On April 10, 1967, Ralph Probst and his wife, Marlene, settled down in front of the television at their Cook County, Illinois, home to watch the Oscars. According to Marlene:
"I must have dozed off. And the next thing I knew, there was this loud explosion that woke me up. And I saw this cloud of smoke from behind the television set. When I went in the kitchen, Ralph was laying on the kitchen floor."
Ralph had been shot once in the back of the head. By the time help arrived, he was dead. Ralph was a 30-year-old Cook County sheriff's officer. Ralph left behind his wife, three small children and a series of baffling questions that still remain unanswered nearly 50 years later.
Four days after his murder, Ralph was laid to rest. On that afternoon, his partner and friend, Bob Borowski, made a silent pledge:
"As I stood beside the casket and looked down at Ralph, I made a vow to him that I would find his killer, and I would not rest until I got him. I figured it would be solved quickly. But it didn't turn out that way."
Bob and Ralph met for the first time in 1964, shortly after Ralph graduated from the police academy. The two men were both assigned to the special elite tactical squad. According to Bob:
"Everybody else in the department looked up to the tact unit. We were a very elite unit. We were all spit and polish, and we were a very proud bunch. And Ralph was not only a partner, he was also a friend. And it was that sort of relationship. You could depend on him and he could depend on you."
Ralph played things strictly by the book and made some powerful enemies. A few months before his death, Ralph and Bob were assigned to guard a notorious mobster named Sam DeStefano, who had had been transferred from prison to a local hospital after complaining of stomach trouble. The officers did not allow any visitors into the room and insisted that Sam eat the hospital food he was given. Bob also said that Ralph handcuffed Sam:
"When Ralph handcuffed DeStefano to the bed, he became very irate and threatened to kill him. We really didn't take it very serious. We felt that he was just a big bag of wind and just brushed it off."
Ralph's wife, Marlene:
"I don't think that the risk ever entered Ralph's mind. I really don't. I think to him, it was a job. He enjoyed it, and I don't think he was ever afraid. I imagine in the back of anyone's mind, something could happen. But I don't think he dwelled on it."
On the night of Ralph's death, police found a suspicious pattern of circumstantial evidence. It appeared that Ralph had been shot through the kitchen window. No one in the neighborhood saw the gunmen, though a few people did hear a shot. The bullet that killed Ralph ricocheted off a kitchen cabinet and then fell onto the stove. It was fired from a rare .41 caliber magnum handgun that had only recently been manufactured. Although there were only 2,000 of these guns in the United States, police were unable to locate the murder weapon.
The only likely suspect, Sam DeStefano, was immediately cleared. There were no other obvious suspects, except Ralph's wife. Marlene insisted she had been asleep and awoke to smoke in the house:
"I know from the beginning of the investigation, I think what puzzled everybody was how I had seen smoke inside the house. If the gunman had been outside, there wouldn't have been smoke inside. And yet when I woke up, the first thing I saw was this small cloud of smoke coming up from in back of my television set."
This puff of smoke led police to suspect that the shot had been fired from inside the house. Adding to their theory was the fact that broken glass from the window was found in the yard, not on the kitchen floor. Jerry Harmon was originally in charge of the investigation:
"When you have a murder investigation, one of the first places you start with is with the family."
The investigators conducted a test to see if Marlene was telling the truth. First, they fired a shot fifteen feet away from the kitchen window. There was no smoke and the glass fell inside. But then, they fired two inches away from the window. According to Jerry Harmon:
"There it was, the puff of smoke inside the house. We found the glass came out back onto the shooter and fell to the ground and we had the puff of smoke inside the house. From that point on, we knew that Marlene was telling the truth. We determined that the shooter would've had to have been 5-foot-11 or taller in order for that projectile to follow the path to where it struck Ralph. To strike the center of the back of the head, where the entry point was, took one terrific shot. He could've been a professional hit man. And he could always have been a law enforcement person."
Bob believes that Ralph may have been working secretly, on his own, to bring down a vice ring. In fact, several days before his death, he had been seen at the home of an ex-convict named Frank Calvise. Ralph had spoken with Calvise's wife, and then left.
One week before the murder, a man resembling Calvise looked at a home for sale across the street from Ralph's home. As he toured the house, the visitor asked the owner whether the floor plan was similar to the one across the street. It was. However, after identifying Calvise in a police line-up, the neighbor changed his story. Some are convinced he feared retaliation. Frank Calvise died seven years later in 1974. No charges were ever filed in connection with Ralph's death. In the meantime, Bob Borowski isn't about to give up:
"Ralph had information on something, whether it be vice, pornography, or a fencing operation. And whoever killed him knew that he was going to talk about it. And they killed him before he could. At this time, I am unofficially still working on the case and whoever did it, I've been making them awful nervous because he knows that I'm not giving up, that somehow, someway, somebody's gonna say something and he's gonna get caught. So somewhere, somebody's awful nervous and I'm going to keep him that way."