In the quiet corners of Chicago’s public housing in the late 1980s, a woman named Ruthie Mae McCoy was plagued by struggles that many of us are fortunate to not know firsthand. Her story, tragically cut short, would become an unexpected lightning rod for much-needed conversations about public housing and mental health.
McCoy’s chilling demise was not just an isolated incident of a crime that sent tremors through a city. It went on to inspire elements of the classic horror film Candyman. Yet behind the scenes, her life and untimely death underscore stark realities about the living conditions in public housing and the societal response to mental health.
So, let’s dive into the real-world horror that unfolded one fateful night in 1987, and understand how Ruthie Mae McCoy’s story continues to reverberate, reminding us of the urgent social issues we must confront head-on.
- Early Life
- Mental Illness
- Life in Chicago
- The Murder of Ruthie Mae McCoy | April 22, 1987
- The Investigation
- Justice? Not for Ruthie Mae McCoy
- A Legacy of Indifference
- Impact on Chicago Housing Authority (CHA)
- The Story Immortalized | Candyman
- Final Thoughts
Ruthie Mae McCoy was born in Arkansas in 1935 but mostly grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where life, you’d hope would be filled with opportunities. Unfortunately, her childhood was anything but easy. The heavy shadow of financial hardship hung over her family, making every day a battle for survival. Her home, instead of being a haven of love and security, was often a place of chaos and struggle.
From an early age, she was exposed to a world that no child should ever know. Crime was a constant in her neighborhood, and she grew up in an environment where illegal activities were more common than school playgrounds. Instead of vibrant colors of joy and innocence, her early years were painted in somber shades of grey, marked by challenges that should have been far removed from a child’s life.
As Ruthie Mae McCoy grew from childhood to adolescence, unsettling signs began to surface. She began showing signs of mental distress, a struggle that often left those around her confused and unsure of how to help. As time passed, these signs didn’t fade away but instead became an undeniable part of Ruthie’s everyday existence.
Ruthie Mae’s mental health struggles came to the forefront in her twenties. Even though it was clear something was amiss, those close to her struggled to pinpoint exactly what it was. The signs were there – the sudden bouts of talking to herself or unexpectedly lashing out at strangers on the street.
Eventually, these puzzle pieces came together to form a picture of residual-type schizophrenia, a diagnosis that meant she had previously experienced episodes of schizophrenia, but was not exhibiting symptoms at the moment.
Working a steady job proved to be an uphill battle for Ruthie, as her mental health challenges often interfered. Keeping a job for more than a month was nearly impossible for her. Adding to her struggles, there were periods in her life when she had to be institutionalized for treatment.
Life in Chicago
Ruthie Mae never married, but at the age of 27, she brought her only child, Vernita, into the world.
When she was on her meds, Ruthie Mae could handle life okay – she would sing her heart out in church choirs, pick up work here and there at a laundromat or doing some housekeeping. But mostly, she scraped by on public aid, living in rundown apartments, and every now and then, she had to be put in a facility for a while.
Then came 1983, when her basement apartment in Humboldt Park took on water. Ruthie Mae turned to the Chicago Housing Authority, asking for emergency housing. She had just one request – no high-rise project, those places terrified her.
But snagging a spot in one of the CHA’s row houses or walk-ups isn’t easy, the waiting lists are as long as your arm. For years, the only vacancies popping up were in the towering high-rises. So Ruthie Mae was pointed towards the Grace Abbott Homes – a flat on the 11th floor of a 15-story building on 1440 W. 13th St. With no other options, she packed up her life and moved into apartment 1109 in May ’83.
From 1983 on Ruthie Mae McCoy called the notorious ABLA Homes in Chicago her home, which was named for the four developments in the project-Addams, Brooks, Loomis, and Abbott. It was a sprawling public housing project, infamous more for the constant crime and subpar living conditions than anything else. Picture a place where you could hear sirens more often than laughter, where the buildings showed the wear and tear of neglect, and where safety was more of a luxury than a right.
Ruthie Mae lived moved into the Grace Abbott highrise on 13th Street in 1983. Despite begging to be placed in anything besides a high rise, this is where Ruthie Mae would call home until her death.
For someone like Ruthie Mae, who was already battling mental health issues, this environment was like pouring fuel on a fire. Every day was a test of survival, the harsh conditions of her surroundings intensifying the struggle within her own mind. Living in such a place was more than challenging – it was a continuous uphill battle that seemed to make her mental health issues even tougher to manage.
Public Housing Paranoia
Living amidst persistent crime while grappling with mental illness, McCoy was trapped in a life fraught with uncertainty and fear. Her condition, compounded by her surrounding environment, created a daily struggle for survival.
Living in the projects, with crime as her constant neighbor, Ruthie Mae was caught in a whirlwind of uncertainty and fear. Imagine waking up every day with the twin shadows of mental illness and crime hanging over you. That was Ruthie’s life, a relentless cycle of anxiety and paranoia.
Her mental illness, already a formidable adversary, was aggravated by the hostile environment around her. She had to navigate not only the turmoil within her own mind but also the harsh realities of her neighborhood. Ruthie’s daily existence became a battleground, each day a new skirmish in her quest for survival.
This constant fear and uncertainty left her on edge, always looking over her shoulder, jumping at the smallest sounds. Paranoia became her unwanted companion, making her life in the projects an even tougher ordeal.
A Possible Escape
In the face of all odds, Ruthie Mae wasn’t the type to just throw in the towel. Instead, in the months before her murder in 1987, she started making moves toward a new chapter. And then, like a sudden ray of sunshine, came the approval for Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
This wasn’t just a bit of extra cash each month, oh no. It was a financial game changer for Ruthie, doubling her monthly aid. Even better, she received a retroactive payment, which meant her first SSI check added up to a whopping $2,000. Now, we’re talking about the 80s here, so that kind of money wasn’t something you’d just find under your sofa cushions.
Ruthie had big plans for this money. It was her ticket out of the ABLA Homes, her escape from the life she’d been trapped in for so long. But hey, who could blame her for spending a bit on herself, right? She bought some new clothes, a few things to spruce up her place. Nothing that would break the bank, but enough to get some attention.
And that’s the heart-wrenching twist to the story. These little splurges, these tiny symbols of Ruthie’s dream of a better life, might have been what marked her for tragedy. The person who ended Ruthie’s life probably thought they were going to find a fortune in her apartment. They couldn’t have known just how high a price they’d be paying for that supposed jackpot.
The Murder of Ruthie Mae McCoy | April 22, 1987
The 911 Call
On April 22, 1987, Ruthie Mae found herself in a terrifying situation. In a panic, she dialed 911, her voice quivering as she reported someone attempting to invade her apartment through the bathroom cabinet. Yet her desperate pleas for help, tangled in a web of fear and disbelief, didn’t trigger the swift reaction she desperately needed. Instead, confusion and administrative inefficiencies led to a tragically delayed response.
The dispatcher was baffled as Ruthie frantically explained her frightening predicament: people were coming into her apartment through her bathroom. In retrospect, we understand she meant intruders were breaking in via her bathroom medicine cabinet, but at that moment, the dispatcher didn’t immediately connect the dots.
Despite the confusion, the dispatcher sent out a police car in response to Ruthie’s call, but not with the urgency the situation demanded. Ruthie’s plea wasn’t noted down as a break-in, instead, it was recorded as a mere disturbance. Perhaps this unfortunate mislabeling could explain the officer’s lack of urgency upon reaching the ABLA Homes.
Before the police even arrived at the scene, more calls poured into the Chicago PD. Neighbors were reporting hearing gunshots and shouting, each call intensifying the gravity of the situation and painting a grim picture of what was happening to Ruthie.
Failure of the System
It was two days before the police found her, a bitter pill to swallow when you think about how the emergency system let her down.
Cops had come around after her frantic phone call, only to find a locked door. They got a key from the management office, but weirdly, it wouldn’t fit the lock. You’d think they’d try to find a way in, given the red flags everywhere. But no, they just up and left.
Ruthie Mae’s phone cold be heard ringing inside her apartment, which is a fact that will be relevant after the discovery of her body.
The next day, another call came in. This time, it was Debra Lasley, Ruthie Mae’s neighbor who was used to saying hello to her twice a day. But she hadn’t seen Ruthie Mae since the day before, and it was starting to freak her out.
Cops showed up at Ruthie’s again, but it was the same old story. They knocked, they called out, and there was nothing but silence. Instead of stepping up their game, they just took off, leaving everyone in suspense.
Debra, though, wasn’t ready to give up. She got hold of the management office, who sent some people over. By that afternoon, a project official turned up at Ruthie Mae’s door, a carpenter in tow. He powered through the lock with his drill.
Inside, they found Ruthie Mae in the bedroom, lying sideways in a chilling puddle of blood, a hand protectively over her chest, and one shoe missing. The floor around her was a mess, with papers, magazines, and coins scattered everywhere. And because it had been a few days since this whole mess went down, the thick, gut-turning smell of death was creeping through the apartment.
But missing from the apartment was Ruthie Mae’s telephone. We know that the phone was in the apartment the first time authorities responded to her home because they could hear it ringing. Add that up together and you get the fact that it’s very likely that Ruthie Mae’s killer was lurking in the apartment while the police dawdled about breaking in.
You know, when it comes to police work, you’d expect some level of precision, right? Some sort of textbook following of steps to make sure nothing slips through the cracks. But that’s not what happened with Ruthie Mae’s case. Oh no, it was one stumble after another.
Despite the flawed investigation, the grim truth was eventually uncovered – McCoy was the victim of a brutal crime, possibly committed by neighbors who accessed her apartment through a hidden architectural flaw.
The details of Ruthie’s autopsy were stark and grim. She had been struck by four bullets, likely shot from a medium-caliber firearm. One bullet had made its way through her left shoulder, another one through her left thigh. The third bullet had embarked on a devastating journey, entering through her right side, piercing her liver, and exiting from her left side. But the most lethal was the fourth bullet. It had first punctured her right upper arm, then entered her chest, slicing through the pulmonary vein, a major lung vessel.
The official cause of death? Internal bleeding. Ruthie probably didn’t pass away instantly, but with such severe lung damage, it’s doubtful she hung on for very long. The grim reality was, even with immediate hospital care, her chances of survival would have been slim. She was declared dead at Cook County Hospital, the time of death marked as 4:35 PM on that fateful Friday, April 24.
Justice? Not for Ruthie Mae McCoy
Eyewitnesses had some jaw-dropping stories to tell. They said they saw an 18-year-old named Ted Turner and a 21-year-old guy named John Honduras strolling around the project, lugging Ruthie’s color TV and rocking chair. And we’re talking the wee hours, just after Ruthie was killed.
They were slapped with some serious charges – murder, breaking into someone’s home, robbery with a weapon, violent behavior with a firearm, and residential burglary. Quite the laundry list of crimes.
But here’s where things go sideways. Even with these damning stories, there just wasn’t enough hard evidence to pin the crimes on Turner and Honduras. So, after a two-year courtroom drama, all the charges against them were kicked to the curb.
A Legacy of Indifference
Let’s be real. Unless there’s something mind-blowingly different about it, or there’s a slow news day, a murder happening in a Chicago Housing Authority project doesn’t usually make the headlines. The sad truth is that project murders are so frequent they’ve almost become background noise. People living in the CHA were shot, stabbed, and beaten regularly.
Ruthie Mae was one of three people from ABLA who lost their lives in the tail end of April 1987. Just two days after they found her body, another resident, a 40-year-old man, was beaten to death by people who are still a mystery. It happened right down the street from Ruthie Mae’s place, a chilling two blocks away.
And then, just three days later, another tragedy. A 25-year-old woman who lived in one of the Abbott high rises got into a disagreement with a 20-year-old from Ruthie Mae’s building. Things spiraled out of control, and the argument ended with a knife in the 20-year-old’s chest, right outside Ruthie’s building.
When word got out about Ruthie’s death, people were floored. Grief came first, raw and unfiltered, but hot on its heels was anger. Ruthie’s story shone a harsh spotlight on how badly the system had let her down, and folks weren’t having it. From public housing policies to mental health care, everything was up for debate.
In a way, Ruthie’s case was like holding up a mirror to society. It showed how easy it was for the folks on the fringes to slip through the cracks. And it wasn’t just about one woman’s tragedy. Ruthie’s story kickstarted a much-needed chat about bigger issues, like the struggle to find a decent, safe place to live on a tight budget, or getting the right mental health support when you need it the most.
Impact on Chicago Housing Authority (CHA)
Ruthie Mae’s daughter sued the Chicago Housing Authority claiming that the CHA is liable for her mother’s death because of the shoddy design of the building and the easy access to apartments. I haven’t been able to find out the results of that suit.
When Ruthie Mae passed, it was like a shockwave that went through the Chicago Housing Authority. Suddenly, there were big changes in the works, all aimed at making life better and safer for folks in public housing. Sure, not everything worked out as planned, but you could feel the shift.
Even though the CHA has made some strides forward, there are still a heap of challenges to tackle. Making sure everyone living in their properties is safe and looked after is no small task. And every time someone brings up Ruthie’s case, it’s a sharp poke in the side, a stark reminder that this isn’t something that can be put on the back burner. It’s pressing, it’s urgent, and it needs attention, now.
Today the Brooks home is the only building from the ABLA project still standing. The Chicago Housing Authority had big plans for ABLA, all wrapped up in a project they called Roosevelt Square. They plan to build a whopping 1,467 public housing units there. It’s still in progress but about 900 units have been built so far.
The Story Immortalized | Candyman
Ruthie Mae’s chilling tale didn’t stop at the grimy walls of ABLA Homes; it reached far and wide, seeping into the world of cinema and sparking pieces of the horror flick Candyman. Sure, the movie went full throttle on the horror, spinning a web of supernatural dread.
But it didn’t forget Ruthie Mae. Her story, the bone-deep fear she must have felt in her last moments, was carefully woven into the movie’s core. It was like Ruthie’s story, splashed with a hefty dose of Hollywood horror, played out on the silver screen.
The similarities between Ruthie Mae’s real-life horror and the Candyman movie don’t stop at just inspiration. It’s like the film starts with a scene ripped straight from Ruthie’s life.
It tells of a lady called Ruthie Jean from Cabrini-Green, another ABLA housing project, who dialed 911 needing help, but no one really paid her any mind. Later on, she’s found dead in a really gruesome way.
Getting goosebumps yet? There’s more. In the movie, Ruthie Jean has a neighbor named Anne Marie McCoy. It’s like the filmmakers took Ruthie Mae’s nightmare, shuffled around some names, and plastered it onto the big screen. It’s a creepy kind of homage to Ruthie Mae that just adds to the horror vibes.
When we think about Ruthie Mae’s life and what she went through, it’s like staring at a mirror reflecting all the things that aren’t quite right with the world we live in. She may not have planned it, but Ruthie Mae left us with a legacy that forces us to take a hard look at the big-picture problems that are still hanging around today.
Yeah, the way she died was brutal, no two ways about it. But the story Ruthie Mae McCoy left behind? That’s about shaking things up and making people pay attention. Her life and death keep sparking chats and pushing people to do something about building communities where folks can feel safe and where understanding and kindness aren’t in short supply.