Cook Co. hospital boss held on $400,000 bond in bicyclist’s death
BY JON SEIDEL AND BRIAN SLODYSKO Staff Reporters December 8, 2013 9:32AM
Updated: January 10, 2014 6:25AM
Approaching the end of another shift as a line cook at El Hefe restaurant in River North, Hector Avalos told his co-workers Friday he felt tired, that he might just take the train home.
Instead, as he did so often, the former Marine climbed atop his bicycle that night and pedaled toward the Heart of Chicago neighborhood where he lived. But in what a Cook County judge Sunday called a “tragedy of epic proportions,” Avalos never made it home.
Avalos, 28, died early Saturday morning, prosecutors said, after he was struck and killed by an allegedly drunken Cook County hospital administrator whose blood alcohol content registered .118 after the accident.
Robert Vais, 54, of Riverside, is now charged with driving under the influence, aggravated driving under the influence causing a death, and failure to reduce speed. Cook County Judge James Brown ordered him held in lieu of $400,000 bail Sunday at the George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building at 26th and California.
Avalos’ mother, Ingrid Cossio, said she was shocked the judge would give Vais an opportunity to make bail and “kill someone else.”
“Who’s gonna be next?” Cossio said. “How dare the judge do that to anyone out there on the street?”
Court records show Vais works in the finance department of the Cook County hospital system. He’s listed in an online Cook County database as director of financial control IV for the county’s bureau of health, having worked for the county for 31 years and making $138,300 annually.
Standing stone-faced in front of the judge, Vais had plenty of support at the courthouse Sunday. His attorney, Rick Beuke, said 22 of Vais’ family and friends attended the hearing. They declined to speak to reporters, but Beuke said Vais is “devastated.”
“We think it’s a tragic accident,” Beuke said.
Multiple calls and an email to spokeswomen for the health and hospital system were not returned.
Avalos, of the 1800 block of West Cermak, was riding home from his restaurant job when he was allegedly struck by Vais’ white 2002 Ford Windstar in the 2500 block of West Ogden in the Douglas Park area. When police arrived around midnight, they said Vais approached them and said “I was the driver of that van over there. I hit him. Is he OK?”
He had bloodshot eyes and smelled like alcohol, according to police reports. He was taken to Saint Anthony Hospital.
Avalos, meanwhile, was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was pronounced dead early Saturday, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office. But his Christmas stocking still hung on the wall at El Hefe on Sunday afternoon, where his manager said there was “no excuse” for his death.
“Especially in Chicago,” said restaurant manager Justin Massei. “There’s no shortage of cabs. When you’ve maybe had a few too many, there’s no reason to be driving. He was only 28 — still a young kid. Now you have a mother without a son.”
Massei said Avalos was one of the first employees hired when El Hefe opened about six months ago. He was fresh out of culinary school and landed a job as prep cook there before working his way up to line cook.
Cossio said her son, who spent five years in the Marines, loved the outdoors and loved to fish. She also said he loved riding his bike.
“He felt free,” she said.
Massei said El Hefe will hold a fund-raiser in the near future to help defray Avalos’ funeral costs.
“It’s tough. One of the things we preach here is that we’re a family,” Massei said. “Hector was one of our family and the (kitchen) work stations aren’t the same back there.”