On the night of December 29, 2003, Morio L. Billings was AWOL from the Army, in violation of his probation, and driving a BMW X5 sport utility vehicle he'd stolen less than a day earlier. The 31-year-old was staying with his mother in Chicago, but he wanted "blow and crack" badly enough to risk yet another jail stay. He had been taken into custody at least six times in 2003, with police alleging residential burglary, receiving stolen property (twice), driving while suspended (twice), auto theft (three times), and possession of a controlled substance.
Driving to Wilmette, a Chicago suburb, Billings parked the SUV on Laurel Avenue, a short walk from his target house on Linden Avenue, the same place he'd hit the night before. Last time he'd gone through the dog door, but he'd taken the keys (along with a Sony PlayStation 2, a TV set, and the SUV) before leaving. He "didn't care if anyone was home," he'd later tell police.
Entering the house through the kitchen door, Billings heard an alarm go off but proceeded to explore the home anyway. He saw a computer monitor and tugged on it.
Hale DeMar, a 54-year-old restaurateur who had recently separated from his wife but was watching their two children that night, was asleep upstairs when Billings entered his kitchen. DeMar had been unable to get his locks changed on short notice after the previous night's burglary (he would later be accused of not trying hard enough), but he had activated the security system. He had also put six hollow-point rounds into his Smith & Wesson .38 Special and placed it under his bed. It was one of two handguns he'd owned for more than 20 years without loading them; until the burglary he'd kept them locked in a safe, still in their original packaging.
Around 10:30 p.m. DeMar was awakened by the security system, which indicated a kitchen-door entry. Relying on the system to contact police, he grabbed the .38 and went downstairs. Months later, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn would call DeMar--who is five feet, nine inches tall and weighs 140 pounds--a "suburban cowboy." Wilmette Chief of Police George E. Carpenter would say he put himself at risk "unnecessarily, on multiple levels."
Shots in the Dark
DeMar faced more than second-guessing after the break-in. He was charged with violating Wilmette's handgun ban, an offense that carries a $750 fine. His attempt to challenge the fine in court shows how difficult it can be to assert a right to armed self-defense in the United States, despite an explicit constitutional guarantee that would seem to preclude gun laws like Wilmette's. Illinois courts have been so hostile to this right that DeMar's lawyer never cited the Second Amendment in his arguments, relying instead on other, tangentially related constitutional provisions. Ultimately it was the state legislature rather than the courts that prevented DeMar from being punished for daring to protect himself and his family.
When he got downstairs, DeMar saw a man in his dark family room. Since he "didn't see any flesh," he thought the intruder was masked. He was right. From the kitchen, DeMar fired two shots. One struck Billings in the upper left arm.
Now both men wanted the same thing: Billings out of DeMar's house. Billings ran, heading through the family room, dining room, and living room. He passed a door leading outside but didn't go through it. "I don't know," he'd later say. "I guess I should've. I just wanted to get the fuck out."
Billings came to a hallway connecting the kitchen, front door, living room, and stairs. DeMar fired two more shots, one of which dug into Billings' left leg. Billings broke a living room window, climbed through, and ran westward through the dark. DeMar went back to his bedroom. Trembling, he called the police.
At some point the phone rang, and DeMar's 10-year-old son, Jack, picked it up. It was the alarm company. Jack explained the situation.
As the police responded, a neighbor called in a suspected burglary. Billings, once again in DeMar's SUV, had cut through a yard on Laurel Avenue, breaking a fence on his way to Evanston's St. Francis Hospital. It was further than Evanston Hospital, but he wanted to get as far away as possible, and he was more familiar with St. Francis, which is the hospital where he was born.
Arriving at DeMar's house to find him on the phone with their department, the police took both of his guns. They came across several bullet holes, a black and tan baseball cap, a "skull cap/dew [sic] rag," and blood. At the property on Laurel Avenue through which Billings had driven they found broken pieces of plastic from the SUV's passenger-side mirror housing. At St. Francis Hospital were the rest of the vehicle and the offender. Billings had parked the SUV across a sidewalk near the hospital, gotten out, and collapsed; staff had taken him inside. In August 2004 he'd receive a seven-year prison sentence.
Two days after the break-in, the Cook County state's attorney's office released a statement declaring DeMar's actions self-defense. But Illinois requires gun owners to keep a firearm owners' identification card, and DeMar's had expired in 2000. On January 8, 2004, he was charged with that violation, which carries a maximum penalty of a $2,500 fine and a year in jail. Prosecutors dropped the charges about a month later, saying they did not want to "revictimize" DeMar for a "lapse."
But the Village of Wilmette fined DeMar $750 for disobeying its handgun ban. "Our function is not to make ordinances but to enforce them," says Brian King, deputy chief of operations at the Wilmette Police Department. "The individual told us he was knowingly in violation of the ordinance for a long time. If you don't enforce it in that case, it makes it impossible to enforce it for anybody else." Chief Carpenter acknowledges that the department could have made an exception in light of the circumstances. "There is discretion involved," he says, "but we felt it was appropriate in this case."