April 8, 1993
I slapped the alarm button and went back to sleep. Five in the morning was
early for me. Even on a clear day in early April the sun didn’t rise in northern
Illinois until nearly six thirty, and at that hour, the dim light of my unfinished
greenhouse didn’t provide enough illumination for the delicate work of
transplanting seedlings from their nursery beds to the cold frames and hot
beds just outside the building. Today it was raining, and even darker.
As I slept, James Schneider—known as Preacher to other members of the
Outlaws motorcycle gang—left Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, about fifteen miles
away from our farm, and picked up Randall “Madman” Miller at his Pell Lake
home a few miles south. There was little traffic on Highway 12 as they drove
to Illinois border; just the usual early morning parade of pickup trucks on their
way to factories and job sites, or office workers on autopilot as their cars
headed to Fox Lake to catch an early commuter train to Chicago. At Genoa
City the four-lane highway narrowed before it entered Richmond, the small
Illinois village where I grew up.
Our farm is about three and a half miles east of town on Highway 173, a two-
lane road lined with farms and an occasional business. The area was still
overwhelmingly rural in 1993, but its location on the northwestern edge of the
Chicago metropolitan area was starting to show signs that Richmond would
soon be another exurban enclave of subdivisions filled with big houses on big
Schneider turned left on 173 and the two Outlaws headed for our farm. About
a mile down the road, he pulled over to switch license plates on their car.
Schneider and Miller were on their way to rob and murder my parents, and
they didn’t want to take any chances.
Miller reminded his friend of the goal. “They’ve got to have about $30,000 in
that house,” he said. “I want to have the people separate. I don’t want to kill
them both together.”
I woke again, this time to the sound of rain beating on my window. No sense
worrying about transplanting, since I couldn’t go outside. My parents, Ruth
and Morrie, were certainly already up. They began their days early, a habit
from their days as active farmers. Although they were now semi-retired, there
was plenty to do around the farm. My dad ran a motorcycle repair shop in a
garage just behind the house, and my mom helped my sister, Ginger, sell the
imported rugs, blankets, and artifacts she brought back from her trips
abroad. My dad was seventy-four and opened the shop officially only two or
three days a week. Even so, there would always be a slow but steady flow of
regular customers stopping by to talk bikes, see what was new, or to pick up
an occasional part for some vintage motorcycle they were working on.
My mom, Ruth, would usually be finishing her morning chores at this hour or
already be about her business, running errands or helping my dad in the
This morning, my dad was out back feeding the chickens, part of his regular
morning routine. My mom stayed in the kitchen, finishing a cup of coffee and
planning her day. There was a knock at the door.
“Where’s the youngster?” Miller asked, smiling at my mom. Figuring he was
one of my dad’s motorcycle customers, she told him that Morrie was out back,
and Miller headed that way.
Schneider, playing his own part, told my mom he’d like to take a look at
Ginger’s rugs in the trailer. “I want to pick out a present for my girlfriend,
since I’m here,” he said. My mother led the way through the wet yard and
unlocked the little padlock that secured the trailer. As soon as she stepped
in, Schneider pulled a gun out of his back pocket and hit her twice on the
back of the head. She fell to the ground, making a little moaning noise. He
tucked the gun back in his pocket and pulled out a knife, then lifted her up by
her hair and cut her throat from ear to ear, watching as her blood gushed
out. He covered her body with some of Ginger’s blankets, left the trailer, and
snapped the padlock again.
Schneider made his way to the back of the house to find Miller, who was
standing outside the motorcycle shop. Schneider silently signaled to Miller
that he had taken care of my mother, and the two went into the shop to
confront my dad. They didn’t waste time on small talk. “We want your money,
Morrie. We know you got money here,” Miller said. “We were here before and
found the bag with the thousand dollars in it. Give us the money, Morrie. We’
ve got your wife locked up.”
Shaking, my dad held out a little dish containing a small amount of cash.
Miller knocked it to the ground and repeated his demand, louder this time.
“This is a robbery. A R-O-B-B-E-R-Y,” he yelled. He pulled out his gun and
pointed it at my dad’s head, pushing him around the shop’s service counter
and into the back room. Schneider heard a sound like someone being hit and
a body falling to the ground, then the gurgling, raspy sound of my dad trying
to breathe with his throat cut.
Miller stepped back into the main room of the shop and confirmed that he
had killed Morrie. He also told Schneider he had decided to stab my dad in
the side with his knife, just to see how it felt going in. “Like a knife in butter,”
They picked up the money off the shop floor, swearing when they discovered
the total was no more than fifteen dollars. Schneider was nervous about
leaving evidence, even though he and Miller had worn gloves and put their
hair in hairnets under their hats before they got to the farm. Miller was a bit
more confident they had taken proper precautions, but even so, they didn’t
look around the shop for more money or go in the house to see what was
there. If they had, I have no doubt they would have killed me, too.
Instead, they left. They put the license plates in the front and back windows
of their car and pulled out onto 173. Back on Highway 12, they turned off
almost immediately at a rest stop in Genoa City and washed the blood off
their knives in a puddle before continuing to Lake Geneva, where they
stopped for breakfast at the Olympic Restaurant on Main Street. Miller ate
heartily, joking that he could kill a person and eat spaghetti with extra red
sauce right afterwards. Schneider, more squeamish about what had just
happened, stuck with chocolate milk. They paid the tab with the little money
they netted from the robbery.
I woke again to the sound of the rain lashing against the east wall of my
bedroom. By now the early morning light was just starting to filter through the
cloudy plastic that still covered the inside of my window for protection against
the winter chills that invaded the poorly insulated farmhouse.
I tried to get up, but my limbs and mind still felt drugged with sleep. I’d been
sober for five weeks, but my body was still throwing off the effects of twenty
years of recurrent alcohol and marijuana abuse. Winter is my off season, and
months of staying up, feeding the shop fire, cranking up the radio, and
slamming twelve-packs of Budweiser takes its toll.
I hit the TV “on” button, hoping to catch the weather on the Today show. After
trying for half an hour to stay awake long enough to hear the local forecast, I
turned it off, resigned to the fact that the rain was going to be around for
Miller and Schneider drove to Lake Como, a small, shallow lake a few miles
north of Lake Geneva. They dumped their knives and gloves in the murky
water and later burned everything they had worn.
Eight forty-five A.M. This time I was awake for good, ready for a full day’s
transplanting and blessed with a perfectly cloudy day to do it on, if the rain let
up. It was a meditative job that needed to be repeated many times in the next
eight weeks to get my 15,000 pepper and tomato plants ready for direct
placement in the fields.
I got up.