A few minutes before 10 AM on June 13, 1998, a sunny Saturday, Sophia Latuszkin had just started walking across Harlem Avenue at the corner of George Street in Elmwood Park when a teal pickup truck swerved toward the curb and struck her head-on. The pickup was going so fast she was thrown 143 feet. She landed in the street, her arms and legs broken, her spine dislocated.
Witnesses said the truck kept going another 50 yards before it stopped. The driver got out, walked over to a Walgreens drive-through window, and told the woman there to call an ambulance. One witness said she watched him "stagger" over to the 66-year-old Latuszkin. He touched her neck, then stood up and looked at her. As witnesses gathered and the police arrived, he went back to his truck and drove away. A witness tailed the pickup, got the license plate number, and gave it to the police at the crash scene.
Thirty minutes later, about the time Latuszkin was pronounced dead, three officers--Glenn Mieszala and his supervisor, both with the Elmwood Park police, and a backup officer from the Chicago Police Department's 25th District, which covers the city's far west side--went looking for the suspect. They didn't have far to go. The plates were registered to 38-year-old George Wilson, who lived in an apartment building on Newland Avenue in Chicago, a half mile south of the crash site. The damaged pickup was parked outside, and after learning from a neighbor that the driver had just gone upstairs, the officers knocked on the door of his apartment.
Mieszala wrote in his arrest report that the first thing he noticed when the door opened was "a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage on the suspect's breath." Asked if he was George Wilson and if he owned the teal pickup parked outside, the man said yes.
"Then you know why we are here," said Mieszala. At that point, he wrote, "Mr. Wilson began to shake" and went into his kitchen, "swaying while walking and using the countertop to assist and support himself."
Wilson said, "Yes, you're investigating the accident on Harlem and you want to ask some questions. I tried to help that lady."
When Mieszala told Wilson the crash was under investigation and he was being taken into custody, "Mr. Wilson became angry and stated, 'What are you doing? I'm the police. Don't fuck with me, I'm a Chicago police officer.'"
The night before, the Chicago Bulls had been playing Utah, hoping to clinch the NBA championship. Because fans had rioted after previous games, Chicago police were fully mobilized--every officer who wasn't on vacation was supposed to be at work and in uniform. But the Bulls lost. There were no crowds to control, and most of the extra officers were off duty by 12:30 AM.
Wilson, a father of two whose divorce had been made final a week earlier, worked in the 25th District. Its headquarters are part of the sprawling Area Five complex at Grand and Central, a state-of-the-art facility in a high-population, high-crime part of the city that opened in 1982 to handle spillover from overcrowded districts nearby. It quickly gained a reputation: police veterans recall that many cops who considered themselves hotshots jockeyed to get jobs there. "It's a very fast district," says Chicago police spokesman Robert Cargie, meaning there's a lot of action. "People who like police work and want to do police work generally gravitate to faster districts."
But in June 1998 the 25th District was suffering from low morale. Two of its officers had just been fired for beating Jeremiah Mearday in the station lockup nine months earlier, which had prompted a federal inquiry and had put the district on the watch list of the new superintendent of police, Terry Hillard. His promotion four months earlier had been accompanied by a pledge to improve the Office of Professional Standards, which investigates excessive-force allegations, and the Internal Affairs Division, which investigates other misconduct charges but was seen as reluctant to do so.
After the Bulls game, according to witnesses later interviewed by Sergeant John Putney of internal affairs, some off-duty officers from the 25th District went to Grand Central Station, a cop bar on Grand two blocks west of district headquarters. Closing time was 3 AM, and as it neared, some patrons--cops and civilians--grabbed six-packs and cases of beer and went to join the crowd that had gathered in the spacious parking lot behind the 25th District offices.
The site is surrounded by train tracks, fencing, and industrial buildings that limit outside scrutiny. Police officers, including one who used to work in internal affairs, say that for almost as long as the Bulls had been winning, the parking lot had drawn cops from the north and west sides for after-hours celebrations, whether the Bulls won or lost. One officer who's since left the district explains, "When you don't have to go out and get rocked and bottled it's a great thing." The officers also say that Fridays were the worst nights on the streets so the parties afterward got a lot wilder.
The drinking in the lot on June 13 had started sometime after 2 AM. According to interviews and reports that Putney filed, witnesses said that Wilson, who got off work at two, was at the party and that he supplied some of the beer, even though police department rules forbid "transporting alcoholic beverages on...Department property." Other people brought beer too, and part of it was evidently unloaded into coolers in the back of Wilson's pickup. More than one witness told Putney that some officers were still in partial uniform, also a violation of department rules, and that they'd seen at least two "white shirts," meaning superiors.
Around 4:30 AM, witnesses said, an officer fired his semiautomatic pistol at a freight train car, another violation of department rules. Other officers yelled, and he put his gun away. Some partygoers started a bonfire with twigs, sticks, and a city sawhorse, and most of the cops and civilians seem to have stayed within tossing distance of the flames, though some drank in their cars. Witnesses reported seeing at least four kinds of beer consumed: Icehouse, Heineken, Miller High Life, Miller Genuine Draft. Later Cook County evidence technicians also found cans of Bud Light and Miller Lite and empty cases of Budweiser, Beck's, and St. Pauli Girl. Intoxication on or off duty is yet another violation of department rules. A civilian who was at the party says, "They're the police--who's going to stop them?"
The party grew more raucous around 5:30 AM, when two officers began beating Lenith "Lenny" Hall, a regular at Grand Central Station who sometimes worked there as a bouncer. Hall, his wife, and some friends had apparently been invited to the parking lot by a sergeant from outside the district. Hall had a long rap sheet that included burglary, battery, and cocaine possession. "We're not supposed to hang around with convicted felons," says one cop who was at the station that night. Police department rules prohibit "fraternizing with any person known to have been convicted of any felony or misdemeanor," except traffic or city code violations.
A witness told Putney that one officer--later identified as Robert Lohman, who'd arrested Hall for driving under the influence a year earlier--drove up to Hall in a squad car with another officer, James Adams. Lohman "got out of the car and started yelling at Lenny. He said, 'What the fuck is this drug dealer doing here?' Then he picked up Lenny and threw him against the hood of the car."
In her interview with Putney, Hall's wife, Athena, said, "Lenny did not make any moves on them, he was just taking it from them. I noticed his face was turning red from being choked. One of the guys, Robert L., or the other guy, pulled the antenna around his neck, and at that time they all slid off the car, Lenny fell to the ground, the guy in civilian clothes was standing over him. Lenny was being kicked on the side and his legs by Robert L. They threw him up against the car, and then tried to stick him in the car through the door. They said, 'Just let him leave.' That was other cops standing around. Finally Lenny was shoved into the car, they slammed the door, kicked the car, and said, 'We'll get you, we'll kill you. We know who you are, we'll kill you.'"
Hall sped out of the parking lot with his wife and drove back to the bar, then realized his pager was still in the parking lot. He told Putney he went back to get it, then went inside the station to file a complaint; at that point the cops who'd beaten him arrested him for criminal trespass and for impersonating a police officer--Hall's T-shirt, a gift from his wife, had a Chicago Police Department logo on it.
Later that morning other officers dropped Hall off at the hospital, where he got X-rays of his neck, head, and back and stitches in his hand. Putney's report on his interview with Hall notes, "Hall stated that he is known to many police officers. His apartment is known. On 14 June 1998 during the evening hours, a squad car was in front of his house, flashing a spotlight on his windows."
Hall would later sue the officers for false arrest and for using excessive force. Two weeks after he filed the suit two other District 25 officers chased him down an alley and arrested him for crack possession. Hall claimed the crack had been planted, but he was convicted and sent to Pontiac, a maximum-security prison. The city settled Hall's suit out of court, apparently for less than $100,000. He's now out of prison, and his lawyer says he's in hiding, afraid that if he's picked up again he'll go to jail for the rest of his life.
According to people who were at the party, Wilson left around sunup with another officer, Patricia Walsh. They headed north in his pickup toward her house on the far northwest side.
Three hours later Wilson was alone, driving south on Harlem. In the 2800 block he tried to pass the car ahead of him, swerving toward the right-hand curb and hitting Sophia Latuszkin.
James Loy had just walked out of a store and was about to rejoin his wife, who was sitting in their minivan just north of where Latuszkin was crossing the street. The sound of a roaring engine made him look up, and he saw Latuszkin about five steps into the crosswalk. The wind from Wilson's pickup as he drove past pushed Loy against his van. He guesses the pickup was going more than double the 25-mile-per-hour speed limit. "The truck did not slow down," he wrote the next day in a statement police and prosecutors requested from some eyewitnesses. "No brake lite went on. Hit woman. She was thrown into the air."
Angelo Deserio, who was driving behind Wilson, also saw Latuszkin in the crosswalk. "She flew about 50 feet south and landed," he wrote in his statement. "Then she skidded." Deserio pulled into a strip-mall parking lot south of where Loy was standing and called 911 on his cell phone.
Loy wrote that after Wilson stopped near the Walgreens, he walked over to Latuszkin and "put hand on back of neck and head" but "did not touch body or assist in any way. Stayed till police arrived. Then went back to truck....He and he alone entered his truck and proceeded to leave the scene." Loy tailed Wilson, and his wife wrote down the pickup's license-plate number.
Jean Djidich was in the back room of her dog-grooming shop on Harlem when a coworker shouted that a woman was lying in the street outside. Djidich ran out the door, past the witnesses standing on the sidewalk, and got to Latuszkin just before Wilson. She knelt next to the body. "I said, 'Did anybody check to see if she's alive?'" she recalls. "Her eyes were still open, so I just touched her eyes. She didn't blink, so I knew." She doesn't remember Wilson saying anything as he stood there. She told other witnesses she was looking for Latuszkin's identification, and Deserio, who'd retrieved her state ID card, gave it to Djidich.
Djidich ran the two blocks to the address on the card. She says she was sobbing as she rang the doorbell and told Latuszkin's husband, Nickolaj, what had happened. Nickolaj had been typing a letter in his basement office when his wife left the house to go to the mailbox and the grocery store. He walked out to the backyard to see if maybe she was there, then followed Djidich back to the crash scene.
Paramedics had just taken Latuszkin away in an ambulance to Gottlieb Memorial Hospital. Nickolaj went back to the house and called Latuszkin's sister, who called Latuszkin's daughter. Liza, who still lived with her parents, was just starting her nursing shift in an operating room a few miles away. The day before, she and her mother had finally decided on the type of tulle they wanted for Liza's upcoming wedding. That night the family was planning to have a backyard barbecue to welcome her fiance's mother, who'd just arrived from eastern Europe. Liza had last seen her mother at 2 AM, when Sophia came into her room to ask if the fan was too strong and if she was cold.
After her aunt's phone call, Liza says, "I just flew out of work. I started driving like crazy to the hospital." She called Gottlieb's emergency room on her cell phone. "The doctor just kept saying, 'She's in really bad, critical condition.' And I remember thinking, 'My gosh, she probably broke her leg. She's probably going to have to go to surgery now.'" She drove faster. "I thought, 'I want to see her before they put her to sleep--I just want to tell her that I love her.'"
Djidich later told Liza it looked like Latuszkin's neck had been broken. "She said that her neck--that it was immediate," Liza says. "I hope it was, because I can't imagine my mom laying there in pain, just laying there in pain, you know? With nobody there to take care of her."
Sophia Latuszkin was born near Minsk in what was then the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. She was 10 when World War II broke out, 14 when the Nazis occupied her village. During the war her family fled across Poland, staying in a German refugee camp for 18 months until a cousin in Madison helped them come to the U.S. in 1949.
They settled in Humboldt Park, and Sophia became a factory worker for Motorola and then Edison. She quit in 1957 when she married Nickolaj, a Belorussian veterinarian who'd served in the army before coming to America and going into construction. The Latuszkins had a son, Walter, in 1958. Liza was born six years later.
"Everyone would come before her," Liza says. "I'd say to her, 'Take care of yourself, mom. Go for a pedicure or something.' But she would never even hear of anything like that."
When Liza was eight her mother started a cleaning job at a pair of local banks, putting the money aside to help pay her children's college tuition. She didn't quit until 1996. "I was so happy when she retired," says Liza, "because then she had time for herself." Latuszkin worked in her backyard garden, did needlepoint, and talked about the grandchildren she expected. A few months before her death she and Nickolaj celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary.
Liza says that when she returned home the afternoon of the crash "everything was left. Like her coffee cup was still there--the cup she drank from that morning. I lost it. I didn't touch it for like weeks. My dad was like, 'Throw it out. Throw it out already.' And I was like, 'No. Leave it.'" She goes on, "Even now, like in the middle of the night when it's quiet, everyone's sleeping, I wake up and think, 'Oh my God, wait a second. Did this really happen? How could this happen? How could he have killed her? He was a police officer.'"
When Wilson was brought into the Elmwood Park police station at 12:30 PM he refused to take a Breathalyzer test. Illinois law allows drivers to refuse field sobriety and Breathalyzer tests, though not in fatal crashes. "That's when they take blood whether they like it or not," says George Heroux, an attorney and a victim's advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving Illinois. "If there's a fatality and they caught the driver, they get a BAC [blood alcohol content] test. Any investigating team or prosecutor would want the BAC measured as soon as possible after a potential reckless homicide crash. It's an important part of the evidence."
Wilson also refused to answer questions or to allow officers to search his pickup, even though that's standard procedure in probable DUI cases. Cook County sheriff's deputies later searched the truck, and evidence reports show they collected hair from the passenger side of the hood. From the inside they retrieved an empty Miller Lite bottle, brass knuckles, several knives, and a nine-millimeter Beretta pistol that had been issued by the Chicago Police Department.
The arresting officers from Elmwood Park turned in their Alcoholic Influence Report on Wilson just before 2 PM. In the section labeled "attitude," three boxes were checked to describe Wilson: "insulting," "cocky," and "profanity." They noted that he "needed support standing, swayed when walking, and had bloodshot eyes." The arrest report recommended charges of reckless homicide, leaving the scene of a fatal accident, and aggravated DUI.
Around noon that day Elmwood Park's police chief, Thomas Braglia, had called Captain Joseph Sofere of the 25th District and told him that a District 25 officer had been arrested for a fatal hit-and-run on Harlem. Sofere had notified internal affairs, which sent Sergeant Putney to the Elmwood Park police station.
When Putney arrived, Wilson was being interviewed by Carol Rogala, an assistant state's attorney who was on call that weekend, and her supervisor, Colin Simpson. When they'd started interviewing him he was still refusing an alcohol test, so they sent an Elmwood Park sergeant to get a search warrant from a judge. According to Chief Braglia, suspects rarely force police to get a warrant, but it's their right under the Fourth Amendment.
Wilson waived his right to have an attorney present during the interview with Rogala and Simpson. The statement they wrote down and he signed says that as he was driving south on Harlem a car pulled in front of him, forcing him to swerve to the right. "I looked in the rearview mirror," he stated, "and saw a female subject lying in the southbound lane." He said he didn't know who'd hit her but that he stopped, went to the Walgreens, and asked that an ambulance be sent "to help the woman in the street." He then walked over to the body. "I did not talk to the police at the scene. I went back to my car and drove home." He said he didn't notice any damage to his pickup until he left his apartment building with the police who arrested him.
"When I got to the Elmwood Park police station I was asked to submit to a breathalyzer test which I refused," he stated. "I worked as a Chicago police officer last night and got off at 2:00 am." He added, "I declined to tell ASA Rogala what I was doing after I got off work until the time of the accident....This statement is the truth regarding this incident to the best of my recollection."
At 6 PM Rogala approved the recommended charges of reckless homicide, leaving the scene of a fatal accident, and aggravated DUI. The search warrant arrived, and around 7 PM Wilson was handcuffed and driven to Gottlieb's emergency room. The blood drawn from his arm showed an alcohol level of 0.072, just below the state's legal limit of 0.08.
"I don't know if he got any special treatment," says Rogala. "I followed the procedures of my office." Chief Braglia says, "Everything was done by the book."
Wilson was discharged at 8 PM. Around that time Officer Mieszala called Patricia Walsh to tell her to come pick up the Beretta she'd left sitting on the front seat of Wilson's pickup. Another officer called the Latuszkins and told them they could pick up Sophia's things. "There was a brown paper bag with her wallet," Liza recalls. "She hadn't taken her purse, just her wallet." Evidence technicians had also retrieved her shoes. "They were canvas sandals," Liza says. "They were shredded."
It wasn't until the next day that Putney heard reports that Wilson had been drinking in the parking lot behind the District 25 station. Over the next seven months he and other internal affairs investigators would interview civilians who were at the party, officers who'd been seen there, and officers who'd been on duty while it was going on. One cop who was interviewed says, "They ask you if you did anything wrong, and if you did, who else was with you." Civilians were shown mug shots of cops and asked if they'd seen any of them at the bar or at the party afterward.
News of Wilson's arrest didn't surface in the media for three days, until a Lerner reporter who covered the Elmwood Park police blotter found the accident report and called the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune's story (which I wrote) ran on Tuesday. By then Wilson was free on $5,000 bond and had been put on administrative leave.
The story of the party in the parking lot quickly leaked out, and the next day the Tribune's front-page story was headlined "Cop house party may be linked to fatal hit-run." That same day Superintendent Hillard fielded questions at a packed press conference. In front of the cameras he promised a "top to bottom" probe: "If this did happen--and evidently something did happen, you know, we have a number of witnesses," he would "take the appropriate action." He added, "This officer is going to get his just due, you know. He's not going to be given special treatment."
When Channel Two reporter Mike Flannery asked whether Wilson was drunk Hillard replied, "Drunk is drunk, Mike. That's all there is to it, you know. And a life was lost, you know, so, you know, it's up to me. The ball will be in my court pretty soon, and I'll look at the file, and I'll have to make a determination."
Mayor Daley, en route to a mayors' conference in Reno, was at O'Hare when a Fox News reporter caught up with him and asked about Wilson. "People are human," Daley said. "If the allegations are true, they're not acceptable by anybody's standards, whether the Chicago Police Department or anyone."
When Hillard, a 31-year veteran of the department, was promoted to the top job, one expectation was that he would start implementing the reforms recommended by the Commission on Police Integrity, which Daley had set up after nearly a dozen undercover cops were accused of robbing drug dealers they were supposed to be busting. The commission, headed by former U.S. attorney Dan Webb, issued a report seven months before the party. It described a department that needed to improve its policing of itself, and among the numerous recommendations was "discipline supervisors 'who know about wrongdoing on their command, but do nothing to stop it.'"
Speaking with reporters outside the Maywood courthouse after one of the first hearings in Wilson's criminal case, Latuszkin's brother-in-law, Julian Kulas, a real estate attorney who also owned one of the banks where she'd worked, said, "We intend to work with the Chicago Police Department and the Elmwood Park Police Department to make sure that this police officer, this defendant, gets what is due to him under the law."
A team of top criminal prosecutors was assigned to the case, including James Sarros as the lead attorney. Among the pieces of slam-dunk evidence they had to work with were the strands of hair taken from the hood of Wilson's pickup, clothing fibers from the passenger-side headlight, and debris from the scene that fit like puzzle pieces into holes in the pickup.
Wilson's preliminary hearing took place on July 1, 1998, but the case was continued because police and prosecutors were still gathering evidence and interviewing numerous witnesses. Some of those witnesses were summoned to the Elmwood Park police station and asked to identify Wilson in a lineup, and one of them noted that he'd shaved his mustache.
A few days after the crash Loy had been asked to come to the station, where he identified the smashed pickup in the station's garage as the one he'd seen hit Latuszkin. But Loy, who was 63, balked at identifying Wilson in a lineup. In a sworn statement taken six months after the crash he explained that after giving his statement to the police the day after the crash, he'd been followed and had received harassing phone calls. "We've had death threats," he stated. "They were direct threats to me to shut my mouth about this case." He described one phone message he'd saved that detailed the "many ways they were going to kill my wife and kill my mother-in-law and kill myself, kill my stepson, all the way down to our dog, if I didn't shut my mouth." He said that he'd moved in an unsuccessful attempt to elude whoever was trying to intimidate him and that he'd talked to the state's attorney's office about the threats. "They said they would look into it. I haven't heard any more."
"My family has suffered a lot with this," said Jeanette Loy in a separate sworn statement taken six months after the crash. "We were just out minding our business and this happened."
A witness who identified Wilson in the lineup and wants to remain anonymous says, "Once I'd given my name to the police, people were following me and following my wife. I was trying to be a Good Samaritan that day, and then when I went back to the police department and told them I was being followed they didn't do nothing." He says that after the crash he moved three times, but the threats followed him. "I gave [the police] help. I didn't get no help in return." Chief Braglia says he has no record of such a complaint.
Phone calls to Sarros, asking why witnesses of the crash believed they were being intimidated, were not returned, though Jerry Lawrence of the state's attorney's press office calls the allegations "serious."
Sarros and his prosecuting team presented their findings to a Cook County grand jury on August 27, 1998. The only witness who testified was one of the Elmwood Park officers who'd arrested Wilson. The jury indicted Wilson on three counts of reckless homicide involving alcohol and one count of leaving the scene of a fatal accident.
The aggravated DUI charge had been dropped, which ordinarily would have signaled that both sides were ready to plea-bargain. But at the next court date, on September 3, Wilson's attorney, James Meltreger, told the judge that Wilson was entering a plea of not guilty.
The family was stunned. "We were all torn up," says Walter Latuszkin. "He was a police officer, but he was a punk."
That fall, prosecutors asked for and received four more continuances. In October, Wilson resigned.
Putney's internal affairs investigation wrapped up on January 15, 1999, and prosecutors were given the interviews and reports, which they could then use in the case against Wilson. According to the documents, witnesses claimed at least 30 cops and civilians were at the party. Apparently only 18 officers were interviewed. Police department spokesman Pat Camden says, "In that investigation 13 were found to be in violation of department policy." They received suspensions of 5 to 20 days, which Camden calls "a normal course of action."
Camden says that when cops drink, drive, and kill civilians on the street "that should be a wake-up call." He adds, "There was an awareness that spread through the department as a result of that accident."
Apparently only two superior officers were interviewed, and both were punished. Lieutenant Michael Flynn--who wasn't assigned to be watch commander that night but had taken over that role when the man who'd been assigned left just after midnight--got a ten-day suspension without pay for not being aware of the party and for not fulfilling his duty to stop it. Captain Joseph Sofere, Flynn's 6 AM relief, got 20 days. Other cops say Sofere, who'd been given dozens of honors in his decades of police service, was also punished because he'd agreed to let the 25th District officers file charges against Lenny Hall. In May 1999, before he could serve his suspension, Sofere died of cancer. Former colleagues say the internal affairs investigation is what really killed him.
Flynn, who'd been on the force since 1972, served his suspension in January 2000. By then he'd already been transferred to the higher-crime 15th District in the Austin neighborhood, which he later called "a dumping ground for people when the Chicago Police Department wants to punish." He filed a grievance, and the case was heard before an arbitrator in June 2001.
Flynn's attorney argued that he hadn't known about the party and hadn't been told by anyone that it was going on. The city's lawyers argued that even if he hadn't known he should have. In his November 2001 opinion the arbitrator hearing the case, Peter Feuille, wrote that Flynn had been "inattentive" to his duty and deserved to be suspended, though for only three days, not ten. He also noted that neither the city's nor the union's lawyers disputed that "this party contributed to...the subsequent traffic fatality involving Police Officer George Wilson."
Meanwhile, the Latuszkins had found a lawyer to handle a civil suit against Wilson. Alan Karpel, who agreed to take the case on a contingency basis, filed a wrongful-death suit on December 17, 1998, claiming that Wilson had "negligently collided" with Latuszkin and was "intoxicated at the time." On March 15, 1999, lawyers for Wilson's auto insurance company responded that his policy would allow the family to collect a maximum of $50,000.
The family thought they had few options for recovering anything more. But Karpel had seen the news reports right after the crash alleging that Wilson participated in a "beer bash" at the police station (there'd been almost no follow-up in the media since then). In May 1999 he sent subpoenas to the Chicago Police Department, the Elmwood Park Police Department, and the Cook County state's attorney's office. As the police reports and witness statements filtered in, he realized he had a better case than he'd first thought. Latuszkin's family, who'd seen the insurance company's offer as a slap in the face, decided not to settle with the insurer at this point but to pursue a broader case in an attempt to hold the city responsible for Wilson's actions.
On June 9 Karpel amended the suit, adding the Chicago Police Department and the city as defendants. The suit stated that police supervisors knew parties where officers became intoxicated had been held at the police station on "several occasions" in violation of department rules and knew Wilson was participating but "failed or refused to take any action" to prevent them. That, the suit went on, "shows an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others and constitutes willful and wanton misconduct."
At the end of August the city's lawyers filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that Karpel hadn't shown that the city had any legal duty to prevent an intoxicated, off-duty officer from driving, and that even if such a duty could be found, the city couldn't be held liable because it had absolute immunity under the Tort Immunity Act.
Tort immunity is nearly impossible to get around, which Karpel knew. But that October he argued in his response that "by ignoring repeated violations of its own rules and regulations, the CPD encouraged its officers to engage in illegal conduct, leading them to believe they were immune from police scrutiny and, in effect, above the law. It was reasonably foreseeable that this situation...would cause injury to others." Moreover, he contended, "the City had a duty to enforce its own rules and regulations" and by failing to do so, it had "condoned Wilson's activities."
In December the judge dismissed the case, stating that Karpel hadn't provided enough evidence to show why the city should be held liable but allowing him to file again if he could come up with more facts.
Karpel wanted to see what evidence would be presented at Wilson's criminal trial that he could use, but at this point the lawyers were on continuance number 16. So in February 2000 he took a new tack, amending the suit to make the arcane argument that the city was liable because it had failed or refused to regulate its police officers so that they wouldn't deprive individuals of their constitutional rights. The case was soon moved to federal court.
By then Wilson's criminal trial was on continuance number 19. Prosecutors hadn't presented much evidence, but Wilson's attorney had filed a motion to suppress his blood sample as evidence, claiming "there was not probable cause for the issuance of the search warrant." Cook County judge Thomas Tucker denied the motion and said the trial would be held on July 25.
On that day, two years after the crash, Wilson finally withdrew his not guilty plea. The prosecutors had dropped two of the reckless homicide counts, so he was admitting to one count of reckless homicide involving alcohol and one count of leaving the scene of a fatal accident.
Latuszkin's family had come to court for every one of the 25 hearings, and Liza, who says Wilson had never once looked at them, read a long statement that was addressed to him. "The anger and sadness I carry consumes me every day, because I will never again lay eyes on my mother, touch her, smell her, hear her silly, contagious laugh," she said. "She was on her way to the mailbox. What were you doing there, drunker than imaginable?...I want you to know--and I speak for my family--that after today you may try to put this behind you, but know this. There will never be a day that passes that I will not think of you, see your face, and remember you killed my mother and brought such emptiness to our lives."
Sarros named some of the witnesses he would have called if the case had gone to trial, including Angelo Deserio and James Loy, though it's not clear that they would still have been willing witnesses.
Finally Wilson was asked if he wanted to address the court. He said, "Yes, your Honor. I just want the family to know I am very sorry and not one day has gone by since this happened that I haven't thought about your mother, and on the holidays I am sure you are missing her. And I just want to say I am sorry to everybody that it has affected and to a lot of the family and different people. I understand that you are not going to ever forgive me, but I just want [you] to know that."
Wilson was eligible for 3 to 14 years in prison. Sarros had told the Latuszkins that he would likely get three under the plea agreement. When they protested that three years seemed like a slap on the wrist--killing someone with something besides a car often puts people away for life--Sarros said he'd try for five.
Meltreger asked the judge to take into account Wilson's "significant contributions" before the accident: He'd served eight years in the military and had been a crew chief on a Blackhawk helicopter. "He served his community faithfully for seven years as a police officer" and had received "20 honorable recommendations."
Sarros countered, "It is one thing to hit someone, but it is despicable as a law enforcement officer to get out of the car and look at the body and look at what you did, not catch a finger, not have anyone point to him and say, that is the guy that did it, and think, you know, I can get away with this. There were police officers at the scene, there were paramedics at the scene--and he doesn't fess up. He got in his car and took off....But for Mr. Loy being at that location and getting a license plate number, we wouldn't be here today."
The judge sentenced Wilson to five years in prison. Three days later he was taken to the minimum-security Sheridan Correctional Center.
Walter Latuszkin thinks Sarros "did the best he could" but still finds the sentence "unbelievable. This police officer got in the car drunk, killed my mom, and drove away. All people make mistakes, and police are people too. But he never said, 'Look, I made a mistake.' He was just looking out for his own butt."
Wilson would serve only 20 months--less than a third of his sentence. George Heroux of MADD says, "This guy got off the hook pretty easily."
After Wilson was released in April 2002, the address he listed was that of Patricia Walsh. Meltreger says he doesn't know what Wilson, who didn't respond to requests for an interview, has been doing since he got out of jail. "I really have had no contact with him," he says. "We never had any discussion about his future plans."
Following Wilson's plea hearing, Karpel said it seemed "remarkable that after reading the statements of officers and supervisors who were present at the party and the other evidence that internal affairs generated in its investigation that the city could still claim it was not consciously indifferent to what was going on at that district."
But that August the judge dismissed the Latuszkins' federal case. A month later Karpel filed an appeal in the Seventh Circuit Court, which upheld the dismissal in March 2001. The ruling of the three-judge panel said that Karpel hadn't shown that Sophia Latuszkin's civil rights had been violated. It also said that if he wanted to show that the city was liable for Wilson's actions he had to prove that Latuszkin's death had been caused either by an "express policy of the City," by a practice so widespread and "well settled" it was custom "with the force of law," or by "a person with final policymaking authority." And he hadn't.
Karpel was frustrated but wouldn't quit. In December he was back in state court with a third amended complaint that included some new facts but basically still argued that the city had failed to fulfill its duty to prevent Wilson from driving while intoxicated and that because that failure was willful and wanton, the city didn't have absolute immunity. But he couldn't cite an Illinois precedent, and he knew that would hurt him.
Sure enough, at the May 2002 hearing Judge Barbara McDonald told Karpel, "You're asking me to find a duty that's never been found before." Karpel said later, "A jury would see it as doing a social good."
That July, McDonald dismissed the case. "While the fact that the perpetrators of the alleged illegal activity are police officers is, if true, very disturbing," she wrote, "this fact does not bring the alleged conduct outside the coverage" of the Tort Immunity Act. "The court cannot read exceptions into the ...Act where the legislature chose not to make any." And therefore any discussion of what duty the city did or didn't have was moot.
Karpel has since appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court and says he'll go all the way to the Supreme Court if he has to. "I don't think the legislature ever intended for tort immunity to immunize the police department from its own rules and regulations," he says. "This is a case that cries out for justice. At least Wilson was held accountable for what he did. The Chicago Police Department hasn't been."
To take the case to appeal Karpel had to resolve all the claims in the lower court. Three days before Christmas 2002 he sat down with the Latuszkin family and suggested they settle the claim against Wilson by taking the $50,000 from his insurance company. Liza says they agreed. "I think we had to wrap this up," she says, though she adds, "I don't just hold George Wilson accountable. I hold the city responsible. Besides my heart being ripped apart, I look at our whole system differently now. I've lost faith in so many things. We should look up to them and feel protected by them, and now when I look at a cop I don't always feel safe. It wasn't just him drinking--there were so many of them."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.