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Can a cop killer go home again?

By Stefano Esposito, Staff Reporter

In the wooded darkness, they encircled John Mathews.

“I’m a police officer!” Mathews shouted.

The circle tightened.

On that May 1988 night, the off-duty Chicago police officer strolled a few yards from his home in Hegewisch, the city’s southernmost neighborhood. Long after sundown, the kids along Wolf Lake’s southern shores were still boozing, still burning rubber. Mathews’ patience had finally run out. The five young men he encountered accused him of slashing the tires and breaking the windshield of one of their cars. They said he was drunk.

“I’m a police officer!” Mathews yelled again. “Don’t mess with me.”

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A baseball bat struck Mathews’ head. Then fists. A tire iron. Mathews crumpled to the ground. His hands went to his head.

One of the young men, Dean Chavez, threw a concrete block at Mathews. When they were done, the attackers dropped Mathews’ body at the edge of the lake. Chavez grabbed a baseball bat and yelled: “Do you still want to f— with me? Well, I’ll show you.”

Chavez beat Mathews five more times.

A little later, when Chicago Police Officer Richard Mierniczak arrived, he didn’t recognize the man dying in his arms as his neighbor and fellow officer.

Coming home

On March 25, 1999, convicted murderer Dean Chavez, then 31, walked out of prison a free man. Chavez didn’t seek a fresh start somewhere new. He returned to the small community where he’d grown up and where he’d committed murder. And then he did something astonishing or, depending on your perspective, outrageous. The man who helped beat to death a policeman with a baseball bat began teaching kids America’s favorite pastime; and until that life unraveled this summer — when Mathews’ family found out about it — Chavez did so for years, alongside cops, often coaching their kids.

How?

Chavez helped save a dying league, some say. He’d done his time, and now he deserved a second chance. Or, the way Chavez sees it, some people gave him a break because Mathews wasn’t blameless in his own death. None of that could save Chavez in June, when Mathews’ widow demanded he be banished from youth baseball.

“I got calls from police officers, [saying], ‘Dean, we know you’re a good guy, but we have a fraternity we can’t break,’ ” Chavez told the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this month.

The neighborhood time forgot

Set adrift from the rest of Chicago in a sea of suburbia, Hegewisch looks like a neighborhood the city is trying hard to ignore. Two decades ago, Mayor Richard M. Daley tried to kill it. The mayor’s plan in the early 1990s to build a third city airport at Lake Calumet would have flattened thousands of Hegewisch homes. The plan flopped after GOP state legislators failed to back Daley.

But little else has moved into the former steel neighborhood, where residents once measured the health of their community by the number of smoke-spewing stacks. Hegewisch remains, though, a community that feels a world away from the big city. A stuttering sprinkler or a chirping bird is often the loudest noise on streets lined with tidy brick bungalows.

“On the police radios, they would call Hegewisch paradise,” jokes Mike Aniol, who runs the neighborhood’s only hardware store. “We have Mayberry going on here.”

Statistics bear that out. Hegewisch had zero murders in 2013, and only one in each of the two previous years.

In a section known as Avalon Trails, neighbors remembered Chavez as a typical boy who played hide-and-seek, basketball and baseball with other Hegewisch kids. His father worked as a postal carrier. When one of his siblings died of cancer, Chavez comforted his mother to help her deal with the pain. But neighbors also remember Dean and his brother, Tony, growing into “wild” teenagers.

“On the police radios, they would call Hegewisch paradise. We have Mayberry going on here.”

Dean Chavez was arrested for assault, battery and theft in the mid-1980s, police records show, but only the battery — a misdemeanor — led to a conviction.

The beating that no one living in Hegewisch at the time can forget occurred on the night of May 21, 1988. The isolated stretch of Wolf Lake shoreline, beyond the reach of streetlights, provided the perfect spot for partiers. Squealing tires, yelling — even gunshots — weren’t uncommon.

“I could almost say the people were kind of terrorized,” said one man who has lived in Hegewisch for all of his 79 years. “You wouldn’t dare go in there.”

Chicago Police Officer John Mathews did.

The 27-year-old father of three walked into the woods on that May night to chase away the partiers. Mathews encountered Chavez, his brother and three others, who claimed the officer had just slashed the tires and smashed the windshield of Chavez’s father’s car, parked nearby. Chavez grabbed baseball bats and a tire iron from his own car, and the group surrounded the officer.

“Not only am I threatened, but my family members are threatened,” Chavez recalled recently. “You catch someone who is damaging my dad’s car, and then all of a sudden, he’s got a gun out.”

Two of the young men wrestled Mathews to the ground, knocking his gun away.

Chavez and his group then attacked with what a judge would later call the “savage, primitive frenzy of killer sharks.”

When it was over and the young men had fled, Mathews’ body lay limp along the lakefront — a piece of his skull a few feet away in the dirt.

Chicago Police Officer Richard Mierniczak, one of Mathews’ neighbors, was the first cop on the scene.

As he recently recalled that night, Mierniczak pointed to the goose bumps prickling on his forearms.

“If you’ve ever heard that death gurgle, you know it’s the person’s very last few breaths,” Mierniczak said. “It’s a sickening sound.”

The young men were arrested quickly and charged. But a police community’s horror turned to outrage when Cook County Judge Michael B. Getty found the Chavez brothers guilty of second-degree murder, ruling out a possible death sentence. At the time, Getty said Mathews “did apparently commit a crime,” when he vandalized the car owned by the Chavez brothers’ father.

Mierniczak called the judge’s ruling a “terrible decision.” To this day, Mierniczak and Mathews’ family strongly dispute the attackers’ claim that Officer Mathews was drunk.

Retired Chicago Police officer Richard Mierniczak was the first cop to find John Mathews. | Richard A. Chapman / Sun-Times

“If you’ve ever heard that death gurgle, you know it’s the person’s very last few breaths. It’s a sickening sound.”

The judge, who declined to be interviewed for this story, sentenced Chavez to 27 years in prison.

More than two decades later, Chavez says his older self would have simply walked away from Mathews rather than confront him.

“Unfortunately, the reaction led to a disaster,” he says now.

The only home he’s known

Chavez’s return to Hegewisch baffled some in the community.

“Why would you come back here? He could have gone anywhere in the world,” said a man who didn’t want his name used, but has lived on the same street as the Chavez family since the early 1960s.

Chavez says he came back to Hegewisch because it’s the only home he has known.

“The easiest thing in the world would be to run away,” he said. “I’d paid my debt. I returned to my community. I’d been doing fabulous there for the past 15 years — no problems.”

Chavez walked out of prison having served less than 11 years of his 27-year term. He benefitted from a 50-percent reduction for good behavior, then standard, as well as credit for going to school while behind bars. Chavez quickly showed up on his mother’s doorstep. So did his brother, Tony, neighbors said, but he didn’t stick around. Chavez’s mother recently told the Sun-Times that her son Dean, unlike a lot of ex-cons, has a strong support system.

“He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body,” Jacqueline Chavez snapped, before shutting her front door.

Chavez, who lives a few blocks away, stops by his mother’s house almost daily.

“He does yard work for her, he takes her places,” one neighbor said.

On the edge of town, adjacent to an industrial park, sits the Hegewisch Babe Ruth Baseball field. On a recent visit, the bleachers badly needed painting, and weeds crept up the sagging chain-link fence around the park. Still, it’s a cherished place for many. Almost everyone in the community, it seems, has a story about the field.

“My father laid the original sod in center field,” said Dale Downs, a Babe Ruth manager and a former field director. “It’s something that should be a part of every community.”

But three years ago, Hegewisch Babe Ruth baseball was almost extinct. The league had run out of money, it had only two teams and just a few volunteers. The field’s sprinkler pipes burst because no one flushed them out before winter. Hegewisch Babe Ruth needed a savior. His name was Dean Chavez.

Worries surface

The man who showed up at Steve’s Lounge in the center of Hegewisch one evening three years ago to help resurrect the league was heavier, but Downs instantly recognized the convicted murderer — someone he hadn’t seen in years.

“I was worried about it. I wondered, what this guy was doing there?” Downs said. “It didn’t seem quite right.”

Supporters and Chicago Police officers gathered near Steve’s Lounge in August to show their support for the family of officer John Mathews, who was killed in 1988 by Dean Chavez. | Alex Wroblewski / for Sun-Times Media

Other folks were worried, but not enough, it seems, to give Chavez the boot. In interviews with the Sun-Times, current and former Hegewisch Babe Ruth staff said Chavez was involved with the league before they arrived; they knew he’d been in trouble but didn’t know the details; or if police officers involved with the league didn’t worry, why should they?

Recent Hegewisch Babe Ruth board presidents have included a current Chicago police detective and a retired Chicago firefighter, neither of whom responded to requests for interviews.

In fact, Chavez said a policeman put him on the Babe Ruth board.

“We grew up together,” Chavez said.

Some offered this explanation: In a league desperate for volunteers, Chavez was a superstar.

“Dean Chavez was responsible for about 80 percent of getting what we needed to fund and run this league over the last three years,” wrote Scott Jamrock, Babe Ruth’s most recent board president, in a June 24 email.

Darin Czubak, who until recently was the league’s treasurer, said that’s exaggerating Chavez’s involvement.

“It was a group effort,” he said. “Everybody pitched in.”

Chavez said he got involved with Babe Ruth because he’d played in the league as a kid and had hoped his youngest son would play someday too.

“We turned that whole league around,” Chavez said. “It was in the red when we got involved. We paid off the debts we inherited, which we didn’t have to, but we did.”

Chavez called parents to remind them to sign their kids up for the league; he’d go door to door, asking businesses for support; he brought chips to the players’ practice.

“He’s very charismatic,” Czubak said.

Chavez didn’t often talk about his past, but he once told Jamrock, “I’ll try to mentor any kid who’s going on the same path I was going on.”

Chavez didn’t only coach Babe Ruth baseball. Two years ago, he was elected vice president of Hegewisch’s Little League. Chris Banks, a Chicago police officer who also is involved in that league, suspects Chavez got the job because no one bothered to check out his background. When Banks found out, he said he immediately asked Chavez to step down.

“We had a long conversation, where he said he had paid his debt and that he was a different person,” Banks recalled. “(He said) that person is still inside of him and he knows that . . . but he doesn’t let that person out.”

In the end, Chavez agreed to step down, Banks said.

Chavez said he was nominated for the vice president position and never sought it. He said he stepped down to spare the league and himself any “unnecessary grief.”

But most who knew the truth about Chavez’s past were willing to give him a second chance.

Babe Ruth parent Lori Zlotowski said she only found out this year about Chavez’s history. Neither of her sons had him as a coach, she said, but they were often on the field together, and there’s a good reason she didn’t yank her kids the moment she found out.

“That’s not the real world, where everyone around you is wonderful and has your best interests at heart,” she said.

On the field, some noticed a quirk.

“In coaching, you sometimes have to raise your voice to the players or the umpire,” said a 17-year-old boy, who had Chavez as a coach for three years and didn’t want his name used. “It’s just part of the job, but [Chavez] never did, which was strange.”

Some say that in the end, Chavez became a victim of his own Babe Ruth success. Others say his past finally caught up to him.

In the spring, Chavez decided it was time to replace the league’s sagging cyclone fence. He reached out for bids.

“There was a lot of discussion over whether Dean was overstepping his bounds,” Downs said.

But Czubak disagrees, saying word had began to spread beyond Babe Ruth baseball that a convicted cop killer was coaching kids.

“I had a grandmother come up to me,” Czubak recalls of the league’s opening day in May. “She said, ‘Do you know who that is out there? That’s Dean Chavez.’ ”

Czubak replied that he thought Chavez’s criminal past was minor.

“She got really upset and walked away,” Czubak recalled.

Not a single memory

Joey Mathews doesn’t have a single memory of his father. He was 4 when his dad was murdered.

“I have videos and people telling me I have his mannerisms,” said Mathews, 30, a Cicero firefighter.

On July 3, Mathews arrived at his mother’s Michigan summer home and saw something troubling from her past — a cigarette.

“I saw her smoking a cigarette for the first time in 15 years, and I knew something was wrong,” Mathews said.

Laura Mathews’ face was blank. She looked too thin. And then she told him: She had recently learned from her brother that her husband’s killer was coaching youth baseball in Hegewisch.

On June 16, Laura Mathews sent a curt email to the league. It read, in part: “Is this really the type (of) person that should be around children? I don’t think so and I ask you (to) remove him from that and any position related to the Babe Ruth league. That would be the only responsible course of action. Thank you, Laura Mathews (widow of Police Officer John W. Mathews).”

At first, Jamrock and Downs stood by Chavez.

“I have never received any written letters complaining about Dean,” Jamrock wrote in an email to Mathews and other Babe Ruth members. “I get requests from the kids to be on his team. He was coaching police officers’ kids for five years without complaints . . . ”

Downs told Laura Mathews it was his Christian duty to forgive.

Mathews stood firm. She wrote to the national Babe Ruth president in New Jersey, who ordered Jamrock to remove Chavez immediately. Quietly, Chavez stepped down, but then the Mathews family heard talk that Chavez was working a Babe Ruth concessions stand.

On the evening of July 30, the niceties ended at Steve’s Lounge. Laura Mathews, her family and supporters showed up at a regularly scheduled Babe Ruth meeting to demand the entire board resign. Many of the Mathews clan wore CPD T-shirts. Chavez didn’t come, but some of his supporters did — Babe Ruth parents and their kids, but not CPD officers.

Shouting erupted, with some Mathews allies demanding more respect for Laura Mathews’ wishes. Some Chavez supporters said Officer Mathews had been drinking when he clashed with Chavez and his buddies at Wolf Lake.

As 150 or so people waited outside, the board, local Ald. John Pope and the Mathews family crowded into a tiny back room. Almost two hours later, Joey Mathews emerged, announcing that the entire board had resigned. The crowd cheered.

Trying to move on

In late August, Banks — the CPD officer and Hegewisch Little League president — sent an email announcing his intention to remake Babe Ruth baseball, to move on from the summer’s embarrassment.

But it’s not clear that Hegewisch is ready to move on. People remain divided about Chavez, including cops.

“Sometimes somebody wants to give back to the community after they’ve wronged the community; it doesn’t happen a lot,” said one veteran police officer who lives in Hegewisch but didn’t want his name used.

Chavez remains proud of his Babe Ruth accomplishments. He understands, he says, why he was asked to step down. He doesn’t get why the rest of the board had to go.

“All these people who came in to complain — they don’t even live in the community,” Chavez said. “They’ve abandoned the community.”

Perhaps Aniol, the man who runs the neighborhood hardware store, best sums up the division: “Time heals wounds to a certain extent. There is a point when people feel that [Chavez] paid for what he did. … In a lot of people’s minds, he didn’t pay enough.”

Contributing: Mitch Dudek