Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder of Valerie Percy

The Pulitzer Prize

After years of dormancy, the Percy murder investigation finally made news again in 1973, when the Chicago Sun-Times published a series of stories that named the reputed killer: a housebreaker named Frank Hohimer, 46.

Frank Hohimer
Frank Hohimer

Hohimer was by then serving a 30-year federal prison term for a run of burglaries in Denver and Indianapolis. He was fingered as Percy's killer by his own brother, Harold, a used car salesman with a serious gambling problem, who told a Sun-Times reporter that Frank had confessed the crime to him.

The secondary sources cited in the stories were a prosecutor's nightmare. One was a Chicago crime syndicate figure who had died after giving an interview to the paper. Another was a jailbird who said that a cellmate had spilled the beans about the Percy case before he died during an escape attempt.  A third was a criminal's girlfriend who was bitter after being dumped.

Some observers suggested the $50,000 reward might have been a motivating factor for several of the squealers.

Frank Hohimer, who was writing a book about his crime exploits, agreed to an unusual jailhouse confrontation with his brother that was witnessed by at least one cop and two Sun-Times crime reporters, Arthur Petacque and Hugh Hough.

Hohimer denied killing the girl, and he offered an alternate suspect from the world of Chicago-based housebreakers: Fred Malchow, a career criminal from Buffalo who was, conveniently enough, dead.

The Sun-Times won a Pulitzer Prize for the reporting, but no criminal charge was brought against anyone named in the stories.

Frank Hohimer published his book, The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar, in 1975. It sold well and was the basis of a 1981 film, "Thief," starring James Caan.

Video cover: Thief
Video cover: Thief

In 1991, Chicago Tribune reporters John O'Brien and Ed Baumann published a book, Getting Away With Murder, about unsolved Chicago-area homicides. Robert Lamb, the last full-time Perry investigator, told them, "To this day I am convinced that Freddie Malchow was the killer and that he acted alone."

And in a 1998 retrospective story about the historical accomplishments of the Chicago Sun-Times, the newspaper wrote, "Police believed both Malchow and Hohimer were involved in the murder."

Yet the Kenilworth Police Department, which has grown rather testy about inquiries regarding Percy's murder, says the case is considered open and unsolved.

Some observers believe the Hohimer allegation stymied and sidetracked the Percy investigation. His fingering of Freddie Malchow could not be proved, so the probe was left dangling.

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