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Famous Unsolved Chicago Mystery Gets a Second Look

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Famous Unsolved Chicago Mystery Gets a Second Look

Historian Richard Lindberg poses by the old Ryerson Steel plant, near where Edward O’Hare was killed. (WBEZ/Lynette Kalsnes)

There's a lot of Chicago history tied up in a certain family named O'Hare. Butch O'Hare was a famous World War II flying ace and hero—Chicago's biggest airport is named after him. His father Edward O'Hare was gunned down on Chicago's Southwest Side in 1939, an alleged mob killing. WBEZ's Lynette Kalsnes reports on one theory why the senior O'Hare met his demise and what that says about his relationship with his son.

During World War II Butch O'Hare single-handedly took out five Japanese bombers and damaged a sixth.

BURKE: He was really a national hero at a time when the nation was in desperate need of a hero.

Chicago Ald. Edward Burke's a history buff. His fascination with O'Hare dates back nearly 20 years. Burke says O'Hare's actions saved the aircraft carrier "Lexington" and got him awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

BURKE: Millions of people travel through that airport every year and don't know the story of Butch O'Hare.

There's another story that's even less well known. Some historians speculate that Butch O'Hare's heroic flight would not have been possible without a sacrifice his father made -- the same father who had ties to Al Capone and was killed in an apparent mob hit.

LINDBERG: The legacy of Ed O'Hare, I think it's almost a story of biblical proportions.

Richard Lindberg's a historian who's written about the case.

LINDBERG: If you strip away the unsavory kinds of aspects to O'Hare's life, he paid the ultimate price so that his son would go on and become this world-famous hero of World War II. That alone kind of separates it from the pantheon of mob stories in the United States.

MUSIC ("Minnie the Moocher," Cab Calloway, 1931)

Picture Chicago back in the 1930s. There were wire rooms and bookie joints in just about every part of the city. You could place bets in the street. The federal government was gunning hard for notorious gangster Al Capone.

Enter, Edward O'Hare.

He was a wealthy attorney who operated several racetracks. One of his business partners was Capone.

LINDBERG: Respectfully to the family of Ed O'Hare, yes, he was a businessman, but he certainly was waist deep in the rackets. You could not work in gambling, racetrack gambling in 1939, run dogtracks without having some involvement in organized crime activity.

Richard Lindberg says O'Hare's involvement with the mob threatened the teen-age Butch's future. Butch O'Hare wanted to attend the elite U.S. Naval Academy. But to get in, Butch needed a Congressman to nominate him.

Historian Lindberg says Edward O'Hare put his own life at risk to help his son get in. O'Hare began informing on Capone for the federal government.

LINDBERG: I think there's no question about it, that was one of the prime motivations was to get the political boost he needed, because he couldn't do it on his own. His name was not good among the politicians on into Washington who would have had to sign that document.

Lindberg says O'Hare did have another motivation – he was a target of the Treasury Department himself. Regardless, three years later, O'Hare's son entered the Naval Academy.

Lindberg says the information Edward O'Hare gave the government helped lead to Capone's conviction. O'Hare warned the Treasury agent investigating Capone the mob was coming after him. The agent avoided the hit.

O'Hare also told prosecutors the Outfit had gotten to Capone's jury. The judge switched the jury pool at the last minute, and the new jury convicted Capone. O'Hare continued working as an informant for several years more, right up until he was gunned down.

HEINICKE: He was aware that a hit had been ordered on him.

Victoria Palmer Heinicke is O'Hare's granddaughter. She says her mother, Patricia O'Hare Palmer, used to drive around with Edward O'Hare. But about 10 days before his death, O'Hare told his daughter she couldn't come with him anymore. He started carrying a gun.

HEINICKE: He did not spend any time at all with the family because he was afraid of the danger of the hit hurting one of his family members.

LINDBERG: We're standing at the proximate location of the assassination of Edward J. O'Hare.

Richard Lindberg looks around a bleak section of Ogden Avenue that hasn't changed much since the '30s. O'Hare was driving down Ogden in his brand-new Lincoln Zephyr that day.

LINDBERG: He notices that there's a car in hot pursuit of him. He hits the gas and the car pulls up alongside him, and there's two gunmen in the front street of the car. O'Hare's desperately trying to reach for his little .32-caliber pistol, but he couldn't get to it because the shotgun tore right through the window of the car, and it hit him in the head, and the car went careening out of control, and his car smashed headlong right into the pole.

O'Hare's murder remains unsolved, and he's still mainly known as a mobster. That bothers Ald. Burke. He thinks O'Hare should be known as a hero for helping bring down Al Capone.

BURKE: It's hard to judge people in the 1930s, in the 1920s, by 2010 standards. The Chicago Police Department was totally corrupt, the State's Attorney's office was totally corrupt, so a businessman that was confronted with gang muscle had no place to go.

Burke sponsored a resolution asking police to re-open the case.

HEINICKE: I was absolutely delighted and I called all of my siblings to let them know.

O'Hare's granddaughter, Victoria Palmer Heinicke:

HEINICKE: Our entire family was thrilled the case has been re-opened.

Heinicke says the rumors of O'Hare's mob connections hurt her mother.

HEINICKE: I never met my grandfather because he was killed before I was born, but I've always had a great love for him as has our whole family due to our mother talking about him all the time.

Her mom, Patricia O'Hare Palmer, died several months ago, before police re-opened the case.

But Palmer knew what Ald. Burke had planned. And Heinicke says her mother would be delighted.

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