Death of a Salesman
Julius Adelman Waited Years For His Customers to Pay Off Their Refrigerators, Dish Sets, and Linens. His Son Steve Waited Much Longer For His Father’s Alleged Killers to Face Justice.
The huge Ford would arrive at its Randallstown home ass first, backing onto the blacktop. At the driveway’s lip, the suspension would fail under the weight of the unsold merchandise piled in the back-back seats. The wagon would bottom out, its license plate skidding along the concrete, producing a stubborn, high-pitched riff.
Steve, the middle of Julius’ three adopted sons, always heard the scraping. His bedroom faced the driveway. By the time he turned 10, the wagon’s nightly whine had became his cue to go outside and help his old man unload the wagon’s contents into the backyard’s big white shed.
Where Julius Adelman had been and whom he had seen were complete mysteries to Steve. A traveling salesman who sold “everything but shoes,” Julius worked a home-delivery route that took him into the most crime-ridden sections of Washington, D.C. For 40 years, he played the discount wizard, selling an off-brand rainbow of goods to people suffering from bad credit or a soft spot for a charmer.
Julius would greet his son dressed in the clothes he sold—flannel shirt and polyester pants—with a White Owl cigar stuck between his lips. They had a system of how things went into the shed:
By 20, Steve had grown his hair long and left his father’s routine behind, taking construction work in Florida and New Hampshire, then back in the Baltimore area. He had dreams of becoming a professional scuba diver, but he settled for an ever-changing series of odd jobs.
And then, in June 1996, Steve moved back home. He woke up early each morning to go to his job hanging ductwork at a new Sears nearby. Wearing a tool belt and red bandanna and clutching a blue-and-white Playmate cooler, he’d say goodbye to his father. On the morning of July 8, a Monday, his father cracked a joke before Steve left. “Have a nice day,” Julius said.
Julius, 69, would soon head out the door, promising his wife, Ruth Adelman, an early day. He was still recovering from a hernia operation. “I’ll see you around 3:30. I’m not staying late. I’m not collecting much,” he said before giving Ruth a goodbye kiss. He was six months from retiring.
Steve returned home late that night to find no sign of his father. He sat with his mother hoping to hear the scrape of his dad’s latest wagon, the dark-brown 1988 Crown Victoria purchased at Archway Ford in 1989. He wished like hell for that sound.
By midnight, Steve believed that his father’s routine had been fatally broken.
Four hours earlier, D.C. police officers had responded to 336 Randolph Place NE to the report of a “man down.” At the end of the dead-end street, they’d discovered their man, wrapped in dark bedding and duct tape, lying at the edge of a clearing of yellow weeds and sagging chain-link. His head was wrapped in a blue pillowcase and swirls of more tape. The man’s pants pockets were turned inside out. All that remained on him were empty key rings, his wedding band, and a gold chain with a mezuzah around his neck. And one penny.
Under the pillowcase’s wrappings, duct tape covered the man’s face like a mask. From the indentation of the tape, it appeared that he was still breathing when the tape was applied. His cotton coffin, a brown-and-tan Standard-brand comforter, was the same kind he had sold to his customers.
Two days later, authorities identified the dead man as Julius Adelman.
Steve, then 34, heard the news at his older brother’s electronics-repair shop. He raced home. He thought, Fuck everything. Then he thought, Fuck those yellow lines, and, Fuck that stop sign. He sideswiped another car in an intersection. To the other driver, he told the story of his last 42 hours. Then he handed her his license and just trudged home, leaving his wrecked car behind.
Steve made himself a simple promise: He would make damn sure that whoever had murdered his father got fried. Also, he would do justice to his father’s business by selling off the remaining items stacked in the shed and picking up the money outstanding from his father’s customers. Salesmen call this “collecting out.”
After a stint in bombed-out Japan at the end of World War II, Julius Adelman came home to Baltimore to work at his uncle’s bakery. Word among the returning vets spread that the real money could be made as a “route man” working installment sales. You sold goods on a route, and your customers paid you in set weekly or monthly installments. “You could make $200 a week,” remembers Howard Friedland, 74, owner of South Baltimore’s now-defunct E&H Warehouse, where Julius Adelman stocked up.
When a local company—J&R Kayes—sold off its business, Julius Adelman purchased one of its “country routes” and kept the company’s name. Soon enough, he would ditch the route and take his chances in D.C.
By the mid-’60s, all the District’s major roads were Julius Adelman roads. He had customers on North Capitol, East Capitol, and South Capitol, in Lincoln Heights and Columbia Heights, up and down Georgia Avenue and Benning Road. Business grew by word of mouth. When he sold you that coffee table ($119.95), he was actually selling to your entire circle. There wasn’t a place he wouldn’t go. Over 40 years, he went from grossing a couple hundred dollars a week to more than $1,000.
Julius went out Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays. He filled requests at the warehouse on Tuesdays and attended to paperwork on Thursdays. He made sure to schedule his route around prime check-cashing days, the first and third days of every month.
The salesman assigned each customer a number and card. The cards recorded each transaction, listing purchases in one column and dated payments in another. They reflect the bulk of Julius Adelman’s life: the mornings on the road from Randallstown to the District, the hours spent steering that wagon all over town, and the dozens upon dozens of stops. It is the history of a man tirelessly earning his keep, one crumpled bill at a time.
Ms. Gray from Quincy Street NW paid off a refrigerator purchased on Oct. 20, 1980, for $795.95 over the course of several years. She made 81 payments in mostly $10 increments: 10/27/80-$10.00, 11/3/80-$10.00, 11/14/80-$10, and on and on.
Ms. Lindsay of 13th Street SE paid off a sofa and love seat purchased in 1979 for $923 in increments of $10, $15, $20, and $25. She didn’t pay every week, nor every month, and hadn’t finished paying the items off more than four years later.
Ms. Wade of Bryant Street NE paid off a vacuum cleaner purchased in 1984 for $212 at $10 a visit until the balance reached $22. She gave Julius Adelman the final $22 on June 14, 1985.
Julius had a risky MO for a man who frequented sketchy neighborhoods. He always carried a wad of cash, usually about $5,000. As he drove around, he stored some of the cash in a green plastic box tucked into the innards of the wagon and divided the rest between the spare tire’s well and behind the backseat. The cash turned the salesman into a neighborhood bank. A common transaction went like this: A customer would come home with a paycheck for, say, $500. Adelman would cash the check, handing back $490, setting aside his $10 payment for that dish set.
Detectives investigating Julius Adelman’s murder thought there was a lot about the man’s business that Steve didn’t know. Perhaps his sales route would yield some answers. It could at least give the cops a set schedule of appointments to work with. Too bad the detectives couldn’t figure it out; they couldn’t follow the overlapping digressions and hunches of a salesman who really worked the city. Julius’ travels had their own internal logic. And that logic was buried. The man simply went everywhere on the hope that someone in the city would need a new living-room set or love seat or bedspread. “He went all over,” one law-enforcement official familiar with the case says.
The detectives did background checks on hundreds of customers and people associated with their addresses. Any suspicion that attached to a name they checked out. Dozens of names were brought to Steve. He didn’t recognize any of them.
Most of Julius’ customers adored the man they called “Mr. Kayes” or “Mr. Jules.” They compared his disheveled appearance to Columbo’s. They said he’d bring them cigarettes or milk, whatever they needed from the store. And that he always had time for some flirtatious banter and a cup of coffee.
“He was the nicest man that anybody would want to meet,” former customer Barbara Cunningham, 72, recalls. “I really miss him. I still have a bedroom set I bought for my grandson. He’s 23 years old now. My daughter still has the couch and chair that she bought from him. He was like a friend. . . . He [first] came in and started talking to me and he was just like somebody you had already known. Like he was part of everyone’s family.
“He never got mad if you were late,” Cunningham explains. “He was patient. You’ll never find anybody like him. He would work with you. He would come around and he would talk to you. He discuss his children. One of his sons had bought him a surround-sound, and he [said] he was just like he was at the movies. He said that he had problems with his kids, [but] that his kids had developed into nice men.”
Cunningham remembers Julius coming to her door with bills flopping out of every pocket. She was worried about him. “‘You don’t need to go in nobody’s house with all that,’” she remembers chiding him.
“The last time I saw him I said, ‘You need to stop going in these bad areas at night,’” Cunningham says. “‘You need to stop carrying money in your pocket like you do.’”
Julius told her that he had been dealing with people for so long that he was safe. He reasoned his customers—and their kids and grandkids—had become his extended family. “I said, ‘Mr. Kaye, nothing out here is safe anymore,’” Cunningham recalls. “I said, ‘Nobody gives a damn about you.’”
Every Tuesday the warehouse filled with stories of muggings or worse. Once a month on average, Friedland says, one of his dozen or so salesman would get held up. “My brother was held up, shot one time, and beat up and stabbed another time, and he killed a couple assailants another time,” Friedland says. “I was held up twice. That was how it was.”
Inevitably, the other salesmen would warn Julius. His fellow route men saw his fearlessness as a liability. “We’d talk to him. . . . He wasn’t afraid of anything—that was his problem,” Friedland insists, but Julius always explained away their concerns. He had a system, he’d say, of calling customers ahead of time, and they would watch out for him.
Julius was 5-foot-6 and weighed 174 pounds. He had a stocky build and barrel chest. For a time he kept a silver .22-caliber pistol secured in his wagon. He had a name for it, “Roscoe.”
Still, his street smarts didn’t prevent the occasional brush with trouble. Julius had his war stories from the road—the prostitutes and panhandlers who would tap on his windows, and the time his wagon got shot up in a grocery store parking lot during an aborted robbery attempt. But the worst incident came at the hands of one of his own customers. When he came to a door on his route, he was jumped by two men, one of whom brandished a pistol. Julius grabbed the pistol, turned the weapon on his attacker, and started clicking, Steve recounts. The gun didn’t have bullets. But it was a close enough call that he demanded full payment from the customer that day.
Julius Adelman had to have been murdered inside, detectives reasoned. Maybe by someone he knew. Maybe by a customer. It was not a stickup gone bad.
Several months before his murder, Julius had confided to Steve that he had veered from his usual business practices. Over the course of several years, he had lent a customer named Ida Chase more than $14,000. By June, the missing money embarrassed the salesman. “I didn’t want to tell you,” he told his wife. “I thought I’d have it back now by now.”
A few hours after her husband didn’t come home, Ruth Adelman remembered the conversation and that her husband was supposed to see Chase that day. She left a message for Chase, who didn’t have a phone, with her mother. “I can’t find my husband,” Ruth explained.
Chase’s mother, Ruth says, told her: “Well, if Ida did something, you better make sure Ida pays for it. Because she’s no good.”
Soon after, Chase left a message on the Adelmans’ answering machine. Her voice sounded hurried. “This is Ida Chase. I’ve been trying to reach you, um, leave a message on your machine. . . . I’m at my mother’s but I’ll call you later on this evening when I think you’re in, ’cause I need to talk to you . . . in reference to my TV and things that I paid Mr. Kayes for. And I’ll call you back later. Thank you.”
When Steve came home that Tuesday night, his mother told him about the message. He listened carefully and noticed something eerie. Word of his father’s fate had still not come, yet Chase seemed to be addressing her problems to his mother. Why would his mother need to concern herself with Chase’s TV?
Steve pointed this out to his mother.
That day and the next produced a flurry of talk between Ruth Adelman and Chase’s family. When Chase herself got on the phone, she pressed Ruth to make good on that TV. “Where’s my TV that he’s supposed to fix?” Chase asked.
“When you give me back the money you owe me, you’ll get your TV,” Ruth told her.
Steve wanted to learn more about this customer. He went to his father’s basement office, where he found a file marked ida chase on his desk. Inside were letters, notes, and a lot of bad checks. Strange bad checks. It appeared that Chase had routinely crossed off the various names and addresses printed on the checks and replaced them with her own name and Social Security number. The checks screamed of fraud, but Julius Adelman had accepted them anyway. Steve wondered how his father could be so gullible. What are you, a fucking idiot, Dad? Steve thought.
When the detectives came to ask Steve and Ruth whether Julius had had trouble with any of his customers, they had only one name on their minds: Ida Chase. Ruth recounted the series of phone conversations she had with Chase’s family. Steve handed over the answering-machine tape, hundreds of customer cards, and his father’s Ida Chase file.
On July 26, Det. Mitch Credle interviewed Ida Chase in her home at 600 I St. NE. She got to both the loan and her alibi quickly. Acknowledging that she was supposed to have seen Julius Adelman on the day of his murder, she said she had been out of the apartment all day. She also claimed that she had paid the salesman all of the more than $14,000 on June 29 with money her husband, Charles Chase, had won playing the lottery. She had no receipt for the lottery earnings, nor for paying off Julius’ loan.
“She stated that she had known the decedent since she was 10, and love him to death, he’s just like family,” Credle wrote that day. After further interviews, Credle noted that Ida Chase continued to tweak her alibi and that both Chases had trouble remembering which numbers Charles Chase had hit.
On Aug. 1, 1996, at 7:40 a.m., detectives executed a search warrant on the Chase apartment, where they seized, among other things, carpet and other fibers.
At the outset of the search, Ida Chase tried to leave with a folder that she picked up off her dining-room table. Detectives made sure to seize that folder. The folder contained copies of all the bad checks and notes documenting the loan—the same sorry records Steve had turned over.
The corresponding folder sealed the case for Steve. “She knew she was in deep shit when she tried to take that folder,” Steve explains. “That file, being out on that table. I didn’t need the fibers.”
Within days of the Chase apartment search, after his friends and family had begun going back to their business, Steve went out to his father’s shed and stood where the station wagon used to park. He unlocked the wide white door and went inside, determined to inventory what was left of his father’s life.
Four can openers.
Ten ironing-board covers.
Six dish sets.
Six glass sets.
One punch-bowl set.
Six knife sets.
A pair of electric carving knives.
Six replacement vacuum bags.
Twenty-four welcome mats (both bear and duck prints).
One smoke detector.
Twenty metal serving trays.
A dozen pairs of driving gloves.
And all those hyphenated kitchen wares: fork-knife-spoon sets and salt-and-pepper-shaker-and-toothpick-holder sets. Then there were the wall clocks, thermoses, sunglasses, fans, and bedding, plus drapes “out the ass.” He picked through his father’s spare tires and old oil cans.
Steve recorded these things on paper, mapping their location with letters and numbers. It took him a month to finish cataloging. “I wanted to know every fucking thing that was in that shed,” he says. He gave his two brothers the list of his father’s unsold items, but he wouldn’t allow them inside the shed without him or his mother as escort.
In August, the police department’s crime lab notified Steve that he could retrieve his father’s wagon. The Ford had been found six days after the murder in front of Spingarn Senior High School in Northeast D.C. When he picked it up, the interior still smelled faintly of his father’s cigars. Black fingerprint powder coated nearly every surface.
The wagon still dragged along the driveway’s apron. The backseats still teemed with product—more bed linens, a light-blue comforter, an Air King box fan, a white Goldstar microwave. And, in a corner, what Steve knew to be Ida Chase’s small television.
It all went into the shed.
Steve got rid of the wagon because it was too big a reminder of things. He then set his sights on selling all those items he had so dutifully recorded. “I felt a strong need to continue doing what he did,” the son explains. “Make it not for nothing.”
At home, Julius had transformed a modest family quarters into an evolving showroom. Steve’s apprenticeship had extended to assembling TV carts and bookcases. One important task consisted of repackaging the TV sets that Julius Adelman would bring home and use until he sold them. After they were purchased, the task of making them like new fell to Steve. “I’d unplug it. I’d dust it off. Windex the screen. Tie up the cord real nice—I always kept the little twisty-tie that came out the box,” Steve recalls. “I wrap a mean cord.”
Steve took his father’s things to South Baltimore’s Patapsco Flea Market. There, he rented a banquet table, sharing space with hundreds of other booths and thousands of bargain hunters. He set out the can openers and priced them at $15. He arranged the dish and glass sets at $10 apiece. But now these objects weren’t just objects anymore. They were pieces of his father’s memory. And people wanted to haggle.
The potential customers had questions, too. Such as where Steve had gotten the items.
Steve’s answer: “Like you give a fuck where I got it.”
The answer had to evolve. “It’s surplus,” Steve would reply. “We overbought.”
Then the customers would want to deal. They’d want that $15 can opener for $3. But this is new shit, Steve would think. Steve went home not having made a single sale. “I’m in no position to get haggled,” Steve explains. “It was like they were insulting my father. I’d get pissed off, channeling my anger in the wrong direction.”
“Who the fuck are you?” became Steve’s best sales pitch. He went back the next weekend, augmenting his dish sets with metal serving trays and driving gloves—stuff he didn’t mind discounting. After four tries, he had grossed $50.
“I sucked,” Steve says. “I don’t know how to sell shit at a flea market.”
Steve ended up giving a lot of stuff away. Each blouse, each tray proved difficult to part with. “Like another piece of my father disappeared,” he explains.
Steve wanted better results with the money owed to his father. At the time of his death, more than 170 customers had outstanding balances with Julius Adelman. The amounts due ranged from thousands of dollars to just over a hundred, totaling $82,406.
But Steve wasn’t allowed to collect out his father’s route. When he was 20, he had asked his father once if he could take over the business. Julius told his son that it was too dangerous and denied his request. After his father’s death, he asked his mother. There was no way she was going to let him.
Julius had taken him on the route five times in the mid-’70s when Steve was a teenager. Steve remembers bugging out at seeing the tightly stacked skinny houses, chipped paint, beat-up cars, and torn-down fences of a post-riot D.C. for the first time. He also saw that his father belonged. His father could fit into the landscape.
Steve would watch his father play master of ceremonies in customers’ living rooms and porches. He never heard a sales pitch from his father. “It seemed like he was socializing, to me,” he says. “I never really saw money change hands.”
But somehow it did, enough to produce food on the table, a house, and even the kidney-shaped pool that his father first opened the night of Steve’s bar mitzvah in 1975.
Through a friend of his father’s, Steve hired a retired salesman to collect out his father’s accounts. They were to split the proceeds down the middle.
But a few months into the job, the salesman came to Steve and his mother empty-handed. He couldn’t find the customers. And he couldn’t figure out how to get the ones he could find to pay. The guy didn’t carry $5,000 and offer to cash people’s checks. He told Steve his father had been “a fool” to let the bills get so high and that his father must have been a lousy salesman.
Steve says he got into the salesman’s face and threatened to kill him.
“‘You need to get out of my house or I’ll cut your fucking throat,’” Steve recalls telling the man. “I had to leave the house before him.”
By the spring of 1997, Steve had become more than familiar with D.C. detectives’ voice mails. The case was moving slowly. The police assigned to the case still didn’t have the FBI lab’s test results. They had a simple and difficult message for Steve: Be patient.
Although they still were awaiting key pieces of evidence, detectives had pieced together a simple narrative of events leading to Julius Adelman’s murder: Ida and Charles Chase, faced with mounting debt and imminent legal proceedings from the salesman, surprised Julius from behind at their apartment and suffocated him, said the detectives.
The cops had identified two more suspects, both living in Charles County, who they believed had helped carry out the murder and the disposal of the body, a feat that they had accomplished with the aid of a U-Haul truck. After the murder, detectives had followed the trail of Ida Chase, suddenly flush with money and making good on all sorts of failed promises: paying off her rent, her storage-facility fees, and even her mother’s mortgage. Steve believed in this narrative.
But as the months passed, the story started losing its coherence. A witness, Kevin Buckman, had placed the U-Haul truck at the Chases’ apartment and the two other suspects with the U-Haul. Buckman also told detectives he had spotted Charles Chase in Julius Adelman’s wagon. But this key witness was murdered in July 1998. The detectives had to tell Steve that they just couldn’t make a case for the other two suspects.
Steve found himself driving through Charles County and wondering about them, knowing that they would never face prosecution. It was a weird feeling.
“I have decided to make an appointment with the prosecutor and see her in person along with the detectives,” Steve wrote in a journal entry dated Jan. 11, 1999. “It was suggested I do this. It sucks to no end and I will still see this through. Fuck them.”
On June 2, 1999, detectives executed a search warrant to extract hair and blood samples from the Chases at police headquarters. Prosecutors believed that carpet fibers from the Chases’ living room matched fibers found on Julius Adelman. Beige and red fibers found on Julius and the comforter were also found on the Chases’ bedspread. Now, they believed they also had a match of Ida Chase’s head hair with hair found on Julius’ body, his handkerchief, and towels recovered from the station wagon’s front seats.
The Chases were arrested on Oct. 5, 1999. Several months later, a grand jury would hand down indictments. Steve turned 38.
The day before the Chases were formally arraigned—May 26, 2000—Steve had a heart attack. “I mean I feel grateful that I didn’t die,” Steve wrote in his journal four days later. “But I also feel inept like I can’t be counted on and looked at as dependable and reliable.” He had missed the Chases’ court appearance. He hated not being there. “I feel inferior and inadequate. That is the truth.”
The arrest and arraignment marked the only efficient moments in the entire court case. From that point on, trial dates came and went, canceled on account of the helter-skelter schedules of defense attorneys and judges, the defense’s right to conducting its own DNA tests, and still more bureaucratic hang-ups. No one, it seemed, had time to try the Julius Adelman murder case.
Time took a toll on the prosecutor’s set of facts. The FBI examiner who had tested the fiber evidence failed his proficiency tests. Ida Chase’s mother, who had agreed to testify against her daughter, gradually succumbed to dementia and later died.
Steve had little to do but keep tending to his father’s memory. He couldn’t advocate for his father in court; he couldn’t do much else, either. He threw chairs and trash cans during group-therapy sessions. He poured his thoughts into his journal. He wrote that he wanted to die.
Holidays were marked with cemetery visits. Court dates brought haggling with bosses about taking the time off and worries that he wouldn’t be able to handle seeing and hearing about the graphic end to his father’s life. In his journal, he drew a picture of a hand flipping the bird with the caption “Up Yours.” Some days that was all he felt.
According to a law-enforcement source, detectives felt compelled to warn the U.S. Marshals Service that Steve might freak out during hearings. They were told to also warn the judge.
In August 2001, Steve got married. Shortly thereafter, another trial date fell through, sending Steve into his longest bout of depression. The newlyweds spent their first year together leading separate lives, with Steve crying alone in his car or a darkened room and his bride, Jessica Adelman, trying to just stay out of his way. “I’m still waiting for him to get out of it,” Jessica says. “He’s gotten better. He has good days. But overall, he can at any time switch over into that get-away-from-me, leave-me-alone. . . . He can stay in it for days, sometimes weeks.”
In January 2004, Charles Chase died of natural causes while under home detention. Detectives were at a loss on what to tell Steve. The death came after the 11th postponement and six months before trial.
Steve didn’t care that Ida Chase, because of her prior criminal record, spent this whole time in jail. “So fucking what? So fucking what?” he says. “Who the fuck you think is paying for that? Me and you with our tax dollars. I’m feeding her with my fucking tax dollars, and I’m clothing her with my fucking tax dollars, and she gets to sleep on a mattress with my fucking tax dollars. She should be bare-ass naked in a fucking brick-wall room with no toilet.”
On July 28, 2004, Steve finally got to hear the competing stories of his father’s murder in open court.
Defense attorneys argued away the prosecutors’ evidence point by point, shredding the uncertified ex-FBI examiner and homing in on an unidentified fingerprint found on a piece of duct tape. They also pointed to the mess of fibers found on Julius Adelman and inside his station wagon that the police did not have tested. And they highlighted the findings of lab technicians suggesting that the hair matching Ida Chase also potentially matched all her mothers’ children, many of whom were also the salesman’s customers.
Prosecutors were left in the uncomfortable position of trying to prove that police officials had done a sloppy job securing the crime scene and that the untested fibers were irrelevant.
The prosecution’s star witness, Doug Murray, who placed Julius Adelman at the Chases’ house and placed the Chases with the U-Haul and inside the salesman’s car, was outed as the neighborhood drunk and a career informant. He exhibited symptoms of withdrawal on the witness stand.
Defense attorneys also had a theory of why their client had lied about paying off her loan from Julius Adelman. They declared in their opening statement that Charles Chase had heard rumors that his wife was having an affair with the salesman. “Charles Chase was angry,” one lawyer explained, adding that Ida Chase’s statements could be explained as “the panicky answers of someone who is realizing to her horror that a history of everyday borrowing and owing is beginning to look to some people like the basis for a terrible murder. And what they are are efforts by a wife of some 35 years to quiet her anxieties about what she has begun to believe her husband might have done.”
Steve sat through the weeks of testimony and the hundreds of pieces of evidence. The jury deliberated for six days. Steve spent that time at a nearby hotel, sleeping and zoning out in front of the TV. The jury finally came back and announced that they were hopelessly deadlocked—11 to 1 in favor of a guilty verdict. Of that moment, Steve remembers feeling: “Agitated. Aggravated. Frustrated. Set up. Pissed off. Mad. Shocked. What do you want? I was appalled.”
The court set a new trial date for the beginning of 2005.
By the time the second trial opened, Julius Adelman had been dead for eight-and-a-half years. Over that period, Steve had sat through countless court hearings and meetings with prosecutors. He had recorded every detail of the first trial in his journal. Each little wrinkle further convinced Steve of Ida Chase’s guilt.
He minced no words in a journal entry written on the fifth day of the second trial. “Ida just came out from the back room, smiling, she has some friends or relatives sitting a couple of rows behind me. My first thought was ‘wipe that smile off your face bitch.’ This morning has been a rollercoaster of sorts emotionally.”
Those emotions stemmed from the difficulties of prosecuting the oldest yet-unresolved murder case in D.C. Superior Court. Witnesses who took the stand went hazy on details—details that Steve himself couldn’t let go of. Cops had retired or transferred into new jobs. The events of July 8, 1996, didn’t seem so firm to them anymore.
Ida Chase’s attorneys took advantage of the situation. They set on impeaching every witness’ testimony. By then, the defense team had a pretty easy job. All they had to do was compare the witnesses’ statements on the stand to their previous testimony before the grand jury and at the first trial. Every change in shading, every new inflection, got magnified.
Doug Murray came in sober, having gained a new home, the D.C. jail, since the last trial. During his testimony, Steve wrote, “Jesus, this is going to be a fiasco. He is in no way going to come across as being someone who can accurately recall any details. . . . [T]his guy is describing trying to lift a rolled up carpet that weighed a lot which is making me draw a picture in my mind of having my father’s dead body being rolled up inside this carpet.”
Judge Rhonda Reid Winston refused to admit into evidence a mug shot of Ida Chase taken prior to 1999. Even what Chase looked like at the time of the murder couldn’t make it into the record. Steve wrote: “She doesn’t see where there is a probative value to it. Fuck her.”
Ella Redfield, Ida Chase’s sister, took the stand, prompting this entry in Steve’s notebook: “Ella looks like she cannot believe she is here again testifying. . . . She lasts sees dad on Sat. 7/6/96 at 6017 Eastern Ave. Ella remembers asking Ida back then if she killed Mr. Kayes. She doesn’t remember how Ida answered. That’s like a bunch of shit.”
The despair in Steve’s journal entries took a dramatic turn when Ida Chase’s son Charles La’Air Chase testified. Charles La’Air Chase was 7 years old at the time of the murder and had turned 16 about a month before he appeared on the witness stand. He hadn’t testified in the first trial.
At first, Charles La’Air Chase had a hard time even picking out his mother seated at the defense table. He initially identified a juror sitting in the back row as his mom.
According to Steve’s journal entry for the day:
Charles La’Air Chase testified to hearing one loud thump coming from the living room. He turned the sound down on his TV but didn’t hear anything else. He also stated that his mother told him that if the police asked he was to say that he wasn’t at the apartment that day. “He just said that he no longer refers to Ida as his mother,” Steve wrote.
Later, while the defense attempted to turn Charles La’Air Chase’s testimony into a jumble of confused statements, Steve wrote: “He is also an adopted child. After he said that he found out that his mom was really locked up for the ‘murder of Mr. Kayes,’ my heart broke and tears began to run down my face. . . . I hope this kid will be okay.”
On the morning of Feb. 9, Steve got word that the jury had reached a verdict after deliberating for one day. He showed up at D.C. Superior Court and learned that the building had been evacuated because of a bomb threat. He joked outside the entrance that it had been eight-and-a-half years for justice, so what was a few more minutes? “It’s comical,” he said. “I could go onstage. It’s comical.”
Finally, the courthouse reopened. At 12:13 p.m., the jury filed into Judge Reid Winston’s courtroom. Police officers who had worked the case filled the seats, as did some of the Office of the U.S. Attorney’s top officials and prosecutors. Steve sat a few rows from the back of the room.
The jury foreman announced not-guilty verdicts on all charges.
Ida Chase wept with her attorneys before being escorted away. Through the courtroom’s walls, Steve could hear Chase whoop and exclaim: “Yes!”
Chase would be treated to KFC and a Coke. She would say that she had contacted Montel Williams and Oprah Winfrey about doing a story on her ordeal, and that she planned on suing the police department. She would deny having murdered Julius Adelman: “Definitely not.” If she had the chance, she said she would tell Steve: “It’s time to get over it and move ahead. I’m not angry with anybody. You can’t change destiny, you know?”
Steve was the last to leave the courtroom. His face was bright red and wet. He entered the third-floor hallway to a crowd of hushed faces. Detectives gathered angrily to one side. Around the corner, Ida Chase’s defense attorneys were hugging colleagues. Soon a victim’s advocate eased over to Steve’s side. “You need anything?” she whispered. “Did you sit through the whole trial?”
Julius Adelman has one last paying customer. The Northwest D.C. resident, who purchased a three-piece living-room set for $897 years ago, insists on sending Ruth regular installments. She made her last $25 payment on March 5. Of Julius, she says: “He was a very good person. My girlfriend introduced him to me—she had bought furniture from him years ago.”
This story originally appeared in Washington City Paper.
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