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Sgt. Sam Cirone (left), the last Chicago cop fighting disciplinary action in the David Koschman case, leaves a Chicago Police Board hearing with his former boss Joseph Salemme, who retired to avoid punishment.

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Cops in Koschman case: Daley’s nephew shouldn’t have been charged

Five years after Richard J. ‘R.J.’ Vanecko pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, Sgt. Sam Cirone, who’s fighting a year’s suspension, and three former Chicago police colleagues still say Vanecko acted in self-defense.

Sgt. Sam Cirone (left), the last Chicago cop fighting disciplinary action in the David Koschman case, leaves a Chicago Police Board hearing with his former boss Joseph Salemme, who retired to avoid punishment.
| Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

It’s been more than five years since former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s nephew Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the death of David Koschman.

Now, the last cop still facing disciplinary action in the high-profile case is arguing he shouldn’t be punished — and that Daley’s nephew never should have been charged by a special prosecutor.

Sgt. Sam Cirone and four others involved in the investigation have testified to the Chicago Police Board, which will decide Cirone’s fate.

And all agreed: Daley’s nephew shouldn’t have been charged.

That’s even though Vanecko, who was only brought to justice after the appointment of special prosecutor Dan K. Webb, admitted to punching the 21-year-old Mount Prospect man in the face during a drunken argument near Rush Street on April 25, 2004.

It’s despite Vanecko telling Nanci Koschman, the dead man’s mother, in court, “I can only say, Mrs. Koschman: I’m sorry, and I apologize.”

And despite the fact that Vanecko served two months in jail.

Without mentioning any of the above, Cirone’s lawyer James P. McKay Jr. told hearing officer Thomas Johnson this month that the only reason Daley’s nephew was charged was because of public pressure resulting from a Chicago Sun-Times investigation.

Regarding the five Chicago Police Department rules that Cirone is accused of violating, which involve his supervision of detectives on the case, McKay said, “The charges are nothing more than the fault of somebody at City Hall who’s afraid to tell the media, ‘Screw you.’ ”

And McKay went further, blaming Koschman, who never struck anyone, for his own death.

“I say this with all due respect to Mrs. Koschman, the reason her son isn’t here today is because he started something he couldn’t finish,” McKay said.

Sgt. Sam Cirone’s lawyer James P. McKay Jr.: “I say this with all due respect to Mrs. Koschman, the reason her son isn’t here today is because he started something he couldn’t finish.”
Sgt. Sam Cirone’s lawyer James P. McKay Jr.: “I say this with all due respect to Mrs. Koschman, the reason her son isn’t here today is because he started something he couldn’t finish.”
Sun-Times files

Locke Bowman — one of two lawyers who helped Nanci Koschman win the appointment of the special prosecutor to reopen the case — said the statements didn’t surprise him.

“They won’t admit they’re ever wrong,” said Bowman, who has represented defendants in wrongful-conviction lawsuits against the Chicago Police Department. “I can’t remember a member of the Chicago Police Department acknowledging they made a mistake.”

Told what McKay said about her son, Nanci Koschman said: “I don’t care what David said or did. There was no justification for this guy to punch my son and then run away. When he ran away, he knew he shouldn’t have done it.”

Cirone, who followed his father into the police department 27 years ago, was among six officers singled out for their actions by special prosecutor Webb, a former U.S. attorney who is now serving as special prosecutor in the Jussie Smollett case. Though Webb didn’t charge them with any crime, Webb said he considered filing obstruction of justice charges against them for making up “a phony self-defense determination” to justify not charging Vanecko in 2004 or 2011. Ultimately, Webb decided he didn’t have enough evidence to convict them.

City Hall’s inspector general, Joseph Ferguson, investigated the case and recommended disciplinary action be taken against the same six cops. Based on that, John Escalante, at the time the interim police superintendent, sought to fire two of them, Lt. Denis P. Walsh and Detective James Gilger, and give one-year suspensions to the others — Cirone, Deputy Chief of Detectives Constantine “Dean” Andrews, Commander Joseph Salemme and Detective Nicholas “Nick” Spanos.

Andrews, Gilger, Salemme and Walsh avoided any punishment by retiring. Spanos served about two months of his suspension and remains a detective.

Salemme and Spanos testified at Cirone’s hearing. Andrews and Gilger ignored subpoenas from the city to testify.

The police board, a panel of mayoral appointees, will get the hearing officer’s recommendation and could rule in October. It has the authority to go ahead with the one-year suspension Escalante sought, clear Cirone or decide he deserves a lesser, or harsher, punishment.

It’s taken years for the case to come before the police board because Cirone and the police sergeants union fought to keep his case from getting that far. They went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, which refused last year to hear their challenge of the police board’s authority.

Cirone has continued to make a six-figure salary during that time while also collecting tens of thousands of dollars in overtime pay and building his police pension. He now supervises five detectives who work on cold cases on the North Side and Northwest Side.

He’s accused of violating five department rules because he “failed to ensure” that Gilger and Spanos “completed a thorough investigation” during the reinvestigation of the Koschman case in 2011. According to the disciplinary charges, Cirone’s detectives didn’t:

• Interview Officer Edwin Tremore, the first cop to arrive after Vanecko hit Koschman, causing Koschman to strike his head on the curb at 43 W. Division St. Cirone and other witnesses testified it wasn’t necessary to interview Tremore because his report was thorough.

• Interview the detectives from the original 2004 investigation. Cirone said they had summary reports from those detectives, though many of the files from the initial investigation were missing and still are.

• Canvas the area for witnesses or video. Cirone said it would have been pointless to do so nearly seven years later. But the city’s lawyers, Abigail Clapp and David Repking, noted that Webb’s staff subsequently interviewed bar owners in the area and found that one of them — at the tavern Mother’s — had video of Koschman and the group of friends he was with leaving the bar.

• Get cellphone records from Vanecko or friends who were with him: Bridget Higgins McCarthy, her husband Kevin McCarthy and Craig Denham. Cirone and the other cops said they didn’t think those records would still exist and were surprised to learn that Webb’s investigators obtained phone records showing Bridget McCarthy and Vanecko exchanged several calls as Koschman was rushed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

• Question Denham about conversations he had with Vanecko after they took off and didn’t ask them to identify the bar they then went to. Cirone and his witnesses said they weren’t sure whether Gilger and Spanos asked those questions. They pointed out that Gilger’s reports show Denham wouldn’t elaborate on what he told the police in 2004.

• Write an accurate, objective report. They wrote that Vanecko threw the punch after Koschman told him, “F--- you! I’ll kick your ass!”

Cirone helped Gilger edit that final report, based on “corrections” and “issues” raised by Andrews, the night before it was submitted. Cirone testified that part of the quotation attributed to Koschman came from Kevin McCarthy, who lied to the police twice, saying he didn’t know the guys who were arguing with Koschman and took off.

Weeks later, after acknowledging his involvement, McCarthy told detectives in 2004 that Koschman and one of his friends had yelled, “I’ll kick your ass.” Cirone said the rest of the quote came from a 2011 interview with Koschman’s friend Scott Allen, who said everyone was yelling, “Screw you.”

Gilger’s report didn’t include Allen’s statement that Vanecko and his group were the aggressors in the confrontation. Cirone said that should have been noted.

Johnson, the hearing officer, said it appeared Gilger’s report included statements to support the argument that Vanecko acted in self-defense but omitted others contradicting that. “The city’s theory is that the report was written to support the conclusion, and Allen’s statement and stuff that would get in the way are thrown out,” Johnson said.

Cirone’s lawyer said the sergeant shouldn’t be held responsible for the final report, which the police department used to close the case in 2011 without charging Vanecko. McKay said that’s because Cirone was off when the report was turned in, the day after he made the edits Andrews wanted. So Sgt. Thomas Mills signed off on it as the approving supervisor.

Other highlights of what Cirone and the others involved told the hearing officer, which marked the first time that any of them had testified publicly about the Koschman case:

Former police Commander Joseph Salemme, who retired while facing a suspension as a result of the David Koschman case: “Whatever Vanecko did was reasonable and justified.”
Former police Commander Joseph Salemme, who retired while facing a suspension as a result of the David Koschman case: “Whatever Vanecko did was reasonable and justified.”
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Former Commander Joseph Salemme

Salemme — the commander whose detectives were assigned to reinvestigate the case in 2011 — said the police didn’t decide to close the case without charging Vanecko because his uncle was still mayor.

“Was the reinvestigation of the David Koschman death done any different because of who Vanecko was related to?” McKay asked.

“No, sir,” Salemme said. “It was a clear case of [Koschman] being the aggressor. And whatever Vanecko did was reasonable and justified. This was so lacking on the part of any criminality on Vanecko’s part. I don’t know why I’m sitting here today.”

Salemme said he assigned Cirone the case because “he was my best sergeant.”

Sgt. Sam Cirone.
Sgt. Sam Cirone after a Chicago Police Board hearing.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times file

Sgt. Sam Cirone

Cirone testified that, once the case was assigned to Gilger and his partner Spanos, he had little contact with them during the investigation, which began in mid-January 2011 and ended Feb. 28, 2011.

He told the hearing officer he didn’t order Gilger and Spanos to interview the police who investigated the case in 2004 — but Cirone also didn’t tell them not to.

“I don’t micromanage experienced detectives,” Cirone said. “Our assignment wasn’t to investigate the police. It was to investigate the case.”

Detective Nicholas Spanos

Spanos, who was the junior detective on the reinvestigation, said he and Gilger canvassed the area but didn’t note that in a report.

“We went to the scene, and we looked for video seven years later,” Spanos said. “I can’t recall if we got out of the car. We didn’t document it because we didn’t get any evidence.”

Former Detective Ronald Yawger, who investigated David Koschman’s death in 2004, testified he told prosecutors then: “If we let this guy walk out of here, we’re going to look like idiots when the newspapers hear about this.”
Former Detective Ronald Yawger, who investigated David Koschman’s death in 2004, testified he told prosecutors then: “If we let this guy walk out of here, we’re going to look like idiots when the newspapers hear about this.”
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Former Detective Ronald Yawger

Yawger — who took retirement from the police department and has spent the past dozen years as an investigator for the Illinois attorney general’s office — took over the 2004 investigation after Koschman’s death.

He testified that charging Vanecko would have been difficult because no one identified him in a lineup. He said he called the Cook County state’s attorney’s office to let that agency decide whether Vanecko should be charged.

“There was nothing to charge him with,” Yawger said. “I just wanted to get out from under it.

“They said, ‘What are you calling us for?’ I said, ‘I have the mayor’s nephew here. Somebody else has to make this decision.’ I said, ‘If we let this guy walk out of here, we’re going to look like idiots when the newspapers hear about this.’ ”

Yawger also said he canvassed the area looking for video but found none and didn’t file a report about that. Many of his “progress” reports in the case have been missing for years.

Darren O’Brien, former head of felony review for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, on the death of David Koschman: “My conclusion was no crime was committed.”
Darren O’Brien, former head of felony review for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, on the death of David Koschman: “My conclusion was no crime was committed.”
Sun-Times files

Former prosecutor Darren O’Brien

O’Brien, who headed the state’s attorney’s felony review unit in 2004, testified that it was “reasonable” for Vanecko to punch the much-smaller Koschman because he was running towards Vanecko and his companions.

“Even if they all stood up there and said Richard Vanecko punched David Koschman, I still had a self-defense issue,” O’Brien said. “My conclusion was no crime was committed. It was a tragedy, no doubt about it. To me, one punch or push was reasonable. There’s no requirement in the law that you’ve got to let the little guy get the first punch in.”

O’Brien said he didn’t take any notes while interviewing witnesses. The state’s attorney’s file on the case also has been missing for years.

After the state’s attorney declined to charge anyone in 2004, detectives stopped investigating. The case remained officially an open, unsolved homicide until the Sun-Times filed a public records request for files from the investigation in January 2011, in the waning months of the Daley administration, prompting the police to order a new investigation.

Former Chicago police Supt. Phil Cline entering a Chicago Police Board hearing for Sgt. Sam Cirone. Cline praised Cirone, saying he asked that his own son be trained by him because “I wanted my son to be trained by the very best.”
Former Chicago police Supt. Phil Cline entering a Chicago Police Board hearing for Sgt. Sam Cirone. Cline praised Cirone, saying he asked that his own son be trained by him because “I wanted my son to be trained by the very best.”
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Former Supt. Phil Cline

Cline, the city’s top cop at the time of Koschman’s death, was one of three witnesses McKay had testify about Cirone’s character and wasn’t questioned about the investigation.

In 2004, Cline had publicly announced “there’s no basis for criminal charges” against the mayor’s nephew.

Cline praised Cirone’s skill as an investigator, saying he was “a go-to guy” for big, so-called “heater” cases. He said he had requested that Cirone train his son, Matthew Cline, as a detective: “I wanted my son to be trained by the very best.”

Outside the hearing, Cline wouldn’t discuss the Koschman investigation, saying, “I’ll let everything speak for itself.”

The first Sun-Times story, published Feb. 28, 2011 — the same day the Chicago Police Department closed its investigation of David Koschman’s death, finding that Mayor Richard M. Daley’s nephew Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko acted in self-defense.
The first Sun-Times story, published Feb. 28, 2011 — the same day the Chicago Police Department closed its investigation of David Koschman’s death, finding that Mayor Richard M. Daley’s nephew Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko acted in self-defense.

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