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.

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MURDER, THEY WROTE »
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.”

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