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North Chicago cop wrong-way driver in fatal crash

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Updated: May 15, 2013 2:36AM

Just hours after he turned 35, an off-duty suburban cop allegedly drove the wrong way on Lake Shore Drive and crashed into opposing traffic — killing two people and shutting down the thoroughfare during Friday’s morning rush.

Chicago Police were investigating whether alcohol played a role in the 4:09 a.m. collision. Witnesses told police the wrong-way driver was traveling at least 60 mph in a 45-mph zone. Stunned motorists veered and flashed their lights to alert the driver he was traveling in the wrong direction.

The off-duty North Chicago officer was in serious condition Friday at Advocate Illinois Masonic Center.

“We just got home, our son is in surgery,” his father told the Chicago Sun-Times Friday evening. “Today is his birthday. Today is a real bad day for us.”

A former classmate described the officer as a do-gooder and “not a partier.”

The Sun-Times isn’t naming the officer because he has not been charged with a crime.

But he was immediately relieved of his police powers and placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the Chicago Police Department investigation, North Chicago Police Chief James Jackson said in a written statement.

“While it is important to note that [the officer] was off-duty at the time of the accident, we have absolutely no tolerance for officers whose actions fall outside the very laws they are asked to enforce,” Jackson said.

Jackson said the department was “extremely sadden[ed] to learn of ... his potential role in this morning’s fatal accident.”

Authorities said the North Chicago officer was the driver of a silver 2008 Chevrolet Trailblazer that traveled north in the southbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive and crashed into a Toyota Scion and a Jeep between Diversey and Belmont before dawn Friday.

The two men in the Jeep, Fabian Torres, 27, of the 2800 block of South Avers, and Joaquin Garcia, 25, of the 2200 block of West 18th Place, were pronounced dead, according to the medical examiner’s office.

Their families could not be reached for comment.

A 50-year-old woman driving the Toyota Scion was treated for injuries and released from Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

“Alcohol may have played a factor,’” said police spokesman John Mirabelli. Police Friday were investigating what role if any alcohol played, he said.

But Nathan Horton — a former high-school classmate of the officer — said he would be amazed if the officer was drunk.

“I think drinking is the question right now,” Horton said. “If so, that surprised me. ... I’ve never seen him intoxicated.”

“I’ve never known him to be a partier,” Horton added. “I don’t know if Lake Shore Drive was confusing for him.”

Horton described the officer as a do-gooder and “not a partier” who played football with neighborhood kids.

“He was real nice, almost too nice,” Horton said.

Police believe the driver of the Trailblazer got on the drive northbound at LaSalle, which means he would have passed at least one exit — at Fullerton — before crashing into the other two vehicles in the southbound lanes.

By 6 a.m. traffic heading into the Loop was backed up for miles as investigators moved between the wrecked metal and shattered plastic. One of the vehicles was toppled on its side.

Lake Shore Drive was closed for five hours as police processed the crumpled vehicles at the scene of the fatal accident. Lanes reopened shortly after 9 a.m.

To escape the backup, one impatient — and intrepid — Jeep driver went over a raised parkway, maneuvered between parked cars and broke free onto inner Lake Shore Drive as other drivers remained jammed up on outer Lake Shore Drive.

Jeff Lewis, 58, said his normal 15-minute commute turned into a one-hour ordeal after he entered Lake Shore Drive going north at North Avenue and hit a wall of drivers gaping at the accident in the southbound lanes.

He finally escaped on Montrose and was stuck in bumper-to-bumper westbound traffic on Wilson.

“There was no traffic management,” Lewis said. “I didn’t see any policemen directing traffic.”

Chicago Police spokesman Adam Collins responded that personnel from two police districts and traffic enforcement “responded to assist with traffic on city streets.”

But the department was forced to close Lake Shore Drive to investigate the double fatality, Collins said. The three crumpled vehicles stretched across the width of the southbound lanes had to photographed and processed as part of the investigation, police said.

Contributing: Stefano Esposito and Judy Masterson

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