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“I never imagined my dad dying the way he did,” says Michael Scott Jr., the son of Michael Scott, pictured here in August 2009, three months before his apparent suicide.
Dusk was creeping in on the crisp and overcast November Sunday when Michael Scott went missing. That afternoon, just as he did every Sunday, Scott, president of the Chicago Board of Education, left his home after lunch to visit his sister, Beryl, at the South Loop nursing home where she lived. On his way, he stopped at his favorite pizza place, Tomato Head on West Randolph Street, to pick up a small thin crust with sausage for her.
Scott’s usual Sunday routine ended there. Around 4:15 p.m., he left the nursing home. A nurse who saw him leave later told investigators that he seemed preoccupied. Normally, she said, the 60-year-old Scott, a natural schmoozer, chitchatted with the staff. But on this day, he left quickly, head down and in no mood for small talk. Then he disappeared.
When Scott didn’t come home after dark, his wife, Diana Palomar Scott, grew concerned. She tried repeatedly to reach her husband on his cell phone, but he didn’t pick up, which wasn’t like him. She called the nursing home, but he was long gone from there. She called Scott’s two adult children, Monique and Michael Jr., and some of her husband’s close friends. No one had heard from him. Fearing that he could have been in an accident or, worse, carjacked, Diana got in her car and drove toward the nursing home, searching the streets and alleyways for his blue Cadillac convertible. At 1:15 a.m., Diana, by then frantic with worry, called 911 to report that Scott was missing.
Members of a police search team fanned out across the Near West Side to look for Scott. They checked the morgue. They trudged from one hospital to the next—Rush, UIC, Mount Sinai, and others—canvassing emergency rooms.
Just before 3 a.m., according to police reports, with no solid clues, investigators contacted Scott’s cell phone carrier and asked to track his location using what is known as a ping search. Under Illinois law, police are supposed to first get court approval—through either a subpoena or a judge’s order—to obtain cell phone tracking records. But this missing-person search was far from routine. After all, this was Michael Scott: president of the nation’s third-largest school district, one of Chicago’s most prominent political figures, a member of practically every civic board imaginable, and, last but surely not least, the mayor’s close friend and trusted confidant of three decades. The paperwork could wait till morning. The phone company pinged a signal to Scott’s cell phone and triangulated a rough location based on its proximity to the cellular towers.
The search ultimately led detectives to a dark and foreboding place. In the dead of night, Wolf Point, the thumbnail-shaped piece of property owned by the Kennedy family and situated where the Chicago River forks north and south, has the eerie quality of a ghost town. A bustling industrial stretch of waterfront property during the city’s earliest years, Wolf Point now lies in the hulking shadow of the Chicago Apparel Center, in a lifeless part of the River North neighborhood—off the beaten path and accessible only by back streets. Punctuating this isolated landscape like an exclamation point is the Kinzie Street railroad drawbridge, unused for years, which stands at an 11 o’clock angle over the North Branch.
Not far from the bridge, on the river’s east bank, detectives found Scott’s Cadillac. It was parked in the loading dock area behind the Apparel Center, near a large blue trash bin. The car was empty, and the doors were locked. A parking ticket, written earlier that night by a Union Pacific Railroad police officer, was stuck to the window.
Several yards away, police found Scott’s cell phone—a BlackBerry issued by Chicago Public Schools—on a concrete embankment, just a few steps from a large bloom of blood splattered along the jagged, crumbling ledge. A single spent .38-caliber cartridge case lay in plain sight near a patch of weeds strewn with litter.
At 3:20 a.m., Scott was finally found, face-down, his body contorted and submerged from head to waist in the shallow water at the base of the bridge abutment, where beer bottles, Styrofoam cups, and twigs collect in a small pool of garbage stew. (Investigators later surmised that Scott had walked under the bridge’s cement and steel counterweight, descended the sloped embankment, sat down on the ledge above the river, and shot himself, plunging 15 feet into the water.) Beneath the shimmer of the water, officers spotted a stainless steel semiautomatic pistol under Scott’s body, wedged between his left arm and right leg. The gun was still cocked.
Not long after sunrise, in time for the Monday morning rush hour, things were already back to normal around Wolf Point. The crime scene tape had been taken down. Scott’s body had been whisked by police boat to the department’s marine headquarters, his car towed to the pound, and his splattered blood and bits of brain matter washed away.
Michael Scott’s apparent suicide stunned the city and baffled those who knew him well—or thought they did. Scott had always been a man of unshakable good spirits, with a twinkle in his hazel eyes and an easy smile. If he was under extreme duress, he had not shown it. Nor had he exhibited the classic signs of depression. Reacting to Scott’s death, the Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, who had seen him two weeks earlier, observed that he was “as upbeat as I’ve ever seen him” and “did not appear to be the kind of guy who thought life no longer had any purpose.”
Why, then, had this widely admired public servant—who seemed to have so much to live for—apparently taken his own life? Why no suicide note or any other clue pointing to whatever personal demons may have been tormenting him? Why did he choose such a forlorn location to kill himself? Nothing seemed to add up.
Though Scott’s death was quickly ruled a suicide by the Cook County medical examiner and, weeks later, by the Chicago Police Department, for his family and other close associates—especially his longtime friends from North Lawndale, the tight-knit West Side neighborhood where he was born and lived nearly his whole life—it remains an open wound and an unsolved mystery. Nearly two years after that bleak November day, members of his family, speaking publicly about the case for the first time, still cannot fathom—or accept—the official version of what authorities say happened. “It makes no sense,” says Scott’s 39-year-old daughter, Monique. Michael Jr., who is 35, adds, “I never imagined my dad dying the way he did.”
To his children, at least, Scott had good reasons not to kill himself. Just five months before his death, their mother—Scott’s former wife, Millicent—had died of cancer. How could their father leave them parentless, they wonder. Moreover, how could he leave no will or instructions about what to do with his business affairs or even his body? It just wasn’t like him. Compounding the mystery, they say, is the fact that their father’s $1 million life insurance policy was two weeks from maturing when he died. Because his death was ruled a suicide, the insurance company paid virtually no death-benefit claim, according to Scott’s family. In the end, says Monique, the insurance company sent her and her brother each a check for $35. She says she tore hers up. Their father would never have wanted it that way, they insist. “I just don’t see him leaving my brother and I hanging,” says Monique.
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Photography: (Scott) William De Shazer/Chicago Tribune; (bridge) Todd Urban