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Looking Back: ‘Eye in the sky’ aided murder manhunt

September 30, 2018

Do you remember the slow-speed chase of O.J. Simpson, then accused of killing his estranged wife, on the Los Angeles freeway almost 25 years ago?

TV viewers followed the police pursuit with the help of eye-in-the-sky coverage from news and police helicopters. Simpson eventually surrendered to police without incident. (He was later acquitted.)

You also might remember signs along rural highways warning that state police were monitoring your speed with the aid of aircraft, and the movies in which fugitives were tracked from above as they fled through farm fields or city alleys and backyards.

An early local example of eye-in-the-sky law enforcement took place July 18, 1931, when a Kankakee aviator helped police after a bank robbery in the small town of Buckley that resulted in the murder of an Iroquois County deputy sheriff.

The Chicago Tribune reported that the sequence of events began at 10 a.m. on a Friday, when three men “wearing overalls and straw hats and appearing to be farmers” parked in front of the Buckley State Bank. One man stayed behind the wheel of the car, and the other two entered the building.

“We want your cash. Where is it?” demanded one of the robbers, pointing a gun at Miss Margaret Singleton, one of the two cashiers. After she surrendered $5,200 in bills, the two men ran out of the bank and jumped into their waiting car.

As the getaway car sped away from the scene, Singleton and Lea Stroup, the other cashier, ran to an adjoining restaurant and announced the bank had been robbed. Two restaurant patrons, Clarence White and his sister, Mrs. Henry Ennen, pursued the bandits in White’s car.

Mrs. Ennen’s husband, Iroquois County Deputy Sheriff Henry Ennen, was not far behind, riding on the running board of a car he had commandeered after learning of the robbery.

About two miles outside town, the fleeing bank robbers lost control of their car and careened into a ditch. They tried to capture the pursuing White car as a getaway vehicle, but the driver was able to speed past them. At this point, Deputy Ennen arrived and began shooting at the bandits, wounding one of them. The wounded man fell into the roadside ditch, while the other two robbers forced their way into a car that had just arrived on the scene. They pulled driver R.H. Liebenow, of Sheldon, out of his vehicle and sped away; Ennen fired several shots at them, without effect.

Meanwhile, the wounded robber, identified as Robert Mulchowki, of Chicago, had crawled through a culvert and emerged behind Ennen. The Tribune reported the deputy turned to face the armed Mulchowksi, shouting, “I give up. My gun’s empty,” and dropped the gun to the ground. Mulchowski fired once, striking Ennen in the heart and killing him instantly.

As his accomplices fled northward toward Piper City in their stolen auto, Mulchowski disappeared into a nearby field of tall corn. A posse of lawmen from Iroquois and Ford counties arrived on the scene. The Kankakee Republican-News related that they were reinforced by a crowd of “Buckley townspeople armed with rifles, shotguns and pitchforks.”

The “eye in the sky” from Kankakee entered the story at this time. The Republican-News reported a plane “piloted by Delbert Koerner and carrying O.R. Reed, deputy sheriff, left for Buckley only a few minutes after the holdup report arrived. It gave valuable assistance ... circling over the cornfield in which Mulchowski had taken refuge, it pointed out the bandit’s hiding place.”

The Republican-News account of the aerial observation differed from the story in the Chicago Tribune, which had reported Koerner aided in pursuit of the two robbers fleeing in a stolen vehicle toward Piper City. The Chicago version said a call to Kankakee “brought Delbert Koerner ... flying to the scene in a biplane. By circling over the bandit car, he was able to indicate to the possemen the general direction followed by the fugitives.”

The confusion might have arisen from the fact there actually were two Kankakee aircraft flying to the scene. The second plane, piloted by Koerner’s brother, Martin, might have been the one referred to by the Tribune (the Republican-News said that Martin’s plane “flew to Piper City, but arrived a moment too late to assist in the manhunt.”)

After Mulchowski (which proved to be an alias; his real name was Joseph Jazorak) was captured, he was taken to a doctor’s office in Buckley for treatment of his wounds. When an angry mob gathered and threatened to “string him up,” Mulchowski was hurriedly moved to the security of the Iroquois County Jail at Watseka.

The three men were swiftly placed on trial. On July 30, the two men who were captured near Piper City pleaded guilty to bank robbery. Ten days later, Mulchowski (under his actual name of Jazorak) appeared in court on murder charges. He had offered to exchange a guilty plea for a life sentence; the Iroquois County State’s Attorney insisted on seeking the death penalty. Jazorak’s attorney argued he was suffering from shell shock as a result of combat in World War I. That argument apparently had an effect: the jury was unable to reach a verdict in the case.

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