Still reeling from a massacre, Illinois city recoils as former member of ‘Ripper Crew’ moves in

Still reeling from a massacre, Illinois city recoils as former member of ‘Ripper Crew’ moves in
AURORA, ILL.—The most widely feared person in Aurora lives in a brick building on New York Street. He attends chapel eight times a week, passes his days sorting clothes in a thrift shop warehouse, and never leaves the property of the Christian ministry that houses him.

He is Thomas Kokoraleis: a convicted murderer, a member of the notorious “Ripper Crew” and, as of last month, a free man.

Thomas Kokoraleis, a member of the ‘Ripper Crew’ that once terrorized Illinois, was released from prison last month and moved to Aurora. The mayor and many residents want him gone.  (Illinois Department of Corrections via The New York Times)

But even after serving more than three decades in prison, Kokoraleis remains a pariah. The mayor of Aurora, the second-largest city in Illinois, noted his arrival with a statement calling for him to leave. Protesters have marched outside his new home in Aurora’s downtown. An online petition demanded that Kokoraleis move elsewhere.

“There was mass concern in our community,” the mayor, Richard C. Irvin, said in an interview. “People felt insecure — they felt like their safety was in jeopardy. And people were scared.”

In some ways, Kokoraleis’ story is a familiar tale: a newly released prisoner encountering a wary public. But what has happened in Aurora, where residents are still reeling from a mass shooting at a local factory in February, is an extreme example of a city nervous and divided.

The arrival of Kokoraleis has raised questions about what authority, if any, local governments have to choose who lives in their midst. It has shown the complications of releasing prisoners at a time when there is a bipartisan push to reduce the country’s inmate population. And it has prompted an uncomfortable question: If not Aurora, and if not prison, where exactly is Kokoraleis to live?

“How can I arrive at a solution,” said James Lukose, the executive director of the Christian non-profit group that is housing Kokoraleis, “where Thomas is protected, the mayor’s office is appeased and the community is at peace? I wish I knew exactly what I was going to do.”

Lukose’s organization, Wayside Cross Ministries, has for more than 90 years been a fixture in Aurora, a far western suburb of Chicago. Its facility near the edge of Aurora’s downtown — within a couple of blocks of shops, a park, homes and the commuter train station — houses people with drug and alcohol addictions, as well as recently released prisoners, including sex offenders and killers.

Never, Lukose said, has any resident prompted such a backlash.

But Kokoraleis, now 58, 300 pounds and mostly bald, is not just any resident. In 1982, he took part in the murder of Lorry Borowski, 21, in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst. He was convicted solely in Borowski’s murder, but Kokoraleis was accused by law enforcement authorities of being part of a sadistic, four-man gang known as the “Ripper Crew” that was linked to the deaths of as many as 17 women and one man in the Chicago area in the early 1980s, according to The Chicago Tribune.

A brother of Kokoraleis, also a member of the gang, was executed for his role in the crimes. The other two men in the Ripper Crew are likely to die in Illinois prisons.

But Kokoraleis, sentenced to 70 years in prison, was eligible for early release in about half that time under an old law that cut a prisoner’s sentence by one day for each day of good behaviour.

Late last month, he walked out of prison.

In the weeks leading up to his release, a friend of Kokoraleis’ family had been in touch with Wayside Cross, wondering if there might be a place for him at the rehabilitation centre. At first, the answer was no. But then the family friend tried again just after his release, and two beds had opened up. Kokoraleis arrived there late on March 29.

As news of his arrival spread — local news outlets had written about his release and the uncertainty over where he would live — the response was immediate. Some in Aurora said they feared for their safety. Others said they resented that they were not given warning.

The release of Kokoraleis, and his decision to return to the Chicago area, has been especially devastating for the family and friends of Borowski, who worked at a real estate office and was fond of wearing butterfly-themed jewelry. The family is raising money with the goal of opening a butterfly park in her honour.

In Aurora, Irvin issued a letter criticizing Wayside Cross. Living near Kokoraleis, he wrote, was “a risk the people of Aurora shouldn’t have to take.” He described the episode as “absolutely a betrayal to the city, to our community, to the citizens.”

Legally, Kokoraleis can reside anywhere he can afford to, so long as he registers his presence with the authorities. As a convicted murderer, Kokoraleis’ photo and address are listed on the Illinois sex offender registry website. But because he was not convicted of a sex crime, he is not prohibited from living within a certain distance of parks and schools.

Though governments are limited in their authority to exclude residents, some have still tried. In California, officials have sought to build small parks so that sex offenders would not be allowed to live in certain neighbourhoods. In Oklahoma, people with arrest records are sometimes excluded from public housing. And in South Dakota, police departments have worked with landlords, who have more discretion to reject tenants, to inform them of the criminal records of prospective renters.

Kokoraleis, who completed his sentence and is not on parole, declined an interview request made through Lukose. In a post-release interview with The Aurora Beacon-News, Kokoraleis said he was committed to his Christian faith and wanted to improve himself, but he acknowledged that “I do get angry at times.”

“I want to just go on with my life and be left alone,” he told the newspaper.

Lukose said he sympathized with the mayor’s concerns, but he felt strongly that offering Kokoraleis shelter was the right thing to do. He cited Jesus’ teachings about loving one’s neighbour, even when doing so is uncomfortable. And he suggested that having Kokoraleis in a relatively structured environment at Wayside’s facility was far preferable to the prospect of him wandering the streets unsupervised.

“We believe in the power of the Gospel in transforming any human being,” said Lukose, who said he had spent time studying the Bible with Kokoraleis and believed he was sincere in his desire to reform himself. Lukose added: “I never thought that by doing right we would be suffering this.”

Rita Moy, who lives a couple of miles away from Wayside Cross, was not reassured. She said she had read about Kokoraleis and “it sent chills down my spine.” Now, she tries to walk her dog before sunset and makes a point to be “extra careful” when she is downtown.

“I don’t want to become a statistic,” Moy said.

Matt Harrington, a former Aurora City Council candidate, organized a protest outside Wayside Cross that about 35 people attended. He vowed to arrange another protest if Kokoraleis was not moved.

“I believe that he’s going to do it again,” Harrington said. “It’s just not if — it’s just a matter of when.”

A federal study suggests that people convicted of murder are less likely to reoffend than those convicted of some other crimes, but Aurora is far from the first place where residents or governments have rallied against a new neighbour with a violent past. Going back decades, residents in places like New York, Nevada and Rhode Island have protested new neighbours with criminal records. But Kokoraleis arrived in Aurora at a uniquely difficult time.

Just six weeks earlier, on Feb. 15, a gunman killed five people and wounded six others, including five police officers, at a factory in the city. Several people said the mass killing eroded a sense of safety, and that the arrival of Kokoraleis exacerbated that feeling. “We’re still trying to work on healing,” Irvin said.

The Rev. Julian E. Spencer, who leads Main Baptist Church in Aurora and has worked with Wayside over the years, said he understood those concerns, and to some extent he shared them.

The last few months have been hard on the city, Spencer said, and the idea of a convicted murderer living nearby was jarring. But he questioned where Kokoraleis would go if turned away from Aurora. During a recent Sunday service, he encouraged members of his congregation to look beyond their fears.

“If it’s him today,” Spencer said, “who will be it tomorrow? Who will it be next month? Who will it be next year that we feel OK to exclude?”
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