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Family seeking answers after loved one is found hanged in South Side police cell

Irene Chavez, a U.S. military veteran, died in the early morning hours of Dec. 18.

Iris Chavez, sister of Irene Chavez, and Angelique Gall, a friend, hug near an altar they built before a press conference outside the 3rd District police station in the Park Manor neighborhood, Monday morning, Dec. 27, 2021, where friends and family demanded answers about Irene’s death. The family said police told them that Irene, a veteran and a member of the LGBTQ community, was found hanged at the police station on December 18.
Iris Chavez, sister of Irene Chavez, and Angelique Gall, a friend, hug near a memorial they built outside the Grand Crossing District police station Monday morning.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A week before Christmas, Irene Chavez was at a bar on the South Side when she was arrested for simple battery.

Chavez, 33, ended up at the Grand Crossing police station. Several hours later, two detectives showed up at the Chavez family home to deliver devastating news: Chavez had been found hanged at the station, her family says they were told.

On Monday, family gathered outside the police station at 7040 S. Cottage Grove Ave. to set up a makeshift memorial to honor Chavez and to seek answers. They say police have offered almost no details about the circumstances surrounding Chavez’s death.

“I asked detectives questions, and I hit a red light, a stop sign, a door every single time,” Chavez’s sister, Iris Chavez, told reporters.

Irene and Iris Chavez’s parents stood nearby outside the station. Her mother, Cynthia Chavez, point dropped to her knees to pray on the wet pavement.

Iris Chavez said police gave her a heavily redacted incident report the morning her sister died. She said they told her that her sister had hanged herself with a shirt. Irene Chavez was at Jeffery Pub on South Jeffery, where she was arrested for simple battery, her sister said.

But the sister said she knows almost nothing about the circumstances of the arrest, including what led to it. “If you danced with her that night at Jeffery Pub or just bought her a drink or she bought you one, come forward. Nobody is giving me answers,” Iris Chavez said.

The department has told the Civilian Office of Police Accountability that Chavez “attempted suicide” in the tactical office at the station around 3:20 a.m. Dec. 18, according to a statement released by COPA on Monday night.

Chavez was transported to the University of Chicago Hospital in critical condition and was pronounced dead at 9:49 a.m., according to the medical examiner.

COPA “immediately” began investigating the case and officials were present for the autopsy conducted by the Cook County medical examiner’s office. A cause of death is pending further tests, the office said.

COPA has obtained body camera footage of Chavez’s initial arrest, but according to the statement “there is no video surveillance of Ms. Chavez in the 3rd Police District tactical office where the alleged suicide attempt occurred.”

Irene Chavez, a U.S. military veteran, had been dealing with PTSD and had been getting treatment, her sister said. She’d been out of the military for about three years and was between jobs after recently moving back to Chicago from Texas, her sister said. She’d had a variety of jobs since leaving the military and hoped to work full time in community farming, friends said.

Cynthia Chavez, the mother of Irene Chavez, puts a hand on her husband Daniel Chavez while their daughter Iris stands beside them during a press conference outside the 3rd District police station in the Park Manor neighborhood, Monday morning, Dec. 27, 2021, where friends and family demanded answers about Irene’s death.
Cynthia Chavez (left), the mother of Irene Chavez, stands with her husband Daniel Chavez and their daughter Iris Chavez during a news conference Monday, Dec. 27, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“What we know is Irene died in the custody of the Chicago police. What we know is Irene Chavez was a bright light in this community, serving our country … loved by her family and friends, loved by the LGBT community,” said Andrew Stroth, a civil rights attorney working with the Chavez family.

Stroth called on Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Supt. David Brown to help the Chavez family in their search for answers.

“We know there is video that exists,” Stroth said. “We know Iris shouldn’t get a redacted police report. The family wants answers. The family is demanding truth.”

A picture of Irene Chavez is seen in this photo, Monday morning, Dec. 27, 2021, after a press conference where friends and family demanded answers about Chavez’s death while in police custody.
Irene Chavez

Beneath a tree outside the police station, family and friends set up a temporary memorial, with photographs of a smiling Irene Chavez, Christmas decorations, sports jerseys from her favorite football team, the Green Bay Packers, along with two dozen candles in the Packers colors — green and yellow.

The family walked through the front doors of the police station Monday to see if they could get some of their questions answered. They were politely told by the watch commander to contact COPA.

Since the incident occurred while Chavez was in police custody, COPA will also provide notification to the state’s attorney’s office and Federal Bureau of Investigation for possible criminal review.