Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez


Published March 20, 2011


Staff Reporters

Seven years ago, Cook County prosecutors decided not to charge anyone in the violent death of David Koschman, saying it was because the Chicago Police Department didn’t know for sure who had pushed or punched the 21-year-old from Mount Prospect during a drunken confrontation after a night of bar-hopping on Rush Street.

Now that the police say they know who did it – Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko, a nephew of Mayor Daley and White House Chief of Staff William Daley – Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez says there still isn’t enough evidence to file criminal charges.

“After reviewing the CPD reports, we do not see any new or additional evidence or information that would enable the state’s attorney’s office to bring felony charges in this case,” Alvarez’s press secretary, Sally Daly, wrote in an e-mail. “Absent evidence that would enable us to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, there is not a good-faith basis to bring charges.”

Alvarez’s decision came after the Police Department recently reinvestigated the case, concluding that Vanecko threw the punch but that he acted in self-defense. The police closed the case “exceptionally,” without bringing it to Alvarez’s office to weigh whether charges should be filed.

But Alvarez agreed. A written statement from her office said the case would be tough to prove because five of the nine witnesses – including four Koschman friends – now contradict what they told the police seven years ago.

In the original police reports, detectives say the witnesses told them Koschman had run or lunged at Vanecko and three of his friends and got punched.

But in recent interviews, three of Koschman’s four friends who were with him, along with a bystander the state’s attorney’s office described as one of two “unbiased witnesses,” say they never told police the 5-foot-5, 140-pound Koschman was running or lunging at the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Vanecko and his group when he got punched. They say he wasn’t being physically aggressive, as police and prosecutors maintain. And, when detectives re-interviewed them in January, all four of Koschman’s friends agreed to take lie-detector tests to prove they’re telling the truth.

Still, Alvarez’s statement said: “The contradictory statements made by witnesses seven years after the actual incident do not allow us to discount the statements that those same witnesses made to Chicago police detectives during the course of the initial investigation and within weeks of the incident. At this time, we are unaware of any new evidence that would enable us to bring charges, and therefore we could not bring the case to a grand jury.”

Two well-known Chicago criminal-defense lawyers say there has always been enough evidence to file criminal charges in the case.

Richard Kling – who is also a law professor at IIT-Chicago Kent College of Law and once had Alvarez as a student – had told the Sun-Times prosecutors could have filed murder or involuntary manslaughter charges seven years ago.

On Friday, G. Flint Taylor – who has successfully sued the City of Chicago on behalf of prisoners who claimed to have been tortured into confessions by police detectives working under former Cmdr. Jon Burge – said that if a black man were implicated under similar circumstances, he would have been charged.

“It seems to me there’s a real possibility of a massive police cover-up here,” said Taylor. “If this person were a normal citizen, particularly an African-American person and not the nephew of the mayor of Chicago, he would have been indicted on a variety of charges – if not murder, involuntary manslaughter.

“Maybe there needs to be a special prosecutor,” Taylor said. U.S. Attorney “Patrick Fitzgerald’s office should look into this.”

Alvarez hasn’t responded to repeated interview requests over the last month to talk about Koschman’s death, which the Cook County medical examiner’s office ruled a homicide in 2004.

At the time, Alvarez was the chief of staff to then-Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine. Devine’s staff advised the police then that there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Vanecko.

The state’s attorney’s office’s seven-year-old files on the case have disappeared, according to Alvarez’s staff.

Devine is a longtime friend of the Daley family. Now in private law practice, Devine represents Vanecko’s older brother, Robert Vanecko, in a lawsuit stemming from $68 million that five city pension funds hired his firm to manage.

Alvarez has been in the state’s attorney’s office for more than two decades, starting there when Mayor Daley was the state’s attorney.

Koschman died May 6, 2004, of brain injuries suffered when the punch to his face sent him reeling backward, and he cracked his head on the street on Division Street at Dearborn in the early morning hours of April 25, 2004.

Koschman and his friends had just left a bar around 3 a.m. Koschman bumped into Craig Denham, 29, a then-LaSalle Bank official who was out with Vanecko and two married friends, Kevin and Bridget McCarthy.

Koschman and Denham began yelling and cursing. The argument ended when Vanecko punched Koschman, according to police reports that were recently released for the first time, in response to a public records request from the Sun-Times.

According to police, Vanecko and Denham ran away, taking a cab to a bar. The McCarthys were detained by police, who let them go after Kevin McCarthy told them he didn’t know the two men who ran off.

An ambulance rushed Koschman to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and detectives began interviewing witnesses. After talking with Kevin McCarthy and Michael Connolly – one of two bystanders – the investigation came to a two-week halt. It resumed four days after Koschman died.

Over the next 10 days, detectives interviewed Koschman’s four friends, Vanecko’s three friends and one of the two bystanders, Phillip Kohler, who’d been out drinking with Connolly, his co-worker.

Connolly and Kohler gave police conflicting accounts. Connolly said he told them Koschman hadn’t been physically aggressive, while Kohler told them Koschman charged into Vanecko’s group.

Kohler also told them he didn’t know anyone in Koschman’s or Vanecko’s group. Kohler now says he later realized that he and Vanecko had been high school classmates at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, graduating in 1992. They also had been on Loyola’s freshman wrestling team together.

Vanecko refused to talk with the police, though he did appear in a lineup on May 20, 2004, in which the police said no one was able to “positively identify” him.

Following the lineup, Darren O’Brien – then head of the state’s attorney’s felony review unit and still a member of Alvarez’s staff – met with detectives and advised them there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Vanecko.

“This was a case that had three major problems, in my opinion, before I could even think about pulling the trigger on charging anybody,” O’Brien said in a recent interview. “There was contrary information given about the contact that was made between somebody in Vanecko’s group and Koschman. Some people said it was a shove. Some people said it was a punch. . . I couldn’t find anybody that could identify the shover or pusher.”

Also, O’Brien said, Koschman’s friends “told me that Koschman – even though he was a little guy – when he was drinking, he was an aggressive type of personality. And, in this particular case, he was the aggressor. He would not let it go.”

While Koschman had bumped into Denham, he didn’t strike anyone, according to police reports and Sun-Times interviews.