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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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.
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.”
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Photograph: Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune