Former Galesburg Police Chief John Schlaf reflects on his career during an April 28 interview. Schlaf retired Friday after 39 years on the force, the last 17 as chief.
Deaths of children, mutilations most tragic for retiring police chief
Sunday, July 2, 2006He looked into the face of the man who threatened his family and wished him a good day.
Starting southbound from the corner of Cedar and Simmons streets - north of the Public Safety Building - at 8:25 a.m. June 3, 2000, former Galesburg Police Chief John Schlaf and Knox County Sheriff Jim Thompson walked and talked with a man who had previously said he wanted to kill both law enforcement leaders.
"You talk to people," Schlaf said of his approach to criminals. "You talk to them in the same way you talk to someone in your daily life. At least that is what you try to do."
Shoemaker was making a "practice run" for an armed march around the Public Square in two weeks. Thompson and Schlaf joined him for part of the trip to tell Shoemaker - then a janitor at Abingdon Middle School - that the planned demonstration was illegal and police would arrest him if he showed up that day. The conversation lasted long enough for the two police officers to know that Shoemaker was going to continue with his plans.
It ended cordially.
And he meant it.
Schlaf retired Friday after 39 years with the Galesburg Police Department - and 17 years as chief. He will become the director of campus safety at Knox College after a short vacation this month.
"After 20 to 25 years (in a city like Galesburg), you can be exposed to every type of criminal activity," he said.
The most haunting images for the Galesburg native involved children.
As acting chief on Easter weekend 1984, Schlaf was called to a scene where an 11-year-old girl and 14-year-old boy were shot because they happened to be visiting their dad on the same weekend that someone wanted to kill him. The father and daughter were both killed, but the boy - with a bullet in his head - survived.
He lost his sight and could not walk, but eventually recovered.
Schlaf last saw the boy in the police break room at the Public Safety Building. The boy who no one thought would survive was playing a game of pool and talking about where he planned to take his mother for her birthday dinner.
It's an image Schlaf cannot get out of his mind.
Still other cases did not have such a happy ending.
Two years into his career as chief, he saw some photos of a 3-year-old girl beaten and lying in a hospital bed.
With the assistance of doctors and nurses in the hospital, a police photographer took the photos of the girl - who died the next day - to preserve evidence.
The picture was so real, Schlaf said, he could have been "looking in the eyes of my own children."
Still other cases are too gruesome and fresh in his mind even to talk about.
In 1986, a Galesburg doctor was sentenced to life in prison after cutting his wife's throat and dismembering her body. More than 20 years later, Schlaf remembers the case as it developed from a missing person to a murder, but still won't talk publicly about the details of finding the body of Antonio Santamaria's wife.
Over his time as police chief, and in past leadership roles, Schlaf has adjusted to being awoken in the middle of the night when a big crime happens.
The first time it happened was the double murder on Easter 1984, five years before he was named police chief.
"At that point I realized how much I missed the chief," who was on vacation at the time, he said.
But he talks now about how he became the leader for the police force that was lacking when his chief was on vacation 22 years ago, and hopes that is the legacy he will leave with the next chief.
"I realized that I could give the same support so that (the investigators and other officers) could feel comfortable," he said.
One third-shift officer recently warned Schlaf it is inevitable he will forget Schlaf has retired and dial the former chief's phone number in the middle of the night.
"I said you can call any time; you just have to tell me what's going on," Schlaf said.
But this time, he won't head out to the scene. Now he will just go back to bed.
- In the last 40 years, the number of unsolved murders in Galesburg has remained relatively low compared to other communities its size. But some cases are regularly reopened even after the trail cools. One case that still bothers investigators in Galesburg is a murder at the Sheraton Hotel on East Main Street in 1980. Bill R. Kyle, a Peoria salesman for Weyerhauser Co., was found dead in his hotel room; the back of his head had been beaten and slashed.
Former Galesburg Police Chief John Schlaf said the department worked with other police throughout Iowa, Illinois, Mississippi and other southern states that had similar murders. Schlaf believes the person who committed the crime was identified, but he still cannot prove the man killed Kyle. Without physical evidence, the police department could say he was in the location at the time of the murder, but was never able to close the case.
"If in your gut you know you've got the right person, frustrating doesn't even begin to touch it," Schlaf said.
- But other cases sometime solve themselves. Schlaf said he remembers a case several years ago where an elderly man was killed by a person Schlaf believed was trying to rob him. He said the suspect was pretending to sell magazines to people along Monmouth Blvd. and robbing them.
The department was never able to solve the case or build up enough evidence against the person they believed was responsible for the crime, but learned a couple of years later that the suspect was found dead in a Detroit home. The homeowner said the suspect was trying to sell magazines and then came in to rob him. The homeowner killed him in self defense.
"Sometimes God takes care of those things we can't," Schlaf said.
- Investigators from the Galesburg Police Department used profiling to help solve a case years before other departments did. In the first case, police were trying to catch a man they believed sexually assaulted 14 women in Galesburg. Using profiling methods, they were able to determine where the man worked, his history in Galesburg, and they were within four blocks of determining where he lived using the pattern of the crimes committed.
A technique that has developed more than 35 years later just started as "trying to learn about people and why they act they way they do," Schlaf said.