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How a Chicago murder suspect was charged, then uncharged, in an extraordinary behind-the-scenes battle among law enforcement

After charges were dropped in the murder of 7-year-old Serenity Broughton earlier this month, her grandmother said the family doesn’t “know where to go. It’s not seeming like the justice system is working for us.”

Serenity Broughton was killed and her younger sister, Aubrey, was wounded in a shooting Aug. 15 in Belmont Central. Provided by family

When Cook County prosecutors rejected charging a suspect in the shooting that left 7-year-old Serenity Broughton dead and wounded her younger sister, it set off an extraordinary chain of events earlier this month that veteran court observers believe is unprecedented in recent history.

A high-ranking Chicago police commander, frustrated by another recent case rejection by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office and confident in his detective’s work, went to a judge to have the suspect held in custody for longer and circumvent prosecutors to charge the man with murder and attempted murder.

But hours later, top police brass reversed course — and persuaded another judge to essentially “uncharge” the suspect, as a source familiar with the case described the move.

The court proceedings were so hush-hush — done without an attorney for the suspect or a prosecutor present — that no record of any of the actions were ever officially filed within the court system.

While previous news accounts highlighted the disagreement between police and prosecutors, the new revelations include documentation of the extent cops went to pursue the case without Foxx’s involvement — and also show how it ended up driving a wedge between police leaders and their subordinates.

The case has had lasting reverberations in the Chicago Police Department, with some saying it has decimated morale among an already beleaguered police detective division.

What’s more, the family of the victims have been left without justice and unsure if there is a clear path to getting it. While law enforcement authorities were feuding, the suspect was released from custody and now can’t be found, according to a law enforcement source.

“We don’t know where to go,” said Regina Broughton, the sisters’ grandmother. “It’s not seeming like the justice system is working for us. And that’s disheartening, it’s just angering.”

Police investigate the scene where 7-year-old Serenity Broughton was killed and her younger sister, Aubrey, was injured in a shooting in the 6200 block of West Grand Avenue in Belmont Central, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021.
Police investigate the scene where 7-year-old Serenity Broughton was killed and her younger sister, Aubrey, was injured in a shooting in the 6200 block of West Grand Avenue in Belmont Central, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

An override — then a reversal

On the afternoon of Aug. 15, Serenity and her sister Aubrey, 6, were sitting in a parked car in the 6200 block of West Grand Avenue when gunfire erupted. Serenity was struck in the chest and later died at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood. Aubrey was hit in the chest and armpit but survived.

A relative of the girls was believed to be the target of the shooting, law enforcement sources said.

Police zeroed in on a suspect they said was seen sitting in a car near the scene of the shooting, according to an internal memo between prosecutors that was obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times. The Sun-Times is not naming the suspect because he’s not charged in the attack.

The memo noted that two other people were seen running back to the same car after the shots were fired. It’s unclear whether police identified the two men seen running to the car or whether they sought charges against either one of them.

But none of the men was seen holding weapons, no physical evidence was collected and witness statements were inconsistent when the case was initially brought to the state’s attorney’s Felony Review Unit for charging on Sept. 3, according to the memo. The unit rejected the charges, saying there wasn’t enough evidence.

That left police only a few hours to continue holding the suspect, who had been taken into custody Sept. 1. By law, a person has to be charged within 48 hours of being apprehended.

The pair of criminal complaints dated Sept. 3 and signed by Cook County Criminal Court Judge Donald Panarese Jr. detailing charges in the case.

Eric Winstrom, commander of Area 5 detectives, signed off on a felony override, which allows police to circumvent the state’s attorney’s office and file charges on their own. The maneuver is rarely used, particularly in high-profile murder cases, several sources in the state’s attorney’s office said.

The Sun-Times obtained copies of two criminal complaints dated Sept. 3 and signed by Cook County Criminal Court Judge Donald Panarese Jr. detailing charges of first-degree murder and attempted murder against the suspect who was in custody.

Panarese also presided over a videotaped hearing that same day to extend the suspect’s detention; the Sun-Times obtained a transcript of the proceedings.

The police department has long used these types of ad hoc hearings — often held at courthouses adjacent to police stations or inside the stations themselves — as a way to keep suspects in custody for more than 48 hours. Suspects are not entitled to a lawyer during these so-called Gerstein hearings, which have been criticized by public defenders, the Sun-Times has previously reported.

During the hearing, Panarese told the suspect, “You are charged with murder and attempt[ed] murder,” and he said he found probable cause to detain him, according to the transcript.

No evidence — nor mention of evidence provided by police to support the charges — was detailed during the hearing, the transcript shows.

But roughly 10 hours after the hearing was held, the charges were abruptly withdrawn and the order of detention was vacated at the request of top-ranking police officials, according to sources familiar with the case and a separate order signed by Judge Peggy Chiampas.

“After further review, at this time the Chicago Police Department is respectfully requesting to withdraw complaints for First Degree Murder and Attempted First Degree Murder and respectfully requests this Court to vacate the order of detention ordered,” the order reads.

Multiple sources said Chicago Police Supt. David Brown had been on board with the original decision to charge the suspect. But then, the sources said, he received a phone call from Foxx about four hours after the override was carried out.

After that call, Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan urged Winstrom to withdraw the charges, law enforcement sources said. Although Deenihan was told withdrawing the charges could lead to a rift between police brass and Area 5 detectives, sources said, Deenihan worked with Chiampas to draft the second order, which was entered at 11:03 p.m. Sept. 3.

Area Five Commander Eric Winstrom, right, updates reporters on the slaying of a 18-year-old Walgreens employee on Sunday, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
Chicago Police Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan (left) and Area Five Commander Eric Winstrom speak during a press conference last year.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Deenihan declined to comment on the case, and the police department’s News Affairs division declined to make Brown available for an interview.

In response to detailed questions from the Sun-Times, a spokesman forwarded a statement that had previously been issued, saying police are “committed to holding those responsible for the murder of 7-year-old Serenity Broughton and the wounding of her 6-year-old sister Aubrey, accountable. We are working closely on this investigation with the Cook County State’s Attorney to bring forward justice for Serenity, Aubrey and their family.”

No records on file

Details of the case, including the charges against the suspect and both judges’ orders, don’t appear anywhere in the Cook County court record, according to the clerk of the circuit court’s office. An official case number — assigned to all criminal records — was never created, a spokesman for the clerk’s office said in a statement this week.

“We have not received any documentation that criminal charges were approved against [the suspect], and therefore, a court case number should be created,” a spokesman for the clerk’s office said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the Office of Chief Judge Timothy Evans declined to comment last week and said circuit court judges are banned from discussing pending or potentially impending cases.

But Chicago attorney Jeffrey Neslund, a former Cook County prosecutor, said the whole matter “just sounds crazy.”

“That is absolutely bizarre to go to a judge and say, ‘We want this guy charged’ and then to turn around … and say, ‘Forget about it,’” Neslund said. “In my experience, it’s unheard of.”

Grand jury convened

Regina Broughton said her family was never informed of the flurry of behind-the-scenes activity in the case until the Sun-Times brought it to her attention. The news, she noted, “felt like a drop in the pit of my stomach.”

Broughton said Foxx reached out to the family earlier this month to tell them she planned to assign investigators from her office to work the case because detectives had pulled back.

The Sun-Times has previously reported that after prosecutors asked police for more evidence, the detective on the case pushed to drop it, saying he “had not seen his family and was tired and was not willing to do any more work on the case.”

Winstrom has pushed back on that claim, saying in an email to staff that “characterizing facetious comments expressing frustration with [the state’s attorney’s office] not charging the case as ‘wanting them to reject charges,’ or our declining to take counterproductive investigatory steps as ‘not willing to do any more work’ are disingenuous and offensive.”

Police say they are actively working on the case. A source confirmed detectives met with prosecutors last week and went over additional evidence, which includes phone records and evidence from a Facebook account. A grand jury hearing was also held.

In an emailed statement to the Sun-Times, Winstrom noted that Area 5 detectives “can never make this family truly whole again, but we want to give them the comfort that closure and justice can bring and do what we can to make sure this sort of evil doesn’t happen again.”

But they have a problem: The suspect, who is on parole for a 2018 attempted robbery conviction, now can’t be located after he fled his home before an electronic monitoring bracelet could be attached and activated, a law enforcement source said.

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections said Friday the suspect was on parole “in good standing,” although officials did not immediately say the last time he was in contact with them. Parolees are required to check at least once a month, but the frequency is set on a case-by-case basis, the spokeswoman said.

The whole matter frustrates the victims’ family.

Police officials and prosecutors “are just bickering amongst each other, and we’re not getting anything in return,” Regina Broughton said.

“It’s so convoluted, and it’s so twisted,” she said. “ … We don’t know what’s fact or speculation. All we know is that we’re not getting any conclusion on anything. The guy’s still, as we know, not in custody and still no closer to being charged.”

While her granddaughter Aubrey is healing, she’s now showing some signs of aggression and anger and hasn’t yet returned to school, she said. With the trauma of the shooting still fresh in her mind, Aubrey still talks a lot about her older sister, who was “her whole world,” Broughton said.

“She always calls her an angel.”

The order filed by Judge Peggy Chiampas reversing the charges in the case at the request of top-ranking police officials.