Illinois Public Media News
The former director of a historic Chicago-area cemetery has been convicted in a money-making scheme that involved digging up bodies and reselling plots.
The Cook County State's Attorney's office says 51-year-old Carolyn Towns pleaded guilty Friday and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Towns was director of Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip when prosecutors say she and three workers desecrated hundreds of graves.
Prosecutors say Towns stole more than $100,000 from the corporation that owned Burr Oak by keeping the payments for graves and having workers stack bodies or dump remains in unmarked mass graves. Three other former Burr Oak workers have been charged and are scheduled to appear in court next week.
Many famous African-Americans are buried at Burr Oak, including lynching victim Emmett Till.
(With additional reporting by Pam Dempsey of CU-CitizenAccess)
A Champaign County judge granted a temporary restraining order Thursday that gives public health officials the power to evict tenants living at an unsafe apartment complex north of Thomasboro. The judge also ordered the managers jailed until the complex's problems are repaired.
The action follows a previous court hearing in April in which Bernard and Eduardo Ramos, managers of the Cherry Orchard Village apartment complex, were ordered in April to close down the property. In addition, they were fined more than $54,000 following the conclusion of a civil case filed by the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.
The pair was found guilty of failing to legally connect and repair sewage systems for six of the eight buildings on the property. During several inspections, health department officials have found raw sewage on top of the ground and discovered sewage flowing into a neighboring farmer's tile. The case was opened in 2007 and filed in court in 2010 after the Ramoses failed to remedy the problems.
The raw sewage poses serious health risks for both the tenants at Cherry Orchard and people they come in contact with - such as Hepatitis A, E. Coli and Salmonella, according to health officials.
Yet as several witnesses testified Thursday in a nearly four-hour hearing, the property is still being rented and the sewage problems continue.
The public health district filed a petition for a restraining order to stop the continued use of the property.
Judge John Kennedy granted a temporary restraining order until July 17 that allows county health officials to evict tenants from the property and make sure no one else moves in. He also amended two arrest warrants issued in May for Bernard and Eduardo Ramos - on a civil contempt and criminal contempt of court - after they failed to show up for a hearing.
Up until Thursday, the two had to post the full amount of each warrant - a total of $20,000 each- to get released if they were arrested. Now if they are arrested, then they will remain incarcerated until the sewage problems at Cherry Orchard are fixed - either through emptying out the property or repairing the sewage system.
Neither Bernard Ramos or his father, Eduardo Ramos, appeared in court on Thursday and their attorney, Philip Summers, unsuccessfully tried to vacate the warrants - arguing first that the Ramoses were not given enough notice to appear in court the day the warrants were issued and second, that the building now being used is not part of the Cherry Orchard complex and therefore not in violation of the April orders.
Summers said earlier that the Ramoses have filed a post trial motion that highlights several errors in the original hearing. Once a ruling is issued on that motion, then the Ramoses may opt to file an appeal, Summer said.
A message left for Bernard Ramos on a cell phone number he is known to use was unreturned Thursday evening. Bernard and his father, Eduardo, have repeatedly declined comment on stories about Cherry Orchard.
Public Health Administrator Julie Pryde said county officials will print and distribute eviction notices in Spanish and English beginning Friday and visit the property with a translator to make sure people move out. The health department is working with social service agencies to provide emergency housing for the families until they can find permanent housing elsewhere.
"There is a lot of people living there now, and a lot more on the way," Pryde said.
The health department will also post signs warning people away.
Cherry Orchard has been used as a migrant camp and health officials remain concerned that it will be used again as such this summer. A state official testified Thursday that Bernard Ramos submitted an application for a migrant camp at the property on behalf of a not-for-profit company called La Posada and spoke of preparations he has made to house about 80 migrant workers in one of the buildings there.
Pryde said she was "disturbed" and "horrified" by Ramos' application for a migrant camp.
Since the April order, health officials have continued to observe tenants on the property. Rantoul-area social service workers have reported that new clients are listing Cherry Orchard as their place of residence on applications for help.
At a status hearing in May, the judge issued two warrants each for civil contempt of court and criminal contempt of court after they failed to show up. The pair informed the state's attorney's office that they were on extended leave to Texas. As of Wednesday, the warrants have yet to be served.
County officials and neighbors have seen tenants in the far-east building on the property, commonly referred to as "The Jones Building," which has its own sewage treatment units. It is this building that the Ramoses argue is not part of the judge's April orders to vacate - although county health department officials and the judge ultimately disagreed with.
In earlier agreements with the Ramoses, public health officials had suggested that Ramos could move tenants to The Jones Building if they legally repaired that sewage system. Septic professionals testified Thursday that the building's sewage system does not work and continues to release raw sewage into the property's main discharge line, which flows into a neighboring farmer's tile and then into a creek.
The court next meets July 15 on the case.
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
An Urbana resident's humanitarian trip to the Gaza Strip has been put at a standstill.
Robert Naiman works for the advocacy group, Just Foreign Policy. He is traveling with about 50 other Americans to protest an Israeli-imposed naval blockade on Gaza.
But on Friday, Greek authorities intercepted the U.S. ship, and arrested its captain for setting sail without permission and allegedly endangering the other passengers.
Speaking in Athens on Tuesday morning, Naiman said the Greek government released the ship's captain, John Klusmire, earlier in the day. Klusmire had attempted to leave a port Friday near Piraeus, Greece, in defiance of a Greek ban on the flotilla of boats leaving port. He appeared in court Tuesday handcuffed and under police escort.
"No trial date has been set and we expect the charges to be dropped," one of his lawyers, Manolis Stephanakis, said after the hearing. "We presented a very strong case and we don't need to call any more witnesses to testify."
The captain himself appeared relieved after his deposition, and was cheered on by 30 fellow activists chanting "We love John."
"This is a much better outcome than I anticipated," Klusmire said.
Up to 400 international activists had been due to sail last week to Gaza aboard 10 ships leaving from Greece to protest the naval blockade.
Greece has banned all boats participating in the Gaza flotilla from leaving port, citing security concerns after a similar flotilla last year was raided by Israeli forces, leaving nine activists on a Turkish boat dead. The Greek foreign ministry has offered to deliver the humanitarian aid the activists want to take to Gaza.
Despite Klusmire's release, Naiman said the humanitarian trip has faced another setback with Greek government officials seizing Klusmire's Gaza-bound ship.
"Whether we can go to Gaza I think is now a question of our boat," Naiman said. "Our boat is essentially under arrest by the Greek authorities. It's tied at a military dock in Piraeus. I don't think as of now the Greek authorities will allow it to leave."
Naiman added that even if his hopes to make it to Gaza are dashed, he said he is grateful for being able to "communicate a message of solidarity to the people of Gaza, and to speak to international public opinion about the blockade and the denial of freedom."
The Israeli government has maintained the naval blockade since 2007 to weaken the militant group Hamas, which controls the Palestinian territory.
(AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
There's no doubt Rod Blagojevich's recently ended retrial was the marquee event in the federal investigation into corruption surrounding the former Illinois governor's administration.
But the legal saga that stretches back nearly a decade isn't quite at an end.
The last big trial in the case is of businessman William Cellini. His trial on charges he plotted to shake down a Hollywood movie producer for a campaign contribution for Blagojevich is scheduled to start in October.
The 76-year-old has pleaded not guilty.
Political observer Paul Green, who teaches politics at Roosevelt University in Chicago, says the trial could give the public another peek at the underbelly of state politics.
Cellini is a Springfield Republican once known as "The Pope'' Illinois politics for the influence he wielded. He raised money for both fellow Republicans and Democrats, like Blagojevich.
An eight-digit number affixed to his prison clothes. A job scrubbing toilets or mopping floors at 12 cents an hour. His incessant jogging confined to a prison yard. Most painful of all, restricted visits from his wife and two daughters.
After sentencing for his conviction on federal corruption charges, that is likely to be the new life for impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is more accustomed to fancy suits, a doting staff and a comfortable home in a leafy Chicago neighborhood.
Most legal experts estimate that Blagojevich, 54, will get close to a 10-year sentence, though technically he faces up to 300 years after he was convicted Monday of 17 of 20 counts at his retrial. The convictions include attempted extortion for trying to sell or trade the U.S. Senate seat that Barack Obama vacated to become president.
One fellow Illinois politician who served time in federal prison on corruption charges, former Chicago city clerk Jim Laski, says Blagojevich can't begin to fathom how hard prison will be.
"I missed my kids' birthdays, graduations ... you don't ever see children playing, there's a sense of total isolation, you're subject to body-cavity searches - it's horrible!" said the 57-year-old Laski, a father of three. "And I was only in two years."
Once he walks through the prison doors, no one will care that Blagojevich was once governor or appeared in 2010 on the reality television show "Celebrity Apprentice," Laski and others said.
"If he thinks he'll come in and get special treatment, he's in for a rude surprise," said Phil Turner, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago. "If you come in with that attitude, prison guards and other inmates will go out of their way to break you."
But a chilly reception may not deter Blagojevich's non-stop campaigning. "I still see him going around acting jovial, shaking hands," Turner said. "I bet he knows everybody's name in a month."
No sentencing date has been set yet for Blagojevich, though it should happen by year's end. A decision on what prison Blagojevich will go to won't be made until weeks after a sentence is imposed, but it could very well be the same facility in Terre Haute, Ind., that houses another former Illinois governor, George Ryan. Lawyers will likely appeal Blagojevich's convictions, but appeals on federal convictions rarely prevail.
What may weigh most on Blagojevich's mind is the welfare of his daughters - Amy, 14, and Annie, 8. If he does spend a decade or more imprisoned, he could miss many landmarks of their lives, including their high school and college graduations.
"There's always a sense of precariousness because a child whose parent has gone wonders, 'What else in my life can be taken away?'" said Mindy Clark, spokeswoman for Oregon-based Children's Justice Alliance, which helps families of imprisoned relatives.
Laski said his kids faced teasing at school. "One kid came up to my boys when I was in prison and said, 'At least my dad is home for Christmas - and your dad is in jail,'" he said.
While Blagojevich would go to a prison with minimal security, possibly with just a simple fence around it, his routine will be highly regimented, including limits on family visits and phone calls.
A guidebook for another federal prison in Oxford, Wis., where Blagojevich could also go, says inmates get 300 minutes a month on the phone, or about 10 minutes a day. Cell phones are strictly prohibited. Prisoners, all of whom share rooms, wake at 6:00 a.m. and are subject to head counts half a dozen times a day.
Blagojevich, an avid jogger who has posted impressive times in several marathons, will also have to settle for running in circles on a prison track or around a yard.
There's some good news in the guidebook for Blagojevich, famously fastidious about keeping every strand of his generous locks in place: He won't have to shave off his trademark hair, though fully maintaining it out of reach of his usual stylist may pose challenges.
"Your hair may be worn in any style and length you wish," the guidebook says.
Inmates also must work an 8-hour-a-day job, starting at 12 cents an hour; most new prisoners start in custodial work, explained Chris Burke, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Blagojevich's predecessor, Ryan, a Republican, is serving 6 1/2 years in prison on multiple corruption charges and is expected to be freed in 2013. That means Blagojevich, a Democrat, and Ryan could be serving time simultaneously.
Blagojevich's imprisonment could pose financial hardships for his family. During his trial and retrial, he already complained of being broke, and in prison he won't be able to contribute any meaningful revenue to his family, according to prison rules. Earning money from writing books or articles is forbidden.
Dick Mell, an influential alderman in Chicago and his wife Patti's father, could be expected to lend his daughter and grandchildren a helping hand. Patti Blagojevich's sister, Deb Mell, is a state legislator.
Another concern is that someone like Blagojevich could be targeted by other inmates who might think his celebrity means he has access to money, Turner said. "They need to find him a place where no one will try to do anything to him," the former prosecutor said.
Blagojevich hasn't spoken at any length about prison. When asked in an interview before his retrial about whether he dwelled on the prospect of being locked up for years, he answered: "No. I don't let myself go there."
Laski said he ran into Blagojevich in a federal court restroom before his retrial ended and tried to convey how crushing the prison experience is. Blagojevich, he said, looked shocked.
"I told him the worst day in my life, bar none, was the day I said goodbye to my children and headed off to prison," he said. "I said, 'Rod, you better pray you don't have to go through that.'"
(AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)
With about 50 jobs eliminated in Champaign as part of a round of budget cuts over the last few years, AFSCME local 31 says some of those positions should be saved - especially as city department heads and the city manager are poised to receive a two percent pay hike.
One area impacted by recent budget cuts is the Champaign Police Department, which could lose a few positions that would keep the front desk from staying open overnight. At a time when administrator salaries are going up, AFSCME spokesperson Michael Wilmore said the city should do more to keep the front desk open 24 hours a day.
"We are trying to draw attention to the fact that they're giving themselves raises," Wilmore said. "It is really insulting to the workers and to the citizens of Champaign."
The Champaign City Council considered a liquor tax in June to restore funding for three of the department's front desk positions and one of its record services positions, but that measure failed to get enough support.
There are currently two out of three three positions at the police department's front desk that are vacant. No changes in the status of these jobs will occur until the Champaign City Council provides more direction, which means for now, the two vacated positions will not be filled and the third position will not be eliminated. The city council is expected to discuss potential new sources of revenue and the future of those jobs during its July 12th meeting.
Champaign Mayor Don Gerard said he is hopeful that the city will find a way to keep the front desk staffed all the time.
"Those positions are vital to the support of the police staff," Gerard said. "I voted against not giving the city manager a raise not because I didn't think he deserved it, but because from a leadership standpoint in these budgetary times, we need to have shared responsibility."
City Manager Steve Carter, whose salary will go up by two percent, defended the pay increases for non-union employees. Carter has not received a pay raise for the last couple of years. He noted many of the other non-union workers who are expected to make more money this year also did not get a raise last year.
"If there has been a group of employees that have scarified - if you will - recognizing the budget condition, it has been the non-union employees," Carter said. "All the union employees, including AFSCME, have received salary increases all along based on contracts, some in existence and some negotiated."
Union workers from the Fraternal Order of Police and the Plumbers and Pipefitters saw their salaries go up last year, and continue to rise this year. However, no future pay raises have been budgeted for AFSCME workers since contract negations with the city are ongoing.
An arrest has been made in the fatal shooting of 26-year-old Nathan Barker of Champaign.
The United States Marshals Service worked with the Champaign Police Department to locate and arrest Keontae Campbell for First Degree Murder and Unlawful Possession of a Weapon.
Campbell was arrested inside a residence late Friday morning on the 7100 Block of Faris in Lawrence, Indiana. The Champaign Police Department said he did not resist arrest.
The homicide occurred early Friday morning at the intersection of Bradley and McKinley on Champaign's northwest side. Police were called to the intersection at 2:42 AM, where they found Barker with a gunshot wound. He was later pronounced dead at Carle Foundation Hospital.
An autopsy will be performed Friday afternoon.
Police say that in their initial investigation, they learned the shooting followed an altercation between Barker and Campbell, and it is believed the two knew each other.
The intersection of Bradley and McKinley was closed to traffic for the investigation. It reopened Friday morning at 7:10 AM.
If you have information about the shooting, contact Champaign Police at 217-351-4545, or to stay anonymous, contact Champaign County Crime Stoppers at 217-373-8477 (TIPS), or online at www.373tips.com, or by texting keyword "Tip397" plus the information to 274637 (CRIMES).
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
Starting Friday, Illinois' ban on capital punishment will take effect, but advocates on both sides of the death penalty debate say their work is not done.
State lawmakers voted in January to abandon capital punishment, and Gov. Pat Quinn signed the legislation in March. That happened more than a decade after the state imposed a moratorium on executions out of concern that innocent people could be put to death by a justice system that had wrongly condemned 13 men.
Gov. Quinn also commuted the sentences of all 15 inmates remaining on death row who are now serving life sentences in prison with no hope of parole.
Fifteen other states have also abolished the death penalty.
With the law in place, it would seem that The Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty could declare "mission accomplished." But the group's director, Jeremy Schroeder, said that is not the case.
"I wish I could tell you we're all retiring," Schroeder said. "But unfortunately there will always be some need for the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty."
Schroeder admits his group is downsizing, and has considered changing its name to "the Coalition Against the Death Penalty." Schroeder said the key task going forward is to make sure the ban remains.
However, critics like State Representative Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst) are working to overturn it.
"I still believe, as studies do show, that the death penalty is a deterrent to these most heinous of crimes," Reboletti said.
Reboletti's legislation stalled in the House this past session, but he said he believes there is enough support for it to pass.
The Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty says it's poised to fight back legislation to overturn the ban.
Illinois has executed 12 men since 1977, when the death penalty was reinstated. The last execution was Andrew Kokoraleis on March 17, 1999. At the time, the average length of stay on death row was 13 years.
(AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)
The corruption re-trial is over, and now former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich awaits his sentencing.
Blagojevich was found guilty Monday of 17 of the 20 counts charged against him. With all the counts added up, Blagojevich could face as much as 300 years in prison.
Attorney Joel Bertocchi is a former federal prosecutor. He said it is highly unlikely Blagojevich would face that severe of a sentence, but he said the fact that the ex-governor did not accept responsibility for the charges won't help either.
"Mr. Blagojevich, I think, may present an unusual case," Bertocchi said. "Not only did he go to trial, but he made an awful lot of public noise about not accepting responsibility for the charges that the government leveled against him."
Bertocchi said six to 11 years could be closer to what the judge may be considering. It is uncertain when Blagojevich will be sentenced.
Convicted former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is likely to lose his $65,000 annual state pension.
Director of the General Assembly Retirement System Timothy Blair said according to state law, any elected official or public employee convicted of a felony committed on the job, is ineligible for retirement benefits.
"No other benefits would be payable," Blair said. "So that's happened several times, in most of the retirement systems. That would apply to people who are teachers, state employees, and of course members of the General Assembly Retirement System. And that's the provision that George Ryan was subject to."
Blair said employees like Ryan can get back contributions they made to their pensions. He said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office will be asked to make a recommendation on whether Blagojevich should lose his pension. Then the board will take a vote based on that opinion.
A spokeswoman for Madigan's office said the former governor must first be sentenced before the pension can be denied.
It is uncertain when he will be sentenced.
The 54-year-old Democrat could start collecting his state pension on his next birthday December tenth.
Blair said he hopes the pension board will have a ruling before that.
Blagojevich could get $15,000 a year in federal retirement for the years he served in Congress. He could start drawing his federal pension at age 62.
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