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Death of a Gadfly

How Jack Richman's personal campagin against mosquito spraying led to his own sudden demise.

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By Ben Joravsky

The merits of Jack Richman's life will undoubtedly be argued by the competing factions for many years to come.

But no matter what is said by whom, two essential facts remain indisputable: when Richman walked into a Skokie courtroom to testify in a case regarding a $55 traffic ticket, he was very much alive. When he left, carried out on a stretcher, he was dying or dead.

According to the Cook County Sheriff's Office, the November 18 incident in which Richman died shortly after being knocked to the ground by eight courthouse deputies was a "tragedy," partly attributable to Richman's poor health. The deputies were following "correct procedure" for subduing a recalcitrant subject who fails to follow a judge's command, the sheriff's people say.

But the dead man's friends and family believe Richman was the victim of bullies with badges who shared the system's contempt for a bold environmental crusader.

"My poor son was killed--killed brutally--because he was unafraid to stand up for what was right," says Marcella Richman. "And of course it goes without saying that I'm not going to rest until those people are punished who did the murder."

Richman, who died a few days before his 35th birthday, was beset by two disabling calamities that dated back to his childhood in Wilmette. "He was an outstanding young athlete who might have been a great baseball player, when he badly injured his ankle in the eighth grade," says Marcella Richman. "For several years he was in a cast, while doctors tried to determine what caused his crippling pain. Eventually they discovered he had some chipped bones in his ankle. By the time they did the surgery to remove them his sports days were over."

His medical woes continued at age 16, when he damaged his back in an auto accident. "He developed his herniated disks," says Marcella Richman. "After that he was basically disabled. Walking was painful. He needed a cane. His shoulders were hunched--it hurt him to stand straight. He spent more time in his room. He gained weight. He fought obesity. He went on a few starvation diets--once he lost 168 pounds--but no matter what he lost, he gained it back. He weighed 450 pounds at the end."

In his room Richman nurtured his great passion, says his mother. "Jack loved music, all music--classical, opera, rock, Pavarotti, the Beatles, Bob Dylan. He was an ardent collector. Every Tuesday all the new issues came out and he had to purchase them. I'd say, 'Jack, hold it.' And he said, 'Mom, this is all I have.'"

In 1981 Jack's father, a lawyer and former FBI agent, suffered a stroke; six years later he died. Jack's only sibling, a sister, lived in Boston. For the last two decades his closest friend and companion was his mother, a Chicago public school principal who eagerly drove him about in her Cadillac Fleetwood. "I'm more of a Chevy person, but I drove the Cadillac for Jack--he needed the room," says Richman. "He loved to see concerts and he made friends with various artists. They would call him up when they came to town, and I would drive him to meet them, at the Pump Room or the Hyatt O'Hare. I wouldn't join them--those were his relationships. I felt I had no place there. I'd sit in the car and wait for him. He was a wonderful boy. I loved him so much."

In addition to his weight and back problems, Richman suffered from an acute sensitivity to toxins, which partly explains why he waged war against spraying. "Jack developed his sensitivity to this issue because when he smelled those poisons it sent him into near convulsions," says Marcella Richman.

Wilmette is part of the North Shore Mosquito Abatement District, a government entity under the jurisdiction of the Cook County Board of Commissioners that encompasses 13 suburbs north and west of Chicago. It has an $800,000 annual budget, seven full-time employees, a five-person board of trustees, and a mission to eradicate mosquitoes by virtually any means necessary, including spraying. In 1996, to calm fears raised by the spraying, the trustees assured the public that they used Scourge, an insecticide whose central ingredient, Resmithrin, "is not harmful to the environment," and that they sprayed it only three to five times a year.

But many scientists, most notably Samuel Epstein, a professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, have argued that Resmithrin might be cancer causing. Critics have urged the district to at least study the medical and environmental consequences of spraying.

By the early 1990s Richman was deeply involved in the effort to stop the spraying. At first he hoped to find some allies on the district's board of trustees. But from the outset he felt they were hostile to his pleas. "They wouldn't respond to his requests for information," says Robyn Douglass, a North Shore environmentalist and animal-rights activist. "They countered his arguments with PR--'We're here to help you with your picnics and block parties.' To the chemically sensitive people and the elderly they would say, 'We won't spray your house.' Nobody ever said, 'Well, gee, fog doesn't know the difference between the houses it's drifting to.'"

As Richman saw it, the district was a closed world of tyrannical, mean-spirited bureaucrats unaccustomed to public scrutiny and far too connected to powerful political bosses and chemical manufacturers. He attended almost all the trustees' meetings. When they wouldn't let him speak, as happened more than once, he demanded to be heard. He built a web of contacts in the environmental movement across the country, called on reporters to cover his cause, railed against secrecy, and demanded the district declassify budgets and other documents. In the last few months he and his mother even took to following the spray trucks as they made their late-night rounds. "He wanted to see if they were illegally washing their toxins into the sewers," says one ally. "He wanted to know what they were doing in the dark when they thought no one was watching."

To his allies he was a great hero. "Jack was ahead of his time," says Douglass. "He understood the potential dangers of spraying far outweighed any benefits of killing mosquitoes."

To the district trustees, however, he was a noisy zealot with too much time on his hands. As time wore on, their antipathy increased. According to his allies, the trustees routinely denied Richman the opportunity to speak at public meetings. They mocked his weight and appearance and, worse, always had sheriff's deputies on hand ready to arrest him. "They didn't just oppose Jack's ideas, they hated him," says Lisa Moran, one of Richman's allies. "They became way too personal. They goaded him. They knew what buttons to push to make him erupt."

Douglass says she and Richman were escorted out of a town hearing in Niles, where the local aldermen were discussing whether to ask the district to spray. "Jack stood up and they cut him off after 15 seconds, and he said, 'I want my full three minutes,'" says Douglass. "I stood up and said, 'This is not how democracy works.' Two cops came up and escorted us out of the room. I can still see Jack, with his slow, profound walk as the guards led him from the hall."

To the trustees, Richman was his own worst enemy. "I feel very awkward criticizing the man, considering the timing of his demise--I want to emphasize that I think he was dedicated to his cause and I have a great deal of respect for his knowledge," says David Druker, a spokesman for the district. "But I think his conduct alienated the board. I think there could have been on both sides a little more politeness and civility. But the board was under pressure. They aren't evil people. The trustees are not paid. They're volunteers, acting out of a civil good. In this day and age it's rare to find people like that."

Indeed, the trustees contend they gave Richman and his allies more than an adequate hearing; a year ago, in October, they even voted by a three-to-two margin to slap a one-year moratorium on spraying. "They were open-minded on the issue, otherwise they wouldn't have voted for the moratorium," says Druker. "But Mr. Richman continued to alienate them. Remember, it was only a one-vote swing on the moratorium. But instead of being complimentary, instead of thanking them for what they did, Mr. Richman was antagonistic and disruptive and extremely arrogant. I don't think that helped his cause."

Richman and his allies said the moratorium was merely a stalling tactic designed to build political support for more spraying. Sure enough, on July 7 the trustees unanimously voted to rescind the ban, arguing that local municipalities were pleading for mosquito relief.

At that meeting Richman lost his cool. His voice cracking with emotion, he yelled that bribes must have been taken for the district to do something so dangerous. The meeting turned to pandemonium, as other activists began to holler and hiss. "Two guards approached Jack, and Marcella said, 'Don't you touch my son,'" says Moran. "They backed off. But it was intimidating, especially when you consider what was to happen."

A few weeks later the trustees responded with a lawsuit accusing Richman of defaming their character and seeking at least $500,000 in damages. "Jack had no money--and so I arranged with the court to give him paupership backing," says Marcella Richman. "They were furious about the fact that they were suing a pauper and they wouldn't get anything. They wanted to punish him, they wanted to harass him. [One abatement board official] came up to me at a meeting and said, 'How does it feel to have an indigent son?' He was being very sarcastic, very nasty."

While Richman continued his campaign against spraying, he and his mother were involved in two bizarre incidents with North Shore police. The first occurred on July 11, when the Richmans were in their Cadillac outside the abatement district headquarters in Northfield watching the spray trucks coming and going. "It was about 11:30 at night and we were sitting in our car at the side of the road, and two Northfield police officers came over and said, 'Move on--these people don't want you here. We know who you are. We know where you live,'" says Marcella Richman. "Even though we were completely legal, I moved on, thinking we could circle and come back. As we drove into Wilmette, Jack said, 'Mom, there's a car following us.' Sure enough, I pulled over and the car pulled over. I started and he started."

It was a Wilmette policeman, who charged her with improperly standing on a roadway. "I was burning mad, and so at two in the morning I went to the Wilmette police station and introduced myself to the sergeant on duty and asked why did that man stop us? The excuse I got was he thought I was drunk. I said, 'What gave him the idea that a woman of my age was drunk?' I wanted my license back, and so I kept calling, and finally the chief of police called me in and apologized and explained it was a mistake. He said there were burglaries in the neighborhood, although I don't know how they thought Jack and I looked like burglars. I said, 'Well, what about the ticket?' The chief said there was nothing he could do about that. In retrospect, I wish he had called the court and said 'Forget the ticket.'"

The second incident with North Shore police occurred on August 26 at about 5 PM, when the Richmans were parked at a Northfield mall. "Jack was in the back, and I was in the front of the car," says Marcella Richman. "I didn't know he was on his cellular phone and I was talking to him. So he took his cane and lightly tapped me on the neck and shoulder and I turned around and saw he was on the phone. Almost at that instant a Northbrook policeman comes over to our car and says to Jack, 'You're under arrest.' I said, 'What for?' And the policeman says, 'Domestic battery.' I said, 'What! I'm not making any accusation.' He said, 'I am.'"

According to the police report, Richman "knowingly and without legal justification caused bodily harm to Marcella Richman...in that said defendant struck Marcella Richman once in the right side of the neck and once on the right shoulder using his cane in a jabbing motion."

In addition, the arrest report says that Richman yelled at his mother "that she humiliated him and should not interrupt him while he was on the phone."

Richman was handcuffed, taken to the police station, fingerprinted, photographed, and held until $500 in bail could be raised. "The whole thing was absurd," says Marcella Richman. "Jack wasn't yelling at me, and he didn't hurt me. Jack would never hurt me. He loved me. I still don't know how that policeman saw it. He must have been watching us with binoculars.

"They took him to the station and they said they would have to jail him, and I said, 'No, you don't jail him unless you jail me with him.' They said there's a $500 bond and that I, the mother, can't raise the money. I looked at them as if they were crazy and I walked over to the phone and called a relative and we got him out on bail."

In September Richman was summoned to appear before Judge Michael Jordan at the Cook County courthouse in Skokie. A second hearing date was set and Richman was ordered to be evaluated by a court-appointed psychologist. "We came back to court a few weeks later and there was a second judge, not Jordan. I told him what had happened and he basically said, 'This is ridiculous, there's no case here,' and he threw it out."

In the meantime, Marcella Richman's traffic ticket was also making its way through the courts. "In September, the day after Jack had appeared before Jordan on the domestic battery case, I had to go in for my ticket," she says. "Curiously enough, Jordan was also the judge on my case. Jack wanted to come with me, but I didn't think it would be good for him to sit through another court ordeal with his bad back. So I went alone and Judge Jordan calls me up and says my fine is $55. I told him in no uncertain terms I would not pay a penny because I had done nothing wrong. I explained what had happened that night, and when I finished he said something like, 'All right then, $40.' I said, 'No way.' I said my son was a witness. So he assigned a second court date, specifically so Jack could testify."

On November 18 they returned to Jordan's court, where they sat for four hours while other matters were heard before theirs. According to the court transcript of what followed, Marcella Richman immediately made it clear she resented the delay. "He sat for four hours," she told the judge. "I tried to get him to go. He wouldn't go. He said, 'You did nothing wrong. I have to stay.' Why are we being persecuted like this?"

"The [Wilmette] prosecutor is not here today," Jordan said. "If you had him here, the case would have been resolved."

Jordan ordered Marcella Richman to return for trial on a different date. That's when Jack Richman spoke out. "I'm not going to come back for this," he said. "This is crazy."

"Sir, be quiet," said Jordan. "I have heard enough of the two of you on the domestic violence call. If the two of you will be quiet--"

"But, judge, what--" said Marcella Richman.

"I know you like to talk," said Jordan. "You ran a school, and everybody listens to you, but not here. Unless you're quiet, you're going in the lockup. So you have a choice. The village prosecutor of Wilmette has the right to be here to hear you and prosecute--"

"Where are they?" said Jack Richman.

"They have no obligation to be here unless you show me proof of service that you sent them, that you notified the village prosecutor you are going to be here," said Jordan.

"The chief of the Wilmette police department apologized to my mother about what happened," said Jack Richman.

"Go with the sheriff," said Jordan.

"Leave him alone," said Marcella Richman.

"You talked to my mother," said Jack Richman. "Let me explain something, please."

"Unless you step in there, I will give you 30 days."

"You spoke to my mother. You did not speak to me."

"Go in there right now," said Jordan, apparently indicating Jack Richman should go to a rear room where defendants are kept. "It's going to be 60 days."

"You did not address me, sir," said Jack Richman.

"You're getting 60 days," said Jordan. "Get him in there."

"Sheriffs respond," says the transcript.

"It's going to be 120 days," said Jordan.

"You're harassing--" said Marcella Richman.

"Ma'am, if you speak again, it's 30," said Jordan.

"You were speaking to me," said Marcella Richman.

"It's pain--" said Jack Richman.

"Don't you understand," said Marcella Richman.

"I can't relax," said Jack Richman.

"You people are terrible," said Marcella Richman. "I voted for you. I must have been crazy. It's my son, and he's hurt. Leave him alone."

The transcript ends with the following sentence: "Whereupon, there was an interruption in the proceedings."

According to Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for Sheriff Michael Sheahan, the interruption went like this: "After Judge Jordan ordered the deputies to remove Mr. Richman from the court, Mr. Richman grabbed onto the bench and refused to let go and began to struggle with the deputies. The deputies tried to get him off the rail and handcuff him. When he continued the struggle his mother started swinging her cane at the deputies. She was restrained and taken out of the courtroom. Mr. Richman continued to fight and was eventually restrained. He was a heavy individual, who weighed in excess of 400 pounds. Approximately eight deputies got him on the ground and finally placed him in handcuffs. That was when the deputies noticed he was unresponsive. They checked for a pulse and found a very shallow one. They administered CPR and called Skokie paramedics. He was pronounced dead sometime later at Rush Hospital.

"We have an internal investigation which continues, involving all the individuals in the courtroom. Our preliminary investigation indicates that the deputies followed correct procedure. Given the difficulty involved in restraining the individual, there's no indication that they acted in an intentional way to inflict harm. They were simply trying to restrain an individual per the order of the court.

"I don't know if the medical examiner's final report has been completed on cause of death."

According to Judge Jordan, there was virtually nothing he or the deputies could have done to head off this tragedy. He had, he said, no bias against the Richmans to justify their outburst; until recently he knew nothing of their environmental cause, which in any event wasn't an issue in either case he heard.

As for what exactly happened in his courtroom, he said the transcript should not be considered a completely accurate reflection of "the Richmans' rage" or even what they said.

"The transcript leaves out overtalking," said the judge. "If more than one person is speaking at one time they record the judge. So it misses the outburst of the mother and son."

If he was unwilling to dismiss the battery case despite Marcella Richman's request, it was only because experience has taught him to be cautious about such things.

"I cannot read too much into the fact that she wanted the case dropped--a great deal of domestic battery victims refuse to sign complaints," Jordan said. "There's all sorts of love-hate psychological dynamics involved. They fear the abuser and they're hoping for love from the abuser. I don't know if that's the case here--I didn't see a psychological report. But I can't overlook these crucial dynamics. Seven or eight years ago we had a case where a judge allowed a defendant out on a low bond and as soon as he went out he killed the complaining witness. My advice is that you talk to therapists with experience in this area. I'm no expert--my bachelor's degree was in psychology but I practice law."

Similarly, Jordan says he was only following proper courtroom procedure when he continued Marcella Richman's traffic case. "The rules require you give notice to the other side--in this case the village of Wilmette. There's no way Wilmette would know about this case unless she gives notice. People can't show up in court magically for trial. You have to give due process. In effect, she wanted me to be one-sided and I couldn't do that."

And why did he mention her job in a school? "Each time she came in front of me she said a couple of things like, 'I voted for you,' and, 'I am the principal of a school and people listen to me.' I wanted to give her something to hear that validated what she had said, or to show that I heard what she had said. Obviously, none of my psychology worked."

All in all, Jordan says, it was "the most terrible thing that has happened in my courtroom in my 24 years on the bench. I feel for anyone who has a loss at a young age. But only a medical expert would know what caused his death. He was over 482 pounds--that's like a time bomb. And I don't know what we could have done differently. As far as I know, three of the deputies put their own lives at risk giving him mouth-to-mouth. I would call them heroes--you never know nowadays what germs someone might have.

"I suppose I could have given him and his mother the courtroom, but to leave the courtroom is to abdicate to someone who yells, and that would be a dereliction of my duties. I could have allowed them to go on and on, but then I would run the risk of hearing things I shouldn't hear before the trial, and that would be inappropriate. I feel bad for what happened, but it's sad he felt the need to be so combative."

Marcella Richman has a different account. "If the sheriff's people say they were right in their action, then the world's at an end. They were violent with Jack. They were trying to get his big wrists into small handcuffs, and that in and of itself was tormenting him. When he cried out, 'It's painful,' they didn't stop. They were screaming, 'Get the damn cuffs on him.' They kept trying to pin his arms back, and with that herniated disk he was screaming in pain. But they didn't care.

"First there were two and then there were four, six, eight deputies actively involved with one crippled person. The last I saw of Jack he reared up, screaming in agonizing pain, before they drove him to the ground. Then they pushed me out. I'm shouting, 'I have to be with my son, let me be with my son.' No mother would want to see her son in such pain. But three or four women deputies pushed me out. I never swung my cane at them--that's a damn lie. This one deputy pushed me against the wall and said, 'You're a danger to us.' She took my cane away. Then a burly man deputy kept me from getting back into the room. He stood at the door and faced me. If I moved left, he moved right. He kept me from getting back to help my son.

"When the ambulance crew came, the deputies threw me in a wheelchair and ran me down to another courtroom and shut the door. I got out of the chair and ran into the hall, but Jack was already gone. A bailiff said they took him to Rush.

"When I got to Rush I just knew he was dead--I guess I knew he died when I saw him hit that courtroom floor. The doctor came out and in a callous statement said, 'Your son is dead.' I was alone. I was screaming, 'They killed my son.' There was a very wonderful rabbi there, a Rabbi Winter, who comforted me.

"I stayed with my brother for a while, and then I had to get away. I drove my car all night. I don't even know where I went. I couldn't get over it. One minute Jack was alive--we had made arrangements to go out to eat after the hearing--and the next minute I had lost him forever. I can't describe my anguish. He died trying to help me. And I was powerless to help him when he needed me. It's the most unbelievably cruel feeling to not be able to help your son. Those animals killed my son. I shouldn't call them animals. I love animals. Those devils. And for nothing, for a miserable ticket I never should have received."

Marcella Richman had a private autopsy done (the results will be presented to her in a few weeks), and then her son was cremated. "They had to keep the body an extra few days because of the second autopsy, and they wanted to preserve him with chemicals. I said, 'Oh no, don't put chemicals in Jack's body.'"

More than 200 people attended Richman's funeral. "All my friends and colleagues and family were there. And all of Jack's environmental allies--they were there too. Everyone was crying because all of them knew Jack. He was just a sweet kid."

Marcella Richman says Judge Jordan "might have apologized for making us wait four hours. He might have thrown the ticket out--the arresting officer wasn't even there. I don't know what he was talking about with that reference to the village prosecutor. Wilmette didn't want to prosecute--I had talked to the chief of police. And what about those cracks about me running a school? That's far too personal. And that thing about domestic court? We didn't have any run-ins with him in that court. Jack was quiet as a mouse. If he had any kind of problems with us he should have excused himself from my traffic ticket case. He says he feels sorry; he says he wishes there was something he could have done. Well, he could have done something--he could have called off his eight henchmen from beating a crippled man.

"I keep thinking that none of this would have happened if Jack and I went along without complaining. But if you stand up for your rights the little dictators can't stand it."

Many of Richman's allies vow to continue the fight against spraying, even though they feel intimidated. "A lot of people are scared because they saw what happened to Jack," says Moran. "Just a couple of weeks before he died there was a meeting at the Cook County Board over reappointing the district's trustees. A secretary to [a county board member] came over and gave us a copy of the arrest report in the domestic battery case. Now what is she doing with that arrest report? Why are they passing it out unless they want to harm Jack's credibility by making him look like some sort of violent guy?

"No matter what they say, he died in police custody. No matter how much he may have yelled in that courtroom, he didn't deserve to die." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jack Richman photo by Steven Arazmus; Marcella Richman photo by Cynthia Howe;.

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