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Christopher Kelly leaves the Dirksen Federal Building last April after being arraigned on racketeering and extortion charges related to the indictment of Governor Rod Blagojevich. For more photos, see the gallery »
And now, the black gloom that is hopelessness settled down. The trailer—squat, bleak, windowless, penned in with chain-link fencing—loomed up from a weedy lot, as gray and desolate as a tombstone. Scattered within were an empty plastic milk jug, some bottles of aspirin and Tylenol PM, and an open box of rat poison, a few pebbles of which had spilled onto the floor and the ground outside.
The trailer also contained a sleeping bag next to photographs of three girls, the daughters of the man who was leasing the structure—the man who on this night, September 11, 2009, was rattling around inside, perhaps taking one last look at the best part of his life before gulping down the pills he hoped would obliterate the worst.
It was an incongruous tableau. After all, this was Christopher Kelly, the big, tough-talking high roller from Champaign who had bullied, blustered, and bluffed his way to the top of the Illinois political heap, a man who could bend the wills of other so-called power brokers: the business owners, the contractors, the North Shore fat cats, the old-money rich. Kelly, the 51-year-old fundraising machine with the sharp suits and sharper elbows, who wielded his gravelly, guttural voice as a blunt instrument to bludgeon or bless those currying government favor. You listened, and you liked it. And if you didn’t, fuck you. See the governor. See who he backed.
“Here was a guy who publicly kept himself out of the spotlight,” says Bob Arya, a senior adviser to the former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich from 2006 to 2008. “But behind the scenes . . . Let’s put it this way, you don’t raise that kind of money without busting a few balls. He was part of [Blagojevich’s] inner, inner circle, about as close to the sun as you can get.”
Those days were gone. Now Kelly was holing up on and off in this trailer near 173rd and Cicero. His marriage was on the rocks—he was shacking up in a downtown condo with his girlfriend, Clarissa Flores-Buhelos, a married woman two decades his junior. His roofing company was finished, officials having banned him from ever again doing business with the City of Chicago. A $2.1-million foreclosure notice had been filed on his gabled Burr Ridge mansion. The feds had indicted him three times in two years; he had pleaded guilty twice, and he was slated to go on trial with his old pal Blagojevich on the third set of charges. A decade or more of prison loomed. In fact, Kelly was expected to turn himself in within a few days. “My life is over,” he had admitted to reporters four days earlier, in a rare unguarded moment before the press.
Now the pills were taking hold. He vomited inside the trailer, then outside. He wobbled onto the gravel, shoeless, in a charcoal gray T-shirt and jeans, carrying a plastic Walmart bag filled with more pills. He lurched to his car, a big, black, gleaming Cadillac Escalade. He threw up again inside.
And then . . . he flipped open his cell phone, punched in a text message. The note sprang up on Clarissa Flores-Buhelos’s cell phone at 10:15 p.m. “Come get me asap yard,” it said.
Kelly managed to drive to the nearby parking lot of the Forest Lumber store, where Flores-Buhelos, having reached him on his cell, now raced. So he didn’t want to die? Almost there, she told him over and over. Almost there.
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He is a ghost now, whose name and death haunt the upcoming trial of Blagojevich, scheduled for June in U.S. district court here. Kelly will speak “from the grave,” Sam Adam Jr., the former governor’s lawyer, thundered at a press conference less than two weeks after Kelly’s death. He will do so, Adam said, by not speaking—by not flipping on his old boss, despite pressure so crushing that friends and family say he killed himself rather than testify.
Such loyalty would be in keeping with Kelly’s personality, says a former senior aide in the Blagojevich administration who clashed often with Kelly. “We didn’t always see eye to eye,” he told me. “But if he was your friend, he was your friend to the end. And if you were on his team, he was on your team, and he’d fight anybody for you. I think it showed that everybody else flipped on Rod except Kelly. He’d rather take his own life than rat out a friend.”
(Family, as well as numerous friends and associates, refused to talk on the record about Kelly, although some did confirm parts of this story and provide background. Of the more than a dozen people who were willing to talk, several—particularly those who remain politically active—insisted on anonymity, either because of the upcoming trial against Blagojevich or because they didn’t want their names associated with Kelly’s.)
As with everything in Kelly’s life, nothing is as simple as surfaces. “He was a man of contradictions,” says his lawyer, Michael Monico. “A very complicated man but a very simple man.” Indeed, the former senior aide says he abhorred much about Kelly—the things he did, the way he operated. And yet “even though I fought with him and I didn’t agree with him a lot of the time, even though I knew he was dangerous, I liked the guy.” To a person, supporters praise Kelly’s honesty, his reputation as a straight talker. But by the end, he had admitted to lying to the Internal Revenue Service about his income and to taking part in an O’Hare kickback scheme.
Perhaps the biggest contradiction was between Kelly’s role operating in the brightest and hottest of public spotlights and his meager boilerplate biography (which was often wrong). How could someone whose name appeared in so many newspaper columns remain such a cipher? Who was this man, and did he really, as the former insider suggests, take his own life rather than “rat out a friend”?
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Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images