Sun-Times’ top 10 local stories of 2018
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To the relief of many, the nation’s gaze shifted from Chicago in 2018 — thanks, mostly, to a president who had other things to tweet about than the city’s ongoing violence. Still, it was anything but quiet here — from the political upheaval sparked by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s shocking decision not to seek a third term to the verdicts in the long-awaited Jason Van Dyke trial and, tragically, the deaths of four Chicago police officers. Here, in no particular order, are our picks for the top local stories of 2018:
Van Dyke found guilty
On Oct. 5, many people huddled around TV screens, were glued to cellphones or were rushing out of downtown, fearing violence if Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago police officer who shot Laquan McDonald 16 times in 2014, were to go free. After a riveting trial — perhaps the most-watched since Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s federal corruption case — a jury found Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery.
The streets stayed calm. There was no repeat of the angry protests that followed the release in November 2015 — more than a year after McDonald’s killing — of the dashcam footage showing the teen’s final moments.
At year’s end, Van Dyke was awaiting sentencing, and three Chicago police officers accused of covering up the McDonald shooting were awaiting a judge’s verdict in a separate case.
Rahm Emanuel walks away
In late August, Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman hinted that Mayor Rahm Emanuel might not seek another term: “He needs to decide whether to walk away or make the uphill climb toward a third term — and stick to that decision, no matter how difficult the campaign gets,” she wrote.
Then, in early September, the mayor called a surprise news conference at City Hall. “As much as I love this job and will always love this city and its residents, I have decided not to seek re-election,” Emanuel, 58, said, his wife, Amy, standing beside him. “This has been the job of a lifetime, but it is not a job for a lifetime. You hire us to get things done — and pass the torch when we’ve done our best to do what you hired us to do.”
With the heavyweight out — and with no other clear front-runner — the big names in Chicago politics announced their intentions to run. By year’s end, the crowded race included Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza and former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s brother.
J.B. Pritzker takes the prize
Democrat J.B. Pritzker is set to become Illinois’ 43rd governor, but it didn’t come cheap.
In the battle of the mega-rich, Pritzker spent an estimated $72.90 per vote to beat first-term Gov. Bruce Rauner. The governor-elect contributed $171,832,735 of his fortune to his campaign, breaking the previous national record for a self-financing candidate. Rauner spent a relatively paltry $49.94 each on votes cast for him.
Pritzker’s omnipresent campaign ads helped him overcome some embarrassing moments, including the revelation — first reported in the Sun-Times — that he’d received a $330,000 tax break gleaned by disabling the toilets in a Gold Coast mansion he owned. Pritzker insisted he’d done nothing wrong, but later sent checks for that amount to the Cook County assessor’s office.
Bye-bye Ed Burke?
Has the city’s most powerful alderman written the final chapter of his 50-year career at City Hall? Chicagoans couldn’t help but ask that question after federal agents poured into Ald. Edward Burke’s downtown and 14th Ward offices on Nov. 29, plastered brown paper over the windows and told staff to leave.
Just what the investigation of the city’s longest-serving alderman is about remains unclear. But it would be foolish to write off Burke, who denies any wrongdoing, just yet.
He has survived federal investigations in the past. And, years ago, he overcame his own political extremism during Chicago’s “Council Wars,” which thwarted then-Mayor Harold Washington’s every move.
Mercy Hospital tragedy
Hospitals are havens of healing. But on one mid-November afternoon, Juan Lopez shot and killed his ex-fiancée, Dr. Tamara O’Neal — an ER physician at Mercy Hospital — in the medical center’s parking lot. He then continued shooting inside the hospital, killing Chicago Police Officer Samuel Jimenez and pharmacy resident Dayna Less, before police shot and killed Lopez.
Jimenez was a father of three; he’d been preparing to celebrate his first wedding anniversary. O’Neal, who had broken off her engagement to Lopez, had been the cheerleader for her fellow African-Americans in medical school and a devout Christian. Less, after a debilitating illness that had spanned years, was set to marry her high school sweetheart.
“This tears at the soul of our city,” a stone-faced Mayor Emanuel said the day of the shootings. “It is the face and the consequence of evil.”
Deadly Little Village fire
Ten children — ranging from 3 months to 16 years — perished in late August in a pre-dawn house fire in a coach house during a sleepover in the Little Village neighborhood.
As families mourned and little white crosses with red hearts appeared outside the house, disturbing details spilled out: The mother of five of the deceased children was the subject of 21 prior child-welfare investigations, although 19 of them were ruled “unfounded,” according to state child-welfare officials.
Fire investigators eventually found a smoke detector in the wreckage of the apartment where the children died — but it didn’t have a working battery.
Cmdr. Paul Bauer dies in shootout
In February, Chicago police Cmdr. Paul Bauer became the highest-ranking on-duty member of the department to be shot and killed in almost three decades. He was near the Thompson Center in the Loop when he heard officers put out a description on his radio of a suspicious man. Bauer wasn’t obligated to respond, but he did anyway.
Bauer chased the man, Shomari Legghette, encountering him in a Thompson Center stairwell. Legghette, who was wearing a bulletproof vest, shot Bauer after a tussle, Cook County prosecutors allege.
Bauer was a constant presence at South Loop Elementary School, where his 13-year-old daughter attended. He’d served on the Local School Council and helped organize what is now an annual Daddy-Daughter dance.
CPS’ dirty secret
Mayor Rahm Emanuel was “beyond outraged.” The Chicago Teachers Union called it “inhumane and unacceptable.”
A lot of parents shared those sentiments, after the Chicago Sun-Times — in a series of stories this year — detailed the often filthy conditions in many Chicago public schools. Rodent poop, dirty floors and smelly bathrooms were among the problems the newspaper revealed. Reporter Lauren FitzPatrick even interviewed two school janitors who said their bosses told them how to cheat to pass cleanliness audits.
Besides the school cleanliness controversy, a Chicago Tribune investigation this year found that some 72 CPS teachers and other staff had been accused of sexually abusing students over the last 10 years. Worse, several of the accused school employees had had criminal backgrounds that should have been a red flags for CPS hiring officials.
Consent decree controversy
By year’s end, the city was getting close to having a final “consent decree” — a court-ordered plan that will govern almost every aspect of policing in Chicago. It’s part of the ripple effect from the killing of Laquan McDonald.
In late October, during a historic public hearing at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, dozens of people spoke about the proposed decree, a 225-page draft version of which had been released. One police officer wondered, “Where is the accountability for the criminal element?” Other people said they worry that police — already under intense scrutiny — will be too fearful to do their jobs properly.
But Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli — who said she’s seen too many of her clients bruised, cut or otherwise injured during encounters with police — said it’s time for a change. “We need healing and hope in this city, and this consent decree will provide it,” she said.
Firefighter, 2 more CPD officers die in line of duty
While trying to save a man from the Chicago River on Memorial Day, Chicago Fire Department diver Juan Bucio went under water and didn’t resurface. Weeks later, the Cook County medical examiner ruled Bucio, a 46-year-old father of two, had died of a heart condition: “Asphyxia with depletion of air from diving tank due to cardiac arrhythmia due to lymphocytic myocarditis.”
On Dec. 17, two young cops — Conrad Gary and Eduardo Marmolejo — became the third and fourth Chicago police officers to die in the line of duty in 2018. A ShotSpotter notification had prompted them to make their way to 101st Street and Dauphin Avenue, and, when they arrived, they confronted a suspect, who ran up to the train tracks over 103rd and Cottage Grove. While searching for the suspect, they were hit by a southbound train at 6:20 p.m.
Both men left behind wives and children. Gary’s father told the Sun-Times, his son was “the greatest kid ever.”