What do you talk about when you're driving your son to prison?
Picture yourself on that highway, cutting through cornfields under blue Iowa skies, your son next to you in the quiet car, your boy about to begin a 5-year sentence for defending himself with one punch against a raging drunk who attacked him first.What does a father say to the son he knows is innocent? What does a son hear from his dad as he looks out the window?
"There's too much to say," said Bob Mette, father of former Chicago Police Officer Michael Mette, a victim of Iowa. "Mike had his mind set right about where he was going. We talked about the Bears and how terrible they played on Sunday."
You talked about the Bears?
"Yeah, the Bears. And we talked about a lot of things," said Bob Mette. "He was upbeat. His mind was right, focused. We talked about a lot of things. Things you'd talk about with your son."
We left it at that. As a father of two boys, I can only imagine, in some nightmare, about that drive to Iowa. As I heard Bob's voice over the phone on Wednesday afternoon, I thought about the silences in that car of his on Monday morning.
And I thought of all the noise to come over George Ryan, the corrupt and convicted governor who learned Wednesday that he would finally be serving his own prison sentence next week.
You'll hear the caterwauling by his champions and the whining of Ryan's steakhouse pals. And the loud know-it-all whispers that Ryan's buddy, former Gov. Big Jim Thompson, might prevail on President Bush to pardon Ryan, a move that would certainly kill off whatever is left of a wounded Republican Party in Illinois.
Ryan sold his office and got 6 1/2 years and a $20 million free legal defense and all the clout Big Jim could bring. Mike Mette got 5 years for throwing one punch.
I asked his father about the Ryan public relations spin and the anti-death penalty advocates nominating Ryan for a Nobel Prize. All that noise for Ryan, all that silence for Mike.
"Mike's not a politician," said Bob. "Politicians do what politicians do. We all know that, we're from Chicago. But Mike shouldn't be in prison for defending himself."
Yet that's where Mike sits, being processed by the Iowa prison bureaucracy, for the crime of self-defense in Dubuque. Mike had been drinking, his friends had been drinking, and the guys they got into a fight with had been drinking. Mike tried to avoid the fight, one of the drunks of the other party chased him down on the street, cursing, pushing, putting his hands on Mike. He punched the man once and the man went down, striking his head on the concrete.
The victim, with a blood-alcohol level measured at 0.27 and higher, was out of the hospital in four days. But some media reports insist the victim's life was threatened, that he suffered cracked vertebrae. Yes, X-rays show the victim had cracked vertebrae. But not from any fight with Mette. The back injury -- initially thought to be related to the Mette incident -- occurred years before, according to testimony.
That doesn't seem to matter to the spinners, who say I'm not giving you whole story, and the spinning continues, by the prosecutors in Dubuque, and by some in Illinois who hate cops for being cops and so lump Mike in with the rotten ones under investigation in the Chicago Police Department.
The damage had been done. The spinners were successful. The media, by and large, were silent about Mike Mette. There was a piece on WLS-TV, and one paragraph in the Tribune, and my column on Sunday, and Bob Mette watched horrified as his son was virtually ignored or painted with that broad brush being applied to corrupt and violent cops.
"Why didn't Mike become some media cause? Because he got lumped in with all the other stuff about the CPD," said Bob Mette, who joined the Chicago Police Department in 1966, retired as a detective and is now an investigator for the Cook County state's attorney.
There was that other officer who beat a female bartender in a tavern, the video of the beating a YouTube sensation. And another police fight in another tavern. And a conviction of an Outfit-connected Chicago cop.
Most recently, there have been reports of a federal investigation into the highly political unit called Special Operations Section, with allegations of robbery and murder-for-hire, and now the investigation moves upward, toward the highly political police brass.
Mike had nothing to do with any of it. What happened in Iowa occurred long before any of those other incidents came to light. Yet he's been unjustly mixed in that vile public relations stew, spiced with proper public horror toward allegations of police torture by former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge.
"It's a bad time to be a Chicago cop. And Mike got lumped in with all that other negative stuff about cops, and some people turned away," Bob said. "It hurts."
I didn't have to ask anymore about that long ride to Iowa with father and son. I could hear it, all of it that mattered, in what Bob Mette didn't say.