Man Admits Killing Missing Chicago Screenwriter In Jamaica, Cops Say
October 30, 1994|By Jan Ferris, Tribune Staff Writer.
Screenwriter Terry Runte left for the Caribbean two weeks ago to research a new film. But the story turned macabre when a suspect allegedly confessed to killing the Chicago man and dumping his body in shark-infested waters, officials said Saturday.
The Jamaican man awaits criminal charges in a Kingston jail, one day after he led police divers to Shark Rock, where they found Runte's clothing and a concrete pillar and rope allegedly used to weight the body, said Michael Houlahan, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy.
Runte's body had not been found. An islandwide hunt was on for two other men believed to have taken part in what officials say was a robbery-motivated killing.
The findings confirmed what friends and family had feared since Runte, 34, failed to return to Chicago as planned eight days ago. The co-writer of "Mystery Date" and "Super Mario Bros." was last seen Oct. 17, when he offered a lift to two teachers-one British, the other American-he had met at the Roof Club, a Port Antonio bar.
The suspect is the American woman's boyfriend, said Jonathan Morrison, a Jamaican police inspector. He could face the death penalty, if convicted.
"It's sort of been like watching a mystery movie of the week. Now we have to deal with the emotional reality that he's gone," said Parker Bennett, co-author of the two movies and Runte's writing partner since the two met in college 13 years ago.
Runte's fiance, Jan Pessin, and friend Kris Hammond left for Jamaica last week to generate publicity they hoped would speed up the police investigation. They offered a $2,500 reward and gave photos of Runte to local media representatives.
The suspect allegedly confessed toward the end of the week and led police to a T-shirt, jeans, belt and watch, which were identified by the two teachers as Runte's.
Terry Runte Was The Kind Of Character You Met Once In A Lifetime - Now He's Gone
December 28, 1994|By Jan Ferris, Tribune Staff Writer.
Terry Runte spent 34 years perfecting his own version of hip, his modest Midwestern roots masked by a Frenchified accent and a penchant for vintage suits and fedoras.
He drove a '62 blue Dodge Dart and kept a '58 DeSoto Adventurer convertible on layaway. He stocked his kitchen with pink and white Melmac, the same plastic dishware his parents dined on in the Eisenhower years.
Even the pursuit of his craft, which would lead the Chicago screenwriter to his death on a Jamaican beach, was of a different cut. He awoke at an hour he dubbed "the crack of noon" unless snared in the Writing Zone: a creative vortex of late hours, word-processing jam sessions and rebellious refusals to shave until a project was complete.
By all accounts, Runte was a first-class schmoozer who coasted on autoflirt, gathering yarn for his own tales from everyone he met en route. Life was one big script-right down to his own meticulously crafted persona.
"Terry was the best character he ever wrote," said friend Tim Kazurinsky, a local screenwriter and comedian of Second City and "Saturday Night Live" renown.
The two worked out of former dental offices on the Northwest Side, part of Chicago's circle of writers and actors who shunned Hollywood at no small professional cost.
Runte's live-in girlfriend, Jan Pessin, was an aspiring actress who shared his passion for movies. They met six years ago while auditioning as extras for a beer commercial, along with scads of beautiful hopefuls "with big suburban hair," she recalls.
Pessin's own long face and finely chiseled features became well-known once Runte vanished in Jamaica, rousing fears of foul play. For an entire week in October, she and other friends turned to the media, hoping to prompt authorities to action.
Their highly public pleas allowed a brief peak at Chicago's largely unexamined anti-L.A. subculture. The news reports of its hipster-hero have tapered off. The public goodbyes-the standing-room-only memorial at the Bailiwick Repertory and a benefit at Second City-have been said.
Privately, it's another story. The late writer lived so large, his friends can't believe he's not coming back.
"I keep thinking that it's a bad joke he's playing," said comic Will Durst, who met Runte in their Milwaukee hometown in the late '70s.
God forbid that he should die young, Runte would sometimes tell friends, and be remembered as the guy who wrote the forgettable films "Mystery Date" and "Super Mario Bros."
But that's what took place in the early hours of Oct. 17. Friends and family blame Runte's own big heart and mouth for getting him into trouble.
It unwound like a made-for-TV-movie: writer goes to Jamaica to work on script, parties at an island nightclub, offers newly-made friends a lift home and is killed by one of them. Eleven days later, a suspect leads police to a beach east of the resort town of Port Antonio, where Runte's body was reportedly disposed.
"Shark-infested waters," said his mother, echoing the October news reports. "That's how unbelievable this is."
Terry Deane Runte was the second of three children born in Milwaukee to Kathy and Ken Runte, a retired electrician.
He was a bright but introverted child, reading through the World Book encyclopedia, from A to Z, when he was 12. In high school, he played trumpet and tennis. He quickly shed his shyness.
"When I met him, Terry was a way-too-smart-for-his-own-good kid," said Durst, who witnessed Runte's short-lived career in comedy and remained a close friend afterward.
`Mystery Date' flops
At the time, Runte was enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, taking just enough film classes to satisfy his curiosity. He paid his way through school, working in bowling alleys and truckstop motels.
Runte dropped out, but not before meeting Parker Bennett, a Wilmette-reared film student at college in Madison. The two worked on a satirical magazine that lasted four issues. Their creative partnership would continue for the next 13 years.
"He came in full of attitude," Bennett recalled of their first encounter, with Runte pulling up on his motorcycle and clad in the appropriate attire. They free-lanced for "National Lampoon," wrote bad movie parodies and did time as copywriters for several Chicago ad agencies before devoting themselves full time to their own work.
The two wrote several scripts. "Mystery Date," completed in less than a month, was their first success. Or seemingly so.
It began as a dark comedy about a guy who sets up his younger brother to die. The anti-hero was a slick womanizer, partly fashioned after Runte. They had high hopes. But by the time Orion released "Mystery Date" in 1991, after two years of rewrites, most of the color had been sucked out.
In desperation, the partners flew to L.A., hoping to write the movie adaptation of two plumbers out to save the world. "Super Mario Bros.," based on the popular video game, died a quick box-office death in 1993.
"The only saving grace is that (Arnold Schwarzenegger's) `Last Action Hero' came out that summer and stole our thunder," Bennett said. "It was a bigger bomb."
Financially, for Runte, it was fast or feast. He and Pessin lived in a small Ravenswood Manor apartment decorated in '70s shades of brown and rust, the living room dominated by a cornflower blue sofa and 32-inch TV.
Living high and low
Kathy Runte would make up care packages of toilet paper and dish detergent. Her son also wrote for "Omni," "Playboy" and other magazines to get by. When the checks came, it was shopping time, from secondhand clothes to $250 walking shoes, the last item Runte charged before he died.
"Terry was the type of guy who bought all of his clothes at i.k. don," Pessin said, referring to the upscale Clark Street boutique owned by Runte's friend, Izzy Don, "yet would spend all of Sunday cutting coupons out of the newspaper."
To make it big, it was becoming evident something had to give. Bennett moved first, relocating to L.A. in early fall. Two weeks later, Runte took off for Jamaica to work on a comedy, based largely on his former bachelor days: three trips to the Caribbean island with three separate women to figure out which one he loved.
Runte called Chicago early in the week to invite Pessin down. He was a phone fanatic; when he didn't call again, she suspected the worst. He didn't return on his scheduled flight the next Saturday. Three days later, Pessin and a friend, Kris Hammond, a University of Chicago computer professor, flew to Jamaica to look for him.
"Something my mother always told me: If you don't make a lot of noise, people don't pay any attention, especially in a situation like this," Pessin said recently, as she chain-smoked her way through a pack of Merits.
"If I had to swim the English Channel, I probably would've been capable," she continued. "On one level, I knew (Runte was dead). On the other level, you're just hoping beyond hope."
By week's end, police claimed they had wrung a confession out of a Jamaican laborer, Runte's passenger and one of three suspects in his robbery-related death. Divers recovered a beige Gap T-shirt, jeans, belt and vintage watch. Runte's body, tossed into the waters off Shark Rock, has not been found.
Death is never timely. But Runte's came at a time when he was starting to grow up, his friends say. He was getting a handle on taxes and budgeting. He was even thinking of settling down.
"The last couple of months he kept talking to me about marriage and (asking if) fidelity was possible," says Kazurinsky, a wedded father of two. "He put up such a (bad-boy) front, which everybody saw through."
Pessin was also a holdout. Runte was her first relationship. Without him, the city, with its memories of the two of them, has become unbearable. She left in late November to live with her parents in Kentucky.
Next spring, Pessin plans to move to California to shop around the last screenplay Runte wrote with Bennett. "Blue Christmas" is a holiday downer that tracks a Yuletide-hating cop and a department store Santa who was witness to a murder.
It's an offbeat note on which to end. Pessin is convinced Runte would want it no other way.
"Terry really didn't want to be remembered for writing `Mystery Date,' and I don't blame him," she said. "He was way too gifted and talented to let that be his epitaph."