Monday, November 23, 2009

The plot thickens...

By David Heinzmann

I forget which one of my fellow bloggers told me a while back that when you have a book coming out—as I do next month--it’s acceptable to shamelessly self-promote for at least a couple months worth of posts here on the Outfit. But interesting Chicago crime stuff keeps happening that I think people might want to read about. This week is no different.

Last Monday morning, a little after 6 a.m., I was rudely awakened by an email on my phone that said: Michael Scott is dead. His body found under a bridge in River North.

I jumped out of bed and made a call to a source, and learned something new and chilling. Scott had a bullet in his head.

The last time I had talked to Michael Scott, a longtime close ally of Mayor Daley, he accused me of being out to get him. It wasn’t the first time he’d said it.

Over the summer, my coworker Todd Lighty and I wrote several stories about Scott’s real estate dealings, and their troubling connections to his role as president of the Chicago school board, as well as his position on Daley’s Olympic committee. We had two significant stories, first that Scott was angling to take control of city-owned vacant lots next to the West Side park where the Olympic cycling tracks would be built. The land was currently almost worthless, but if the $30 million Olympic complex was built, the condos and stores he planned to build could have been worth a fortune. Read the whole thing here,0,2216786.story… And we followed it a few weeks later with this story about Scott’s ties to an even bigger development, here,0,2667598.story

After our first story, Daley backed Scott, and Olympic officials initially said it was OK. But when I pressed them with questions about their conflict-of-interest policy, they eventually said it wasn’t OK, and made Scott sever his ties to the development.

It was an embarrassing summer for Scott, and it wasn’t getting any easier. Over the last couple of weeks, Lighty and I were planning to report another story—that Scott had billed the public schools for his $3,000 trip to Copenhagen to be with the Olympic team when the 2016 host city was chosen last month. An internal investigation over Scott’s use of his expense account had been percolating at the schools headquarters since Lighty filed a demand for documents eary this month.

But none of these problems seemed like something an experienced politico would kill himself over. While we dug for reasons last week, the murmurs from Scott’s friends grew louder that it couldn’t have been suicide. Somebody must have killed Scott.

The questions bubbled over toward the end of the week, after the Cook County Medical Examiner ruled the case was a suicide, and Chicago Police Supt. Jody Weis balked, saying the police investigation wasn’t ready to rule either way. Then some raving woman ran up to the Tribune Tower and heaved a brick through the plate glass of WGN's streetside studio. She was ranting that we were covering up Scott's murder.

Every cop I’ve talked to about the case, including some who were at the scene, has said this was definitely a suicide. Scott’s own gun. Gunshot residue on his hand. Little details, like the fact that he was left-handed and was shot in the left side of his head.

So why did he do it? I think we’ll be digging on that question for a while. It’s one Chicago’s more compelling mysteries at the moment. And that’s saying something.

I think all of the novelists on this blog would agree, sometimes it’s difficult to come up with plot lines that are stranger than the truth of what goes on in this town. I mean, Patti Blagojevich on reality TV in the jungle would have seemed like it was stretching things a bit if Christopher Buckley had made it up.

But then again, this can give us all a liberating measure of license. Who says it couldn’t happen? This is Chicago.

Oh, and by the way, the next time I blog will be three days shy of my Dec. 9 publication date. I promise (to myself) to shamelessly self-promote A Word to the Wise (AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER NOW!!!) then.


Michele Emrath said...

I'm a journalist by trade as well and I have to agree, fact is crazy. I read somewhere not to write too true to life - no one will believe it!
Thanks for the interesting take on the situation. I am jealous of your stature in the J-community that you got the night phone call about the murder that way! That IS the stuff of fiction!
Looking forward to checking out your book. (Self-promote all you want, we all understand: it's the only way these days!)


Sara Paretsky said...

Beyond the troubling issues around Scot's death is the fact that we so depend on good journalists to dig into what our public officials are up to. I don't know how we fund responsible journalism,when such a large segment of America would prefer to believe rumors, conspiracy theories, and outright lies. And I don't know how we buck the appetite for r's, Ct's and ol's. But I am grateful to people like you for continuing to dig and expose.

Barbara D'Amato said...

I'm glad you posted this. I've heard some rumblings, but to know somebody is digging into it is reassuring.

David Heinzmann said...

Thanks for the comments. Stories like this one come along every once in a while and make those of us in the newspaper business feel relevant for another ten minutes. And thanks, muchelle. Journalism "stature" can be misleading, though. I've seen great reporting work done at all levels of the business, and some times its the seemingly smaller stories, from the smaller news organizations, that can have the greatest direct impact on people's lives.

Michele Emrath said...

I'm sure stature is earned. Though I have to say, journalist, (teasingly) Muchelle? Really? You discerning eye should be more careful!


Sara Paretsky said...

There's a thoughtful and touching piece in this month's Harper's on the history of print journalism and its relationship to community identity
Also--the FBI watched Studs for 45 years!!

David Heinzmann said...

Michele. Very sorry. This is what I get for posting things on the web with a blackberry while playing candyland with a 5 year old. The Outfit regrets the error.