Teresa Dodson hadn’t laid eyes on her elder son, Dennis, for years. The last she knew, about a decade ago, he had an address in Independence, Mo.
“We’ve been trying to find him for a long time,” she said from her Iowa home.
She knows now he’s in the Cook County Jail, on the psychiatric floor of the hospital wing.
For drugs, she assumed. Denny’s drug problems started after he and some friends stole hog tranquilizers as a teenager from a vet’s office, she said.
“None of them were quite right after that,” she said.
Dodson certainly didn’t know her 34-year-old son had been accused of sexually assaulting an 83-year-old lady who tried to help the homeless young man, after she found him behind the Home Depot in Orland Park in late September.
Dodson also had no insight into why her son had ended up in Chicago’s south suburbs, some 250 miles from his hometown. Police don’t know why either, though they think he may have traveled here on a bicycle.
Dennis Dodson has been on the move for at least the last 15 years, landing in as many states, according to his arrest, court and prison records.
His travels spanned the nation: a disorderly conduct arrest in New York City in 2001; extensive problems with the law in California and Florida, and plenty of stops in America’s heartland.
He’s been through Illinois at least once before, in November 2004, when he acquired a state identification card, using the Tinley Park address of a social service agency. Yet he has no prior Illinois arrests, and he had never before been accused of such a violent crime.
Dodson has stolen cars, gotten drunk in public, battled police officers, trespassed. He possessed cocaine and stolen property. He took things from stores. He’s been arrested 60 or so times, according to records Sun-Times Media acquired.
And when police in several states tried to arrest him, Dodson fought back.
A Troubled Youth
Denny Dodson’s troubles started close to home in southeastern Iowa, not far from the Mississippi River and the Missouri border.
He was mainly raised in West Point, Iowa, a small town in the state’s southeastern corner, maybe a dozen miles from the Mississippi River.
Dad and mom divorced when their two boys, he and Phillip, were young.
“It was a good life until his dad and I got a divorce,” Teresa Dodson said. “Both boys kind of went wacko.”
They went to school in Fort Madison, Iowa, on the river, where the family had moved. But neither one graduated, she said.
“I used to go sit in that school to try to keep them there every day.”
Eventually, she sent Phillip to live with his grandfather in Missouri, she said. He was kind of a follower, prone to trouble. And Dennis?
“Denny just sort of did what he wanted to do. I had no control,” she said. “I did what I could do.”
Denny got into drugs. Then, she got a call from police in Missouri. Her elder son was in jail.
“They said they were going to put him on a bus home. He never came home.”
He showed up at home about a month later. He wasn’t more than about 19.
“He stayed with me for a couple months,” she said.
Then he disappeared again.
“He sort of up and went. And then next thing I knew he had stolen a car.
“That’s the last I had heard from him for years.”
Dodson was convicted of operating a vehicle without the owner’s consent in January 1995. A year later, he was caught driving without a license. Then came burglary, trespassing and theft charges.
Between 1997 and 2001, after violating his probation, he was sent to the Iowa Department of Corrections, housed at facilities with addiction programs that a judge ordered him to attend.
Then he started to move, covering at least 10,000 miles in 2001.
Dodson’s 2001 looked like this: San Diego; New Mexico (shoplifting); New York City (disorderly conduct, possessing stolen property); Portland, Ore.; Jacksonville Beach, Fla.; Sioux City, Iowa (public intoxication). By early 2002, he was in Salt Lake City. Then Washington state and Escambia, Fla. In 2003, when his mother said his brother died, he was in California, Colorado and Ohio.
In 2004, he got an Illinois state ID, using the address of Together We Cope. The social service agency would not comment, citing the privacy of its clients.
Dodson appears to have settled in Florida, mainly in Vero Beach on the Atlantic coast, from 2005 to 2009. But he was busted in April 2010 in Nevada, accused of concealing a deadly weapon. He was arrested again in May 2011 in Nevada, found guilty at trial of trespassing and aggressively soliciting for donations.
In between, he kept getting arrested in California.
Back to Illinois
A wooded patch behind the Home Depot store, 7300 W. 159th St., had been a getaway for the homeless for a while now, Orland Park police Cmdr. John Keating said. It was a daytime stopover of sorts.
Until last week, elderly women still took out the trash from their condos nearby. Girls crunched around in the leaves, enjoying a day off from school. One left a little pink bicycle, unlocked, in the grass.
But not far away, a signed glared vagrants, Dodson among them — “NOTICE! All pallets, steel racking, merchandise and trash is the property of The Home Depot.”
In that very parking lot in August, police said Dodson threatened to stab a store employee.
Then in September, an elderly lady noticed him as she cut behind the store on her way home from the bank.
She offered him food, handed him $5. He was pleasant enough, she told a Cook County judge Friday, so she went back later with $10 and a box of crackers and offers to help. She called her church and the Salvation Army, but everyone refused to help him. A neighbor suggested she get police to make a well-being check.
The next day, on Sept. 23, she went back one last time to let the redheaded man know it wouldn’t be her helping him anymore.
She woke him up and smelled the booze on his breath. She couldn’t have imagined the response when she mentioned police:
“Do you want sex?”