Hidden Twists, Part Two

Date Published 08.16.08
Here is the second of three cases that took turns that surprised me.

Saturday Morning Massacre

Riding the subway at night can be scary.  So is walking home alone in the dark.  But stopping into a women’s clothing store on a Saturday morning? It’s a ritual practiced by millions of American women every weekend, the motions so ingrained --- look over the clothes, find the fitting rooms, head to check out --- that safety is rarely, if ever, a concern.

The morning of Saturday, February 2 was cold and gray in suburban Chicago.  A winter storm over the previous few days had left the city buried under piles of snow.  At Brookside shopping center in south suburban Tinley Park two employees at Lane Bryant, a plus-sized women’s clothing store, were anticipating a busy day due to a clearance sale.



The employees’ stories were common to women’s retail, where selling clothes is less a career choice than a way station, a temporary solution after a divorce or job change has caused upheaval.

Rhoda McFarland, 42, was the store manager.  She hung out near the cash registers.  An ordained minister, Rhoda had worked as an associate pastor at a local church before the church’s leadership changed direction.  Rhoda had a bright, inviting smile.  She told friends she enjoyed working retail and felt she was still ministering to people, even if it was while selling blouses.

Stationed near the front door to greet customers was Martha, 33, a part-time employee who worked weekends.  Like Rhoda, Martha came from a religious background, but a recent, unexpected divorce had left her  shattered.  She was attending nursing school and trying to rebuild her life.

The store opened at 10:00 a.m. and the morning began uneventfully.  At 10:08 a.m. an African-American man walked through the front door.  Martha greeted him.  He indicated he was making a delivery and held paperwork in his hand.

He chatted with the two women, exchanging small talk.  There was some confusion about the delivery.  Was this the right store?  What exactly was he delivering?

The man was between 25-35 years old.  He was stocky and clean-shaven.  He wore a charcoal gray “skull cap” and a dark-colored, below the waist length winter coat.  Three to five puffy cornrows were visible underneath his cap; one braid fell across his right cheek and was adorned at the end with four light green beads.

The man was neither agitated nor aggressive.  The first odd gesture he made was looking at the ceiling, his gaze lasting perhaps a beat too long.

There were no security cameras in the store.

The man withdrew a .40-caliber Glock handgun.  The easygoing deliveryman disappeared and his demeanor turned terse and mean.


.40-caliber Glock

The man had Rhoda and Martha empty the registers.

Meanwhile, the front door began opening and customers --- there would be four in all --- entered the store, ducking in from the cold with an eye toward morning shopping.

Connie Woolfolk, 37, was the mother of two sons, one who has spina bifida.  She almost never got out, but there was a rare party coming up on her calendar and she needed a new outfit.

Sarah Szafranski, 22, was a recent college graduate who was looking for winter work clothes.

Carrie Chiuso, 33, was a social worker at a nearby high school.  She was getting together with a group of old college friends and wanted a new outfit.

Jennifer Bishop, 34, was an intensive care nurse and mother of three from South Bend, IN.  She was visiting the area with her husband, who was attending a roofing convention nearby.


Left to right: Jennifer Bishop, Carrie Chiuso, Rhoda McFarland,
Connie Woolfolk, and Sarah Szafranski

The man ordered the women into a small employee break room.  He had them empty each other’s purses.  He took out a roll of duct tape he’d brought with him and ordered the women to tape each other’s wrists.  If he didn’t like their response he yelled at them and threatened them with the gun.

He told the women to lie face down on the floor.  Some reports indicate he covered their heads with clothing; other reports say he groped one woman in a sexual manner.

His plan seemed to be to rob women as they came into the store.

The man stepped out of the room for a moment, and Rhoda McFarland, the store manager, saw her chance.  She was able to work her hands free and, using her cell phone, called 911

“Lane Bryant,” she whispered to the dispatcher.  “Tinley Park.”

“Hurry.”

The man came back into the room and saw Rhoda whispering into the phone.  Later, audio experts were able to isolate his words in the background. 

“I see you!” he shouted.  “I’m losing it!”

He shot Rhoda in the forehead, then went around the room and methodically executed each woman with a single bullet to the back of the head. 

Except for Martha, the part-time employee.  She moved at just the right moment and the bullet meant for her head grazed her neck instead.

Martha later estimated to police that only 20 seconds elapsed between Rhoda’s 911 call and when she first heard the siren of an approaching police car.

But when police arrived, the killer was gone.

Police theorized that the killer was able to make a quick getaway because Lane Bryant is located just off Interstate 80 (I-80), the second-longest Interstate Highway in the United States.


Blue arrow indicates location of Lane Bryant

The motive appeared to be robbery.  The killer had made the victims empty the cash registers and their purses.  He turned violent seemingly on impulse, after catching Rhoda on her cell phone.

Still, the scenario was puzzling.  Why rob a women’s clothing store on a Saturday morning?  Lane Bryant is not a cash business.  Customers would mostly be writing checks or using credit cards. 

His alleged plan --- to rob women as they came into the store --- would be high-risk and low-yield.

The good news was that the incompetent scheme suggested an unsophisticated criminal, one who could be caught easily due to screw-ups.  The fact that he flew off the handle and showed extreme violence was also a helpful clue to investigators.  The impulsive, disorganized killer is usually the easiest to find.  The level of violence suggested that they might be looking for an ex-con, someone who has a history of violence, did time for it, and doesn’t want to go back to prison.

Investigators had a witness who was able to provide a detailed description.  They had physical evidence from the scene they could run through offender databases.  The reward quickly rose to $100,000, an inviting amount that should have drawn troubled small-timers who knew the killer.

Time passed.  Nothing broke.  Detectives from the South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force, the agency in charge of the case, pored over thousands of mug shots and chased down leads. 

They released a more life-like composite sketch of the suspect.  Details got more specific.  The killer was wearing black jeans with embroidery on the back pockets similar to the cursive “G.”


Lane Bryant suspect

It was revealed that surveillance cameras about 300 yards away from Lane Bryant had captured footage of two vehicles, a small, dark-colored sport utility vehicle and a smaller sedan, parking near the front of the store around the time of the murders.

A NASA scientist helped enhance
the footage, which showed the cars stopping at an odd angle, to the left of Lane Bryant and near a vacant storefront.  Both cars left around the time of the murders.  Unfortunately, the enhancement didn’t yield license plate numbers.

According to a source, detectives were privately puzzled.  Some were surprised when the physical evidence didn’t provide a match with a convicted felon.  Others didn’t understand how an inept robber with a hair-trigger temper could disappear into the wind so thoroughly. 

All along detectives had been looking into the backgrounds of the victims, looking for a possible connection to the killer.  Nothing arose, until they looked more closely at the one victim who had been killed differently than the others: Rhoda McFarland.

Rhoda and The Church

For several years Rhoda had been deeply involved in Embassy Christian Center, a now-defunct church in Crest Hill, IL.  She began as an administrative assistant to the pastor, George Aja Jr., and soon became one of his most trusted colleagues.  She was ordained as a minister and became an associate pastor at the church, counseling prepubescent girls.

At some point Rhoda began to feel uncomfortable with some of Aja’s financial decisions.  It’s unclear what, if any, wrongdoing transpired, and whether or not Rhoda’s discomfort was solely over finances or included something more personal that she had uncovered.  Strife erupted within the church, and membership went from 1,000 to 75 by 2006, when Rhoda decided to leave.

Aja moved with his family and several church members to Austin, Texas to start a new church, Embassy Nation Network, which now appears to be closed.

Though they’re being tight-lipped about it, one intriguing clue investigators uncovered is a 20-minute phone call placed by a former Embassy member about an hour before the murders that was routed through the tower nearest the Lane Bryant store.

That was enough to pique their interest.  In late July, nearly a dozen detectives from the South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force traveled to Texas to interview former church members and associates of Rhoda, including Aja, who now lives in a sprawling house in the hills outside Austin.

Aja has publicly and forcefully rejected any notion that his church is linked to the homicides.  Investigators remain circumspect and emphasize they currently have no suspects.

Still, the Texas connection is intriguing for several reasons. 

The day before the murders, the San Antonio news site woai.com ran a story about a sex scandal involving a pastor named Rick Hawkins.  Hawkins is alleged to have used church funds to silence women, either because he’s had affairs with them or has sexually harassed them. 

A poster using the name “forwhatsright” left the following comment under the Hawkins story:

forwhatsright - 2/1/2008
3 Votes
Report User
Well Someone should check out GEORGE AJA in austin texas formally of joliet il. He has ties with hawkins and has been suspected of doing the same thing. The name of his church is embassy nation church. formally embassy christian center

Records show "forwhatsright" registered that day, Friday, February 1, and never commented again.

It's possible, even likely, that Hawkins and Aja know each other; an online search reveals that a Christian musician thanks both men in his album credits for their support and spiritual guidance.

Interestingly, music appears to be George Aja’s latest venture.  Urbansteez.com, a California-based website that covers urban culture, recently highlighted a young aspiring hip hop star named KYDD in its “Unsigned Hype” section.

Aja, identifying himself as the CEO of A-Town Productions, left a comment about KYDD:

We know This young man on a personal level and professional one. I am a 44 year old multi corprate owner who has seen a alot of wannabes consistanly hate on people with a real gift. You see there are those who have a talent and those who have a gift, KYDD is one who posses the later.

Hey Kidd let the haters hate and do your thing ! We here at A-Town Productions salute your success and know that the best is yet to come for you ! Keep feeding the dream. Your a class act.

Empowering People

George Aja, CEO A-Town Productions

A series of MySpace videos by “A-Town Productions” in Texas highlight various hip hop musicians.

Aja, who is white, 44 and an evangelical Christian, certainly makes a curious hip hop enthusiast and producer, but without more information it’s hard to know his exact role and level of involvement. 

Another possible Texas connection is the fact that America’s Most Wanted, after doing a segment on the Lane Bryant case, concluded that the killer sounded like he had a Southern accent.

Answers

Stray pieces of the puzzle remain to be pondered over.

The survivor said the killer had professionally manicured fingernails.

His jeans --- black, with an embroidered cursive "G" on the back pocket --- should be a good clue.  While the Task Force has never publicly said they have a match, a search for jeans fitting that description revealed a strong possibility.

Hip hop superstar 50 Cent has an urban fashion line called G-Unit Clothing.  Below is a pair of jeans from the line called "G-Reflex Denim Pants":



Six months after the murders, Lane Bryant’s windows are covered in brown paper, its door locked indefinitely.

What happened inside there on that Saturday morning in February is confounding.  If the killer was an impulsive, dim armed robber, why hasn’t he been found?  If the motive was more personal, what was the plan, and why did it go so terribly wrong?

The story is particularly tragic because the circumstances were ordinary.  On a cold, gray day two women trying to make ends meet opened their workplace for business.  Four women dashed in from the cold, looking for sales, or a business suit, expecting to rifle through underwear bins and maybe share some pleasant conversation. 

Instead, they lost their lives at the hands of a stranger, a cold-blooded killer who escaped with less than one hundred dollars.

If you know anything about this crime, please call 708-444-5394.



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