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Chicago Sun-Times top stories of 2021

From more COVID and more crime to possibly no more Bears in Chicago, the city generated much notable news for the year.

Enzo Garcia, 6, left, holds the hand of his brother Dante Garcia, 9, center, while Marco Reyes, medical assistant at Esperanza Health Centers, administers the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine last month.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

At the end of 2020, many of us looked in our rearview mirrors at a landscape littered with crumpled face masks, canceled vacations, all manner of other coronavirus-related misery and said, “Good riddance. Bring on 2021!” Little did we know. Still, it wasn’t all bad. Many of us ate at a restaurant for the first time (in a long time) last year. Despite frequent reports of sometimes violent passenger tantrums, we boarded airplanes for a desperately needed vacation. We had to get used to the idea that when we said Illinois Speaker of the House, the name Michael Madigan would not come next. If we wanted to escape — but not stray too far from home — we perhaps went to watch the Bears at Soldier Field (for now, at least). Here, in no particular order, are the Chicago Sun-Times’ top 10 stories of 2021:

Another year of the pandemic

It was the year when many of us dared to imagine a post-COVID-19 world — thanks to the arrival of much-touted vaccines. But trying to get an appointment for a shot, at least in the early days, was often a maddening exercise in futility. Sure, jabs could be had — if you wanted to drive to Peoria.

Vaccines eventually became more widely available and many of us took advantage of them. We relaxed a little. Perhaps we realized there was no need, after all, to wipe down our groceries — or to wear a mask outside, providing we weren’t in a crowd.

Students make their to the classrooms on the first day back to school at Mary E. Courtenay Language Arts Center at 4420 N Beacon St. in Uptown, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.
Students make their way to classrooms on the first day back to school Aug. 30 at Mary E. Courtenay Language Arts Center in Uptown.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Many of our kids were back in their classrooms, much to the relief of their parents. Daily infections dropped. In June, the city opened up, finally doing away with almost all coronavirus restrictions that had been in place for so many months. Most of us were still working from home in 2021, and we decided we kind of liked the convenience of it: We didn’t have to commute; we could throw a load of dirty clothes in the washing machine on our lunch break; perhaps we worried that somehow our bosses knew our lunch break had stretched 10 minutes too long.

Coronavirus infections continued to spike off and on — mostly among the unvaccinated. Lotteries were tried as a way to entice the vaccine-hesitant. And by year’s end, there was an added incentive to get the jab: a new variant that we were told appeared to be far more infectious than the already highly infectious Delta variant.

Jussie Smollett trial

To some, actor Jussie Smollett represents the worst of the Hollywood elite: greedy, privileged and with a sense of entitlement. To others, Smollett is a hard-working actor who made a mistake and is now paying so high a price simply because he is Black.

To a Cook County jury that deliberated for about nine hours in early December, Smollett was guilty of disorderly conduct for lying to police about being the victim of a hate crime in January 2019. One juror later told this newspaper that the jury did Smollett “a favor” by finding him guilty of only five of the six charges against him.

With his mother, Janet Smollett, on his right arm and flanked by other family members and supporters, former “Empire” star Jussie Smollett walks into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, Tuesday morning, Nov. 30, 2021. The 39-year-old actor and singer is charged with lying to Chicago police in 2019 when he claimed he was the victim of a racist and anti-gay attack near his Streeterville apartment.
With his mother, Janet Smollett, on his right arm and flanked by other family members and supporters, former “Empire” star Jussie Smollett walks into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on Nov. 30, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

In a case watched across the globe, prosecutors largely built their case around the testimony of Smollett’s alleged accomplices, brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo. The brothers testified that Smollett directed the planning and execution of the attack, including scouting of the location and scripting the racist, homophobic insults they yelled as they rushed him.

Smollett’s lead attorney, Nenye Uche, cast the Osundairos as “sophisticated criminals,” who staged the attack to get paid, at first by getting Smollett to hire them as bodyguards, and then, after implicating Smollett in the crime, seeking a multimillion-dollar payout.

Smollett testified, spending eight hours on the witness stand and repeatedly denying he lied about being attacked.

“Mr. Smollett went on that witness stand, took an oath to tell the truth, and made many, many false statements to you,” special prosecutor Dan Webb said. “He lied to you as jurors.”

Now it’s up to Cook County Judge James Linn to decide Smollett’s punishment, with a number of criminal law experts saying he’s likely to get probation, not jail time.

Officer Ella French

It was bad enough that Chicago Police Officer Ella French was fatally shot while simply doing her job.

But it came at a turbulent time for the police department, with officers under the spotlight of a federal consent decree and dealing with a national movement to defund police in the wake of the George Floyd killing. And in May, the board of directors of the Fraternal Order of Police issued a vote of no confidence in Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Supt. David Brown, citing frustrations with officers’ working conditions. Some have called French’s murder a “breaking point” for under-siege cops.

An officer wore this button in honor of slain Officer Ella French during her Aug. 19 funeral at St. Rita of Cascia Shrine Chapel.
Hundreds of Chicago police officers and other law enforcement officers gather outside St. Rita of Cascia Shrine Chapel for the funeral of Officer Ella French on Aug. 19, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

French, 29, was killed and her partner was critically wounded during an Aug. 7 traffic stop in West Englewood. Brothers Emonte Morgan and Eric Morgan were later charged in connection with the shootings. Prosecutors said that French’s body camera continued recording as she lay dying and her alleged killer stood astride her.

When the mayor showed up at the University of Chicago Medical Center on the night of French’s killing to offer her support for the rank-and-file and the grieving families, she got a tongue lashing from the wounded officer’s father — himself a retired cop. Shortly after, Lightfoot walked out into the hallway and suffered another indignity: Officers gathered for French and her wounded partner turned their backs on the mayor as she approached.

The mayor also took heat for siding with First Dept. Supt. Eric Carter, who gave the order to speed up a police ritual paying tribute to a fallen officer. Carter ordered that French’s body be taken directly into the Cook County medical examiner’s office, skipping the Emerald Society’s traditional playing of bagpipes.

“We’re not waiting on the bagpipes. Go ahead and get the vehicle inside,” Carter is heard saying on a recording.

Lightfoot said the order was given to avoid delaying French’s family from getting to the morgue.

The Adam Toledo shooting

The mayor called the police cam video of the shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo “excruciating.” Few who saw it could disagree with that description.

“Simply put, we failed Adam,” Lightfoot said. “And we cannot afford to fail one more young person in our city.”

Chicago police shot Toledo in a Little Village alley in the early-morning hours of March 29 while responding to a report of gunfire.

A supporter lift his fist in the air at the memorial site where Adam Toledo was shot and killed near 24th Street and Sawyer Avenue in Little Village.
A supporter lifts his fist in the air at the memorial site where Adam Toledo was shot and killed near 24th Street and Sawyer Avenue in Little Village.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Before and after the release of the video in mid-April, there were protests and calls for Lightfoot to resign over her handling of the shooting. Toledo’s family and protesters said Toledo was unarmed when he was shot and had just raised his hands.

The video, released by a police watchdog agency, offered a complicated picture. It showed a Chicago police officer shooting Toledo, whose seemingly empty hands were raised — but who appeared to have a gun in his hand just a moment earlier.

The officer who shot Adam was wearing a body camera that shows him chasing the teen down an alley in Little Village at about 2:38 a.m. on March 29. The officer orders him to stop and show his hands.

A slow-motion version of the video from that body camera shows Adam standing sideways in a large gap in a wooden fence with what looks like a gun in one of his hands behind his back. The officer is on the other side of the alley. He yells, “Drop it!”

In less than a second, Adam raises his hands as the officer fires.

Adam crumples to the ground, and the officer calls for an ambulance and performs CPR.

The officer’s video doesn’t show Adam throwing away a gun, and the boy doesn’t appear to be holding a weapon in his raised hands.

But another video shows him apparently throwing something through a gap in the fence to the other side — and a video shows an officer finding a handgun there.

Another officer’s body-camera video shows 21-year-old Ruben Roman, the man who was with Adam that morning, on the ground in the alley and getting handcuffed.

The officer who shot Toledo remains on administrative duties, according to a police department spokesman.

Crime in the city

Armed robbers sauntering into downtown luxury shops in broad daylight. A rolling gunfight through rush-hour traffic in West Town.

Every year, gun violence is among the city’s most intractable problems. But in 2021, much like the year before, shootings reached levels not seen since the 1990s. And that violence frequently spilled into downtown.

“It’s not the same as a 14-year-old walking out with a candy bar,” Rob Karr, CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, told the Sun-Times in October. “These are coordinated. They have shopping lists. They prepare with U-Haul vans and getaway cars. And it is being used to fund other criminal activity.”

A shopper walks by with a shopping bag on North Michigan in Magnificent Mile, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.
A shopper walks with a shopping bag along the Magnificent Mile.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

All of this came after looters tore through the downtown corridor in 2020 during protests against police brutality.

Police Supt. David Brown’s Monday morning media briefings had a “Groundhog Day” sameness to them, with the city’s top cop urging judges to get tougher with repeat gun offenders. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, under ever-increasing pressure to bring the numbers down, announced plans to sue gangs for their assets.

“To be very blunt and clear: We are going after their blood money,” she said.

She took heat when she suggested that Magnificent Mile merchants should beef up their private security.

Her bitter war of words continued with FOP President John Catanzara, who has frequently accused the mayor of not having cops’ backs.

By mid-December, about 4,300 people had been shot in the city in 2021, 769 of them fatally, according to Chicago police data; that compares with 772 homicides for all of 2020. In 2019, about 500 people were killed in city gun violence.

Chicago Park District sex abuse scandal

An ingrained culture of misogyny and abuse spanning five decades. That’s what a dozen or so women told WBEZ’s Dan Mihalopoulos in a series of stories he wrote about the Chicago Park District’s beaches and pools unit.

The reporting brought to light in April that the park district inspector general had been secretly investigating abuse allegations for more than a year.

The Sun-Times reported in August that an Oak Street Beach lifeguard sent 11 pages of allegations in February 2020 to then-Park District Supt. Michael Kelly about lifeguards’ conduct during the summer of 2019.

The lifeguard stand at North Avenue Beach remains empty on June 22, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois.
An empty lifeguard stand.
Getty

The lifeguard said she’d been pushed into a wall, called profane and sexually degrading names by her coworkers and left alone for hours at her post because she refused to participate in their drinking parties and on-the-job drug use.

Instead of referring her allegations to the park district’s inspector general, Kelly had them investigated by top managers at the park district. Kelly delayed going to the inspector general until after a second lifeguard came forward with more graphic complaints that were passed to him from Lightfoot’s office.

Kelly has denied he tried to cover anything up. Nevertheless, he resigned from his $230,000-a-year job in October after Lightfoot urged the park district board to fire him over his handling of the sexual harassment and abuse allegations. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office opened a criminal investigation, which in October led to sexual assault charges against a former lifeguard supervisor, who allegedly abused a 16-year-old female lifeguard during the summer. Foxx’s investigation remains open.

The R. Kelly trial

For weeks this past summer, a jury in Brooklyn, New York, listened as prosecutors led them on a journey, pulling back the curtains on a world of almost unimaginable perversion.

Allegations and rumors of misconduct with women and children had dogged singer-songwriter R. Kelly for decades. But on Sept. 27, a jury of seven men and five women found Kelly, 54, guilty of all nine counts against him, including racketeering; the verdicts came on the second day of deliberations.

R. Kelly walks with supporters out of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, Thursday morning, June 6, 2019.
R. Kelly walks with supporters outside the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in June 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

This time Kelly would not break down in tears and say, “Thank you, Jesus” as he did in a Cook County courtroom in 2008, when he was acquitted on all counts in a child porn case.

Kelly wore a face mask below black-rimmed glasses, remaining motionless with eyes downcast, as the verdict was read in federal court in Brooklyn.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said in a statement at the time, “This is the first step in a long journey towards justice and healing for many victims of these crimes. Without their bravery and courage, this outcome would not be possible.”

“It is my sincere hope that today’s verdict brings some form of closure and consolation, and sends a strong message to predators that one’s celebrity status will not shield them from the law,” Foxx said.

Several accusers testified in lurid detail during the trial, alleging that Kelly subjected them to perverse and sadistic whims when they were underage.

Kelly is now looking at potentially decades behind bars when he’s sentenced next year. He also faces serious criminal charges in multiple jurisdictions, including in Chicago, where a federal judge ordered him detained in 2019. His federal jury trial in Chicago is set for Aug. 1.

House Speaker Michael Madigan

Though he hasn’t been charged with a crime, Madigan was implicated in a yearslong bribery scheme in which ComEd is accused of sending $1.3 million to Madigan’s associates for doing little or no work all while the utility hoped to land Madigan’s support for legislation in Springfield worth more than $150 million to the utility.

Illinois’ former Speaker of the House Mike Madigan speaks during a committee hearing on the Southwest Side to decide who will take over as state representative in the 22nd House District.  Madigan resigned on Feb. 18, effective immediately. A federal indictment last summer accused ComEd leadership of bribing Madigan associates in exchange for passing legislation that was beneficial to the state’s largest electricity utility company.
Former Speaker of the House Mike Madigan
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

That kicked off a series of events that included Madigan falling short of the 60 votes needed to retain the speaker’s gavel in January, resigning from the House seat he’d held for half a century and stepping down as head of the Democratic Party of Illinois earlier this year.

He has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing.

Patrick Daley Thompson charges

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson — a nephew of one former Chicago mayor and grandson of another — was charged in the spring with making false statements and filing false income tax returns.

He is the highest-profile figure to face criminal charges in a case involving a clout-heavy Bridgeport bank that was shut down over what authorities say was a massive fraud scheme.

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th).
Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th)
Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file

Thompson, who has been the 11th Ward alderman since 2015, faces prosecution on seven charges involving Washington Federal Bank for Savings.

The federal indictment accuses Thompson “of falsely representing on five years of income taxes that he paid interest on money he received from Washington Federal, even though he knew he did not pay interest in the amounts reported on the returns.”

In a written statement in response to the charges, Thompson denied doing anything illegal.

“I am very disappointed by the Justice Department’s decision to return an indictment against me today for inadvertent tax preparation errors and my incorrect memory about the amount of a personal bank loan,” the alderman said. “I discovered the tax error and paid the small amount of taxes I owed. When the bank provided me the documents showing the actual amount of the loan, I promptly paid it back. Both matters were resolved before there was any government investigation.”

Thompson is set to go to trial in February.

The Arlington Heights Bears?

Last summer, when word got out that the Chicago Bears had put in a bid to buy the Arlington International Racecourse property in Arlington Heights, it sounded to many like a familiar tactic.

Indeed, Lightfoot dismissed it as such — a negotiating ploy. Surely the Bears weren’t going anywhere.

Arlington International Racecourse at 2200 Euclid Ave in Arlington Heights, IL Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021.
Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

But then in September, the Bears announced they had signed a purchase agreement for the racetrack for $197 million. The sale is expected to close in late 2022 or early 2023 and is contingent on the team receiving approvals from officials in the suburb.

The team would be on the hook for about $87 million if they were to break its lease at Soldier Field after the estimated five years it could take to build a suburban domed stadium.

Lightfoot has beckoned the organization back to the bargaining table in a bid to keep them on the lakefront.

But the political appetite to throw more public dollars at the team — with taxpayers still on the hook for debt from the 2002 renovation that will amount to more than $600 million by the time it’s paid off a decade from now — has seemed lacking so far.

Both Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes have been noncommittal on the issue, while a handful of state lawmakers have moved to block any public funding for a new stadium.

Perhaps the appetite would be greater if the Bears had a better record.

Contributing: Rachel Hinton, Jon Seidel and David Struett, and The Associated Press.