Frozen Stiffs

Bruce Rubenstein may hold the unusual distinction of being the state's leading chronicler of murder

"I was a Sixties guy," he says. "I went away and lived in Mexico for a while. I came back here and the war was going on. I was in antiwar stuff. I got involved with the woman that I would marry. At the end of all that we were living on the West Bank and we had two kids and I needed a way to make a living.

"I had written some fiction that had gotten published, but in little magazines," he continues. "My theory was that I'd become a great fiction writer and that's how we'd live. Well, as soon as I got serious I saw that that ain't going to happen. I never thought of myself as a journalist, although I was kind of cubbyholed that way and forced to write things that bored the shit out of me because I had a need to make money."

Over the years Rubenstein has largely paid the bills by writing for legal trade publications. In the mid-'80s, he covered the infamous Jordan child sex-ring cases for the New York Times. He was an editor for the Minnesota Law Journal in the late '80s, and for a time in the '90s he relocated to Chicago and edited the Illinois Legal Times. But Rubenstein has always returned to murder as his topic of choice.

Arguably his most famous piece on the subject is not even included in the new collection, falling as it does outside state lines. That story examined the "Milwaukee Avenue Massacre" of Thanksgiving night, 1981. Four Mexican immigrants died during the Chicago shootout. Four other Mexicans were convicted of the killings and sentenced to life in prison.

Rubenstein originally glommed onto the case because it was supposedly a kind of modern-day Romeo and Juliet tale. As the story had been reported in the media, the killings were the result of a longstanding family feud with roots in the Mexican state of Guerrero. "I thought, That's interesting," he recalls. "There's a feud in Guerrero and it ends up as a quadruple murder in Chicago."

Rubenstein interviewed one of the convicted killers, Rogelio Arroyo, at Pontiac Prison. The inmate spoke little English, but he was able to communicate his basic message: He was in prison for a crime that he didn't commit. "He looked me in the eye and said, 'I am not guilty. Get me out of here,'" Rubenstein says.

As it turned out, unlike most prisoners who profess their innocence, Arroyo was telling the truth. He and his three co-defendants had been wrongly imprisoned for nine years. The actual killers had immediately fled to Mexico. Rubenstein's article, which was published in Chicago magazine, laid out in exacting detail the case for the four men's innocence, including signed confessions from the actual gunmen. Fifteen months after the story was published, the convicted men were pardoned by Illinois Governor James Edgar.

Rubenstein sees the Milwaukee Avenue Massacre case as a cautionary tale of what can happen when poor immigrants run into cops and prosecutors more interested in convictions than justice. "I think what they said is, 'There's four dead Mexicans, there's going to be four arrested Mexicans,'" he says.

Rubenstein is relieved to have finally escaped Chicago after living there off and on for seven years. "Every time you turn around there's a car alarm in your face," he notes, finishing up his second pint of beer. "It's a noisy place."

Rubenstein is currently mulling over a couple of grisly homicides to turn into his next project. One of them is the 1990 killing of a young couple that occurred in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Winnetka. Another is a notoriously sadistic Roseville kidnapping and murder from the late '80s.

"It's the most complicated and interesting thing that I have come across as a general topic," Rubenstein says of his murder fetish. "Crime in general, and murder specifically, is very complicated and interesting--and it's not that hard to sell."

There's another upside, of course, to choosing murder as your life's work: You never run out of material.

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