It was just after 1:00 AM in the freezing cold early morning hours of Friday, January 30th, 1970. To put in perspective how long ago it was, just three weeks earlier the Beatles had performed together in the studio for the final time, and it was just three weeks since a new soap opera ‘All My Children’ had made its debut on television.
The remnant of a previous snowfall still coated the ground as rookie Philadelphia police officer Fred Cione pushed his red patrol car around the corner and into the 1700 block of west Oxford Street in the city’s 23rd district.
My wife, the former Debbie Marshall Howe, grew up right next door to Fred’s family on Huntingdon Street in the city’s Kensington section. As a 14-year-old budding adolescent at that time, she already recognized that Freddie, a single Vietnam vet, was ‘really handsome’ and ‘built’.
As this handsome 25-year-old rookie cop drove onto Oxford Street that night he came upon three men and found something suspicious about them, or their behavior, or just the fact of them being on the streets in that location on that kind of night.
What we do know for sure is that Freddie got out and approached the three, and that one of them opened fire on him with three gunshots, one of which went into his chest and another into his gut. The men ran off, and Freddie was left to die like a dog in a North Philly gutter. That was almost three full decades ago.
Just last week, in my role as an instructor with the Philadelphia Police Department’s Advanced Training Unit, I was teaching a CPR class. One of the cops in attendance wore the name tag ‘Cione’, and I asked if he was a relative of Fred. The young man responded that he was Fred Cione’s nephew.
I am quite sure that he has heard the story a number of times already in his life. His own father, Fred’s brother Nick, became a Philly cop following his brother’s death. Two of Nick’s own sons subsequently have become Philly cops as well.
The murder of Fred Cione on that cold January night came back to me in the past couple of days as we here in Philly suffered the murder of yet another of our young officers, Pat McDonald. Pat is the fifth Philly cop to be murdered in the last 2 1/2 years.
But there is one big difference between the murders of Fred Cione and that of Pat McDonald and other Philadelphia officers murdered in the line of duty such as Chuck Cassidy, Gary Skerski, Steve Liczbinski, Izzy Nazario, Danny Faulkner, Lauretha Vaird, Steve Dmytryk, Danny Boyle, and Leddie Brown.
The big difference is that the murder of Fred Cione remains the only murder of a Philadelphia police officer that has never been solved.
Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo and his top investigators were never able to find anything to solve the case: no real suspects, no murder weapon, no motive.
The police Homicide Unit has never let the case die, assigning top detectives to take a new look at it every so often, but no one has ever come up with any substantive leads. The only reliable witness, a female, was brought in to look at thousands of photos over the years but was never able to identify anyone.
The case remains the ultimate frustration for all of us as Philadelphia police officers. When one of us goes down on the job at the hands of a bad guy, the very least that we expect is that our brothers and sisters will hunt our killer down to the ends of the earth, and bring that killer to justice, one way or another.
The three evil specters whom it was the unfortunate fate of Freddie Cione to run into on that cold, dark, wintry January night so long ago remain demons that we have never been able to exorcise.
Think about and remember Freddie Cione as you drive past his mural. It is painted on the Aramingo Avenue side of his neighborhood recreation center, just south of Lehigh Avenue. He shares the mural with Joey Friel, another neighborhood native killed in the line-of-duty.
We not only must never forget Fred Cione, but we must specifically remember him and his case, and never allow justice to elude us again.