Where were you 30 years ago, when we bid adieu to the evil empire formerly known as the Soviet Union, Mike Tyson the must-see boxer and Freddie Mercury the one-of-a-kind rock frontman?
In Chapter 2 of a Sunday miniseries, we rounded up a panel of special guests to narrate a look back at 1991.
Five months after ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ creeps out moviegoers, there’s chilling news out of Milwaukee about a real-life Hannibal Lecter who neighbors describe as shy, square and ‘a little weird.’
Says ANNE SCHWARTZ, who broke the story of Jeffrey Dahmer’s arrest: “As a part-time crime reporter for the former Milwaukee Journal — and part-time waitress, like every well-paid journalist — I received a tip from a police source just before midnight on July 22, 1991.
"Two Milwaukee police officers had made a gruesome discovery — a man had been keeping body parts in his apartment, including human heads in the refrigerator. That tip led me to an apartment building at North 25th Street and Kilbourn Avenue in Milwaukee. It was a tip that led me to inexorably be linked to one of the most famous serial killers of our time — Jeffrey Dahmer — even 25 years later.
“I covered the trial and wrote a book on the case, 'The Man Who Could Not Kill Enough: The Secret Murders of Milwaukee’s Jeffrey Dahmer' — the only book written by a local reporter. There was a morbid curiosity to know the details, but it was more than that — there was a desire for people to read the facts and then to figure out how to ensure this never happened again.
"The discovery that a serial killer had lived in our midst in the Milwaukee area for 10 years, where he murdered 16 males, set the city on its heels and remains a subject into which few want to delve in Milwaukee.
"I am welcome to discuss my work of 26 years as a crime reporter, and nearly a decade in law enforcement, including the most unsavory case details of crimes that made the headlines, but I am not welcome to discuss the Dahmer case in my home state. Not here in Wisconsin.
"Make no mistake: This was a horrific story to cover for the daily news, then it was a story I lived with as I wrote the book for the 10 months I wrote the book after the discovery. It lives with me today — not so much the gory details, but the way the public reacted to the information then and now.
"The public is largely inured to serial killer discussions 30 years later in 2021, given the graphic depictions on television and in movies. But for me, it was the story of a lifetime for a young cops and courts reporter.”
In what one NBA official later describes as ‘the biggest press conference in the history of sports,’ basketball’s most charismatic star — Magic Johnson — steps up to the microphone and says: ‘Because of the ... the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers.’
Says SAM PERKINS, the Los Angeles Lakers’ starting forward that season: “The day the news broke, we had just finished scrimmaging at Loyola Marymount. We broke in groups to shoot and all of a sudden, Coach (Mike) Dunleavy told all to gather and gave us a serious talk: ‘Practice is going to be cut short. Head home and be at the Forum at 2 p.m. Go. Now.’ We didn’t know what was going on.
“We all get to the locker room and we sit for 30 or 35 minutes before Coach comes in and briefs us. Then Magic comes in and tells us he’d contracted the virus and would leave the team.
“He told us to keep playing in the purple and gold and he’ll be checking in.
“We were all in shock.”
Says DR. MERVYN SILVERMAN, who as San Francisco’s director of health oversaw the city’s initial response to AIDS: “At the time, I was sad to hear that Magic was HIV-positive, but thought that his announcement would have a profound impact on the public, because ‘If Magic could get infected, then anyone could.’
“He was in such great shape and he still got infected. I felt that the youth of the country would take notice and change some of their risky behaviors.
“I worked with him and his foundation. Actually, he did so well — which I was very happy to see — that the public health impact was somewhat diminished.”
Not long after boxing’s undisputed heavyweight champion of the world loses his first fight, comes more shocking news: Mike Tyson is arrested for, and later convicted of, raping Desiree Washington in Indianapolis.
Says GREG GARRISON, the lead prosecutor in Tyson’s trial: “To everyone in the galaxy it looked like a long shot, but the evidence was there if we could find a way to blunt that superstar thing.
"You look at cases like (Kobe) Bryant and Ray Lewis, cases that begged for a trial and conviction and it's easy to classify Tyson as a potential winner. No factual witnesses to the act itself except our victim, but she was a doll of a kid — 18 years old, 5-foot-6 tall and just a really great young person.
"He dwarfed her. When she walked in the courtroom when her name was called as our first witness, there was an audible gasp out of the gallery at her diminutive appearance. But her story was compelling, and her delivery proved her to be genuine and ultra believable.
"Physical injuries that were identifiable in the ER as well as later on were ;inconsistent with a consensual act,' as the physician told the jury in trial. Torn clothing, her immediate reaction as she left the hotel and her own credibility went a long ways toward stripping the guy of his shield of celebrity — and the effectiveness of it all was plainly on the faces of defense counsel at the end of the first six-day week.
"It's been 30 years, and the efficacy of her descriptions hasn't faded a bit. He was the guest of the state of Indiana for three years, and the rest of his life has been a long array of proof of how he is and what he can do when he wants something.
"The best description of the case was in the verdict form: Guilty as charged.”
Long before smartphones and social media, George Holliday’s 79-second video — shot on a camcorder while looking out his apartment — makes national news. It shows four Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King — 33 baton blows and seven kicks, resulting in two broken bones — following a high-speed chase.
Says SUSAN HERMAN, past president of the ACLU: "On seeing the video of Rodney King being beaten, I was horrified by the viciousness in part because of its context. These were not Mississippi law enforcers before the civil rights era, but California officers decades later, starkly revealing the breadth of abusive and racist policing over the country and over time.
"At the same time, I was hopeful that technology — the ability of a bystander to record and publicize what had happened – might help to deter such conduct in the future.
"I wasn’t the only one to hope that documenting the truth would matter. The Witness program aimed at deterring human right abuses around the world by distributing video cameras; many jurisdictions began to require police to employ cameras to record their actions.
"Recording has continued and, shockingly, has continued to capture horrific conduct like George Floyd’s murder. Some react in outrage, now as after the Rodney King tapes became public. But in our polarized society, documenting the truth is not enough to effect meaningful change because truth itself is not enough."
Says 1977 University of Illinois alumna JERI WEINSTEIN: “I was a Los Angeles police pfficer right in the middle of it. I worked in the San Fernando Valley close to Foothill division, where that occurred.
"During that year, I was on the street working patrol and compared to today there was not the same backlash. I helped some officers through their investigations. After the trial, I was deployed in Los Angeles during the riots. It was a life-changing event on many levels.
"All of it could have been avoided if the desk officer who had spoken to George Holliday had just accepted the video and turned it into his supervisor. What few people remember is that there were three people in that car. The other two individuals complied with the officers and sustained no injuries nor did they have any problems.
"This incident changed the department forever, and was probably the impetus for more police accountability. It was a very stressful time, but the dichotomy of what is happening today, compared to what happened back then is really interesting.
"After the incident, there were no protests, but there was tension. Obviously, after the trial there were riots and destruction. Sadly, the Black community destroyed their own neighborhood, some of which has not been rebuilt even today.
"That incident led to many changes in policing and accountability and I believe, even though there were no cell phones, more people videotaping police-citizen encounters. Rodney King had a criminal history before the incident, and had multiple arrests and drug problems after the incident. All the officers involved were terminated.”
A development years in the making plays out on Christmas Day, when President Mikhail Gorbachev resigns, the Soviet Union dissolves and the decades-long Cold War with the U.S. is declared over.
Says Georgetown Professor ANGELA STENT, who served as a national intelligence officer for Russia in the U.S. State Department: “On December 8, Boris Yeltsin, head of the Russian Republic, got together with the heads of the Ukrainian and Belarusian republics and formed a new entity, the Commonwealth of Independent States.
“They called President Bush to give him the news and only some time later did Gorbachev find out that he had lost his job and his country.
“The USSR was not defeated in a war — it collapsed from within.”
Says University of Illinois Slavic Languages & Literatures Professor RICHARD TEMPEST: “The sense of foreboding, shared by hundreds of millions of people on our planet, that a thermonuclear exchange between the United States and Soviet Russia might happen at any moment, disappeared for good.
“The world drew a collective sigh of relief.
“In the last 30 years, the U.S.-Russia relationship has had its ups and downs. Unfortunately, at the moment, we are very much in one of the ‘down’ phases. Yet the threat of an apocalyptic conflict between our two nations has not returned. Russia may be a strategic adversary, but it is no longer an ideological enemy.
“Compared to China, which aims to supplant the United States as the world’s preeminent power, Russia’s geopolitical ambitions are relatively modest.”
No one takes a knee for this rousing rendition of the national anthem — delivered 10 days after the start of Operation Desert Storm by Whitney Houston, prior to kickoff of Super Bowl 25 at a high-security Tampa Stadium.
Says Pro Football Hall of Famer THURMAN THOMAS, whose Buffalo Bills fell, 20-19, to the New York Giants: “To be honest, the thing I remember the most is the servicemen and helicopters circling around the stadium because of the war in Iraq. You could see guys with AK-47s at the top of the stadium.”
Says JIM KELLY, Buffalo’s Hall of Fame quarterback: “I have heard a lot of national anthems in my day, but Whitney Houston’s version is by far the best.
“It still gives me chills to this day.”
As Michael Jordan’s Bulls are on the cusp of winning the first of six NBA championships, another future Windy City sports star breaks into the White Sox starting lineup.
Says former Illini DONN PALL, a White Sox reliever from 1988-93: “Frank Thomas was a unique and phenomenal hitter. He would rarely swing at any pitch out of the strike zone — even if it was only an inch outside the zone.
“The balls he hit seemed harder than anyone else. Even ground balls would dart through the infield.
"I’m glad he was on my team and I didn’t have to face him much as an opponent.”