The Man with the Hammer

Date Published 05.08.06
Imagine, for a moment, you are a man coming home from work. The elevated train hurdles to your stop outside the city. You exit. It is an unusually hot June day, just one day after the official start of summer and already in the mid-90’s. This is Chicago. By August the heat will seem oppressive. For now, it feels new. Sprinklers shoot water across front yards. Lifeguards whistle at the mob of kids jumping into the pool at Rehm park. It’s 5:30 p.m., and the smell of barbeque fills the air.

You walk a few blocks south on Harvey Avenue. It is a habit, this route home, but you are not a boring man. In fact, you are described as an independent thinker, entertaining, charismatic. You are an esteemed history professor who has hit his stride. You have recently published an award-winning book. A long-time bachelor, you are, at 42, now married and the father of a baby girl. Life is more than good. You are two blocks from home.

A car pulls up to the curb beside you and a stranger gets out. The stranger burns with rage. At what in particular it is not known, but one suspects he feels none of the good luck you do. He does not know that you are considered kind, giving and compassionate. All he sees is a man with a briefcase going home to a loving family on a summer day. He does not have a briefcase or a loving family, and this day is just another steaming afternoon in a long blur of uncomfortable days. The stranger wants to unleash his rage. Words won’t do. No one listens to him anyway. He comes at you. He raises a hammer and brings it down on your head.

In just seconds, the happy life you built for yourself is gone.

This is the story of Peter D’Agostino, who was murdered on June 22, 2005 in Oak Park, Illinois. His murder remains unsolved.

What is known for sure? Peter D’Agostino was walking home from work. Neighbors inside their homes reported hearing a car door slam, a scuffle, startled shouting, and a car screeching away. D’Agostino was found moments later lying on a front lawn with a massive wound to the head. Witnesses came forward with information about a suspicious man seen in the neighborhood. He could be placed around the same time on the block where D’Agostino was murdered. The man had caused multiple people alarm in the hours before D’Agostino was killed. One woman tried to write down his car’s license plate number. Another ran from him. Why? He was walking quickly. He seemed to be on a mission. And he was carrying a sledgehammer.

Police released a composite sketch of the “person of interest.” They released a detailed description of his car. Nothing sparked. Leads dried up. The media dropped the story. In Oak Park, rumors flew about “the sledgehammer killer.” It was a racial thing, people said. D’Agostino was white. The person of interest was black. But Oak Park is a progressive, open-minded place, and no one wanted to stir up racial acrimony. There were no ugly protests, no retaliations. The conjecture was simply an attempt to make sense of what seemed like a random, motiveless crime.

But sometimes things don’t make sense. Almost a year later, on April 27, 2006, the following small story ran in the Chicago Sun-Times:

Girl, 14, attacked by man with hammer

April 27, 2006

BY LISA DONOVAN Staff Reporter

A 14-year-old girl was attacked Tuesday morning by a man with a hammer as she walked to school on the Southwest Side, Chicago Police said.

Police on Wednesday released a sketch of the man they say went after Deeyana Williams as she walked to school in the 6900 block of South Campbell.

Just before 9 a.m., the eighth-grader was on her way to McKay Elementary when a man walked toward her, the girl told Fox News. The two passed, then she felt him approach from behind, she said.

"I felt him, like, getting close behind me, so that's what made me turn my head ... and that's when he hit me," the girl said.

She reportedly ran to a friend's home, where she discovered she had been injured.

The girl's mother was notified, and she met her daughter at the hospital, where the girl's head injuries were closed.

Police described her attacker as black, with a dark complexion, 5 feet 11 to 6 feet 1, weighing 150 to 160 pounds. He has an afro and a scraggly beard. He wore a light blue jacket with white patches, blue pants and dark shoes. Anyone with information is asked to call Wentworth Area detectives at (312) 747-8380.

Officially, Oak Park Police report that they don't believe there is a link between the two crimes. The hammers are different sizes, they say. Maybe so, but the suspect descriptions contain indisputable similarities. In the most recent attack on the girl, the suspect is 5'11 to 6'1, 150 to 160 pounds. In the D'Agostino murder, the person of interest is 5'10 to 6'2, with a thin build. Take a look at the composite sketches, the first of the D'Agostino person of interest, the second of the man who attacked the girl.

Attacks in broad daylight are rare. Attacks in broad daylight with hammers, rarer still. Attacks in broad daylight with hammers by tall, slightly built black men? Hell of a coincidence.

People assumed Peter D'Agostino's murder was racially motivated. But the victim in the second hammer attack was a black girl. If it is the same attacker, his crimes reveal a far more troubling drive than initially thought. However henious, racial attacks provide a motive for violence. As do robbery, and sexual assaults. Without motive, we're left with the most frightening kind of killer: the one who has no type or target or plan, just need -- the need to unburden his rage by inflicting pain on someone, anyone, else.

If you know anything about these crimes please call Oak Park Police at 708-386-3800 or Wentworth area detectives at 312-747-8380.

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary:
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.