How Cook County lost track of hundreds of convicts

Jesse Reyes of the Adult Probation Department with the State of Illinois
Circuit Court of Cook County. (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune)

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.

'Overworked'

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.