In the years before a hail of police bullets ended his life at age 19 on Saturday, Quintonio LeGrier appeared on track to become a success story of the state’s oft-criticized child-welfare system.
Abused by his mother, LeGrier went into the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services at age 5, records show. But despite the trauma of his early childhood, he quickly found stability with his foster mom, Mary Strenger, who has his diploma from Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep high school sitting on a bedroom dresser at her tidy South Side apartment.
“They brought him to my house, and he never left,” Strenger told the Chicago Sun-Times in an hourlong interview about the 12 years he spent with her. “He wasn’t a problem child. He never got in trouble. He stayed in his books.”
“I thought he was going to be somebody,” she said.
Which is what makes the events of this past weekend — in which a bystander who opened the door for Chicago Police also was killed — all the more impossible for her to believe.
LeGrier lived with Strenger, 67, under a court order until he began attending Northern Illinois University in the fall of 2014 to study electrical engineering.
Since then, records show, he’s had three run-ins with the NIU police, including a battery case in which he was accused of punching a university cafeteria worker.
He also had grieved the loss of a foster brother, who was shot and killed in the south suburbs in August. Additionally, he was hospitalized around Thanksgiving over what his father said were emotional problems but his foster mom said was an adverse reaction to synthetic marijuana.
LeGrier had come home for Christmas break and had been staying at his father’s house on the West Side. Emergency dispatchers received 911 calls about 4:30 a.m. Saturday reporting that he was in a dispute with his father and was wielding a baseball bat.
Bettie Jones, a 55-year-old mother of five who rented the apartment downstairs, opened the door when police arrived, according to lawyers for her family.
Chicago Police Department officials have not said what exactly LeGrier was doing then. But in a statement, they said responding officers “were confronted by a combative subject resulting in the discharging of the officer’s weapon, which fatally wounded two individuals.” Jones “was accidentally struck and tragically killed,” police said.
LeGrier died of multiple gunshot wounds, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
Quintonio LeGrier’s father, Antonio LeGrier, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city on Monday, alleging that his son was inside the home and the officers outside of it when an officer fired multiple shots from a distance of 20 to 30 feet away. Antonio LeGrier has maintained the officer “messed up,” shooting “blindly, recklessly into the doorway,” and his son’s actions didn’t warrant the firing of a gun.
In the wake of the shooting, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the police department needs to make changes “to how officers respond to mental health crises.” But, in the dozen years she raised LeGrier, Strenger said she saw no signs of the teen being mentally ill, let alone violent.
“He had never raised his voice at me,” she said.
Quintonio Michael LeGrier was born April 29, 1996, the son of Janet M. Cooksey and Antonio LeGrier, who never married. The boy’s father, court records show, had a limited role in his son’s early life, petitioning for parentage rights in 2002, the same year Cooksey accused him of sexually abusing Quintonio — allegations that DCFS found to be false.
In April 2002, DCFS began investigating Cooksey after Quintonio’s school called the agency’s child-abuse hotline to report “abrasions to his face and back of the head,” according to records from his case.
A few months later, in July, state child-welfare workers had police remove the boy from his mother’s care after Cooksey called a caseworker “and told her that she could not stand it any longer, and that she was going to kill her son.”
Attempts to reach Cooksey on Tuesday about DCFS’ involvement with her son were unsuccessful.
DCFS placed the boy in foster care with Strenger, a mother of five, who said she “fell in love with him” as she watched him fit right in with her family, including two other young boys she had taken in.
State officials and counselors noted as much, with one describing Quintonio at age 8 as “very polite and very well mannered” and a hard worker in school, where he excelled in math.
As she did with the two other boys, Strenger sought to adopt Quintonio. State child-welfare officials had ruled out returning him to his mother, records show, but his father had been building a relationship with the boy under DCFS supervision and opposed the adoption.
In February 2008, Quintonio told a counselor “his first choice was to live with Ms. Strenger and be adopted, and his second choice was to live with his natural father.”
That December, when the boy was 12, a judge struck a compromise: She awarded Strenger guardianship over Quintonio until he turned 18, which allowed him to keep living with her and getting subsidies to help pay for his care. Antonio LeGrier had visitation rights under the court order, which also ended DCFS’ involvement in the case.
In an interview Saturday, Antonio LeGrier said he had a good relationship with his son, keeping in constant contact with him during his childhood. He also said Quintonio lived with him during breaks from college.
Strenger said Quintonio excelled at Brooks high school, where he developed a love of computers and video games. She fondly recalled his love of Cap’n Crunch cereal.
She has kept his report cards, which show almost all A’s and B’s, as well as a trove of pictures from graduations, family gatherings and sightseeing trips. Like her adopted kids, she said Quintonio called her “Grandma.”
A member of the baseball team at Brooks, he also loved running. So much so that he was part of a team of students to run the Chicago Marathon in 2013 to raise money to bring clean drinking water to children in Africa.
Shortly after enrolling at NIU, though, life seemed to get rockier for the lanky teen.
In the last year, LeGrier faced charges in three incidents on the DeKalb campus, a spokesman for the DeKalb County state’s attorney’s office said. The charges were dismissed Monday, after prosecutors learned LeGrier had been killed.
In March, LeGrier was charged with resisting a Northern Illinois University police officer who responded to a report of a fight in the Neptune Central dormitory involving several students. When the officer arrived, according to the case file, LeGrier was in a lobby and had blood on his knuckles, but he refused to answer questions and pulled away from an officer who tried to detain him.
Two months later, LeGrier faced two counts of battery for allegedly punching a worker in the Neptune dining hall who had approached LeGrier because he was shouting obscenities at staff. LeGrier allegedly hit the woman in the chest, bruising her sternum, and left the dining hall. Another campus employee followed him out and was with LeGrier in the parking lot when NIU police arrived.
On Aug. 20, one of Strenger’s adopted sons, 22-year-old Troy Strenger — who had been raised as a brother to LeGrier — was gunned down behind a vacant home in south suburban Calumet City.
Neighbors later told police they heard gunshots about 2 a.m. but didn’t call to report them. The next morning, Troy Strenger’s body was found in the driveway. He had been shot nine times, according to an autopsy report.
Troy Strenger had been in trouble before, with multiple arrests and convictions for criminal trespassing and marijuana possession, court records show. Calumet City Police said the case was still open.
“I don’t know who shot him and I don’t know what happened,” Mary Strenger said.
The news of Troy’s death was devastating to LeGrier, she said. He wanted to serve as a pallbearer but wasn’t able to get back to Chicago for the funeral in early September.
Along with another of her adopted sons who’s now 21, “they grew up together,” she said.
LeGrier had another scrape with NIU police in September, when he was charged with resisting an officer, assault and disorderly conduct for allegedly chasing a woman as she rode her bike on campus. The woman called out to a campus officer, saying “Help, he’s chasing me,” according to a police report in his case file, the Dekalb County state’s attorney’s office said.
Strenger was eager to have him back home with her. She said she made plans with Antonio LeGrier to have Quintonio visit her and her family on Christmas Day.
But “Quin,” as she calls him, never showed up. And at 7:15 the next morning, Strenger got the call from Antonio LeGrier that he had been shot and killed overnight.
“I’m very angry,” she said. “His dad called me and told me that Quintonio passed away. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ”
About 70 friends of LeGrier echoed that sentiment as they gathered in the slush on a basketball court next to the Brooks high school campus Tuesday evening. Like LeGrier, many were home from college on winter break.
Torrance Johnson, 18, a baseball teammate and a close friend who’s now a freshman at Dartmouth, described LeGrier as “a peaceful person and so respectful.”
Johnson broke down as he recalled LeGrier’s inscription in his yearbook. “We have years ahead of us,” he said, “and I look forward to those years.”