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Cook County's Saul Chavez moment
Politics trump justice as board immigration policy frees alleged DUI killer

Wednesday, January 04, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by John Kass

Chicago politics didn't kill William "Dennis" McCann.

What killed the 66-year-old man was that black Dodge Neon driven by an alleged drunken driver as McCann walked across Kedzie Avenue last summer.

But the politicians allowed the man charged in the fatal crash to skip out of jail despite pleas by federal authorities to hold him. Thanks to Chicago politicians, the alleged drunken driver is most likely hiding in Mexico.

"My anger is more directed at the fumbling and bumbling of Cook County agencies," said McCann's younger brother, Brian. "I'm more angry at the system than the offender. I know that sounds crazy."

It happened June 8 on Kedzie Avenue in the Logan Square neighborhood. McCann was walking across Kedzie when he was hit by a car allegedly driven by Saul Chavez, 36, already convicted of one DUI.

"I heard the impact, saw this man go up into the sky and land on the windshield," witness Alberto Aceves, 39, told the Tribune shortly after the crash. "I thought, OK, he hit him, but the driver is going to stop. He might be all right."

But the driver didn't stop. Instead, the driver stepped on the gas. The tires rolled over McCann, who had fallen to the ground, and then the underbelly of the car caught him and dragged his body north on Kedzie.

"I pull up to the passenger side screaming at him," Aceves recalled. "Stop! The guy's under your car."

An off-duty police officer joined in the chase after he spotted a pair of sandals in the street and looked up to see McCann's body being dragged. The car finally stopped, with McCann still lodged underneath, and Chavez allegedly tried to run. Aceves and the officer — gun in hand — chased after Chavez and caught him.

Chavez was charged with a felony — aggravated driving under the influence — and held on a $250,000 bond. The Cook County sheriff's office said Chavez had a blood alcohol content of 0.29 percent. Convicted of a DUI in 2009, he had just finished the two-year probation sentence.

Two days after the fatal accident, on June 10, the federal Department of Homeland Security filed what is called an immigration detainer for Chavez. The agency believed he was an illegal immigrant from Mexico. The form requested that Cook County notifyImmigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, if Chavez was scheduled to be released.

But as Chavez sat in the jail, immigration became an emotional issue before the Cook County Board. Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia pushed a new policy aimed at ignoring federal detainer requests and allowing suspected illegal immigrants who'd been jailed in misdemeanor or felony cases to make bond.

It passed by a 10-5 vote in September. The political payoff was obvious: It was aDemocratic Party appeal to Latino voters over the hot-button issue of illegal immigration.

Preckwinkle and supporters characterized it as a way to save taxpayers money, and she put out figures insisting that it cost $15 million per year to detain suspected illegal immigrants at federal request, without the county receiving reimbursement from the feds. Garcia said it was all about "ensuring the fair treatment of all people."

When the proposal was debated, the sheriff's office warned that even those charged with serious crimes could be allowed to flee.

Commissioner Timothy Schneider was perhaps the loudest voice against the policy, warning that criminals would run off to Mexico, and that Cook County would become a laughingstock.

"This is clearly, without exacerbating the situation, our Willie Horton moment here in Cook County," said Schneider, R-Streamwood.

Horton was convicted of murder in Massachusetts, then was put on furlough in 1987. And while out from behind bars, Horton raped a woman and assaulted her fiance. The debacle helped kill the liberal Democratic presidential dreams of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

Schneider was right. But let's not call it a Willie Horton moment.

It's a Saul Chavez moment.

Thanks to Preckwinkle, Garcia and their friends on the county board, Chavez was released on bond Nov. 20. He put up $25,000 of the $250,000 bond amount, and walked. He missed one court date. Then prosecutors sought an emergency increase in the bail amount, and warrants were issued for Chavez's arrest. He missed a second court date. He was gone.

Sheriff Tom Dart says the policy has to be changed, not for misdemeanors, but for felonies.

"The sheriff's office believes this ordinance should be narrowed to allow those charged with severe offenses and/or multiple offenses to have the detainers honored, in which case ICE will be allowed to detain those individuals and have their own hearing to determine if the person should be deported," said a Dart spokesman.

McCann's brothers learned of Chavez's release via a recorded phone message from the Cook County Jail. "It was this creepy, eerie recording," said Brian McCann.

"Our family was infuriated," said the victim's daughter, Nicole Goins, 40, of Edwardsville, Ill. "It's not so much just for our father. If it's happened to us, it's probably happened to others. This is not what the people want. This isn't right. This isn't how it is supposed to be."

It doesn't matter what the people want, Nicole.

This is Chicago, this is Cook County, and the politicians are all about counting votes. Not from the dead, from the living.



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