Mumbling a pathetic apology in federal court Wednesday, round-shouldered botanist Rich Hyerczyk could not have looked less dangerous.
But for nearly a decade, the lanky 54-year-old Southwest Side lichen expert hid a dark obsession.
He was a self-styled vigilante, who avenged the deaths of wild animals and U.S. soldiers by writing 90 anonymous letters in which he threatened to murder politicians, rape police officers’ wives and kidnap children.
Wednesday, what U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman called his “unbelievably cold-blooded” crimes finally caught up with him, when he was sentenced to 27 months in prison.
Though Feinerman said there was “no evidence” that Hyerczyk ever followed through on his threats, a home next door to former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s lakefront retreat was torched in 2008, just three days after Hyerczyk sent Daley a letter vowing he’d “BURN down the Daley house in Michigan” as revenge for Chicago Police shooting a wild cougar caught roaming through Roscoe Village.
Outside court on Wednesday, Hyerczyk acknowledged for the first time that the “coincidence” of the unsolved suspected arson looked bad.
“But I wasn’t there,” he said, holding two pointed fingers to his head in a Boy Scout-style oath of honesty.
“I swear to God — that wasn’t me.”
Hyerczyk hoped to get probation. But his guilty plea earlier this year showed that despite his mild-mannered appearance, his job at a La Grange Park molding company and his background that included teaching at the Field Museum, the Morton Arboretum, and the Chicago Botanic Garden, he had a hair-trigger temper.
If someone cut him off in the street, he’d follow them home, then mail death threats to their house.
When events in the Middle East upset him, he threatened to kill a Muslim girl in Bridgeview.
And when political issues closer to home rankled, he threatened to murder Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his wife, and wrote racist letters to U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush and Ald. Leslie Hairston, who he vowed to ambush with a knife in a City Hall bathroom.
Some of his vilest threats came after police shot the wild cougar in April 2008. He warned police should “Prepare to DIE like the Cougar you killed,” threatening a sniper would kill “pigs” at the annual St. Jude Memorial March.
In another letter, he mocked Daley’s son Kevin, who died of spina bifida, writing “F— your dead son.”
Feinerman read aloud from the letters Wednesday, telling Hyerczyk he “should have realized … ‘I need help,’” long before federal authorities nabbed him in January.
Hyerczyk’s mental health problems — including an obsessive personality — were no excuse, he said.
“It was not my duty to act as a vigilante,” Hyerczyk admitted. “I would not want what I did to happen to me.”
In addition to the prison time, he was also fined $10,000 and ordered to stay away from children. Investigators found evidence he’d searched for child porn on his computer, prosecutors said.