A Mugging on Lake Street

FROM SEPTEMBER 2009: A veteran investigative reporter looks into his own beating and finds himself confronting harsh and lingering questions of race

(page 4 of 6)

As weeks passed, I had plenty of other things on my mind. My knee still throbbed, and I started physical therapy, the willful self-infliction of pain in hope of recovery. Hockey season approached—I had been playing nine months a year in a no-checking, no-slap-shots game—and I hoped I’d be back on the ice in the autumn. But recovery proved slow. When the rink opened, I discovered I could skate, but if I went down, I could hardly get up. The pain from bending the knee to stand made my eyes water. It wasn’t the first time that I hated Larry and wished to inflict similar pain on him.

By late August, I’d heard nothing about a meeting. In response to my query, I got a call on September 3rd from Dee Carroll, an assistant state’s attorney serving in the victims’ assistance program. She told me that Larry and his mother had come to see a probation officer on August 11th and they’d reported that Larry had moved to a distant southern suburb. The probation officer, knowing that there was no mediation center nearby, had simply changed the original order, giving Larry “informal supervision.” Carroll told me that she’d told the probation department that this was not good enough, that sitting down with me was a condition of Larry’s diversion. She assured me that I’d be hearing about that soon.

* * *

The mediation was set for 9:30 a.m. on October 21st at the Center for Conflict Resolution, a not-for-profit organization in the Loop. As the date approached, I asked various friends what they’d say to Larry. “What the hell were you thinking?” was a common theme. One of my fellow hockey players, a Baptist minister named Dave Steinhart, had a different take. “It depends on how much you’re willing to invest in this kid,” he said. I told him I wasn’t there yet. I felt robbed, hobbled, and wronged—forgiveness wasn’t high on my agenda and investment hadn’t even occurred to me.

 At the appointed hour, the mediator, Daniel Aaronson, an attorney, met me in the center’s outer office and walked me into a small meeting room, where Larry and his mother were sitting at a table. Larry was about six feet two, 175 pounds—my height but a little heavier—short haired, clean-shaven, casually dressed. He wore a black jacket with white sleeves, the front emblazoned with hockey sticks (I thought we might have the sport in common, but he later told me that the coat was simply in fashion). I had no flash of recognition, no internal voice that said, “This is one of the kids from that street corner.” His mother, whom I’ll call Doris to protect her son’s identity, wore a black leather jacket and looked to be in her mid- to late 30s. I was tense, having lost a great deal of enthusiasm for the meeting the closer it got.

Aaronson asked me to explain why we were here. I described what had happened on Lake Street and at the hospital, and my daughter’s reaction to my face. I pulled out the photographs and described the problem with my knee, which, it had now been determined, would need surgery. I explained what I did for a living, hoping to impress on Larry that if he ended up in prison someday for a crime he didn’t commit, people like me might help get him out. I told how the fireman had urged me to lie, and others, black and white, suggested I’d been attacked because of my race.

Larry sat still for all of this, his eyes downcast. Aaronson asked him to reply. “Wasn’t no motive,” he said quietly, his voice hardly carrying to Aaronson’s end of the table. “Nothin’ like that.” He was hesitant, didn’t seem to be able to look at me directly, and there was no trace of cockiness or street toughness. “We was playing basketball at school, and then we got off the train, and one of the guys said, ‘Let’s do somethin’.’ ‘Like what?’ ‘Like beat up somebody.’ Thirty seconds later you came riding by on your bike.”

Larry maintained that he wasn’t the guy who’d hit me. He said that he hadn’t objected to the plan, and that afterward he had just run away with the others. “Seeing the way it happened, I had no feeling. Didn’t know what to feel.” The whole thing had nothing to do with race, he said. “If it was any other person in that state of mind we was in as a group, it would have happened to anyone. . . . Really wasn’t no reason. Just kids doing kids.”

“Why didn’t you steal anything?” I asked.

“Wasn’t part of the plan.”

Larry said that when the group was standing around afterward, a few blocks away, two police cars suddenly pulled up. He said he was arrested because he was the only one of the group who ran.

Doris said she was at the beauty parlor when the police called. Like my African American Samaritan, she said she was a Christian. She said she didn’t divide humanity by race and hadn’t raised her son to do anything like this. She said she’d sent him to live with his uncle in a south suburb in order to get him away from his gang-ridden neighborhood and the kids he was hanging out with.

I asked Larry about his sentence. Because there is no diversion program in his town, he said, the probation officer “gave me like probation. Said I had to call in every three months.”

Aaronson next met privately with each side. In order to close the case, he said, we all had to work out a resolution to submit to the state’s attorney’s office. If Larry later reneged, the prosecutor’s office could reopen his case.

“Do you want money?” Aaronson asked when we were alone. I could have used some, but I didn’t think it was going to come from Larry, and asking a West Side mom for reimbursement didn’t seem right. An editor at this magazine had already called, suggesting an article, and I’d also considered doing something for the radio, so I said that what I’d like to get would be tape-recorded interviews with Larry and his mother.

When we reconvened, I explained that I wouldn’t use their real names in whatever I did, and I wouldn’t make those interviews a requirement of closing the case because imposing that requirement in the report to the state’s attorney would mean the interviews were coerced. I asked Larry to look into his heart, see if he could do this, and, if so, give me his word as a man that he’d follow through. He did, and also promised to help connect me with the guy he claimed had knocked me out. Doris gave her word that she’d be interviewed. Both agreed to work with me to get the police documents (otherwise unavailable because it was a juvenile matter), and that was the sole piece of business we entered on the resolution form.

We exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses and shook hands. Then Doris stunned me by asking if she could keep the two photos I’d laid on the table. I handed them over, imagining them posted on her refrigerator as a reminder to Larry of what he’d done. Doris, I thought, really understood, and she’d make him take it in.

I left feeling somewhat whole. During the session, Larry had yawned, stretched, and cleaned his fingernails with a pen, but he’d also said he regretted being part of the incident. I thought he had learned something. When his mother had asked him how he’d feel in my shoes, he’d said, “I’d be filled with hate.” I’d asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I want to play in the NBA,” he said. I later learned that in his two years of high school he’d passed a total of one class. Clearly I was better off, even unemployed, than he was or might ever be.

A friend of mine, a retired Chicago police officer, ripped into me when I told him all this. Larry, he wrote in an e-mail, was “most likely NOT sorry. Remorse after arrest is an affect. Cops see it all the time, and it infuriates them, particularly when good people try to see good in the very people who victimize them.”

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