Cop killer out as baseball coach; league's board quits over uproar
BY MITCH DUDEK AND STEFANO ESPOSITO Staff Reporters July 30, 2014 11:38AM
Dean Chavez, convicted of second-degree murder for the 1988 killing of Chicago Police officer John Mathews, has been a youth baseball coach in Hegewisch. | Sun-Times File Photo-Hegewisch Babe Ruth League photo
Updated: July 31, 2014 8:26AM
More than 150 people showed up at a Hegewisch banquet hall Wednesday night to support a slain Chicago police officer’s family who want to know why the man convicted of killing Officer John Mathews 26 years ago was allowed to coach a neighborhood baseball team.
“My father was killed with a baseball bat,” said John Mathews, one of the officer's sons, who lives in La Grange Park. “And Dean Chavez was teaching kids how to play baseball and swing a baseball bat.”
To make sure nothing like that happens again, the Mathews family demanded the board of the Hegewisch Babe Ruth league resign.
And after a nearly two-hour closed-door meeting, they did.
“The board has graciously announced they would resign their positions,” Joey Mathews, another son of the slain officer, told a crowd waiting outside the meeting shortly before 10 p.m.
Joey Mathews said he doesn't want to prevent Chavez, the man who killed his father, from getting involved in the community.
"There's other avenues he can take to become a productive member of society again, and I fully support him doing that," added Mathews, who works as a firefighter in Cicero.
Six board members resigned, said Ald. John Pope, who sat in on the closed-door negotiations. He said there was a "loss of faith," in the board.
Asked whether board members said they had conducted a required background check on Chavez before allowing him to volunteer, Pope said: "That's part of the debate, and that's part of the reason there's questions and that actions were taken tonight."
When the board was asked that question directly, some said yes and some said no, according to Pope.
"I wasn't intimately involved with that, so I don't know for certain whether [a background check] was or was not done," said Pope, who has an 11-year-old son who plays baseball.
Pope said that Chavez's background was no secret. "I think everyone knows about it," said Pope. "I wasn't aware there was a restriction there."
"I've spoken with Dean (Chavez)," Pope said. "It was agreed upon he would step down . . . he said he wanted to step down for the betterment of his family, the league and the entire community, he didn't want any more distractions."
Earlier, the room had broken into applause as Tina Francisco, 53, a lifelong friend of the Mathews’ family, spoke.
“We will never forgive,” she said. “And we will never forget.”
Mathews’ widow, Laura, and her three children — besides Joey, 30, and John, 29, there is a daughter, Anne, 32 — had reached out to the head of the national baseball organization to call for Chavez to be fired. All attended the meeting Wednesday night.
As Laura Mathews walked into a small room in the back of Steve’s Lounge to meet with board members, someone shouted, “We’re here for you, Laura,” and the crowd erupted in cheers of support.
Many in attendance wore Chicago police T-shirts. The tight-knit Far Southeast Side community is home to many police and firefighters. Joey Mathews sent a note out to the community via Facebook asking for support at the meeting, claiming that supporters of Chavez would also be there.
Chavez was not at the meeting, but some former players came out to support him. At one point the group of teens got into a shouting match with supporters of the Mathews family in the waiting room outside the closed-door meeting. The young Chavez backers were then kicked out.
About 20 police officers were assigned to patrol the corner outside the bar.
The Mathews family said they wanted the members of the board who hired Chavez to put in safeguards to prevent anything similar from happening in the future. Others in the crowd wanted the board that hired Chavez replaced.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him,” Laura Mathews said. “They knew what he had done. And they allowed him to be with kids. It’s not right. A convicted felon, a murderer, does not belong coaching children.”
Chavez, who lives in Hegewisch, could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.
Mathews was 27 when he was fatally beaten in a forest preserve near Wolf Lake in 1988. Chavez was one of five people accused in his death. Mathews was beaten so savagely that another officer who had seen him half an hour before the attack did not recognize Mathews’ body when it was discovered near the lake’s shore on May 21, 1988.
Mathews, who lived near the lake, apparently had gone to the scene after some youths, who had been ordered out of the preserve, refused to leave.
Chavez was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 27 years in prison in that case. He was in prison for 11 years and 9 months before being released in 2001, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Scott Jamrock, acting president of Hegewisch Babe Ruth, had told the Chicago Sun-Times earlier Wednesday he didn’t understand the sudden uproar — because the coach had been with the organization for years, and his criminal history was no secret.
“His past was very well known in the league and in the neighborhood,” Jamrock said.
Jamrock, who took over the presidency just last month, said the league and its board have law enforcement in its ranks. One of the league’s former presidents was a police detective, Jamrock said. Another was a retired firefighter. Two current coaches are police officers, Jamrock said.
Jamrock said he asked Dean Chavez to resign last month.
“When I actually became, officially, president, my first order of business was to remove him, and I did that,” Jamrock said.
Jamrock said he was acting under orders from the president of the national Babe Ruth organization.
“Basically, it was the complaints from the Mathews family,” Jamrock said. “They emailed us, asking us to remove [Chavez]. The thing you’ve got to understand is I’ve been acting president for a little over a month; that’s what I need to get out because everybody is bashing me over this.”
It's unclear to Joey Mathews why the community didn't speak up earlier about Chavez's involvement in the youth baseball program.
"There was an attempt to sweep it under the rug," he said. "If no one had ever told us, he'd still be coaching today."
But Jamrock said some viewed Chavez as a savior to the failing league when he came on board about six years ago.
“People saw a change in him,” said Jamrock, who said he’s been involved with the league for about three years. “They don’t see the bad. They see what he did for the league.”
But then in early June, Jamrock said, he began getting emails from Mathews’ family, who had recently found out that Chavez was coaching kids.
“It’s audacious of Dean himself,” said Joey Mathews. “It’s more egregious of the Babe Ruth ... board to ignore Dean’s history and to not inform parents who their kids were around.”
Mathews said his mother found out in June that Chavez had been coaching in the baseball league, then she told her son.
“I saw her smoking a cigarette for the first time in over 15 years, and I knew something was up,” Mathews said.
Mathews said he’s reached out repeatedly to the Babe Ruth organization and has never received a straight answer about how Chavez, with his criminal history, managed to get a position coaching kids.
When asked for her reaction to claims that Chavez has several supporters in the youth baseball league, Anne Mathews said, “I don’t know what they’re thinking.”
Francisco, who grew up with the Mathews family in Hegewisch, echoed the sentiment. “I don’t care if he’s been rehabilitated. I’m here to support the family.”
Harold Hanley, who was John Mathews’ partner on the police force, attended the meeting and said it was ridiculous Chavez got hired. “When I was a kid, coaches were sterling examples of manhood and fatherhood,” he said. “I can’t believe this happened. It’s outrageous.”
Joey Mathews said he still keeps his father close to him.
"I keep the checkered black and white strap that went around his police hat on the rearview mirror of my car," he said. "It's the first and last thing I see and touch when I get in and out of my car."