Charles Percy lived a Horatio Algers novel brought to life. Born in Florida in 1919, but moved with his parents, Edward and Elizabeth Harting Percy, to Chicago in 1920. His father was a cashier at the Rogers Park National Bank and when that bank failed the family was forced to declare bankruptcy and go on welfare relief.
Charles Percy was always an industrious kid. At age five he started selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. At age seven he won a year’s membership to the YMCA for selling more magazine subscriptions than anyone else. He sold cookies his mother baked at home to help augment the family income.
In 1937, he won a scholarship to the University of Chicago that paid half of his tuition. He covered the other half by waiting tables, working in the University’s Library and by exercising his entrepreneurial instincts. As president of the Alpha Delta Phi he formed a purchasing co-op among the various fraternities on campus that saved money by buying in bulk. By the time Percy graduated, the co-op was grossing $150,000 a year. Charles Percy also found time to become the captain of the school’s championship water polo team and to be named to the school’s highest honor, Marshal to University President, Robert Maynard Hutchins.
There was an element of luck to Charles Percy’s story, a devout Christian Scientist, Percy’s Sunday school teacher, Joseph H. McNabb, president of Bell & Howell, to an interest in the young go-getter and recommended Charles Percy be admitted to the Bell & Howell cooperative training program. Percy started working summers at Bell & Howell beginning in 1936 and after he graduated in 1941 he began working for them full-time.
In 1943, Charles Percy took a leave of absence from his job in order to enlist in the Navy. He also married his high school sweetheart, Jeanne Dickerson. Jeanne followed Charles to his new naval post in Alameda, California and in 1944 gave birth to identical twin girls, Sharon and Valarie, in Oakland. The birth of the twins was followed by a son, Roger, in 1946.
By then the Charles had been honorably discharged from the Navy and the family was back in Chicago. Jeanne was long suffered from irritable bowel syndrome that, over time, developed into ulcerative colitis. In 1947 Jeanne’s doctor recommended that she undergo an operation to remove part of her ulcerated colon and, not sharing her husband’s faith, she took his advice and died from an allergic reaction to penicillin administered after the surgery.
Two years later, while on a ski vacation to Sun Valley, Idaho, Charles Percy met a woman named Loraine Guyer. The pair hit it off and married in 1950. They went on to have two children together, Gail in 1953 and Mark in 1955, in addition to the three youngsters from Charles’s first marriage.
Percy’s career continued to advance. After Charles was discharged from the Navy he returned to work at Bell & Howell where he led programs in industrial relations and foreign manufacturing. When Joseph McNabb died in 1949 Charles Percy, at the age of 29, was named president of the company where over the next fourteen years he oversaw sales climb from $13 million to $160 million a year.
In 1950 Charles Percy fulfilled a boyhood dream. He had long admired a beautiful estate on Devonshire Road in Kenilworth on the shores of Lake Michigan. So much so, that went he was eighteen years old he went up to the door and asked the owner that if he ever wanted to sell the place he would like to buy it. In 1950 that opportunity came and Charles Percy purchased the 17-room property with the indoor pool and perfectly maintained tennis courts for the grand sum of $82, 500. He christened his new home Windward.
Charles Percy had exhibited an interest in politics as far back as 1946, working as a Republican precinct captain and organizing returning veterans to vote. He came to the attention of Dwight D. Eisenhower who decided to take the promising young man under his political wing. In 1955, after having raised $4 million in four years, Percy was elected President of the United Republican Fund of Illinois and in 1956, President Eisenhower named Percy Special Ambassador representing the United States at Peru and Bolivia’s presidential inaugurations.
In 1963 Charles Percy left Bell & Howell to run for Governor of Illinois, losing to Otto Kerner in 1964. In 1966 he decided to challenge a Liberal Lion, Paul Douglas, who had been a U.S. Senator from Illinois since first elected to the seat in 1948.
Then suddenly Charles Percy’s American dreamed turned into an American Nightmare.
On the night of September Valerie Percy and her step-mother Loraine had a late supper with two young campaign workers. Valerie was home from college, having just graduated from Cornell and working for her father’s campaign while waiting for graduate classes to begin at Johns Hopkins University. The campaign workers left at about 10:00 p.m. and Valerie went up to her room on the second floor. Valerie’s sister Sharon had been out that evening and when she returned at midnight she stopped by Valerie’s room to return a raincoat she had borrowed. Valerie was already in bed but acknowledged her sister when Sharon said goodnight to her. At about a half an hour after midnight Charles Percy returned home. He and his wife watched television for about an hour before they retired to their room upstairs.
At about a quarter to five in the morning Loraine Percy was partially awakened by the sound of breaking glass. Groggy, she assumes that someone broke a drinking glass but was jolted fully awake some minutes later by the sounds of moaning. Loraine left Charles sleeping as she got out of bed and walked down the hall. She first stopped at Sharon’s bedroom but the noise wasn’t coming from that room. She next checked on Valerie, opening the door to find a strange man bending over Valerie’s bed. Loraine screamed as the intruder shined his flashlight in her eyes, temporarily blinding her as he escaped down the back stairs and through the French doors leading from the music room.
Loraine had turned and ran from the room just ahead of the intruder and at 5:05 she tripped the burglar alarm which consisted of a siren mounted to the roof of the house. Now awakened, Charles Percy rushed to Valerie’s room, Loraine trailing behind him. The Percy’s nearest neighbors, Dr. Robert and Nydia Hohf, were awakened by the alarm sounding. Nydia Hohf, ran to their backyard which has a view of the south side of the Percy estate and the private beach below but saw no one. Shortly thereafter Dr. Hohf received a telephone call from Charles Percy, “Bob, this is Chuck Percy. Will you come right over, Valerie’s been injured.”
Injured might have been an understatement.
When Dr. Hohf arrived at the Percy residence, “I saw immediately the figure of a badly battered girl, obviously dead. She wasn’t breathing, had no pulse, and her eyes showed no signs of life.”
Valerie Percy’s nightgown was bunched up around her ribs. Dr. Hohf found his young neighbor to be so disfigured that he couldn’t recognize her.
“I told the officers, ‘She’s gone,” and they warned me not to disturb anything further. My job was done for them.”
Dr. Hohf then went downstairs and told the Percys that Valerie was dead.
An autopsy would later reveal that Valerie was struck up to four times in the head with what the police theorized could be a fireplace poker, jeweler’s tool or a ball-peen hammer with the ball part ground to a point, leaving distinctive triangular marks on the girl’s skull. She had been stabbed seventeen times in her head, chest and abdomen with a double-edged weapon, probably after she had been rendered unconscious by the blows to her head. There were abrasions on her hands that might have been made by teeth and there was bruising to her left foot and knees. Her legs were drawn up in “a defensive position.”
The police found that a rear screen had been cut with an item that left behind a “blue residue.” A pane of glass in the French doors downstairs had been scored with a glass cutter and then broken. A search turned up items that may or may not have been connected to the murder; a bayonet from Lake Michigan, a small wet cloth and a leather glove found in a shrub, a rust knife found on a nearby bluff, a rust half from a pair of scissors found nearby, a moccasin found on the private beach along with a set of bare footprints leading from the beach to the Percy home, a pocket watch found a few blocks away. Palm and fingerprints not matching anyone known to have access to the house were left on the doorframe of Valerie’s room and on the staircase and staircase railing. A fingerprint was found on the broken pane of glass that was never matched to anyone.
Loraine Percy described that man she saw as being young, about 17 to 19 years of age, Caucasian, around 5’8” and weighing about 160 pounds. He was wearing a checked shirt.
Over the years the police reportedly interviewed over 14,000 people and followed up on over 1,300 leads in the Valerie Percy case though they somehow neglected to interview Dr. and Mrs. Hohf. No one was arrested although suspects emerged. The driver of a green station wagon seen in the vicinity of the crime was found and cleared as was a “rough looking boy” Sharon had been seen conversing with on the el train some days before. There had been an attempted break-in at a neighbor’s home the night before the Valerie Percy murder. The culprit left behind a similar blue residue on the screen door before they were scared off by residents of the home. Four months before a 19-year-old woman, Sharon Bubes, was attacked by a ball-peen hammer wielding intruder while asleep in her Evanston, Illinois home and other attacks in the area around the same time are eerily similar to the Valerie Percy case.
What looked like a substantial break in the case came in 1973 when Leo Rugendorf told Chicago Sun Times reporter Art Petacque that a mafia connected burglar named Frank Hohimer murdered Valerie Percy. Hohimer had been a member of a gang of burglars who robbed homes in wealthy areas around the Chicago. According to Rugendorf, Hohimer told him, “They’ll get me for the Valerie Percy murder. The girl woke up and I hit her on top of the head with a pistol. He repeated this story, from a stretcher, shortly before his death to a Judge in a separate robbery case.
Hohimer’s brother, Harold, a used car salesman with a serious gambling problem, confirmed Rugendorf’s claim. Harold said he had seen his brother the day after the Percy murder and that Frank had been, “Nervous and uptight.” Harold claimed that Frank said he had to ‘off a girl.’” Harold said he asked Frank why he did it and Frank replied, “It was because the girl made a lot of noise and they got into a fight.” Harold stated that his brother told him, “’It’s in all the newspapers and on the radio today.’ He was talking about the Valerie Percy thing.”
Another acquaintance of Frank Hohimer, Robert Stanfield, claimed that Frank had told him two weeks before the crime that the Percy estate was going to be targeted.
For his part, Frank Hohimer, by then serving a 30 year prison sentence for robbery, denied he had killed Valerie Percy and pointed the finger of blame at another member of the burglary gang, Fred Malchow, who had been killed in 1967 during an attempted prison escape in Pennsylvania. Malchow had racked up an extensive record before his death with convictions including assault and rape. However, none of the prints matched the prints found in the Percy home and neither man matched the description given by Loraine Percy. Also, some detectives argued, professional burglars wouldn’t have used such an amateur device as a glass cutting tool in order to access a home and nothing was taken from the Percy residence even though cash and jewelry lay in plain sight on Valerie Percy’s dresser.
The Sun Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its 1973 reports on the Valerie Percy murder. Harold Hohimer attempted to claim the $50,000 reward being offered by the Percy family but was rebuffed. Tantalizingly though, a telephone call had been made to a meat market owned on the South Side of Chicago by Leo Rugendorf was made from the Percy home four months before the murder.
Many police officers believe that either Hohimer or Malchow were responsible for the murder of Valerie Percy but suspects as diverse as Loraine Percy and Ted Kaczinsky have been put forth over the years but no one has ever been arrested, much less charged with the murder of Valerie Percy.
Charles Percy went on to defeat Paul Douglas by over 400,000 votes after Douglas stopped campaigning in deference to the Percy family’s tragedy. Percy became known as a “moderate” or even “liberal” Republican Senator. He was in favor of strong Federal consumer protection regulations and forcefully advocated home ownership for low income Americans, a position then supported by a majority of Republicans in both the House and the Senate. He supported nonproliferation weapon treaties for nuclear arms and called on Israel to “take some risks for peace” by withdrawing to the boarders it had before the Six Day War. He successfully lobbied Nixon to appoint future Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. He was a staunch supporter of the “War on Drugs” just as he was an equally staunch opponent of the war in Vietnam.
“Is it worth tearing ourselves apart inside and spending half a billion dollars a week,” Percy asked in 1969, “I say it’s not worth it.”
His outspoken opposition to the unpopular war became such a thorn in the President’s side that Richard Nixon placed the Senator on his official Enemies List and, in turn, Charles Percy became the first Senator to call for a Special Prosecutor to be appointed in the Watergate case. In 1980 he became Chair of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee.
Charles Percy served as a Senator until 1984 when he was unseated by another Liberal Lion, Paul Simon, who would represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate until he retired in 1996. After leaving politics, Charles Percy started a career as a lobbyist for American firms doing business overseas. He died September 17, 2011 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Within a year of her sister’s death, Sharon Percy married her beau, Jay Rockefeller who would, in turn, become a Senator representing the great state of West Virginia. Sharon Percy Rockefeller as thrown herself into many causes related to women’s rights, fine arts and education. She has served on many corporate and charitable boards and has, for many years, overseen the public television affiliate in Washington, D.C. She and Senator Rockefeller have four children together, including a daughter named Valerie. Every year on September 18th she stages a celebration in memory of her sister’s life.
In 2002 evidence in the Valerie Percy case was re-tested using up-to-date forensic analysis but the efforts did nothing to resolve the mystery of who killed Valerie Percy. In 2010 the former Percy home in Kenilworth, which the family sold the year following the murder to neighbor and family friend William Graham, then Chairman of Baxter International, was demolished to make way for a larger, more ostentatious house along with a farmhouse on the property said to pre-date the Civil War and said to have been the oldest house in Kenilworth by Matthew Halbower of Pentwater Capital Management, and his wife, Julie. The couple paid in excess of $9.7 million for the property. The Percy family currently maintains a $100,000 reward for anyone who can provide any information leading to the proven identity of Valerie Percy's killer.
Sketch of Suspect in Valerie Percy Case