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.
* * *
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”?
* * *
Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images
The few articles that have delved into Kelly’s life beyond his legal troubles have cast his ascent to the upper reaches of Illinois politics as unlikely, because of both his supposed blue-collar beginnings and the way he staked his claim: as the owner of an obscure South Side roofing company. The reality is, Kelly grew up as part of a large Irish Catholic family that lived in a comfortable neighborhood in Champaign.
His father, a building contractor named Jack Kelly, did well enough that the family belonged to the Champaign Country Club, a sprawling private sanctuary of rolling, landscaped hills that features a championship golf course, a plush clubhouse, a pool, and a state-of-the-art fitness center. The patriarch’s seven children were afforded the opportunity to attend excellent colleges, including Notre Dame and, in Chris Kelly’s case, the University of Illinois.
It has been reported that Kelly attended high school on the South Side. In fact, he went to Champaign Central, where he was known for his prowess on the tennis court, for his big, affable personality, and for being one of the few kids driving his own car—not just any ride, but a green fastback Mustang.
“It was a great family,” recalls Chuck Trautman, a grade-school friend who now lives in Colorado and who lost touch with Kelly after graduation. “We had lots of sleepovers, late-night runs to Eisner grocery for Pop-Tarts.” Mike Campbell, a friend from high school, remembers Kelly as an excellent tennis player who loved the adrenaline of competition but was unforgiving with himself. “He rarely lost,” Campbell says. “But he’d get very upset with himself when he made a mistake.
“He was quite a character,” Campbell adds. “Very flamboyant, very loud, very opinionated. He was very visible, very popular. Everybody knew Chris.”
Kelly began college at the University of Illinois in 1976, pledging into Sigma Chi, the campus’s oldest fraternity, and majoring in landscape architecture. One frat buddy, Martin Kiesewetter, recalls Kelly as “confident, but I wouldn’t say cocky. He presented himself well.” Kiesewetter’s wife, Connie—who also knew Kelly—says he used his charisma to full advantage. “I think that’s one of the reasons he got to where he was,” she says. “Not because he was the smartest or most driven or the most well read, but he had that likable kind of personality.”
Later in life, Kelly would struggle with alcohol problems, but Kiesewetter says that he saw no warning signs at the time. “We partied, but we weren’t known as an Animal House,” he says. “Our fraternity had one of the highest GPAs on campus.” Kelly apparently took his field of study seriously. “I remember his room,” Kiesewetter recalls. “He had all sorts of [architectural] drawings up on his wall.”
After casting about for a while after college, Kelly hooked up with a South Side roofing company owned by the family of another college friend, William Cleary. Following in the footsteps of his building contractor father, Kelly plunged into the trade, learning the ropes of the business—most important, the hard political realities of how contracts were won.
Eventually Cleary and Kelly had a falling-out, and Kelly started his own roofing business. By then he had built a network of powerful friends who helped his company grow. Among them was Ronald Rossi, a man he would later describe as his best friend, whose family owns Rossi Contractors in Northlake. In time Kelly launched his own roofing business, BCI Commercial Roofing, as well as a second firm, CGK Consulting (“CGK” being an acronym for Christopher G. Kelly).
From the start, the companies seemed destined for success. When it comes to construction contracts, none are more coveted than those connected to O’Hare Airport, and in 1998, Kelly, teaming with Rossi, won his first bid on such a contract—a project worth at least $7 million. Quite a coup for a new kid on the block. In the years that followed, he would snag millions more in O’Hare contracts, prompting talk from suspicious rival roofing companies that Kelly had the inside track on the bidding process.
“We were one of three roofing companies that bid on a . . . contract out at O’Hare probably six, seven, eight years ago,” recalls Bill O’Brien, vice president of Combined Roofing Services in West Chicago. “We did our calculation, and we ended up at $10 million. We get the bid results and he’s at $2 million, and we’re scratching our heads, [wondering] what the hell’s going on here. We then bid another similar contract three years later. We screwed down our numbers tighter and tried to be a little bit more aggressive, and we still got blown away. He got it again. We said, ‘How’s he doing that?’ We had suspicions, obviously. When you lose that kind of work by those kinds of numbers, you go, ‘What the hell is he doing? Is he cheating?’ But we couldn’t be sure.”
Whatever Kelly was doing, it was working. BCI flourished. Contracts and money began pouring in. Kelly and his wife, Carmen, moved into an upscale home in the suburbs. Children—three daughters—followed. Realizing the power of political influence, Kelly began building a network of donors he could tap to make contributions to various politicians. Quickly he became “a player,” says the former senior Blagojevich aide.
Blagojevich later told the Chicago Sun-Times that he first met Kelly through Ronald Rossi at a political fundraiser in the 1990s. “Rossi was smoking a cigar. I introduced myself to them,” Blagojevich recalled. (Blagojevich initially agreed to be interviewed for this story but never responded to questions.)
The future governor and Kelly had much in common. Both were deeply proud of their ethnic roots, both loved sports—particularly baseball (sometimes spending long periods on the phone discussing stats and trivia)—and both were action junkies. The two quickly developed a bond that went far beyond the usual friendships of political expediency and a shared taste for the blood sport of Illinois politics. Their families grew close, even taking trips together—reportedly vacationing in Bermuda for ten days in the summer of 2003. Perhaps most important, the two men viewed the world through a similar cultural prism.
“Chris was a guy who had a very Chicago accent, who was a very ‘dems-dese-and-dohs’ sort of guy,” says the former senior aide. “That appealed to Rod because Kelly was like a lot of the guys who Rod grew up with. They both shared a disdain for the sort of structured elite, and Kelly was the classic nouveau riche. He was trying to horn his way into that world. So they both had a cultural chip on their shoulders.”
Blagojevich found one of Kelly’s traits particularly appealing, the former senior aide says. “Rod always respected one thing and that was people who could raise the money. If you were some North Shore liberal goo-goo but couldn’t raise money, it was like the lowest form of life in Rod’s world. If you were a blue-collar neighborhood guy who could also raise money, you were a guy worth listening to.”
When Kelly helped Blagojevich win the Democratic nomination for governor and then the office itself in 2002 by raising more than $30 million—shattering all previous fundraising records—Blagojevich began to listen to Kelly very closely. The new governor also began to freeze out the man who had previously been his go-to fundraising angel: his father-in-law, the longtime Chicago alderman Dick Mell. “Rod had always had a stormy relationship with Dick, and he started to sort of push Dick away and say, ‘Hey, this is where the real juice is,’” says the former senior aide. That may have been true in some respects, but the decision would in time prove disastrous for both Blagojevich and Kelly.
* * *
The new fundraising darling quickly made his mark among those close to Blagojevich, hauling in astonishing sums for the election and reelection efforts. But to the media, this suddenly influential member of Blagojevich’s “kitchen cabinet” was little more than a name. “Chris Kelly and Tony Rezko [the political fundraiser and real-estate developer convicted on several counts of fraud and bribery in 2008] were part of the shadow cabinet—and I mean the shadow cabinet literally and figuratively—of Rod Blagojevich,” says Andy Shaw, who covered Springfield for ABC-7 Chicago for 26 years before leaving to become the executive director of the Better Government Association. “They operated in the background, playing such an intense level of hardball when it came to fundraising that they didn’t want any kind of exposure—they wanted no trail if possible.”
Bob Arya, the former Blagojevich adviser, noticed the same phenomenon. “If you look through photo archives of the Sun-Times and Tribune,” he says, “you won’t find many pictures of Chris [before his later legal troubles]. Go through the video archives of the television stations in town. You won’t find a lot of footage of Chris.”
Shaw recalls that when Kelly stepped into the spotlight as master of ceremonies for Blagojevich’s January 2003 inaugural party, giving a few remarks to open the event, “he surprised a lot of us. I think many of us hadn’t really seen Chris Kelly before. Here was somebody who was well known by name but not by persona.”
Today the early media descriptions of Kelly—his style, his modus operandi—seem naive. David Wilhelm, the veteran political strategist who chaired the 2002 Blagojevich campaign, told Crain’s Chicago Business in 2003 that Kelly didn’t go in for the hard sell. The secret to Kelly’s success, he said, was “part cheerleading, combined with great follow-through.”
“[Kelly] never had any hidden agenda,” added Douglas Scofield, former deputy governor, in the same article. “I never felt he had an agenda other than to help Rod.” (Scofield did not return calls from Chicago, and Wilhelm declined an interview request.)
Others who knew and worked with Kelly saw him as a far more sinister character. “He was kind of a crass bully and a blowhard,” says a current member of the Springfield legislature. “He seemed to be fascinated by politics and fancied himself as a big political thinker and player. To me, he was a heavy-handed braggart. I think he thought he was the power behind the throne.”
The former senior aide agrees. “He was very bull-in-a-china-shop, very opinionated, very loud, very confrontational in meetings,” he says. “We would try to advance a sound political strategy, and we’d constantly get undermined by Kelly. It was almost like Chris had seen too many movies about politics and tough guys. It’s always dangerous—those guys who play wise guy and think they understand stuff they don’t understand, and that got Chris in a lot of trouble.”
Just how dangerous became clear in a meeting one day, the former senior aide recalls. “We were in the campaign office, and we were trying to make the point that we need to be careful who we take money from. And Kelly stands up and he’s yelling, pointing to the finance office next door, and he’s like, ‘I built a fundraising machine! In that computer we’ve got 30,000 state contractors, and we go systematically through them. If they want to do business with the state, they’ve gotta come through me.’ And that’s when everybody in the room sort of looked around and went, This is not going to end well.”
In those heady early days, however, Kelly was flying high—figuratively and literally. A force in the governor’s office, he had Blagojevich’s ear perhaps more than any member of the cabinet, shadow or otherwise, including Tony Rezko and Alonzo “Lon” Monk, Blagojevich’s first chief of staff. (Monk pleaded guilty last October to, among other things, a scheme to profit from state business deals.) Kelly seemed to have an uncanny knack for winning appointments to state boards and commissions for people he recommended, including some with ties to O’Hare Airport, where his company was still actively bidding on contracts. He often took private jet trips with Blagojevich and was privy to the administration’s most closely guarded secrets. Even staffers whose business it was to know felt out of the loop. “It was a closed circle,” says a second former senior Blagojevich aide.
Eventually Kelly came to hold an issue portfolio of his own: gambling. Specifically, Blagojevich tapped him to help broker a deal to auction off the state’s tenth casino license. Many observers regarded the assignment as inappropriate. It was bad enough that a fundraiser with little political experience had been handed the responsibility for gaming, a field fraught with conflict-of-interest perils. But by this time it had become known that Kelly was himself a bigtime gambler, perhaps to the point of having a problem.
The conflicts got even worse. It turned out that Kelly held an interest in a piece of Rosemont land where his pal Rezko had laid plans to build a hotel. That hotel would have become highly lucrative had the city been granted the tenth casino license—an outcome Kelly strongly advocated. (After numerous concerns were raised about Rosemont, the Illinois Gaming Board awarded the license to Midwest Gaming & Entertainment in Des Plaines.)
Though he would later express regret for the Kelly appointment, Blagojevich shrugged off questions at the time. “He understands the industry,” Blagojevich told a newspaper. “He goes to Vegas. He likes all of that.”
“Likes” was an understatement. A 2007 indictment charged that between 2000 and 2005, Kelly gambled millions of dollars, underreporting his personal and business income by more than $1.3 million and using business funds to help pay debts to bookies. He pleaded guilty to the charges in January 2009 and was sentenced to three years in prison. His imprisonment had been delayed pending the outcome of other charges.
“There’s no question he gambled to excess,” a source close to Kelly told me. “He had six-figure debts to casinos, so clearly he gambled. He’s a man who needed action. He thrived on adrenaline.”
The former senior Blagojevich aide agrees. “He was, at his heart, a risk taker: in his gambling, in his marriage, politically, legally. I think he kind of got off on being out there. People are addicted to that. It’s an addicting thing.”
To fund his habit, however, Kelly’s business had to thrive, and when it came to that, he took few chances. According to a second federal indictment (to which Kelly also pleaded guilty), he had rigged the bidding system for certain lucrative O’Hare contracts, just as the rival roofing contractor Bill O’Brien had suspected. In fact, Kelly later admitted in a 28-page plea agreement that between 1998 and 2006, he had worked with an insider to steer $8.5 million in O’Hare contracts to his company, BCI. Kelly used the proceeds for a variety of personal purposes, including paying more than $370,000 in gambling debts and repaying a $700,000 loan from Rezko to buy the Burr Ridge house. About $450,000 went to pay off the person—unnamed in the affidavit—who had helped him rig the bids.
Within the Blagojevich camp, some loyalists to the governor began to worry that Kelly might be trading state appointments and contracts in exchange for campaign contributions. “Every campaign tries to push the edge of the envelope as far as they can when it comes to contributions but still stay on the side of the law,” says the former senior aide. But with Kelly, “it wasn’t even like pushing the edge of the envelope, or being subtle, or like, ‘Hey, we’d really like to have your help.’ It was like, ‘Hey, if you like this contract, you better give.’ Obviously, it was like five steps over the line, not two toes over the line.”
Kelly couldn’t see beyond the money. “I remember getting into a fight with Chris about shutting down all these crappy coal-burning plants,” the former senior aide recalls, “and he’s like, ‘Who are you working for? Who’s your client?’ I’m like, ‘Chris, it’s the right thing to do.’ Chris was like, ‘You know how much money they give us?’ He just assumed I had an angle, that I was advocating this because it would make me money. I was like, ‘No, this is good for Rod. Good politics and good policy.’ I think he had a hard time fathoming that.”
Despite all that, the former senior aide says he saw a passion in Kelly, as well as a genuine, if misguided, desire to do the right thing. “He was a guy who wore his heart on his sleeve and wanted to win and was doing everything he could for the cause,” he says. “He just lacked political judgment and very clearly lacked an understanding of where the lines were drawn and what’s OK and what’s not OK.”
Though rumors swirled about Kelly’s strong-arm fundraising tactics, little came out publicly. Then, in 2005, Dick Mell dropped a bombshell. He’d had a falling-out with his son-in-law, Blagojevich, and in the midst of a tirade denouncing him to the Sun-Times, Mell accused Kelly of outright corruption. Once upon a time, Mell told the paper, fundraisers “would come to your house and have dinner with you and your family. We’d paint your kid’s bedroom and wash your dog for a $2,000 donation. . . . Now, [Blagojevich] raises $50,000 at a crack from his ace fundraiser, Chris Kelly, who trades appointments to commissions for checks of $50,000.”
Kelly quickly threatened to sue, and Mell backed down, retracting the statement. (Mell did not return repeated calls for comment.) But the pay-to-play allegation was now out in the open.
* * *
By then the feds were on to Kelly. The U.S. attorney’s office was looking at the Blagojevich administration, and as the tendrils of that investigation began to spread, they wound around a number of associates close to the governor, including Tony Rezko; his chief of staff, Lon Monk; Stuart Levine, a millionaire campaign donor who would eventually plead guilty to using his seats on two state boards to cash in on millions of dollars in kickbacks; William Cellini, the Illinois power broker who would be indicted for allegedly shaking down a capital investment firm to raise funds for Blagojevich; and Joseph Cari, a high-powered fundraising consultant who would plead guilty to attempted extortion.
Kelly himself was in the cross hairs. His downfall started with, of all things, two pizza companies. According to the 2007 indictment, Kelly arranged for a wire transfer in 2005 of $45,000 to his bookie from an unnamed pizza company in Chicago. Later he tried to pay his bookie through multiple checks written from a second pizza company. (The indictment doesn’t make clear Kelly’s relationship to the pizza companies.)
Kelly grew more brazen. To hide money from the government, he wrote several checks from his business to himself, his children, his wife, and cash—all just under the $10,000 amount that triggers a government report. He also enlisted the help of a friend, writing one check to the friend’s four-year-old child. On at least one occasion, Kelly paid a Las Vegas casino by making it appear that the payment was a legitimate business expense incurred by his company as part of a roofing contract for an airline. What’s more, in fraudulent tax returns filed between 2000 and 2005, he recorded as business expenses more than $70,000 in home electronics and moving costs, nearly $40,000 in landscaping, nearly $20,000 for home-theatre equipment, $6,000 for hardwood floors, and $7,000 for drapes.
In his professional life, Kelly showed an equal disdain for the law, according to the feds. For example, a 76-page FBI affidavit filed with Blagojevich’s 2009 indictment charged that in 2004 Kelly offered Joseph Cari “whatever he wanted” in the way of state business if Cari would help Blagojevich raise funds for a potential presidential bid. (Chicago was unable to reach Cari.)
Kelly was also implicated (along with William Cellini, Stuart Levine, and Tony Rezko) in an alleged 2004 scheme to strong-arm a Hollywood producer named Thomas Rosenberg into coughing up a campaign contribution to Blagojevich. The alleged scheme backfired when Rosenberg—best known for the Oscar-winning movie Million Dollar Baby—threatened to expose the plot.
* * *
By 2006, the walls were closing in. On the surface, Kelly maintained the façade of the high roller. He was ensconced in a turreted, many-gabled mini-mansion in Burr Ridge with his wife and three children, and he still moved among the power elite of Illinois politics.
But privately, his gambling debts were mounting. Rumors that he and others in the Blagojevich administration were under the microscope had hardened into open speculation. In fact, before federal prosecutors first indicted Kelly in 2007, they approached him, seeking his cooperation in the broadening Blagojevich probe. It would be the only official overture by the feds, a source said, and when Kelly refused, as he would until the end, he knew he was painting a bull’s-eye on his back.
At the same time, pressures were also mounting in his personal life. Aside from the gambling debts—and the dangerous web he was weaving to cover them—his marriage was failing, as evidenced by the affair he had begun with Clarissa Flores-Buhelos. A former basketball star at Northwestern University, Flores-Buhelos was a dark-haired beauty in her late twenties.
Her husband, Peter Buhelos (pronounced BYOO-liss), owner of Wally’s Restaurant in Park Ridge, was, like Kelly, some 20 years older than Flores-Buhelos. Shortly after they married in 2005, Buhelos says, he staked his wife in her own real-estate business. When that fizzled, he invested on her behalf in a Logan Square nightclub called VLive. Within two years, however, the marriage had hit the skids.
Buhelos’s first inkling of the affair with Kelly came when he discovered in his home a Las Vegas boarding pass from 2007 bearing Kelly’s name. Buhelos had never heard of him. When Buhelos confronted his wife, he says, “she just said she accidentally picked it up.”
Buhelos says his suspicions were confirmed when he found a love letter to his wife from Kelly. “That’s when I really went berserk,” he says. “And that’s when she knew the jig was up, and she filed for divorce against me.” (As this story went to press, Peter Buhelos and his wife were in the final stages of divorce.) Later, after the two had separated, Buhelos discovered that Kelly, too, had invested in VLive. (An attorney representing the nightclub did not return calls.)
The final act of the Chris Kelly tragedy began in December 2007 with the first indictment: a 12-count set of tax-fraud charges. At the time, Blagojevich backed his old pal. “Chris Kelly is my friend,” Blagojevich said in a statement. “I am saddened to hear these allegations about Chris’s personal life. . . . In fairness to Chris, I believe it is important to let the legal process play out and not rush to judgment.”
Almost immediately, however, Kelly was exiled from the Blagojevich camp, joining several other insiders who had left following indictments. Tainted and toxic to potential clients, Kelly watched his business begin to crumble. Meanwhile, although the feds did not overtly approach him again about rolling over on Blagojevich, Kelly believed he was getting a loud and clear message from them: Cooperate or we will keep coming after you. In January 2009, he pleaded guilty to the tax charges, and barely a month later he was indicted a second time—on this occasion, in connection with the O’Hare bid-rigging scheme.
Though Kelly remained free on bond, the outlook grew grimmer. In March 2009, the City of Chicago banned him from ever doing business with the city. In April, he was indicted yet again—this time on racketeering and extortion charges as part of the indictment of Blagojevich that had just been filed.
Publicly defiant, Kelly nonetheless began to collapse under the relentless pursuit. “I don’t think anyone appreciates the pressure that one indictment can put on someone, let alone three separate indictments,” his lawyer, Michael Monico, says. “The amount of pressure he was feeling was tremendous.”
Kelly showed signs of the strain at his June 2009 sentencing hearing on the tax charges. “Is there a reason you’re whispering?” the U.S. district judge Charles Norgle asked at one point. Later, when Norgle asked Kelly whether he had been coerced in any way, Kelly responded that he was acting freely, but he added, “I would be remiss if I didn’t say that there was a great deal of pressure in my life right now.” Norgle sentenced Kelly to just over three years in prison but allowed him to remain free on bond pending his September trial on the O’Hare bid-rigging scheme. That same day, Old Second National Bank filed a $2.1-million foreclosure notice against Kelly’s Burr Ridge home.
* * *
Clarissa Flores-Buhelos, Kelly’s married girlfriend and former Northwestern University basketball star, as shown on her driver’s licensAs 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.
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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?”
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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