cannot diminish -- her fellow victims of murder.


The New York state supreme court building at 100 Centre Street is a vast marketplace of justice, its drab hallways thronged with buyers, sellers and middlemen. As in most busy courthouses, the sacred right to trial by jury is, in practice, a last resort, signifying in effect the breakdown of a system that now functions mainly to process guilty pleas. From January through July the court's 53 judges disposed of 10,000 cases, of which only 1,000 went to trial. (A New York County judge could have tried nine typical homicide cases in the 28 weeks it took to not reach a verdict in the Menendez brothers' case.) Of the remaining 9,000 felonies, 8,000 were settled by plea. "Plea," of course, generally means a deal was struck with the prosecutor for a reduced sentence; not many defendants plead guilty just because they actually are guilty.

And so the system has this day delivered into the capable, if overworked, hands of Acting New York State Supreme Court Justice Leslie Crocker Snyder two defendants of such surpassing ordinariness as to almost obscure the fact that they did the worst thing a human being is capable of. No tabloid headlines screamed fiend! when they were arrested; no movie producers bid for their stories. Nor was there much drama to the moment when the court in its majesty passed judgment on them. Their deals had already been struck; Snyder just certified them as "justice."

But their utterly prosaic crimes reveal more about our society than all the kids who've killed their parents for insurance money in the history of Beverly Hills. Reuben Ross, who at 22 already has one felony conviction behind him, shot and killed a teenager named Michael Oliver. Oliver had brought a .22-caliber rifle to a party at Ross's apartment in order to show it off. Ross grabbed the gun and refused to give it back. Two days later Oliver returned and demanded the gun again. Ross announced to the other people in his apartment that he was going to shoot Oliver, followed Oliver down the stairs and fired one shot into the back of his head with the rifle, and then returned to his apartment to announce what he'd done. The only flaw in this seemingly airtight case lay in the character of the witnesses, virtually every one of whom was in jail himself for one thing or another. So prosecutors allowed Ross to plead guilty to first-degree manslaughter, something Snyder treated as the most extraordinary act of forbearance since the pardon of Jean Lafitte. Calling the killing "one of the most senseless crimes I've seen . . . there is no hope you will be rehabilitated," she sentenced him to 121/2 to 25 years; he stalked from the courtroom in the custody of his guards, looking very much annoyed.

Snyder's second murderer of the day was an even more ordinary character. Robert Stokes, 24, a neighborhood stickup man, shot and killed Ung Chun Lee, a grocer, when he resisted a robbery by throwing a bottle of teriyaki sauce at his head. That was back in December 1991, and Stokes wasn't arrested until nine months later, after committing several more robberies in the same area of East Harlem, including three at the same fish store. After a fairly typical delay -- 16 months -- Stokes was tried this February, resulting in a hung jury. Rather than risk another mistrial, the prosecution agreed to a sentence of 15 years to life on a guilty plea to second-degree murder. Stokes's Legal Aid lawyer made a spirited appeal for leniency on the ground that he was taking responsibility for his crime, but the judge found this reasoning highly unconvincing. "He took a plea not to take responsibility but to avoid 25 years to life," she said tartly. The one thing Snyder can't afford is a lawyer who wastes her time. Stokes and Ross are two of 76 cases she will hear today, two of more than 400 felonies awaiting her attention on a calendar filled with the ordinary mayhem of New York.

6:01 A.M.; July 13; Washington EIGHTY COPS, THREE WEAPONS

The homicide problem in america is also a gun problem. Guns are the tools of the criminal's trade, an arsenal in the hands of Americans' most dangerous enemy, other Americans. Regulating them is the job of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, an agency that traces its lineage back through "The Untouchables" but still feels underappreciated next to the FBI. "When we go arrest somebody," says Patrick Hynes, special-agent-in-charge of the ATF's Washington Metropolitan field office, "we're the only law-enforcement officers who go in hoping the subject is carrying a gun. Those are the people we're looking for."

Of course, if you're looking specifically for heavily armed suspects, you want to take them by surprise and to aim so many guns at their heads that it doesn't matter whether they're surprised. So this morning's raid on sixlb homes where members of the violent 640 Crew are believed to live enlists more than 80 officers from the ATF and the District of Columbia police. They assemble long before dawn and quietly take up their positions on the roofs, streets, yards and corridors of a dismal housing project in northeast Washington; at exactly 6:01 a.m., on signal from a mobile command post crammed with communications gear, teams issue a peremptory knock and then smash through the doors behind bulletproof shields called body bunkers.

The reason for all the firepower: an ATF undercover agent, posing as a drug dealer in hopes of infiltrating the gang, had been shot by a suspected member a few days earlier. The agent survived and the shooter was arrested, but part of the operation was blown; the ATF decided to move quickly in search of evidence to tie the suspected gang members to various crimes -- including 11 homicides in the past year -- and to each other. Besides gathering what Hynes describes as "valuable documents" (gang members like to pose together in photographs, which investigators love to study), agents make three arrests on drug and gun charges and seize a total of three weapons -- including two 9-millimeter automatics whose serial numbers have been obliterated. That is often the sign of a gun that has been used in a violent crime. Hynes pronounces the raid a success.

The guns will go to an ATF lab in Maryland, which has equipment to restore even the most diligently erased serial numbers; the numbers, in turn, will be sent to the ATF's National Tracing Center in West Virginia, which last year helped law-enforcement officials trace more than 60,000 guns. Tracking the path by which a gun reached the hands of a criminal can illuminate links between crime groups and identify dealers who aren't overly scrupulous about whom they sell to. It can also help solve crimes, as happened this year with a pair of bandits who killed two Dallas residents in stickups inside their garages. Police identified a suspect and recovered a gun that had been used in the murders. But the suspect refused to confess -- until the ATF's records identified the gun's original purchaser, who admitted to buying the gun for the suspect. "We're the only ones in the world who can do this," says special-agent-in-charge Gerry Nunziato. America, of course, is also one of the only nations in the world that need to do this.


As Robert Mann, a noted providence civil-rights lawyer, sees it, Craig Price has done some bad things in his life -- murdering four of his neighbors in two separate break-ins -- but that doesn't mean the Constitution doesn't apply to him. Price was 15 years old in 1989 when he broke into the Warwick, R.I., house where Joan Heaton, a 39-year-old widow, lived with her two young daughters. He was as big as a grown man, 5 feet 10 and more than 200 pounds -- his nickname on the high-school football team was Iron Man -- and he slaughtered them with an exuberant savagery, stabbing 10-year-old Jennifer a total of 62 times. His arrest reopened the unsolved murder two years earlier of 27-year-old Rebecca Spencer (stabbed 58 times and left to die on her living-room floor), and he confessed to killing her also, pleading guilty just 17 days before his 16th birthday.

Many killers are afflicted with sudden remorse at the time of their sentencing, but Price spared himself that trouble, because under the law in effect at the time all his lawyer had to do was show up in court with his birth certificate. As a "juvenile offender," he could have blown up the whole city and he would still have to be released on his 21st birthday: Oct. 11, 1994.

That is why Mann filed a brief in Rhode Island Supreme Court this day; he is fighting an attempt by state Attorney General Jeffrey Pine to keep Price in jail. Mann's brief derides the state's "eleventh hour" strategy to hold Price in contempt of court for refusing to take a psychological evaluation test. Since Price's first lawyer told him not to take the exam on Fifth Amendment grounds, Mann says the contempt charge has "constitutional overtones." The state appears willing to try anything to keep Price in jail short of repealing the calendar. He faces trial in September for allegedly threatening to "snuff" a guard who had caught him with contraband cigarettes. Prosecutors have inflated this otherwise unremarkable display of jailhouse temper (admittedly, by a quadruple murderer) into an indictment for assault and extortion, carrying a maximum of 16 years.

Price has a whole civic group, led by relatives of his victims, devoted to trying to keep him in jail: Citizens Opposed to the Release of Price. When he gets out, they plan to make sure his new neighbors, whoever they are, know who's moving into town. Price has put the weight room (not to speak of the dining room) in the Rhode Island Training School to good use and now weighs more than 300 pounds. In a rap video smuggled from jail and broadcast on a local TV station, Price boasted that he's "about to make history," which is just what his former neighbors are afraid of. He already has, in a way; in the wake of his sentencing, the Rhode Island Legislature passed a law allowing juveniles accused of violent crimes to be tried as adults. There were 43 such cases last year -- nine of them for murder.

10:30 A.M.; July 13; Delaware, Ohio AGE 8: SELLING DOPE AGE 14: MURDER

Even as a kid, he knew that he would go to jail someday, more or less the way kids who grow up in Shaker Heights expect to go to college. Just about everyone in his family has been in jail, including his mother, who sold drugs out of the kitchen in his home in a medium-size Ohio city. When he was about 8, his mother would go to bed and leave him with a supply of drugs to sell; whatever he made above a certain amount was his to keep. "I hung out with a lot of guys that carried guns, sold drugs," he says matter-of-factly. "When I would sit down and listen to music, I would fantasize about how things would be, and jail would pop up, or killing somebody, or something like that." Even so, he was shocked into tears when -- after he shot to death a guy he didn't know in a silent confrontation he can barely explain -- a judge sent him to the Riverview Juvenile Correctional Complex until he turned 21. He was 14 at the time.

He came in, like most young inmates, with a bad attitude. He hadn't ever asked permission for anything he wanted to do in his life, and he wasn't about to start then. But seven years is a long time for a boy to have to live as a stone killer, and boredom is a powerful motivator for someone as smart as he is. After a few months he sought a job in the jail's sandwich shop (for 50 cents an hour to start) and willingly paid the price: five months of good behavior. He also found time to reflect on his crime. Accepting responsibility is the first step toward rehabilitation, but he had found it more convenient to pretend that he shot the other guy in self-defense; it won sympathy from his family, even if it didn't cut much ice at his trial. Around the time he turned 16, he began admitting the truth: he had never really been threatened. "I couldn't accept people feeling for me when I knew for a fact it was wrong," he says manfully. "I knew what I did and I knew how it happened."

Of course, remorse is also a prerequisite for early release. The boy, who is 18 now, says he prays for his victim every night and hopes that if he can turn his own life around, some good will have come of this tragedy. He wants to go to college when he gets out and to settle far from his hometown and its temptations. Only he knows -- and perhaps not even he does -- whether this is a sincere plan for rehabilitation, or a way to cut a few years off a sentence that many would consider too light in the first place. But if any murderers deserve a second chance, a boy whose mother made him sell dope at the age of 8 surely is among them. If he ever goes back to jail, he vows, it will be to visit his mother.

10:45 A.M.; July 13; Huntsville SOMEONE TO LEAN ON DOWN THE LAST MILE

Two men await, uneasily, their meeting a week from now. One is Thomas Joe Miller-El, 43, a prisoner in the Ellis I unit outside Huntsville, Texas, convicted of murdering a hotel clerk in a 1985 holdup. The other is Carroll Pickett, a Presbyterian minister, who, as chaplain of Walls -- the state's oldest prison -- has witnessed every execution there since 1982. The day they are to meet is to be Miller-El's last day on earth, and Pickett would be the last person he saw before he died.

Actually, Miller-El doesn't expect to die next week; it would take unusually bad luck to die on one's first execution date. He was convicted just eight years ago and his case has gone only once to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear it last November. His appeal has been based primarily on the racial makeup of his jury, which was left with only one black member after prosecutors challenged 10 of the 11 blacks who were called for the panel. Although testimony showed that blacks were "routinely" thrown off juries in Dallas at that time, his lawyers failed to prove that blacks were being excluded "systematically." Nor did the courts agree that finding the murder weapon in the car Miller-El was driving shouldn't count against him because he hadn't given the police permission to search it. (The car belonged to an acquaintance, who did consent to the search.)

None of this goes to the issue of whether Miller-El actually did kill Douglas Walker, a 25-year-old former marine; death-row appeals are rarely about anything as straightforward as guilt. For the record, "This is something I didn't do," Miller-El says. "But it doesn't really matter. When you're on death row, nobody wants to hear that." He now has a court-appointed lawyer handling his appeal, although if he had his way he'd prefer Alan Dershowitz. "If you took the attorneys who are representing [O. J. Simpson] and put them on some of these cases, some guys would walk out of here," he says.

For his part, Pickett knows he will be back inside Walls soon, if not for Miller-El then for another of the 387 men and women awaiting execution in Texas. Just yesterday Domingo Cantu, 26, was granted a stay, having been convicted of sexually assaulting a 94-year-old woman and slamming her head against the sidewalk until she died. There is no criminal so depraved that Pickett will deny him the comfort of his ministry. From the time the prisoner is brought to Walls, usually on the afternoon before a midnight execution, Pickett is with him constantly. "There are times when an inmate has certain things to say that couldn't be said under other circumstances," he says. "Some want private communications made to their families. If you've been with a guy all day and night, they're more comfortable asking." He has taught a prisoner the 23d Psalm in his final minutes, and brought in a cigar for a man whose wish was to die with one in his pocket. Once, he asked a radio station to correct a report that the condemned man was "pacing his cell"; the prisoner thought it would upset his family. And when the man is strapped down and his hands are taped in preparation for an injection of lethal drugs, Pickett stands where he can be seen and offers to touch a knee or foot for a last moment of human contact. He's done this 78 times, although another prison chaplain once assured him that no one should do more than 12. And there's no end in sight, as long as men and women kill each other, and pay the price.


Chicago is a place where you can get shot for crossing the street if it takes you from the territory of one gang to another. Stash -- a 20-year-old "section" leader in the Two-Six gang of Chicago's Southwest Side -- knows this better than most. The rival Latin Kings have put a total of six bullets into him on two occasions, and tried to run his car off the road, breaking his leg in the process. His twin brother, also of the Two-Six, is serving time for attempted murder. Stash himself, whose real name is Juan Rios, is halfway through a 30-month sentence of probation for shooting a Latin King, which means he can be thrown back into jail for associating with known felons almost any time he says hello to a friend in the street. So when two cars pull up outside his house on Komensky Avenue and four white men in bulletproof vests get outside -- two cops, two probation officers -- Stash is in no position to give them any back talk. In fact, he strolls outside to greet them and humbly reports that, while he's still working on his application to college, he has found a steady job packaging shampoo samples.

"We just want you to stay alive until you're old enough to get a life," says his probation officer, Tim Flanagan. Stash's demeanor suggests that he needs to examine this proposition carefully in case it's a trick. Flanagan, of course, knows better than to expect gratitude. "We're telling them to go to school," he remarks later. "That's not what they want. They want to be gangsters. It's more fun."

What Flanagan and his partner, Tom Fashing, are doing here is astonishing -- an attempt to head off homicides before they occur, which in the view of most cops would be a nice but futile exercise, like trying to talk someone out of catching a cold. But research by Carolyn Rebecca Block of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority has shown that homicide follows distinct patterns of contagion. "Violence escalates over time," she says. "The victim in one crime runs the risk of becoming the offender in another." Nearly half of all Chicago homicide victims over the age of 14 have arrest records themselves for violent crimes. Working among the mostly Mexican-American gangs of Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, the Gang Violence Reduction Unit aims to break that cycle by concentrating efforts on the next likely victims -- or perpetrators, who are probably the same people. Once in a while unit members make an arrest, seize some PCP or a gun, but mostly they harangue, observe and try to stay one step ahead of the inherently random, chaotic and unpredictable violence on the streets. If they can't cure chronic problems -- poverty, racism and drug abuse -- perhaps they can at least deal with the acute ones: Diablo is going to blow away Jose.

Five nights a week they roll down the darkened streets of bungalows and the vivid commercial avenues, stopping now and then to chat with the gang members they know by name and sight -- hundreds of them. They roll into an alley and see Julio, another Two-Six, leaning into a parked car to talk to the driver, and in the shadows a skinny kid who gives his name as Little Loco and his age as a slightly improbable 17. The cops drag a few sullen answers from him: he's just arrived from Los Angeles, but his parents are still in Mexico; he's in the Dark Side section of Two-Six, known as a particularly violent one, and yes, the wound on his arm came from a knife.

"How long you been Two-Six?" one of the cops, Gene Schleder, asks casually.

"Three days," he says proudly. The specificity of the answer intrigues Schleder, because three days before, a skinny Hispanic teenager had popped out of the trunk of a Camaro driving along Trumbull Avenue, shouted "Two-Six!" and pumped a bullet into a bystander who may have been a Latin King. Shooting a rival gang member is a well-known initiation rite. "I can see this guy pulling a few," Schleder says to his partner, Ray Caballero, and Little Loco nods in stone-faced agreement.

Schleder turns to the kid. "I'll bet you don't make it to 21," he tells him soberly, and gets his first satisfaction of the evening; Little Loco is actually taken aback.

But winning an argument doesn't count for much, because the gangsters aren't driven by any logic outsiders can penetrate. Far more blood is spilled over matters of honor than over business, even the drug-sell-ing business. "They're disorganized," says the gang program's mentor, University of Chicago criminologist Irving Spergel. "They're unruly. They're not even ready to become good crooks. It's like Bosnia. They've got turf. That's all they've got." Spergel, however, thinks the program is showing statistically verifiable results, although not necessarily something you'd want to boast about in the newspapers. Since the program began in 1992, violent gang crime in Little Village has increased by 20 percent, but it increased three times as much in comparable neighborhoods. Or, as Schleder's partner, Caballero, says as he drives off, leaving Little Loco to his solitary vigil in the alley, "The beauty of a free country is, you can waste your life any way you want."

2 P.M.; July 14; Vacaville, Calif. THERE IS NO PAROLE FROM MEMORY

Steven John Burns was probably right -- his parole hearing was stacked against him. The proceedings were heralded by a rally on the prison lawn by 100 victims' rights advocates. Mike and Harriet Salarno, whose daughter was murdered by Burns 15 years ago, were there, along with two other daughters, a nun and a bin full of letters opposed to letting Burns go free; the Salarnos are cofounders of Justice for Murder Victims, which campaigns for tougher sentences. And Gov. Pete Wilson is running for re-election, a bad time for criminals to be seeking favors from a board of his appointeesck; only six lifers have received parole so far, about half last year's rate.

Still, Burns gave it his best shot, raising 11 objections at the outset: his lawyer was on vacation; he had been misrepresented by the press, protesters and politicians; the Salarnos shouldn't be allowed to speak. The chairwoman, Carol Bentley, overruled them all. Burns pointed out that he had earned a college degree in jail and had been a model inmate. Then, suddenly, he asked to be dismissed, stood and bolted from the room.

Nothing he said could undo his actions of 15 years ago, when he met Catina Salarno on the day they both arrived at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. They had dated in high school, but broken up, and they argued as they walked across the campus. As Catina stalked off, Burns pulled out a gun and shot her in the head. Then he went back to his dorm room to watch a football game while Catina bled to death on the ground, almost within view of his window.

In Burns's absence, Bentley outlined how he had lied about the shooting to police before finally confessing. Then Mike Salarno stood and, waving a photo of his smiling daughter and one of her dead on a hospital gurney, vowed: "Steve Burns, I will not let you forget."

Burns won't forget, that's for certain; the three-member panel deliberated less than five minutes before turning down his bid for parole. The panel, Bentley later said, could not ignore "the profound sadness and total devastation of the family." Left unspoken was the question of whether Burns's punishment should be determined by how much sadness his victim's family feels. Should he spend more time in jail than if he had committed the same crime against an orphan?

That's an abstract question; in reality, justice responds to the political winds. And Burns and the Salarno family will have more opportunities to test the wind; he can apply for parole again next year.

6:35 P.M.; July 15; Bridgeton, MO THERE'S A SERIAL KILLER ON THE LOOSE

The car -- a blue oldsmobile with virginia plates -- had been left for two weeks, maybe longer. Someone had even helpfully rolled up the windows, which oddly had been left open by who-ever parked it outside a Wal-Mart in little Bridge-ton, Mo. (population: 20,000). Only two days ago did a cop become curious enough to run a check on its plates. He got an immediate hit. The car was regis-tered to Henry Weatherford Jr., 50, of Richmond. Weatherford, an antiques dealer, had been found shot to death in his home on June 13.

When Gary Ray Bowles is finally caught, it probably won't be through police work like this; he moves much too quickly. The calls start pouring in to the Bridgeton police today, but the great majority ("There was a guy who looks like Bowles would look if he were black . . .") are an unpromising lot. On the other hand, for the police in five cities who are looking for him, there isn't much else to do but wait for Bowles to get stopped somewhere for speeding . . . and hope that the next middle-aged man Bowles befriends in a bar thinks twice before taking him home.

Bowles is a suspected serial killer -- the most frustrating and elusive kind of criminal to catch. Serial killers generally plan their crimes and plot their escapes, which sets them apart from the legions of drug-addled muggers and quarrelsome drunks who are almost as floored by what they've done as their victims. According to Roy Hazelwood, who retired this year as supervisor of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, there has been "a dramatic increase in serial killings, especially since 1970," even after taking better reporting methods into account. Many go undetected for years -- notably John Wayne Gacy, who killed 33 young men over almost seven years before his arrest.

Bowles, a drifter, sometime construction worker and petty criminal, had the bad fortune to be identified as a suspect early on; his first victim, police say, was a man he'd been living with, John Hardy Roberts, a 59-year-old insurance agent in Daytona Beach, Fla. Bowles's usual method, according to police, is to meet his victims in bars and offer to go home with them; once there, police say, he beats or strangles them and flees with their wallets and cars. Besides the killing in Virginia, in which he is a suspect, and the Daytona case, he has been charged in three other murders since April: David A. Jarman, 32, a credit-union official from Wheaton, Md.; Milton Bradley, 72, whose body turned up on a Savannah, Ga., golf course, and Albert Alcie Morris, 37, who lived in Jacksonville, Fla.

There are a lot of people looking for Bowles, but so far they've been several steps behind -- an FBI serial-killer alert reached homicide detectives in Virginia just two days after Weatherford's body was found. This isn't like the movies. In "The Fugitive" and "Silence of the Lambs," teams of Feds hunt their man. Often in real life, the cops review their files and wait for a break. "He's still out there," said Sgt. Jim Price in Virginia. "Let's hope somebody apprehends him soon, because he's out there, looking for more victims."

10:45 A.M.; July 16; Houston A DEATH THAT CRIES FOR AN ANSWER

It's a steamy saturday morning. a steady stream of sad-faced people -- men in suits and ties, women in dresses, hats and veils -- files into Friendship Baptist Church in the city's Fourth Ward. They have come, 300 strong, to mourn Courtney Harvey, a pretty 15-year-old eighth grader who lies in a baby-blue casket at the front of the church, dressed in a brand-new navy skirt and vest. As they settle into the pews to await the arrival of Harvey's family, one word is murmured over and over, a sibilant whisper filling the still air: "senseless . . . senseless . . . senseless . . ."

Every murder is senseless. There is no wallet so full of cash that it's worth a life to steal; no anger so deep that it must be assuaged by killing. But if one person were to represent the senselessness with which hundreds of Americans died at the hands of their fellow citizens one very ordinary week in July, it might as well be Courtney Harvey -- because she was young, and she didn't know she was in danger, and her killers got so little for their trouble. Perhaps even they recognize how senseless it was.

Courtney was killed on Sunday night, as she stood talking on a street near her house with three friends, two girls and a boy. Two men drove up to the group and started a conversation with the girls, then pulled out $100 bills and demanded sex. The girls refused; the boy cursed them and Courtney laughed. One of the men raised a 9-millimeter pistol and fired off 11 rounds before the pair drove off, laughing. Two of the teens were hit but survived; Courtney, struck three times in the torso, died in minutes from massive internal bleeding.

Her wake was held Friday night at the Eternal Rest Funeral Home -- a name that reflects a sweetly archaic view of death, endless repose stealing over one at the end of life's journey. Now, funeral director James Frazier says he sees more and more young people go rocketing off into the hereafter at the business end of a Smith & Wesson. Eternal rest is the last thing Courtney Harvey -- who swam and ran track for her school, loved dancing and "The Hobbitt" -- needed or wanted. "It's heartbreaking to see this, so many young people dying needlessly," Frazier says. "With this funeral home, we used to see mostly old people; now the young are leaving us, 8, 9, 10 years old, and not from disease. It makes you wonder why we're bringing children into this world."

At precisely 11 a.m., a processional of Harvey's family members -- dozens strong, spanning four or five generations -- marches into church behind the immense and comforting figure of the Rev. F. N. Williams II. Williams preaches as if he were trying to blow open the gates of heaven for Courtney. "Here she was," he booms, "walking down the street, minding her own business, cut down." How strange, he muses, that God in his omniscience knew Courtney's fate, yet he gave her life anyway. We call this a tragedy. Yet if you live long enough, you learn God doesn't make mistakes. "We may not understand," the preacher repeats, "but God doesn't make mistakes."

He's right; we don't understand. It's senseless.

9:45 P.M.; July 16; New Orleans THIS CORONER HAS A FULL HOUSE

This will almost certainly be a record year for homicides in New Orleans, and nobody feels the pressure more than Dr. Frank Minyard, who has served as coroner for 20 years. Back then, there were only about 100 homicides a year, and the city could afford to send deputy coroners to every murder scene; with 248 murders so far this year, and a staff that has actually shrunk, most corpses now receive only a cursory visit from an investigator, followed by an autopsy at the morgue. His record was set last May: 15 autopsies on a Monday. Not only is Minyard running out of money for autopsies, his office can't afford to fix his fax machine.

Investigator Pernell Lewis got the call at home around 9:45 p.m.: a man found lying face down in a housing-project driveway. He grabbed a camera and notebook and headed for the scene, where he concluded, on the basis of multiple gunshot wounds in the body and 18 cartridges found nearby, that this was indeed a homicide. Lewis took some notes, shot a roll of film and wrote up a brief report before heading home. Two trusties from the city jail loaded the body onto a stretcher and drove him to the morgue. William Jones, 30, was homicide 249 for the year. There was one more before midnight, bringing the total to 250.

In the days after July 16, the following occurred:

The body of _B_Barkatali Lakhani _b_was shipped to Pakistan three days after his death, following a memorial service attended by about 200 taxi drivers. He left a wife and a 4-year-old daughter. Detectives say they have two suspects in his death and are still investigating.

The guns seized in the raid on the _B_640 Crew _b_are still being traced. The 9-millimeter Sig Sauer used to shoot the undercover agent turned out to have been stolen from a Secret Service agent; the ATF is in the midst of a major criminal investigation of gang members.

Stash is still alive.

Thomas Joe Miller-El got a stay of execution three days before he was scheduled to die; his new date is Nov. 15. _B_Carroll Pickett_b_ attended another execution, that of Robert Drew, on Aug. 2.

Suspected serial killer _B_Gary Ray Bowles _b_is still on the loose.

Police have made no arrests in the murder of _B_Courtney Harvey. _b_

William Jones was buried in New Orleans's Resthaven Memorial Park. Police have no suspects or motive in his killing. There were 271 homicides in New Orleans as of Aug. 2.

A Late Night Ends in Bullets In New Orleans it was almost midnight on Sunday, and Elbert Wynn's girlfriend said she wanted to go inside her apartment to use the bathroom. Wynn waited outside in his truck. That was the last time the girlfriend saw him alive. While she was inside, she says, she heard the truck pull away. She couldn't figure out why he would leave, and she began to worry. The girlfriend rounded up some neighbors and began to search the area. Two hours later, around 2:30 a.m., they found the 30-year-old roofer and father of four sprawled in a storm drain across the street from a church. He had been stripped and robbed. There were bullet holes in his back, chest and buttocks. Police have no suspects and no motive.

The Last Night for the Best Man Contractor carey kovacs was just a guy having a good time at a Saturday-night bachelor party in a strip joint on Detroit's Eight Mile Road. The 25-year-old Kovacs was to have been the best man at his friend's wedding the next week. Then a fight broke out between Kovacs's friends and another group of men. Kovacs was knocked to the ground and repeatedly kicked in the head by Benny Jovanovic, police say. Kovacs died of head injuries on Sunday morning. Jovanovic has been charged with second-degree murder. Kovacs is survived by his wife, Angela; his parents, Carl and Yvonne; his stepmother, Barbara; two brothers, Jason and Chuck, and three sisters, Teresa, Natalie and Nicole. Kovacs was married only a scant two years himself.

Number of homicides by year:

    1970    16,000

    1975    20,510

    1980    23,040

    1985    18,980

    1990    23,440

    1993    24,500

Number of homicides in 1992 by race:

    White victim, white offender        5,967

    White victim, blace offender        1,216

    Black victim, white offender          392

    Black victim, black offender        6,600