WATCH NOW: Cleared of murder: Public defenders detail their work in 1980 cop killing case | Crime and Courts
CROWN POINT — Longtime Region attorney Thomas Vanes was convinced he’d convicted the right man in the 1980 rape of a Hammond gas station attendant when The Innocence Project called from Chicago in 2001, looking for the victim’s sexual assault kit.
It was sobering, Vanes said, to learn analysis showed the convicted man’s DNA didn’t match a sample collected from the rape victim all those years ago.
“Part of why I was so eager to help find the old rape kit was because it was going to prove that I was right,” Vanes said. “In fact, it proved I was dead wrong.”
Larry Mayes was released from prison in December 2001 after serving nearly 21 years of a 75-year sentence, but he wasn’t the only man to be wrongfully convicted in a series of crimes involving some of the same evidence in the fall of 1980 in Hammond.
The legal saga for Mayes, co-defendant James Hill and Pierre Catlett continued in 2012, when Lake County prosecutors charged all three of them with murder and robbery in the Nov. 14, 1980, shooting death of off-duty Hammond Lawrence J. “Larry” Pucalik at the former Holiday Inn-Southeast at Interstate 80/94 and Cline Avenue in Hammond.
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After a Lake Criminal Court jury found Hill guilty of murder in 2018, the Lake County public defender’s office — where Vanes now serves as assistant chief public defender — worked on Hill’s unsuccessful appeal.
But it was the public defender’s office’s work on behalf of Catlett that finally led, in part, to Hill’s conviction for murder being set aside in 2021 and the state’s decision last month to drop charges against Hill and Catlett.
Lake County First Assistant Deputy Prosecutor Peter Villarreal wrote in a motion to dismiss the cases, “After a thorough and exhaustive review of the currently existing evidence from this incident that occurred in 1980, there is insufficient credible evidence to prove these charges beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The state withdrew its charges against Mayes in 2014, after he was found to be incompetent to stand trial. He died last year after suffering a stroke, the defense team said.
Members of the defense team quickly became convinced of Catlett’s innocence, which motivated them to double down on their efforts to clear their client of the charges.
Chief Public Defender Marce Gonzalez favors a collaborative approach among attorneys, and a decision was made to treat Catlett’s case “as seriously as a death penalty case,” Vanes said.
“Part of the reason for that decision was probably at least two dozen to three dozen police officers had worked on that side of the case for decades,” he said.
‘The key to the case’
Vanes, attorneys Joseph Curosh III and Casey McCloskey, paralegal Erica Williamson and investigator Shaun Cavazos pored over every record they could find, spreading papers out across more than a dozen tables in a training room they called their war room.
“A lot of the best work comes from just obsessing over a file until you’ve exhausted every avenue you can think of,” Vanes said. “One of the things we obsessed about was the towel.”
After Pucalik was killed, Hammond police found the getaway car parked a mile west of the motel in the now-demolished Kennedy Park Apartments complex.
The stolen blue 1973 Chevrolet Impala matched a description given by the motel clerk and was missing a hub cap later found in the parking lot outside the motel, according to court records.
Inside the car, police found a white towel on the front passenger-side floorboard and a hidden note with identifying information that linked the Chevrolet to another crime: the rapes two days earlier of two female hitchhikers who were picked up by two men on a ramp near the Borman Expressway and Grant Street in Gary.
The owner of the car, a Gary man, told police the towel had not been in his vehicle when it was stolen. One of the hitchhikers said she was handed the towel to wipe off after she was raped, Vanes said.
“We’ve always looked at the towel as kind of the key to the case,” Vanes said. “It certainly turned out to be the key to our client’s innocence.”
DNA has been around since the late 1980s, so it would have made sense for any of the dozens of police officers who worked on the case over the years to send the towel for testing at some point, Vanes said.
An opportunity arose when the Northwest Indiana Major Crimes Task Force reopened the Pucalik case in 2011, reigniting an investigation that led to murder charges being filed the following year.
“It’s completely inexplicable why it wouldn’t have been tested,” Vanes said. “For at least 30 years, that towel was ignored.”
The towel was introduced, in a sealed brown paper bag, as evidence at Hill’s murder trial in 2018, but when Catlett’s defense attorneys later examined the bag they found no lab markings to indicate any testing had ever been performed.
“We pushed to have it tested, and the dominoes started falling,” Vanes said.
The results showed sperm cell DNA from two unknown men and one of the rape victims was on the towel, he said.
“It’s absolutely DNA evidence from the rape, but who it is, God only knows,” Vanes said. “It’s not Catlett. It’s not Mayes. It’s not Hill. As far as we know, it’s nobody in the DNA databases.”
The murder charges against Hill and Catlett theoretically could be refiled, because they were not dismissed with prejudice.
“But I think this is as dead as a case can be,” Vanes said. “They put forth their best effort, and it went nowhere. If it gets refiled, it will not be against these guys. The possibility remains in theory that this could be solved. There’s DNA out there.”
However, the chance of identifying any suspects from the DNA is slim, he said.
“The reason for that is males who were rapists in 1980 probably aged out of committing crimes by the time the DNA databases began collecting in the late ’90s,” he said. “It just may be a situation where the people who committed this rape are dead.”
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When Curosh and McCloskey met with Catlett several weeks ago to inform him of the dismissal, they could see a weight being lifted off his shoulders, Curosh said.
“He was absolutely relieved and thrilled that this was finally over,” Curosh said. “It was something that’s been hanging over his head since 1980, when Hammond police first had him as a suspect. It just followed him around, and finally it’s concluded.”
Catlett always maintained his innocence and told police in 1980 that he didn’t know Hill, the attorneys said.
During a recent deposition of retired Hammond police Detective Capt. Michael Solan, Hill approached Catlett’s lawyers and insisted he had never met Catlett, they said.
Mayes won a $9 million verdict against Hammond and Solan in 2006 for his wrongful conviction in the gas station attendant rape case, but the amount was later reduced to $4.5 million in an out-of-court settlement.
Hill, who also was found guilty of the rape and later had his conviction set aside, still has a wrongful conviction lawsuit pending in U.S. District Court in Hammond. After the Lake County prosecutor’s office withdrew charges against Catlett and Hill last month, a federal judge denied the city and Solan’s supplemental motion for summary judgment, clearing the way for the suit to proceed to trial.
Hammond, Solan and other officers also are facing a civil lawsuit in an unrelated case filed by a Chicago law firm on behalf of Darryl K. Pinkins and Roosevelt Glenn. The two men each served long prison sentences before they were exonerated in a “bump and rape” of a woman abducted from Hammond in 1989.
The Hammond Police Department declined comment for this story, because of the pending litigation. The Hammond Law Department did not respond by press time to a request for comment.
Catlett was in his mid-20s and lived in Harvey, Illinois, when the crime spree that culminated — as far as investigators knew — in Pucalik’s homicide. Hill was a 17-year-old senior at Roosevelt High School in Gary. Mayes, who also was from Gary, was in his 30s at the time.
Vanes, who was working as a deputy prosecutor in 1980, knew Pucalik personally and volunteered to be the liaison to the Hammond Police Department as its officers investigated the homicide.
“I remember from my days in the prosecutor’s office that there was a real division within the detective bureau in Hammond as to whether it was Hill and people from Gary versus Catlett and people from Illinois,” he said. “They did not make that connection between them in the ’80s. I don’t know when that came, but I think it was kind of a forced marriage. There was no connection visible to the naked eye back in the 1980s.”
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‘Forced puzzle pieces’
One of the latent questions about the investigation is what went wrong, Vanes said.
“I mentioned how obsession can lead to some good things,” he said. “It can also steer people down the wrong path, and I think the obsession with a number of police officers over 40 years to solve this — well, you can always make a puzzle fit if you start forcing pieces in, you know, but if you do that, you’re not going to get the right picture.”
One of the “forced puzzle pieces” in the case involved statements by the motel clerk and one of the female hitchhikers, who each described a left-handed suspect, attorneys said. Catlett, Hill and Mayes were all right-handed.
The public defender’s office uncovered another “forced puzzle piece” when a detective with the Major Crimes Task Force brought investigatory paperwork to his deposition that the state had not turned over to Hill or Catlett’s defense teams as part of discovery.
From that paperwork, attorneys learned a male schoolteacher, who had observed two men get out of the blue Chevrolet and into a burgundy “switch” car at the Kennedy Park Apartments after Pucalik’s homicide, was taken by police six days later to observe Catlett’s sister’s burgundy Oldsmobile Cutlass in Illinois.
“He said, ‘That’s not the car.’ He ruled it out as being the switch car,” Vanes said. “Now, what’s bizarre about that was at Hill’s trial in 2018 — 38 years after the fact — the prosecutor called him as a witness, gave him a picture and he said, yeah, that’s our client’s sister’s car.”
The schoolteacher wasn’t the only witness who described a burgundy- or maroon-colored car.
After a a robbery at a KFC restaurant Oct. 19, 1980, a witness described seeing two suspects get out of the same car used in the rape of the gas station attendant Oct. 5, 1980, and enter a maroon Buick Electra with “big, flashy wheels or tires with whitewalls,” Vanes said. That witness also described a blue denim bag, a piece of evidence seen during the rape of the gas station attendant and recovered after Pucalik’s homicide.
In a recent deposition, the schoolteacher told the defense attorneys he initially thought the burgundy car he saw was a Buick or Oldsmobile Cutlass, because they had similar body styles.
“He kind of went with whichever way the wind was blowing … and the wind was blowing from the police officers,” Vanes said. “He adopted what they wanted to hear, which is easy to do. You know, people, sitting in front of a police officer, you just assume that whatever they suggest or indicate they know, that it must be true, and some people just go along with them.”
It’s also possible the schoolteacher, who is now almost 70 years old and lives out of state, simply didn’t want to be bothered with the case anymore, Vanes said.
Years lost behind bars
Catlett, now almost 68 years old, spent about 2 1/2 years in the Lake County Jail and another 9 1/2 months on home detention before the murder case was dismissed.
Hill, 59, may be one of the only people in the history of American jurisprudence who has had two convictions — one in the rape case and another in Pucalik’s homicide — set aside because prosecutors failed to turn over evidence to Hill’s defense ahead of trial, said Scott King, Hill’s attorney.
Hill served 17 1/2 years in prison following his rape conviction in 1982. In 2009, more than 10 years after his release from prison in 1998, a Lake Criminal Court magistrate set aside his rape conviction. DNA evidence excluded him as a participant in the rape, and the state failed to turn over evidence, including that the rape victim had been hypnotized to sharpen her memory of the attack.
Vanes, who prosecuted Hill, said he didn’t learn the woman had been hypnotized until the early 2000s, after DNA analysis cleared Mayes and prosecutors went back to the woman to ask if she was certain she had correctly identified Mayes as her attacker.
“Her answer was, ‘After I was hypnotized, I was sure,'” he said. “And they go, ‘Oh, no,’ because hypnosis was forbidden. … They (the police) never disclosed that to anybody. Not to us (the prosecutors), not to the defense. Nobody.”
Hill spent another five months in pretrial confinement in 2012 and 2016 on charges in Pucalik’s homicide, and two years and eight months in prison following his conviction in 2018. He was released on his own recognizance in May 2021, after his murder conviction was overturned.
Mayes used to stop by a law office Vanes shared with Richard Wolter, who was Mayes’ defense attorney in 1982, Vanes said.
“You know in theory that people get prosecuted when they’re innocent, but when you find out that it’s the person you see in the mirror, it’s a lot more impactful,” he said.
Mayes once approached Vanes in federal court to “do a victory lap,” but he was never angry or hostile about Vanes’ role in his wrongful conviction, Vanes said.
During the course of their investigation, attorneys for the public defender’s office discovered a folder stored in a property room at the Hammond Police Department that contained a 200- to 250-page list titled “suspects,” Curosh said.
The list included individuals’ mugshots, aliases, criminal histories and more. The list was so long, the lawyers stopped counting how many people were included, McCloskey said.
“There’s person after person, mugshot after mugshot, statements from other agencies,” he said. “Here’s a potential suspect. We think this person did it. All the way down. It just kept going and going and going.”
Vanes said the defense team initially relied on the prosecutor’s office to provide evidence in the case, but Curosh and McCloskey eventually decided to “go to the horse’s mouth” and subpoena the Hammond Police Department.
A police captain provided a 32-page file in response to their subpoena, Curosh said.
Solan had testified during a court hearing in the 2000s that the department’s file consisted of “five banker’s boxes,” so the attorneys suspected there were more records they had not yet seen.
The captain “went the extra mile” and eventually found a box containing the list of possible suspects and two other folders stashed in a property room, where the records should never have been stored, Vanes said.
Who killed Officer Pucalik?
The team never determined if the Major Crimes Task Force knew of the list of suspects during its investigation, McCloskey said.
“Where did those people go? And are there DNA samples from any of those individuals to compare against what we know now?” he asked.
In total, sperm cell DNA from three unknown males — two in the rape of the hitchhikers and one in the rape of the gas station attendant — has now been discovered.
Vanes said by the time the Major Crimes Task Force, which was led in this investigation by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, reopened the case, Solan had retired and been “pretty well tarnished” by the multimillion-dollar verdict for violating Mayes’ civil rights.
The investigation in 2011 was supposed to be a fresh start, but the attorneys learned the first person to brief the task force was Solan and that Solan had written a 50-page briefing manual for the officers, Vanes said.
“The reinvestigation by ATF and the Major Crimes Task Force, as far as we could see from the paperwork given to us, they never looked at anyone other than the same three suspects that have always been front and center in this case,” he said.
In his 45 years at the bar, no other case has taken up as much of Vanes’ time, he said.
“It’s kind of like my alpha and omega,” he said. “It’s at the start. It’s toward the tail end here. It involves a kid from the neighborhood.”
Vanes grew up on the same block as Pucalik in Hammond’s Hessville neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s. Pucalik, a father of one, was killed at age 33.
While reminiscing during an interview last week, Vanes recalled a time when Pucalik and another boy “fooled” him into joining an organization known as the Junior Police.
“When I was a 7-year-old squirt, he was like one of big 10-year-olds,” Vanes said. “One of the kids on the block who taught you things you didn’t learn at school.”
The Junior Police were like the Cub Scouts with different uniforms, he said.
“They came to me one Saturday after the meeting and said, ‘Boy, if you’d of been there and your name was called, you’d of won a prize, so you better join,'” Vanes said. “Being a 7-year-old squirt, I believed them. So, I joined the Junior Police. There was no prize. After a few Saturday mornings of marching around on the hot asphalt in the parking lot, I quit.”
But Pucalik stuck with it and went on to become a police officer, Vanes said.
“I would have been honored to prosecute the people who actually killed Larry Pucalik,” Vanes said. “But given the way things went, I never had that chance. To this day, no one has had the chance to prosecute the people who actually killed Larry Pucalik.”
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