By Cynthia Dizikes and Todd Lighty, Chicago Tribune reporters
December 15, 2013
The Cook County probation department has lost track of hundreds of convicts and overlooked curfew violations and new crimes committed by offenders, some of whom went on to rape or kill while under the court's watch, a Tribune investigation found.
At a time when county officials have argued for more people to be redirected from jail cells to programs such as probation, the Tribune has found a dysfunctional department that falls short of its mission of holding offenders accountable and creating safer neighborhoods.
Perhaps no case is more emblematic of the problems in the probation department than that of Micheail Ward, a gang member accused of killing 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton this year.
While it was known at the time that Ward violated his probation, internal documents obtained by the Tribune reveal the extent to which the department systematically failed to monitor Ward and other convicts under its supervision.
Ward's slide began three months into his sentence when he broke his court-ordered curfew. On probation for carrying a loaded pistol, Ward went on to repeatedly disobey curfew and pick up three new arrests.
The probation department could have tightened Ward's monitoring or sought his return to jail. Instead, the agency stopped checking on him at home and failed to detect two of his new arrests, or hold him accountable for breaking curfew, records show.
Ward, 19, was on the streets in January when prosecutors say he shot and killed Hadiya, who a week earlier had performed with her high school band during President Barack Obama's inauguration. Her death brought international attention to the gun violence on Chicago streets.
Little public scrutiny, however, fell upon the probation department and its inability to properly monitor Ward and others.
Jesus "Jesse" Reyes, who has been the acting chief probation officer since 2005, defended his department's overall record but acknowledged mistakes.
"I think that, by and large, the department and its people do a good job," Reyes said in an interview. "I think we do have some elements that need to change, and those are the ones that will hit the news."
Ward was one of roughly 24,000 convicts under the watch of the Circuit Court of Cook County Adult Probation Department.
The department, with some 550 employees and a $37 million budget, is under the supervision of Chief Judge Timothy Evans.
Evans said the adult probation department is underfunded and understaffed, saying "the sad result is that public safety suffers."
"I want to be clear that I will do whatever is necessary to ensure the public is protected and that probationers are given the chance to turn their lives around," he said in a statement.
County Board President Toni Preckwinkle disagreed with Evans. She said the problems in adult probation stem not from a lack of money, but a "lack of management."
"We have fulfilled the chief judge's requests for extra positions throughout the year," Preckwinkle said in a statement. "Before we provide additional staff or resources to any office, it's critical we have data to justify that the investment will produce results. Otherwise, we are throwing good money after bad — spending more, yet, not necessarily improving outcomes."
Evans said he is conducting a review, but multiple people within the department told the Tribune the agency is divided over its role — pulled between the sometimes dueling missions of law enforcement and social service.
On one side, they said, some see the department's purpose as rehabilitative, helping people return to their neighborhoods and encouraging them to get a diploma and a job.
The other side, however, believes the department is too soft and must aggressively hold offenders accountable when they violate conditions of their release, mockingly referring to the alternative approach as "hug a thug."
While judges set conditions of probation, the adult probation department assesses offenders' supervision levels and the likelihood they could break the law again.
Probation can be seen as preferable to prison because offenders can keep their jobs and maintain family ties, reducing the likelihood of committing new crimes, said Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association.
But properly assessing and monitoring a probationer is critical, Wicklund said.
"The risk is always, you have a condition of supervision that you are supposed to be abiding by as a probationer and you don't abide by it and nothing happens — it just gives you the message that the rules don't really pertain to you," Wicklund said.
"And if the rules don't pertain to you in that, maybe they don't pertain to you in other ways," he said. "The justice system becomes a paper tiger."
Ward's path to adult probation began Oct. 23, 2011, when Chicago police arrested him for having a loaded Cobra .38-caliber pistol. Ward, identified by police as a Gangster Disciple, told officers he had the gun for protection.
He pleaded guilty and on Jan. 5, 2012, was sentenced to two years of probation, a punishment criminals often dismiss as getting "paper." The judge set special conditions for Ward, requiring him to earn his high school diploma and stay off the streets from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Though Ward was a gang member and had been arrested eight times as a juvenile — including for alleged crimes involving violence — the probation department concedes it wrongly assessed him as a low risk to commit new crimes. He was given regular probation and had to report once a month.
It fell to veteran probation officer Dimitri Apostolovich to monitor Ward, who for the first few months dutifully reported to Apostolovich and obeyed his curfew, according to records.
About 9:15 p.m. on March 21, 2012, probation officers stopped by Ward's home, but he was nowhere to be found. Officers repeatedly went back to his home. Each time, he was not there.
Then, shortly before 2 a.m. March 28, 2012, Ward was out past curfew when Chicago police arrested him for allegedly riding in a stolen 2002 Saturn, according to police records. About two weeks later, he met with Apostolovich, who incorrectly noted in Ward's file that he had no new arrests.
Records show probation officers quit checking on Ward on April 4, 2012, even though his court-ordered curfew was supposed to extend for another three months. A notation in Ward's records recounts what happened when officers last visited his apartment: "Person Answering Stated Defendant Did Not Live At Address Officers Need More Information."
In July, Ward was arrested a second time for allegedly riding in a stolen car, an arrest the probation department later discovered.
Arrest records show he had moved. Yet, when Ward later reported for his monthly probation meetings, Apostolovich documented "No Address Changes."
The department and Apostolovich missed Ward's third arrest that year. An administrator at Hyde Park Academy High School called police on Nov. 26, 2012, after Ward repeatedly refused to leave school grounds, according to police records.
Police said Ward was standing "in front of the school Gang handshaking with other Gangster Disciple members" and charged him with criminal trespass.
Prosecutors allege Ward's violent battle with a rival gang faction had reached a flash point. One of Ward's friends had been killed, and fellow gang member Kenneth Williams had been shot and wounded.
On Jan. 29, Ward and Williams allegedly were seeking revenge when they drove past Harsh Park on the South Side. There, Hadiya and her friends had gathered under a canopy to avoid an afternoon rain.
Prosecutors allege that Ward, mistaking the group for gang rivals, jumped out of the car and fired a gun six times. Hadiya was fatally struck in the back, and two of her friends were wounded.
First lady Michelle Obama attended Hadiya's funeral, and her parents were in attendance as Obama talked about her in his State of the Union address.
Ward was charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder and unlawful use of a weapon. He is being held without bail in the Cook County Jail. Prosecutors said Ward gave a video statement admitting his role in shooting Hadiya.
In a recent telephone interview from jail, Ward said his confession was coerced and false. They are "trying to discredit me, slaughter my character," he said. "I'm going to trial. I'm not going to do 100 years for (expletive) I didn't do."
Ward also said he did not violate his probation.
Reyes has said his department should have alerted prosecutors and the judge to Ward's arrests. Reyes told reporters at the time that a violation of probation should have been filed against Ward.
What Reyes didn't say was that his department had failed to detect two of Ward's arrests or hold him accountable for other times he broke the terms of his probation, including curfew and moving to a new address.
Reyes said recently that he would not speculate as to whether Hadiya would still be alive if the department had done its job, but said he has been quick to investigate problems when he learns of them and to discipline employees. "It's the old, hindsight is 20/20," he said. "You're asking a question that nobody can answer."
The Tribune has learned Apostolovich was suspended for 45 days. Apostolovich, who has been with the department for 28 years, declined to comment.
As in Ward's case, the Tribune has found other instances in which the department conducted sloppy and incomplete case work. Probation officers have readily accepted offender statements that they were not in a gang and had not picked up new arrests when a routine criminal records check could have immediately shown otherwise.
That was the case for car thief Kevin Culverson, sentenced to probation in June 2011.
The probation department assessed Culverson, 21, as a low risk to commit new crimes. But it overlooked his juvenile record, which contained five arrests and accusations of violence, and missed a subsequent adult arrest for threatening a high school teacher's aide that he was "going to get his .25 and shoot him," according to police records.
Despite that past, the adult probation department inaccurately documented that Culverson's first contact with the criminal justice system occurred when he was 18, and that he had no arrest history involving threats of violence or physical harm.
While on probation in April, Culverson allegedly shot and killed 15-year-old Cornelius German, blocks from Obama's Kenwood home.
As with Hadiya, Cornelius' killing echoed beyond Chicago, because it happened in the president's neighborhood. And as with Ward, Culverson's probation officer had missed multiple arrests leading up to Cornelius' death, including accusations that Culverson had stolen a woman's wallet and burglarized homes.
Records also show Culverson skipped mandatory meetings with his probation officer, Claretha Wells. His reasons, according to records, included that he overslept, he had sprained his ankle, he was robbed, and he had a bullet removed from his back.
Wells could not explain why she missed many of Culverson's arrests or why she did not always file violations against him in court.
"Right now we are understaffed and overworked," she said. "We have high caseloads, and it makes it very difficult to supervise all those you are monitoring."
The number of people working in the probation department has shrunk by about 26 percent since 2005 because of layoffs and retirements, Reyes said. He said many employees juggle caseloads heavier than the state recommends.
At the same time, probation officers said that judges are part of the problem, declining to lock up or clamp down on those who repeatedly break terms of their probation. Evans, the county's chief judge, did not respond to a request for comment. For instance, even after Culverson missed court hearings in his case, Judge Evelyn Clay recommitted him to probation, records show. Clay declined to comment.
Culverson was in custody on unrelated drug charges when police arrested him in Cornelius' killing. Culverson did not respond to a request for an interview.
In a coma
Besides missing new arrests, records show the probation department also has given potentially dangerous offenders repeated breaks when they violate curfew or other conditions of their release, such as not undergoing drug and alcohol treatment.
Acurie Collier, for example, was sentenced to probation in 2009 for a sexual attack on a 13-year-old girl. While on probation, Collier broke curfew 19 times, yet records show the department did nothing.
Collier was out past curfew again in July 2010 when he climbed through a bedroom window and raped another 13-year-old girl, according to records. Collier, 39, was convicted of the assault and is now in prison.
The girl, who has since moved out of Chicago, said she is haunted by the attack and blames the probation department for failing to monitor Collier.
"For a probation officer to let someone violate probation that many times and nothing is being done about it, what does that say about the probation department?" she said. "What it is saying is that you … don't care about your citizens in Cook County."
Reyes acknowledged the department has no idea how many probationers such as Collier commit new crimes. He said he recently appointed an employee to gather information on how often probationers reoffend.
"It shouldn't be that way," Reyes said. "That's sort of like being out on the road without a map. You know, you're not real sure whether you're on the right road and whether you're headed in the right direction."
In other instances, officers have wasted time and taxpayer money by continuing to check and report on offenders even though they were in jail or the hospital.
When an accused drug dealer ended up in the hospital after being shot multiple times, that didn't stop probation officers from repeatedly going to his home to see if he was violating curfew.
Antonio Lewis, 19, allegedly shot and killed a mother and her 5-year-old son during a robbery June 28. Later that day, prosecutors allege, Lewis was shot 11 times. He was hospitalized for nearly two months.
Still, they went to Lewis' home and carefully documented their visits. On July 24, they noted: "Spoke To Defts (defendant's) Aunt Who Stated That Deft Had Been Shot and Currently In A Hospital In A Coma."
A week later, officers checked again and documented he was not home. The following day, they also tried: "Per Defts Mom Deft In Mt Sinai Hospital."
They went back to the house again Aug. 7 and dialed a telephone number. "Lady Answered And Hung Up On Officer. Officer Called Back Two More Times No Answer Officer Rang Bell No Answer."
Reyes insisted the cases investigated by the Tribune were not representative of his department's overall work. "This is sort of like a medley of our worst hits here," he said.
Missing on Probation
While the department inquired about Lewis' whereabouts, records show that often is not the case.
The department has lost track of hundreds of convicts, according to probation officers.
Internal figures show that as of Nov. 5, there were 1,361 on the department's "60 day" list — a list of all those on probation who have not been seen by their officer for at least two months. Some of those have been rearrested and taken back to jail or died.
But officers told the Tribune that many also were unaccounted for or had disappeared.
Unlike some other large probation departments, Cook County's does not have a special unit tasked with tracking down missing probationers.
One of those missing is Jarvis Lewis.
Lewis was sentenced to probation in November 2012 for attempted burglary and the department last saw him March 15, according to records.
Later that month, a Chicago police detective contacted the probation department, looking for Lewis. The detective said he was investigating the March 23 killing of a 26-year-old man, according to records.
But Lewis had disappeared.
On Wednesday, a warrant was issued for his arrest in the killing.
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