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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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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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