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Key figure in George Ryan’s fall dies at age 63

While working Gov. George Ryan’s inspector general’s office 1994 Russell Sonneveld made link between highway collisithleft six children dead bribery

While working in Gov. George Ryan’s inspector general’s office in 1994, Russell Sonneveld made the link between a highway collision that left six children dead and a bribery operation in a state driver’s license facility. Mr. Sonneveld died Tuesday.

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Updated: November 20, 2012 11:20AM

SPRINGFIELD — By any measure, to those who knew him, Russell Sonneveld was a hero who spoke the truth and played a major role in bringing down an Illinois governor.

Mr. Sonneveld was the first to make the pivotal connection between a bribe in former Secretary of State George Ryan’s office and the fiery 1994 crash that killed six Chicago-area children on a Milwaukee expressway.

Yet, despite driving the investigation that led to Ryan’s conviction and imprisonment for the licenses-for-bribes scandal, Mr. Sonneveld lived out his life with an improbable guilt of not having been able to do more to save the lives of the Rev. Duane and Janet Willis’ kids.

“That was on his conscience to the last day of his life,” said Ed Hammer, Mr. Sonneveld’s former partner in Ryan’s inspector general’s office. “We talked about it occasionally but not often. There were points in time he said to me, ‘We could’ve saved their lives. We could’ve stopped it before it happened.’ He felt guilt we couldn’t have done something sooner before the accident.”

But Hammer and, more importantly, Willis, the father of the family that died in that crash, completely reject any such talk and credit Mr. Sonneveld for bravely staring down one of Illinois’ most powerful men and getting at the truth.

“He did say that to us,” Willis said, recalling when he and his wife paid a final visit last summer to an ailing Mr. Sonneveld. “At that point, we assured him that he had done all that he could, that we were appreciative of it, and there had never been a second thought on our part. If it wasn’t for him, we’d never have gotten to the bottom of this thing.

“If I had a wall of heroes,” Willis continued, “Russ would be there.”

Mr. Sonneveld, 63, of Orland Park, died on Tuesday after a long battle with multiple myeloma, a form of cancer that afflicts the plasma cells in bone marrow.

A former cop with the Chicago Police Department and Illinois State Police, Mr. Sonneveld joined Ryan’s inspector general’s office in 1993. Not long into his job there, he began investigating a series of allegations that drivers licenses were being doled out in exchange for bribes at the south suburban McCook secretary of state office.

On Nov. 8, 1994, the day Ryan won a second term as secretary of state, the Willis crash captured headlines. While driving his family in a minivan on I-94 near Milwaukee, Willis struck a tail light assembly that had fallen off a truck ahead of him driven by Ricardo Guzman, a Mexican native who got his Illinois license at McCook.

The collision caused their Plymouth Voyager van to ignite, killing six of the Willis’ children, ranging in age from six months to 13. The couple managed to escape the van but could not save their children.

The next morning, Hammer said, Mr. Sonneveld immediately suspected there was “a high probability” that because Guzman didn’t speak English and that his application was processed by a woman under suspicion of accepting bribes at McCook, the truck driver may have illegally obtained his commercial drivers license.

Mr. Sonneveld and Hammer took their suspicions to Ryan’s inspector general, Dean Bauer, and requested permission to travel to Milwaukee to interview Guzman. But within a matter of hours, Bauer rejected the request and ordered them to shut down their investigation.

“I remember his anger,” Hammer said of Mr. Sonneveld upon learning they had been cut off at the knees by Ryan’s top aide and longtime friend from Kankakee.

Mr. Sonneveld and Hammer then quietly took their suspicions to a friend in the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago, effectively launching what would blossom into the Operation Safe Road investigation that led to more than 75 convictions over an eight-year period, including Ryan himself.

“I believe that if it wasn’t for Russ’ persistence that the case of George Ryan would have never gone anywhere and that the obstruction of justice Russ and I reported to the U.S. attorney’s office was the beginning of the case,” Hammer said.

Patrick Collins, the former federal prosecutor who led the Safe Road investigation, agreed.

“The Willis incident was the searing image of Safe Road, and it was Russ who really saw that at the very beginning,” Collins said.

Mr. Sonneveld demonstrated “real courage and bravery in a public servant. That’s my recollection of Russ,” he continued. “He didn’t want to be regarded as a whistleblower. There was just something about him that I chalked up to him not being a self-promoter. There was something incredibly decent and honorable about him. There was a sort of humility in him, an everyday hero who didn’t want credit for just doing what he was supposed to do.”

That heroism would later hurt Mr. Sonneveld. Ryan’s office took out its retribution by firing him in 1995 in what was characterized as a cost-costing move. Mr. Sonneveld never regained his job in the secretary of state’s office.

Mr. Sonneveld would go on to publicly speak out against his former boss, Ryan, demanding in an open letter published on Jan. 29, 2001, by the Chicago Sun-Times that the then-governor apologize for his actions and cover-ups. Ryan never did.

He is survived by his wife, Florine; son, Nathaniel; two brothers and a sister.

Visitation will be from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday at Zimmerman and Sandeman Funeral Home, 9900 W. 143rd St., Orland Park, with funeral services at 10:30 a.m. Saturday. Mr. Sonneveld will be buried at Good Shepherd Cemetery, Orland Park.

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