It was just a simple reaction.
That’s what Craig Mathis says after he and a buddy heard a woman’s screams as he walked on the Circle Avenue bridge on the early morning of June 10 and saw two people struggling on the Blue Line tracks.
“At first I thought someone had fallen on the third rail,” Mathis, 31, says.
Mathis and his friend interrupted what turned out to be a sexual assault in progress at around 2 a.m. at ground level near the tracks below.
By the time the two got to the top of the bridge, they could see a man straddled on top of a screaming woman lying on the ground. They started to yell, Mathis recalled.
“I remembered I had a train card. So I darted through the turnstile and started running down the ramp.” His companion dialed 911.
Chester White, 48, of Chicago was arrested by Forest Park police and charged with sexually-assaulting a woman he grabbed on the platform. The 5’3″, 100-pound victim told police that White allegedly approached her as she stood alone on the platform and told her he “wanted sex.” She told police White grabbed her and said, “If you don’t do this you’ll end up on the tracks.”
The two struggled and fell off the platform, with the woman hitting the back of her head on the ground. She told police White attempted to pull off her pants — that’s when the two men reached the top of the bridge.
Mathis said he reached the el platform and saw that the attacker had walked quickly away to the Harlem exit. He said he pulled the woman from the tracks and sat her down to ask if she was all right.
“My whole mindset was to go get that guy,” Mathis said.
He asked the victim if the attacker had displayed a gun or a weapon. “I told her, ‘sit down and don’t go anywhere.'”
Mathis — still dressed in athletic clothes from an earlier softball game — threw his keys and wallet on the platform and started to run towards the offender, staying on the opposite side of the platform dividers to avoid being seen.
“That’s when I saw the police in about seven squad cars drive up at Harlem Avenue; I was amazed how quickly they got there,” he said. “I thought, ‘Lucky for you, buddy, because I didn’t get to you first.’ I’m in excellent shape, and it would not have been a good day for him.”
Police said Mathis pointed out the offender and then led them to the victim, who complained of rib pain and had cuts on her hands. She declined medical attention.
“After the craziness was over, I was just happy this lady’s alive and well and walking around,” Mathis said.
A property manager in Oak Park, Mathis said he had been out in Forest Park with his softball team after their defeat earlier at the Ridgeland Commons diamonds.
“I work from home, so I have the luxury of going out sometimes midweek,” he said.
He was also celebrating another milestone: It had been eleven months since he had donated a kidney to a childhood friend and he was busy planning a fundraiser for that one year anniversary.
“I’m Oak Park, born and raised, and a very social person, so I’ve told plenty of people about my kidney donation,” he said.
His grandmother lives a couple of blocks away from the scene in Forest Park. Mathis has family on the Chicago Police force, but he said he never considered a law enforcement career.
“I considered firefighting, a lot. I’m not a big fan of guns,” he said.
Forest Park’s Detective Sgt. Mike Keating said he was going to ask the Forest Park Village Council to honor Mathis with an award.
“I wish there was more of the kind of quick-thinking he displayed in this world,” Keeting said.
Mathis, who has had three television interviews since the incident, says the attention has been “a great ride.” But he insists he’s not seeking attention or reward for his actions. But he’s hoping publicity will drum up some business for his July 12 fundraiser for Donate Life Illinois at the Fizz Bar and Grill in Chicago.
The best thing, he added, was the appreciation of his softball colleagues at their game the following Monday. When he came up to bat for his team, the pitcher took off his glove and the entire opposing team gave him a standing ovation.
“I was really wowed by that,” Mathis said.