Thursday, May 20, 2010

Officer's father — a retired cop — kills one of would-be robbers

He survived two tours of duty in the war zones of Iraq. But an off-duty Chicago police officer who recently returned from Iraq was shot and killed in a robbery attempt Wednesday night in the South Side neighborhood where he grew up and where he had become active in the community.

Officer Thomas Wortham IV, 30, was gunned down around 11:30 p.m. Wednesday. He was leaving his parents’ home in the 8400 block of South King Drive and sitting on his new motorcycle when he was approached by several men who tried to steal the bike.

An off-duty officer was shot Wednesday. His father -- a retired Chicago Police officer -- shot two of three suspects, killing one and wounding one, police said.
(Brian Jackson/Sun-Times)

In the ensuing gunfire, Wortham was shot in the head. He was pronounced dead just after midnight at Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.

The officer’s father — himself a retired Chicago police sergeant and, like his son, a military veteran — came to Wortham’s aid and shot two of the attackers, killing one, police said. Two others got away. Charges are pending against the injured suspect, who was taken to Christ Medical Center.

Ald. Freddrenna Lyle (6th) has known Wortham and his family for years. She said she’s outraged that “an intelligent young man” she called “the best we had to offer” survived war, only to be gunned down in the neighborhood — Chatham — where three generations of his family lived.

“You go to Iraq,” said Lyle. “It’s a war zone. You come back to a community you’ve been safe in all of your life and lose your life? It’s just unfathomable.”

Wortham had gone to see his parents “to show his dad his new bike,” said Lyle, who represented Wortham when he closed on a building in the neighborhood.

He’d also driven her around during one of her aldermanic campaigns, she said.

“To have people try to rob him of his motorcycle — to have that happen at his father’s house? I’m numb and heartbroken,” she said. “He was willing to put his life on the line for this country, only to have people who want nothing and are about nothing take his life. I’m just so angry about this.”

Wortham was active in his community. He was president of the Cole Park Advisory Council, a role he sought so he could “keep the park safe, enjoyable and well-stocked for the children of the neighborhood where he was raised,” Lyle said, and was involved in a “take back the park” effort planned for Sunday in response to recent shootings there.

Wortham was gunned down in front of the house where he grew up. His grandfather built it. It’s at the north end of Cole Park.

Lyle called him “a surprisingly mild-mannered and softspoken young man. He would always make us feel so old because he was always saying, ‘Yes, ma’am. Yes, sir.’ I kept telling him, ‘Don’t call me ma’am. We’re not old enough.’ ”

Lt. Eve Gushes worked with Wortham in the police department’s Englewood District. She said he had recently returned from Washington afte traveling there to pay tribute to fallen officers at the national law enfocement memorial.

“We are all in mourning here,” Gushes said.

Wortham was single and a graduate of Brother Rice High School and had been with the Chicago Police Department for three years, according to police Supt. Jody Weis.

He’d been on furlough since returning from his latest military service, said Gushes. She said he was proud to be a cop and proud to serve his community.

His death was even harder to deal with, Gushes said, because “this is the second young officer we’ve lost within a short period of time, and we’re going to have to dig deep within ourselves to get through this.”

Officer Alejandro “Alex” Valadez, 27, who’d also been a Chicago cop for three years, was shot and killed in the line of duty last June. Valadez, who also came from a family of police officers, was a graduate of Brother Rice, like Wortham.

The shooting stunned neighbors of the Wortham family.

Miles Stewart, 48, was coming home from work on the back of a buddy’s bike Wednesday night. As he rounded the corner a block from the Wortham home, he said, “10 shots rang out.”

He said Wortham was on the ground in his motorcycle helmet and gear. Two of the would-be robbers were lying on the ground, he said, and two more jumped in a car and sped off, running Wortham over.

“I ran over there and went up to Thomas to help, and his dad told me to get away from his son,” Stewart said. “"His dad had two guns — a semi-automatic and a revolver, and he said, ‘They were robbing my son, and I shot them.’ ”

After Stewart identified himself as a family friend, Wortham’s father let him assist, he said.

The robbers sped away down an alley, drove around the block to see what had happened, then fled down 85th street, leaving Wortham's new Yamaha R1 sport bike behind, he said.

Neighbor Elliott Powell, 52, a lawyer, said the robbers clipped his wife’s car, leaving a red paint mark as they fled.

He said the Wortham family was heavily involved in trying to clean up Cole Park.

"They’re hanging in there,” he said this morning.

As a police officer armed with an assault rifle guarded Wortham’s father and the family home today, neighbors said the shooting had pulled the blue-collar Chatham community together.

“You can band together and try to take your neighborhood back, but you’ve gotta have everybody on board,” said neighbor Wesley Andrews, an engineer. “Unless everybody pulls together, it won’t work.”

Speaking about his neighborhood, Andrews said: “It used to be something to be proud of — you’d stick your chest out and say, ‘I’m from Chatham.’ ”

But, with the closing of public housing projects in recent years across the city, Chatham has seen violent people move in.

Up and down the block where the police officer was killed and in neighboring Cole Park, small groups of neighbors, friends and relatives gathered. There was a lot of talk about the violence, what’s causing it, what they might be able to do to quell it. They spoke about problems with gangs, parenting, jobs, housing, popular culture, drugs and policing.

A prayer vigil is planned for 7 o'clock tonight on the Worthams' block.

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