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‘Smoking gun’ marriage license helps nix $4.25M verdict, leads to contempt conviction

It’s been eight years since Chicagoan Hawa Sissoko was killed by a semi-truck that barreled into her as she stood on a highway in Northwest Indiana.

And it’s been three years since a jury awarded the 28-year-old West African immigrant’s family $4.25 million for their tragic loss.

Now, the uncle who handled Sissoko’s estate is likely headed to prison — thanks to hidden clues in a charred document pulled from the burning wreckage of the crash that claimed her life.

The uncle, Bangaly Sylla, was recently convicted of contempt of court for lying to a Cook County judge about Sissoko’s heirs.

<small><strong>Bangaly Sylla | Cook County Sheriff’s photo</strong></small>
Bangaly Sylla | Cook County Sheriff’s photo

Sylla originally told the court her only beneficiaries were her parents and eight siblings living in war-torn Mali.

But he failed to mention she was married to a cabbie in New York.

And that led a Cook County judge to take the rare step of bringing contempt of court charges against Sylla.

Sylla was convicted May 13 after a two-day jury trial.

“This is highly, highly unusual,” said C. Barry Montgomery, who represented the truck driver and his employer, Roadway Express, in a lawsuit brought by Sissoko’s estate. “You almost never hear of a fraud being perpetrated on the court like this.”

The complex legal saga began at 11:10 a.m. on May 30, 2007.

Sissoko was standing behind her car in an eastbound lane of Interstate 80/90 near Chesterton, Indiana, when she was crushed by the impact of a semi-truck carrying 27,000 pounds of freight. No one knows why she was outside her car, but suicide was considered a possibility.

Sissoko had immigrated from Mali to New York in 2000 and moved to Chicago in 2005. She lived with her uncle, Sylla, and his wife, braiding hair in the couple’s beauty salon.

Sissoko sent money to her parents in Mali to support them and her siblings, court records show.

After she was killed, Sylla became the court-appointed administrator of her estate. He hired an attorney to sue the truck driver, Alfred Baggiani, and Roadway Express on behalf of her heirs.

The case was filed in Indiana and was moved to Cook County because Baggiani was an Illinois resident.

Weeks before the lawsuit went to trial in 2012, a paralegal for the defense was preparing for the case.

The paralegal, who understands French, noticed something odd.

The French words on the document, which was created in French-speaking Mali, indicated it was actually a marriage license — and not a birth certificate as was previously thought.

Immediately, lawyers in the case scrambled to learn whether Sissoko was married.

Her husband, Noumouke Keita, was found living in New York and working as a taxi driver. He confirmed he and Sissoko were married but were living apart.

Then, in the weeks before the lawsuit went to trial, Sylla produced an official-looking document showing the couple were divorced in Mali.

Despite objections from the defense attorneys, the trial proceeded with her parents and siblings as the heirs.

On Jan. 24, 2012, a jury awarded Sissoko’s family a whopping $5 million in damages. The jury shaved $750,000 off the judgment because Sissoko was found to be partially responsible for her death.

After the trial, the judge agreed with the defense attorneys to freeze the payment of the $4.25 million judgment to Sissoko’s family until he could learn whether she was married and whether she and Keita were divorced.

If she was married, Keita would be her sole heir.

Keita testified that he and Sissoko were married in a ceremony in which his brother stood in for him as the groom in Mali because he was already in New York.

He said Sissoko joined him in New York in 2000 and she moved to Chicago in 2005 to work as a hair stylist. Keita said he visited her in Chicago several times and they spoke on the phone every day until her death.

The defense attorneys presented evidence that the divorce decree obtained from Mali was a fake. They accused Sylla and Sissoko’s family in Mali of conspiring to defraud the court.

On Jan. 29, 2013, Judge Daniel Lynch overturned the $4.25 million judgment. He also barred Keita and Sissoko’s family from pursuing any damages from the truck driver and Roadway Express.

And he removed Sylla as administrator of the estate.

“The courthouse doors are closed,” Lynch said, according to a transcript of his ruling.

As for Sylla, the judge said: “I don’t find him to be believable. I certainly don’t find him to be someone who has the interest of her estate in mind, someone who would seek out the true beneficiary of her estate, true, proper parties in interest.”

Last year, an appeals court upheld Lynch’s decision, except that Keita was allowed to pursue damages.

Keita has reached a $60,000 settlement with the truck driver and Roadway Express, possibly accepting a fraction of the original $4.25 million verdict because he knew a jury might be less sympathetic to him than to Sissoko’s parents and her siblings.

The court then turned to the allegations of fraud against Sylla and he was convicted of contempt.

Sylla remains in the Cook County Jail without bail pending a sentencing hearing June 4.

Terry Ekl, a private attorney who was appointed by the court to prosecute the contempt charge, said Sylla could receive “a number of years” in prison.

Montgomery, the lawyer for the truck driver and Roadway Express, said his firm is now asking the court to order monetary sanctions against Sylla, as well as Sissoko’s parents and the estate’s attorney, Lawrence Ruder.

Montgomery said he hopes the court will order them to pay the $1.8 million in legal fees his firm has racked up on the case.

But attorney Elliot R. Schiff, who is representing Ruder in the petition for sanctions, said he believes Sylla’s conviction “absolves Mr. Ruder of any responsibility.” Ruder was duped by Sylla, as were other lawyers who also worked with Sylla over the years, Schiff said.