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Suicide suspected in death of lawyer ‘under pressure’ after impersonating judge

Attorney Rhonda Crawford addresses allegations that she impersonated a judge in the Markham courthouse at Henderson Parks, LLC on September 22, 2016. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Rhonda Crawford, who was set to stand trial Monday on charges she impersonated a judge, has been found dead in a suspected suicide.

Crawford, 46, was pronounced dead at her home at 4:02 p.m. Thursday by Calumet City police and fire personnel, who had responded to a call of a possible suicide and found her unresponsive.

After an autopsy Friday, the Cook County medical examiner’s office withheld its determination on the cause and manner of Crawford’s death pending the outcome of toxicology tests.

But Calumet City Police Chief Christopher Fletcher said his department was treating the case as an apparent suicide.

Crawford faced one count of official misconduct and one count of false impersonation over an incident in August 2016 when a judge in the Markham courthouse allowed her to wear her judicial robes and rule on a few traffic cases from the bench.

At the time, Crawford had won the Democratic primary for an opening on the bench in the 1st Judicial Subcircuit, but she had yet to be elected or sworn in as a judge.

The lapse in judgment created a political firestorm just as Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans was facing a tough re-election fight. Crawford held a job as a law clerk in the chief judge’s office and was assigned to the Markham courthouse.

Evans moved quickly to suspend and then fire Crawford, but the matter remained an embarrassment for him and the court system when Crawford refused to withdraw her name from the ballot.

At the time of her death, Crawford also was facing disciplinary proceedings before the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, which could have resulted in the revocation of her law license.

Her criminal defense attorney, Rob Robertson, said Crawford was a great person who “led an exemplary life.”

“I think she was put in an untenable situation by a number of others. I looked forward to vindicating her on Monday. But that’s not going to happen now,” Robertson said.

The attorney handling her disciplinary proceedings also said he had been optimistic about winning Crawford’s case.

“Rhonda never intentionally did anything wrong to anybody,” said Adrian Vuckovich. “She was just a young lawyer caught up in a difficult situation.”

Vuckovich said the ARDC case had been put on hold pending the outcome of her criminal trial.

“We thought she would be all clear at that point,” he said, “all clear” meaning not guilty.

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Vuckovich said he didn’t know if Crawford was feeling pressure from her legal problems, but he said, “She sure was put under pressure.”

For more than a year, Crawford attended status hearings in Judge Alfredo Maldonado’s courtroom at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse — often smiling at reporters on hand.

A witness list filed by the defense tallied more than 50 names, including most of the judges at the Markham courthouse and everyone present in traffic court on the fateful morning Crawford donned Circuit Judge Valarie Turner’s robes.

Crawford had made a mid-career switch to become a lawyer after years of working as a registered nurse. She graduated from Chicago Kent College of Law in 2003.

Despite the brouhaha, Crawford went on to win her election for judge in November 2016 (she was unopposed except for a write-in candidate), but was blocked from taking the bench by the Illinois Supreme Court, which also suspended her law license.

Turner, who was accused of allowing Crawford to wear her robes and carry out her duties, was removed from the bench and later forced into retirement. In her defense, Turner’s lawyers disclosed she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

The Illinois Courts Commission subsequently judged Turner “mentally unable to perform her duties.”

On Aug. 1, 2016, Turner allegedly introduced Crawford as “Judge Crawford” to another judge in the Markham courthouse.

Shortly afterward, she announced in her courtroom that “we’re going to switch judges” as she gave her judicial robe to Crawford and allowed her to preside over at least three cases.

Crawford maintained she never intended to mislead anyone and was just following the lead of a veteran judge.

Evans’ spokesman Pat Milhizer issued a statement Friday: “Chief Judge Evans is saddened to hear of Ms. Crawford’s passing and offers his condolences to her family and friends during this difficult time.”

Contributing: Andy Grimm