Former Crestwood Mayor Pleads Guilty To Red-Light Camera Bribery Scheme

by P. J. McNeal, The Chicago Times

November 18, 2021

CHICAGO — The former mayor of Crestwood, IL, pleaded guilty to a federal corruption charge on Wednesday, admitting to improperly soliciting and receiving benefits from a representative of a red-light camera company that provided services to Crestwood.

Louis Presta, 71, of Crestwood, pleaded guilty to one count of using an interstate commerce facility to aid bribery and official misconduct, as well as one count of filing a false income tax return.  Bribery is punishable by up to five years in federal prison, while tax evasion is punishable by up to three years.  The sentencing date has been set for February 23, 2022 by U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin.

John R. Lausch, Jr., United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, Emmerson Buie, Jr., Special Agent-in-Charge of the FBI’s Chicago Field Office, and Justin Campbell, Special Agent-in-Charge of the IRS Criminal Investigation Division in Chicago, announced the guilty plea.

Assistant United States Attorneys Christopher J. Stetler and James P. Durkin are representing the government.

According to Presta’s plea agreement, Presta admitted that the red-light camera company provided Crestwood with camera services, allowing the municipality to issue tickets to motorists for certain traffic violations.  While the company was attempting to provide additional services to Crestwood, then-Mayor Presta requested and received benefits from a company representative.  Presta told the red-light camera company’s representative that in exchange for a cash payment from the representative, Presta would ensure that the percentage of red-light traffic violations approved by Presta would remain high or increase.

The plea agreement goes on to describe a phone call between Presta and a company representative on February 27, 2018, during which Presta updated the representative on the higher percentage of approved red-light traffic violations for the previous week.

“We are starting to get the numbers back… you got a new sheriff in town,” Presta said during the call.

Presta received a $5,000 cash bribe from a company representative shortly after that call on March 7, 2018.  When questioned about his receipt of the $5,000 bribe by federal law enforcement, Presta falsely stated that he neither asked for nor received the $5,000 bribe.

Presta admitted in the plea agreement, in addition to the bribery scheme, that he willfully filed a false personal income tax return for the calendar year 2015.

Bellwood Man Found Guilty On Federal Gun And Drug Charges

by T. C. Mayfield, The Chicago Times

November 18, 2021

BELLWOOD, IL — A federal jury found a 42-year-old man guilty of illegally possessing two loaded handguns and dealing heroin and crack cocaine.

According to the US Attorney’s Office, Brian Stafford of Bellwood sold 101 grams of heroin to a law enforcement informant in November 2016.  Police had discovered drugs and guns in his vehicle and residence in the west suburbs the day before.

He was convicted on one count of possessing heroin and crack cocaine with intent to distribute, one count of illegal possession of firearms by a previously convicted felon, and one count of possessing firearms in furtherance of drug-trafficking activities.

Stafford faces a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in federal prison and a maximum sentence of life in prison for each conviction.

ILLINOIS LAWMAKERS BAN “DARK MONEY” IN JUDICIAL RACES

by Frank Conklin, The Chicago Times

November 16, 2021

SPRINGFIELD, IL — A new Illinois law requires all candidates to disclose the sources of their contributions, with the goal of prohibiting out-of-state contributions and so-called “dark money” in judicial campaigns.

Gov. J. B. Pritzker singed into law Monday Senate Bill 536 which prohibits judicial campaign committees from accepting contributions from out-of-state sources or from any person or entity that does not disclose the identity of those making the contribution, with the exception of contributions that are less than the itemizing threshold.

The bill also raises the contribution threshold for itemizing contributions from $500 to $1,000.  It also prohibits people from making or accepting anonymous contributions, as well as contributions made in the name of someone else.

On the final day of the fall veto session, Democrats pushed the bill through the General Assembly.  It arose in part in response to the 2020 elections, in which Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride, a Democrat, was defeated for re-election, the first time in state history that a state Supreme Court justice was defeated for re-election.

According to campaign finance reports, a group called Citizens for Judicial Fairness legally spent more than $5.9 million on a campaign to defeat Killbride.  However, the campaign also received hundreds of thousands of dollars from so-called dark money organizations, such as the Judicial Fairness Project, which does not reveal its donors.

Kilbride’s campaign spent nearly $4 million on his behalf, with the majority of the funds coming from labor unions, trial lawyers, and the Democratic Party of Illinois.

“Trying to avoid dark money in elections is something that I think we can all get behind.  As a result, the change would prevent out-of-state and untraceable money from entering our judicial races, thereby preserving the integrity of those judicial elections.” Rep. Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville, said during a House floor debate.

GOP members, on the other hand, claimed it was a partisan move designed to help Democrats maintain their current 4-3 majority on the court.

“I can’t help but notice that the impetus for great changes in how we conduct elections for the judiciary in the state of Illinois, both the remapping of the Supreme Court (and) the change in campaign finance activities comes after, for the first time in the history of our state, a Democratic Supreme Court justice lost his retention in the 2020 election . . . this is another effort for the majority to change the rules of the game because they don’t like the outcome,” said Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria.

The bill was passed by both chambers of the General Assembly, 72-42 in the House and 41-17 in the Senate.

Starved Rock Killer Wins Approval For DNA Tests

by T. C. Mayfield, The Chicago Times

October 28, 2021

Chester Otto Weger, The Starved Rock Killer.

OTTAWA, IL – Chester Otto Weger, 82, who was released from prison last year after nearly 60 years since being found guilty for the slaying of one of three suburban Chicago women has won court approval for DNA testing of evidence discovered at the crime scene.

A LaSalle County judge ruled Tuesday that cigarette butts, hair, and string found at the crime scene at Starved Rock State Park can be tested.  According to Weger’s lawyer, DNA testing on hairs found on the victims could rule out his client as the murderer.

In March 1960, Frances Murphy, 47, Mildred Lindquist, 47, and Lillian Oetting, 50, took a four-day trip to Starved Rock State Park located in LaSalle County, Illinois along the banks of the Illinois River.  All three women were married to prominent Chicago businessmen and lived in Riverside, a Chicago suburb 90 miles northeast of the park.

Frances Murphy, Mildred Lindquist, & Lillian Oetting

After checking into the Starved Rock Lodge on March 14, the three women went on an afternoon hike through St. Louis Canyon, but never returned.  Their disappearances went unnoticed until March 16, when Frances Murphy’s husband called the lodge to inquire about his wife.  Police organized a search of the park, which resulted in the discovery of the women’s bodies, bound with twine and partially undressed, inside a canyon cave.  All three women suffered severe head trauma, and it was determined that a blood-stained tree limb found nearby was used to bludgeon them to death.

Weger, a dishwasher at the Starved Rock Lodge, was interviewed by Illinois State Police following the discovery.  Several lodge employees told investigators that Weger showed up to work the day after the women went missing with scratches on his face.  Weger was interrogated in the weeks following the murders and he passed three lie detector tests.  However, because of Weger’s previous run-ins with the law, investigators continued to pursue him.  Weger matched the description of an assailant who had bound a teenage girl with twine and raped her months earlier at nearby Matthiessen State Park and was later identified by the victim in a photo line-up.  The twine used to bind the murder victims was the same as that discovered in the lodge’s kitchen, and he failed another lie detector test in September.  As a result, investigators placed him under constant surveillance.

On November 16, the LaSalle County State’s Attorney ordered Weger arrested and brought in for further questioning.  Weger confessed to the murders the next day after a lengthy interrogation and led police in a reenactment at the crime scene.  Weger later recanted his confession, claiming it was made under duress after being threatened by interrogators.

A grand jury indicted Weger for all three murders, as well as the rape and robbery at Matthiessen State Park, but the state chose only to prosecute him for the murder of Lillian Oetting.

On February 13, 1961, Weger’s trial began. Weger’s defense relied on the claim that investigators were relentless in extracting a confession and that he was told that if he didn’t, they would convict him on circumstantial evidence and send him to the electric chair.  Weger claimed he was washing dishes at the time of the murders before going to the lodge’s basement, and explained the scratches on his face in the days following the murders were caused by shaving.  The FBI’s analysis of bloodstains found on Weger’s leather jacket was inconclusive as to whether they were human or animal.

On March 3, 1961, the jury returned a guilty verdict and sentenced Weger to life in prison, rejecting the state’s request for the death penalty.  Weger was sentenced on April 3 and began serving his time at the Illinois State Penitentiary in Joliet.  His attorney filed an appeal, which was heard by the Illinois Supreme Court, but the verdict was upheld in September 1962.

On November 21, 2019, the same board voted 9–4 to release Weger from prison after nearly 59 years and was transferred to a Chicago mission that assists parolees in rehabilitation.  Weger was released on February 21, 2020, after a 90-day delay while the Illinois Attorney General sought an evaluation under the state’s Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act.

Deere & Co. Workers Declare Strike

by Sloan T. Wilson, The Chicago Times

October 14, 2021

MOLINE, IL — More than 10,000 Deere & Co. employees went on strike Thursday after the company allegedly “failed to present an agreement that met” union members’ expectations and needs.

The United Auto Workers union warned its members, who want a better standard of living, retirement benefits, and a better work environment, will walk off the job Oct. 13 at 11:59 p.m. if a settlement was not struck.

However, a large majority of union members, over 90%, rejected a tentative agreement struck by the union and John Deere earlier this week, despite the fact that it would have provided 5% raises to certain workers and 6% rises to others.

Local leaders are concerned about the walkout, which affects approximately 14 Deere operations across the United States.  The Deere manufacturing factories are key contributors to the local economy, so officials hope any strike is brief.

There was no comment from Deere & Co. officials if strikebreakers would be called to take up the slack or as an attempt to oust the UAW from Deere & Co.

Illinois Receives 2 Bids In Sale Of Dilapidated Thompson Center

by Sloan T. Wilson, The Chicago Times

October 12, 2021

CHICAGO — According to state authorities, two offers have been received for the 1.2 million square-foot Thompson Center at 100 W. Randolph St.

The specifics of the ideas will not be published until a winning plan is chosen.  J. B. Pritzker, the governor, is likely to select one of the bids before the end of the year.  The transaction might be completed as early as April 2022.

In May, Pritzker issued Requests for Proposals for the sale of the Thompson Center.

“The sale of the Thompson Center has been discussed for nearly 20 years and we are taking another important step to making it a reality . . . selling the property provides a unique opportunity to maximize taxpayer savings, create thousands of union jobs, generate millions of dollars in real estate taxes to benefit the City of Chicago and spur economic development.” Pritzker said in a statement.

According to the state, bringing the 1.2 million square foot facility up to date would cost more than $325 million.  Additionally, it is estimated maintenance and restoration would exceed $525 million by 2026.

Illinois rents office space in seven Chicago Loop locations for $21.3 million per year in base rent and operational expenditures.  The state now occupies roughly 780,000 square feet of Thompson Center space.

The Thompson Center, designed by the late Helmut Jahn, opened in 1985 and encompasses a whole city block of valuable real estate.