Sept. 18 marked the 45th anniversary of Valerie Percy’s murder, a crime that transfixed the nation and remains one of the Chicago area’s most notorious cold cases. The brutality of the murder in normally sleepy Kenilworth as well as the prominence of Valerie’s politician father captivated the media and community.
Valerie Percy, 21, was stabbed and beaten to death in bed at her family’s lakefront home in 1966. Minutes later, her father, then GOP Senate nominee Chuck Percy, phoned Chicago police. Charles Percy died Sept. 17. As the country marked his death, people from the area who were involved in the murder investigation are discussing memories surrounding his daughter’s unsolved murder.
The murder took place five weeks before election day. In the crucial weeks that followed, the investigation ran cold. Former investigators claim that a combination of interference from Percy’s political aides, missed opportunities to gather evidence and a police force inexperienced in murders are to blame for the lack of an arrest. The case’s current investigator agrees that the police force at the time wasn’t equipped to expertly handle a high-profile murder case, but says he has seen no evidence of anyone hampering the investigation.
The homicide’s many unusual circumstances include a killer who broke into the Percy’s home at 5 a.m. on a Sunday, whom Percy’s wife saw standing over the mortally-wounded young woman, and who then reportedly left the victim’s wallet with about $60 in cash inside untouched in the open, nearby.
Valerie Percy’s killer has gone unpunished for 45 years, though his crime was far from perfect. He left behind a blood-stained glove, screen and glass doors he cut and broke through, and what investigators said is the murder weapon, a bayonet, which was found in the lake just south of the Percy’s home.
Sgt. Dave Miller, the Kenilworth Police officer currently examining the case, acknowledges that the case was hampered early on by disorganization as media attention focused on the case and the inexperience of local investigators.
“The number of leads that poured in was incredible. They didn’t have a major crimes task force assembled and ready to go like they do today where roles and responsibilities have already been worked out,” said Miller, who’s been leading the investigation since 2004. “The team they assembled was great and the work the investigators did was great but precious time elapsed before that occurred.”
Family’s Absence Hinders Early Investigation
Three days after the murder, Charles and his family left on a friend’s private jet bound for California.
”I was really pissed that they all left after the murder. The whole time they were gone, I was told they weren’t available for questioning,” said former Chicago Police Detective Joe Dileonardi, who worked on the early phases of the investigation. He maintains that the family's leaving at such a critical time did not help the investigation—which was barely 72-hours-old—gain momentum.
When a murder or other major crime occurs in the north suburbs today, a task force of experienced investigators is immediately assigned to it. In 1966, however, no such task force existed. The Percy murder was the first ever in Kenilworth. For help, the then Senate-hopeful phoned Chicago’s superintendent of police minutes after the killer fled.
Twelve days after the murder, while the family was still in seclusion in California, a Chicago police official was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times in a statement that seems to contradict itself: “The Percys have co-operated fully with us. But we want every bit of information they have about what happened in their home on the morning of the murder. It’s difficult to explore their recollections completely by questioning them through liaison men.”
Dileonardi recalls being told that the Percys wouldn’t be available for questioning while they were away, period.
“We’re all so old now,” said Scott Cohen, 87, Percy’s former press secretary, from his home in Virginia in late August. The former press secretary recalls Percy decided on the California trip after consulting with friends and family. When asked if the previously mentioned “liaison men” were, in fact, Percy campaign staffers, Cohen replied “that’s right.” Cohen said he and other aides were, indeed, the "liaison men" referred to in the Sun-Times article and that police were communicating with the Percys through aides at the time. However, when asked if, as Dileonardi sugggested, aides hindered the initial investigation, Cohen said: "I never thought of that. I really don't have any opinion."
A few days after the slaying, however, it wasn’t just members of the Chicago Police who were bothered by the way the investigation appeared to be unfolding.
The late Dr. Robert Hohf was the Percy’s neighbor, and raced to their home when Percy called after discovering Valerie’s body. Hohf’s wife, Nydia “Nan” Hohf, told the Chicago Tribune earlier this year that her husband was deeply troubled that police didn’t take a statement from him after the slaying. Authorities also did not ask Robert Hohf to testify at the coroner’s inquiry into the murder, though he was the physician who pronounced Valerie dead.
So, as the Percy’s left for California, Robert Hohf, who died in 1993, wrote his own account of the crime the day in a letter that Nan made public in the spring of this year.
Stay tuned to Patch for more on the series Friday. Like your local Patch on Facebook to join the conversation.