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The Life and Death of Blago Aide Christopher Kelly

THE LONG FALL: Christopher Kelly operated in the top circle of the Blagojevich administration, using his tough-guy style and disdain for rules to raise piles of money for the governor. Then the feds got on Kelly’s trail. Last September, he swallowed a deadly mixture of pills and poison. “Tell them they won,” he said with his dying breath

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Clarissa Flores-Buhelos, Kelly's married girlfriend and former Northwestern University basketball star, as shown on her driver's license
Clarissa Flores-Buhelos, Kelly’s married girlfriend and former Northwestern University basketball star, as shown on her driver’s licens
As the summer wound down, Kelly’s behavior turned erratic. By then he was living in a luxury Streeterville condominium with Flores-Buhelos. But he also was spending more and more time in a trailer he leased on the grounds of a storage yard where he kept construction equipment. He had laid out a sleeping bag on the floor and had brought in pictures of his three daughters.

At some point around this time, he paid a visit to the VLive nightclub, demanding to see the club’s financial books. “He wanted to know why the club’s going gangbusters and he’s not getting any money,” Peter Buhelos says. When the club owner refused, Kelly grew loud. (A representative of the nightclub, Norma Martinez, did not return calls to Chicago, but she acknowledged to a newspaper at the time that a confrontation had occurred.)

On the eve of the O’Hare bid-rigging trial, Monico called Kelly to tell him he would have to appear in court on another matter. The feds were trying to revoke his bond and send him to prison because of the nightclub altercation.

The motion shook Kelly. Until that point, he’d clung to his freedom while the legal cases played out. Now the feds were threatening to take away even that meager accommodation. “They were obviously playing hardball,” Monico says.

The motion was not granted, and Kelly stayed out of prison. But with his last days of freedom in apparent jeopardy, he decided to plead guilty to the bid-rigging charges. Outside the court before the September 8th plea hearing, sweating in the early September heat, his tone was ominous. “My life,” he said, “is over.”

* * *

That evening, around 7:30 p.m., Kelly called Flores-Buhelos’s cell phone. He had fallen asleep at the “yard” after taking some pills. Flores-Buhelos rushed to the site. Based on a later interview with her, Country Club Hills police pieced together the events: At the storage yard, the gate was locked, so Flores-Buhelos jumped the fence. She quickly spotted Kelly, who was wandering with a flashlight and “acting unusual.”

Flores-Buhelos called one of Kelly’s friends, Carlo Buonavolanto, and, over Kelly’s objections, they took him to Oak Forest Hospital of Cook County. But when they got to the emergency room entrance, Kelly, though groggy, appeared to be improving, so Flores-Buhelos and Buonavolanto decided to drive him home to the Streeterville condo. (Buonavolanto declined to speak with Chicago.)

On the way, they stopped at the storage yard to find the pills Kelly said he had taken. When she entered the trailer, Flores-Buhelos smelled an odor she thought was engine exhaust. Kelly admitted that he had hooked the trailer up to a hose from the tailpipe of one of his trucks and had left the truck running.

Later, at the condo, Flores-Buhelos found a letter hidden between her pillows. She didn’t read it at the time, she told police; she knew what it was about. She also told police that before she and Kelly went to bed, he promised he would never try to hurt himself again.

Three days later, on September 11, 2009, Kelly, Flores-Buhelos, and Buonavolanto met at Monico’s office for about two and a half hours to talk about getting Kelly psychiatric help. That afternoon, Flores-Buhelos received a text from Kelly: “I love 46” (a reference to the day they met). The next time she heard from him was the 10:15 message: “Come get me asap yard.”

This time when she arrived with Kelly at Oak Forest Hospital, Flores-Buhelos did not turn back. She had found him in his Cadillac Escalade, hunched over the wheel, his clothes soiled with vomit and feces. On the way to the hospital, Kelly told her repeatedly to slow down, that he was feeling sick. He said that he had taken aspirin, Tylenol PM, and rat poison.

At the hospital, Kelly seemed to stabilize, and doctors decided to move him to Stroger Hospital for dialysis. As ambulance workers tried to strap him down for the ride, he became combative. “No, C,” he said to Flores-Buhelos, using his pet name for her. “It’s my life. Tell them they won. Tell them they won.” At Stroger, the prognosis turned grave. Among the handful of people whom Flores-Buhelos met at the hospital was Kelly’s wife, Carmen. Late on the morning of September 12th, they were given word: Kelly was dead.

* * *

In the first raw hours after the news became public, the blogosphere lit up with conspiracy theories (“Shades of Vince Foster?” wondered one blogger, referring to the Clinton deputy White House counsel who in 1993 was found dead of a gunshot wound in a Virginia park; the death was ruled a suicide). The talk was fueled in part by a bizarre press conference held by the Country Club Hills mayor, Dwight Welch, who told reporters that Flores-Buhelos had “lawyered up” and was not cooperating with authorities. “The mayor’s a jackass,” Terry Gillespie, Flores-Buhelos’s lawyer, responded. “This girl’s best friend in life just died hours before. . . . She’s got nothing to hide, and she’s devastated by the whole thing.” (Two days later, Flores-Buhelos gave a full interview to the police.) The office of the Cook County medical examiner eventually ruled Kelly’s death a suicide, saying he had died after taking a combination of pain relievers and rat poison.

Less clear was why Kelly killed himself—though one person was not shy about offering his theory: “Chris Kelly took his life because of the pressure he was under,” Blagojevich said the day after Kelly’s death, speaking on a WLS-AM radio show from New York City, where he was plugging his new book. “He refused to lie about someone and not stand up for the truth.” Blagojevich added, “My friend Chris Kelly’s death will not be in vain.”

Almost to a person, however, legal experts have dismissed the notion that the government is to blame. In the first place, prosecutors would insist they weren’t asking Kelly to lie, as Blagojevich suggested, but simply to tell the truth. (The U.S. attorney’s office would not comment on Kelly’s death.) What’s more, legal experts point out that prosecutors in the Kelly case were simply doing what they’re supposed to do—using whatever tools they have to get a smaller fish so they can land a bigger one. “In most cases like this against a public official, a large amount of the evidence is going to come from people pleading guilty to testify against the person,” says the retired Cook County circuit and Illinois appellate court judge David Erickson.

Michael Monico stops short of blaming the government for his client’s suicide. “I can’t explain why [Kelly took his life],” Monico says. “I know he felt he was being treated unfairly, that he was being punished harshly.”

Still, is there a limit, ethically, to how hard the government should push? Did prosecutors really need to indict Kelly three times for corruption that essentially occurred during the same time period, thus ensuring far longer prison sentences? Several other members of Blagojevich’s inner circle have already either testified or agreed to cooperate, including Lon Monk, Tony Rezko, and the former chief of staff John Harris. Was Kelly’s testimony that crucial?

“The limit is really very ethically simple,” says Erickson. “You can bring whatever pressure” as long as you’re seeking the truth. “Was [Kelly’s] life destroyed? Well, gee, you can’t go gamble with money you don’t have. Should somebody like that be forced to suicide? Of course not.” But, he adds, “the U.S. attorney didn’t put [Kelly] in that situation.”

People who have been through that particular wringer, however, don’t see things as so cut-and-dried. “The pressures can be unbearable,” says the former Chicago city clerk James Laski, who pleaded guilty in 2006 to bribery charges in the federal probe of the city’s Hired Truck Program. “They’re experts in psychological warfare.”

How did he survive? “I coped with it by staying up late, drinking a lot of beer, and popping Valium,” says Laski, who debriefed prosecutors on the mechanics of the scheme. “You get to the point where you wonder if it’s overkill. I understand people have broken the public trust. But when is enough enough?”

* * *

The funeral mass for Chris Kelly took place on a warm mid-September day at St. John of the Cross, an angular brick church in Western Springs, a little more than 20 miles from the trailer where Kelly spent much of the last night of his life. The mourners included friends and family and members of the media, along with the man to whom Kelly’s fate was so intimately tied for the last dozen or so years of his life: Rod Blagojevich. The former governor, his wife, Patti, and his two daughters wiped away tears during the ceremony, which included a short eulogy by Kelly’s brother, Charles, a former federal prosecutor who now lives in Las Vegas.

I tried many times to persuade Charles to talk about his brother. I told him that I wanted to include the side of Chris Kelly that Charles gave voice to that day: a proud and doting father, a deeply loyal friend, a man the entire family was proud of. He declined each time, as did a family friend named Michael Allen, who was at Stroger Hospital the day Kelly died. Allen did write me a letter, though, explaining why he refused the opportunity to say nice things about a man about whom so many ugly things have been said and written.

“While I wish more people could have known Chris the way I did, I have to decline the invitation to speak with you,” Allen wrote. “I don’t believe an article, even if it’s thoughtfully penned, will change anyone’s mind about the man. Those of us who knew him can take comfort in who he really was. But for all the others, the ship of public opinion has sailed.”

In his final hours, Chris Kelly had appar­ently asked that the remarks made about him be kept brief. And so they were. “Christopher Kelly is at peace,” his brother summed up. “Nothing more. Nothing less.”

Liz Kalkowski provided additional research for this story.


Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo by Stacey Wescott


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