The city of Chicago has paid $1.5 million to the family of a West Side street gang member who was under federal investigation in a major racketeering case when he died of an asthma attack after being taken into police custody in a separate case.
Justin Cook, 29, a member of the Four Corner Hustlers, was on the radar of federal investigators as they sought to bring racketeering charges against the brutal West Side gang. He died in September 2014 after the Chicago Police Department picked him up after a traffic stop but allegedly refused to give him his inhaler while he was having an asthma attack.
Cook was one of three unindicted co-conspirators — all dead — named in a major racketeering indictment against the Four Corner Hustlers, records show.
The case involves allegations of a wide-ranging conspiracy that ties 11 members of the Four Corner Hustlers, including reputed gang boss Labar “Bro Man” Spann, to six killings between 2000 and 2003, as well as robberies, batteries and drug-related offenses. The case is to go to trial in 2019.
In another court matter, the mother of the late Juwan Williams accused Cook in a lawsuit of having been behind her son’s May 2014 killing. No one has ever been charged in that killing, and the mother’s lawsuit ended up being dropped.
Williams, 18, was shot to death on May 19, 2014 in the 3900 block of West Polk — the same block in which Cook was arrested and suffered his asthma attack. Police said at the time that two people walked up to Williams and shot him in the head, chest and an arm before running away.
Williams’ mother gave a different account, saying Williams and Cook knew each other before the shooting and that Cook shot him.
Williams’ mother dropped her lawsuit in 2016. Neither she nor her attorney could be reached.
Court records show Cook was arrested for heroin possession in May 2003, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years of probation.
Cook was raised by his aunt, who moved to Wisconsin shortly before his death. She pushed him to finish high school get his commercial truck driver’s license after he graduated.
Speaking of his criminal activity, Valatia Cook said, “That wasn’t him, and I think I knew him very well.”
“Don’t misunderstand me: He was not an angel, but he wasn’t a bad person,” she said. “He said what he meant. He meant what he said. He wasn’t a coward. He was a stand-up guy.”
Valatia Cook said she “fought with drug dealers to keep my kids and my babies out of their hands.”
She said she kept a close eye on her nephew.
“I knew all his friends. I was in his business,” she said. “That’s not who he was, the way the police made him out to be.”
The money paid out by the city was divided equally among his three young children.
“I’m angry that they think they can throw a little money at you,” Valatia Cook said. “Money won’t take care of his kids the way he would have. Every time I look at his children, I cry because they’re just like he was at that age.”
Valatia Cook said her nephew was pulled over as he was on his way to St. Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham to watch the Chicago Peace basketball tournament, which featured several members of the Chicago Bulls.
His estate filed a federal lawsuit against the city and three Chicago cops in December 2014.
The attorney for Justin Cook’s estate wrote to the city that two rookie police officers, Leonard Jagla and Timothy Whitmer, tried to pull Cook over after seeing him blow a stop sign at Arthington and Springfield on Sept. 20, 2014. They drove after him for a few blocks before he stopped near a basketball court at Polk at Lexington.
Justin Cook — also known as “Big J” — and another person who was in the car ran off. He eventually surrendered in the gangway at the rear of 3937 W. Lexington, less than two blocks from the basketball courts and in a part of the West Side controlled by the Four Corner Hustlers.
Jagla and Whitmer found $1,200 on Justin Cook and requested a supervisor. Sgt. Jeff Truhlar arrived a few minutes later. Cook’s asthma attack began shortly after he was handcuffed.
The lawsuit said the officers ignored Justin Cook’s pleas for his inhaler. He was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he died less than a day later.
Stephen Patton, then City Hall’s chief attorney, said at the time that the settlement was approved that six witnesses were prepared to testify they heard him telling the officers he could not breathe and that officers still denied to give him the medication he needed to stay alive.
One witness claimed to have seen one of the officers spray the inhaler into the air and say, “You should have thought about that before you ran.” Another reported hearing an officer joke about Justin Cook’s desperate condition, saying, “Is this what you need? Well, you’re not going to get it.” Yet another witness claimed to have seen an officer spray the inhaler into the back of the squad car where Justin Cook was seated.
The City Council Finance Committee, chaired by Ald. Ed Burke (14th), authorized the payment on April 13, 2016, records show. It’s unclear whether Burke — who did not return messages seeking comment — was aware Justin Cook was under scrutiny by federal authorities.
Three months later, the city’s Independent Police Review Authority found allegations of misconduct against the arresting officers were “not sustained,” according to Mia Sissac, spokeswoman for the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, the agency that replaced IPRA last year.
“The Law Department only proposes to settle lawsuits when it is in the best interest of taxpayers,” spokesman Bill McCaffrey said. “In this case, the Law Department concluded that there was a significant chance that the defendants would have been found liable and the verdict amount would have exceeded the proposed settlement amount.”