Richard J. "R.J." Vanecko (second from left) with Chicago Police officers in a May 20, 2004, lineup in the David Koschman case.  | Chicago Police photo

Richard J. "R.J." Vanecko (second from left) with Chicago Police officers in a May 20, 2004, lineup in the David Koschman case. | Chicago Police photo


Published Nov. 21, 2011


Staff Reporters

When David Koschman died after being punched in the face during a drunken confrontation on Division Street in April 2004, his friends told the police he’d been hit by the tallest man in a group of people they’d run into that night.

Twenty-five days after the confrontation, detectives had six witnesses view a lineup that included the man suspected of punching Koschman: Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko, a nephew of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley and current White House Chief of Staff William Daley.

At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Vanecko had been the biggest man involved in the early-morning confrontation on April 25, 2004, records show.

But he wasn’t the tallest or the biggest in the police lineup held May 20, 2004, according to lineup photos that the Chicago Police Department released Friday – a lineup at which the police say no one could identify Vanecko.

For eight months, the Chicago Sun-Times had been seeking the release of the lineup photos under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Under the Daley administration, the police refused. The newspaper appealed, and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office told the department three months ago that the photos should be released, albeit with Vanecko’s face blurred or covered up because Vanecko was never charged in Koschman’s death.

On Friday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration released the lineup photos without blurring any images.

The witnesses’ failure to identify Vanecko was the key reason he wasn’t charged in Koschman’s death in 2004, the police and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office have said, even though a police reinvestigation of the case earlier this year concluded that Vanecko threw the deadly punch.

In the four lineup photos, Vanecko looks average-sized compared with the others in the lineup with him – five men, all of them Chicago cops, all of them heavier or taller than Vanecko.

Vanecko is wearing a dark, short-sleeved polo shirt and jeans – clothing nearly identical to four of the five officers in the lineup. The other officer has on jeans and a white, long-sleeved T-shirt, concealing the tattoos on his arms.

There’s one obvious difference between Vanecko and the officers in the lineup with him: The others all have full heads of hair. Vanecko, then 29, is balding.

None of the witnesses to the confrontation that claimed the life of Koschman – a 21-year-old who’d come in from Mount Prospect for a night on Rush Street with his friends – mentioned that the man who hit him was balding, according to detectives’ reports.

One of Koschman’s four friends who were with him that night, Shaun Hageline, told the police that the guy who punched Koschman was wearing a black hat. No one wore a hat in the Vanecko lineup.

When Hageline viewed the lineup, he incorrectly identified one of the police officers – Hugh Gallagly III, who was standing next to Vanecko – as the man who hit Koschman.

“The problem was that because we couldn’t identify him in a lineup, there was nothing they could do,” Hageline has told the Sun-Times.

Another Koschman friend, Scott Allen, has said that he believes he identified Vanecko in the lineup. But detectives reported that Allen identified Peter A. Kelly, the police officer who was wearing the white, long-sleeved T-shirt.

Kelly is a bodyguard on the Jerry Springer show and a five-time police department boxing champion. At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, even Kelly looks average-sized compared with the other three officers.

Koschman’s two other friends and two bystanders were unable to “positively identify anyone” in the lineup, according to a police report submitted nearly six months after the lineup held by detectives Ronald E. Yawger and Patrick J. Flynn, both of whom have since retired.

Law enforcement experts interviewed by the Sun-Times have described the Vanecko lineup as “nearly perfect” in that Vanecko and the “fillers” who appeared with him were all of similar age, height and weight. They said that if a witness could identify a suspect from such a lineup, it would improve the chances for a conviction. But they also said that a lineup filled with people who look so similar would make it difficult for witnesses to identify someone they saw only briefly.

State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez has called the witnesses’ failure to positively identify who hit Koschman “a fatal flaw” in trying to prosecute anyone.

The handling of the investigation by Alvarez’s office and by the police department has come under scrutiny by Joseph Ferguson, the city of Chicago’s inspector general.

Ferguson opened his investigation following Sun-Times reports that showed there were inconsistencies between what Koschman’s friends and one of the bystanders say they told detectives about the confrontation and what the police wrote in their reports.

The police pointed to statements from all of the witnesses in portraying the 5-foot-5, 140-pound Koschman as having been physically aggressive with the much larger Vanecko and a group of his friends.

Koschman’s friends – all of whom had recently turned 21 and attended high school with Koschman – and a bystander said Koschman traded obscenities with them but was never violent.

Eleven days after he was punched, Koschman died from the brain injuries he suffered when his head hit the pavement.

On the morning of May 20, 2004, two weeks after Koschman’s death, Vanecko and his lawyer, Terence Gillespie, came to Area 3 police headquarters at Belmont and Western for the lineup, which lasted about 15 minutes.

Vanecko chose to stand in the second position on the left – between two police officers who each weighed more than him and were dressed like him, in jeans and two-button polo shirts.

Retired detective Yawger told the Sun-Times last week that he didn’t tell any of the officers in the lineup – who ranged in age from 29 to 37 years old – what to wear.

“That’s how they showed up,” says Yawger.

Previously, Yawger said of the Vanecko lineup: “It’s a very difficult lineup to put together. It took me days to put that lineup together. You want them to all look the same.”

A second police lineup that witnesses also viewed included the two men who were with Vanecko the night of the confrontation with Koschman – Kevin McCarthy, then 29, and Craig Denham, then 31 – and a police detective, Stuart Tallen, who was much older. Tallen was 49 at the time.

That lineup also included Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Jesse Opdycke and two other men, Scott Elliott and Rolando Reyes, according to the police.

In the second lineup, the detectives’ reports say three of Koschman’s friends identified either Denham or McCarthy as having been at the scene. No one else could “positively identify anyone.”

Nobody in any of the lineup photos was wearing glasses. According to police reports, the deadly confrontation began when Koschman bumped into Denham and either knocked or flicked off Denham’s glasses.