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Wallace’s Catfish Corner sits like a little candy-cane-colored Monopoly house on the corner of West Madison Street and California Avenue, about a mile west of the United Center, along a gritty stretch of blighted buildings with boarded windows and vacant lots blanketed in weeds, broken glass, and cigarette butts—in a part of the city that nobody could mistake for Boardwalk or Park Place. A deep-fried aroma wafts out of the restaurant into the parking lot. Inside, the sparse fast-food décor of the dining room, with its plain walls, faux wood paneling, and drab tables and chairs, belies the place’s liveliness. On Friday nights, in particular, the restaurant is usually packed with a mix of neighborhood folk and members of the West Side’s elite—politicians and pastors—who break bread, broker deals, and kibitz about life and politics over fried catfish fillets, jumbo shrimp, and barbecue rib tips.
On a couple of Friday nights and several lunch outings this past spring, I met some of the restaurant’s regulars. One by one, or in pairs or small groups, folks arrived—all of them African American, mostly men in their 50s and 60s, some older, some younger.
Wallace Davis, the gregarious owner of the namesake joint, is a lanky, talkative presence. He knows a lot about what’s going on in his community. People tend to confide in the 59-year-old former alderman, as if he were their bartender or hairdresser. On my visits, he introduces me to a bunch of old-timers sitting at tables who, he says, were friends with Michael Scott, himself a Catfish Corner regular. Although Scott’s death in November 2009 was ruled a suicide by the Cook County medical examiner and the Chicago Police Department, these people are on the frontlines of the Michael-Scott-was-murdered conspiracy theory. They are, by and large, revered members of the black community: political leaders, men of the cloth, neighborhood activists—pillars of the West Side. While their beliefs about Scott’s death are vague and often lacking in verifiable facts, they come across as thoughtful critics of the official story line, raising questions and offering details about Scott’s life, that—if true—provide, at the very least, additional context around his death.
Davis and others who don’t buy into the official line believe that Scott was the victim of a political murder made to look like suicide, carried out by shadowy forces loyal to Mayor Daley’s administration.
There are variations of this rubout theory, depending on whom you talk to, but the common thread is that Scott—the backroom fixer, the mayor’s trusted go-to guy—was killed because he knew too much about the supposed illicit dealings inside City Hall. “Folks think he had enough information to cause some people some problems,” says Cliff Kelley, a radio host and former South Side alderman.
Others suggest that Scott might have been killed for financial reasons. At the time of his death, they note, Scott was involved with a string of high-stakes development deals, some linked to the city’s 2016 Olympics bid, as well as a number of smaller-stakes projects in and around his home turf on the West Side. He also had an interest in a fast-food franchise that was bleeding money. A few people once close to Scott have said he may have had far murkier business dealings, including some with figures connected to the Russian Mafia who were trying to develop properties on the West Side. Suspicious minds wonder: Could his death have been connected to a disgruntled business partner? A deal of some sort gone bad? (Probate records reveal that various lenders have been seeking to collect more than $1.5 million from his estate.) “It could’ve come from a number of different angles,” says Davis. “Once you start seeing the puzzle—look out!”
It’s almost inevitable that when someone of Scott’s stature dies—especially under strange circumstances, as in this case—some people will believe something sinister has occurred. Conspiracy theorists were in full bloom after Scott’s death—particularly because it occurred only two months after Chris Kelly, one of governor Rod Blagojevich’s top advisers, swallowed a deadly mixture of aspirin, Tylenol PM, and rat poison; and just two years after the death of another prominent political operator, Orlando Jones, whose body was found next to a staircase leading to a sandy beach in Union Pier, Michigan. Jones, the godson of the late Cook County board president John Stroger, had a revolver in his hand and a bullet hole in his head. (At the time of their deaths, Kelly had pleaded guilty twice to tax charges and faced a third indictment in the Blagojevich corruption case, while Jones had been under a criminal investigation in Las Vegas for his role in a contract scheme at a public hospital run by a former Cook County official.)
In the cases of Kelly and Jones, there was little doubt about how they died. After ingesting the suicide cocktail that he concocted, Kelly had second thoughts and called his girlfriend for help. Jones, meanwhile, had left a note in his desk drawer instructing his wife on how to handle his affairs after his death.
But Scott’s apparent suicide sent a tremor through the city’s political establishment. It was out of character and out of the blue. Almost immediately, rumors of foul play took flight, told and retold on the Internet and talk radio. One caller on Cliff Kelley’s WVON-1450 morning talk show, for example, claimed that he had heard from a police officer who was at the death scene that Scott’s hands had been duct-taped together, execution-style, when investigators found him. Other suspicious minds sent the blogosphere buzzing—questioning, for instance, why the police ordered the crime scene cleaned up so quickly (by 8:30 a.m.) and why the medical examiner’s office ruled his death a suicide only a few hours after Scott’s body arrived for autopsy, before any of the other physical and ballistics evidence had been tested at the Illinois State Police crime lab. And within days of Scott’s death, a group of West Side ministers held a press conference claiming that Scott had been murdered and demanding that either the state police or the FBI investigate—in essence, declaring a vote of no confidence in the Chicago police and the medical examiner. “We want answers, and we want to know what happened,” declared Leonard Muhammed, the son-in-law of Louis Farrakhan.
Ironically, the talk of a conspiracy was fueled in part by the authorities themselves—due to a public spat involving Mayor Daley, the Chicago Police Department, and the Cook County medical examiner, Nancy Jones. It started when Daley lambasted Jones’s quick ruling of suicide—calling it premature and accusing her of trying to exploit Scott’s death for her own self-promotion. Jones, in turn, questioned the police’s handling of the case, specifically asking why officers moved Scott’s body without first notifying her office—technically a violation of state law, she said. The volley of charges and countercharges left an impression in some people’s minds that the cause of death was still in dispute, even though it wasn’t.
The theories have persisted, despite considerable evidence from the autopsy and the death scene, which authorities say proves Scott turned a gun on himself. “People think it’s a conspiracy,” says Richard Barnett, a longtime West Side community activist and political organizer, who was a friend of Scott’s. “Whether it is or not, people think it’s a conspiracy.”
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