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Family of autistic teen killed by Calumet City cops loses civil suit appeal

Stephon Watts’s family is still searching for justice.


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Danelene Powell holds a photo of her children, including Stephon Watts, bottom right. - JEFFREY MARINI
  • Danelene Powell holds a photo of her children, including Stephon Watts, bottom right.

Even though Wayne Watts is fighting leukemia and is tethered to a dialysis machine three days a week, he frequently makes the 20-minute drive from his home in Hazel Crest to Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, to visit the grave of his nephew, Stephon. "I stand there and I talk to him," says Watts. "I just tell him that we're still here fighting for you."

But that fight just suffered a major setback. Stephon Watts was 15 in February 2012, when he was shot and killed by Calumet City police officers in his own home. Now an Illinois appellate court has rejected his family's appeal to have a hearing on a civil suit filed against the city and the two officers who killed Stephon. The family's prospects of having their day in court are dwindling.

The officers who shot Watts, William Coffey and Robert Hynek, had been called to the house before, and knew that the teen was autistic. During their final encounter, Coffey, Hynek, and a third officer entered the Wattses' home after Stephon's father, Steven Watts, placed a nonemergency call for help. (The two had been fighting.) When the officers arrived, Stephon was in the basement. Less than two minutes later, Coffey and Hynek fired shots, alleging that the boy had threatened them with a steak knife as they descended the stairs. The family maintains it was a butter knife.

This is one of the "hundreds" of facts in dispute between the family's and the officers' accounts of what happened that day, says Tony Peraica, the Wattses' attorney.

After the incident the two officers were put on paid administrative leave. The family filed a civil suit against Calumet City, Coffey, and Hynek in April 2012. A Cook County circuit court judge granted the defense's motion for summary judgment, ruling that it was impossible for the facts to be presented in a light that would be favorable to the Watts family.

"The whole thing was handled as if it happened in some sort of banana republic without any rule of law," Peraica says of circuit court judge Eileen Brewer's decision. "We came together [with Calumet City's attorneys] to argue our motions—she didn't even let us. It was already decided."

The Watts family then turned to the Illinois appellate court. But on July 6, the appellate court unanimously upheld Brewer's summary judgment.

In the appellate court's 17-page decision, Justice Terrence J. Lavin wrote that the Watts family's expert witness did not describe the officers' conduct as "willful and wanton," which plaintiffs must prove to bypass the state law that grants police officers immunity from prosecution for using deadly force when they believe their lives to be in danger.

The expert witness was S. Ronald Hauri, a former police chief from Waukegan. In his deposition he called the officers' conduct "negligent and unprofessional."

Lavin used this same turn of phrase to justify the lower court's ruling.

"Simply put, Hauri's speculation does not somehow provide plaintiff with enough evidence to avoid summary judgment," Lavin wrote. "It also merits mention that Hauri acknowledged that the force used when Stephon displayed a knife was reasonable."

—Steven Watts, father of Stephon Watts

Peraica insists that Hauri's words were taken out of context. "The judges cherry-picked the facts from a four-hour deposition that Mr. Hauri gave, and found what they wanted to find to justify their decision," he says.

Hauri was himself surprised that the judges saw his statements as favorable to the defendants. "It's one of those situations that, had [the officers] taken the time and the steps to deescalate the situation prior to forcing it into a confrontation, it would have turned out differently," he said in an interview Monday.

Peraica, a former Cook County commissioner, is now preparing to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. Though he's hopeful about the court taking the appeal, Calumet City attorney Michael McGrath says he's "pretty confident that they won't take the case."

"Although it's an unfortunate situation, we're pleased with the outcome," McGrath says.

Meanwhile, the Calumet City Police Department appears to have moved on from the incident. "Having a situation like this arise is not uncommon in law enforcement work," says training director Sergeant Jason Menclewicz.

Menclewicz insists the case is no longer on people's minds. "I think it's been put to rest," he says. "No one's talking about it anymore. In view of what's going on in the world, what happened here years ago is irrelevant." Hynek and Coffey are back on patrol.

For the Watts family, however, Stephon's death is ever present. His sister, Renee, spoke about it at a Department of Justice forum in Uptown last week. His mother, Danelene Powell, continues to march at protests against police violence.

Unlike his brother, Steven Watts hasn't been to the cemetery to visit his son. "I haven't had the courage to go because I don't want to think of him like that," Watts says. "It's just so hard for me to imagine him in the ground."

Watts, who watched his son die, says he relives the moments of February 1, 2012, every day. "I think about what I could have done differently," he says. "It really bothers me that I didn't take a lot more precautions . . . like taking the police downstairs when I could have called him upstairs."

Though Watts is himself fighting stomach cancer, he's chosen to delay a dangerous but potentially life-saving operation because he fears he might die on the operating table before the case is resolved.

"It's hard but I'm trying to hang on," he says, "because I want those policemen to testify in open court so everyone can hear what they did and how they did it. It was so cold what they did. We've got to get this out." v


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