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Once accused of strangling friend, Chicago man charged with choking girlfriend

Joseph Cunningham.

Joseph Cunningham. | Brevard County, Florida, sheriff's office

Eleven years ago, a Cook County prosecutor decided not to pursue a criminal case against Joseph Cunningham, a Northwest Side man who had been arrested twice in the strangulation death of a coworker.

The now-retired prosecutor says he didn’t think there was enough evidence that Cunningham strangled Dean Goldufsky since Cunningham’s girlfriend said Goldufsky fell down the stairs. And Cunningham’s attorneys hired a pathologist who agreed that’s how Goldufsky died.

Now, Cunningham, 39, has been arrested in Melbourne, Florida, for domestic battery by strangulation, accused of trying to strangle a different woman outside a restaurant on Feb. 19.

“He put me up against a wall and started strangling me,” the woman told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Another customer saw him and called 911.”

According to the police report, the customer had just left the restaurant and saw Cunningham “place both his hands on the victim’s neck/throat in an attempt to strangle her. She saw the fear in the victim’s eyes when the victim tried to pull the defendant’s hands from around her neck. She was able to separate the victim from the defendant and she called 911.”

A Florida judge has granted the girlfriend a two-year order of protection against Cunningham, who has been placed on an electronic monitor and allowed to return to his family in Chicago while the criminal case against him in Florida is pending.

The woman, a 45-year-old nurse, says she met Cunningham last June after he was hired as a nurse at the hospital where she worked. She says she let him stay in her apartment and that there had been previous physical altercations.

Cunningham was arrested the night after the woman says she decided to look up her live-in boyfriend on the Internet and discovered that he had been accused by the police in Chicago of first-degree murder. They said he strangled Goldufsky, a friend who worked for his brother’s company. Goldufsky’s body was found on Feb. 26, 2008, at the bottom of the stairs inside Cunningham’s home at 6511 N. Natoma Ave.

Reached by phone, Cunningham hung up on a reporter. His attorney declined to discuss the Florida charges or Goldufsky’s death.

No one else has ever been charged with killing Goldufsky, whose death remains classified as a first-degree homicide. Chicago police have closed the case, classifying it as “CCX” — short for “cleared, closed exceptionally” — because they believe they solved the case even though the Cook County state’s attorney’s office wouldn’t charge Cunningham.

“The state’s attorney’s office previously reviewed this incident and concluded that, based on the evidence and the law, we would not meet our burden of proof to sustain criminal charges,” says Tandra Simonton, spokeswoman for State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. “We are open to review any new or additional information provided by law enforcement.”

Goldufsky lived in an apartment owned by the Cunninghams and worked for a moving company owned by Cunningham’s brother William Cunningham, a Chicago Fire Department lieutenant.

Joseph Cunningham lived in the upstairs apartment of a home he owned around the corner from Goldfusky’s apartment. They had been drinking at Cunningham’s apartment on the night Goldufsky died, according to police reports that say officers found Cunningham had several scratches on his face that night.

Cunningham’s girlfriend at the time, Katherine Dillon, told police she was in the apartment when Goldufsky left. Dillon told police they heard a noise in the stairwell, found Goldufsky at the bottom of the stairs and that she had scratched Cunningham while trying to get him to stop giving CPR to Goldufsky once paramedics arrived.

The downstairs tenant told police her ceiling fan was shaking and that she had heard “loud banging and things dropping” in Cunningham’s apartment around 6 p.m., a few hours before Goldufsky’s body was found at the bottom of the stairs. She said she heard a noise in the stairwell around 9:15 p.m. and heard Cunningham say, “Don’t do this to me, wake up, wake up,” and then a woman ask, “Should we call the police?”

Dr. J. Lawrence Cogan, who was a pathologist for the Cook County medical examiner’s office, found that Goldufsky was strangled, saying he based that on injuries to the larynx that include a fractured cornua — part of the hyoid bone.

“It usually breaks during strangulation,” says Cogan, now retired. “It takes force to break the cornua.”

Cogan also found other injuries, including a separated cervical disc.

Cunningham’s lawyers brought in another pathologist, Dr. Shaku Teas, who once worked for the medical examiner’s office, to review Cogan’s findings. Teas’ finding was that Goldufsky died from spinal injuries suffered by falling down the stairs.

Dr. Shaku Teas. | File photo

“Apparently, these two guys would get together and drink,’’ Teas says. “Because [Goldufsky] was blind in one eye, and he had a lot of alcohol in him, it would be easy for him to fall. If you looked at the staircase, you realized how easy it would be to fall down the stairs.”

Though she disputes the official finding of strangulation, Teas says she never examined Goldufsky’s larynx because it had been removed by the medical examiner’s office.

Without examining the larynx, Cogan questions how she could dismiss his conclusion that Goldufsky was strangled.

“There’s deep-tissue injuries to the neck that you shouldn’t get if you fall down the stairs,” Cogan says. “I don’t know how she can say the conclusion is incorrect since she didn’t examine the larynx. She didn’t see the fracture.”

Robert Heilingoetter, the assistant state’s attorney on the case who declined to charge Cunningham, says it would have been a difficult case to prosecute because of “the battle between the medical examiners.”

Goldufsky’s family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Cunningham, settling for $150,000.

Dean Goldufsky and his family. |

Dean Goldufsky (center) with his family. | Provided photo

Since Cunningham’s arrest in Florida, Goldufsky’s family has contacted law enforcement authorities in Chicago and Florida in hopes of getting the investigation into Goldufsky’s death reopened.

“We’d like nothing more than for them to open the case and take another look at it,” says Shari Kvistad, Goldufsky’s mother.