Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Belleville News-Democrat on March 3, 2005
Two elderly sisters and their hairdresser were found stabbed to death Wednesday morning in one of the city’s most horrific crimes in decades.
Michael J. Cooney, 62, and sisters Dorothy E. Bone, 82, and Doris J. Fischer, 79, were found dead in Cooney’s house at 7813 W. Main St., which doubles as his beauty salon, Michael’s, and an antique business.
Another customer who came to the salon for an appointment discovered the bodies at 11:05 a.m. Police did not release her name.
All three victims were prominent Belleville residents. Fischer was the widow of Julius Fischer Sr., who owned Jul Fischer Distributing in East St. Louis. Bone was the wife of Belleville lawyer and developer Maurice E. Bone and her son-in-law is Swansea Mayor Charles Gray.
Fischer was having her hair done when the three were attacked, police said. Fischer and Cooney were found in a small room where Cooney washed customers’ hair; Bone was found in a hallway.
Mayor Mark Eckert, who knew the victims, called the killings one of the city’s worst crimes in his memory.
“In the 49 years I’ve lived in Belleville, I don’t remember a triple homicide,” he said. “This is another awful, senseless act, and it’s absolutely devastating.”
More than a dozen Belleville Police cars arrived shortly after the bodies were found. Cooney was stabbed multiple times.
Another customer, Felicia Fuchs, arrived for her 11:30 a.m. appointment with Cooney and learned her hairdresser of 30 years was dead.
“I’m just shocked,” Fuchs said. “I’m absolutely appalled that something like this could happen in Belleville. He was a wonderful, wonderful person, a very kind and very gentle man. I’m at a loss for words. This certainly makes me want to go home and lock the doors.”
Passers-by had shock on their faces as they came upon the scene, which had 14 police cars and two ambulances at one point. A crowd of neighbors watched behind yellow barricade tape.
From time to time, a family member of the victims would arrive and react with horror when they learned about the murders.
One of Fischer’s daughters, upon arriving at the crime scene, spotted her mother’s new seafoam green Dodge Stratus parked behind Cooney’s business and collapsed to the ground.
“Oh, my God! That’s Mom’s car, that’s the car we bought for her birthday,” she screamed. “Oh, my God.... She was just an old woman. I don’t understand, I don’t understand.”
An ambulance arrived to take her to a hospital and treat her for shock and grief.
Police were uncertain of a motive for the crime but did not rule out robbery.
“The business had no cash register as such,” Police Chief Terry Delaney said, “so it is hard to say if anything was taken.”
The house was filled with antiques, including jewelry that could be hard to track. Chief Deputy Coroner Robert Shea said Cooney’s wallet was found at the scene, but it was empty.
The suspect or suspects stole Cooney’s 2000 gold or light brown Nissan Pathfinder, which had Illinois handicapped license plates MJC 6.
From West Main Street, the house looks like any other residence. There is no sign indicating it housed a beauty shop and an estate sale and antique business.
Police said they are looking for several of Cooney’s business associates with whom they need to talk.
About a half-hour after police arrived, Officer Brian Dowdy searched the neighborhood with Britt, one of the city’s tracking dogs from the K-9 unit.
The animal followed a scent from the back door of the house and down an alley in the rear to the west. The trail went cold behind the Main Street Market grocery store about three blocks away.
Police said they found a man’s bloody shoe print on the floor of the home. They took a copy of the print to area shoe stores, where they tried to determine what brand and size of shoe it was.
Brian Hepfer, a friend who worked with Cooney in his estate sale business, said Cooney frequently carried large amounts of cash around because of the nature of dealing in antiques. He was known to carry the wad of money, folded in half, in his shirt pocket.
Cooney had about $500,000 worth of antiques and antique jewelry in the house, Hepfer said, and there was no telling how much cash he had stashed in the home.
“Everybody knows Michael and knew Michael had a lot of money, that’s no secret,” Hepfer said. He said he had planned to meet with Cooney on Wednesday night about remodeling Cooney’s house.
“Michael was a very generous man. You just don’t expect this kind of thing to happen in Belleville. This is shocking. I didn’t want to believe this happened,” he said.
Crime scene investigators and deputy coroners moved in and out of the house, carrying brown paper bags of evidence to awaiting vehicles. The bodies were removed about 3 1/2 hours after police arrived.
The Illinois State Police and St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department were assisting Belleville Police in the investigation, and the Metro-East Auto Theft Task Force was helping to search for the missing Pathfinder. The Springfield Police Department also was alerted about the missing SUV.
Family members at the scene said they heard the car had been recovered, but Delaney said those rumors were untrue.
“A couple of vehicles were stopped, but they weren’t the right people,” Delaney said. “Right now it’s all about finding that vehicle.”
While the neighborhood was considered peaceful, just last week residents met with Sgt. Don Sax, Belleville’s Community Oriented Policing officer, to discuss setting up a Neighborhood Watch program on the city’s west end.
“I’m worried,” said Scott Denney, a neighbor who lives less than a block from Cooney’s home. “I was worried when the bank across the street was robbed two years ago, but this is something much worse. This is something to convince me to lock my doors. I expected robbery in the neighborhood, but you never expect a homicide, especially not a triple homicide.”
Throughout the day, customers who had hair appointments at Cooney’s salon arrived, only to discover the murders.
Shirley and Bray Schulte, both of Belleville, arrived at the shop so Shirley could keep her 1:30 p.m. hair appointment, something she’s been doing for the past 30 years. Not only was Shirley Schulte one of Cooney’s hair salon customers, she also bought antiques from him from time to time.
The last piece she purchased was an antique marble bust of a replica of Michelangelo’s “Divine David.”
The Schultes said Cooney operated a very relaxed, casual business and often left the door open.
“I used to say to him, ‘Michael, this isn’t safe. Just anyone could walk in,’” Shirley Schulte said. “With all the antiques in there, it was probably very attractive to anyone.
“He was such a wonderful man. He had a great sense of humor and really loved the good life. I feel like I’ve just lost an old friend. I just can’t believe this has happened.”
Police Lt. Dave Ellis reviewed a current schedule book with two women who had hair appointments with Cooney at 9 a.m. Delaney said when the two women left at 9:30 a.m., Cooney was still alive.
“We believe the murders happened between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m.,” Delaney said.
Bray Schulte knew Cooney and said the antique dealer loved jewelry.
“When he went out, he dressed very well,” Bray Schulte said. “He certainly enjoyed the finer things in life, but I’m glad that today we had a 1:30 p.m. appointment and not an 11 a.m. appointment.”
Delaney said autopsies of the victims are planned for this morning.
Eckert, who was at the scene most of the day, expressed sympathy to the victims’ families.
“This is a very sad day for Belleville,” he said. “It’s very tough when something like this happens, and it’s the type of situation that really hurts the whole community.”