New Details Emerge in the Death of Chicago School Board President Michael Scott

SHADOWS OF DOUBT: Nearly two years after Michael Scott turned up dead in the Chicago River, we reveal exclusive new details about his final hours—clues that only deepen the mystery of what really happened on that sad November day.

Chicago school board president Michael Scott
“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.
 

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Conspiracy theories surrounding Michael Scott’s 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.

* * *

Photography: (Scott) William De Shazer/Chicago Tribune; (bridge) Todd Urban

 

North Branch of the Chicago River where Scott's body was found
Police block off the area along the North Branch of the Chicago River where Scott’s body was found in the predawn hours on November 16, 2009.
 

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Conspiracy theories surrounding Michael Scott’s apparent suicide

Of course, Michael Scott was more than just a devoted family man. He was also that classic Chicago character, the consummate backroom insider and political fixer who blurred the boundary between public service and personal business. Over the years, Scott had successfully parlayed his political connections into lucrative consulting and real-estate careers, but by the fall of 2009 his complex dealings were starting to catch up with him. Several high-stakes real-estate plays—including ventures whose success hinged on the city landing the 2016 Summer Olympics—had blown up on him and his partners. A fast-food restaurant chain he had invested in was also hemorrhaging money. On the political front, Scott had become the target of official investigations that would eventually erupt into mini scandals. Did he see his life’s work and his proud reputation unraveling and choose suicide as an escape from his troubles?

For a certain segment of the city, particularly people from Scott’s home turf of North Lawndale, the answer to that question is an emphatic no. For them, this was no suicide. It was—and it remains—a whodunit. “It was Murder, She Wrote,” as Wallace Davis Jr., the former West Side alderman who now owns Wallace’s Catfish Corner in East Garfield Park, puts it. “I’m telling you—definitely a hit!”

Davis and others who buy into the conspiracy narrative point to Scott’s legal and financial troubles and conclude he must have been the victim of a political murder made to look like suicide, à la the Vince Foster conspiracy scenario, done because he knew too much—about possible illicit dealings in connection with the city’s Olympics bid, potential transgressions at any of the various local civic bodies on which he had served, or federal corruption investigations that threatened other powerful figures in Chicago. Or perhaps his demise came at the hands of a disgruntled business partner in some deal gone bad. People close to Scott say he conceivably could have had additional financial dealings with God knows who, including, it is whispered, figures from the Russian Mafia who were trying to snatch up real estate on the West Side. (For more on the conspiracy theories, click here.)

So persistent was such speculation that I decided to look deeper into the case to see if I could make any sense of it. My examination of police reports and interviews with members of Scott’s family, close friends, political allies, business associates, and investigators who worked on the case raise new questions about the thoroughness of the investigation and reveal a trove of new details surrounding Scott’s death—including the fact that he somehow spent the last hours of his life undetected in a city bristling with surveillance cameras and that one of his cell phones was somehow emptied of data shortly after he died. Additionally, I found that senior police officials might have interfered in the case for political purposes, allegedly ordering investigators not to look further into a call made to Scott by a top aide to Mayor Daley hours before Scott died.

The most intriguing, if enigmatic, clues: two text messages that Scott received from an unknown correspondent just before he disappeared and two texts he sent that appear to be connected. The content of those messages is unknown. But they were almost certainly the last communications Scott ever made.

Perhaps an explanation of these and other tantalizing pieces of evidence would not change the official finding that Scott committed suicide. Nor would it necessarily dissuade those who persist in believing that Scott was the victim of nefarious forces. In the end, the more I learned about Scott’s tangled life and sensational death, the more puzzling both became. Perhaps Enrico Mirabelli, the Scott family lawyer and a pallbearer at Scott’s funeral, sums it up best: “I don’t accept that he killed himself. And I don’t accept that he was murdered. I may never know why Michael Scott is not here.”

* * *

Photograph: Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune

 

Michael Scott's car
Scott’s Cadillac behind a boundary of tape at the crime scene
 

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Conspiracy theories surrounding Michael Scott’s apparent suicide

November 15, 2009: the final day of Michael Scott’s life began ordinarily enough. On that Sunday, he and Diana spent the morning catching up on their favorite television shows on their DVR. The couple had also spent the previous night quietly, eating in and watching TV. Toward the end of the morning, though, Scott’s BlackBerry started buzzing.

Jacquelyn Heard, Mayor Daley’s press secretary, called just after 11 a.m. to schedule a meeting for the next day about questionable charges that Scott and his staff had made on credit cards issued to them by the school board. He didn’t seem alarmed or upset by the call, family members say. Heard agreed. “The most perplexing thing to me was how absolutely normal he seemed to me just hours before this incredible tragedy,” she told reporters when she was asked about the call. Soon afterward, Scott talked to his daughter, Monique. He told her he was going to stop over later to see her and her brother and the grandkids—the two siblings live next door to each other in a townhouse complex on the West Side that Scott developed—and help Michael Jr. move his treadmill from the basement to his laundry room.

Around 2 p.m., Scott’s brother, Tracy, a Chicago firefighter, called to tell him that their sister, Beryl, was having a bad day. Three years younger than Michael, Beryl Scott became severely impaired after suffering a massive stroke in 2003, and her two brothers, particularly Michael, became her dedicated caretakers. Scott told Tracy that he was leaving soon to visit her. Right before he left, though, Scott sent a text to somebody—the police don’t know who. Moments later, an unknown correspondent texted Scott. Soon afterward, Scott kissed his wife goodbye, as usual, and left, promising on his way out to help her unload groceries when he got home that evening.

At the nursing home, Scott called Tracy and a cousin in New Orleans so they could talk to Beryl—normal, everyday stuff. As he was leaving, just after 4 p.m., he gave one of the nurses the leftover pizza—the public servant’s final act of kindness.

For some reason, Scott strayed from his normal route, heading toward River North instead of going home. As he drove south on Lower Wacker Drive, the same mysterious correspondent who had texted him an hour and a half earlier sent him another message, according to police reports. Scott then pulled over at an office building at Wacker and Randolph Street. A camera captured his Cadillac stopped on the side of the road, apparently so he could send a response to the same unknown recipient he had contacted earlier. Moments later, Scott’s car was captured on Upper Wacker Drive, going in the opposite direction—toward the desolate spot where he was later found dead.

* * *

Unable to sleep and still desperately dialing anyone she could think of who might have some clue to her husband’s whereabouts, Diana turned on the 5 a.m. newscast. Michael’s death was the lead story. (For whatever reason, the police had not notified her or other family members before the news broke on television.)

“After that,” recalls Michael Jr., “crazy stuff started happening.” Relatives, old friends, political dignitaries, and even near strangers rushed to Scott’s West Loop townhouse. So did a scrum of reporters, photographers, and television crews, who crowded the sidewalk outside the gated complex of 18 nearly identical red-and-tan-brick homes.

One of the first people to arrive, much to the surprise of the Scotts, was Ron Huberman, the chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools. Huberman had been heading up CPS since January 2009, after his predecessor, Arne Duncan, became the U.S. secretary of education. As part of the CPS shakeup, Mayor Daley asked Scott to return as board president, a job he had held from 2001 to 2006. Although Huberman, like Scott, was one of Daley’s favorite administrators, handpicked for several top jobs at City Hall, he and Scott never hit it off, by most accounts.

Evidently their relationship had deteriorated in the months prior to Scott’s death. Scott was annoyed that Huberman had asked the CPS inspector general to investigate the entire board—in particular Scott and his longtime aide, Greg Minniefield—to see if members had improperly influenced admissions at the city’s top selective enrollment schools. Tensions mounted, say family members, when Scott confronted Huberman that spring or early summer about having both a taxpayer-funded car and driver and a second CPS-leased vehicle for personal use, a perk previous CEOs did not have. Soon after that, when the inspector general began looking into credit card spending and charitable donations made by Scott and other board members, Scott suspected that Huberman was quietly behind it. (Both matters would eventually become small-scale scandals.)

So when Huberman showed up around 7 a.m., Scott’s family was a bit taken aback. Since he was the head of CPS, his visit was probably obligatory, they reasoned; they figured he would pay his respects quickly and go. But soon he began to intercede in an overbearing way that one family member says made them “uncomfortable,” as though he were trying to “manage” them. Huberman told the Scotts, for example, that he, not the family, would handle all communication with the police. Although they were troubled by that arrangement, they went along with it, largely because they were in shock and grief-stricken. “We were like zombies,” recalls Monique. “It was like we were sedated.”

Around midafternoon, Huberman drove the family to the medical examiner’s office and even stayed in the room when Diana, her sister, Michael Jr., and Tracy identified Scott’s body over a video monitor. “The whole thing was very strange,” says a family member.

Huberman declined to be quoted for this article. A source close to him says that Huberman was not trying to meddle in the police’s investigation. Rather, Huberman, a hands-on, type A personality who himself was a former police officer, was simply trying to help the Scotts get through a difficult situation. If his involvement made the family uncomfortable, he wasn’t aware of it. (According to family members, at one point that afternoon Diana told the mayor or somebody in his office that the family did not need or want Huberman involved any longer, and from then on he wasn’t.)

* * *

Photograph: Lane Christiansen/Chicago Tribune

 

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Conspiracy theories surrounding Michael Scott’s apparent suicide

Scott’s body arrived at the cook County medical examiner’s office fully clothed—in a gray sweater jacket, an orange short-sleeve polo, blue jeans, and black loafers. In his jacket pocket were a bullet and a car key. In life, Scott was handsome, with piercing hazel eyes, salt-and-pepper hair, and a well-groomed mustache that traced his upper lip. Now, in death, he lay on a metal table, his six-foot, 220-pound body splayed from the top of his chest to his hips, his skin cold to the touch. An autopsy showed that the gunshot wound had fractured his skull and torn through his brain. A small muzzle imprint encircled the entry wound, a half-inch hole four inches below the top of his headon the left side—meaning that the gun was in all likelihood pressed against his temple. A slit-shaped gash on the right side, two inches from the top of his head, marked where the bullet had exited.

Given that there was no evidence of a struggle or other injuries indicating that Scott had been assaulted, Mitra Kalelkar, the deputy chief medical examiner who performed the autopsy, ruled unequivocally that Scott had died from a “single contact-range, through-and-through” self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The police collected a cache of other evidence suggesting that Scott had turned the gun on himself. Nevertheless, Jody Weis, the police superintendent, insisted that details were too few to determine how Scott had died. He called for a deeper investigation. “We know what the [medical examiner] ruled, but there are still a lot of questions out there,” Weis told reporters. Police work, he maintained, isn’t the same as the investigations performed by the medical examiner’s office: “It’s like comparing apples to oranges.”

The medical examiner’s quick ruling of suicide—a decision lambasted by an emotional Mayor Daley as premature—coupled with the police department’s seeming reluctance to second the opinion only fueled the rumors that Scott had not died by his own hand.

But early on, the police had at least one perfectly valid reason for keeping the investigation open. When they pulled Scott’s body from the river, his money clip and identification were missing, leaving open the possibility he was the victim of a robbery. Eventually, police marine unit divers, using a high-powered light to cut through the murky water, found Scott’s silver-colored money clip about 15 feet from where his body had lain, in roughly 10 feet of water. (Police believe that Scott tossed the clip into the water before shooting himself.) The clip held Scott’s driver’s license, several credit cards, and receipts for meals at David Burke’s Primehouse, Opera, and Riva at Navy Pier. There was also $43 in cash. Robbery was ruled out.

Meanwhile, police tried to reconstruct Scott’s movements and state of mind in his last hours. They interviewed people who saw Scott just before he went missing. But the last people known to have seen him alive—a cashier at Tomato Head and a couple of nursing home employees—offered no fruitful leads. Searches of Scott’s office and his two laptops also yielded nothing.

According to police reports, detectives questioned a handful of witnesses who had been around the crime scene that night. An engineer at the Apparel Center told police that he saw Scott’s car parked behind the building’s rear loading dock around 4:50 p.m. A woman who was out walking her dog in the area spotted the empty car at 6:15 p.m. The same Apparel Center engineer saw it again at 10:30 p.m. Neither one saw Scott, though their accounts helped police establish a timeline.

Investigators also sought out and reviewed surveillance videos taken within the vast network of more than 10,000 interlinked city-operated and privately owned security cameras. But for all of the hype surrounding Chicago’s downtown surveillance grid, regarded as one of the best in the nation, Scott somehow eluded detection for all but an eight-minute span of the nearly 11 hours between his departure from the nursing home and the discovery of his body.

One camera captured Scott’s Cadillac at 4:27 p.m. in River North. He made a right turn from East Hubbard Street onto Lower Michigan Avenue and headed south on Lower Wacker Drive. When next a camera caught his car, several minutes later, he was driving in the opposite direction on Upper Wacker Drive, at Monroe Street. Finally, a third camera captured the car at 4:35 p.m., turning onto Orleans Street from Wacker and traveling north, roughly two blocks from where his body would be found. In all the videos, Scott was alone. The investigators also checked footage to see if he was being followed. It appeared that he wasn’t.

Meanwhile, other investigators spoke with employees at the Apparel Center and the East Bank Club, just across the street from the crime scene, to see if any security cameras on their buildings had recorded the shooting. None had. The engineer at the Apparel Center told detectives that the two cameras that face the rear loading dock—right where Scott had parked his car—hadn’t worked in years. Likewise, the manager of the East Bank Club said that a camera on the west end of the building that faced the scene of the shooting “was not properly connected” that night. According to police reports, five other cameras in the vicinity of the crime scene and linked into the city’s network were of no use, either; three did not offer views, and two others—including one nearest to the scene—had no archived footage for that night.

That left test results from the Illinois State Police’s crime lab as a source of possible clues. Toxicology tests came back negative for drugs and alcohol. Several other tests proved inconclusive. Because Scott wound up in the water, some evidence on his body had been contaminated. Forensics technicians who examined the gun and the live and spent cartridges could not recover fingerprints or usable DNA to match against Scott’s.

A ballistics analysis, including a test for gunshot residue, revealed microscopic traces of lead, antimony, and barium, which are unique to gunshot residue, on Scott’s left hand, indicating that Scott, a lefty, had fired the Sterling Arms 400 S Mark II found at the crime scene. Federal gun-tracing records showed that Scott owned the gun. A spent casing recovered at the scene also matched Scott’s weapon. To the police, the gunshot residue on his shooting hand all but confirmed that Scott had committed suicide.

While all of this was going on, detectives turned their attention again to Scott’s phone. To whom did he speak on the day he disappeared and in the preceding days? Whom did he call? Who called him? Did anyone who had spoken to him notice indications of depression or despair?

Interviews with callers and those whom Scott phoned shed no new light, according to the police reports and a detective who worked on the investigation but asked to remain anonymous. Most of the people interviewed, the detective says, either did not remember what they had discussed, did not recall anything extraordinary about their conversations, or said they had no clue about what might have been troubling Scott. Of course, the lack of revelation did not necessarily prove anything. “People tend not to tell the truth to the police, for whatever reason,” the detective says. “They want to protect the victim.”

But did police have something—or somebody—to protect as well?

The detective suggests as much. According to him, when the investigators who were combing through Scott’s phone logs traced a 13-minute call made to Scott on the morning he died back to Jacquelyn Heard, Mayor Daley’s press secretary, senior police officers told them to ignore it. “We were told it was ‘hands-off,’ not to pry into that one,” the detective says. “It would be taken care of by someone else—command staff or someone.”

(Because police initially refused to release any reports related to the case, claiming that the investigation was still ongoing, revelations of Heard’s call to Scott did not come out until after the case was closed, when the department finally relented to media prodding. The Sun-Times reported that Heard had called Scott to set up a meeting for the next day to discuss the credit card issue, a matter that the CPS inspector general had begun investigating months earlier.)

Heard did not respond to requests for comment. Commander Gary Yamashiroya, who oversees the Area 3 detective division, says there was nothing unusual about his department’s treatment of Heard. The investigative duties in the case were spread up and down the chain of command, he says, from rank-and-file detectives to sergeants and lieutenants. Senior officers, he adds, thought it best that the mayor’s aide be interviewed by a high-ranking officer.

* * *

 

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Conspiracy theories surrounding Michael Scott’s apparent suicide

The investigation dragged on until December 30, 2009, when the sergeant heading it up requested that the case be reclassified as a suicide. All of the evidence pointed toward only one scenario: Scott had turned a gun on himself. Case closed.

Indeed, the detective who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity says that he and his colleagues considered Scott’s death to be a cut-and-dried suicide from the very beginning. But this was also a “heater,” as he calls it, using police jargon for a headline-generating case, and the police brass wanted to make sure it looked as if they were carefully dotting i’s and crossing t’s and not jumping to conclusions, even though the outcome was as predetermined as a professional wrestling match. “For the majority of [detectives] here,” he says, “it was probably a ‘case closed’ within the first day, but the people upstairs were telling us how to be detectives. Things needed to be done.” The implication: The investigation was being drawn out because of Scott’s political status. “You’ve probably been around this town long enough—there’s a different class of people,” the detective says. A second detective who also worked on the case and requested anonymity agrees that the whole thing felt force-fed by the powers that be. “That was certainly the general thought,” he says.

The police department devoted significant resources and manpower to the Scott case—more by far than for typical missing-person and death investigations. Yet a review of the records suggests there were gaps in the investigation as well, leaving the impression that detectives may have been merely to be going through the motions, running through a checklist of required duties without following up on key points or asking some fundamental questions. Investigators never bothered, for example, to take fingerprints from Scott’s car. Nor did they interview the railroad police officer who had ticketed Scott’s vehicle only feet from where the shooting occurred. They didn’t question residents of the apartment complexes across the river from the crime scene to see if someone had seen or heard anything. There’s also no indication that the police ever searched the vicinity near the crime scene, in particular the Union Pacific train tunnel that runs under the Apparel Center and the Merchandise Mart. (Though several witnesses saw Scott’s parked car over the course of the evening, there was never any sign of Scott. One explanation, of course, is that he was already dead. Then again, could he possibly have been in the tunnel?)

Weis, who stepped down as superintendent in March, and Yamashiroya defend the police’s investigation and scoff at suggestions that it was treated as a fait accompli. “We reviewed every piece of evidence we could get our hands on,” says Weis. “It’s easy to say after the fact that you should’ve done all these things.”

Still, if police believed from the start that Scott had committed suicide, that could explain why they didn’t show more interest in the mysterious texts that Scott twice sent to an unknown recipient and the two incoming texts to his phone that seemed to be related.

Investigators tried calling the number of the recipient of Scott’s texts but got only a busy signal, indicating that the phone had likely been disconnected. The police reports suggest that investigators followed the trail no further. But Yamashiroya says they did, in fact, trace the number—to a “subscriber who was deceased at the time.”

Why would Scott be communicating with the dead? “It’s not my job to speculate,” Yamashiroya replies.

My search of Lexis-Nexis shows that a Chicago woman who died in October 2001 once had the phone number in question. Was this the deceased subscriber Yamashiroya was referring to? He wouldn’t say, but logic suggests that the number would have been reissued in the eight years since that person died. Indeed, a spokeswoman for AT&T says that the phone numbers distributed by her company are typically reissued 59 days after service is disconnected or cancelled. (Other carriers have similar policies.)

Seeking answers, I asked family members if they recognized the phone number of the mysterious recipient. They didn’t. Next I turned to an online service for locating people and tracking down phone numbers. Such a search can reveal a cell phone subscriber’s name, address, service provider, and sometimes even where the phone was bought. In this case, all that turned up was the name of the city where the most recent subscriber had registered the phone, suburban Willowbrook, and the carrier, New Cingular Wireless (now AT&T) of Burr Ridge. The phone was most likely bought with cash, which would help assure its owner of anonymity—calls on prepaid disposable phones are difficult, though not impossible, to trace. The phones, known as “burners,” can be bought and activated without signing a contract or undergoing a credit check. Users don’t even have to show any identification. Stores aren’t required to keep records of buyers. The phone companies don’t have to, either.

As for the messages that Scott received, Yamashiroya says they were automated texts, with a six-digit coded number, not a regular ten-digit phone number—meaning they were probably either marketing spam or mobile alerts of some sort. “It’s not possible to determine where [they] originated,” he says.

How, then, does he explain the strange timing of the two messages Scott sent—both within moments of receiving the two texts?

“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s unusual that they are associated like they are. But we didn’t think this was significant. What difference does it make?”

I remind him that whoever Scott texted was apparently the last person with whom he communicated.

“Our job is not to prove or disprove a conspiracy,” he says, “but to prove whether he killed himself or somebody killed him. [The texts] aren’t going to make this a murder.”

Now it is virtually impossible to view the messages. A spokeswoman for AT&T, Scott’s former carrier, says that the company does not retain copies of texts. Nor does it have access to messages that are stored on wireless devices. Yamashiroya says police normally would send a victim’s phone to the Chicago Regional Computer Forensic Laboratory for analysis and to try to recover data. For some reason, says Yamashiroya, Scott’s wasn’t. (A recent examination of the phone, which the family still has, revealed that no messages were still stored on it.)

Of course, the mystery texts could mean nothing. But given their timing and Scott’s subsequent actions, it seems that investigators might have been keenly interested in discovering their contents and their source. At the very least, police investigators could have initiated a ping search to determine the general location of the phone on the receiving end. Yet, according to the police reports, they didn’t.

Periodically throughout the investigation, Scott’s relatives grew frustrated in their perception that the police were not taking the possibility of homicide seriously. “I got the sense that they were investigating but didn’t get the sense that anybody [working on the case] was saying it wasn’t suicide,” says a family member.

The detectives I spoke with defend the investigation. They also point out that their duties do not typically extend to suicide cases. “You won’t find it written anywhere, but if it wasn’t murder, theoretically, it’s not our business anymore,” says the first detective.

Still, other peculiarities gnawed at the family. When Michael Jr. called the medical examiner’s office to collect his father’s possessions, he was told that the material had been picked up already. “Nobody in our family had ever picked it up,” he says. (At my request, Nancy Jones, the Cook County medical examiner, checked with her office to determine the whereabouts of the items. She said they had been signed for by police. Police did not confirm this by presstime.)

Then there’s what a mystery novelist might title The Case of the Suspiciously Erased Cell Phone. A second BlackBerry belonging to Scott, which he left at home on the day he went missing—and which his wife and daughter used throughout the night to look up phone numbers when they were searching for Scott—had somehow been erased as of the morning following his death. All of Scott’s contacts, his e-mails, his entire call history—“they were gone,” says Monique. “The phone had no information on it. Like, nothing.” How did that happen? And who, if anyone, was responsible?

“Who knows?” says Michael Jr. The simplest, most plausible explanation is that someone in the family who used the phone accidentally deleted all of the information stored on it. But to erase data on a BlackBerry, users must go through multiple steps, including typing in preset keywords, none of which anyone in the family recalls doing. Another explanation is more sinister: The phone was erased or hacked by someone who wanted to keep the information from prying eyes.

Cell phones, particularly smartphones like Scott’s BlackBerry, are vulnerable to the same sorts of hacking attacks as computers, experts say. Paris Hilton’s phone was famously hacked into, for example, and her calendar, photos, and contacts were posted all over the web. Similarly, an experienced technician could have gained backdoor access to the data on Scott’s phone.

Scott’s family considered hiring a private investigator to look into Scott’s death but ultimately opted against it. “We all wanted to know more,” recalls Monique. “But we thought maybe it would be better for our own safety not to pry.”

* * *

 

Scott's supporters
Stunned: Community leaders gathered at a church on the city’s West Side on November 18, 2009, to memorialize their native son and question the official ruling by authorities that Scott committed suicide.
 

Related:

MURDER, THEY WROTE »
Conspiracy theories surrounding Michael Scott’s apparent suicide

On a rainy day in april, Michael Jr. and Monique agree to meet me at Nookies in Lincoln Park, a diner half a block from the clothing and jewelry boutique that Monique owns. Michael Jr. looks eerily like his father, sans mustache—same eyes, same light skin tone, same boyish, slightly pudgy face, same big smile. Monique is all her mother, she says, darker, with intense eyes, and bedecked in the jewelry she makes herself.

Both say they are trying to move on with their lives. But the vexing questions about their dad’s death don’t allow closure. They have tried to understand. They have brooded over their father’s last hours, days, and weeks to see if they somehow missed any warning signs. They have read books on suicide. They have gone to the scene of his death to see it with their own eyes. But they’re still dumbfounded and can’t quite accept that he’s gone. When they speak of their father, they sometimes, perhaps unconsciously, use the present tense.

Maybe part of the reason they can’t move on is because the family remains caught in the financial quagmire that Scott left behind—a tangled web of debts: outstanding mortgage payments, unpaid credit card balances, and delinquent business loans. Probate records reveal that various lenders are seeking to collect more than $1.5 million from his estate, mostly for losses from the struggling fast-food franchise he co-owned. State records also show that one bank has foreclosed on at least one of the properties he owned, including the West Side townhouse where his sister-in-law from his first marriage lives. Other records indicate Scott owed thousands more in state taxes. “We were left with zero,” says Monique. “Zero! Nothing!”

Of all the nagging questions that remain unanswered, the siblings and others close to Scott are fixated on one in particular: Why would he choose to die in that strange, desolate, and seemingly random place? “I just can’t see him going down there,” says Monique. “He didn’t like the water. It’s dirty, with, like, rats and broken glass. I just can’t see him. For someone who liked to dress sharp, whose car was always clean—I just can’t get past it. You’re going to walk down to that murky, dirty water? Why didn’t he just go to his office? It’s closer [to Beryl’s nursing home]. Why not just do it in the car?”

Michael Jr. nods in agreement. Monique continues: “The Metra man walked in front of a train—at least that makes some sense,” she says, referring to Phil Pagano, the former executive director of Metra who was under criminal investigation when he stepped in front of a Metra commuter train near Crystal Lake last May.

Michael Jr. and Monique—as well as other family members who were interviewed but did not want to be quoted by name—have heard most, if not all, of the rumors and speculation about Michael Scott’s death. People still come up to them to share what they think happened, the siblings say. “I hear stuff all the time,” says Michael Jr. “Everybody’s got a theory.” Monique tells me about a woman who once came into her store and said she had been friends with her father and speculated that his death was somehow connected to the FBI sting operation involving Isaac Carothers, the West Side alderman who pleaded guilty last February to federal charges of bribery and tax evasion. (Starting in early 2008, Carothers wore a wire for the FBI for more than a year. Many political insiders think that the fallout from Carothers’s cooperation with the feds is still to come, and that Scott, a fellow West Sider with long ties to the former alderman, was somehow implicated.)

Michael Jr. has tried to tune out the noise. “I don’t listen to it,” he says. He doubts that his father committed suicide: “Let me say this, there are reasons to mistrust, and there are some discrepancies.” But, he adds, no one has been able to come up with a reasonable alternative theory to explain what happened. “Until somebody can prove something to me—either way— I’d like to remember my father the way the people on the West Side remember him: for all the things he did for the community, all the things he did for the city.”

Monique, on the other hand, is sure about what happened: “I know my father begged for his life—begged,” she says, tears welling in her eyes. “He wanted to live.”

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