Will Chicago have a villain vacancy? Let's hope so

Ding-dong, now Drew is gone.

Who's next?

Who will be the next entertaining villain Chicago exports to the world?

I have to confess that I had trouble following the trial of Drew Peterson, the suburban ex-cop who last week, while his fourth wife remains missing, was convicted of drowning his third wife in a bathtub.

The story was too grim to track on a daily basis. Drew, the buffoonish lady's man, no longer seemed remotely amusing. The men-in-black swagger of his attorneys (those suits, those shades) felt like a mockery, even if the lawyers were just doing their job.

It felt icky to gawk at an event that for the families involved, Peterson's included, was not a Lifetime TV drama but a real-life trauma. I tried to tune out.

But if you live anywhere near Chicago, even if you didn't try to follow the Peterson trial, it followed you. It has been everywhere for what seems like forever.

On Friday morning, I went to the bank, carrying a copy of a newspaper with Peterson on the cover.

The bank clerk flicked a finger at the photo.

"That guy," he said with a puff of disgust.

That's all he said. Just "that guy." I knew what he meant.

Like the trial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the trial of Drew Peterson has been a grand civic drama, and like all civic dramas, it has, in its perverse way, been a unifying force.

That's not to equate Rod and Drew. Different criminals, far different crimes. But both of them played to the camera, invited the circus, and their downfalls were overlapping sagas that anyone could discuss. At some point, most of us did.

Was hearsay fair evidence in Peterson's trial? (I'm still not sure.) Was Rod really any worse than many politicians? (I'm still not sure.) We could debate such issues without the acrimony attached to, say, presidential politics.

"Both were larger-than-life characters," notes a colleague. "One (Drew) was the subject of a made-for-TV movie, and one (Rod) was the subject of 'Saturday Night Live' parodies. One (Rod) had a wife who went on a reality show to eat bugs. The other (Drew) is convicted of murdering a wife and thought to have disappeared another. One wrote a self-serving book (Rod), and the other is said to be doing so (Drew)."

So, he concluded, "What does Chicago do now that two of our greatest heels are no longer in the picture and out of the way in prison?"

Places and eras are defined in various ways. By sports teams. By mayors. By weather catastrophes.

And by crimes and the criminals who commit them.

Crime stories are always mysteries, even once they're solved. What made him do it? Did he really think he could get away with it?

In our feverish fascination, in our borderline-ghoulish collective desire to see the villain vanquished, we're not so different from a medieval village. Unlike the medieval village, we have 24/7 media to keep us agitated.

But now the Chicago era of Rod and Drew is mostly over, and if there's no one in line to fill the villain vacancy, that's OK.

Of all the images from the day Drew Peterson was found guilty, the one that struck me most was the scene, related in Andy Grimm's Tribune story, of Peterson's children peering through the blinds of their home at the media out front, a reminder that our entertaining civic dramas always involve some innocent person's private heartbreak.

mschmich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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