(With reporting from CU-CitizenAccess reporter Pam Dempsey)
The prosecution rested its case Wednesday against the landlords of the Cherry Orchard Village apartments, located outside of Rantoul.
Bernard and Eduardo Ramos appeared in Champaign County Court for a bench trial. They are accused of failing to connect sewer and septic systems for six out of eight apartment buildings on the Cherry Orchard property.
Though occupancy at the property is unknown, public health officials estimated at least eight single men continue to live there and have noted several cars parked outside apartment buildings.
Occupancy at the complex typically increases in the warmer months due to an influx of migrant workers to the area. The complex has at least 48 family rental units, according to a 2007 migrant camp license application for the property.
The Ramoses are still not legally barred from renting the place out.
This is an ongoing concern of health officials, who helped relocate about a dozen tenants earlier this year after the Ramoses cut power and water to the property for about three weeks in December.
"It was a nightmare to get those families into apartments and there was just about every agency in town working on this," Pryde said. "If (Ramos) brings in a bunch more people up here and rents them and the judge throws them out then we have a bigger problem and fewer apartments out there to put people into.
"In reality unless the law and the ordinances give us any authority to do anything, there's really only so much you can do. We don't have authority to go in and shut them down," Pryde said.
Bernard Ramos declined comment for this story. Bernard and Eduardo have made previous agreements during the past year to vacate the property and legally repair the sewer system, but they have yet to follow through, public health officials said.
"That's what upsets me the most is we know there are problems ... we know there's issues with safety up there for people and there's nothing we can do about it," Pryde said.
Pryde said she helped one former tenant, Hermelinda Cruz, 51, find a new place to live. Cruz lived at Cherry Orchard for nearly two years after she and her husband separated.
Cruz and her family moved to Rantoul in 2003 from Rio Grande, Texas, in search of better jobs and better education.
For the past eight years, Cruz worked for agricultural companies like Syngenta and Pioneer between April and December.
After she and her husband separated, Cruz and her four children needed a place to live, and she found Cherry Orchard.
"At first I thought it was good because it was cheap and I wasn't working," Cruz said, speaking through her 14-year-old daughter, who interpreted for this interview.
Cruz said Bernard Ramos would allow her to pay the monthly $500 rent week by week.
He even lent her extra beds to use.
"When we first went to Cherry Orchard, it was tough," Cruz said. I had "no cars, no way to move. I had to start from the bottom up. I do appreciate Bernard because he let us borrow beds, stove (and) refrigerator. When I first moved to Cherry Orchard, I didn't have anything like that."
But they soon discovered mold on the walls and water dripping in from the ceiling, so Ramos moved them to another unit, which didn't prove to be much better.
The sewer would often back up into her shower, Cruz said, sometimes up to three days.
When the migrant workers would move in during the summer, Ramos would shut off the water for 12 hours at a time on a weekly basis, she said.
Moving out wasn't an option for Cruz because she had no place to go that would allow her to pay the rent by the week.
It wasn't until she received assistance from the health department, that Cruz and her family were able to move.
In February, Cruz and her four children found a three-bedroom apartment for $450 a month.
"I like it here because you don't see no cockroaches on the wall or hear the mice at nighttime," Cruz said.
Bernard Ramos and his family owned more than 30 properties in Champaign County; however, several are now or have been under foreclosure during the past few years - with at least seven sold in sheriff's auctions since 2008, according to an analysis of Champaign County Recorder's Office documents.
Their sole property near Rantoul, Cherry Orchard Apartments, is also currently under foreclosure, according to documents on file with the Champaign County Recorder's Office.
The father-son landlord team has also faced hundreds of code violations from the City of Champaign on rental property they own that have also garnered repeated condemnations.
In a 2009 interview with CU-CitizenAccess.org, Bernard Ramos said city housing inspectors have targeted him because he is Hispanic and rents to illegal immigrants. He said his financial problems were due to the decline in the economy and unemployment, which affected his tenants' ability to pay rent.
"One of the biggest problems is I grew so big so fast, now I want to get smaller," Bernard Ramos said in 2009.
In court documents, Ramos cited 13 apartment units that were condemned under the management of one bank and alleged that the bank's property manager was intentionally "sabotaging" his properties so the agent could buy them at a lower price.
"My goal is to get my properties back and don't make the same mistakes as before," Ramos said in a 2009 interview.
Last year, Champaign County amended its nuisance property ordinances based on conditions at Cherry Orchard.
Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said his department forwarded its complaint to the Champaign County State's Attorney's Office for prosecution under the amended ordinances after the Ramoses failed to bring the property up to the new county codes.
Once filed, it will bring the number of county court cases against Cherry Orchard up to two.
"The nuisance ordinance was amended in the past year to include several more specific kinds of dangerous structures," Hall said. "Several of those new definitions of dangerous structures exist or at least we have evidence they exist at the Cherry Orchard apartments."
Hall said two notices have been sent to Bernard Ramos detailing the violations under the amended nuisance ordinances, which carry a fine between $100 and $500 per day.
"This case is a long way from being resolved and those buildings are a long way from being repaired," Hall said.
"I believe, in total, both cases can indicate that these buildings are a real safety hazard but I don't know how that's going to be addressed in court," he said.
"Had this have happened in Champaign or Urbana, the city can go in and take care of it. There's codes that they work under and they could take care of it. Had it had happened in Rantoul, they could have gone in and taken care of it, but because it was in an unincorporated part of the county, no one really had authority over it except for Champaign County Zoning and Planning, and they didn't have any ordinance," Pryde said.
With the prosecution resting its case, Pryde says Bernard will present his defense Monday at 9 AM at the Champaign County Courthouse.
Two men are in custody on in connection with a 4-year old triple homicide on Danville's east side. Authorities identified one of the two men charged Wednesday.
36-year old David Moore of Chicago and a 26-year old Danville man indentified in news reports as Jerome Harris were indicted late last month by a Vermilion County Grand Jury, and each faces 15 counts of first degree murder. Danville Publc Safety Director Larry Thomason says Moore was arrested by U.S. Marshalls in Chicago on Monday, and returned to Danville on Wednesday. Harris was arrested on an unrelated charge by Danville police on March 25th.
On the morning of March 25th, 2007, police were called to the 17-hundred block of East Main after a report of shots fired. The body of 30-year old Rodney Pepper was found in the roadway. Inside a home there, two other men were found shot to death, identified as 19-year old Madisen Levernz and 21-year old Taberyan McCullough. Both Moore and the other man are being held without bond.
Vermilion County State's Attorney Randy Brinegar says the case is ongoing, and wouldn't rule out other arrests, and that each man faces 20 years to life in prison. Thomason says at least 2 detectives were assigned to the case the past 4 years.
The Cherry Orchard Village apartments lie just south of the abandoned Chanute Air Force Base near Rantoul - and like the base itself, Cherry Orchard has seen better days. Now the two landlords who manage the eight-building complex are charged with failing to maintain it - to the detriment of its tenants, mainly migrant worker families. Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers has been collaborating with the investigative journalism group CU-Citizen Access. He reports on the legal battle to bring Cherry Orchard up to code.
(English language voice over by Jenn Kloc)
(With additional reporting from Pam Dempsey and A. H. Gorton of CU-CitizenAccess)
Rod Blagojevich asked a judge Monday to order prosecutors to hand over written summaries of any FBI interviews with President Barack Obama about the ousted Illinois governor's corruption case.
That raises the prospect that Blagojevich could try to make the president a prominent feature of his defense at his upcoming retrial.
Judges are traditionally averse to drawing sitting presidents into trials, however. And Judge James Zagel, who will preside over Blagojevich's retrial starting later this month, has repeatedly said Obama has no direct bearing on the allegations, which include that Blagojevich sought to sell or trade an appointment to Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.
Obama has not been accused of any wrongdoing in the case by anyone, including the defense. But Blagojevich's attorneys have argued before that Obama could help demonstrate that their client never did anything criminal but merely engaged in legal, political wheeling and dealing.
"I haven't seen any argument Obama has anything to bring to the table in this trial," said David Morrison, a deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform who has followed the case closely. "I think Blagojevich has been desperate to drag Obama into this for years now, and this motion is just the latest gambit."
Blagojevich, 54, faces 20 charges, including allegations that he tried to exchange an appointment to Obama's seat for a top job or campaign cash. Jurors at his first trial deadlocked on all but one count, convicting him on a lone count of lying to the FBI.
Monday's request came in a motion filed with the U.S. District Court in Chicago, saying written accounts of any Obama interviews could "go directly to the heart of testimony of several government witnesses," particularly union leader and Obama ally Tom Balanoff.
U.S. Attorney's office spokesman Randall Samborn declined any comment on the motion.
Zagel had rejected a similar motion before Blagojevich's first trial. Unlike the motion last year, Monday's filing does not ask for permission to call Obama as a witness - an idea Zagel also shot down.
The new motion zeros in on Balanoff, a key government witness. He testified at the first trial that Obama called him on the eve of the 2008 election, telling Balanoff he preferred that family friend Valerie Jarrett work in the White House but that she wanted to be senator.
"I thanked him and I said I was going to reach out to Gov. Blagojevich and speak on Valerie's behalf," Balanoff testified.
Defense attorneys claim Balanoff's testimony about the call appeared to contradict some other accounts and that notes of any FBI interviews with Obama could clarify the issue.
Balanoff's testimony is potentially damaging to Blagojevich. On the witness stand last year, Balanoff also told jurors he was startled when, in discussing Jarrett's interest in the seat with Blagojevich, the then-governor broached the possibility of becoming secretary of health and human services in the Obama administration.
He took Blagojevich's reference as an offer to trade one for the other.
"I understood him to be offering that, `Hey, if I got this appointment (as a Cabinet secretary), then I could see my way to appoint Valerie Jarrett,'" Balanoff said.
Under cross-examination by defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky, Balanoff conceded that Blagojevich never said explicitly he wanted to trade the appointment to the seat for a top job.
Zagel has repeatedly denied defense moves that could put a spotlight on Obama. In a sidebar last year, for example, Sorosky told Zagel he wanted to ask Balanoff if the FBI focused its questions on Obama rather than Blagojevich when agents interviewed Balanoff.
"I think we have a right to bring that out," Sorosky told the judge.
"No, you don't," Zagel shot back.
That sidebar conversation last year was out of earshot of the jury, spectators and journalists in court, but official trial transcripts released later included it.
Monday's motion leaves open the option of the defense again asking for permission to subpoena Obama. Some legal observers say judges are reluctant to put presidents on the stand, in part, because the spectacle could throw proceedings into disarray.
"It would be a circus," said Gal Pissetzky, a Chicago-based attorney who frequently represents clients in federal court. "The whole focus of the trial would switch."
Danville Police are searching for a 15-year old male they suspect in the shooting of an 18 year old at the Fair Oaks public housing complex Sunday.
Police officials say officers responded to shots fired in the 900 block of Wakeley shortly before 5 PM Sunday. By the time they arrived, the shooting victim had been taken to Provena United Samaritans Medical Center --- he was later transferred to another hospital in Champaign-Urbana.
Public Safety Director Larry Thomason says both the shooter and his victim knew each other, and apparently had an ongoing argument. The shooting came three days after another Danville teen-ager was shot on Washington Street. Police arrested an 18 year old man in connection with that case.
Anyone with information the shooting is asked to contact Danville Police, or call Vermilion County Crime Stoppers anonymously at 217-446-TIPS.
The leaders of a Champaign group committed to improving police and community relations say they need more participation, and input, from all corners of the population.
About 50 people Monday night attended the first community forum hosted by the Champaign Community and Police Partnership, or C-CAP. The group's goal is finding solutions to policing issues raised by the African-American community. C-CAP member Patricia Avery heads the Champaign-Urbana area project, which works with juvenile delinquency prevention. She says Champaign Police are doing what they can to divert youth from the juvenile justice system.
"We have to work on providing more alternatives for the officers so when they are picking up (youths), they can't just turn them loose on the street," Avery said. "If they come into contact, they have to have somewhere for them to go. So our job as a community is to help them find solutions, find alternatives, for those kids that they do come in contact with."
One such option suggested by Avery is community conferencing - allowing police to place troubled youths before a panel made up of victims, offenders, and supporters to resolve the case among themselves.
Durl Kruse with C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice brought up the 2009 Champaign police fatal shooting of 15-year old Kiwane Carrington. He also cited 2010 statistics in Champaign County, showing a disproportionate number of black youths involved in felony and misdemeanor convictions.
Champaign Police Chief R.T. Finney says the numbers are debatable, but says they were brought up in an attempt to discredit initiatives like the Champaign Youth Police Academy, and other ideas started by C-CAP.
"And to ignore what C-CAP has been doing for over a decade, by just throwing out some statistics from the State's Attorney's office compiled last year, is just not correct," Finney said. "C-CAP understands exactly what's going on in the neighborhoods with our kids. And we have to work on that."
Kruse says C-CAP's partnership will only work when it's allowing everyone, including the police department's worst critics, to be part of the discussion.
Champaign City Council member Will Kyles, who's also on the C-CAP committee, says future forums will need a change of behavior between different cultures. C-CAP will hold quarterly forums throughout the year. The next has a focus on youth. It's scheduled for June 27th at the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club.
Students at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville may not realize there's a big-name fugitive on campus.
Aldemaro Romero is the school's dean of arts and sciences, son of a famous Venezuelan musician, and a wanted man in his homeland.
The Venezuelan government has accused him of "treason to the motherland." That happened almost 20 years ago when he was working as a scientist and denounced Venezuelan fishermen for illegally killing dolphins for shark bait.
Romero fled to the United States and says it would be "suicidal" to go back.
He's been a dean at SIU in Edwardsville since 2009.
Romero recently donated 50,000 resource materials to the university archives. These include research notes, audiotapes of whale sounds and FBI reports on his run-in with Venezuelan authorities.
After criticism over his last choice to head the Illinois State Police, Governor Pat Quinn has selected a law enforcement veteran to run the agency.
Quinn has tabbed Hiram Grau for the position. Grau spent 27 years with the Chicago Police Department. His resume includes his rise from beat cop to deputy Superintendent for the Bureau of Investigative Services for the Cook County State's Attorney. Grau's name had surfaced as a temporary fill in for Chicago's Police Superintendent Jody Weis when he stepped down this month.
Grau's appointment for the state job must still be confirmed by the Illinois Senate. Quinn's previous choice to be State Police Director never got a hearing. Jonathon Monken's lack of police experience sunk his nomination and it was later pulled. Monken has since been confirmed as head of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
Quinn also announced the appointment of Joe Costigan to be Labor Department Director. He currently holds a position with the Service Employees International union.
A University of Illinois alert Thursday morning indicating that there was a shooter on campus was sent out in error, according to University officials.
The alert sent out at about 10:40 AM told the university community to "Escape area if safe to do so or shield/secure your location." Within about 15 minutes, Illini-Alert sent out a follow-up email saying that message was sent out in error. The U of I says a worker updating an emergency-message template inadvertently sent the message rather than saving it.
In a statement, the University's Chief of Police Barbara O'Connor said: "PLEASE DISREGARD THE ILLINI-ALERT MESSAGE SENT REGARDING THE ACTIVE SHOOTER ON CAMPUS! The Illini-Alert message was sent accidentally. We sincerely apologize for this accident."
U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler says employees at the campus' information technology service were working on ways to upgrade the alert system in light of Wednesday's fire in Campustown.
"Workers were simply updating some of the emergency templates that we have on hand for such incidents," she said. "And in the process of typing, someone accidentally hit 'send' instead of 'save."
Kaler said she realizes the original message was a frightening thing, but she said she would rather receive an alert of something not happening, than for an incident to go unreported.
MESSAGE ABOUT THE MISTAKEN ALERT
To the campus community:
This morning at 10:40, an Illini-Alert message was sent to 87,000 email addresses and cellphones indicating there was an active shooter or threat of an active shooter on the Urbana campus. The message was sent accidentally while pre-scripted templates used in the Illini-Alert system were being updated. The updates were being made in response to user feedback in order to enhance information provided in the alerts.
The alert sent today was caused by a person making a mistake. Rather than pushing the SAVE button to update the pre-scripted message, the person pushed the SUBMIT button. We are working with the provider of the Illini-Alert service to implement additional security features in the program to prevent this type of error.
The alert system is designed to send all messages as quickly as possible. The messages generally leave the sending server within two minutes. This design is essential for emergency communications. However, this prevented the cancellation of the erroneous alert once it was sent.
Additionally, once we send an emergency message, we are dependent on the cellular telephone providers to deliver the text message to the owner of the cellphone. This is a recognized issue with all text-messaging systems. This is one reason we use multiple communication mechanisms, including email and our Emergency Web alert system, which is automatically activated when we send an Illini-Alert message. We cannot rely solely on text messages to inform our community of an emergency.
The Chief of Police has charged the campus emergency planning office with reviewing and documenting todays incident. We are reviewing comments we are receiving as a result of the incident and will implement all reasonable and appropriate ideas or suggestions.
We recognize the campus community relies on us to provide accurate and timely emergency information. We are working diligently to improve our processes so that this type of incident does not happen again. Finally, we apologize for the confusion and emotional distress caused by the initial alert.
Barbara R. O'Connor, J.D. Executive Director of Public Safety Chief of Police University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign http://www.publicsafety.illinois.edu
Mike Corn Chief Privacy and Security Officer Office of the Chief Information Officer This mailing approved by:The Office of the Chief of Police