A small plastic doll sitting on a small rocking chair. That was what water rescue personnel from fire departments as far away as Warrenville and Winfield recovered inside a green bag after a search of about two hours in the Des Plaines River just south of Cermak Road in North Riverside on Oct. 22.
According to North Riverside Fire Chief Brian Basek, a passing motorist called 911 at about 1:20 p.m. after seeing a woman get out of a beige or gold vehicle, open the trunk and then throw what appeared to be three bags, at least one of the green in color, over the railing of the Cermak Road bridge and into the Des Plaines River.
The witness told the 911 dispatcher that the woman “struggled to get [the bags] over the railing,” said Basek.
Because the water can be anywhere from 4- to 7-feet deep in that part of the river, Basek said, he called for the Lyons Fire Department boat and initiated what’s called a “water rescue box” to Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) Division 12 to perform what officials expected to be a recovery operation. Recovery personnel entered the water at about 3 p.m.
Traffic on Cermak Road was reduced to one lane going eastbound near the bridge, which backed up heavy rush-hour traffic, causing long delays.
In all, according to Don Parker, spokesman for the Cook County Forest Preserve Police Department, three boats and eight divers were deployed in the river. They used sonar and poles to comb the bottom of the river south from the Cermak Road bridge to the Canadian National Railroad trestle about 200 feet downstream.
“The sonar detected some shadows in the area,” said Basek, “but they turned out to be unfounded.”
Divers did not find any of the three bags within the search area, leading officials to surmise that the bags might have been carried downstream with the current. Two boats searched the river banks all the way to Ogden Avenue, said Basek.
During that sweep they recovered what was described in the North Riverside Police incident report as a “small, green Centrella grocery bag” about 100 yards downstream. The doll and rocking chair were inside that bag. According to Parker, the doll was a typical, factory-made plastic doll with brown skin.
The doll was wearing a white dress, a white shawl and a white headwrap. Both the doll and rocking chair were wrapped in a white cloth inside the bag.
“The bag did match the color description, and the bag wasn’t in the water long, because it was clean inside the bag,” Basek said.
The recovery operation was called off after the bag was found snagged on a branch in the river, at about 5 p.m. Emergency personnel and vehicles cleared the scene at about 6:30 p.m.
Parker said county officials believe the recovered bag was one of the three thrown into the river by the woman, whose identity remains unknown.
Asked if county officials had any idea why someone might put a doll in a bag and throw it into a river, Parker said that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources through the years has recovered similar objects.
“It’s consistent with previous incidents the IDNT has dealt with before,” said Parker. “They’ve found bags like this before.”
Official believe the objects are “connected to certain cultural groups” who believe throwing objects into the river will bring good luck or a fresh start, said Parker.
Both Parker and Basek defended the robust response to the reported incident. Both pointed to the recovery last year of a missing toddler in the Des Plaines River between 26th Street and 31st Street. The toddler had gone missing a month earlier; his mother and her boyfriend are suspected of killing him and dumping him in the river in Maywood.
“All of the agencies cooperated and took it very seriously given last year’s incident,” said Parker. “It’s one of the reasons we responded the way we did.”
Parker said that the Cook County Forest Preserve District cautions against throwing anything non-natural into rivers “or anything that can be misconstrued, as this was.”