<![CDATA[NBC Chicago - NBC 5 Investigates]]>Copyright 2018https://www.nbcchicago.com/investigations http://media.nbcnewyork.com/designimages/5-Chicago-Blue.png NBC Chicago https://www.nbcchicago.comen-usSun, 22 Jul 2018 17:43:28 -0500Sun, 22 Jul 2018 17:43:28 -0500NBC Owned Television Stations <![CDATA[Ibrahim Parlak Can Finally Unpack His Suitcase]]> Thu, 19 Jul 2018 20:19:15 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/216*120/Untitled28.png

For years, Ibrahim Parlak has kept a packed suitcase in the bedroom of his Harbert, Michigan home.

He knew that at any moment, immigration authorities could come knocking, prepared to ship him out with zero notice for what he considered certain imprisonment or worse, in Turkey.

This week that threat was lifted, as a Chicago immigration judge ruled Parlak faced almost certain torture if returned to Turkey, and that he requires the protection of the United States.

“Being able to see a day like this, it’s a great feeling,” Parlak told NBC 5 Thursday. “In many different ways, she cleared my name.”

It was a day which was long in coming.

Parlak, who runs the popular Cafe Gulistan in Harbert, near New Buffalo, came to the United States in 1992. Initially he was welcomed with open arms, even granted asylum. But in 2004, he was accused of lying on immigration documents about alleged past associations in Turkey with the Kurdish separatist group PKK. Parlak always denied the charges, but was arrested and served 10 months in custody before eventually being released in June of 2005.

Since that time, he has fought repeated deportation efforts, but has enjoyed enthusiastic support from Democratic and Republican lawmakers, as well as the wider community and Chicagoland visitors on the Michigan shore.

Indeed, on a drive down the Red Arrow Highway through New Buffalo or Union Pier, it was a familiar sight to see “Free Ibrahim” signs in store windows and front yards.

“A big thank you and hug to all of those people,” Parlak said. “All of the good of America circled me and carried me through the most difficult times.”

Republican congressman Fred Upton, a longtime Parlak supporter, hailed the court’s decision.

“Justice has prevailed,” Upton said in a statement. “We’ve always supported Ibrahim because we know who he truly is: A fantastic father, local business owner, and friend to many families here in Southwest Michigan.”

While the news does not mean permanent relief for Parlak, it does mean that the threat of imminent removal has been lifted. Turkey was demanding his return, he holds no travel documents for any other country.

Now, he says his greatest hope remains full citizenship in his adopted America. And he spoke lovingly of the wider community which despite varying political views, has consistently rallied together to keep Parlak in the United States.

“We hold onto the American values,” he said. “Even at the most difficult times, that kind of gave us hope to go forward!”

And can he finally unpack that suitcase?

“I think I can.”

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<![CDATA[9 of Chicago's Top Spots for Obstructed Bike Lanes]]> Wed, 18 Jul 2018 16:51:06 -0500 Greyhound Bus Station, 600 block of West Harrison Street]]> Greyhound Bus Station, 600 block of West Harrison Street]]> https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/bike+lane+greyhound.jpg

Photo Credit: BikeLaneUprising.com]]>
<![CDATA[Obstructed Bike Lanes Become Increasing Problem for Cyclists]]> Wed, 18 Jul 2018 22:48:29 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/coffey+vid.png

A growing number of bicycling enthusiasts in Chicago are raising serious complaints about vehicles obstructing their protected bike lanes. Now they are sharing images of blocked bike lanes with the world to show how risky their rides can be each day.

"It’s very hazardous for us to have to pop out into traffic all of a sudden when a vehicle is in front of us," said bike commuter Cheryl Zalenski. 

City law prohibits driving, idling and parking in bike lanes, but on any given day in the Chicago Loop, you’ll see a vehicle obstructing them. 

Cab driver Gary Karczewski said sometimes he has no other choice but to pull in to a bike lane to assist passengers. 

"You get somebody old or disabled, you’ve got to help them out of the cab or in to the cab," Karczewski said.  "Between the buses, the bikes and the cabs, it can get really crazy out here."

NBC 5 Investigates took a 30-minute bike ride through the Chicago Loop and came upon 18 partial or full bike lane obstructions. 

Christina Whitehouse founded a website that displays blocked bike lanes across Chicago after she said a truck entered her bike lane two years ago. When members submit photos of obstructed bike lanes to BikeLaneUprising.com, it allows Whitehouse to create maps to visualize hotspots across the city. 

"Who are the repeat offenders? We can see license plates that are showing up more than once," Whitehouse said. 

Private owner vehicles, rideshare cars, taxis, postal trucks and delivery trucks are complained about the most in Chicago, according to Whitehouse. Her data shows the three most problematic areas for bike lanes include the Loop along Franklin Street, the UIC Medical District, and Harrison Street between the Greyhound bus station and the Main Post office. 

Whitehouse said she shares her research with city officials and companies to raise awareness of the issue.

"No one solution is going to solve this," Whitehouse said.  "I think we need to chip away at it from an education standpoint. Maybe some of those people don’t know where the bike lane is. Maybe it’s not clearly marked."

The city issued 3,460 tickets for blocked bike lanes in 2017. That’s up from 2,766 the year before. The fine for violations is $150 and if the fine isn’t paid within 30 days, it doubles to $300. 

But some cyclists said the ticketing is not keeping up with the violations they see.

"It would be even better if they would put signage up to let drivers know that it’s illegal to be in the bike lane and then to enforce the ordinance that’s in place," Zalenski said. 

Chicago has more than 200 miles of on-street bikeways and prides itself as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country. 

A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Transportation said Chicago is focused on building a culture of traffic safety. Additionally, the city said it is upgrading protected bike lanes on Milwaukee, Elston and Dearborn with concrete curbs to "better define parking lanes and to provide increased separation between people biking and driving." 

The Active Transportation Alliance, through its Clear the Way campaign, said it has worked to draw attention to the issue and push the city to do more to address the problem. 

"We were pleased a first step was taken by updating the city’s 311 system to include a dedicated code for blocked bike lanes, which will help identify hot spots for targeted enforcement," said managing director of advocacy Jim Merrell. 

A city spokesperson said there were 1,452 calls to 311 for "vehicles in bike lanes" in 2017 and there have been 1,269 calls so far in 2018. 

According to the Illinois Trucking Association, bicycle lanes can create a new safety challenge as delivery and service vehicles may have to park further away from the sidewalk. 

"The Illinois Trucking Association’s top priority is safety; safety for our drivers as well as the motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians with whom we share the road,"said executive director Matt Hart. 

The United States Postal Service said in the course of delivering mail daily to the more than 1.2 million delivery points in the city of Chicago, access to parking can be difficult in some neighborhoods. A spokesperson said USPS policy is for employees to adhere to all traffic laws and they should not park in bike lanes. 

A spokesperson for Cab Drivers United/AFSCME Local 2500 said everyone can safely coexist on our streets if everyone follows the rules.

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<![CDATA[Parlak Wins Court Decision, Holds Off Deportation]]> Wed, 18 Jul 2018 11:49:49 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/216*120/Untitled28.png

Michigan restaurateur Ibrahim Parlak received welcome news late Tuesday, as an immigration judge agreed with his argument that he faced a reasonable fear of harm if deported to his native Turkey—paving the way for him to stay in his adopted United States for the foreseeable future.

Parlak, who runs the popular Cafe Gulistan in Harbert, near New Buffalo, has been fighting deportation for more than a dozen years.

Parlak came to the United States in 1992, but was accused of lying on immigration documents about alleged past associations in Turkey with the Kurdish separatist group PKK. He was arrested and served 10 months in custody before eventually being released in June of 2005.

Since that time, he has fought repeated deportation efforts, but has enjoyed enthusiastic support from Democratic and Republican lawmakers, as well as the wider community and Chicagoland visitors on the Michigan shore.

“There’s no words to explain it,” Parlak told NBC 5 Tuesday night. “The system you believe in—-it works!”

Republican congressman Fred Upton, a longtime Parlak supporter, hailed the court’s decision.

“Justice has prevailed,” Upton said in a statement. “We’ve always supported Ibrahim because we know who he truly is: A fantastic father, local business owner, and friend to many families here in Southwest Michigan.”

Chicago Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky echoed Upton’s sentiments.

“For decades, this good man has welcomed guests to his popular restaurant, hired many local people, raised a wonderful daughter, and been surrounded by loving friends,” Schakowsky said. “For the same period, Mr. Parlak has been living under the threat of deportation to a country in which he was once the victim of torture and where he would have been killed if forced to return.”

While the news does not mean permanent relief for Parlak, it does mean the threat of imminent removal has been lifted.

“I’ve been waiting for this for 15 years,” he said. “How many people are fortunate like Ibrahim?”

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<![CDATA[Evanston Swatting Hoax Deemed Gamer’s Stunt]]> Tue, 17 Jul 2018 22:49:56 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/evanstonhoax_32883194.jpg

Four months after a massive hoax where Northwestern University students were led to believe there was an active shooter on campus, investigators say they have determined that the entire episode was targeted at a video gamer with 100,000 online followers.

But the caller, who claimed he had killed his girlfriend in Northwestern University’s Englehart Hall, appears to have placed the call from a computer himself. And whatever system he used so masked that call’s origins that investigators have deemed it untraceable.

When the call came in to the front desk of the Evanston Police Department March 14, it all seemed very real.

“Hello, my name is Jacob,” the caller said. “I shot my girlfriend.”

Audio of the call, obtained by NBC 5 Investigates, suggests that the caller had disguised his voice electronically.

“I guess she’s dead,” he said. “But I’m lying to myself saying she’s alive for me to feel better.”

And he told police he was prepared to incite more violence.

“I have a lot of ammunition,” he warned. “This is the only way out for me. I’m not going to prison, I’m not facing the legal system---so I don’t know if I’m shooting myself in the head or making a run for it.”

The man told police he had killed the girl’s mother earlier in the day at another location.

“There was a concern that a woman had been gravely wounded by a semi-automatic rifle and we needed to proceed accordingly,” Evanston chief Richard Eddington told NBC 5. Very quickly, some 20 local and federal agencies were responding, and Northwestern was warning students to shelter in place.

But police say fairly quickly, things didn’t add up. During one call, the gunman purportedly fired off a round to prove his intentions, but none of the officers on scene heard a shot. And when they eventually entered the apartment in question, they found it empty.

Some two hours into what appeared to be a frightening situation, the entire episode was deemed to be a hoax. And further investigation revealed that the “victim”, a Northwestern law student, was very much alive.

Eddington says police have determined that the woman’s boyfriend was the intended target of what was actually, an elaborate game.

“The male in the relationship is a high end computer gamer,” he said, noting that in similar incidents across the country, “It apparently is not an unusual occurrence that your opponent is targeted in one of these swatting calls.”

Luckily, no one was hurt. But the diversion of police resources was enormous.

“All of those police officers, County Sheriffs, FBI, DEA, were doing something else when this happened,” the chief said. “So now we have diverted those resources from the real crimes they were working on to deal with this incident.”

The case is now closed. The call was deemed untraceable. And police say they have determined the gamer in question who was targeted bore no complicity for the episode.

“(The man) informed us that the gaming community is very competitive and vindictive,” an investigator states in police reports. “And although he has no evidence, one of his followers could be the offender.”

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<![CDATA[First Responders Delayed by Blocked Rail Crossings]]> Wed, 11 Jul 2018 23:17:27 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/trainnnnnn.jpg

A suburban village said a proposed underpass is needed now more than ever after a train blocked four grade level rail crossings for nearly an hour and delayed ambulances carrying accident victims to the hospital.

Officials in Barrington said residents, commuters and first responders experienced a “perfect storm” on June 12 as a Canadian National train stopped on the tracks due to a mechanical failure during the 5:00 p.m. rush hour and created backups throughout the village and surrounding communities.

“Ours is truly a project of regional significance. It affects our community and the entire northwest region,” said village president Karen Darch.

First responders were called to the scene of a DUI crash at Ela Road and US Route 14 just before the train stoppage. Two injured people had to be extracted from the vehicles and transported to Good Shepherd Hospital.

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According to the village, the first responders were unaware that the train crossings were blocked when they set out en route to the hospital. When they arrived at the Route 14 crossing at Lake Zurich Road, a village spokesperson said they found it blocked.

The ambulances were then routed further north into Lake Zurich in order to transport the patients to Good Shepherd Hospital. Police said the incident delayed first responders in getting to the hospital by at least twenty minutes.

“Any first responder will tell you that time is critical,” said Barrington Police Chief David Dorn.

Fortunately, the patients did not sustain life-threatening injuries.

A spokesperson for Canadian National said the train crew immediately went to work repairing the issue last month as other representatives were in touch with local emergency services to provide information about the stopped train and blocked crossings.

Darch said the trains have gotten longer and slower since Canadian National purchased the EJ&E railroad tracks in 2008. She said the village has argued for ten years that CN should pay a portion of the $73.5 million grade separation project at Route 14 to prevent future incidents.

“It’s a cost of doing business to bring freight through a town and completely block it up,” Darch said. “There should be a greater amount of money spent to mitigate that impact.”

A federal appeals court has denied the village’s request for funding from the railroad three times, most recently citing insufficient evidence that train congestion is the problem.

Canadian National said blockages lasting ten minutes or longer to crossings in Barrington remained consistently low during an eight year monitoring period which ended in January 2017.

But village officials argue that long CN trains can block every crossing in town at once because there is a distance of 5,918 feet separating the first crossing from the fourth crossing.

“If they’re stopped in town it creates a horrible situation,” Darch said. “That time delay means life or death.”

Tom Kranz operates an auto body shop near one of Barrington’s rail crossings and said while he has seen more trains, any improvement projects could be a huge undertaking.

“It would have been smarter had they built the tracks and road crossing on different levels when they put them in, but to do it now, it would be pretty tough,” Kranz said.

But resident Don Samuelson said the village needs an underpass “badly”.

“Somebody’s gonna die waiting for an ambulance to come,” Samuelson said.

The village said it has applied for federal and state grants to hopefully get an underpass built within a few years.

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<![CDATA[Video Shows First Responders Repeatedly Blocked by Train]]> Wed, 11 Jul 2018 17:00:09 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/freight+train.jpg

A stalled Canadian National freight train in Barrington caused a traffic nightmare in June, blocking all four of the village's railroad crossings for 56 minutes. Even more problematic, issue delayed two ambulances trying to get injured car crash victims to the hospital. This is what happened.

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<![CDATA[The Unintentional Victims of the War on Opioids]]> Tue, 17 Jul 2018 23:02:45 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/OPIOIDS+OTHER+SIDE-COFFEY+-+00015508_327907801.jpg

Chronic pain sufferers in the United States are facing another obstacle in their daily quest to manage their pain: the government’s crackdown on opioid painkillers.

Kelsey Konz, 28, said she used prescribed Vicodin to ease pain from her fibromyalgia, corneal neuralgia and endometrioses for several years. But doctors stopped prescribing her the painkiller late last year.

“They’re extremely scared to prescribe anything,” Konz said. “I basically tried everything that there is and the opioids are the only thing that works.”

The result, Konz said, has been nearly non-stop eye pain.

Konz said she had to drop out of college and she is unable to work due to the pain.

"I would give anything to have someone's boring nine-to-five life because I have nothing," Konz said.

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An estimated 100 million people suffer from chronic pain in the United States, according to an Institute of Medicine Report cited by the American Academy of Pain Medicine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said , on average, 115 Americans die every day from a drug overdose involving opioids, including any combination of prescription painkillers, illegal heroin and illicit fentanyl.

The CDC has also recommended new opioid prescribing guidelines to doctors in recent years.

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Chicago-based pain patient advocate Sally Balsamo said while there is definitely an opioid epidemic, the government should be focused on illegal street drugs and fentanyl and not responsible opioid users.

“The result of what’s going on has really decimated the lives of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people who don’t have anybody speaking for their side,” Balsamo said. “We need to adjust the guidelines to represent what truly is going on in the medical community with regard to the proper treatment of pain care,” Balsamo said.

Dr. Kathy Tynus is president of the Illinois State Medical Society. She said opioid prescribing in Illinois is down by twenty percent, but drug overdoses are increasing.

“Some critics will say that by prescribing less you are driving some of these people who are addicted or people who have chronic pain to look for alternatives that they can get and where can they get them, but on the street,” Tynus said.

Still, Tynus said chronic pain patients should seek doctors who are comfortable managing pain.

“I think we’re feeling like we’re under more scrutiny for our prescribing habits and I think we want to do the right thing for patients and sometimes that means we might overcorrect and not provide enough pain management for people,” Tynus said.

According to the CDC, its opioid prescribing guidelines are meant to improve the safety and effectiveness of pain treatment.

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<![CDATA['Condo Deconversion' Being Used to Try to Force Owners From Homes, Residents Say]]> Thu, 05 Jul 2018 23:07:09 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/web_-_nbc_5_investigates_condo_residents.jpg

Residents say a condo association is trying to use a tactic called "condo deconversion" to force owners out of their homes. NBC 5 Investigates' Hilda Gutierrez has the story.

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<![CDATA[Legislators Submit Reports With 'Not Itemized' Expenses]]> Mon, 02 Jul 2018 06:18:53 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/CASHMONEY_32661625.jpg

State Representative Bob Rita has represented the 28th district, running from Chicago’s southwest side to Tinley Park, since 2002.

He hasn’t had a Republican opponent since 2006, a race he won with 84 percent of the vote.

In the March 2018 primary, Rita easily defeated two Democratic challengers, Mary Carvlin and Nicole Koschnitzky, with 70 percent of the vote.

In the primary, Carvlin and Koschnitzky spent a combined total of $3,729, according to state records designed to show how much candidates raise and spend.

In that same period, Rita spent $240,779.01, according to a campaign finance document he filed with the State Board of Elections. Over the 90-day period, from January through March, he spent $33,000 that was "not itemized."

State law says any expenditure over $150 must be accounted for and made public four times a year. But political candidates do not have to itemize expenses under $150, which can lead, as in Rita’s case, to tens of thousands of dollars.

“When you have an accumulation of tens of thousands of dollars on non-itemized receipts it means something. It means a lot,” said Susan Garrett, a former state senator who today chairs the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

“These are loopholes really, they are loopholes,” she said when questioned about the “not itemized” expenses.

Representative Rita did not respond to our inquiries.

State Sen. Tony Munoz of Chicago hasn’t had a significant challenge since 2002. In 2016, the last cycle his name was on the ballot, Munoz had no challenger in either the primary or general election. But state records show from January to March and October to December he had $45,000 in non-itemized expenses.

A campaign spokesman for Senator Munoz said the $45,000 was used for things like office supplies, per diems and buying food for campaign volunteers.

Dick Simpson, a former alderman and current political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, believes the lack of specifics can raise legitimate questions.

“Using money in unrestricted ways with no accountability is always a bad idea,” he said.

So, who’s keeping watch?

The State Board of Elections has oversight, but can only initiate an investigation into spending practices if there is a complaint.

And it is the Illinois General Assembly which mandates politicians don’t have to itemize expenditures under $150.

Ken Menzel, the attorney who represents the Board of Elections, when asked if that was akin to the fox guarding the chicken house replied, “One might think of it that way but the General Assembly makes the laws about everything.”

“The problem is it doesn’t tell the public how their campaign contributions are being spent. We are disenfranchising people who want to understand how those dollars are being used. And that is problematic,” said Susan Garrett. “So, a couple hundred dollars here or there are understandable. But when you have thousands of dollars of those, it’s not understandable. It’s not right.”

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<![CDATA[Giant 'Darknet' Bust Yields 40 Arrests, $20M+ in Guns, Drugs]]> Thu, 28 Jun 2018 14:36:25 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/180*120/Darknet+Raids.jpg

Authorities arrested 40 people and seized more than $20 million in guns, drugs, cars, gold and cryptocurrency after a massive, year-long undercover operation targeting underground activity on the Internet.

The sprawling operation involving vendors on the "Darknet" led to the seizure of  more than 100 guns, more than $20 million in Bitcoin, more than $3.6 million in US currency and gold bars, and prescription pills and drugs, including Xanax, Oxycodone, MDMA, cocaine, LSD and marijuana. 

Homeland Security Investigations agents from New York posed as a money launderer on underground market sites and exchanged hard currency for virtual currency.

The operation led to the opening of dozens of cases against vendors around the country and to more than 90 active cases around the country.

“The focus of this operation was not only to infliltrate the dark net marketplaces but to really focus our efforts on the bad actors," said Angel Melendez of Homeland Security Investigations. 

Agents from HSI and postal inspectors conducted a series of subsequent arrests and the impending prosecution of more than 35 Darknet vendors.

“The Darknet is ever-changing and increasingly more intricate, making locating and targeting those selling illicit items on this platform more complicated. But in this case, HSI special agents were able to walk amongst those in the cyber underworld to find those vendors who sell highly addictive drugs for a profit,” said Acting HSI Executive Associate Director Benner in a press release.

The investigation is ongoing.



Photo Credit: USDHS]]>
<![CDATA[4 Steps to Take if Someone Posts Your Intimate Photos, Video]]> Tue, 26 Jun 2018 16:32:44 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/LMX___N11P+PKG+REVENGE+PORN+LAW_KNBC_150102_KNBC3MI5_KNBC_150310_KNBC3MI5+%28Read-Only%29+Version1+-+00000118_32608161.jpg

In light of Facebook's new Non-Consensual Image Pilot Program, many might be asking what steps they can take if they become victims of revenge porn. 

Here's what you can do:

1. File a police report

It is a criminal law and Class 4 felony in Illinois to spread private sexual images without consent, otherwise known as “revenge porn.” If you find these photos of yourself online, you can file a police report at your local precinct. Make sure to collect evidence of the incident, including any related screenshots or text messages. If you might know who the offender is, take note of any communication or evidence to back that up and bring to police. At the very least, this gives you a paper trail, which can be useful if you decide to pursue legal action.

2. Get the photo taken off social media/website

Depending on where the initial photo/video was shared, each social media has their own avenue and protocol for how to report this.

• Facebook

o The spreading of intimate images without consent is against Facebook’s community standards.

o Facebook is currently in the pilot program to prevent these uploads, but posted images or videos can still be reported. Click on the “Options” tab in the bottom right of the post to report it. You will be given three options, unfriend the poster, message them directly, or submit the post for review to Facebook.

o You can also fill out this form to directly get in touch with Facebook about the image, threats to share intimate images or threats of blackmail.

• Twitter

o Publishing people’s private information or photos without authorization is against Twitter’s rules.

o Twitter recently updated their rules on “revenge porn,” and will now suspend user accounts that fail to comply or take a Tweet down.

o Click on the dropdown arrow to report a specific Tweet, and select “It’s abusive or harmful.” This will go to review, and you can provide more information about the incident. Twitter will then send a confirmation email for further action.

o You can also fill out this form to contact Twitter.

• Instagram

o Instagram has a “zero-tolerance” policy with the spreading of sexual content or intimate images without consent.

o Tap the ••• (iOS and Windows Phone) or (Android) on the post to report it as inappropriate. You can follow the same path to report a profile sharing intimate images.

o If you don’t have an account, but see your images or videos on Instagram, use this form to report it.

• Google

o If your photo/video continues to show up in links on Google searches, you can use this form to get the hosting link removed from searches. However, Google does not have the power to remove it from the hosting website altogether.

• Other websites

o Lawful pornography websites like Pornhub will take down any non-consensual posts, through a request on their content removal portal.

o Other hosting websites may be primarily meant for revenge porn, thereby making them less likely to remove content due to a request.

o However, the Digital Millennium Copy Right Act (DMCA) has made it illegal to reproduce intellectual property online, which includes any photographs or videos that you’ve taken yourself. The DMCA Defender is a resource that can take down revenge porn off websites for a small fee.

3. Consult with an attorney

In addition to pursuing criminal charges against your offender, you can also contact an attorney to file a civil suit. Restraining orders can be filed, and you can obtain a legal order to get your photo/video taken down. You can also sue for additional damages if you have suffered financially due to the sharing of your images or videos. The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative has a list of individual attorneys for revenge porn victims here.

4. Know your resources

There are many organizations and resources that can help victims of revenge porn. From crisis helplines to legal help, these organizations aim to assist victims of revenge porn.

Cyber Civil Rights Initiative - https://www.cybercivilrights.org/

Starting as the “End Revenge Porn” campaign in 2012, CCRI is now one of the non-profit partner groups for Facebook’s pilot program. They provide a hotline and online removal guide for victims of revenge porn.

National Network to End Domestic Violence - https://nnedv.org/ , https://www.womenslaw.org/

Another one of Facebook’s partner groups for the program, NNEDV provide a national phone hotline for victims. Their specialized “WomensLaw” project has an email hotline, which provides basic legal information, referrals and emotional support.

Electronic Frontier Foundation - https://www.eff.org/

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is a non-profit dedicated to educating about civil rights and liberties in the digital sphere.

Without My Consent - http://www.withoutmyconsent.org/

Without My Consent provides educational materials on revenge porn laws, as well as other resources for victims of digital abuse.

The BADASS Army - https://badassarmy.org/

The BADASS group, Battling Against Demeaning & Abusive Selfie Sharing, is a non-profit organization that supports and empowers victims of revenge porn.

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<![CDATA[5 Things We Know, Don’t Know About Facebook’s ‘Revenge Porn’ Pilot Program]]> Tue, 26 Jun 2018 16:23:55 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/180*120/Facebook+Generic+Photo+logo+on+window.jpg Facebook launched its Non-Consensual Image Pilot Program in the United States in May to combat the sharing of nude photos on the social media platform. While Facebook already removes revenge porn after it receives a report, people who fear that someone might try to hurt them can proactively upload their intimate images, so Facebook can block anyone else from sharing the images on its site, Instagram or Messenger. “It’s demeaning and devastating when someone’s intimate images are shared without their permission,” wrote Antigone Davis, Facebook’s Global Head of Safety, in a post. “We want to do everything we can to help victims of this abuse.”

Photo Credit: Getty Images]]>
<![CDATA[Facebook’s Program Fighting ‘Revenge Porn’ Stirs Controversy]]> Tue, 26 Jun 2018 23:00:54 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/Alertan_sobre_novedoso_fraude_en_Facebook.jpg

A recent pilot program launched by Facebook aims to fight back against intimate images shared without consent in an unconventional way: send your nudes to Facebook instead. 

The Non-Consensual Image Pilot Program allows people who fear that someone might maliciously post private photos to proactively send the images to Facebook, which will then use technology to block anyone else from sharing it on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. 

“It’s demeaning and devastating when someone’s intimate images are shared without permission, and we want to do everything we can to help victims of this abuse,” Antigone Davis, Facebook’s Global Head of Safety, wrote in a post, announcing the program. 

The pilot was first tested in Australia late last year, then rolled out in the U.S., UK and Canada in May. Facebook declined to disclose if the program has been successful so far. 

Facebook partnered with safety organizations in each country, including the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and the National Network to End Domestic Violence in the United States. 

“This tool may not be the best tool for everyone, but when we hear survivors come to us, they are at a point where they are desperate,” said Rachel Gibson, Senior Technology Safety Specialist at NNEDV. 

Here’s how the program works: 

Individuals who are worried they may become victims of “revenge porn” can contact one of Facebook’s safety partners. After submitting an online form, Facebook will send an email with a secure, one-time link, where individuals can upload the images they fear will be shared. 

Then, a “small group of full-time employees” at Facebook will view the photos and the report and create a unique digital fingerprint for each image, called a “hash.” The photos are destroyed within seven days, according to Facebook, and only the hashes are stored on servers.

If someone tries to upload a hashed image, Facebook can block it. 

Law Professor: “This is crazy!” 

Some cybersecurity and privacy experts expressed concern over Facebook’s pilot. 

According to Lori Andrews, a professor in privacy and social media at Chicago’s Kent College of Law, the program creates new problems, rather than solving old ones. 

“You have to give up so much privacy to get privacy, and that doesn’t seem like a fair balance,” said Andrews. 

For one, Facebook’s hashing technology allows abusers to crop or color-correct a photo to evade technology. 

“The hash will only work with the original image,” said a Facebook spokeswoman. “There are always bad actors, and while the technology is not 100%, we’re constantly working to improve the technology and looking for ways to root out recidivist behavior.” 

Andrews said a better alternative might be giving victims the ability to hash photos right from their own devices. 

NBC 5 Investigates questioned Facebook about what measures are in place to keep accountable the small group of employees who are tasked with viewing and hashing photos, as well as what controls guard the servers where intimate images are stored before they are destroyed. Facebook referred us back to Davis’ original post announcing the program, which does not address these questions. 

Charles Lee Mudd, Jr., an attorney at the Mudd Law Firm who handles revenge porn cases, said the program does little to address the nonconsensual porn problem, which is more prevalent on seedy websites, instead of social media platforms. 

“I would be very cautious for individuals to utilize that service,” said Mudd. 

Advocate: Program Offers “Peace of Mind” 

The National Network to End Domestic Violence – one of Facebook’s safety partners – said the program simply offers survivors one more tool to be proactive. 

“This is not a survivor just uploading to Facebook and hoping for the best,” said Gibson. “This is them connecting with a trusted partner who has worked with Facebook along the years and will help guide them through this process.” 

Gibson said it’s important to remember the photos are only kept for a short amount of time and they’re only viewed by a few people, as opposed to thousands if they’re shared publicly. 

“Through the process that Facebook has set up, we are trying to minimize as much risk as possible. We want to do as little harm as we can to help a survivor,” Gibson said.

The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, another Facebook partner, also said the program allows victims to take action. 

“Facebook has been at the forefront of the tech industry’s efforts to develop innovative and efficient responses to the problem of nonconsensual pornography,” said Mary Anne Franks, President of CCRI and a law professor at the University of Miami. “It was one of the first major social media platforms to prohibit the unauthorized sharing of intimate images and has sought, in addition to implementing platform-wide policies and tools to fight this abuse, to provide victims with a range of voluntary options to protect themselves.”

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<![CDATA[City Balks at Turning Over Police Shooting Records]]> Thu, 21 Jun 2018 09:17:19 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/209*120/shootingrecords_32543691.jpg

A Cook County Circuit Court judge has blasted a decision by attorneys for the city of Chicago in their refusal to release records detailing how Chicago police officers shot and killed a 17-year-old.

In blistering comments from the bench on May 11, Judge Neil Cohen called the city’s position a joke and, “antidemocratic. We’re not in a fascist state yet,” he said. “If you’re right, you’ve just moved the ball forward towards it.”

In July 2014, Warren Robinson was shot 16 times after fleeing police. Robinson was a juvenile and that is what is at the heart of the dispute in turning over investigative records.

A spokesman for the city of Chicago Law Department in a written statement said the city “is prohibited from releasing law enforcement records that relate to a minor who has been investigated, arrested or taken into custody before his or her 18th birthday.”

Warren Robinson---after a chase---was shot 16 times by Chicago police while hiding under a car. Officers said Robinson pointed a gun at them and they fired, striking him five times in the chest and arms and 11 times in the back, according to autopsy records.

Pat Camden, a Fraternal Order of Police spokesman at the time, told reporters that night, “when police tell you to drop your gun, drop your gun and nothing is going to happen.”

The Independent Police Review Authority ruled the shooting justified and released Robinson’s name.

The city’s denial of investigative records, Judge Cohen said during the May 11th hearing, means an officer’s actions won’t “be subject to scrutiny when he shoots a juvenile, and that’s the tail wagging the dog.”

City officials initially denied NBC 5’s Jan. 13, 2016 request for public documents citing the state Juvenile Court Act. NBC 5 appealed to the Illinois Attorney General’s office, which ruled the city—in part---violated the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Following the ruling, the city refused—again—to release records involving the conduct of officers.

NBC 5 then went to court, represented by public records attorney Matt Topic of the law firm Loevy and Loevy.

NBC 5 wants to review the investigation of the police officers involved in the Robinson shooting. Despite the non-binding decision by the Attorney General’s office and the court order by Judge Cohen, city officials continue to deny the release of the records.

Attorneys for the city are expected to obtain a stay of Judge Cohen’s order to release the records pending their planned appeal.

Asked for comment a spokesman for the Law Department wrote in an email, “The City…has no objections to releasing these records” but is prohibited by legislation which enacted the Juvenile Court Act.

In his court order requiring the city to release the records of the Robinson shooting, Judge Cohen said the city can’t, “use the taking of that life as a cloak to shroud the officer’s action.”

All of this plays out as the trial in the death of LaQuan McDonald looms this summer. He, too, was 16-years old when he was shot 16 times. In that case, officer Jason Van Dyke is charged with first degree murder. He has pled not guilty.

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<![CDATA[Route 53 Extension Plan Would Impact Hundreds in Lake County]]> Wed, 20 Jun 2018 20:07:27 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/Route+53+Extension+-+00144813_32542545.jpg

Hundreds of Lake County homeowners are once again facing the real prospect of a very specific “not-in-my-back-yard” issue.

A new tollway---which would run literally through their back yards.

“Fifty years ago it was introduced as a true regional people mover and a road all the way to the state line,” says Hawthorn Woods mayor Joseph Mancino. “It’s become a 12 mile road to nowhere!”

He’s right about the timeline. The state began slowly acquiring a long strip of land in the early sixties for a new road which would extend Route 53 from the point where it currently ends at Lake Cook Road. Over the ensuing decades, there have been various plans, all shelved, to build that road.

Now, the idea is being dusted off again. The Illinois Tollway Authority and IDOT have launched a $25 million study to determine how best to relieve traffic congestion in the region---including the proposed new tollway.

Problem is, over the years, hundreds of families have built houses right up to that long strip of vacant land. And a new road, much of which would be elevated, would run next to and in some cases---above---their homes.

“While they’ve tried to get approval for this road for 50 years, they have not been able to build a consensus for it, they have no money for it, yet they’re trying to crowbar this solution into a modern day problem,” says Mancino. “And it simply won’t work!”

Pointing to the vacant area behind his house, now planted in soybeans, resident Larry Friedrichs agrees.

“The centerline for the proposed Route 53 is right behind my house,” Friedrichs says. “The previous couple of environmental impact studies have both said it shouldn’t be built, and now here we are, 50 years later, doing the same dance again!”

Officially, the state has only launched an initiative called the “Tri-County Access Project”. Suburban communities have been invited to join a study group, to determine how best to proceed with efforts to alleviate the infuriating traffic congestion which plagues Lake County. Tollway Authority officials insist the Route 53 extension is only one of many solutions being explored, and that the so-called “no build” option is among those solutions.

But Mancino says he believes the deck is stacked. In a letter to the tollway, he declared that his community will not sign on as a member of the stakeholders’ group, because of agreements he believes would tie Hawthorn Woods to any future agreements without genuine input.

“The operating agreement requires stakeholders to pledge, in advance, they will reach a general understanding of agreement on solutions that might emerge from the study,” Mancino wrote, noting that the agreement gives only IDOT and the Tollway Authority the final say.

“Taken together, these provisions require participants to commit up front to supporting the state’s proposals as a condition of participating,” he says. “This is untenable.”

Mancino refers to the study as a $25 million public relations campaign, not a genuine effort to reach consensus. And he says he’s suspicious that entities like Kenosha County in Wisconsin have been invited to join, in an effort to dilute opposition.

“It is just setting the stage for only one option,” he says. “And that is to build this road!”

The Tollway insists the study is genuine and that everyone is approaching the issue with an open mind.

“The viewpoints of every SPG member will be heard equally throughout the process,” Elizabeth Gorman, the Tollway Authority executive director told Mancino in a letter this week. “All stakeholders are encouraged to express their convictions by participating in the process---participation is not contingent on a signed document.”

Tollway officials would not grant an interview to NBC 5 on the issue. But a suggestion to speak with Linda Soto, the Executive Director of the Lake County Transportation Alliance, received an enthusiastic response.

“Do we need a tollway or a road extension---absolutely,” she said. “What that road is going to be, that study will determine.”

Soto says she understands the concerns of the Hawthorn Woods residents. But at the same time, she pointed to the traffic issues faced by her own community further to the north.

“I respect his opinion,” she said. “We have a lot more middle income working class that need these roads!”

Hawthorn Woods is not the only community which would potentially be impacted by a Route 53 extension. Residents of Long Grove, for example, also have built right up to the vacant strip. And environmental groups say taking the road through protected wetlands could be a potential disaster.

For his part, Mancino argues other highway solutions should be explored, and haven’t been, because officials are enamored with the idea of a new tollway which has foundered each time it has been explored.

“All these local roads, all these ideas to help traffic congestion have been held hostage,” he says, “waiting on the hope that this pipe dream might someday be built!”

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<![CDATA[After School Program Abuse Lawsuit Settled]]> Fri, 08 Jun 2018 10:42:36 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/6P+PKG+UNITED+BELIEVERS+SETTLEMENT+V2+-+00001904_32393462.jpg

The court battle is over for 19 men who sued the Chicago Board of Education and United Airlines over allegations that they were sexually abused as children by an afterschool program mentor in the 1990s.

“The parties reached an amicable resolution,” said attorney Lyndsay Markley, who represented the alleged victims in the lawsuit.

While the plaintiffs were students at Johnson Elementary, they participated in the United Believers program, sponsored by the airline. They said they were promised college scholarships in exchange for their participation and good behavior.

But the men said they were abused by Marvin Lovett, who was employed as a mentor in the United Believers afterschool program.

The plaintiffs argue the abuse could have been prevented.

Lovett was shot to death by a former Believers participant in 2000.

Police said they found 140 videotapes showing Lovett sexually abusing minors, including Believers participants.

The Believers program was later shut down.

As for the settlement, a United Airlines spokesperson said “we have worked with those impacted to reach a resolution in this case.”

The Chicago Board of Education did not return our request for comment.

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<![CDATA[Service Dog Trainer Took Off With Cash Donations: Family]]> Fri, 01 Jun 2018 20:37:32 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/DIABITIC+DOG+SCAM+-+00005604_32309769.jpg

A suburban community tried to do a good thing by raising about $11,000 to help a little girl. But months later there is nothing to show for all of their donations.

Darcy Tellone said her daughter, Lila, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes two years ago and the family now spends a lot of time monitoring Lila’s blood sugar and making sure she stays healthy.

But they were surprised by a recent outpouring of support organized by Lila’s friend, Anya, who started a Go Fund Me fundraiser to help pay for a diabetic alert dog.

“We never really thought about a service dog,” Tellone said. “It was actually out of the kindness of some friends' hearts who started this campaign without us knowing.”

Tellone said the Yorkville family was referred to a business owner in Arizona who would train a dog to detect Lila’s blood sugar events before they became dangerous. She said everything started off well and they were also sent photos of the dog and received updates on his training.

Tellone said she sent the trainer, Breanne Peeples, about $10,000. They also named the golden doodle dog “Mugsy”.

However, the family said they stopped receiving communication from Peeples in January.

“We just want to keep our daughter safe and we wanted this to be a positive outcome and it's kind of a nightmare,” Tellone said.

NBC 5 contacted the woman who sold Peeples the dog training business several years ago. The former owner said Peeples is no longer training dogs and is out of business.

Public records show Peeples does not appear to be in bankruptcy and her business was in good standing.

Peeples did not return a call from NBC 5 requesting a comment.

Tellone said she’s speaking out to warn other consumers.

“I also would love to get the money back and possibly find another service dog for my daughter and I just want the community to know that their support meant the word to us and we're just trying to make it right,” Tellone said.

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<![CDATA[Renters Squeezed by Housing Costs Across Chicago and Suburbs]]> Thu, 31 May 2018 20:09:13 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/SQUEEZE+COFFEY+v2+-+00011422_32296037.jpg

If you live in Greater Chicago and are struggling to keep up with rent costs, you are not alone. NBC 5 Investigates reviewed census data and found dozens of neighorhoods across the city and suburbs with large percentages of cost-burdened households.

The government considers a “cost-burdened” household as one that spends 30% or more of its annual income on housing. In other words, you are cost-burdened if you spend $3 out of every $10 on rent.

Just ask Melissa Winston. She’s a working mom who is raising a family with her husband in the south suburbs. In her zip code, 65% of renting households pay more than a third of their annual income to a landlord.

“I’m thankful for a roof over my head, but make this roof less expensive,” Winston said.

A recent DePaul University study showed half of all renter households in Cook County, including Chicago, are struggling to pay rent and other basic needs. 

“The affordability gap is growing because the supply of affordable units is shrinking,” said Geoff Smith, executive director of the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University. 

Smith said several factors have contributed to the growth of renters in Chicago, including more people seeking urban lifestyles and shorter commutes. 

“People wanted to live in dense, walkable spaces and places and those are more often rental neighborhoods,” Smith said. 

But we found cost-burdened renting households located across the suburbs, including zip codes in Bolingbrook, Joliet, and Hazel Crest. 

“In the suburbs, the taxes play a huge part in why maybe landlords are charging higher rents,” said home ownership consultant Sherry Smith.

Smith said frustrated renters may consider starting a path toward home ownership. 

“A lot of us, we’re not going to get rich by playing the lottery. So having that home that you invest in and to have equity in, you can actually leave to your children,” Smith said. 

Smith works for Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago. The non-profit helps educate consumers about the ins and outs of home ownership, including how much home you can afford and what loans may be available. Additionally, grants may be available for those who qualify. 

Winston said she and her husband have started the process to learn more about buying a home. 

“I’m not blaming anyone for my situation,” Wintston said. “But we’ve got to make life much easier for people such as myself.”


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<![CDATA[Is Another Watts-Related Case Beginning to Unravel?]]> Tue, 29 May 2018 20:11:01 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/LMX___6P+PKG+WATTS+SENTENCING_WMAQ_000000004369448+%28Read-Only%29+Version1+-+00000125_30392113.png

After more than ten years in prison, Anthony McDaniels says he should now be set free because the only officers who convicted him are too tainted to be called as witnesses.

His evidence? A letter from the prosecutors themselves.

McDaniels was jailed on gun charges in 2008. From the outset, he claimed he had been framed by officers under the command of now-disgraced police sergeant Ronald Watts.

Last fall, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office gave police a list of ten officers who would no longer be called as witnesses “due to concerns about their credibility and alleged involvement in the misconduct of Sergeant Watts.” Three of those officers were the only witnesses in McDaniels’ trial.

“The state’s own position is these officers aren’t credible,” defense lawyer Joshua Tepfer said today outside court. “The state’s own position is these officers lied.”

During a morning hearing, Tepfer urged Judge Arthur Hill to vacate McDaniels’ conviction, based on a number of factors, including the simple premise that there is no one left to testify against him.

“The state wouldn’t call them---they can’t call them---because they aren’t credible!” Tepfer told the judge, advising him that one of the officers has informed him he would take the fifth amendment if he was put on the stand.

“You can take the fifth amendment for a number of reasons,” he said. “He’s taking the fifth because he was a corrupt police officer.”

Assistant State’s Attorney Carol Rogala told the judge that a full evidentiary hearing was needed.

It is the defendant’s burden to prove there is a pattern of misconduct,” she said. “There are factual cases that have to be explored.”

But Tepfer insisted the pattern was more than evident, pointing to the list of 23 individuals who have already been cleared.

“That’s an extraordinary pattern,” he said. “Sgt. Watts was very much involved in the drug and gun trade.”

The scandal was an open secret among residents of the former Ida B. Wells housing project, where Watts and his crew worked for more than a decade. Two undercover officers said they tried to blow the whistle on the alleged corruption for years, only to face ostracism within the department.

Eventually, only Watts and Mohammed were ever criminally charged. But police recently admitted that 15 other officers had been placed on desk duty while they were finally investigated for Watts-related offenses.

“Every single case that rises or falls on the testimony of these officers needs to be tossed,” Tepfer said. “If at any time you don’t trust these convictions any more, you’ve got to throw them out!”

The judge took the matter under advisement, and said he would rule June 14.

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<![CDATA[Thousands in Campaign Funds Spent Sans Explanation: Records]]> Wed, 23 May 2018 22:39:25 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/MARIN+CAMPAIGN+WEBSITE-+-+00011406_32175543.png

In the first three months of 2015, as Chicago voters headed to the polls in a citywide election, 8th Ward Alderman and Committeeman Michelle Harris spent more than $134,000 in campaign funds and did not have to disclose how the money was spent.

During the same time frame, from January through March, 26th Ward Alderman Roberto Maldonado spent over $39,000 while 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale spent close to $20,000, all according to Illinois State Board of Elections campaign finance records.

The figures are found on campaign disclosure forms commonly called D-2s, located in the expenditure section labeled “Not Itemized.” Candidates running for office are required to file the forms four times a year. According to Board regulations, all expenditures over $150 must be accounted for, but expenses under that amount don’t have to be itemized.

“The whole purpose of this filing system is to give the public a look into how this money is being spent,” said Sarah Brune, a campaign finance expert who sits on the advisory board of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

In the 2015 election cycle, 27th Ward Alderman and Committeeman Walter Burnett reported itemized expenditures of $28,667 and non-itemized costs of $23,046, or 44% of his spending that quarter.

According to Brune, non-itemized spending should be a small percentage of overall costs.

How campaign funds are spent became an issue in the 2018 gubernatorial primary when Burnett, along with other aldermen, received contributions from Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker.

Burnett defended the $15,000 he received this way: "The way it works now in order for a committeeman to open, just to open up your doors on Election Day it costs you on average $10,000, just to open up your door,” he said while standing outside City Hall in early March.

After several attempts to reach Burnett by phone were unsuccessful, the alderman was approached outside a political fundraiser and asked specifically how that money was spent on Election Day.

“So, uh, it cost $10,000 because you’ve got to feed the judges, you have to pay people to work, all of that stuff,” he said. “Myself and my accountant, we give records of everything, we have them if the State Board of Elections was to ever ask for them.”

When asked if we could have copies of his receipts, Burnett replied, “I, if the State Board of Elections asks for them we’ll give them to them. I don’t know why you are picking on me.”

The percentage of itemized versus non-itemized expenses for Harris was even more stark during the first quarter of 2015. She reported $28,139 in itemized expenditures and $51,303 in non-itemized costs in her aldermanic filing. In her role as committeeman, Harris reported $5,093 in itemized costs versus $82,960 for which no explanation is offered.

"It is hard to come up with a reasonable explanation to that, but I think it is a good question for the campaign to account for this major spending that they didn’t disclose," Brune said. "It gives us no picture of what they actually spent the money on, it almost makes the filing meaningless."

Harris did not reply to questions about her expenses.

Though it is all legal, for watchdogs like Jay Young of Common Cause, the non-itemized expenditures raise a red flag.

“It certainly is undisciplined,” he said, “and not transparent.”

Back to the question: how is that money spent? The answer, from Burnett, is rooted more in politics than democracy, when ward bosses could get constituents jobs.

“In the old days, you used to be able to get people a lot of jobs, and folks used to work for you and all of those things, now you pretty much got to help people to help you or you won’t be able to have any help because people don’t do anything for nothing,” he said.

During the last citywide election, we counted 16 alderman who in that same three months in 2015 had non-itemized expenses totaling more than $10,000.

That included Maldonado, who did not respond to our questions, and Beale, whose office said it would supply a breakdown of the more than $19,000 in non-itemized expenses. That breakdown provided listed more than $18,000 categorized only as “election day expenses.”

“And I’m happy that you are not just picking on me," Burnett said. "I’m happy that you are looking at everyone else and I’m happy that I shared some information with you. And I’m done."

And with that, Burnett walked into his fundraiser.

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<![CDATA[FDA Steps Up Action Against Kratom Distributors]]> Tue, 22 May 2018 21:17:23 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/KRATOM+DANGERS+-+00012600_29963835.jpg

The Food and Drug Administration has issued warning letters against three marketers of the drug kratom, a natural remedy hailed as a miracle cure by some, but branded as dangerous by the federal government. NBC 5's Phil Rogers reports.

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<![CDATA[FDA Steps Up Action Against Kratom Distributors]]> Tue, 22 May 2018 21:17:07 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/KRATOM+DANGERS+-+00012600_29963835.jpg

The Food and Drug Administration has issued warning letters against three marketers of the drug kratom, a natural remedy hailed as a miracle cure by some, but branded as dangerous by the federal government.

In Chicago, kratom is sold openly in stores, including three “CBD Kratom” retail outlets in Bucktown, Andersonville, and North Halsted.

While supporters hail kratom for everything from pain relief, to relaxation, to liberation from opioid addiction, the FDA warns that the substance is actually a dangerous opioid relative. In Tuesday’s action, the agency issued warning letters to three marketers and distributors, in Colorado, California, and Missouri, for illegally selling unapproved products with “unproven claims about their ability to help in the treatment of opioid addiction and withdrawal.”

“Despite our warnings that no kratom product is safe, we continue to find companies selling kratom and doing so with deceptive medical claims for which there is no scientific proof,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. “Far from treating addiction, we’ve determined that kratom is an opioid analogue that may actually contribute to the opioid epidemic, and puts patients at risk of serious side effects.”

Known officially as mitragyna speciosa, kratom is harvested from a plant which grows naturally in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and New Guinea. The FDA says it is being marketed through “health fraud scams” which can pose serious risks.

During a visit to CBD Kratom in December, manager Matthew Warren told NBC 5 he had personal knowledge that the drug was safe and extremely effective.

“I haven’t had anyone ever have any kind of dangerous reaction to kratom,” he said. “I have first-hand experience of giving kratom to friends of my own going through opioid withdrawal, and I physically saw the difference within about five minutes.”

After Tuesday’s announcement, Warren declined comment, referring NBC 5 to his company’s corporate headquarters. There, a spokesman who identified herself as Dafna, said by email, that the stores do not stock any product from the distributors who received warning letters from the FDA.

“We take our business very seriously, and appreciate your outreach,” she said. “I hope that we will in no way be tired to these recalls in the story, since we do not sell any recalled products and would never do so.”

Earlier this year, the FDA warned the public not to consume any brand of kratom because of potential danger from salmonella. Two years ago the agency attempted to ban the drug, but reversed course after over 50 members of Congress complained that it should be researched as a valid opioid substitute.

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<![CDATA[2018 is the Age of Bots: Cyber Expert]]> Tue, 22 May 2018 22:49:34 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/knbc-keyboard-typing-generic.jpg

Need legal advice? Returning that shirt? Want to talk to a therapist? 

There’s a bot for that. 

Bots – short for robot – are computerized software that talk like humans, designed to help consumers with just about everything. According to the security firm Imperva, bots outnumber humans online: bots account for more than 52 percent of web traffic.

“(Bots) are in more places than you think they are,” said cyber security researcher Brannon Dorsey. “In areas they are not, they will be soon.” 

While many bots are helpful – for example, chatbots, which many companies use for customer service – researchers warn that many are malicious and hard to detect. 

Case in point: in the fall of 2016, attackers deployed millions of bots to shut down much of the American Internet for hours. Malicious hackers essentially directed the massive botnet to simultaneously overwhelm a web service with traffic. As a result, consumers had trouble accessing prominent websites, such as Amazon, Twitter, Spotify, Netflix and PayPal. 

Also in 2016, Russian-linked, automated accounts spewed misinformation on social media, according to Facebook and Twitter executives, in an effort to create chaos ahead of the presidential election. 

“It is very easy for someone to go on Twitter or Facebook and set up hundreds or thousands of fake personas with photos, bios and information,” said cyber security expert Nick Percoco. “Be aware of who are what you’re communicating with, and it’s really tough. This is not something that’s an easy answer.” 

Experts said as bots become more sophisticated, it increases the chances to trick consumers. 

“Bots are going to get better at evading detection,” said Dorsey. “It’s going to be a cat and mouse game.” 

Social media platforms have taken steps to rein in their bot problem. Both Twitter and Facebook announced in recent months that it has undergone a massive purge of fake accounts. 

In a blog post, Facebook published its first ever “Community Standards Enforcement Report,” where the company said it removed 583 million fake accounts in the first three months of this year.



Photo Credit: KNBC]]>
<![CDATA[Underage Rideshare: Too Young to Ride—But Doing it Anyway]]> Mon, 21 May 2018 22:53:10 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/UBER+NO+KIDS+ALLOWED+-+CLEAN++-+00004202_32145930.jpg

What could be simpler than ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, which give mom and dad a low-cost alternative to child hauling? Trip to the movies? Call them an Uber! Staying late for band practice? Lyft will get them home!

Those ubiquitous apps from the two biggest ride-sharing services are the answer to a parent’s prayers, right?

Wrong.

No one under 18 is supposed to be using Uber or Lyft without an adult on board. It says so right in each company’s terms of service. And the drivers are not supposed to be taking any un-accompanied children.

But an investigation by NBC 5 Investigates shows the rules are routinely ignored.

Armed with an Uber license, NBC 5 producer Courtney Copenhagen set up base near schools throughout the city and suburbs. And on every single day she drove, she said she found no shortage of teen riders, who reacted with shock when they were informed they were too young to ride.

Most insisted they routinely used Uber and Lyft to get around. In many cases, those same teens took out their phones and summoned another Uber as we watched. And when we sent a trio of girls out on the street in downtown Chicago to hail rides, nearly every Uber and Lyft driver they encountered welcomed them aboard, even after they informed those drivers they were only 12 and 13 years old.

Only one driver, who worked for Lyft, said no.

“I think it’s obvious that Uber and Lyft are going to try to make money where they can,” says Bryant Greening of LegalRideshare, a Chicago law firm specializing in cases involving the two big carriers. “When Uber and Lyft came to Chicago I don’t think anyone predicted how big it would be, and how quickly it would get there.”

Both companies insist the rules about children are hard and fast regulations.

“We take reports of unaccompanied minors seriously,” Lyft spokesman Kate Margolis told NBC 5 by email. “Violating this policy can lead to permanent deactivation from the Lyft platform for both passenger and driver accounts.”

On its website, Uber likewise suggests the policy is etched in stone: “A rider must be 18 years of age to have an Uber account and request rides,” the site states. “Anyone under 18 must be accompanied by someone 18 years of age or older on any ride.”

Uber actually rolled out a pilot program to allow teen licenses in Seattle, Columbus, and Phoenix. But that program was terminated, Uber saying it was examining other ways to “best serve the needs of families.”

In shutting that program down, Uber declared, “If you suspect a minor is using Uber, please let us know through your app and our team will investigate.”

So why have such rules, if they are ignored by riders and drivers alike?

“The rule is very well crafted to fit into their legal objectives,” Greening says. “What they want to make sure is that there is not some kind of law passed against the use of their app involving strict background checks, involving fingerprints, and by making the application available only to adults, they can get around some of those requirements.”

He refers to the security checks Uber and Lyft drivers must undergo. Both companies use a third party service which checks primarily for driving mishaps, criminal convictions going back seven years, and a check of a sexual offender database.

Chicago cab drivers have long complained that they face a more rigorous fingerprint background check---and that rideshare drivers are getting off light.

Indeed, when the Emanuel administration recently announced changes to security requirements designed to level the playing field, the cab drivers cried foul. That proposal, billed as strengthening security procedures, promised that rideshare companies would be required to have their drivers checked against the national sex offender database, and multi-state criminal records across state boundaries.

But at the same time, they announced they were lifting the requirement for fingerprint checks for cab drivers.

“What we think the city should do is raise the standards---make them equal but lift them up,” says Tracey Abman of AFSCME local 31 which represents some city cab drivers. “We think it should continue for cab drivers, and should happen for rideshare drivers.”

In other words---keep fingerprint checks for cabbies, but start requiring them for Uber and Lyft.

“The city’s saying we want to level the playing field,” says Abman. “Yes, let’s level the playing field, but let’s raise standards---not lower them!”

A spokesman for the City’s cab licensing agency, Lilia Chacon, declined to respond to AFSCME’s criticism.

“Drivers in the taxi and rideshare industries are subject to the same background check standard,” she said in a statement. “To ensure the public’s safety, biometric and non-biometric background checks are conducted by third-party vendors and include checks of a nationwide criminal database, sex offender registry and global watch list.”

New York City requires both taxi and rideshare drivers to submit to fingerprint checks. Nationwide, Uber recently announced plans to begin re-running its contract background checks on drivers every year.

In the meantime, Uber and Lyft both insist their policies on children have not changed.

“What we see is that a lot of drivers and a lot of users are not reading those terms—reading those rules,” says Greening, the Chicago attorney. “We need to make sure that we are protecting our children and that there’s the proper rules in place to effectuate that goal.”

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<![CDATA[Illinois Families Targeted by Out Of State Patient Brokers]]> Sat, 19 May 2018 09:49:24 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/PATIENT+BROKER+JENNIFER+PART+2+-+00232821_32125160.jpg

If you have a family member or friend struggling with an addiction, you want them to receive the best treatment possible. But if that person is young, insured and seeking treatment outside of Illinois, beware of providers offering false promises of hope.

NBC 5 Investigates interviewed parents and behavioral health advocates and spoke to a leading insurance industry group to unravel a rehab scheme that is costing everyone money and possibly even taking lives.

“It’s absolutely a scam,” said Jeanette, a concerned parent from suburban St. Charles.

Jeanette said her 19-year-old daughter grew up loving softball and cheerleading, but as a teenager she developed a drug addiction. While her daughter is currently in Los Angeles receiving treatment in an intense outpatient program, Jeanette said her daughter bounced from one treatment facility to the next.

“She was thrown out of a sober house. Within hours she was in a new sober house. And then she was out of that one and then in to another one,” Jeanette said.

According to Jeanette, her daughter was being paid money to relapse and start the treatment process over again.

“She got taken out to nice dinners almost every night. She got clothes bought for her,” Jeanette said.

Sara Howe of the Illinois Association of Behavioral Health said young, insured adults from Illinois are being lured to unscrupulous treatment centers or sober living group homes. She said so-called patient brokers may find an addict at an AA or NA meeting and convince them to travel to Florida or California for their treatment.

“Once you get there, they often don’t look like what you see on the website,” Howe said. “They’re not beach-front property. They’re sometimes miles from the beach. They don’t have licensed staff.”

Howe said the some of treatment facilities are billing insurance companies millions of dollars for unnecessary or sub-standard care.

“Somebody’s got to pay for that. The bottom line is where is that gonna go? Well, it’s gonna go to your premiums,” Howe said.

But for local families struggling with addiction, the promise of recovery on beach-front property may sound like a solution.

Jennifer Flory of Sugar Grove said her daughter, Alison, received good treatment in Florida for her drug addiction until she met a broker at an “AA” meeting.

“They enticed her with different offers of a better experience, free cigarettes, free rent, stuff like that, co-ed living,” Flory said.

Flory said her daughter shuffled between treatment centers and sober living group homes for more than a year while the family’s insurance was billed more than one million dollars.

“It was almost as if they needed to do the drug in order to get the benefits of treatment,” Flory said.

Sadly, Alison passed away in 2016 due to a drug overdose at her sober home.

“It’s an everyday thing that you think about what could I have done differently? Why’d this happen to me?” Flory said.

Industry group American Health Insurance Plans said insurance providers are extremely concerned about “body brokers” who target and exploit vulnerable individuals by targeting insurance companies to bill for treatment and tests that may or may not be clinically appropriate or actually even be provided.

“These fraudulent, abusive practices not only put patients’ lives in grave danger, but they also make it more difficult for people to afford their coverage and care,” said an AHIP spokesperson. “These practices raise overall health system costs and increase premiums for everyone, not just those who are sent to ‘sober homes’.”

Howe said while there are plenty of good treatment centers across the country, Illinois families don’t have to send their loved ones out of state.

Tim Ryan is a Naperville-based activist against heroin who said Illinois has some good treatment facilities, but sometimes it’s beneficial to leave the state.

“Sometimes you need to get people away from their environment,” Ryan said.

But Ryan urges addicts and their family members to be on the lookout for patient brokers who troll Chicago area AA meetings.

“A lot of these people that work for these centers have never been there,” Ryan said. “Ask the patient brokers how they’re paid. A legit treatment center will only hire a salaried employee.”

Lawmakers in Illinois are considering a proposed law, HB 4949, that would make it illegal for brokers to lure patients out-of-state under false promises, especially if the facility is understaffed and unlicensed.

Meanwhile, Jeanette said she feels like she’s teetering on an edge as she waits to receive updates from her daughter.

“The moments that I know she’s safe and I know where she is and what’s happening, I can function a lot better,” Jeanette said.

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<![CDATA[Convicted Con Man Arrested for Posing as State Employee]]> Fri, 18 May 2018 18:52:47 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/CONMAN+FOLO+-+00013804_32124249.jpg

A convicted con man featured in a 2017 NBC 5 Investigates report is back behind bars and charged with posing as an employee of the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office.

Hugo Torres, 44, was arrested and charged with one count of theft by deception over $500 for posing as a supervisor for the Illinois Secretary of State and taking off with his victims’ money after promising to help them finding jobs or reinstate their drivers’ licenses. Investigators said he ultimately defrauded seven Cook County residents of at least $5,000.

“This brazen fraud stripped people of money and highly personal information,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. 

Private investigator Michael Colella is helping the alleged victims and law enforcement. 

“We probably have well over a hundred victims, but most of those victims are reluctant to go to police because of their immigration status,” said Joliet-based private investigator Michael Colella. 

But one alleged victim is stepping forward to warn others. 

Javier Balderas of Chicago said he has dreams of becoming a truck driver. He said he paid Torres, who identified himself as a state worker named “Jose”, nearly $2,000 to help him a obtain a commercial drivers’ license and a job paying $37 an hour. Balderas said he received nothing in return.

“It’s kind of heart-breaking,” Balderas said.

Torres received probation after he pleaded guilty to theft in Will County in 2016. He also briefly spent time in a Cook County jail last summer on a misdemeanour warrant. 

According to a press release, Madigan alleged Torres continued his schemes in Cook County after his plea in Will County. 

The Will County State’s Attorney is also attempting to revoke Torres’ probation after he failed to appear before a probation officer, according to a county spokesperson. 

Torres is currently represented by the Will County Public Defender’s office. However, a spokesperson said the office could not comment on any pending cases. 

The Illinois Secretary of State also released a statement regarding Torres. 

“There is currently a joint investigation between the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and the Illinois Secretary of State Police,” said Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White. “I urge the public to call the Secretary of State Police if confronted by anyone offering jobs, driver’s licenses or any other state services outside of our Driver Services facilities.” 

Concerned citizens are urged to report suspicious incidents to the Illinois Secretary of State Police at 630-693-0551 or contact the Office of the Inspector General at 217-785-2012.

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<![CDATA[Majority of Chicago-Area School Districts Do Not Have SROs]]> Thu, 17 May 2018 18:50:08 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/LMX___School+Resource+Officers+LONG+5P+PKG_WCAU_000000025717985+-+00000000_32108539+investigates.jpg

About a third of school districts in the Chicago area have a police officer permanently assigned to their schools, according to a public records request.

NBC 5 Investigates sent a Freedom of Information request to 382 public and charter elementary and high school districts in the Chicago area, asking each one if they had school resource officers. Of the 311 districts that responded, 184 districts, or 59 percent, said it did not have SROs; 116 districts, or 37 percent, did.

Eleven other districts, or 3.5 percent, provided other information, and these districts could not be classified as having SROs or not.

The issue has come to the forefront once again as another school shooting has threatened safety.

Nineteen-year-old Matthew Milby, a current senior, is charged with opening fire at Dixon High School. He was confronted by Mark Dallas, an SRO assigned to the campus, who injured Milby in a shootout in an effort to protect other students.

“What happened in Dixon on Wednesday is another example of the critical need for school resource officers being assigned in our schools,” said James Kruger, President of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. “These dedicated officers are there to ensure the wellbeing of the students, not put them on a path to prison or focus on arrest. They are there in the truest sense of community oriented policing and relationship building while providing a higher level of security for our students.”

In an interview last month, Kruger told NBC 5 Investigates said some schools were looking to increase their law enforcement presence in the wake of national tragedies, including the Valentine’s Day massacre in Parkland, FL.

“I can say that we’ve seen a significant increase of a majority of high schools, and I would say probably a good number of middle schools or junior high schools also have an officer,” Kruger said.

Kruger said many districts do not employ SROs because of financial constraints. Each district enters into agreements with its local law enforcement agency to determine how the officer will be paid.

“Some can be 50-50. Some can be two-thirds to one-thirds,” Kruger said.

But for some children’s advocates, more police on campus could spell trouble.

“Police should only be contacted if there is a serious and immediate threat to the safety of our school personnel, the public or our students,” said Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, an attorney for the non-profit Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. “We find that we are funneling children, particularly children of color, into the criminal justice system.”

According to Mbekeani-Wiley, that’s a direct result of a lack of training for SROs. In Illinois, officers permanent stationed in schools are not required to undergo youth specific training or certification.

“We require officers who work with dogs to receive canine training. We require officers who work with horses to receive equestrian training. Yet officers who work with children (in Illinois) receive no specialized training in how to interact with the student population,” said Mbekeani-Wiley. 

Mbekeani-Wiley has helped draft Senate Bill 2925, carried by state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-4th District, that would mandate training for SROs in areas, such as crisis intervention for youth, de-escalation, implicit bias, adolescent brain development and cyberbullying.

The bill unanimously passed the state Senate. It is currently awaiting a vote on the House floor.

“No matter how well your school performs, I think it’s important to protect the safety of the students, the teachers and the administrators in the building,” said Sen. Lightford.

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<![CDATA[Anonymous Chat Apps Could Put Kids in Danger: Police]]> Tue, 15 May 2018 22:38:32 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/WHISPER+APP+DANGERS+-+00000000_32072494.jpg

If you want to chat online and share your secrets with a stranger there are mobile apps to fit your need. But police say apps that are marketed as anonymous conversation platforms could put your children at risk from predators.

“No one on social media is anonymous,” said cyber security consultant Rich Wistocki.

Wistocki, who recently retired from the Naperville Police Department, said he worked a case in which a man allegedly tried luring a teenage girl through the Whisper app.

“Predators are gonna go where the kids are,” Wistocki said.

In fact, police in Pennsylvania are searching for a man accused of sexually assaulting a teen girl he met through a social media app. Police say the victim met the suspect on the Whisper app after she thought she was talking to a teen boy and invited him over.

But when the suspect arrived at the teen girl’s Haverford Township home on April 22, police said the man sexually assaulted her in the home before running off.

Whisper is currently helping police with the investigation.

Wistocki said children who don’t have wireless enabled devices can still download appsa through Wi-Fi. He said parents must be empowered to inspect their children’s mobile devices.

“Parents need to understand they are responsible for their kids’ technology,” Wistocki said. “They can take it away and look at it any time they want. That’s the law.”

A Whisper spokesperson told the NBC affiliate in Philadelphia the app is rated 17+ and is blocked when parental controls are enabled.

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<![CDATA[Ill. Leaders Spend Hundreds of Thousands on Sports Tickets]]> Mon, 14 May 2018 20:43:15 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/10P+PKG+MARIN+SPORTS+TICKETS+4.png

Since January 2016, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s political campaign has spent more than $700,000 to purchase tickets to Chicago Cubs, White Sox and Bulls games. NBC 5's Carol Marin Reports.

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<![CDATA[Ill. Leaders Spend Hundreds of Thousands on Sports Tickets]]> Mon, 14 May 2018 20:43:38 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/10P+PKG+MARIN+SPORTS+TICKETS+4.png

Since January 2016, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s political campaign has spent more than $700,000 to purchase tickets to Chicago Cubs, White Sox and Bulls games.

Senate President John Cullerton’s campaign bought over $300,000 in sports tickets. Together, according to state records, they have spent $1,037,641.

"I was shocked," said Susan Garrett, a former state senator and Chairwoman of the Board of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, when shown the numbers.

Never in her "wildest dreams," Garrett said, would she imagine a top political leader spending so exorbitantly.

The totals are found on the Illinois State Board of Elections website - and come screaming at you like a 95-mile-an-hour fastball.

From January 1, 2016, to March 31, 2018, state records show Madigan's committee made:

- 14 purchases of Cubs tickets, ranging from $380 to $129,000 and totaling over $446,000

- Five purchases of White Sox tickets, totaling over $171,000

- Bulls tickets totaling over $95,000

All together, the total came to more than $700,000, according to state records.

When asked what word came to her mind, Garrett replied, “incomprehensible.”

Over that same period of time, records show Cullerton’s spent:

- $171,000 on Cubs tickets, including purchases of over $10,000 during the 2016 World Series run

- $73,000 on Sox tickets

- $80,000 to watch the Bulls

"The law says you can do it. You can spend as much as you want to spend as long as it is not for personal use," said Garrett, who served in the Illinois Senate from 2003 to 2013. Prior to that she represented the north suburbs in the Illinois House.

"And you may not think that’s the way a campaign ought to be run but that’s not up to you," said Ken Menzel, general counsel for the Illinois Board of Elections. It's up to the Illinois General Assembly, he said, which sets the rules that govern how politicians can spend their campaign cash.

In a statement, Madigan’s office said, "The tickets are used to thank supporters and volunteers" and when "the Speaker…or his family uses the tickets they pay for them with personal funds."

Cullerton’s campaign said in a statement, "Primarily, the sports tickets are donated to charitable organizations as a way to show support and assist with their fundraising and advocacy efforts. Less frequently, the tickets are used as an event-based fundraising tool. The tickets are utilized as a vehicle to cultivate new relationships with supporters and show appreciation and recognition of donors and volunteers."

Neither Gov. Bruce Rauner nor his Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker purchased sports tickets through their campaigns. The combined total for Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady and House Minority Leader Jim Durkin was just over $5,000 for the same period.

Garrett said the tickets are great campaign perks - but what concerned her, she said, is “We don’t know who attended those games," adding that she favors disclosing who receives the tickets.

Before 1999, Illinois lawmakers could use political funds for country club memberships or college tuition.

"This is much more that a country club membership or tuition to college or private school or whatever. This is beyond anybody’s expectations,” Garrett said, urging lawmakers to find the will to change the law.

"I think now that lawmakers see this and understand how much money is being spent,” she said, “they might say that’s too much not to disclose.”

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<![CDATA[Community Rallies to Help Original Tuskegee Airman]]> Fri, 11 May 2018 18:51:01 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/247*120/TUSKEEGI_31797836.jpg

A Chicago community is rallying to support a World War II veteran facing major health and financial issues. 

As an original Tuskegee Airman, Virgil Poole's intelligence gathering helped pilots safely reach their targets during the war. Now, the Chicago-area is helping him. 

The community has been raising money and awareness for the 97-year-old who has been battling dementia and is losing his home in Glenwood. 

"They family thought that he was paying the bills like he did every month on time and unfortunately when they received the foreclosure notice it was a little bit beyond too late," said family friend Juquita Johnson. 

Poole, 97, is an original member of the Tuskegee Airmen. The pioneer group of African-American pilots and service personnel broke color barriers and became one of the most highly-decorated units in US aviation history.

Nearly 75 years ago, Poole served in an intelligence capacity and held debriefings with airmen returning from combat missions over North Africa and Europe. According to the Chicago DODO Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Poole is one of eight original members still living in the Chicago area.

“To know someone who is so historical, someone who helped save our country, someone who led our country to victory and if it wasn’t for him, who knows where we would be right now?” said Johnson.

Virgil and his wife Haweda’s two car loans were eating up nearly half of the couple’s income, which made day-to-day living difficult.

“We had to cut back, you know, there’s nothing we can do about it because I didn’t want to have a repo on me and make my credit bad,” said Haweda Poole.

Johnson said she believes the Pooles were victims of financial exploitation as a result of Haweda signing a car loan with a 21.38 percent interest rate for a new Honda Accord in 2015.

“There is no way as a business person I would allow myself and allow a senior, a super senior, to sign a $600 to $700 car note payment on a car that’s definitely worth maybe half of that,” Johnson said.

Mario Aguirre, of United Credit Union, helped the Pooles refinance one of their auto loans.

“As an airman, as a police officer he provided great service to the United States and the city of Chicago,” Aguirre said.

Johnson is now helping the Pooles pay some of their smaller bills. The couple is also receiving food donations from United Methodist Church in Hazel Crest.

“They’ve been very helpful. They really have,” said Haweda Poole.

Johnson has set up a GoFundMe page to help the Pooles. 

Chicago DODO Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen president Ken Rapier said the group has raised more than $1,200 for Virgil and his wife. The group is also planning to hold a spaghetti dinner fundraiser for the Pooles.

“When we find out about something like this, we go in to action as quick as we can,” Rapier said.

The local chapter raises awareness for the Tuskegee Airmen through speaking engagements. It also offers scholarships and sponsors youth aviation programs.

“He is our hero and we need to help our hero. We need to sustain our hero,” said Vallorie O’Neil of the Chicago DODO Chapter, Tuskegee Airmen Inc.

In addition, since the Pooles' story first made headlines, housing and credit professionals have reached out to NBC 5, offering their expertise to the couple. 

The family is currently exploring several housing options but no decision has been made. Meantime, fundraisers say they’ll do everything they can to help the veteran and his wife. 

A local American Legion chapter also said it is working on securing a home and a federal voucher that would pay the rent for the Pooles.

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<![CDATA[Fake Posts Mimic Real Companies, Dupe Job Seekers]]> Thu, 10 May 2018 22:46:48 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/10P+PKG+ONLINE+JOB+SCAM+NO+TAG+-+00001005_32016471.jpg

Looking for a summer job? 

Think twice about that online job posting, warns Kathleen Makuch of Buffalo Grove. 

The single mom of two high-schoolers was looking for work on the popular job search site, Indeed, when she fell for what appeared to be a legitimate post. That move would cost her $2,700.

“I did my research immediately,” Makuch said. “How can there be such evil people in the world?”

Makuch said she inquired about a front office position. She received an email from someone claiming to be Mark Andrew, an artist and owner of Mark Andrew Allen Studio, that a part-time assistant position was available. He said he was traveling abroad and Makuch could work from home. 

Makuch received a mailed $2,800 check, which she said cleared her bank, to cover expenses. Errands included sending money orders and purchasing iTunes gift cards. When her new employer asked her to open up a bank account, Makuch said a siren went off.

“I was just like – I don’t think this seems right,” Makuch said. 

She never heard from him again. Days later, the initial $2,800 check that the employer sent Makuch to run errands bounced, leaving her with the bill. 

At the same time, across the country, the real Mark Andrew Allen was dealing with his own problems. 

“I’ve been getting almost a call a day on this,” Allen said. 

The Los Angeles-based artist said he has never posted a job online but that he is fielding calls daily about job seekers inquiring about a position at his studio. Allen has had to put up a disclaimer on his website, which reads in part, “there is someone using my information on this website to scam people looking for part-time jobs. The guy is a con…” 

Allen said he also feels victimized.

“Robbing your identity, robbing everything you’ve built and using that, it’s easy to build a site anywhere and say you are somebody else,” Allen said. “This is not only happening to me. This is obviously happening to other businesses.” 

An online search turned up a forum on Indeed’s website from job seekers detailing a similar scam. 

A spokeswoman for Indeed sent a statement, saying “the quality of the job advertisements by third parties on our site is central to our mission. Indeed has a team dedicated to the Search Quality effort, and employs a variety of techniques to review job advertisements to determine their suitability.” 

The spokeswoman directed job seekers to guidelines for a safe job search, which include never accepting money upfront for work not performed and insisting on an in-person meeting – things Makuch said she should’ve done in hindsight. 

“I have a son going to college next year,” Makuch said. “What they did to me, they took all my money.”

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<![CDATA[How 'Restriction Zones' Can Push Some Sex Offenders to Motels]]> Tue, 08 May 2018 13:05:11 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/10P+PKG+SEX+OFFENDER+MOTEL+-+00000812_31976353.jpg

Most every community has laws that restrict registered sex offenders from living in certain areas – close to a school, say, or near park. The laws are intended to protect people from past offenders, but there’s a flipside to these laws which can put people closer than ever to the offenders they’re trying to avoid. 

That’s because these types of restriction laws often drive sex offenders to the margins and edges of town, and to the motels and hotels that are located there, according to Adele Nicholas, a civil rights attorney in Chicago who represents sex offenders who are trying to find legal places to live. So – ironically – in their attempt to obey the law, sex offenders may have little choice but to check in to the motel room next to yours – because they literally have nowhere else to go. 

Consider the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A 2015 map of the city shows a few tiny red portions – each barely a block wide -- which were then the only areas of Milwaukee where registered sex offenders could legally reside, because of strict buffer zones the city had adopted. (The one large red area [in southeast Milwaukee] is the runway system at the city’s airport.)


“The evidence shows that residential exclusions zones [are] a gimmick,” Nicholas says. “In fact they oftentimes increase risk factors for crime by pushing people to the margins of society, and by making it impossible for them to successfully re-integrate into communities.” 

In May of 2017 Nicholas and fellow Chicago attorney Mark Weinberg filed suit in in federal court against the city of Milwaukee, on behalf of several registered sex offenders who were required (because of the location of their convictions) to live in the Milwaukee area. The suit challenged the constitutionality of the city’s 2015 residency restrictions, which prohibited these offenders from living “….within 2,000 feet of any school, licensed day care center, park, recreational trail, playground or any other place designated by the city as a place where children are known to congregate.” The sex offenders’ suit argued that the restrictions “effectively banish[ed] them from the city” or rendered them homeless.

As a direct result of Nicholas’ and Weinberg’s lawsuit, Milwaukee’s Common Council voted in the fall of 2017 to repeal the city’s “buffer zones,” allowing most registered sex offenders to now live in most any area in the city. And while – at first glance – this may seem alarming, Nicholas and Weinberg cite several academic studies that show that sex offenders are no more to re-offend, based on where they live. 

“All the studies show that the keys to successful re-integration into the community …. are sources of community support, having positive and productive things to do like being able to work, being able to be a good parent, being able to have positive connections to friends, family, church – things like that,” Nicholas says.

Nicholas and Weinberg have filed similar federal lawsuits against other municipalities in southwest Wisconsin, with results similar to Milwaukee’s repeal of its buffer zones.


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<![CDATA[Avoid Renting Motel Room Next to Registered Sex Offender]]> Mon, 07 May 2018 23:03:26 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/motel+investigates.jpg

Remember that a sex offender’s residency at a motel or inn is completely legal, and there is no obligation on the part of any establishment to research the background of a guest, or alert other guests to someone’s criminal history. NBC 5's Marion Brooks reports.

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<![CDATA[Hotels, Motels Sex Offenders Have Stayed in Last 8 Months]]> Tue, 08 May 2018 09:11:44 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/map+sex+offenders.png

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NOTE: This story follows an NBC 5 Investigates/Telemundo Investiga report on sex offenders living at motels. Click here for more on the investigation. 

Click on the map above to show the areas where NBC5 Investigates and Telemundo Investiga found registered sex offenders who – at some point between the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2018 – reported their home addresses at a motel or hotel in a ten-state area.

Each circle on the map describes a general area where the offenders were found (for example, a single highway interchange); how many hotels and motels in that area were listed as homes to sex offenders at some point during the time period we checked; the total number of sex offenders found; and – within that total – the total number of child sex offenders.

As seen on the map, the majority of these motels are at highway interchanges. Because each state has laws that restrict where registered sex offenders can live (they’re prohibited from living near schools and parks, for example), often the only legal place where some offenders can live is in a motel at the edge of a town or along an interstate -- ironically, the same type of place where travelers check in, during a road trip.

We checked each motel twice – once during the fall of 2017, and once during the spring of 2018 – and found that some offenders moved out between checks; others moved in; and many offenders were living at the motel throughout the two time periods we checked. This map only represents the offenders counted during the two times when NBC5 and Telemundo checked each address.

Motels are not under any obligation to check up on a guest’s criminal history; nor are they required to inform one guest about the presence of another. Registered offenders are not required to inform motels about their status. Their only obligation is to inform local police, whenever they change residences.


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<![CDATA[What to Do to Avoid Renting a Motel Room Near a Sex Offender]]> Mon, 07 May 2018 23:03:46 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/motel+investigates.jpg

NOTE: This story follows an NBC 5 Investigates/Telemundo Investiga report on sex offenders living at motels. Click here for more on the investigation. 

Remember that a sex offender’s residency at a motel or inn is completely legal, and there is no obligation on the part of any establishment to research the background of a guest, or alert other guests to someone’s criminal history. There is also no specific obligation of any police agency, in the states we checked, to give notice directly to hotel or motel guests, about a sex offender who has reported his or her residence there.

So the best way – and likely the only way – for a family to try to take steps to make sure they do not check in to a motel room next to a sex offender is to get the address for the motel, and then cross-check the readily available sex-offender databases for that address. But even that will not work one hundred percent of the time:

Every state maintains its own registry of sex offenders, which is supposed to be updated every time an offender changes his or her home or work address. Most state registries allow you to search by address. But not all work that way. That includes – in the Midwestern states we researched – Minnesota. For the most part, Minnesota does not map offenders by exact addresses, but only by the overall block where they report their residence.

For our story, NBC5 Investigates looked at all motels and hotels listed, in a ten-state area, on two websites: TripAdvisor.com and HotelGuides.com. We cross-referenced the addresses of any motel or hotel listed there, with the geographical-search feature for that state’s sex offender registry.

In order for NBC5 to list a motel or hotel as “tourist-friendly,” it had to full both of the following conditions: 1) be listed and reviewed on TripAdvisor, and 2) have its own website, with a tool where anyone could make an online reservation.

We tracked offenders in other motels (that didn’t have a website and/or weren’t reviewed on TripAdvisor), but did not count them in our number of motels where tourists and families were likely to stay.

You can do the same, for any area where you are planning to travel: NBC5 Investigates has compiled a fifty-state/four territory guide on how to do an address search on each sex offender registry website.

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Also, the United States Department of Justice maintains the National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW), which allows you to search for specific addresses for most states, but not some (for example, Illinois and Tennessee – which is why we have provided separate links in our own guide). To search by location, press the small “search by location” link on the right side of the page.

NSOPW also has a searchable app, which you can download through the Apple App Store or Google Play. Again, it allows you to search by address in some states, but not all.

A private company called “Family Watchdog” also provides “a free service to help locate registered sex offenders in your area,” at this link. Family Watchdog claims its information is 97.5% accurate, and adds: “Not all addresses are in this data. There are many factors beyond our control surrounding address information. One of our primary goals is to upgrade our address service data in the near future.” NBC5 cannot endorse or guarantee the accuracy of Family Watchdog’s information.


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<![CDATA[Unintended Consequences: Sex Offenders in Motels]]> Mon, 07 May 2018 23:13:45 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/SEX+OFFENDER+MOTEL+PROMO+BROLL+-+00124225_31966088.jpg

In April of 2014, a 5-year-old girl was playing with her brothers on the grounds of the Econo Lodge in Terre Haute, Indiana, where she was staying with her family, when a man grabbed her, took her into his motel room, hit her, pulled off her clothes, and molested her.

Court records show that the man, Timothy Blazier, 50, was a recently paroled, twice-convicted child-molester. He’d been living at the Econo Lodge for three months when he molested the 5-year-old girl. He’s now back in prison, serving a sixty-year sentence for the attack — his third conviction involving the sexual abuse of a child.

The incident spurred protests from some Terre Haute residents when they learned that the Econo Lodge — part of the Choice Hotels International chain — had been home not just to Blazier, but to 12 other convicted sex offenders who, according to local news reports, had been housed there at state expense because the motel was one of the few locations that lay outside the town’s prohibited zones for sex offenders.

Following the attack, Choice Hotels cut its affiliation with the motel, which closed a few months later. Choice Hotels International has not responded to several emails from NBC5, asking for comment on the 2014 incident.

In a six-month investigation, NBC5 Investigates found 667 sex offenders who reported that they were living at 490 motels and hotels throughout Illinois and nine surrounding states. Though many offenders appear to have checked in to these motels for just a few weeks or months at a time, approximately half of the offenders that we found, reported staying there for at least six months or more — and sometimes for years.

(We used two hotel guides to check all addresses in a 10-state region -- Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin — and then cross-check those addresses with each state’s sex offender registry, to find sex offenders who listed their home address at motel. We did this twice – once in the fall of 2017, and then again in the 2018, for all 10 states – though it should be noted that, for the most part, Minnesota does not list offender addresses on its registry, so there are very few results from Minnesota.)

With few exceptions in just a handful of towns across the country, it is perfectly legal for any registered sex offender to take up residence at a hotel or motel, as long as it is outside restricted zones. Often these offenders have few other places where they can legally reside, because — depending on where they live — they must keep 1,000, 2,000 or even 3,000 feet or more away from parks, schools and a variety of other places where kids might be — places which dot most residential neighborhoods. Motels and hotels are usually not part of those restrictions.

For their part, motels and hotels are under absolutely no obligation to check the background of any guest — short-term or long-term. They’re also under no obligation to notify visitors about anyone else staying there. And registered sex offenders aren’t required to tell hotels and motels about their criminal histories. Laws vary somewhat from state to state, but in essence sex offenders are mainly obligated to notify local police, any time they move to a new residence or start a new job. It’s then up to the police to decide how or if they want to follow up on that information. So no one — not the motels, not the police, not the offenders — are breaking any laws or rules. In fact it may be that the only way an offender can follow the law is to live at one of these motels along the highway on the outskirts of town.

A total of 314 of the motels we found, where registered sex offenders reported their residences, were mainstream motels with their own websites for online reservations, and most of those were affiliated with well-known chains — places where families and other travellers are likely to stay. We also found that a significant number of the motels were in well-travelled areas — at interstate exchanges (where families often stop overnight on road trips), for example, or in university towns (where families often visit students or attend sporting events).

Increasingly, many law enforcement officials and attorneys argue that this is what society essentially asked for: Because most states and communities have imposed such strict limits on where released sex offenders can live (while still requiring them to live in the town where they committed their offense), often an offender's only legal choice is to live on the margins of towns, often in "clusters" in apartments or motels at highway interchanges — where, ironically, they may be in closer contact than ever to families and children.

“I think we all have a shared interest in safe communities and crime prevention, but residential exclusion zones are nothing other than legislative gimmick,” says Adele Nicholas. She’s a Chicago civil rights attorney who — along with fellow civil rights attorney Mark Weinberg — represents convicted sex offenders who are trying to find legal places to live.

"People are living in these hotels and motels because they're out of options," Nicholas says. “They’re oftentimes pushed to the margins of society and facing potential homelessness, which causes them to have to take up residence — short-term or long-term — in a motel." In other words: The "unintended consequences" of buffer zones.

Nicholas cites several studies that show that residential restriction zones do not reduce crime. She argues that we all need to re-evaluate the conventional wisdom concerning sex offenders and safety: “I think that creating conditions so that people can successfully re-integrate in society — through productive work, through stable housing, through important community connections to their families and loved ones — are good both for someone who committed an offense in the past, and for the safety of society in general.”

In several areas of the 10 states NBC5 Investigates looked at, during the fall of 2017 and/or during the spring of 2018, we found sex offenders who reported living in motels that are just off major interstates and highways — on the margins of the community where they're required to live — but also the exact places a family might pull into, during a road trip.

Take a single interchange in Madison Wisconsin. Last fall — when rooms were at a premium during the University of Wisconsin’s football season — NBC5 Investigates found six separate chain-affiliated motels at that one interchange listed as housing a total of nine sex offenders, convicted for such crimes as sexual assault of a child; aggravated child molestation, child pornography, and rape.

Or take another interchange in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, near Illinois State University. We found five brand-name motels listed as housing a total of six sex offenders over a six-month period between fall of 2017 and spring of 2018 — all of them offenders against teen-aged children. Four of the five motels are clustered at the interchange. And all five motels are listed on the “visitbn.org” website, which ISU links to for suggested hotels for students and their families to stay in while they are visiting the campus. Again, neither ISU nor “visitbn.org” would ever have any obligation to check to see who might be staying in those motels, and no reason to know that some convicted sex offenders may be residents.

These interchanges aren’t unique:

• In Columbus, Ohio (not far from The Ohio State University), we found four motels at a single highway interchange where ten sex offenders said they were living, over the past six months.

• We also found two sex offenders — including one offender against children — who said they were living in two motels listed on the website “visitchampaigncounty.org,” which is the link that the University of Illinois provides for people planning to stay overnight while visiting the Urbana campus. (Once again, neither U of I nor "visitchampaigncounty.org" has any obligation to check on other guests at those motels.)

• NBC5 Investigates also found large clusters of motels at other interchanges where you might likely pull off for a night’s stay, such as one interchange in Merrillville, Indiana (four motels housing nine sex offenders); an interchange in Seymour, Indiana (six motels housing nine sex offenders); and a single interchange in Cleveland, Tennessee (four motels housing four sex offenders).

• Then there’s a single interchange in Murfreesboro, Tennessee: We found residents who reported their addresses at two popular motel chains there. One was listed as the home of six sex offenders, and another was listed as home to fourteen more: Twenty total registered sex offenders in just two name-brand motels at one well-travelled interchange. Add fourteen more sex offenders who list their home at a smaller motel at the same location, and that's a grand total of 34 sex offenders at this single interchange – nearly half of them child sex offenders — all who reported that they lived in this cluster of motels on the edge of town.

Adele Nicholas hopes that these "unintended consequences" of restriction laws might spur the general population to re-evaluate what really might help this admittedly-unpopular group of people. Living in a motel, she says, hampers — not helps — an offender's chance at rehabilitation, "by making it more difficult for them to obtain stable housing; to have the sources of community support that they need, and to have gainful employment and access to transportation -- all things that contribute to people having law-abiding lives." 

"And that's not good for anyone," she adds. "Not just someone who committed an offense — but for society in general."


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<![CDATA[Water Customers 'Blindsided' By Skyrocketing Bills]]> Wed, 02 May 2018 23:39:26 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/WATER+TSE+-+00001110_31903587.jpg

If you are accustomed to paying $60 for your home’s water usage every three months, imagine the shock of opening your next quarterly bill to see it skyrocket one hundred times higher your previous one!

Just ask Lola Buffkin, who owns a four-flat in south suburban Dolton. She had been paying an estimated water bill to the village for several years. But last summer Buffkin received a bill for nearly $8,000.

“I got a sticker shock,” said Lola Buffkin. “There’s money that you have to put out that you didn’t have in your budget.”

A huge water bill could be the result of a running toilet or leaking pipes. But NBC 5 Investigates has found more than 2,300 water customers in Dolton received higher-than-normal bills in 2017.

NBC 5 Investigates obtained a list of all the quarterly water bills sent out to Dolton’s 9031 households and buildings last year. The data shows 699 customers saw their water bills go up by at least half. Another 1,426 customers received bills that went up two to nine times their previous bill. Additionally, 210 customers saw their water bill shoot up ten to 99 times their previous quarterly bill. And 16, including Buffkin and her neighbor Belinda Hamer, opened their water bills to find it was more than 100 times higher than the amount of their previous bill.

“I don’t mind paying it,” said Hamer, who received a $13,000 bill. “I just feel as though we were kind of blindsided by the way they’re doing business or lack of doing business.”

Hamer said the village trimmed a few thousand dollars off her bill. Still, she said she is now on a payment plan and will be paying $500 a month until it is paid in full.

The village’s data also shows three homeowners who each received water bills in 2017 that were nearly one thousand times higher than their previous bill. From approximately $56 for each of them in August to more than $50,000 each in November.

NBC 5 Investigates did confirm with one of the residents that her $50,000 bill was an error that was soon corrected the village.

“If someone gets an unusually high bill, it’s more than likely a mistake and the village will help straighten it out,” said Dolton trustee Valeria Stubbs.

Dolton mayor Riley Rogers told NBC 5 Investigates that the village had lacked the manpower to collect accurate water meter readings, so they relied on estimated water billing for many customers. He also said it can be difficult for meter readers to access multi-unit buildings, like the ones owned by Buffkin and Hamer.

“In some cases the water meter readers were able to get actual readings and many cases they were not,” Rogers said. “Where the residents didn’t let them in and that caused a flow of estimated bills.”

The village says residents are supposed to report their own water usage by filling out yellow forms left by meter readers. However, Buffkin and Hamer said often times they never even knew a village meter reader stopped by their properties.

Rogers said communication with the public could have been better.

Still, the mayor acknowledged stepping up meter readings around the same time customers saw their bills increase.

“I have really demanded that the water meter readers make a special effort to get into those households and be able to take the current readings so we can get actual readings because in some cases we’re actually selling water for cheaper than what we’re purchasing it for,” Rogers said.

Rogers said the village needs to collect accurate water meter readings in order to provide funding for its infrastructure. He said he is also in favor of purchasing water meters that can be read via satellites.

Frustration over the bills is happening as the village is facing a multi-million dollar lawsuit from the City of Chicago. The city is demanding nearly $8 million in past due bills and penalties for water that Dolton bought from the city and then sold to its residents.

“Whether we owed the money or not, we still need to have accurate readings,” said Rogers, who argues residents in Dolton have affordable water bills compared to other nearby municipalities.

The lawsuit also alleges Dolton transferred $8.9 million from its water fund to its general fund in 2016.

“We have to do a better job to segregate our funds,” Rogers said.

Meantime, Rogers said he supports a ten year plan to pay back the City of Chicago.

Public records show none of the elected leaders in Dolton saw a major increase in their home’s water bills. Officials we spoke to say their bills stayed relatively low.

But much of this story remains a mystery, like how many bills were computed , how many were accurate and how many of them could have been errors.

“To me there’s a whole another level of administrative issues within the village itself and that’s what I think needs to be dealt with,” Hamer said.

Trustee Robert Pierson, Jr., told NBC 5 Investigates the village has hired a department head to “fix the problem.”

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<![CDATA[DNA Test Says it Will Implement New Controls After Report]]> Wed, 02 May 2018 19:04:00 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/TESTING+THE+DNA+TEST+-+00000000_31873454.jpg

A home DNA testing company says it will take precautions to make certain no future mistakes are made, after failing to detect a test where NBC5 Investigates substituted a dog’s sample for human DNA.

NBC5 submitted the cheek swabs from Bailey, a Labrador Retriever, to multiple home testing companies. Most kicked them back as unreadable.

But one, Orig3n DNA, which offers a “Superhero” test for strength, intelligence, and speed, failed to note that Bailey was not human.

Instead, after we submitted the $29 test, the company sent a 7 page report, saying that her muscle force would probably be great for quick movements like boxing and basketball, and that she has the cardiac output for long endurance bike rides or runs.

They did advise she might want to work with a personal trainer.

In a statement, company spokesman Karmen Conrad said the company makes it their mission to provide consumers with affordable access to information about their genes and health.

“We did not anticipate anyone submitting a non-human sample into our genetics laboratory,” he said. “Since October Orig3n has acquired a CLIA certified laboratory, and upon hearing about this issue, has implemented controls to ensure that nefarious samples such as this are rejected from further processing. We are sorry there was an error in reporting this one particular sample.”

In a follow-up email, Conrad noted that Orig3n’s Terms of Service states that “If you are submitting a cheek swab for genetic testing, you represent that the cheek swab is your genetic material.”

In other tests, we learned that a reporter’s ancestors almost certainly came from Ireland, or Scotland. Or maybe western Europe. Possibly Scandinavia. And that today, those same genetic markers come back to Kuwait. And Peru. Even Qatar and Afghanistan.

But it takes a close look to make certain exactly what any test is offering. While some offer to trace your lineage, others are only pointing to where in the world your DNA markers are showing up today.

Take the granddaddy of them all, Ancestry.com. They came back with an ancestry report that reporter Phil Rogers’ relatives were most likely from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Coming in second (32%), was Scandinavia. Third was western Europe (26%).

But another test, My Heritage DNA flipped that script. Their number one choice was north and western Europe (66.2%). Great Britain came in second (18%). And while Ancestry liked Ireland as a first choice, with My Heritage, the Emerald Isle came in third (15.8%).

So what gives?

Rafi Mendelsohn of My Heritage suggested the differences may lay in the software.

“The algorithms with which companies build the ethnicity databases,” he said. After more than a decade in the family history business, he says his company started its DNA operations by building a library of markers from a raft of countries.

“We DNA tested 5,000 people around the world,” he says. “With each area there are specific genetic markers.”

Mendelsohn said his company is confident of its results, because of the underlying data they use.

“We have 42 ethnicities,” he said. “My Heritage is the most global family history company.”

In a statement, Ancestry.com likewise suggested different approaches may explain different results.

“We’re confident in the science and methodologies that lead to the insights we give customers, and strive to explain the uncertainty inherent in the statistical approaches on our website,” the statement said.

Conceding it’s the “early days for consumer genomics,” Ancestry echoed My Heritage’s contention that underlying data is key.

“One of Ancestry’s accuracy advantages comes from combining the world’s largest DNA network of more than 7 million people with more than 10 billion historical records, and 100 million family trees.”

And remember, those are just your long lost relatives.

Another company, Home DNA, promises to tell you where your genetic markers show up in the world today. In my case, that was Kuwait, Ireland, Austria, and Afghanistan, with places like Peru and Guyana coming in a distant second.

Their sister company, Connect My DNA, came up with similar results. In their test, my markers came back first to Ireland, Austria, and Scotland, then Peru, Guyana, and Nicaragua.

“That’s one of the earlier tests that was offered,” Home DNA’s Dr. Michael Baird told NBC 5. “Most of the tests today are more advanced.”

He says his company looks at more than 40 population groups. And emphasized that Connect My DNA is not designed to track down your ancient relatives.

“It’s not intended to be an ancestry test,” he said. “It’s looking at your markers, compared to populations around the world.”

Of course, not all home kits deal with your relatives past or present. Some offer to tell you about everything from your choice in wine, to your diet, even how good you’ll be at soccer or football. And some experts are cautious in their approach to some of those tests.

“The majority of genetic testing is still a gray area and there’s always the possibility of uncertain results,” said Jessica Stoll, a genetic counselor with the University of Chicago Hospitals. Stoll said consumer tests for ancestry and the like are fine and can be fun for entertainment value. What concerns her are more serious tests, some FDA approved, which offer to check tendencies for serious diseases like Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s.

“I don’t find them particularly useful, and in some cases I can actually find them harmful,” she said. “We use very specific clinical tests to determine if there is a very specific gene mutation or a change in a gene that’s increasing a person’s risk.”

She emphasized genetic markers alone don’t tell the whole story.

“If we’re going to do any testing, we need to base it on your personal and family medical history,” she said.

Debra Duquette, a genetic counselor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine agrees.

“Genetic testing is very complex,” she said. “Health care involvement needs to be right there, first and foremost.”

She is especially wary of any test involving children. Why, she asks, would a parent want to give their child a test involving their acumen at playing sports?

“I would hate for anyone to have a genetic test that then discourages them from doing something they want to do in life,” she said.

UCLA geneticist Dr. Wayne Grody agrees. He is not a fan of home tests. Especially those involving health.

“It’s not very hard science---maybe it will get better,” he said. “I’d be taking them all with a grain of salt!”

While he conceded that some ancestry tests are probably “getting better”, Grody cautioned that the level of sophistication for all home kits still falls short of what is usually approached in the medical world.

“There might be some vague truth, but those are vague assumptions,” he said. “It’s really like the patent medicines of a hundred years ago.”

It’s important to note that many of the companies offer much more than DNA information. Several gave us names of likely matches to unknown relatives. Ancestry accurately showed the migration of ancestors to Oklahoma, and their site offers links to census and other documents.

“We tell customers throughout the product experience that their results are as accurate as possible for where the science is today, and that they may evolve over time as the resolution of DNA estimates improve,” Ancestry said in their statement. “Your DNA does not change, our science does.”

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<![CDATA[Home DNA Kits: What Do They Tell You?]]> Fri, 04 May 2018 12:52:04 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/TESTING+THE+DNA+TEST+-+00000000_31873454.jpg

Confused by the barrage of ads from companies wanting to dissect your personal tastes/family history/longevity/health based on a simple sample of your DNA?

You’re not alone. Depending on which company is vying for your attention, you might be tempted to learn more about your ancestors, your diet, your workout regimen, the best position for your child to play in sports, even which wine you prefer.

NBC 5 Investigates ordered up a random set of the tests, submitting one reporter’s DNA for analysis.

That one reporter --- was me, Phil Rogers.

What I learned is that my ancestors almost certainly came from Ireland, or Scotland. Or maybe western Europe. Possibly Scandinavia. And that today, my genetic markers come back to Kuwait. And Peru. Even Qatar and Afghanistan.

Wait, what? I have relatives in Afghanistan?

Maybe not. Depending which test you take, you need to look closely what it’s offering.

Take the granddaddy of them all, Ancestry.com. Their report told me my ancestors were most likely (36 percent) from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Coming in second (32 percent), was Scandinavia. Third was western Europe (26 percent).

My Heritage DNA flipped that script. Their number one choice was north and western Europe (66.2 percent). Great Britain came in second (18 percent). And while Ancestry liked Ireland as a first choice, with My Heritage, the Emerald Isle came in third (15.8 percent).

So what gives?

Rafi Mendelsohn of My Heritage suggested the differences may lay in the software.

“The algorithms with which companies build the ethnicity databases,” he said. After more than a decade in the family history business, he says his company started its DNA operations by building a library of markers from a raft of countries.

“We DNA tested 5,000 people around the world,” he says. “With each area there are specific genetic markers.”

Mendelsohn said his company is confident of its results, because of the underlying data they use.

“We have 42 ethnicities,” he said. “My Heritage is the most global family history company.”

In a statement, Ancestry.com likewise suggested different approaches may explain different results.

“We’re confident in the science and methodologies that lead to the insights we give customers, and strive to explain the uncertainty inherent in the statistical approaches on our website,” the statement said.

Conceding it’s the “early days for consumer genomics,” Ancestry echoed My Heritage’s contention that underlying data is key.

“One of Ancestry’s accuracy advantages comes from combining the world’s largest DNA network of more than 7 million people with more than 10 billion historical records, and 100 million family trees.”

And remember, those are just your long lost relatives.

Another company, Home DNA, promises to tell you where your genetic markers show up in the world today. In my case, that was Kuwait, Ireland, Austria, and Afghanistan, with places like Peru and Guyana coming in a distant second.

Their sister company, Connect My DNA, came up with similar results. In their test, my markers came back first to Ireland, Austria, and Scotland, then Peru, Guyana, and Nicaragua.

“That’s one of the earlier tests that was offered,” Home DNA’s Dr. Michael Baird told NBC 5. “Most of the tests today are more advanced.”

He says his company looks at more than 40 population groups. And emphasized that Connect My DNA is not designed to track down your ancient relatives.

“It’s not intended to be an ancestry test,” he said. “It’s looking at your markers, compared to populations around the world.”

Dog vs. Human

At this point in our story we should also note that we submitted another set of samples from another individual to several of the companies. But this individual, Bailey, is not your usual customer. In fact, she’s not even human.

She’s a Labrador Retriever.

“You set the bar pretty low,” Dr. Baird laughed. “These tests are human specific!”

Indeed, his company kicked Bailey’s test back as unreadable, as did most others. But one, Orig3n DNA, which offers a “Superhero” test for strength, intelligence, and speed, failed to note that Bailey was not human.

Instead, after we submitted the $29 test, the company sent a 7 page report, saying that her muscle force would probably be great for quick movements like boxing and basketball, and that she has the cardiac output for long endurance bike rides or runs.

They did advise she might want to work with a personal trainer.

Health Research

Orig3n did not respond to our phone calls and emails seeking comment on why they did not detect that Bailey was a dog. But some experts in the field suggested all home kits should be approached with a wary eye.

“The majority of genetic testing is still a gray area and there’s always the possibility of uncertain results,” said Jessica Stoll, a genetic counselor with the University of Chicago Hospitals. Stoll said consumer tests for ancestry and the like are fine and can be fun for entertainment value. What concerns her are more serious tests, some FDA approved, which offer to check tendencies for serious diseases like Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s.

“I don’t find them particularly useful, and in some cases I can actually find them harmful,” she said. “We use very specific clinical tests to determine if there is a very specific gene mutation or a change in a gene that’s increasing a person’s risk.”

She emphasized genetic markers alone don’t tell the whole story.

“If we’re going to do any testing, we need to base it on your personal and family medical history,” she said.

Debra Duquette, a genetic counselor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine agrees.

“Genetic testing is very complex,” she said. “Health care involvement needs to be right there, first and foremost.”

She is especially wary of any test involving children. Why, she asks, would a parent want to give their child a test involving their acumen at playing sports?

“I would hate for anyone to have a genetic test that then discourages them from doing something they want to do in life,” she said.

UCLA geneticist Dr. Wayne Grody agrees. He is not a fan of home tests. Especially those involving health.

“It’s not very hard science---maybe it will get better,” he said. “I’d be taking them all with a grain of salt!”

While he conceded that some ancestry tests are probably “getting better”, Grody cautioned that the level of sophistication for all home kits still falls short of what is usually approached in the medical world.

“There might be some vague truth, but those are vague assumptions,” he said. “It’s really like the patent medicines of a hundred years ago.”

It’s important to note that many of the companies offer much more than DNA information. Several gave me names of likely matches to unknown relatives. Ancestry accurately showed the migration of my ancestors to Oklahoma, and their site offers links to census and other documents.

“We tell customers throughout the product experience that their results are as accurate as possible for where the science is today, and that they may evolve over time as the resolution of DNA estimates improve,” Ancestry said in their statement. “Your DNA does not change, our science does.”

As for Bailey, her owner said the Superhero report gives her new inspiration.

“Westminster Dog Show, here we come!”

]]>
<![CDATA[With No One Left to Testify--Inmate Says He Should Be Freed]]> Fri, 27 Apr 2018 18:35:03 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/LMX___6P+PKG+WATTS+SENTENCING_WMAQ_000000004369448+%28Read-Only%29+Version1+-+00000125_30392113.png

Amidst a snowballing scandal in the Chicago Police Department, a man convicted on gun charges says he should now be freed, because even prosecutors say the officers who built the case against him cannot be trusted.

The case involves disgraced Sgt. Ronald Watts, and the tactical team he supervised in the former Ida B. Wells housing project. Watts and one of his officers went to jail amidst charges of shakedowns and frameups.

Two weeks ago, NBC 5 Investigates revealed that prosecutors had informed Chicago police that ten officers associated with the Watts corruption would no longer be called as witnesses “due to concerns about their credibility and alleged involvement in the misconduct of Sgt. Watts.” Three of those officers were the witnesses in McDaniels’ case.

“Specifically, McDaniels alleges that these officers planted a gun on him and lied about it,” attorney Joshua Tepfer wrote in a motion filed Friday. “These officers have a pattern and practice of framing citizens for crimes they did not commit.”

Added to his motion, Tepfer filed the names of 17 new individuals he said were likewise framed by Watts and his officers. At least 23 people have already been exonerated by courts after evidence was presented that their convictions could not be supported.

“There’s agreement, the state and I and everyone who looks at this agrees that these officers can’t be trusted,” Tepfer told NBC 5 Friday. “Law enforcement knew this was going on for a very long time!”

The McDaniels matter is scheduled for a hearing on Tuesday.

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<![CDATA[A Look Back at the James Jordan Murder Case as It Happened]]> Thu, 26 Apr 2018 21:44:43 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/10P+PKG+DANIEL+GREEN++incomplete+-+00001925_31832580.jpg

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Michael Jordan’s dad, James Jordan, who was fatally shot while napping on the shoulder of US Highway 74 in North Carolina.

The July 23, 1993 murder shocked Chicago and the nation.

“Pops,” as Michael Jordan would refer to him, was not just any dad. He was the devoted father of Michael Jordan, considered by many as the world’s greatest basketball player in history. James Jordan was 57 at the time of his murder.

James Jordan, was last seen July 22, 1993 when he had dinner with friends in Wilmington, North Carolina before heading for his home in Charlotte. He was scheduled to be on a 9 a.m. flight the next day to Chicago where he supposed to play in a charity golf tournament that his son Michael was sponsoring.

James was two hours away from home when he decided to pull over his cherry-red Lexus that Michael Jordan had bought with the North Carolina license plate “UNC 0023”— a nod to the college jersey Michael wore while playing basketball for the University of North Carolina.

According to Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt, who prosecuted and won convictions in the murder case, Larry Demery of Rolwand, North Carolina and Daniel Andre Green of Lumberton, both 18 at the time, were looking to rob someone that night at a roadside motel. Instead, they came upon Jordan’s Lexus pulled over on the side of the road. In Britt’s opening statement he described Green has the trigger man with a criminal history, who pointed the gun inside the car and shot James Jordan one time in the heart with a .38 caliber revolver.

The boys then drove the Lexus to Pea Bridge Road and dumped the body into Gum Creek, according to court documents at the time. For three days, the boys drove the car around and used the car phone to call friends and a 1-900-sex line. When James Jordan didn’t arrive in Chicago for the charity golf outing, Britt said Michael Jordan’s security team was alerted and started investigating the disappearance, but no missing persons report was filed.

It wasn’t until badly decomposed body was discovered in Gum Swamp Creek on Aug. 3 by fishermen Hal Locker that Jordan’s mysterious disappearance started to be solved. The body was handed over to Coroner Tim Brown of Marlboro County, S.S., who performed an autopsy and discovered the cause of death - a single shot to the heart. Unable to identify who the person was, the body was cremated but dental records and fingerprints were preserved.

According to police records, Jordan’s stripped Lexus was discovered by police officials Aug. 5 . The boys had dumped the car in the woods near Fayetteville. They stripped the car of its vanity license plate and stole a replica of an NBA championship ring from the Bulls’ 1990-991 season, one NBA All-Star ring, Jordan’s wallet, watch and other items. It was only when police traced the vin number of the Lexus that they learned it belonged to James Jordan. The dental records were later matched to James Jordan and the Jordan family was notified. 

Robeson County Sheriff Hubert Stone led the Jordan murder investigation, quickly pegging the murder on Demery and Green, who were childhood friends. At the time, Stone characterized the crime as a carjacking,--a random act of violence. 

Demery testified at their 1996 trial that Green shot Jordan as he slept in his car. Green was found guilty of first-degree murder and armed robbery. He is serving a life sentence currently at Lumberton Correctional Institution. Demery pleaded guilty to the murder and a string of other robberies as part of a deal worked out with prosecutors. He received a 40-year concurrent sentence and became eligible for parole in 2016. He applied for parole but was denied the past two years. 

Michael Jordan, is now the owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. He led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships.


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<![CDATA[Watch: Extended Interview With Convicted Killer Daniel Green]]> Fri, 27 Apr 2018 08:33:16 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/10P+PKG+DANIEL+GREEN++incomplete+-+00015211_31832616.jpg

It was a celebrity crime that shocked Chicago and the nation in the summer of 1993. The father of the world’s most famous athlete was gunned down in what was described as a roadside robbery in North Carolina.

Now, Daniel Green, one of two then-teenagers convicted in the crime, is fighting for a new trial in the murder of James Jordan, saying in filed court documents that much of the evidence used in the trial is questionable.

Watch extended clips from Rob Stafford's exclusive interview with Green and read more on the case here.

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<![CDATA[New Evidence Prompts Questions in James Jordan Murder Case]]> Fri, 27 Apr 2018 08:33:57 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/10P+PKG+DANIEL+GREEN++incomplete+-+00010217_31832806.jpg

In North Carolina’s Robenson County Superior Court sits a voluminous motion filed on the behalf of Daniel Green, seeking a new trial in the murder of James Jordan. The 2015 motion details a range of issues—from police corruption to evidence tampering to false testimony and juror misconduct.

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“This case is complicated. If I had to pick one word, I’d say, it’s complicated,” said Attorney Chris Mumma, of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence. “It’s complicated because there is a lot of moving parts and it’s a high profile case. When you get those two things combined, that’s where you’re really at risk.”

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Green is currently serving life in prison for the murder of the father of the world’s most famous athlete, Michael Jordan. Green was convicted in 1996 after he and his childhood friend were charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery and conspiracy. That friend, Larry Demery got 40 years after testifying in court that Green was the trigger man.

Green’s motion and supporting exhibits of trial transcripts and affidavits consist of hundreds of supporting documents gathered over 25 years of Green’s doggid persistence of innocence. In addition to Mumma, Green’s defense team is made up of Ian Mance of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and Scott Holmes, a professor at the North Carolina Central School of Law.

Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt who prosecuted the case, stands by the conviction. He characterizes the case as a “strong circumstantial case,” saying “Daniel Green was in control.”

“He drove the car with the body,” Britt said. “He drove to the location to dump the body. He made the calls. The .38 was found at his house. He rapped on the videotape with the stolen jewelry.”

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Britt added the recent post-trial motion is, “grasping at straws” and he hopes that a hearing will put an end to the “post-conviction circus.”

The North Carolina Attorney General’s office is reviewing the court filing and has not yet made a decision on whether to grant Green a new trial.

TAMPERED EVIDENCE

Recent court filings by Green’s attorneys claim that someone tampered with James Jordan’s shirt after an autopsy had been performed. The autopsy report performed by Dr. Joel Sexton of Newberry, South Carolina indicates that he found no hole in the shirt that corresponded with the bullet wound in the upper chest area. Yet during the trial, when Agent R.N. Mars of the State’s Bureau of Investigations (SBI) testified, he told the jury that there was a hole in the upper chest area, contradicting Sexton’s report. The court filing says that the lack of a hole in the shirt to match the bullet wound contradicts the prosecutor’s theory that James Jordan was asleep and lying down in his Lexus when he was shot. “This discrepancy would have greatly strengthened the defense argument that Demery’s version of events was false,” the court filing says. It would have bolstered the defense theory that an altercation occurred between Demery and Jordan.

FALSE TESTIMONY

Court filings say that the state’s forensics expert, Jennifer Elwell of State Bureau of Investigations, testified that she found blood in Jordan’s Lexus. She later recanted in a sworn affidavit that she did not know what the substance was. After the Green trial, the State Bureau of Investigation was audited by Attorney General Roy Cooper in 2015, and the audit revealed that the forensic lab withheld or distorted evidence in more than 200 cases. Court filings in Green’s motion also claim that Elwell was ordered by a supervisor to destroy the only known sample of Jordan’s blood after the trial.

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POLICE CORRUPTION

One theory disclosed in court filings questions Hubert Stone, Robeson County Sheriff at the time; and other law enforcement officers who worked the murder investigation. One key piece of evidence, which led police to the boys were the cell phone calls made from James Jordan’s cell phone. One of the first calls was to Hubert Deese, who worked with Larry Demery. Deese is a convicted cocaine trafficker. New evidence discovered by Green’s defense team found that Deese is the biological son of Sheriff Stone. Police never questioned Deese. Green’s defense team believes that Green took the fall to protect the Sheriff’s son.

JUROR MISCONDUCT

Green’s motion for a new trial includes a sworn statement from the former jury forewoman, Paula Locklear who says that during the trial, she did her own investigation, violating a judge’s order. Locklear says she visited the South Carolina creek where the body was discovered and formulated her own theory on how the murder occurred.

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<![CDATA[Daniel Green Speaks Out on the Murder of James Jordan]]> Fri, 27 Apr 2018 08:32:49 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/10P+PKG+DANIEL+GREEN++incomplete+-+00032021_31832639.jpg

It was a celebrity crime that shocked Chicago and the nation in the summer of 1993. The father of the world’s most famous athlete was gunned down in what was described as a roadside robbery in North Carolina. 

Now, Daniel Green, one of two then-teenagers convicted in the crime, is fighting for a new trial in the murder of James Jordan, the father of Michael Jordan, saying in filed court documents that much of the evidence used in the trial is questionable.

“I think they should look at the evidence. If you look at the evidence, the evidence is going to speak for itself - that there is no evidence that I killed James Jordan, because I didn’t,” Green said. 

Trial Judge Gregory Weeks sentenced Green to life in prison in 1996. His childhood friend, Larry Demery, got 40 years after testifying in court that Green was the trigger man. Green was 18 at the time. He is now 43. 

“I regret what I did. You know I was a kid,” Green told NBC 5 in his first Chicago television interview since the case entered national spotlight. 

Green said he’s sorry for his part in covering up the crime but always insisted he was not the one who killed Jordan. Now, Green said he has a new lawyer, and new evidence to prove it.

“Before we get to the evidence, let’s talk about what you say you did and did not do that night,” Stafford asked Green during the interview.

“Did you help dispose of the body?” Stafford asked. 

“Yes,” Green said. 

“Did you take possession of his jewelry at some point?” Stafford asked. 

“Yes,” Green said.

“Did you shoot James Jordan?” Stafford asked. 

“No,” Green said. 

Demery testified in court that that Green did shoot Jordan in Jordan’s red Lexus at 1:30 a.m. on July 23, 1993, on the side of Highway 74 in Lumberton, North Carolina. But Green’s attorney has three people who have signed affidavits swearing Green was at a mobile home until 4 a.m. It was then that Green said in court filings Demery showed up agitated and upset. 

“He said ‘Listen, I went out there and we had an altercation. This guy tried me and I shot him,’” Green said Demery told him. 

Green admits to helping Demery dump the body in a swamp but said Demery told him the victim was a drug dealer, not an innocent man napping in his car. 

“I don’t think I realized (it was James Jordan) until maybe two days before our arrest. It was on the news,” Green said.

Green’s attorney, Chris Mumma of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, said she “wasn’t always convinced.” 

“I knew exactly what everybody else in the world knew,” Mumma said.

Mumma said she was skeptical about Green’s claims until her team reviewed the evidence, which she said proves Demery’s testimony was a lie and the investigation was severely flawed. 

“The more I read about the case, the more I looked at the file, the more I not only became convinced that Daniel is innocent, but there was a tremendous amount of corruption in the way that he was convicted,” Mumma said. 

But her client looked far from innocent on a tape after the murder taken by a stolen video camera in which he’s rapping about violence and wearing the NBA All-Star ring and gold watch Michael Jordan gave his father before his death. 

“It does not make it look like [I was bragging]. That’s the way people chose to characterize it,” Green said. 

At the time the tape was taken, Green said he had no idea the victim was James Jordan. But the prosecution stands by Green’s conviction saying he was the one in control that night, had a history of violence and was in possession of the spoils of the crime.

Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt, who prosecuted the case, said it was the single biggest case that he ever tried. He characterized it as one based on “strong circumstantial evidence,” saying, “Daniel Green was in control.”

“He drove the car with the body,” Britt said. “He drove to the location to dump the body. He made the calls. The .38 was found at his house. He rapped on the videotape with the stolen jewelry.” 

Britt said the recent post-trial motion is, “grasping at straws” and he hopes that a hearing will put an end to the “post-conviction circus.”

The North Carolina Attorney General’s office is reviewing the court filing and has not yet made a decision on whether to grant Green a new trial.


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<![CDATA[Semaj Crosby Investigation: One Year Later, No Answers]]> Wed, 25 Apr 2018 22:41:24 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/6P+VO+SEMAJ+CROSBY+-+thumb.jpg

One year after the body of 17-month-old Semaj Crosby was discovered under a couch, her memory and mysterious death haunt the girl’s family, the community, police and attorneys.

“Everything got really quiet and still,” said attorney Neil Patel. “Things just slowed down.”

Patel, who represents Semaj’s mother Sheri Gordon, sat down for his first television interview since Semaj’s death. He revealed he was in the room when Semaj’s body was found in her Joliet Township home, after an exhaustive 30-hour search.

“I don’t normally see that kind of stuff,” recalled Patel, his voice cracking. “I remember thinking how little she looked…I mean it was hard.”

Semaj was reported missing on April 25, 2017. The 17-month-old had wandered off while playing in the yard, according to Gordon. Her disappearance sparked an intense search by police and dozens of community members.

On April 27, Semaj’s body was found under the couch in her family’s home – a home police have said was in “deplorable” conditions, a home she lived in alongside “squatters.”

Last fall, the Will County Coroner’s Office revealed Semaj died of asphyxia – a homicide.

“Based on the unusual circumstances surrounding her disappearance and the subsequent discovery of her decomposing body under the couch in her own home, the multiple previous contacts by the Department of Children and Family Services, the suspicious fire at the residence and lack of cooperation from the witnesses the manner of death of this 17 month old is currently classified as a homicide,” the coroner wrote.

Sheriff’s Office: Five Persons of Interest

The Will County Sheriff’s Office previously identified four women and a teenage minor at the home during Semaj’s disappearance as “persons of interest.”

“I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that (Semaj) did not get under that couch by herself,” said lead detective R.J. Austin at a community meeting last July. “One if not more of those four grown women know exactly what happened to Semaj.”

Those four grown women include Gordon, Semaj’s paternal grandmother Darlene Crosby, Semaj’s paternal aunt Lakerisha Crosby and a family friend, according to detectives.

The sheriff’s office and Patel said Gordon has been cooperating with the investigation.

“We want a full and thorough investigation. If that means considering Sheri (as a person of interest) and clearing her, absolutely we are for that,” Patel said.

Darlene Crosby, who sat down for an exclusive interview with NBC 5 Investigates last summer, said she has been fully cooperative as well.

“I have nothing to hide. I want to talk. I want to help,” Darlene Crosby said.

At the time, Crosby said she and the other women had planned to take Semaj, her brothers and her cousins to get ice cream on a hot day. They were all playing in the yard and dancing to music while waiting to go to Dairy Queen, Crosby said.

Crosby said Semaj’s mother took the girl inside the home for a changing but came back. A short time later, Crosby said that Gordon reported Semaj was missing.

“I am not going to respond to the things people are saying about Sheri,” Patel said. “If these people are saying, ‘Sheri did this, Sheri did that,’ sit down with law enforcement to the point that police are so satisfied with what you have to say that they can take this case to the next steps.”

Darlene Crosby declined a second interview with NBC 5 Investigates. The Crosbys’ attorney Cosmo Tedone said any suggestion by police that his clients are not helping are “misleading and false.”

“There is no way that the Sheriff’s Office can say that my clients are uncooperative since the Sheriff’s Office has not contacted me in over a year to speak with my clients,” Tedone said in a statement. “My clients are deeply saddened as the one year approaches for the death of such an adorable young child who was taken too soon in life.”

Troubling Allegations

NBC 5 Investigates has learned both the Crosby family and Gordon and the house they shared were well-known to Will County Sheriff’s detectives and the Department of Children and Family Services.

According to police call logs, detectives responded to the home on the 300 block of Louis Road more than 80 times in a span of two years. Calls included allegations of disturbances, domestic battery and probation checks.

A 22-page DCFS report released after Semaj’s death revealed caseworkers had responded to Gordon’s home 10 times before the girl went missing.

One tipster reported approximately 30 people were living in the home and “occupants openly sell drugs and they drink” while children are unsupervised, the report stated.

One caseworker noted in the report that it appeared Gordon was “being taken advantage of by the Crosbys…that they refused to help Ms. Gordon with the household bills and help with transportation.”

Crosby denied those allegations in an interview last year.

The DCFS document contained several allegations of abuse, including one of sexual abuse, which was later deemed unfounded, according to the report. Another alleged incident noted in the report involved a 7-year-old child in the home who expressed suicidal thoughts and wasn’t given medication.

In an April 2015 report, Gordon told a child protection investigator that she had “some type of mental health related diagnosis but didn’t know the name.” In later reports, caseworkers expressed concern about potential cognitive impairments observed in Gordon that contributed to her difficulties in caring for her children, according to the report.

The home the family lived in was often observed to be messy though not deplorable, according to DCFS. Subsequent law enforcement reports after Semaj’s death reveal the house was roach-infested and filthy. The house was deemed uninhabitable after the girl’s death.

Patel said while the home was not perfect, the widely-circulated photos of the filthy home were taken after a frantic search for Semaj.

“The baby was missing for about two days. I don’t think anyone in the household cared about cleaning up. They were focused on finding Semaj,” Patel said. “If the conditions were so bad, knowing that children were living there, (state agencies) had a mandatory obligation to report it to law enforcement and it didn’t happen.”

DCFS’ handling of cases involving Semaj’s family has been criticized in the wake of the girl’s death. Former Director George Sheldon resigned, and the agency’s new leader vowed changes to policies and procedures.

A Devastated Family

Patel said Gordon and the Crosbys have little communication today.

“Whatever their relationship was before this happened, it certainly is not what it is now,” Patel said.

Gordon does not have the closure she needs, Patel said, and she is desperately wanting to reunite with her three young sons, who are still in state custody. 

“Being a mother was the most important thing to her. It was the only thing she ever wanted to do,” Patel said. “Her sons need a mother and they all need to come together for the grieving process. They can’t do it in foster care.” 

Despite no new developments in this case, the Will County Sheriff’s Office said this case is not cold.

On Wednesday, members of the community group Freedom First International – frustrated by the case’s stalemate – issued a press release and urged the Will County Sheriff’s Department to recuse itself from the investigation, claiming the department “missed critical opportunities to push forward with this investigation.” 


A look back at all of NBC 5's reporting on the case since it began one year ago:

11/7/17: Grandmother, friend speak out on Semaj Crosby investigation

10/12/17: Father of Semaj Crosby speaks: 'I should have been there'

9/15/17: Cause of death released for toddler Semaj Crosby

9/7/17: Rally held to demand answers in Semaj Crosby case

7/27/17: 'I have nothing to hide': Grandmother of Semaj Crosby speaks on baby's mysterious death

7/27/17: 'A baby I never met had the biggest impact on my life'

7/27/17: A look at the state of Semaj Crosby's home

7/27/17: Three months after Semaj Crosby's death, grandmother says 'I miss her every day'

7/25/17: DCFS testifies on reforms in wake of Semaj investigation

7/11/17: Detective reveals new details on Semaj Crosby investigation

5/31/17: Illinois DCFS head resigns

5/31/17: DCFS releases 22-page report after Semaj Crosby's death

5/27/17: DCFS Joliet office had contest to close cases: report

5/17/17: Illinois child welfare head pledges reform in abuse probes

5/7/17: Fire destroys home where Semaj Crosby was found dead

5/6/17: Deputy chief chokes up while discussing missing girl

5/6/17: Funeral services held for Semaj Crosby

5/4/17: DCFS Director: Agency won't remove kids over 'dirty house'

5/2/17: Judge demands answers from DCFS concerning dead 1-year-old

5/2/17: Photos show inside home where missing girl was found dead 

4/30/17: Funeral arrangements made for girl found dead in Joliet home

4/28/17: Mom of child found dead gives emotional statement

4/28/17: Lawyers for mother of child found dead release statement

4/27/17: Missing girl's death being treated as "suspicious"

4/27/17: Missing girl found dead inside Joliet Tonship home

4/26/17: Search for girl in Joliet Township "temporarily suspended"

4/26/17: Mom of missing girl in Joliet Township investigated by DCFS

4/26/17: Search continues for missing girl in Joliet Township

4/25/17: Police ask for help in search for missing 1-year-old

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<![CDATA[Original Tuskegee Airman Facing Biggest Battle Yet]]> Tue, 24 Apr 2018 22:56:09 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/247*120/TUSKEEGI_317978361.jpg

A member of one of the most decorated military units in american history is facing his biggest battle. Health issues--and now crippling debt--are impacting a local Tuskegee airman and his wife. Friends say they are the victims of financial exploitation. Now a community is coming together to help. Here's Chris Coffey.

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<![CDATA[Original Tuskegee Airman Facing Biggest Battle Yet]]> Tue, 24 Apr 2018 23:06:30 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/247*120/TUSKEEGI_31797836.jpg

American fighter and bomber pilots relied on Virgil Poole’s intelligence gathering to help them fly safely to their targets during World War 2. Decades later, a local community is rallying to support the veteran who is now battling major health and financial issues.

Poole, 97, is an original member of the Tuskegee Airmen. The pioneer group of African-American pilots and service personnel broke color barriers and became one of the most highly-decorated units in US aviation history.

Nearly seventy-five years ago, Poole served in an intelligence capacity and held debriefings with airmen returning from combat missions over North Africa and Europe. According to the Chicago DODO Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Poole is one of eight original members still living in the Chicago area.

“To know someone who is so historical, someone who helped save our country, someone who led our country to victory and if it wasn’t for him, who knows where we would be right now?” said family friend Juquita Johnson.

Poole, however, has developed dementia in recent years. And if health problems were not enough, Poole and his wife, Haweda, are now losing their home in south suburban Glenwood due to foreclosure.

“The family thought that he was paying the bills like he did every month on time and unfortunately when they received the foreclosure notice it was a little bit beyond too late,” Johnson said.

Virgil and Haweda’s two car loans were also eating-up nearly half of the couple’s income, which made day-to-day living difficult.

“We had to cut back, you know, there’s nothing we can do about it because I didn’t want to have a repo on me and make my credit bad,” said Haweda Poole.

Johnson said she believes the Pooles were victims of financial exploitation as a result of Haweda signing a car loan with a 21.38% interest rate for a new Honda Accord in 2015.

“There is no way as a business person I would allow myself and allow a senior, a super senior, to sign a $600 to $700 car note payment on a car that’s definitely worth maybe half of that,” Johnson said.

Johnson is now helping the Pooles pay some of their smaller bills. The couple is also receiving food donations from United Methodist Church in Hazel Crest.

“They’ve been very helpful. They really have,” said Haweda Poole.

Older consumers are increasingly at risk for predatory lending, according to senior advocates at Oak Park-based AgeOptions.

“I think what we see a lot is just people who are being sold financial services that they don’t really need,” said aging and disability rights coordinator Jon Hofacker. “It could involve or have excessive fees or just things that really aren’t in their best interest.”

In fact, consumers who self-identified as age 62 and older filed 22,648 mortgage-related complaints and 1,618 vehicle loan and lease complaints to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau between 2011 and 2017.

A spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling said seniors can still try to renegotiate their loans, depending on their credit rating.

“If you are in a situation where you have a loan you can’t afford, you need to look at options for refinancing,” said Bruce McClary of the NFCC. “If your loan balance is low, lenders may work with you.”

McClary urges seniors work with non-profit housing and credit counsellors before making large financial decisions.

Meanwhile, it is not clear where the Pooles will be living once they vacate their house in Glenwood.

“Nothing concrete or promising at the moment,” Johnson wrote to NBC 5 Investigates. “Just leads to complete applications for housing.

Johnson has set up a GoFundMe page to help the Pooles. 

Chicago “DODO” Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen president Ken Rapier said the group has raised more than $1,200 for Virgil and his wife. The group is also planning to hold a spaghetti dinner fundraiser for the Pooles.

“When we find out about something like this, we go in to action as quick as we can,” Rapier said.

The local chapter raises awareness for the Tuskegee Airmen through speaking engagements. It also offers scholarships and sponsors youth aviation programs.

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<![CDATA[Veterans Find New Ways to Manage Pain]]> Tue, 17 Apr 2018 23:19:07 -0500 https://media.nbcchicago.com/images/213*120/BATTLE+OVER+OPIOIDS+-+00010915_31705701.jpg

Many veterans who served our country have found themselves at war against a common enemy: the overprescribing of opioids to manage their pain. But NBC 5 Investigates has found data that suggests one of the country’s largest health care systems is helping to slow a nation-wide epidemic.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said nearly a quarter of its patients were being prescribed an opioid in 2012. But due to the drugs’ potential for addiction and overdoses, the VA said it is now limiting its opioid prescribing.

The results are evident at the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital in the Chicago Suburbs. The VA’s records show 14 percent of the veterans who visited Hines in 2012 were prescribed opioids. The number, as of 2017, has dropped to 9 percent.

“Our physicians, nursing staff, clinical pharmacists, they work together as a team,” said Dr. Raj Uppal, director of Hines Pain Services. “We wanted to address this so that we don’t have the menace of opioids.”

Hines VA currently serves nearly 59,000 veterans and last year had more than 850,000 outpatient visits at the main hospital and its Chicago-area clinics. There are currently 1,529 patients at Hines currently being prescribed opioids, down from 2,591 patients several years ago, according to Uppal.

The prescription of opioids at Hines VA is only one part of pain management, which now includes physical therapy, occupational therapy, acupuncture and mindfulness.

“All these measures have proved very effective in getting patients off the opioids and on their way to recovery,” Uppal said.

Bolingbrook native and Iraq War veteran Joseph Ciszczon, 38, sustained a neck injury in a vehicle accident shortly before deploying to Iraq. He said he was prescribed opioids to manage his pain for years by military doctors and later the VA.

Ciszczon, a medic who was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for bravery, said at the highest point he was being prescribed nearly 1,000 pain pills a month.

“If I did miss a dose, I would feel the effects of it,” Ciszczon said. “In a way, the opioids had me. They had me hooked.”

But he gives credit to the VA for introducing him to acupuncture and other treatment methods in recent years.

“I got my life back together and I’m completely off opioids,” Ciszcon said.

He said woodworking and other hobbies also help manage his pain.

VA data also shows opioid prescribing is down at Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago and Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago.

Ciszczon said if anything could be improved, it’s that more veterans need to be informed about the new pain management methods.

In addition to the VA’s own acupuncture services, veterans can also be referred to specialists across the Chicago area.

Jim Zotti owns Red Aspen Acupuncture in La Grange and his staff has treated many veterans for their pain. He said the VA should consider approving more acupuncture visits for veterans beyond the initial ten visits.

“When we request additional visits it usually gets approved, but after a break of care, our momentum has stopped and we are almost back to square one,” Zotti said.

The VA says continuing care is reviewed and may be approved based on medical necessity.

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