Life

I Survived a Notorious Mass Murder and Never Told My Story – Until Now

In 1966, student nurse Luisa Silverio arrived in Chicago from the Philippines. She'd dodge the knife of a killer within months.
21 February 2020, 9:15am
Luisa Silverio Longid Richard Speck murder survivor Corazon Amurao
Photo: courtesy of Luisa Silverio-Longid

It’s a crisp, autumn morning in Jeffrey Manor, a residential area in Chicago’s far south side. The temperature is beginning to drop. You can hear the birds chirping, the leaves rustling and cars roaring along dusty roads. All is peaceful in the Windy City.

In the early 1960s, even under the weight of segregation that deeply impacted low-income neighbourhoods, crime rates in the city were relatively low. That was until Wednesday the 14th of July, 1966, when a woman in her twenties broke the morning’s silence, sobbing and yelling: “Oh my God! They are all dead!” Corazon Amurao was a Filipina exchange nurse at the nearby South Chicago Community Hospital and she had just made a horrifying discovery.

At 2319 East 100th Street, Corazon crawled out from under a bed, where she’d hidden overnight, to find dead eight women – also nurses at the nearby hospital – scattered throughout the two-storey townhouse where they had all lived. Their bodies were heavily bruised from tightly-bound strips of clothing and brutalised with stab wounds, as later described by Cora’s attorney, William “Bill” Martin, in Crime of the Century: Richard Speck and the Murders That Shocked a Nation (co-written with journalist Dennis Breo). Seven were Amurao’s housemates, while one had planned to sleep over, from her place nearby.

All eight murders were committed by Richard Speck. Martin recounts that Speck, then 24, already had 41 counts of arrest, including drunk driving, trespassing, forgery, violence, rape, robbery, and murder. It took less than four days to capture him. By the end of the week, he’d attempted suicide, saved by a roommate who heard his cries for help as he bled from self-inflicted wounds. After being rushed to Cook County Hospital for an emergency procedure, his tattoo – a dark “Born to Raise Hell” on his forearm – gave him away, catapulting Speck and the survivors into a dramatic court case. One part of the story, though, was never told.

*

Decades later, I'm standing outside the site of those horrific crimes. East 100th Street still looks similar to the photos in Martin’s and Breo’s book, published in 1993. I’m there with Luisa Silverio, my 74-year-old grand-aunt (she’s my maternal grandmother’s sister). Though she wasn’t in that bloody residence in 1966, she had been earlier that day. And later, Silverio escaped Richard Speck through sheer luck.

Silverio, just like Amurao, was a Filipina exchange nurse living in Chicago. On the 13th of July, she and her colleague, 23-year-old Valentina Pasion manicured each other’s nails at apartment 2319, the scene of the crime. They’d come off a seven-hour shift at the nearby hospital between 7AM and 3PM. She tells me she and Pasion talked about homesickness and each other’s pre-nursing education in Manila. Exhausted, they planned a sleepover that very night. Pasion cooked pancit – a Filipino dish made of noodles, cooked vegetables, and beef – for the townhouse’s Filipina nurses: Amurao, Merlita Gargullo, my grand-aunt, and Pasion herself.

Luisa Silverio in the 1960s as a young nurse in the Philippines

As the afternoon wound down, Luisa remembered she had a stack of letters from her then-boyfriend, waiting for her to attend to at home. She had been putting off writing a reply for the longest time, and planned to do so before gathering her things and returning to apartment 2319 to spend the night. Those letters ended up saving her life.

“I went home,” she says, in a mixture of Tagalog and English. “I needed to answer all three letters. While I was there, the hospital called to ask if I can clock in for substitute duty the following day – which was my day off.” After writing to her then-boyfriend, she decided to tell Pasion personally that she could no longer sleep over. She didn’t know that Speck was already in the flat, holding all the nurses captive.

Unaware of this fact, she went over to apartment 2319 and rang the front doorbell. Speck, disturbed by the sudden visitor, slowly deliberated whether to answer the door. He eventually did. But he didn’t know that the house also had a back doorbell, which Luisa rang just as he approached the front door.

Luisa had waited for a while at the front door, before trying the back, and then the front bell, one last time. Exasperated, Speck went back upstairs, hoping the unknown visitor would eventually leave. Luisa did – she’d not heard anyone come down. Luisa inadvertently courted death three times and escaped unscathed.

*

Richard Speck killed Filipina student nurses Valentina Pasiona and Merlita Gargullo, as well as American student nurses Nina Jo Schmale, Gloria Davy, Suzanne Farris, Patricia Matusek, Pamela Wilkening, and Mary Ann Jordan in cold blood. At the time, the case shook the country to its foundations. The notion of a mass murderer, described using that term, was still relatively unknown. After only 49 minutes of jury deliberation following a two-week trial in 1967, Speck was found guilty and sentenced to death by the electric chair. He eventually evaded that execution in 1972, when it was deemed unconstitutional and abolished by the US Supreme Court. He died in 1991 from a heart attack in custody, serving a 400-year sentence.

Luisa has kept quiet about her part of the story for 54 years. Since then, she had moved on, but not forgotten that evening. Besides navigating a debilitating language barrier, she was scared to tarnish her own American dream. “I was thinking of my future here. I wasn’t sure if it was alright to speak of it. It could have changed my dreams of being a good nurse.”

Luisa Silverio Longid Chicago Richard Speck murders close call

Luisa Silverio in front of her former home. Apartment 2319 was just blocks away. Photo: the author

After renewing her nursing contract in Chicago for another two years, she returned home to the Philippines, got married, and started a family. She migrated back to Chicago in 1974, where her husband and young sons wanted to see where she'd almost escaped death. At that time, she “couldn’t do it”, still reeling from the second-hand trauma. “I was traumatised. It was devastating. All my fellow nurses and I did was cry.”

Now, the townhouses are gated by a steel, black fence. Only apartment 2319 stands without a fence surrounding its front lawn. The dark alley, where Luisa walked through between front and back doors, is now enclosed by a fence. A glass panel shaded by a blind now covers the kitchen’s former screen window. A wooden shed, painted in white, now sits at the small, gated back lawn of the townhouse, too. I watch my grand-aunt look at the property.

Her former residence, apartment 2410 just two blocks away from 2319, still stands. The doors, too, are gated by metal. But its front porch remains open and free. My grand-aunt and I even took a photo in front of the house.

Throughout my stay in Chicago, she showed me photos of her earlier nursing days. Some feature Amurao, the lone survivor, who is now happily married with children and grandchildren.

Thinking of Valentina Paison, grand-aunt Luisa says in Tagalog: “If she were still here, maybe we could have still met again… perhaps gotten together...” Tears start to well in her eyes.

“Her pancit was delicious,” she adds now, smiling. “That’s how I’d love to remember her.”

@YSVitangcol