Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

A disabled man, a heinous crime

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun November 17, 2013
Chicago's Union Station, where a man with cerebral palsy was allegedly robbed while trapped with two men in an elevator.
Chicago's Union Station, where a man with cerebral palsy was allegedly robbed while trapped with two men in an elevator.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: A disabled man was robbed in an elevator at Chicago's Union Station
  • He says police investigator revolted by crime against man, trapped with robbers
  • He says alleged assailants arrested. He laments such people often get off on lesser charges
  • Greene: If we shrug and accept when helpless victimized, we too are robbed -- of humanity

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen.

(CNN) -- So that I could best understand the depth of his revulsion for the crime, the police investigator suggested that I pay a visit to the elevator where it allegedly took place.

The elevator is just a few steps inside the Canal Street entrance to Chicago's Union Station. The train station, in the decades before the jet age, was the indispensable hub for America's interstate travel. It remains, in the Amtrak era, cavernous and rife with echoes. It is as if the structure was designed to make mere mortals feel small.

The vast station, when it is filled with passengers heading to and from Amtrak trains and local commuter lines, can lead a person to half-believe that in the bustle no one notices him.

Unless someone is making it a point to notice.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

"He is 27 years old," said Michael MacDonald, an investigator for Amtrak's police department. "He is able to travel by himself. He's a very likeable guy."

The man he was talking about suffers from cerebral palsy. Physically slight, he has only one leg. He has three fingers on each hand. With determination and quiet daily courage, he is able to get around independently by using a motorized chair.

"There are people who hang around the front door and look for victims," MacDonald said. "Prey."

Pickpocketing is usually the crime of choice. Officers inside the train station are on alert for thieves who attempt to relieve travelers of their wallets on escalators or stairways.

MacDonald has worked in law enforcement for 30 years. Some offenses still have the power to infuriate him, because they violate not only the law, but any basic definition of humanity.

As pedestrians stream through that Canal Street door, rushing to make their trains on the lower level, few even glance toward the little elevator landing to the right of the entrance.

On surveillance video recorded in August, MacDonald said, the young man, trying to get to a commuter train, is clearly visible entering the station. Because he is unable to use stairs, he steers his chair to his right, toward the elevator.

Also on the video are two men, MacDonald said, who "follow him right to the elevator. Both get on with him." The elevator is small, relatively cramped, with a low ceiling.

What reportedly happens next is what is so ghastly. The man in the motorized chair has his cash and a cellphone zipped into a satchel strapped to his waist. This is his custom when he leaves the house; he lives with his mother, and the cellphone is his lifeline.

On the surveillance video, the men who have followed him to the elevator -- later identified by police and by the Cook County State's Attorney's office as Demetrius Thomas, 48, and Terrell Jones, 49 -- strike up a conversation with him.

Then, according to investigators, one guards the elevator door to make certain no one else tries to enter, while the other reaches down and takes what he wants from the man in the chair.

They allegedly take his phone and cash. They seem to be in no hurry; because of his missing fingers, he cannot grasp the items as they are taken from him. He does his best to resist, but it is as if the men are casually removing items from a store shelf. Then, leaving him in the elevator, they simply walk away and go back into the city.

The young man, alone in the busy train station, told an Amtrak police officer what had been done to him. ("Nothing like this had ever happened to me before," the young man told me the other afternoon. "I tried to respond to it with as much grace as I could. But after it was over, it just felt like such an indignity.") From the surveillance video, investigators made still photos and showed them around. One officer assigned to Union Station recognized Demetrius Thomas as a man who had been warned to stay out of the terminal. The next time he showed up he was arrested for criminal trespass and, according to MacDonald, said that Terrell Jones had been his accomplice in the elevator robbery.

A Chicago police detective knew where to find Terrell Jones: in Cook County Jail. It seems that, one day after the Union Station robbery, he had been arrested for a crime a few miles away. At the Northwestern Memorial Hospital complex, a 75-year-old woman was visiting her ailing husband. Alone in an elevator, she was easy pickings. Police had apprehended Terrell Jones for allegedly robbing her.

Both men face eight felony counts for what they allegedly did to the young man in Union Station. They have entered not guilty pleas; I asked a representative of the office of the Cook County public defender whether the lawyers assigned to the men would discuss the case or comment on it, and he declined on their behalf. What we refer to as the justice system will now kick in.

Cases such as this one can come and go, news blips competing for the attention of a busy public already barraged by torrents of bad news. Strong-arm crimes against those least able to defend themselves are on occasion described as "petty" when the victim is not seriously injured. Judges sometimes allow offenders to plead to lesser charges, to speed up the process and unclog the overloaded courts system.

The assistant state's attorney prosecuting the case -- Mary Lou Norwell -- specializes in crimes against the elderly and the disabled. It has come to this: The very people whom society as a whole should be most dedicated to helping are instead so often targets of soulless crime that a special subcategory of prosecution has been developed to deal with those who would hurt them.

Once we begin to shrug at the inevitability of such crimes -- once we begin to accept that, in a cold world, this is just the way things are -- we are heading down a dark and sorry path. Because once we stop caring, we, too, have been robbed of something precious.

The young man's cellphone and his money, Investigator MacDonald told me, are long gone; he will never see them. "I count my blessings," the young man told me. "I don't want to be a 'woe-is-me' type. I've never been that kind of person." Out of a sense of duty, he rode a train back into the city so that he could attend a police lineup to identify the alleged offenders.

There will be status hearings and continuances, and eventually, when and if the case goes to trial, the young man will, in his motorized chair, with considerable difficulty make his way to the courthouse to testify. When he entered the train-station elevator that day, the two men who followed him became an unwanted part of his life for years to come. He had no say. The victims never do.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT