Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Degrees of Separation

I have tangential relationships with a few well known people. Some infamous. Some not. This is one of them.

On the night of September 18, 1966, 21-year-old Valerie Percy was brutally murdered in her bed. Her father was Chuck Percy, an energetic, telegenic, millionaire Chicago businessman who had decided to enter politics. 

A recent Cornell graduate, Val was not only smart, but a truly kind, sweet person, and a major player in her father's Illinois senatorial campaign. In retrospect, she was surely destined for great things, much like her twin sister, Sharon, a Stanford grad and longtime women's advocate, who now heads up WETA, the PBS station in Washington, D.C. 

Mother of four, Sharon has enjoyed a long career in public service as well as an equally long marriage to Jay Rockefeller, the former Governor, now Senator, of West Virginia. No doubt Valerie would have followed a similar career path.

Valerie's murder has never been solved. But what would you expect from a tiny police department in posh Kenilworth, a small, super rich Chicago suburb, which until 1966, hadn't had so much as a broken toenail on its books in 75 years? 

In some respects, with the latest theory, I'm reminded of the Martha Moxley murder. She was a neighbor of Ethel Kennedy's brother's family, the Skakels. A couple of decades later, one of the boys, Michael, was finally charged with her murder. [Another tangent -- I've played tennis with Michael's aunt, who is married to a law partner of my ex-husband.]

Over the decades, there have been theories, mostly surrounding a professional burglary ring of career criminals. But, the disturbing pathology of Valerie's murder never fit their modus operandi, as much as the investigators tried. 

So the case remains open. Now a new book has been published, "Sympathy Vote: a Reinvestigation of the Valerie Percy Murder." The good news: the author has an interesting alternate theory that actually makes sense: the murderer was the mentally disturbed and chronically delinquent, scary-as-shit son of another multimillionaire who lived a block and a half away. The bad news: the book is self-published, which immediately makes me wonder why no reputable publisher wanted the story. 

You can get a copy of Sympathy Vote on Amazon. You can also peruse the mostly five-star reviews and read an excerpt to decide whether or not to buy it. I'm not a shill for the author, Glenn Wall. I think the story is very interesting, but it could use some fine-tuning by a good editor or at least a decent proofreader. He calls Valerie's half-siblings her step-siblings, even though they all had the same father. Mistakes like that chip away at the credibility of Wall's reporting.

Where do I fit into all this?

Sharon and Valerie Percy were a year behind me in high school. I knew them well enough to say "hi," but that's about it. Sharon sat in front of me and one row over in typing class, taught by the autocratic Mr. Brown, who made sure typing was the only noise we made. I cannot say enough about how wonderful the Percy girls were -- thoughtful, considerate, always smiling, and it's worth repeating, very sweet. They were two classic, All-American blonds, not only pretty, but extremely intelligent. 

A couple of years after the murder, my then boyfriend, Brian, told me a story, which seems to sum up the stumblebum group that investigated Valerie's death. His family lived a few houses down from the Percy family. Like the Percys, they also lived on a bluff leading down to the beach. 

The day after the murder, the whole length of the bluff was covered with cops on their hands and knees, combing the vegetation, searching for weapons, anything that the killer might have left behind. Remembering that day, Brian laughed and said his brothers followed the process intently. I would also add -- with a great deal of trepidation, even dread. After what he told me, I can imagine them pacing inside their family's large home with its panoramic view of the lake, watching the officers with their noses to the ground, inspecting the yard, especially the bluff that angled downward toward the beach. It's probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that the day seemed never-ending, filled with nail-biting anxiety and plenty of flop sweat during the long hours it took for the cops to carry out their investigation. 

Why so much angst? Because the high bluff on my boyfriend's family property was covered entirely with his brothers' bumper crop of marijuana, which was tall, robust, and ready to harvest.

But the cops never noticed. Nope. The dopes never saw the dope. 

Before her murder, Valerie was dating someone I knew. Tom [not his real name] had spent many Saturdays for the Percy Campaign at Operation Breadbasket [later Operation Push], the neighborhood organization started by a young [26] Jesse Jackson, whose leadership abilities had already been noted by Dr. King. Once, over dinner, Tom described in detail how impressed he was with the extensive scope of Jackson's reading. His library was like a syllabus for an education in the classics. 

Valerie had had dinner with Tom on the night of her murder, along with some others. Back then, I got the impression from Tom that they'd been on a date alone, until I read an excerpt from Sympathy Vote which said otherwise. They had met while working on her father's senatorial campaign. Tom was very smart, a Stanford/Harvard law grad, who has since become a legend in the rarefied world of equity funding. I discovered he also recently sold a home in California for a record $117M.  

In the book Tom says he loved Valerie and claims she loved him. I certainly do believe he loved her. I'm also sure she liked him -- we all did -- but there is no way Valerie would have ever married him. In my opinion, as smart as he was [and still is], he was far too homely for them to hook up permanently. Nor did he have the kind of overwhelming charm and witty personality required to overcome such a lack of good looks. They just didn't match, except that both were very nice people and major brainiacs with a common goal -- the election of her dad. 

I'm sure when Valerie's father's senatorial campaign was over, win or lose, the relationship would have ended, like Tom's string of previously unsuccessful relationships with exceptionally attractive blond women had ended -- as friends. I hear his current wife is much younger and quite gorgeous. Amazing how being a super nice guy, as well as really and truly filthy rich, can make people so much better looking.

A few years after Val's death, Tom was at my apartment for dinner one night and told me how he had been the FBI's prime suspect for six months. That was very surprising to hear. Couldn't they tell the difference between a regular, albeit somewhat nerdy guy and the hateful, psychopathic pervert who had mutilated Valerie's body and killed her? At this point, Tom was already becoming a star in New York's investment banking world and, after that evening, I haven't seen him in decades. 

From what I heard about the brutal carnage wreaked on Valerie's body, only a truly disturbed individual could have killed her. And the new theory about William Thoresen certainly fits that bill.  

I have only read excerpts of Sympathy Vote, but I'm inclined to think the theory is a good one, even though it's now impossible to prosecute. That's because Thoresen, Valerie's alleged murderer, was killed in his sleep by his own wife in 1970, who claimed self defense. She alleged that during their marriage, he confessed to killing several people. I haven't read whether he [or she] named names. She did say he had his own brother killed in 1965. Then he killed the hitman. He had previously beaten his wife and threatened to kill her, too. There's also an unsolved murder of a woman in Chicago, which Thoresen may also be linked to. In the book, his long history of whacked out behavior is chronicled in detail. And let's not forget, he only lived a block and a half away. 

Finally, the week Valerie was murdered was the week before my mother died from cancer. I remember how sad and surprised my mother was when we told her the news.  

Several days after my mom passed away, we met at our small church cemetery to put her ashes in the ground. The beautiful churchyard where she is buried looks more like an English garden in the Cotswolds, with winding paths and stone walls covered with euonymus. As we stood by a small hole, waiting for the minister to bring my mother's urn, an old woman passed by and croaked at us like an old witch, "This isn't Valerie's grave. She's buried up farther." I said, "You're right, this my mother's grave." I wanted to add, "You old crone," but managed to bite my tongue. 

Until then I hadn't realized where Valerie was buried, although I have never bothered to find out exactly where. For years she and my mother were in the same cemetery, until Val's family moved her remains to Washington, D.C. to be closer to them.  

Who knows whether a new investigation would be any better than the incompetent investigation back in 1966. All I know is that someone I knew -- a beautiful, well educated, and gifted young woman, who had everything to live for, was murdered. And her case is still cold.

Appropriately, it's -11 degrees outside today. 


Mrs. L said...

Another tangent: I have just learned that Chuck Percy was the keynote speaker at a dinner honoring a very good friend's grandfather the night Valerie was killed.

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