Thaddeus “TJ” Jimenez was sitting in his parked Lamborghini Gallardo on the Northwest Side last year when a cop came up and busted him for marijuana possession.
It was Jimenez’s seventh arrest since he hit the figurative lottery, winning a $25 million jury verdict in 2012 in a wrongful-conviction lawsuit against the city of Chicago stemming from a murder conviction that was later vacated.
The cash has provided Jimenez, who’s now 35, with homes in Chicago and the suburbs. He also has 14 vehicles registered in his name — including the $130,000 Lamborghini sports car, a second Lamborghini, a Bentley convertible and other expensive vehicles.
But his newfound fortune hardly solved Jimenez’s lifetime’s worth of problems.
He was only 13, still in elementary school, when he was arrested for murder in 1993. His friend Larry Tueffel fingered him to the police as the killer. Jimenez was later convicted of fatally shooting Eric Morro, a 19-year-old gang rival, on the North Side. The conviction, overturned in 2009, ultimately led to the $25 million award.
By the time of the murder bust at age 13, he’d already been arrested 22 times.
“He was raised, essentially, by the penitentiary system, which, I think, is the equivalent of being raised by wolves,” his defense attorney, Scott Frankel, said at a 2012 court hearing.
Jimenez’s family life was difficult. According to court records, his Mexican father allegedly abused his Polish-American mother, who left him. An older sister was later convicted of killing her husband in Florida and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Jimenez, known as TJ, joined the Simon City Royals street gang as a young boy, becoming a “pee wee” member at age 11 before he was locked up for murder two years later, court records show.
While being held pending trial in Morro’s killing, Jimenez wrote letters to his girlfriend saying he was going to have Tueffel killed for snitching on him, according to prosecutors.
He also wrote poetry. In one poem he titled “Devilish,” he wrote:
I am young and foolish, with so little heart,
My body is confused and my mind is dark.
Flashing that dark side in court, he tried to punch a Cook County prosecutor after he was sentenced to 50 years in prison for murder.
In 2005, Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions agreed to review his case. The center had a private investigator interview Tueffel, who recanted his trial testimony that Jimenez was the killer and implicated Juan Carlos Torres, an older teenage friend of Jimenez who’d recently moved from their Avondale neighborhood near Belmont and Sacramento.
As a result, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office moved to vacate Jimenez’s murder conviction in 2009 and charged Torres with Morro’s killing. When he was freed, Jimenez’s lawyers said he appeared to be the youngest person in U.S. history to be wrongfully convicted of a crime and later exonerated.
He sued the city and Detective Jerome Bogucki, accusing him of framing Jimenez for murder.
After a jury’s $25 million verdict was announced in court on Jan. 24, 2012, Jon Loevy, the attorney representing Jimenez in the civil case, asked Bogucki to apologize to the man he helped send to prison for 16 years.
Loevy promised he wouldn’t seek additional punitive damages — which the detective would have had to pay out of his own pocket — as long as Bogucki just told Jimenez he was sorry.
“Do you acknowledge, sir, that, by your actions, you violated Mr. Jimenez’s rights?” Loevy asked.
“Yes,” Bogucki said.
Then, he told Jimenez, “I’m sorry if you have been wronged.”
The following year, Torres went on trial for first-degree murder in Morro’s death. Cook County Circuit Judge Thomas Gainer Jr. found that key witnesses against Torres had lied — including Tueffel, who, according to court records, was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and drug addiction.
“I don’t believe a word that he said when he testified here,” Gainer said, according to a transcript of the 2013 trial.
Gainer also found other evidence against Torres unreliable, including an audio recording purported to be of Torres confessing. He found Torres not guilty.
Since winning his own freedom, Jimenez has rekindled his childhood association with the Simon City Royals street gang, according to police sources.
Jimenez had told court authorities he left the gang after he was released from prison in 2009.
But videos posted on YouTube show a continuing connection with the gangsta lifestyle. In one recent video, a group of young men are flashing gang signs and shouting gang slogans at the corner of Albany and School on the Northwest Side. Then, Jimenez appears, also flashing gang signs, and, apparently referring to the Royals gang, saying: “I told you n – – – -, Royal love, we got this s – – -. Albany and School for life, my n – – – -. Psycho killer, Royal crazy, n – – – -.” The video has gotten more than 20,000 views.
Even after getting the murder conviction overturned, Jimenez has continued to face troubles with the law. In 2010, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 days in jail for threatening a cop who asked him to move his vehicle. The officer was trying to reach a heart-attack victim on the Jane Addams Tollway, records show.
Also in 2010, the police in Park Ridge raided his home and found psychedelic mushrooms, marijuana, a loaded shotgun and two loaded handguns. He ended up being convicted of felony drug possession. At his sentencing, in 2012, he begged the judge for leniency.
“I’m catching up to my age,” he said in court. “I’m learning, I’m growing. I beg you to understand my situation when I first got out. I had no idea how this world worked, no idea at all. . . . Have mercy on me, and give me one more chance.”
Cook County Circuit Judge Rosemary Higgins took note of Jimenez’s troubled past but went easy on him. She gave him probation for the felony and ordered him to do 250 hours of community service.
She also urged him to “find a creative way to invest that [$25 million] in a legitimate program to help other young men who may find themselves in a similar traumatic experience.
“I think you’re going to be a flagship example, a success,” the judge told him. “When awful things happen, I hate to say it, but sometimes it happens for a reason, and maybe you’ll turn this around to change someone else’s life.”
Just a month later, in May 2012, the police pulled him over on the West Side for playing music too loudly and driving with tinted windows and said they found cocaine in his car, a Chrysler 200.
He was convicted of a drug charge in that case and sentenced to a year in prison. Another year was tacked on to his sentence for violating his probation in the 2010 case. He served about six months in the Cook County Jail before entering state prison in November 2012. By law, he was required to serve half of his sentence behind bars and was paroled in April 2013, records show.
Then, in November 2013, he was charged with aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol after crashing another one of his cars, a Chrysler 300 sedan, into a tree on the North Side, leaving a female passenger with skull and facial fractures.
Jimenez, whose drunken-driving case hasn’t come to trial, was sent back to prison on a parole violation for the DUI arrest.
About seven months later, free once more, Jimenez was double-parked in his blue Lamborghini in the 5000 block of Irving Park Road on June 6, 2014 when a Chicago cop drove up. The officer, saying he smelled marijuana, searched the car and reported finding about a gram of pot and around $20,000 in cash. Jimenez was charged with cannabis possession and traffic violations, but the case was later dropped.
On the streets, a lot of people know about the guy who won the $25 million wrongful-conviction award, drives the blue Lamborghini and still keeps getting in trouble.
“Everybody is hearing about his newfound notoriety on the streets,” says Tio Hardiman, former director of the antiviolence organization CeaseFire. “He wants to become a rising star in the gang lifestyle.”
At CeaseFire, Hardiman oversaw ex-offenders who went back on the streets to help resolve gang conflicts. He says he’s heard about Jimenez through those contacts.
“He got out of prison and wanted to explode,” says Hardiman, who now runs Violence Interrupters Inc. “You come into a windfall of money, and you kind of lose your mind.”
“He can make better use of his resources with the right support,” he says. “I would never give up on a guy like TJ.”
Frankel, Jimenez’s lawyer, says his client is dealing with the same pressures athletes and musicians face when they become stars and suddenly have a lot of money.
“It’s distorting,” says Frankel, who wouldn’t allow Jimenez to speak with a reporter.
“I think he is making every effort to be a law-abiding person,” Frankel says. “I believe he is a very intelligent guy. He cares about people. He is a father. He knows he’s been blessed with a great privilege in receiving this civil-rights award. He does not take that lightly.”
Frankel says Jimenez has had a hard time adjusting to freedom.
“I don’t know that he has the best support group for someone who gets out of prison,” Frankel acknowledges.
Still, he says he’s optimistic about Jimenez.
“I think he is in the process of settling down and having a good, productive, happy life.”