Saturday, August 4, 2012

Rudy Bladel

The rage that snuffed out seven lives in fifteen years began for Rudy Bladel as an economic twist of fate. The son of a Chicago railroad fireman, Rudy loved the trains from childhood, never seriously entertaining the idea of any other occupation. In Korea, during 1950, he was posted on a military train and saw his share of action from the rails. Returning to civilian life, he signed on with his father’s line, the old Rock Island and Pacific, settling in Niles, a suburb of Chicago. During 1959, the railroad’s base of operations moved to Elkhart, Indiana. Protests from employees based in Niles were unavailing; Rudy Bladel was among those who were fired. He found another railroad job, with Indiana’s Harbor Belt line, but his bitterness remained, to fester over time and finally explode in lethal violence.
He claimed his first two victims on the third of August, 1963, at Hammond, Indiana. Engineer Roy Bottorf and his fireman, Paul Overstreet, were found dead on that date, in the cab of their train, in the Harbor Belt rail yards. Each man had been hit by two rounds from a .22-caliber weapon. The crime remained unsolved, and ultimately passed into the realm of rail yard legend. It had nearly been forgotten five years later, when the killer struck a second time.
A shotgun ambush, on the sixth of August, 1968, claimed engineer John Marshall as he climbed aboard his train in Elkhart, Indiana. Witnesses described a hulking stranger, glimpsed in silhouette, who waddled from the murder scene with a distinctive, almost ape-like stride. Again, police were left without a suspect or substantial clues.
Their break came three years later, once again in Elkhart, after Rudy Bladel drew a pistol in the railroad yard and shot another engineer. Though wounded, Rudy’s victim managed to disarm him, wounding Bladel with a bullet from his own .357 magnum. Rudy filed a guilty plea to aggravated battery and drew a prison term of one to five years. He served eighteen months, and was paroled in 1973. His bitterness increased when Harbor Belt executives refused to reinstate him in his old position with the line.
On April 5, 1976, James McCrory was seated in his locomotive, in the yard at Elkhart, when a shotgun slug crashed through the window, shattering his skull and killing him on impact. This time, Bladel was an instant suspect, and police secured permission for surveillance. In January 1978, he was arrested as he left a South Bend gun shop, carrying a brand-new magnum. Ownership of firearms is forbidden for convicted felons, and he served eleven months on weapons charges, but police could not connect him with the string of murders spanning thirteen years.
So far, he had been relatively lucky, but the heat in Indiana got on Rudy’s nerves, provoking him to shift his hunting ground. On New Year’s Eve, 1978, he carried a shotgun into the rail yards at Jackson, Michigan, surprising flagman Robert Blake and William Gulak, a conductor, in the depot. They were waiting for a train when Bladel cut them down with close-range blasts of buckshot. Moving to the outer platform, Rudy shot and killed Charles Burton, railroad fireman, as he came to work. The depot’s ticket manager, responding to the sound of shots, described the gunman for police.
The canny change of scene secured Bladel a reprieve, but time was running short. An engineer in Hammond, Indiana, who had shared a cab with Rudy in the old days, told police about the fireman who had seemed obsessed with graphic reenactments of the early shootings. Briefly held for questioning about the Jackson massacre, Bladel was soon released for lack of solid evidence . Three months elapsed before a group of hiker’s found his shotgun in a park outside of Jackson. Serial numbers traced the weapon to Rudy, and a test-fire linked the firing pin to cartridges recovered at the murder scene. Bladel was booked for triple murder on March 22, 1979, confessing to the Jackson crimes. He changed his story at his trial, in August, but to no avail. Convicted in the face of his contention that he sold the shotgun to an unknown individual before the murders, Bladel drew three consecutive life terms in prison.
But the railway sniper’s story was not finished, yet. In 1985, the Michigan Supreme Court overturned the verdict in his murder trial, on grounds that Bladel had confessed without a lawyer present to advise him of his rights. The ruling was upheld by the United States Supreme Court on April Fool’s Day, 1986. A second trial was held in June of 1987, Rudy clinging to his story of the shotgun’s sale. The prosecution countered with results of microscopictests, which placed the gun in Rudy’s suitcase just before it was discarded. Bladel was convicted once again, on June 19th. This time, the terms of life imprisonment were made consecutive, insuring he would never walk the streets — or haunt the railroad yards — again.

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