Man convicted of murdering ‘hero’ Cook County sheriff’s investigator

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brandonjackson.jpg

Brandon Jackson | Cook County sheriff’s office

The young man whispers an urgent message into the jail telephone receiver: He wants his father to quickly go get the “unit” from a garbage can — “I left it at the bottom,” the young man says.

Those were the words of Brandon Jackson, the man who at the time was being held on first-degree murder and attempted armed robbery charges in the Dec. 20, 2013, death of Cook County Sheriff’s Investigator Cuauhtemoc Estrada, Cook County prosecutors say.

And it was Jackson’s repeated phone calls from Piatt County Jail in downstate Monticello — including one to his father asking him to retrieve the alleged murder weapon — that helped prove his guilt in Estrada’s slaying, prosecutors said during closing arguments Tuesday in Jackson’s trial at the Maywood courthouse.

Cuauhtemoc Estrada | Cook County sheriff’s office

Cuauhtemoc Estrada | Cook County sheriff’s office

Jurors agreed, returning less than six hours later with a guilty verdict.

“He’s kind of the poster boy of bad decisions,” Assistant State’s Attorney Dan Groth told jurors, noting that Jackson surely must have known his phone calls were being recorded.

As Groth spoke, a large group of Estrada’s family and friends looked on from the gallery.

Assistant State’s Attorney Ruth I. Gudino told jurors Estrada, 50, was a family man who, in the end, made the ultimate sacrifice to protect those he loved.

Estrada was fatally shot in the parking lot outside the VFW hall in Bellwood, while trying to protect his daughter and her boyfriend from two masked robbers, one of whom was Jackson, prosecutors say.

“That night, ‘Temo’ gave the greatest gift to his family — he gave his life to protect them,” Gudino said.

Video surveillance from the VFW parking lot show two masked gunmen, one of whom was wearing a maroon hoodie. Investigators later recovered that hoodie from the basement of Jackson’s grandmother’s home, prosecutors say. Traces of gunshot residue were found on one of the cuffs of the hoodie, prosecutors say.

Investigators also found the box for the alleged murder weapon — a .44 caliber Virginian dragoon — in Jackson’s grandmother’s house, prosecutors say.

But Jackson’s attorney, Valerie Panozzo, told jurors prosecutors hadn’t proven their case. Panozzo said the photographic and video evidence was “blurry” and therefore unreliable.

Family, friends and colleagues mourn outside Holy Name Cathedral after the funeral of slain Officer Cuauhtemoc Estrada on Saturday, December 28, 2013. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

Family, friends and colleagues mourn outside Holy Name Cathedral after the funeral of slain Officer Cuauhtemoc Estrada on Saturday, December 28, 2013. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

Panozzo urged jurors not to be swayed by their sympathy for the Estrada family’s grief.

“It’s OK for you to feel empathy for what they suffered,” she said. “But your verdict can’t be influenced by that empathy.”

Jackson’s accomplice, 26-year-old Gage Thornton, pleaded guilty to one count of murder in August 2016, according to court records. Prosecutors agreed to a 35-year prison sentence for Thornton, whose formal sentencing date is Feb. 22, according to the sheriff’s office.

After Estrada’s funeral in December 2013, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart called Estrada a “hero.”

“The man could never stop. He lived to protect people and his final act was protecting his daughter,” Dart said at the time. “I mean, he knew something awful was going on and he didn’t care. He was going to save his daughter. [He was] an amazing person.”

Jackson has a pre-sentencing hearing scheduled for Feb. 21.

Contributing: Mitchell Armentrout

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