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City poised for $20.5M settlement with 2 men allegedly framed by former Detective Reynaldo Guevara

The money goes to Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez, who were released from prison in 2016 after serving 23 years for the murder of Rodrigo Vargas. A parade of additional settlements in cases tied to Guevara is expected to follow.

Former Chicago police Det. Reynaldo Guevara leaves the Cook County Criminal Court building in 2013.
Former Chicago police Det. Reynaldo Guevara leaves the Cook County Criminal Court building in 2013.
Sun-Times file

Chicago taxpayers will spend $20.5 million to compensate two men who spent more than two decades in prison for crimes they did not commit after allegedly being framed by Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara.

The first in what is certain to be a parade of multimillion-dollar settlements directly tied to alleged wrongdoing by Guevara is on the agenda for Monday’s meeting of the Chicago City Council’s Finance Committee.

The money goes to Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez, who were released from prison in 2016 after serving 23 years for the murder of Rodrigo Vargas. An inmate at the Cook County Jail who had testified against the men later recanted, saying that Guevara threatened and beat him until he agreed to say he’d heard Montanez and Serrano confess to killing Vargas during a stickup.

Guevara has been named in more than a dozen lawsuits alleging he routinely framed suspects during his three decades as a gang unit detective in the Humboldt Park area.

A 2015 investigation by the Better Government Association found the city had spent about $18 million on investigations of Guevara’s work and payouts for jury verdicts or settlements. Attorneys for other alleged victims of his misconduct have estimated the tab for the city’s legal defense is even higher, at nearly $50 million.

As lucrative as the latest settlement is, Serrano’s attorney Jennifer Bonjean said no amount of money could compensate her client for more than two decades spent in prison for crimes he did not commit.

“What would you want for 23 years of your life? It’s kind of that simple,” Bonjean said. “They abused and used another individual who was in custody to frame a number of men, including our clients.”

Bonjean said Serrano has adjusted to life after prison “as well as can be expected” while working as an Uber driver. But she acknowledged it’s been a struggle for Serrano to reconnect with friends and family.

“You go to prison. Your children are infants. You come out. They’re grown men. No amount of money can fix that. He’s doing his best. He’s doing a pretty good job of it. But it’s not an easy transition,” she said. “We take our relationships for granted. Our relationships with our children. Our relationships with our parents and siblings. We take that for granted. And for him, it’s like starting anew. For him, that’s not an easy process.”

Bonjean noted the case against the prosecutors and former prosecutors is still pending.

In federal lawsuits, both Serrano and Montanez have contended that Cook County Circuit Judge Matthew Coghlan, while serving as an assistant state’s attorney, took part in a June 2, 1993, meeting at which a robbery suspect has said Guevara and his partner encouraged the suspect to falsely implicate Serrano and Montanez in a murder.

In court filings in the case, Coghlan has denied allegations that he framed Serrano and Montanez for murder. Both Coghlan and former assistant state’s attorney John Dillon have also denied they met that day with robbery suspect Francisco Vicente.

“We have not reached a settlement. Frankly, I am eager. Nothing would make happier than to go to trial and bring those prosecutors to justice in the best way we know how because so often they engage in misconduct and because of their absolute immunity, we are not in a position to redress it,” Bonjean said. “Here, we have the unique position. That, to me, is really what is more interesting than the city ultimately agreeing to settle the case as to these plaintiffs.”

Contributing: Mitchell Armentrout