Last fall, the body of 34-year-old Reo Renee Holyfield was found in the garbage on 95th Street in Chicago.
Holyfield’s body was too decomposed for the Cook County medical examiner to determine what caused her death, but her family and independent investigators believe she was murdered by a serial killer preying on black women in Chicago. They also believe that serial killer could be responsible for the deaths of more than 50 women who have been strangled or suffocated in Chicago since 2001, and whose cases remain unsolved.
On Monday night, Holyfield’s cousin, Riccardo Holyfield, is taking a group of volunteers out to try and help catch him.
Riccardo Holyfield said his cousin was the type of person to always try and make you smile, even if you were mad at her.
“People always group these women as 50-plus, just the 50-plus women. She was an individual, separate from everybody. And if you ever, ever encountered her, she would put a mark on you,” Holyfield said of his cousin. “She was just that type of person. So to think about a person strangling her, doing whatever they did in her last moments, that’s like, you’re not human.”
And he said the mystery surrounding her death keeps him up at night.
“Getting sleep is hard, resting your mind while you’re driving … your mind wanders,” Holyfield said. “And her kids, like man, you can go and say my grandma died from cancer, my grandma died from old age, easy. That’s easy. But you can’t be in school and somebody’s like, ‘Where’s your mom?’ [and you say] ‘They found her in a dumpster behind a McDonald’s.’”
The group plans to post flyers starting at 5:30 p.m. Monday at the places where murdered women were found, asking people with information to come forward.
“I can feel her, I can hear her telling me don’t give up,” Riccardo Holyfield said of his cousin.
The volunteers are meeting at Wendell Smith Elementary School on E. 103rd Street, not far from where the body of a murdered woman was found in 2002, according to the Murder Accountability Project.
Holyfield’s canvassing is part of growing public attention on the unsolved killings and the suspicions of a serial killer in Chicago, despite assurances from Chicago police that they see no evidence of a serial killer operating in the city.
On Thursday, Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush is holding a community meeting “to address the ongoing concerns about a potential serial killer,” according to a spokesman for Rush. The meeting follows Rush’s letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, asking the agency to help process evidence related to the unsolved killings.
Much of the attention stems from advocacy by the Murder Accountability Project, a Virginia nonprofit organization that says it has developed an algorithm to detect potential serial homicide clusters. That algorithm “has signaled a warning” about the women being strangled in Chicago, according to a report the group put out in March.
The serial killer theory has struck a chord on Chicago’s South and West sides, where a history of abusive policing and a failure to solve most murders has led to a total lack of confidence in the police department among many residents.
“This ain’t the Magnificent Mile,” Holyfield said, speaking at a restaurant not far from his home in the South Side neighborhood of Calumet Heights. “We don’t have that sense of security, we don’t have that common knowledge that if you do something wrong here you’re going to get caught in the next few minutes … People do things because there are no consequences, no repercussions. A serial killer will continue to kill if they don’t get caught.”
Deputy Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan disagreed with the assertion that the Chicago Police Department overlooked these killings.
Deenihan has said he does not believe there are "one or two bad guys traveling the city," preying on women. And Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has said there is “simply nothing” that suggests there is a serial killer operating in Chicago.
Still, the department recently assigned a team of detectives to review the unsolved killings, 51 in total.
“It’s about time,” Holyfield said. “I thank God for everything man, because we are poor black people. That says it all man, we are at the bottom of the totem pole. Our women don’t feel safe. We don’t feel safe.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk. Follow him @pksmid.