I imagined the seventh grader resting her left foot on her right knee, pressing the marker firmly to decorate the shoe. I held the magnifying glass over it trying to discern the pattern. Dark letters scrawled on the midsole of a dirty white sneaker; edges bleeding a pinkish red –– “DENISE.” Indefinable scribbling followed the name. It was as unfathomable to me as the reason she lay on the morgue gurney. As the medical examiner, I would perform her autopsy.
I was 32 years old and four months pregnant, expecting my first child. Ever since I announced the happy event, my assistant took monthly Polaroids of me in profile in my green scrubs. They barely showed my baby bump. He thumbtacked the photos to the corkboard in the morgue office. In them, I was smiling. I didn’t feel like smiling on that day.
Denise, the girl on my table, was slight at 5 feet in height and barely 100 pounds, though with the postmortem change, it was hard to know what she weighed before death; her 12-year-old body unrecognizable in its decomposition. Six days in a boarded-up garage in August in Chicago during a heat wave had not been kind to the small girl. Her skin was unnaturally discolored, except for a normal patch where her belly was in contact with the concrete floor. Her clothing had the same red-black color as her skin –– all of it blending together in a wet miasma.
Her face appeared shriveled and disfigured with skin stretched tightly against the bone. A sneer exposed her upper teeth; dried lips curling up and away. The epidermis had loosened from the fingers and toes. Maggots had found all the warm cavities as well as the crevices in fabric.
The right shoe remained on the body but without its shoelace. The left shoe, the one I had been examining, was near her head in the same condition. I found the laces. One had been used to tie her hands behind her back. The other had been tied around her neck, so tight that it formed a taut 3-inch circle.
From police investigators I learned that Denise had been visiting relatives in South Chicago from her home in a southern suburb 30 minutes away. She helped out with babysitting. She had discovered choir and tennis. The evening she disappeared, she had gone outside. The whole summer had been hot. The temperature had reached 100 degrees that day. Maybe she just wanted a breath of fresh air or maybe she wanted adventure in the way innocents do.
Jerome and Denise had met on the stoop of her cousin’s home in the late afternoon of the day she was last seen alive. They shared a flirtatious repartee. Denise’s cousin admonished Jerome, “She’s only 12.” She told him to get off the porch and stay away. Jerome lived in the neighborhood and was on parole, released a few months earlier having served time for rape. Rumor had it that the previous assault had happened in the same garage. A one-minute walk from the cousin’s house.
I held the shoe in my gloved hands. The eyelets gaped open; the tongue drooped inside. The tread was worn, and the sides scuffed. It looked naked without its laces; embarrassed to be found in this state of undress. I wondered when and how the unlacing happened during the course of her rape. It must have been before Jerome pulled the black tank top off her chest because the shoelace was underneath the shirt that had also been tied around her neck. Was it before he unzipped, unbuttoned, and pulled her pants down? Was it after he pressed her face-down onto the floor?
Who unlaced the shoes? Did the 24-year-old hold a knife to Denise’s throat or a gun to her head while the girl shakily undid them? Did he grab the footwear from her and do it himself? Did Jerome offer some benign explanation for needing the laces? Why was the right shoe still on her foot? Did he calmly place it back? Was it after she died?
The attacker never said how the shoelaces ended up around her neck and wrists. He claimed consensual sex. With a 12-year-old.
DNA testing was in its infancy then. Even with modern techniques, extreme decomposition can preclude scientific results. None of his bodily fluids could be identified. No drop of saliva, blood, or semen from him was found. In 1988, my description of Denise’s body and bondage provided the sole evidence. It was enough for a sentence of natural life imprisonment.
The crime was/is horrific in the doing, in the telling, in the remembering.
Yet, the shoes haunt me. As I sit in my home office and think back to that day, I find it impossible to imagine the act of removing the shoelaces. It takes me 36 seconds to unlace one of my sneakers. I’ve timed it. Maybe it can be done more quickly. I’m nearing 65 so my hands aren’t as adept as they used to be. Still, that would be more than a minute to remove both laces. A minute in a dark and dank garage, waiting. It feels unbearable.