Rhymefest’s gun charge arrest an issue in 20th ward campaign
BY MARK KONKOL Staff Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org March 30, 2011 8:02PM
Incumbent alderman Willie Cochran, left, will face Che "Rhymefest" Smith for a seat on Chicago's City Council's 20th Ward. They meet the Sun-Times Editorial Board on Thursday, March 10, 2011. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times
Updated: July 14, 2011 12:16AM
When debate turns to the trouble with curbing street violence, the political shots fired in the race for 20th Ward alderman get personal.
Ald. Willie Cochran points to an incident in April 2005 in which his opponent, Che “Rhymefest’’ Smith, was arrested and accused of shooting a gun after having an altercation with his real estate agent in Avon, Ind.
“Mr. Smith talked about his responsibility and accepting his responsibility. He’s a perfect case,’’ Cochran said during a recent Sun-Times editorial board meeting. Turning to the rapper who is trying to take his seat on the City Council, Cochran asks, “What could the councilman in Indiana have done to stop you from shooting?”
The incident has become a campaign issue in the 20th Ward runoff election Tuesday.
Smith was charged with criminal recklessness with a deadly weapon. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of criminal recklessness and was sentenced to probation and community service, which he successfully completed in June 2006.
The victim was Corbin Stahl of Jamestown, Ind. He represented Smith in the purchase of a house in Avon, a deal finalized on the day of Smith’s arrest. When Stahl heard that Smith was running for alderman in Chicago he reached out to the Chicago Sun-Times to tell his side of the shooting story.
“I’m not trying to bash someone just to bash him,” Stahl said. “This is a very extremely racist person and people like that should not be in public office. I saw he was going for office and he’s definitely the wrong person for that. . . . The guy’s a punk.”
Smith and Stahl have different versions of how their conflict escalated to a 911 call of shots fired, but the outcome — Smith’s arrest and subsequent guilty plea — remain on the aldermanic candidate’s criminal record.
After the house sale closing, Stahl said Smith’s mother, Elizabeth Kennedy, asked him to move fish tanks to the new house, which he says he did.
When contacted by phone on Tuesday, Kennedy denied Stahl moved the tanks to the house. And Smith said Stahl showed up at his house uninvited and spoke to him in a threatening manner.
Avon Police reports are vague on what led to the “verbal and physical altercation.’’ But Smith says it started because he and Stahl had a dispute over the final amount of monthly payments on his mortgage.
Stahl tells a different story.
“I dropped off the fish tanks and asked him why I was helping his mom and he wasn’t,” Stahl said. “Then, [Smith] said, ‘Get up out of here white boy.’ Right to me.”
Stahl contends that Smith got in his face, so close that the rapper’s scruffy beard rubbed against his cheek.
“I hit him right in his jaw, and I picked him up and was going to throw him over the banister but decided against it,” Stahl said. “He said, ‘You better be outta hear white boy when I get back’ and went into the house. When he came back outside he fired a pistol at my truck.”
According to Avon Police reports, Smith told officers that after Stahl punched him, he felt threatened and told Stahl he was going inside to “gets something.” Smith claims Stahl said he was “going to his truck to get something.”
Stahl, who was not charged with a crime in the incident, denied that claim and said he does not have firearms.
Smith went into the house, got a pistol that was registered to his mother and fired two shots in the air from the porch, according to the police reports.
“Why grab a gun and shoot it? Because I was assaulted on my property. . . . I was frightened,” Smith said. “He came into my home and told me he don’t like the way I spoke to him at the mortgage office. . . . He lost control and hit me in the face. I was scared. I was defending my family.”
Police confiscated a loaded pistol that belonged to Kennedy and bullets. Smith was taken to the hospital after complaining about pain from being punched in the jaw and later was taken into custody.
Smith says that he’s not a racist, he wasn’t the aggressor in the incident with Stahl and he has taken responsibility for his actions nearly six years ago. He said the campaign leading to the April runoff election should focus on issues facing the ward, not his past.
“This should not bar me from being alderman. . . . I took personal responsibility for all I do in life. I pleaded guilty to a charge that was the truth. I was not shooting at anyone,” Smith said. “They would have charged me with far more serious charges if I shot at someone, especially in Avon, Ind. It was shooting in the air. . . . That’s the evidence of what they found happened.”
In October 2008, Smith lost the Avon house in foreclosure. He owed Deutsche Bank National Trust $257,315, according to court records.
Smith’s past arrests — he also was convicted of domestic violence in 2001 — and financial troubles are legitimate campaign issues, Cochran said.
“Foreclosures and an environment of violence are some of the things that plague our community right now. It’s unfortunate that I’m being criticized for crime and the number of homes boarded up [due to] foreclosure in the ward when my opponent has experienced the same things and has contributed to those problems,” Cochran said.
Smith says he’s not unlike so many Americans who have dealt with foreclosure.
“People who are professionals and budget their money responsibly have dealt with foreclosures. Rhymefest has dealt with foreclosure. And having dealt with it, I’ve learned what to do to avoid foreclosure,” Smith said. “Not only have I experienced it but have bounced back from it.”