In 2008, an unknown gunman would commit one of the few unsolved mass shootings in U.S. history. Despite the involvement of federal and international law enforcement agencies, the killer’s identity – and motives – remain a mystery to this day.
Editor’s Note: Micheal Whelan (yes, spelled correctly) is a valued author and American Crime Journal contributor. He is the creator, writer and host of Unresolved, an investigative podcast that aims to tell stories which have no ending.
Rhoda McFarland – born Rhoda Hamilton on January 10th, 1966 – grew up in a relatively large family in Joliet, Illinois. Joliet is a town on the very outskirts of the Chicago metro area. She had three brothers and one sister, and was a courageous kid who become a smart, hardworking young woman as she entered adulthood.
After graduating from Lyons Township High School in 1984, Rhoda enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where she would become a nurse practitioner. For about three years, Rhoda was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base (over in Prince George’s County, Maryland). She then would remain in the Air Force reserves following her enlistment.
Eventually, Rhoda became ordained, and joined the staff as a full-time minister. However, a later disagreement with the church leadership caused Rhoda to leave her position… and force her into an early midlife crisis.
After getting out of the service, Rhoda returned to the Chicago area, and decided to get involved in her local church. She became the pastoral assistant at the Embassy Christian Center in Crest Hill, just a few miles away from where she had grown up (in Joliet). She would work at the church for several years, kickstarting numerous youth programs and even doing what she could to help integrate inmates back into society. She even started a project called ‘Princess Unveiled,’ which was aimed at helping girls prepare for adulthood.
Now in her mid-40’s with a divorce under her belt, Rhoda was not looking forward to starting a new career. She would work for Nicor Gas (a local energy company) for a bit, and started dating a new man named Stewart Gibbs. Within a couple of years, Stewart and Rhoda would be engaged to be married.
Rhoda had found a new job at the clothing retail chain Lane Bryant.
Rhoda had applied at Lane Bryant with the intentions of working there temporarily- it was never meant to be a permanent position. Soon after she was offered the job of store manager, and quickly discovered that she enjoyed the work. It was fulfilling and kept her engaged, and that was all she could have asked for. She soon began settling into her new role as manager, and – as the Chicago Tribune would later note – kept up her charitable side by using her store discount to purchase clothing for the less fortunate.
Maurice Hamilton, Rhoda’s brother, would later recount to the Chicago Tribune in the same article:
“[Rhoda] was a great person. She’d do anything for you. If you needed a dollar, and she only had a dollar, she’d give it to you without asking.”
Throughout the winter of 2007 and 2008, Rhoda had stayed engaged at work. She found herself coming in on days that she wasn’t even scheduled for. She liked to be able to help out her employees, who might have felt overwhelmed by weekend sales and understaffing. That applied particularly to the first weekend of February; just days after Lane Bryant had mailed out flyers for a large clearance sale. Rhoda knew that her skeleton crew was going to be stretched rather thin.
On the morning of Saturday February 2nd, 2008 – Rhoda decided to come into work to help out. It was her day off. Unbeknownst to Rhoda, however, this decision would ultimately cost her her life. You see, on the morning in question, a gunman would enter the Lane Bryant that she managed, permanently changing the lives of Rhoda’s loved ones – as well as the lives of numerous others – forever.
This is the story of the Lane Bryant Shooting.
February 2nd, 2008, was a cold and blustery day in Tinley Park, Illinois – about an hour south of Chicago. Temperatures hovered in the mid-20’s almost all day long, and the high that afternoon was just below-freezing.
Despite not being scheduled that morning- store manager Rhoda McFarland showed up to help her lone employee at Lane Bryant. The employee, a 33-year-old nursing student who worked weekends, was scheduled to open by herself, so she welcomed the help.
They opened the store to the public at 10:00 AM, and within minutes, have their first few customers. At around the same time that the first customers begin browsing the store’s clothing selections, a man entered the store. He was a black man of average height, described as being a little “husky”, with a handful of corn-rows pulled to the back of his head. One braid, which ended in a handful of small green beads, hung over his right ear. He started chatting with staff members, and carries himself like a delivery man. He even has a stack of papers to prove it.
This delivery man talked to the two staff members at the front of the store for several minutes, continuing his charade. Rhoda, the store manager, knew that no delivery was scheduled that day, and she ended up calling another Lane Bryant location nearby for clarification.
Roughly 15 minutes pass before it became apparent that this was no simple delivery man. The man pulled a gun from his pocket and began yelling at the woman in the store; not only the two employees (Rhoda and her employee, who we’ll name “Martha”), but also a couple of customers, who had shown up that morning to shop and – by all accounts – were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This gunman began demanding that the employees get him the money from the register, and he also demanded the cash carried individually by each woman in their purses and wallets. He even reportedly took their visible jewelry.
This group of four women are then guided at gunpoint to the back of the store, where customers were generally not allowed. There, the four women – two staff members and two customers – were each bound with duct tape that the gunman had brought with him. They were each told to lie face-down on the floor, and here – with the women defenseless – the gunman reportedly makes a sexual advance towards at least one of them, in the form of a simple-yet-degrading grope. Thankfully, no sexual assault would allow, and none of the women were undressed.
However, the gunman would take underwear from a display on the floor, and put it on the heads of the four women; likely an attempt to obstruct their vision, to prevent them from seeing him or each other.
Minutes would continue to pass, and – as expected – customers continued to enter the store. Two other women that had entered Lane Bryant that morning to shop for an outfit happened upon the robbery-in-progress, and they two were directed towards the back of the store at gunpoint. One of these two women decided to fight back against the gunman, and was apparently treated violently. The gunman hit her in the face at least once, likely pistol-whipping her with the butt of his handgun, leaving her bruised and bloodied. Once in the back room, though, these two women joined the other four; they were bound with duct tape and clothing, and then forced to lie face-down on the floor.
This had all unfolded over roughly 40 minutes, during which time, the gunman – who had seemed calm and collected at the beginning of this reported robbery – began to lose his cool. He struggled to collect his bearing after leading the last two hostages to the backroom, and in this confusion, store manager Rhoda McFarland saw an opportunity.
Using the bluetooth headset that she was wearing, Rhoda was able to secretly dial 911. The call, which was received by Will County Sheriff’s Department, was quickly transferred to Tinley Park Police (who held jurisdiction over the crime scene). Police have never released the full content of this call, but you can hear Rhoda whisper the location of the call (“Lane Bryant”) and then an urgent plea for help (“please hurry”).
The gunman seemed to have noticed Rhoda making the phone call, and – from what I’ve gathered – this was his impetus for what would follow.
Just moments after Rhoda McFarland dialed 911 and whispered information to 911 dispatchers, the gunman opened fire on each of the six hostages, in what has been described as an “execution-style” mass shooting. For five of the women, this was a quick and painless death; but the sixth woman – the store employee that had opened the store alongside Rhoda – would manage to survive. According to reports, this woman turned her head at the very last second, and the bullet simply grazed her neck. She would play dead while the gunman fled from the scene, and waited there for help to arrive.
Police responded to the scene quickly; very quickly, in fact. At the time that Rhoda McFarland dialed 911, an officer had been just a few hundred feet away in the parking lot of a neighboring Target, and he arrived at the scene within a minute. At this point, though, the gunman appeared to have made a getaway, and was already gone by the time this officer began cautiously sweeping the store.
This officer was the one who discovered the five bodies in the back room of the Lane Bryant – as well as the survivor – and he called in the details to dispatch. Within minutes, multiple officers began arriving, alongside ambulances and paramedics who attempted to treat the six female shooting victims. Unfortunately, only one would survive: the store employee that had been shot in the neck and played dead. The other five were pronounced dead at the scene.
Tinley Park officers were joined by officers from neighboring cities and counties, and began locking down the entire Brookside Marketplace Shopping Center, which housed not only the Lane Bryant and Target stores, but a handful of other popular retail chains and restaurants. They started sweeping the locations around Lane Bryant first, but quickly expanded outwards into the area around it, including the nearby Target and PetSmart. Witnesses would later recall seeing multiple officers comb through stores with hands on their holsters, prepared to encounter the gunman hiding out somewhere.
Sean Tyus, a black man that police found sitting in a car in the Target parking lot, was apprehended at the scene. Police began examining the soles of his shoes, and would ultimately detain him for more than an hour, repeatedly asking him, “Where is the gun?” They would also ask him if he had removed the beads from his braided hair, which he answered in the negative. Sean was ultimately cleared of involvement in this crime, as he had simply been waiting for his girlfriend, who was shopping inside of Target at the time; in fact, the two had arrived at the location after the shooting. Like the shooting victims, Sean had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Over the next several hours, police would bring out a helicopter to scour the area around the shopping center, and even searched a retention pond nearby in search of a murder weapon. However, the location of the shopping center – just off of Interstate 80 – meant that the killer could have been out of the region within minutes… possibly even out of state within an hour.
The search to find or even identify the gunman would fail to make any inroads in the days and weeks after the mass shooting, leaving the victims and their families without any sense of justice…
Rhoda McFarland, was one of the five victims whose bodies were found at the scene.
At the time of her death, Rhoda was 42 years old, and had just gotten engaged that winter to her fiance, Stewart. Days after her death she was put to rest, and a public memorial was held in Crest Hill; the same town where she had once served as a pastor. 800 people packed themselves into the Word of Life Church to say their goodbyes, including Reverend Tim Bagwell, who told the crowd that day about Rhoda:
“Her death has the ability to overshadow her life, and that should not be. She should not be remembered as a victim.”
That mentality was extended to the other four victims, who were remembered for much more than their final hour.
Sarah Szafranski, the youngest of the victims, was just 22 years old at the time of her death. The oldest of three children, Sarah had graduated from St. Damian’s, a private Catholic high school in Oak Forest. There, she had excelled in numerous academic activities and organizations, such as the Academic Talented Program, Interact Club, Mathletes, Safari, and Spanish Club. She loved to play board games, and often spent the weekends with her boyfriend, Brian, who was every bit of a shut-in as Sarah was.
Sarah had just recently graduated from Northern Illinois University in May of 2007, and had a job lined up at CNA Financial Corp. in Chicago. That is actually what had brought her to Lane Bryant, as she was buying winter work clothes.
Everyone remembered Sarah as a loving, bubbly, smart, and kind person, and a statement released by her family after her premature death read:
“Our emotions are raw and we are still in shock. There is nothing adequate anyone can say at a time like this. Sarah was loved by all who knew her and we are counting on that love to sustain us while we mourn.”
Carrie Chiuso – from Frankfort, Illinois – was just 33 years old at the time of her death in February of 2008. She was the first victim to be buried after the shooting, and her memorial was held in Homewood, inside the same church that Carrie and her husband Tony had gotten married less than two years prior. The two had just recently started talking about having kids, and were planning to start expanding their family in the coming months.
Carrie was remembered as much more than just a shooting victim. She was a graduate from both DePaul and Loyola, where she had earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, respectively. She had become a social worker that helped at-risk youth at the same high school she had graduated from over a decade prior, back when she had been a New Kinds on the Block fangirl. Ever since, she had been a woman with a keen sense of happiness, who spread joy and inspiration to those that knew her.
On the evening of February 2nd, she was planning to meet up with some former classmates from DePaul, and had stopped by Lane Bryant to pick up a new outfit.
Von Mansfield, the principal at the school Carrie worked at, Homewood-Flossmore High School, spoke at her memorial and said:
“Where people are ordinary, Carrie put extra in front of ordinary. She quietly was a part of all that we do.”
Connie Woolfolk was 37 years old at the time of the shooting, and she lived in Flossmoor, Illinois – about eight miles east of Tinley Park.
At the time, she had been working overnight at Target to make ends meet (the same Target that shared a parking lot with Lane Bryant). But she had also recently started a mortgage company alongside her mother, who lived with her and her two sons. Connie’s sons were aged 16 and 10; the oldest, ironically, attended Homewood-Flossmore High School (the same high school that fellow-victim Carrie Chiuso worked at). Her youngest son, who was just ten at the time of the shooting, suffered from spina bifida, and he required a lot of time and attention from Connie.
Dorothy Rice, Connie’s sister, remember her as:
“She had a way of showing love, pure love.”
And that’s how a lot of people remembered Connie. She was known to love her family something fierce, and she worked hard to provide a good life for them. She was also known to fight for those she cared for, and it is believed that Connie was the woman who fought back against the gunman at Lane Bryant, where she had dropped by to pick up an outfit for a rare girls’ night out. She had just come from a manicure and pedicure – her first in ages – and likely fought back against the gunman because she wanted to return home to her two sons.
Connie’s brother, Aaron Woolfolk, later told reporters:
“She was beat up pretty bad. He [the gunman] must have pistol-whipped and beat them up pretty bad.”
In addition to bumps and bruises on her face, officials would remark that they found scratch marks on Connie’s body, as well as blood underneath her fingernails – possibly the blood of the gunman, which gave police a potential DNA sample to test.
Jennifer Bishop, the fifth and final murder victim, was a 34-year-old woman from South Bend, Indiana. Unlike the other victims, Jennifer had several young children… three under the age of 8.
Jeni, as she was known, worked at South Bend’s Memorial Hospital as an intensive care nurse. She had worked at the hospital for over a decade, having worked her way up from the bottom to being the shift supervisor. Nancy Pemberton, the hospital’s administrative supervisor, told reporters with the Chicago Tribune:
“Memorial Hospital is a level-two trauma center. These nurses take care of gunshot victims, the worst of the worst. But when it’s one of your own, it’s unbelievable. The intensive care nurses are in a state of shock, total disbelief.
“[Jeni] had beautiful eyes. She was an exceptional person, an exceptional nurse because she was so very caring of every one.”
On the Saturday in-question, Jeni had traveled to Tinley Park alongside her husband, Brian, who was attending a work conference in the town that day. To help pass the time, Jeni decided to stop into Lane Bryant to pick out a new outfit for that evening, and likely decided to shop at Lane Bryant because she had just celebrated her 34th birthday days prior… and one of her family members had given her a Lane Bryant gift card.
Mere happenstance put Jeni on the path of this killer, and – like the other five shooting victims – she died through no fault of her own.
In addition to these five deceased victims, there was an additional woman that had managed to survive this terrifying ordeal. This woman – a 33-year-old part-time Lane Bryant employee – only worked at the store on the weekends, and spent the rest of her time going to school for nursing. She has chosen not to reveal her name to the public for good reason, and has occasionally been nicknamed “Martha” by reporters.
“Martha” had been able to survive the shooting by playing dead after getting shot in the neck, and was then treated at the scene. She was privately admitted to a local hospital and released a day later, but was kept in protective custody, for fear of the gunman coming after her or her loved ones in reprisal.
Over the next several weeks, this heroic survivor would speak to the police on numerous occasions, and provide them with information that added important context and details for the investigation. She would remain the only eyewitness to the tragedy, and – for that reason – much of what she told police would become the official narrative of what happened that Saturday morning.
Despite surviving this terrifying ordeal, though, the path to recovery wasn’t easy for “Martha.” She would pen an open letter to the loved ones of the other shooting victims, which was delivered to the press by the Tinley Park Police. This open letter read:
“On Saturday, February second, an unspeakable tragedy occurred and five of the bravest women I have ever met were senselessly murdered and taken from their families. My deepest sympathies and condolences go out to their families and friends. Please know that during the unfathomable events of that day, their thoughts were focused on you and coming home. My heart aches that they were unable to do so, and I am working with the authorities in any way possible for all of the victims. I ask that the media please respect all of our families and allow us to grieve and cope privately with the horrific crime that ripped our worlds apart. I also ask that everyone respect that neither I nor my family can discuss the horrible events of that day. I thank everybody who has expressed concern and ask that any person who can assist in the investigation contact the authorities immediately.”
From the jump, police began referring to the shooting of the six women inside of the Lane Bryant in Tinley Park as a botched robbery. Or, as Sergeant T.J. Grady of the Tinley Park Police described to the press later that afternoon, as a robbery that:
“… at some point… went rather poorly.”
This apparent motive was reiterated multiple times in the early days of the investigation, as was law enforcement’s need for privacy when it came to the investigation itself. Police officials would state on numerous occasions that the investigation was “extremely sensitive” and that its sensitive information needed to remain “confidential” to ensure its integrity.
One thing became clear over time, however: it had been deemed unlikely for this crime to have been personally-motivated. Investigators began poring through the backgrounds of each of the six women involved – the five murder victims and the survivor – hoping to determine whether or not someone such as the gunman would have held a grudge against them. But as you heard just moments ago, they were regular women who were retail workers, nurses, social workers, as well as mothers, wives, and daughters. They were not women that lived any type of high-risk lifestyle, and there was nothing in their background that indicated the killer had targeted any of them personally.
Additionally, it was not believed that any of the women recognized their killer. After all, he loitered around the store for around 40 minutes, and – based on the survivor’s account – none of them seemed to show any familiarity towards the shooter himself, who was unmasked throughout the entire ordeal.
The closest thing investigators could find to a lead for a personal motive was a link to the church that store manager Rhoda McFarland had once been involved with. She had left the church for personal reasons, and her loved ones indicated that it was related to disagreements over the church’s handling of certain issues (such as finances). Police followed up on this lead as far away as Texas – where the church’s leadership had relocated and purchased land to build a new church – but this seems to have led nowhere, indicating no further investigating.
This left one possible motivation for the gunman that Saturday morning: robbery. Robbery has been the main theory in this case from the beginning, due to the killer robbing not only the store itself, but the victims personally. As he guided the women towards the back of the store, he demanded whatever cash they had on them, and made off with around $200 in total (as well as with some jewelry, which had been taken from the victims).
This theory – that the murder of the five women and the shooting of a sixth was conducted as part of a botched robbery – has come under fire by skeptics over the last few years, due primarily to the circumstances of the robbery itself. The location itself – Lane Bryant – is not exactly a cash-rich setting, with many of its customers paying via credit or debit card (and only the rare occasion, cash or check). It’s also not a very expensive retail chain, with most of its clothing being pretty affordable; so the odds of a thief trying to make off with any loot, so-to-speak, being pretty low.
In addition, the gunman had entered the store just after it opened, at around 10:00 AM. It’s possible that he might have believed that the money from the day before was still at the location, but Lane Bryant made its deposits each night, so the store was not likely to have much cash on-hand. Gayle Coolick, the spokeswoman for Lane Bryant’s parent company, Charming Shoppes Inc., addressed this in the days after the shooting. She wasn’t sure how many employees were scheduled for the day in-question or how much cash was in the store’s vault:
“But certainly it was early in the day so one would assume that cash levels were pretty low.”
To expand upon the robbery theory, many have come to assume that this killer was a drug addict – or some other kind of unhinged individual who was prepared to do anything that morning to earn a measly $200 (including kill upwards of five women).
It’s possible that the gunman was a drug addict, who needed money for a quick fix, and wasn’t particularly looking for any long-lasting riches (and was seemingly unaware of the long-lasting implications). With this being such a botched robbery – taking close to an hour to pull off – and with the gunman quickly losing control of the situation, drug use or withdrawal is not out of the question.
It’s also possible that the gunman didn’t originally intend to shoot the women, having covered up their faces with undergarments to obstruct their vision. But perhaps he had panicked due to Rhoda McFarland’s 911 call, and shot them knowing full well that the victims had seen his face and could describe him to the police.
This is what has been described by an unnamed source within law enforcement, who spoke to Chicago Sun-Times reporters Frank Main and Annie Sweeney back in 2008. They wrote:
“The intent of the killer was to keep robbing people as they came into the store.”
According to this unnamed source, the gunman had planned to keep taking hostages as they entered the store, guiding them to the back room at gunpoint, and then robbing, binding, and isolating them as he continued this numerous times. It wasn’t until he noticed that Rhoda McFarland had called 911 that he realized his scheme was over, and then:
“She tried to close the phone and he shoots her. Then he shoots the rest of them.”
This seems to fit in with what we know about the killer, so I’m inclined to think that this unnamed police source was speaking from a place of truth. It’s indeed possible that the gunman just wanted to continue robbing unsuspecting women until he literally couldn’t anymore, but without the killer in custody, it would be impossible to prove. Same for the theory that he might have been a drug addict.
It became apparent to police early on that there was “a very large quantity of evidence” at their disposal, but they were unsure just how much of it would prove to be effective. Since this was a crime that had taken place in a high density area – a shopping center with a lot of daily foot traffic – investigators would have to spend time whittling down their evidence to workable leads.
For starters, police relied heavily upon the surviving witness: the 33-year-old Lane Bryant employee that’s been identified as “Martha” in the press. The woman, who lived in Mokena at the time, had been a nursing student that worked at Lane Bryant on the weekends, and had been taken into protective custody in the days after the shooting. She was the only real eyewitness that police could rely upon, and provided police with most of the information for the shooting itself: including how the gunman had entered the store, the actions that led to each women being bound and blindfolded in the back area, and the eventual shooting.
From there, the survivor was able to guide police to a discarded coffee cup, which had apparently been carried by the gunman on the morning of the shooting. While the existence of this coffee cup hasn’t been confirmed by law enforcement, it is believed that investigators were able to obtain a DNA sample of the gunman through this coffee cup – in addition to the blood found underneath one of the victims’ fingernails. Both of which helped confirm the gender and ethnicity of the gunman, but has not been linked to any known individual in the years since; a fact that itself hints at the killer being someone with no prior criminal history.
With the bullets and shell casings recovered at the crime scene, investigators were able to determine that the killer had used a .40-caliber semi-automatic Glock handgun, which he had taken with him and not abandoned anywhere near the crime scene. Exhaustive searches would be conducted in nearby forested areas, bodies of water, and trash receptacles, and none showed any trace of the weapon or similar ammunition.
Unfortunately, this Lane Bryant location did not have any security cameras, so no footage could be recovered showing the gunman. But that did not stop police from looking for other cameras in the area, and they quickly began scoping out over a mile-and-a-half in every direction, looking for similar retail establishments or businesses that might have had security cameras aimed in the direction of the store or possible getaway routes.
The most helpful video came from the Target store in Brookside Marketplace, which was just a few hundred feet away from Lane Bryant. This footage was very blurry, but with the help of Dr. David Hathaway and his team at NASA (yes, you heard me right… NASA), investigators were able to see that two vehicles pulled in front of the Lane Bryant that morning, at around the time that the shooting started.
The two vehicles were a dark sedan and a larger SUV-type vehicle, which showed up at 10:39 and 10:40 AM, respectively. Both would arrive just minutes before Rhoda’s 911 phone call at 10:44, and left just a minute afterwards, at 10:45, one after the other. It is believed that one or both of the vehicles might have been involved; perhaps the gunman jumping into one getaway vehicle, and another being driven by a lookout of some sort.
This footage – while incredibly blurry and hard to make out in any real detail – indicates that this was a planned operation that was carried out by multiple individuals (at least three: the gunman and at least two drivers). They might have planned a robbery of the store long in-advance, or perhaps had a more personal vendetta that remains unknown to this day. But within a minute of the five women being murdered, both vehicles had left the scene for good, and their drivers remain unidentified to this day.
In addition to all of this evidence – which took several man hours to cultivate and analyze – there is one other vital piece of evidence that you’ve already heard a snippet of: the 911 phone call made the morning of the shooting by store manager Rhoda McFarland. Police would only ever reveal a snippet of this call to the media, but would release a longer snippet in the months to come, which focused less on Rhoda and the victims and expanded upon the recording of the gunman.
Here’s the original 911 call:
Now here is the expanded audio. It cuts out certain segments, but isolates the gunman’s audio as he attempts to intimidate the hostages in the backroom. At one point, you can hear him say “I’m losing it,” as he loses control of the situation.
911 Call (Focused on Shooter) :
The gunman was described as being a black man with a medium complexion, who was somewhere between the ages of 25 and 35. He stood somewhere between 5’9″ and 6’0″, was clean-shaven, and was described as being “husky” in some early reporting. He had broad shoulders and a proportional build, with his weight being estimated at somewhere between 200 and 230 pounds.
This man had a receding hairline and black hair, which was pulled back into a handful of “puffy” corn rows. One of the braids hung over his right ear, and ended in four light-green beads. A unique styling that investigators had not seen much of. As a result, police visited local salons in search of someone that might know him. They were unsuccessful in doing so.
The killer had no visible scars or tattoos. At the time of the shooting, he was wearing a dark-colored winter coat, a dark gray skull cap, and black jeans that had rhinestones on the back pocket (which appeared to be in the shape of a cursive “G”).
A police sketch was put together in the week after the shooting – with cooperation from the surviving eyewitness. It was finally released to the public on February 11th, 9 days after the shooting. Within a single day, this had led to more than two dozen tips being received by law enforcement.
Criminal profilers Greg McCrary and Clint Van Zandt, who had helped led the team that identified the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, weighed in with their thoughts after the shooting. Creating a profile of the killer which they shared with the Chicago Sun-Times. They believed that the killer had likely been incarcerated before. His willingness to indiscriminately murder several women indicated that he vowed to never go back. They speculated that the killer likely believed himself to have been mistreated by society, and had taken the wrong lessons from his prior incarceration. The two even theorized that the killer might have known one of the victims – or had personally targeted them – believing that they could identify him. This fear of being identified, they believed, caused him to pull the trigger on all six women.
According to McCrary:
“Once they’ve killed somebody, in (a psychopath’s) way of thinking, everybody else has to die.”
Van Zandt said:
“Either way, something went wrong that caused him to take six women down. Maybe one of the victims recognized him, or he felt he’d been recognized.”
The two believe that this mass killer has likely been incarcerated or in legal trouble since, with Van Zandt stating in his profile:
“If he [the gunman] feels that anyone is in a position to help police catch him, he will kill again, even if it is his girlfriend, or a relative or someone else close to him.
“He’s still very dangerous.”
The investigation into this mass murder has continued over the past decade, with police continuously investigating new tips and leads and refusing to label this a “cold case.”
Officials have remained pretty quiet about what exact evidence was left behind (such as fingerprints, DNA, hair, shoe-prints, etc.). However, we do know that police examined a potential suspect’s shoe-print on the day of the shooting. I’ve learned that police do have the killer’s DNA, but it is unknown how exactly investigators discovered it (whether it was taken from an item at the scene, such as a discarded coffee cup, or found with the victims’ bodies) or if it is a workable sample (large enough to submit to a forensic database for comparison).
I’ve stumbled upon some online theories about the killer being, perhaps, a masculine-looking man. This theory has been isolated to primarily online circles, and has been perpetuated by a lot of “who said what” discrepancies in Rhoda McFarland’s 911 phone call – as well as the police sketch, which some believe almost looks feminine. However, I personally don’t put much faith in these rumors, simply because there is no evidence to support it. The survivor of the shooting described the shooter as a male, the voice in the isolated audio from the 911 call sounds male, the police have always described the shooter as a male, and – if there is DNA of the killer – it has likely confirmed his gender and ethnicity.
So, there is a slight possibility that this might have been a jilted Lane Bryant customer or such, but there’s no evidence to support this killer being a woman other than online gossip, so I unfortunately have to discount this theory.
Tinley Park Police, who continue to oversee this case, have received upwards of 7500 tips over the past 11+ years, but have received cooperation from other investigative agencies over the years, including the Illinois State Police, the South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force, the FBI, the Secret Service, Scotland Yard, and even NASA (who helped enhance the surveillance images from the Target in the same shopping center). A few years ago, investigators even reached out to the exclusive Vidocq Society, a crime-fighting club based out of Philadelphia, which is made up of prior law enforcement experts that pool their resources and knowledge attempt to crack unsolved cases. Sadly, like the other crime-fighting agencies, they were likewise unsuccessful in solving this case.
On February 2nd, 2018 – the 10-year anniversary of the case – police unveiled a new 3D image of the gunman, which added more life to the killer’s description than the prior police sketch. This had been created in cooperation with Michigan State Police, and led to dozens of news tips and leads, but – unfortunately – it doesn’t seem like any of these tips lead police to the culprit, as the case remains unsolved to this day.
Following the Lane Bryant Shooting – which has also been called the “Lane Bryant Massacre” and the “Lane Bryant Murders” in the years since – the building that once housed the store remained dormant, with the store closing permanently after the shooting. Lane Bryant donated all of the clothing inside the store to local charities, and the building itself would remain empty until November of 2013 (nearly six years later). That was when TJ Maxx took over the lease, and began using the location to sell women’s clothing once again.
The Tinley Park Memorial Fund, which was curated by the Harris Bank in Frankfort, Illinois, was put together after the shooting by Lane Bryant’s parent company, Charming Shoppes Inc. The goal of the fund was to help support the victims’ families after their sudden and untimely passing, and help receive donations to assist them in the future.
In addition to helping set up this fund for the victims’ loved ones, Lane Bryant’s parent company also donated money for a reward fund. Charming Shoppes Inc. originally donated $50,000 for any information leading to the gunman’s arrest, and that was added to by local Crime Stoppers, who donated $5,000 of their own for the same goal. Later, Charming Shoppes would raise the total of the reward to $100,000, which still stands to this day. And unlike other reward funds, this is not dependant upon a conviction. Anyone that helps investigators make an arrest in this case will receive the full $100,000; so if you know anything about this case, please do yourself a favor and get that money by getting in-touch with the authorities.
If you know anything about this case, you are encouraged to reach out to Tinley Park Police at the following phone number: (708) 444-5394. You can also call in this information anonymously to Cook County Crime Stoppers at 1-800-535-7867.
As of this article, the killer of the five women from Tinley Park’s Lane Bryant remains at-large, and is considered armed and dangerous. Until this dangerous individual is brought to justice, the stories of Rhoda McFarland, Jennifer Bishop, Carrie Chiuso, Sarah Szafranski, and Connie Woolfolk will remain unresolved.
Sources and Further Reading:
Tinley Park Police Department Media Release (February 2, 2008)
Tinley Park Police Department Media Release (February 4, 2008)
Tinley Park Police Department Media Release (February 6, 2008)
Tinley Park Police Department Media Release (February 7, 2008)
Tinley Park Police Department Media Release (February 8, 2008)
Tinley Park Police Department Media Release (February 9, 2008)
Tinley Park Police Department Media Release (April 4, 2008)
Tinley Park Police Department Media Release (June 10, 2008)
CNN – “5 dead in strip mall shooting; gunman at large”
Reuters – “Five women killed in Chicago-area store shooting”
Associated Press – “5 dead in Suburban Chicago Store Shooting” (Video)
Chicago Sun-Times – “Tinley Park survivor helping police in search for suspect”
Chicago Sun-Times – “Slain high school counselor ‘adored by her students’”
Chicago Sun-Times – “Mother of 3 worked as nurse”
Chicago Sun-Times – “Single mother was shopping for new outfit”
Southtown Star – “Oak Forest victim mourned by family”
Chicago Sun-Times – “Survivor of Tinley Park Lane Bryant Shooting: Victims were bound and shot in the head”
Chicago Tribune – “6th victim alive, sources say”
NPR – “Survivor Aids Hunt for Lane Bryant Shooter”
CNN – “Witness survived store shooting by playing dead”
Yahoo! News – “Police: Woman survived store shootings”
Chicago Sun-Times – “Gunman covered faces of some victims, sources say”
Chicago Sun-Times – “Survivor speaks publicly for first time, calls shootings ‘unspeakable’”
Chicago Sun-Times – “Profiler: ‘He’s still very dangerous’”
Chicago Sun-Times – “‘Bravest women I’ve ever met,’ shooting survivor says”
Chicago Sun-Times – “911 call enraged gunman”
Chicago Sun-Times – “First victim of Tinley Park murders laid to rest”
Chicago Sun-Times – “The face of a mall killer”
Chicago Sun-Times – “Sketch of Lane Bryant suspect nets 2 dozen leads”
Associated Press – “Sketch Released of Lane Bryant Shooter” (Video)
CLTV – “Possible suspect in Tinley Park murders” (Video)
Blast – “Lane Bryant creates memorial fund for shooting victims”
Associated Press – “Call Reveals Lane Bryant Victims’ Final Moments” (Video)
CLTV – “Tinley Park Murders: Surveillance Pictures Released” (Video)
Associated Press – “Video Offers New Clues in Lane Bryant Shooting?” (Video)
Chicago Tribune – “New tack in Tinley probe”
Chicago Tribune – “Pastor denies role in slayings of 5”
Chicago Tribune – “Tinley Park Lane Bryant murder case remains unsolved”
ABC 7 Chicago – “Lane Bryant Shooting: Motive still a mystery 5 years later”
WGN – “Lane Bryant Murders: 5 years later”
Chicago Tribune – “Tinley Park shooting site opening as new store”
WGN – “Still no arrests on 8th anniversary of Lane Bryant massacre”
CBS Chicago – “Lane Bryant Murders: 9 Years Later” (Video)
WGN – “Investigators take fresh look at 2008 Lane Bryant murders”
CBS Chicago – “New 3-D Sketch, 911 Audio Of Suspect In Lane Bryant Murders” (Video)
ABC 7 Chicago – “Lane Bryant Mass Murder: 10 hard years” (Video)
Chicago Tribune – “‘We’re missing one piece’: A decade later, deaths of 5 women killed in Lane Bryant store remain unsolved”
Patch – “Lane Bryant Murders: Remembering Joliet’s Rhoda McFarland”
Patch – “Lane Bryant Murders: Last Piece Of Case’s Puzzle Needed, Cops Say”
WGN – “Somber service marks 10 years since Lane Bryant murders”
Chicago Tribune – “Cops release new Lane Bryant shooting suspect image ahead of 10-year anniversary”
ABC 7 Chicago – “Deluge of tips heats up Lane Bryant mass murder case”