Wallace’s Catfish Corner sits like a little candy-cane-colored Monopoly house on the corner of West Madison Street and California Avenue, about a mile west of the United Center, along a gritty stretch of blighted buildings with boarded windows and vacant lots blanketed in weeds, broken glass, and cigarette butts—in a part of the city that nobody could mistake for Boardwalk or Park Place. A deep-fried aroma wafts out of the restaurant into the parking lot. Inside, the sparse fast-food décor of the dining room, with its plain walls, faux wood paneling, and drab tables and chairs, belies the place’s liveliness. On Friday nights, in particular, the restaurant is usually packed with a mix of neighborhood folk and members of the West Side’s elite—politicians and pastors—who break bread, broker deals, and kibitz about life and politics over fried catfish fillets, jumbo shrimp, and barbecue rib tips.
On a couple of Friday nights and several lunch outings this past spring, I met some of the restaurant’s regulars. One by one, or in pairs or small groups, folks arrived—all of them African American, mostly men in their 50s and 60s, some older, some younger.
Wallace Davis, the gregarious owner of the namesake joint, is a lanky, talkative presence. He knows a lot about what’s going on in his community. People tend to confide in the 59-year-old former alderman, as if he were their bartender or hairdresser. On my visits, he introduces me to a bunch of old-timers sitting at tables who, he says, were friends with Michael Scott, himself a Catfish Corner regular. Although Scott’s death in November 2009 was ruled a suicide by the Cook County medical examiner and the Chicago Police Department, these people are on the frontlines of the Michael-Scott-was-murdered conspiracy theory. They are, by and large, revered members of the black community: political leaders, men of the cloth, neighborhood activists—pillars of the West Side. While their beliefs about Scott’s death are vague and often lacking in verifiable facts, they come across as thoughtful critics of the official story line, raising questions and offering details about Scott’s life, that—if true—provide, at the very least, additional context around his death.
Davis and others who don’t buy into the official line believe that Scott was the victim of a political murder made to look like suicide, carried out by shadowy forces loyal to Mayor Daley’s administration.
There are variations of this rubout theory, depending on whom you talk to, but the common thread is that Scott—the backroom fixer, the mayor’s trusted go-to guy—was killed because he knew too much about the supposed illicit dealings inside City Hall. “Folks think he had enough information to cause some people some problems,” says Cliff Kelley, a radio host and former South Side alderman.
Others suggest that Scott might have been killed for financial reasons. At the time of his death, they note, Scott was involved with a string of high-stakes development deals, some linked to the city’s 2016 Olympics bid, as well as a number of smaller-stakes projects in and around his home turf on the West Side. He also had an interest in a fast-food franchise that was bleeding money. A few people once close to Scott have said he may have had far murkier business dealings, including some with figures connected to the Russian Mafia who were trying to develop properties on the West Side. Suspicious minds wonder: Could his death have been connected to a disgruntled business partner? A deal of some sort gone bad? (Probate records reveal that various lenders have been seeking to collect more than $1.5 million from his estate.) “It could’ve come from a number of different angles,” says Davis. “Once you start seeing the puzzle—look out!”
It’s almost inevitable that when someone of Scott’s stature dies—especially under strange circumstances, as in this case—some people will believe something sinister has occurred. Conspiracy theorists were in full bloom after Scott’s death—particularly because it occurred only two months after Chris Kelly, one of governor Rod Blagojevich’s top advisers, swallowed a deadly mixture of aspirin, Tylenol PM, and rat poison; and just two years after the death of another prominent political operator, Orlando Jones, whose body was found next to a staircase leading to a sandy beach in Union Pier, Michigan. Jones, the godson of the late Cook County board president John Stroger, had a revolver in his hand and a bullet hole in his head. (At the time of their deaths, Kelly had pleaded guilty twice to tax charges and faced a third indictment in the Blagojevich corruption case, while Jones had been under a criminal investigation in Las Vegas for his role in a contract scheme at a public hospital run by a former Cook County official.)
In the cases of Kelly and Jones, there was little doubt about how they died. After ingesting the suicide cocktail that he concocted, Kelly had second thoughts and called his girlfriend for help. Jones, meanwhile, had left a note in his desk drawer instructing his wife on how to handle his affairs after his death.
But Scott’s apparent suicide sent a tremor through the city’s political establishment. It was out of character and out of the blue. Almost immediately, rumors of foul play took flight, told and retold on the Internet and talk radio. One caller on Cliff Kelley’s WVON-1450 morning talk show, for example, claimed that he had heard from a police officer who was at the death scene that Scott’s hands had been duct-taped together, execution-style, when investigators found him. Other suspicious minds sent the blogosphere buzzing—questioning, for instance, why the police ordered the crime scene cleaned up so quickly (by 8:30 a.m.) and why the medical examiner’s office ruled his death a suicide only a few hours after Scott’s body arrived for autopsy, before any of the other physical and ballistics evidence had been tested at the Illinois State Police crime lab. And within days of Scott’s death, a group of West Side ministers held a press conference claiming that Scott had been murdered and demanding that either the state police or the FBI investigate—in essence, declaring a vote of no confidence in the Chicago police and the medical examiner. “We want answers, and we want to know what happened,” declared Leonard Muhammed, the son-in-law of Louis Farrakhan.
Ironically, the talk of a conspiracy was fueled in part by the authorities themselves—due to a public spat involving Mayor Daley, the Chicago Police Department, and the Cook County medical examiner, Nancy Jones. It started when Daley lambasted Jones’s quick ruling of suicide—calling it premature and accusing her of trying to exploit Scott’s death for her own self-promotion. Jones, in turn, questioned the police’s handling of the case, specifically asking why officers moved Scott’s body without first notifying her office—technically a violation of state law, she said. The volley of charges and countercharges left an impression in some people’s minds that the cause of death was still in dispute, even though it wasn’t.
The theories have persisted, despite considerable evidence from the autopsy and the death scene, which authorities say proves Scott turned a gun on himself. “People think it’s a conspiracy,” says Richard Barnett, a longtime West Side community activist and political organizer, who was a friend of Scott’s. “Whether it is or not, people think it’s a conspiracy.”
At the Catfish Corner, I ask a foursome at one of the tables, “Does anybody here believe that it was suicide?”
“Hell no!” says Chuck Harris, a 79-year-old community activist and writer. “You ain’t gonna find nobody nowhere on the West Side [who believes that Scott killed himself]. You can go from the river to Mannheim, from Fullerton to 31st Street. You ain’t gonna find nobody!” The other diners around Harris’s table nod vigorously in agreement.
When they talk about Scott’s death—“the assassination,” as some truth seekers refer to it—they typically start with the obvious tropes: Scott was black, and black people don’t commit suicide; he was Roman Catholic, and Catholics don’t kill themselves; he had a lot to live for—a happy family life, an enviable career, countless friends and admirers—and such people don’t take their own lives.
Once the initial notion of implausibility is established—“He would never do it because of X, Y, and Z”—conspiracists usually move on to the second part of the argument: challenging and contradicting the police investigation (a whitewash, a stonewall) and the medical examiner’s autopsy (a rush job, a cover-up).
“The official story was a script,” declares Harris.
“Oh, man, please! They’re all involved with it,” Davis interrupts, adding that the authorities must have fabricated evidence to cover up the truth.
“What’s the truth?” I ask.
Davis stares at me dubiously, the way Jack Nicholson looked at Tom Cruise in their famous exchange in A Few Good Men, like I couldn’t handle the truth. Then he loosely sketches out the scenario that he and his fellow travelers believe: Scott was killed by a rogue police officer—or unit.
“They killed him,” he says animatedly.
Who are “they”?
“They,” in the universe of Scott conspiracists, are the secret squad of unnamed killers who are somehow connected politically to the Daley administration. “I’d start with the fifth floor and go to the graveyard and shake the grave,” says Davis, referring to the mayor’s office on the fifth floor of City Hall. Nate Benson, a longtime West Sider who was one of Scott’s close friends, agrees: “I do believe this goes up to City Hall. I’ll make that statement anytime, anywhere.”
One thing is clear from talking to the Catfish Corner crowd: Many of the folks there share a distaste—even a burning disdain—for the former mayor. They believe that Daley was so powerful and corrupt that he got away with murder—literally. Davis, for one, is so confident that Daley had something to do with Scott’s death that, at Scott’s funeral service, he recalls, “I walked up to him and told him, ‘Job well done, man.’”
Even if they agree that Daley wasn’t the triggerman, connecting the ex-mayor to Scott’s death is a scurrilous and audacious charge, unsupported by any evidence. But around Scott’s home turf, it’s given a lot of credence.
For those who believe that Daley somehow had a murderous hand in Scott’s death, the mayor’s announcement in September that he wouldn’t be seeking another term, his seventh, was the smoke that suggested fire. Scott’s killing had to be the reason, they figured. “You don’t walk away from that kind of authority and power,” says Davis. “Michael Scott was going to be wrapped around [Daley] like you would not believe, if he chose to run for reelection, ain’t no question about it.”
Others are more circumspect. Hunched over a plate of cabbage and greens, Danny Davis, the veteran West Side congressman (no relation to Wallace Davis), shakes his head and sighs. Scott’s death, he finally says, in between bites, is “stranger than fiction.” Davis continues: “It’s strange that two guys who cracked the political inner circle and were doing quite well at it, too”—meaning Scott and Orlando Jones—“ended up committing suicide.” At the same time, Davis is also of the view that people’s veneration of Scott could be getting in the way of accepting the facts about his death. “Some of our judgment,” he says, “is probably clouded because we don’t want it to be true.”
It also seems possible that people buy into a grand conspiracy because it allows them to blame Daley and the police—the city’s entire political apparatus, for that matter—for all of the real-life problems that have ravaged Scott’s home turf for decades. It’s easy to see why this narrative has endured. In North Lawndale—and across the West Side as a whole, for that matter—many residents don’t trust the government or the media, and they most certainly don’t trust the police. “It’s a total mistrust,” says Barnett. People here, he says, feel threatened, harassed, and discriminated against by law enforcement authorities, and they believe that police misconduct, even fatal police shootings, is virtually never punished. “Too much stuff happens in our community,” he says. “There’s an anger here.”
Much of the anger stems from feelings of neglect. North Lawndale is located just five miles west of the Loop, though it could just as well be 50 miles—even 500 miles—away, say longtime residents. Once a working-class neighborhood anchored by the world headquarters of Sears and several other big industrial facilities, North Lawndale today is plagued by homelessness, joblessness, and high crime. More than 45 percent of North Lawndale residents live in poverty. As the Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington observed: “For decades, the denizens of the city’s West Side have felt that they were the second-rate, also-ran stepchild of black Chicago.”
Many of the blacks here, especially the old-timers, recall the various black leaders in the city who rose to political prominence only to be killed or die unexpectedly in office. And the younger generations have heard all of the stories. Benjamin Lewis, a promising West Side alderman, was brutally murdered in his ward office on February 28, 1963, the night after he won reelection. Lewis was found bound in handcuffs, a smoldering cigarette still between his fingers, with three bullet holes in his head. (His murder remains unsolved.)
Lewis’s successor in the City Council, George Collins, died years later in a freak plane crash near Midway Airport that claimed the lives of 44 others. At the time of Collins’s death, in December 1972, he was serving in Congress. Then, of course, there’s Harold Washington, who more than a few in the city’s black community still believe was a victim of foul play, not a fatal heart attack. His sudden death on the morning of November 25, 1987, almost immediately gave rise to conspiracy theories that he had been poisoned—his murder then covered up by the police. Never mind that the 284-pound mayor was severely overweight and a longtime smoker.
To the Catfish Corner crowd, Scott’s death is merely the latest atrocity. “For many of us, Michael was our voice,” says one prominent West Sider, who did not want to be named in this article. “He was a voice for the voiceless.” Or, as Barnett puts it: “Michael was our guy.”
For many people, reports of Scott’s legal and business problems appear to corroborate the official narrative: He killed himself because he was in political hot water and financial trouble. Yet for those with a more conspiratorial mindset, Scott’s problems offer equally plausible motives—perhaps even better reasons—for why someone could have wanted him dead. They wonder: What terrible political secrets did Scott know that would make someone want to put a bullet through his head? Could he have been killed over money matters?
In the summer of 2009, just months before his death, Scott received a subpoena from a federal grand jury investigating clout-based admissions at the city’s elite selective enrollment schools. Separately, James Sullivan, the inspector general for Chicago Public Schools, launched his own probe into selective-enrollment admissions, as well as another inquiry into questionable charges that Scott and other staffers had made on CPS-issued credit cards. Around the same time, media reports also revealed that Scott was working with six West Side ministers to buy city-owned land, at $1 per lot, in Douglas Park near the site of the proposed cycling venue for the 2016 Olympics. Critics contended that the land values of those lots would almost surely skyrocket if the city got the Olympics and that, because Scott was a leading member of the city’s Olympic planning committee, his involvement was a conflict of interest.
On the Friday afternoon before his death on Sunday, Scott abruptly and inexplicably canceled his scheduled appointments for the rest of that day. (It was later reported that he had met, or was supposed to meet, with Sullivan to discuss Sullivan’s internal probe.) Scott’s driver told investigators that Scott asked to be taken home around 2 p.m. “because he forgot something.” The driver said Scott told him he would call if he decided to return to the office. He never called.
Wallace Davis says Scott came to see him at the Catfish Corner, in the late afternoon that day. Scott, says Davis, confided to him that he had been called to go in front of a grand jury first thing Monday morning to face questions about the feds’ probe into political favoritism at CPS. Davis says Scott asked for his advice. On this topic, Davis is as good a sounding board as anyone—he served three years in prison in the late 1980s on federal corruption charges for taking bribes and kickbacks.
Over a tray of fried shrimp—Scott’s favorite dish—and a six-pack of beer, Davis says, he explained to Scott how the grand jury process worked and warned him about the stiff penalties for perjury. He also informed Scott that if he refused to answer the grand jury’s questions, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, he could be jailed for contempt. With that, recalls Davis, Scott jokingly suggested, “What I should do is drink a fifth and tell them everything.” The two friends laughed. “He was as calm as he could be,” says Davis. On his way out, recalls Davis, Scott said he would stop by the restaurant again on Monday to let Davis know how the grand jury session went. “One thing he did say,” adds Davis. “He said he’s not going to prison for nobody.”
It’s unclear how serious, or how far along, the federal probe of CPS ever got. Randall Samborn, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago, which led the investigative effort in this area, declined to comment. In any case, no one so far has been charged with any wrongdoing. (In January 2010, Sullivan released the findings from his internal CPS inquiry. Among other things, he found that the board had, in fact, “improperly influenced” the selection process at the top schools.)
Through it all—the investigations, the bad press—Scott betrayed no sense that anything had changed in his life or that he might soon end it, say those who were close to him. On the legal front, he told close associates he felt confident he had not done anything wrong—at CPS, with the Olympic committee, or anywhere else. Benson recalls meeting Scott for lunch a couple of weeks before he died, to talk to him about his legal troubles: “I asked him not to go into any detail, but I said, ‘Mike, how do you feel about what’s going on with you?’” says Benson. “He said, ‘Nate, I’m gonna be okay.’ He never said, ‘I’m concerned about this or that.’ All he said was, ‘It’s gonna be okay. They can’t get me on nothing, because I ain’t doing nothing.’”
During this time, Scott told family members and certain close friends that he suspected the federal authorities were using the grand jury inquiry about the selective enrollment schools—ticky-tacky stuff by Chicago corruption standards—in an effort to pressure him to cooperate in their other investigations into the potentially corrupt backroom-dealmaking world of city politics. He believed that Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney, was looking for bigger fish to fry, namely a whale named Daley, with the zeal of Captain Ahab. The federal authorities, says Benson, “were trying to get something on people. They went to Michael, to push Michael to say this and that.” Scott, adds Benson, told him that he had met with the FBI but didn’t say what it was about, though Benson suspects it was about more than just selective-enrollment admissions. “I’m not sure how deep the story went,” he says. “He said he couldn’t go into detail, but he had talked to the people. He thought they understood what went down. He said, ‘I think I got it all taken care of.’”
But conspiracy theorists believe that while Scott might not have been worried about the looming legal probes, perhaps other powerful forces were. Those forces feared that Scott’s vast knowledge of the inner workings of City Hall could prove troublesome if he ever cooperated with the feds. “Michael was Daley’s right-hand man,” says Barnett. “Daley trusted Michael with stuff that he wouldn’t trust anyone else with, so people feel [Scott] got into something over his head—something he shouldn’t have known. And once the FBI started looking into stuff of his, folks were afraid it might go too far.”
On top of his legal troubles, Scott had also been struggling financially. Revelations of his worsening financial situation surfaced in the press about a year after his death. The shorthand version: Scott’s involvement in assorted real- estate ventures that failed to pan out—including two multibillion-dollar development projects—and a regrettable investment in a salad-and-soup chain, Salad Creations, left him in dire financial straits.
As with everything in Scott’s life—and death—the full story appears more complicated. To be sure, the housing market crash of 2008 was a tough blow to Scott, a developer. Several projects he was counting on either performed poorly or never got off the ground. But the city’s failure to land the 2016 Summer Olympics was like a hard gut-punch to Scott. “I think Michael was all in on the Olympics,” says a longtime City Hall insider, who asked to remain anonymous. And when Chicago lost out on the games, he continues, it “was like the deathblow.”
It’s unclear how many city-owned lots around Douglas Park Scott and the group of West Side ministers were seeking. Bob Fioretti, the 2nd Ward alderman, recalls that they asked him to sign off on 97 lots in his ward. Scott’s group had also sought several dozen more vacant lots in the wards of former aldermen Ed Smith and Sharon Dixon. Scott denied that he would have profited from the deal. He was simply helping out some folks in his community, he said. But even if he did have skin in the game, the plan was extremely low risk, high reward. Scott and the ministers did not have to put up any money or arrange prefinancing. And at a buck a pop, the up-front costs of the lots were virtually nil. If Chicago had gotten the Olympics, lining up financing would have been a breeze, and the values of the properties would have almost surely gone way up. So, essentially, he didn’t lose anything—other than a golden opportunity.
More significantly, Scott had been working as a consultant with Gerald Fogelson, the prominent developer behind the sprawling Central Station complex, who was vying to build the $1-billion-plus Olympic Village on the former site of Michael Reese Hospital. Scott was also working with Fogelson on an even bigger deal: a proposed $4 billion plan to build a condominium, hotel, and retail project along the lake between Museum Campus and Soldier Field. The development, called Gateway, was complex and highly political in nature, since it involved a controversial land swap between the developers and McPier, the government agency that runs McCormick Place and Navy Pier. As it happened, Scott was on the board of McPier during the negotiations, according to records and interviews.
The full extent of Scott’s involvement with Fogelson’s company is a bit murky. Scott shared office space at Fogelson Properties in the South Loop, and he had a company e-mail account. Fogelson’s company was also paying him $10,000 per month for consulting services, a contract that the company canceled in October 2009 (two weeks before he died), when Chicago’s Olympics bid ended.
Members of Scott’s family say that Scott had an equity stake in the projects beyond his role as a consultant, a claim that Fogelson denies. “He did some consulting for us,” says Fogelson. “But he was primarily my friend.” Scott’s family says Scott’s business ties to Fogelson could have even run deeper. They were shocked, for instance, when Fogelson told Scott’s wife, Diana, after Scott’s death that, in light of what happened, he would forgive a $100,000 loan that Scott hadn’t repaid. Asked about the loan, Fogelson declined to comment, saying only that “there are some things I won’t answer just because they’re personal.”
Either way, Scott’s involvement with Fogelson was a big leap from the kinds of smaller projects that he was used to developing on the West Side—analogous to moving up to the major leagues from PONY leagues. “He saw people were making money,” says the City Hall insider, a former friend of Scott’s. “He got knee-deep with Fogelson. I said to myself, ‘You’re swimming with sharks here.’” The insider also claims that federal prosecutors were at one time looking into Fogelson’s land-swap proposal with McPier and the company’s bid for the Olympic Village. (Samborn wouldn’t comment, except to say, “We don’t confirm or deny the existence of investigations.”)
Scott was working on other business ventures as well. He and a business partner, Phil Gershman, had sunk more than $2 million into their restaurant franchise Salad Creations, yet two out of the three restaurants closed before Scott’s death, and the third closed shortly afterward.
One of Scott’s longtime friends, Phil Krone, a respected political consultant in Chicago who died in August 2010, privately told people that he believed Scott was murdered by Russian mobsters whom Scott had gotten involved with on some West Side real-estate deals. “I know it had to do with those Russians,” Krone told confidants, according to the City Hall insider and Bob Fioretti, both of whom say Krone shared this theory with them. “Phil told me about Michael and the Russians a couple of days after [Scott’s] funeral,” recalls Fioretti, who adds that he has had a fair number of Russian “quote-unquote businessmen” come to see him in recent years about developing property in his ward, which extends into the West Side. “They came out of nowhere,” he says. “They had no banks, no support—all the red flags. You gotta be real skeptical of anybody coming in saying, ‘We don’t need a bank—we have cash.’” Fioretti says he refused to work with them. But did Scott? (A search of property records revealed no connection between Scott and Russian developers. That does not mean that there wasn’t one. Scott could have had a hidden interest in a development project, or projects, that wouldn’t turn up in the property records.)
People who were close to Scott insist that their friend would never take his own life because he was having financial troubles. Scott was a talented problem-solver, they say, and there wasn’t anything, as a savvy operator, he couldn’t forestall or maneuver around somehow. “I’ve never seen anything that suggested that Michael was in such deep financial trouble that he couldn’t figure his way out of,” says Danny Davis. Wallace Davis is more blunt: “So what if he had financial problems. He’d file bankruptcy, Chapter 13. Michael was too intelligent, you understand, to kill himself because he was in debt, or some bullshit like that. Man, please! That’s a joke!”
“Do you really want to get to the depth—D-E-P-T-H—of this?” Chuck Harris asks me, when we meet one weekday morning at Ruby’s Restaurant, formerly Edna’s, the legendary West Side soul food eatery. Harris speaks in the confrontational, impassioned voice of a muckraker, which is exactly what he is. For more than three decades Harris published a slew of neighborhood newspapers with militant-sounding titles, including Struggle, Truth Advocate, and First Chicago DC—“DC” being short for “Definitions and Contradictions.” He admits he is paranoid, and at his insistence, we sit alone in an empty private room in the back of the restaurant, away from the prying eyes in the crowded dining room.
When we had first met previously at the Catfish Corner a week or so earlier, he told me that he “knew some things” about Scott’s death that he insisted “would blow your mind.” Naturally, I was curious. But when we sat down at Ruby’s, he was more interested in hearing about what I had discovered from my own investigation into Scott’s death.
Harris—among others—is convinced that Scott was murdered by a rogue police officer, or unit, under the orders of powerful forces inside City Hall. When I ask him for substantiation of his claim, he insists, “The Chicago police department has always had—still now—a hit team. “During the sixties they were called the Red Squad.”
Chicago’s Red Squad, which was formally abolished in 1975, was established as a special unit within the police department in the 1920s, when it was known as the Industrial Unit and centered around spying on labor unions and so-called radical community organizations. In the 1950s, the unit investigated suspected Communist groups, hence earning the Red Squad moniker. In the sixties, the squad’s focus shifted to antiwar and civil rights groups, including 1968 Democratic National Convention protesters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Operation PUSH, according to a report by a Cook County grand jury that investigated the unit in 1975.
Harris and others are quick to point to other cases of police misconduct. There’s Jon Burge, of course, the notorious Chicago police commander who allegedly tortured scores of criminal suspects between 1972 and 1991, in order to force confessions. (Last year, Burge was found guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice and sentenced to 54 months in prison.) More recently, they mention Jerome Finnigan, the Chicago police officer in the special operations unit who, in April, pleaded guilty to a murder-for-hire plot against a fellow police officer, among other crimes. According to federal prosecutors, Finnigan was the ringleader of a small group of officers who made false arrests and robbed people’s homes, acting under the guise of doing legitimate police work. Harris and others posit: If Finnigan could plot to kill a cop, surely a bad apple on the police force could do it to Michael Scott. “I know I’m right!” he says. “It gnaws at me. It makes me angry, the things that I believe. It’s gonna bust this city wide open!”