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Cops’ vacation led to quick halt of Koschman probe

Cook County State's Attorney AnitAlvarez . | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez . | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 23, 2012 6:06PM

F acing the possibility of coming under scrutiny by a special prosecutor, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and the Chicago Police Department are, for the first time, offering an explanation for why, just hours into the case, detectives abruptly dropped the David Koschman investigation and didn’t pick it up again for 15 days:

The two detectives assigned to the case went on vacation.

Hours after detectives Rita O’Leary and Robert Clemens had learned that Koschman was in a coma, with a fractured skull and swollen brain, the police stopped talking with witnesses — apparently, a top police official now says, in hopes that Koschman would recover and would be able to talk with detectives about his confrontation with a man later identified as Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko, a nephew of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley.

As a result, detectives interviewed only two of the eight known witnesses in the 11 days before Koschman died. One of them was a Vanecko friend who lied to the police on two separate occasions, concealing Vanecko’s involvement. Friends who were with Koschman weren’t interviewed.

“It’s a sound investigative technique to interview the victim first, if possible,” says Dean Andrews, the police department’s deputy chief of detectives. “The detectives at the time were told Koschman was going to be in a medically induced coma for five days. It’s reasonable to believe that the detectives did not think this was going to turn into a fatality.”

Instead, Koschman’s grave condition only worsened while O’Leary and Clemens were on vacation, hospital records show. The 21-year-old part-time college student from Mount Prospect underwent surgery four times and never regained consciousness, dying on May 6, 2004.

It took four more days for the police to assign the case to a new team of detectives, as O’Leary and Clemens remained on vacation. The new team of detectives got the case on May 10, 2004 — the day the Cook County medical examiner ruled Koschman’s death a homicide.

Given how dire Koschman’s condition was, criminal justice experts question why the police waited to resume interviewing witnesses — including those who would ultimately reveal that Vanecko was involved in the drunken confrontation on Division Street that led to Koschman’s death.

“Did everybody miss the point that [Koschman] was gravely ill?” says Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “If you think somebody’s going to die, you should have a full-court press going that night.”

Koschman died as the result of a single punch. The night of the confrontation, the police classified what happened as a battery and assigned the case to the Area 3 detective division, then overseen by Cmdr. Michael Chasen, who has since retired. O’Leary and Clemens still work at Area 3, which is at Belmont and Western.

Chasen and O’Leary have declined to comment. Clemens hasn’t returned messages seeking comment.

Questions about the 15-day gap in the investigation first arose last March.

But no one provided an explanation until Jan. 31, when State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez cited the detectives’ vacation in a court filing. Andrews expanded on that short mention in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.

The court filing was a 46-page objection that Alvarez filed with Cook County Circuit Judge Michael Toomin to a request Nanci Koschman made in December seeking the appointment of a special prosecutor to re-examine her son’s death and the way the investigation was handled by police and prosecutors. The mother’s lawyers argue that an outside prosecutor is needed because Alvarez’s office has a conflict of interest in investigating conduct including that of current officials in the prosecutor’s office.

The Koschman request for a special prosecutor cited a series of Sun-Times reports, beginning Feb. 28, 2011, that have questioned how police and prosecutors handled the case. David Koschman and four friends had been out drinking in the Rush Street area when, during the early-morning hours of April 25, 2004, they bumped into Vanecko, then 29, and three of his friends. During an ensuing argument, Koschman was punched in the face. He fell, fracturing his skull on the pavement.

Vanecko ran away. He has never spoken with the police about what happened.

Still, after giving the case a new review after the Sun-Times sought records in the case, the police said last March 1 that they determined that Vanecko threw the only punch. Seven years earlier, they had said they couldn’t say for sure who punched Koschman.

But although the blow left Koschman mortally injured, the police decided that Vanecko shouldn’t be criminally charged, asserting that, even though the much-smaller Koschman hadn’t hit anyone, Vanecko acted in self-defense.

Six hours after the deadly confrontation, Koschman had just gotten out of emergency brain surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital when O’Leary and Clemens began investigating what happened.

O’Leary called Northwestern Memorial and was told by a nurse that Koschman was unconscious and in “critical but stable condition,” according to a report she filed three weeks later.

She and Clemens then went to the North Side home of Kevin D. McCarthy and his wife, Bridget Higgins McCarthy, who had been involved in the argument with Koschman.

After Koschman fell unconscious, the McCarthys were walking away when the police detained them and handcuffed Kevin McCarthy. Koschman’s friends told the police that McCarthy didn’t hit their friend but that both he and his wife were with two men who ran away.

When O’Leary and Clemens came to their home, McCarthy lied, telling the detectives that he and his wife came upon the confrontation and didn’t know anyone involved. Weeks later, McCarthy’s wife told the police that she and her husband actually had been with the two men who ran away, identifying them as Vanecko and Craig Denham.

After interviewing Kevin McCarthy, O’Leary called Koschman’s mother at the hospital. She said her son had a skull fracture and swelling in his brain and would be sedated for “at least the next five days.”

O’Leary then called Michael Connolly, one of two bystanders who happened upon the confrontation. He told her he saw Koschman “get ‘pushed or shoved’ from the group and fall to the ground.”

It was the last interview O’Leary and Clemens would do, police records show. Three days later, each went on vacation for three weeks, starting April 28, 2004, according to Alvarez’s court filing.

Koschman died May 6, 2004. The police investigation resumed on May 10, 2004, when detectives Ronald E. Yawger, Anthony Giralamo Jr., Edward Louis and Anthony Villardita took over the case from O’Leary and Clemens, who were still on vacation.

Here’s what happened in the weeks that followed, according to police reports:

May 10, 2004: Phillip Kohler, the other bystander who saw the incident, was interviewed by the police for the first time.

May 12, 2004: Koschman’s four friends were interviewed by detectives for the first time.

May 13, 2004: Bridget Higgins McCarthy — whose father Jack Higgins was a friend of then-Mayor Daley and also was the developer who built Chicago’s police headquarters — and her lawyer met with detectives. This was when she contradicted her husband’s earlier story, revealing that she and her husband were with Vanecko and Denham.

May 19, 2004: Kevin McCarthy and Denham — who later married a sister of Daley’s son-in-law — met with detectives and backed up what McCarthy’s wife had told them.

May 20, 2004: O’Leary, back from vacation, turned in a six-page report detailing what she and Clemens did on the case 25 days earlier.

Three hours later, Vanecko, McCarthy and Denham appeared in police lineups. No one could identify Vanecko, whose lawyer had told detectives Vanecko might talk with them that day. Instead, Vanecko left without speaking with the police. Assistant State’s Attorney Darren O’Brien — who was felony-review chief for then-State’s Attorney Richard Devine, a longtime Daley friend — interviewed several witnesses and told the police there wasn’t enough evidence to charge anyone in Koschman’s death.

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