Discontent is the constant companion of investigative reporters. They set out on their campaigns because a wrong needs to be righted, and when the campaign ends it’s rarely been righted enough.
In 2007 Tim Novak of the Sun-Times was looking into a secret partnership in a sewer-inspection company
that Patrick Daley, the mayor’s son, had set up with a cousin, Robert Vanecko. Novak decided to find out what the rest of that generation was up to. Robert’s kid brother R.J., it turned out, had been mixed up in some way in a fatal altercation outside a Division Street bar back in 2004. A 21-year-old, David Koschman, had been slugged so hard he hit the pavement unconscious and died 11 days later. R.J. Vanecko was never arrested, but someone had tipped the media that he’d shown up for a police lineup.
Novak called Koschman’s mother, Nanci Koschman, in Mount Prospect. The guy who did it ran away, she told Novak bitterly. But she didn’t want to rehash her son’s death—she’d opened up to a TV station and then they didn’t even run the story, she said; that taught her there was no point.
“That sat in my head a few years and we finally decided to take a crack at it,” Novak tells me.
In January 2011, Novak and his colleague Chris Fusco submitted a Freedom of Information request for the police files of Koschman’s death. It turned out the police had never closed the case, even though they weren’t working it, giving them an excuse not to hand anything over. But as the police stonewalled the Sun-Times, police superintendent Jody Weis ordered Area Five detectives to reinvestigate. (Novak tells me that what the Sun-Times eventually got from official channels was a police report so sketchy Vanecko wasn’t even mentioned.) Novak had to start somewhere, so he tracked down Koschman’s online death notice and started calling the people who’d signed it. This led him to the friends who’d been with Koschman that night, who gave him their own accounts of what had happened.
On February 28, 2011, the Sun-Times published its first story on Koschman’s death. The same day, the detectives running the new investigation turned in a report that concluded Vanecko had hit Koschman in self-defense. A day later the police closed their investigation. The Sun-Times team of Novak, Fusco, and Carol Marin is still working the story almost three years later—culminating in Vanecko pleading guilty on January 31. (Full disclosure: the Sun-Times and the Reader share an owner.)
“Were we obsessive about this story? Clearly,” Novak tells me. “Whenever we sink our teeth into a story, we don’t bite you and let you go away.”
Obsessiveness in a reporter is attractive in retrospect, after they get the goods. But these relentless crusades can make other journalists uncomfortable. There are, after all, other stories to write. “Yes, regular readers, colleagues and sometimes editors will roll their eyes and consider you lazy or tedious,” the Tribune‘s Eric Zorn wrote in an e-mail; in 1994 and ’95 Zorn got that treatment while writing close to 50 columns about Rolando Cruz, who’d been sent to death row for a murder he didn’t commit. “But as long as you’re at least incrementally advancing the story and not simply repeating yourself like a chanter at a protest demonstration,” Zorn went on, “you have to have the confidence that you’re doing the right thing.” Finally, a disgusted judge halted Cruz’s third trial and acquitted him.
“A lot of people for a lot of years thought that we were crazy,” says Novak, talking on the phone from the Sun-Times. “Even some people I’m looking out on in this newsroom thought we were crazy. In the beginning, a lot of people took the police and the prosecutors’ route that it was the kid’s fault.”
My own first reaction to Novak and Fusco’s stories was to wish they’d stick to real corruption and not go after some joker just because he was related to the mayor. Koschman was a little guy—about five and a half feet tall—and Vanecko was close to a foot taller and more than 100 pounds heavier. My nose told me this could easily be a tragic example of little-guy syndrome—a bantamweight drinks too much and decides to show the world how tough he is.
Novak’s nose told him different. Of course Koschman was drunk, he says today. We’re talking 3 AM on Division Street. “Everyone’s drunk at that time of the morning or you’re not there.” But Novak refused to believe “a guy that small would pick on a guy that big,” no matter how drunk he was. And Novak thought it strange and reprehensible that after slugging Koschman anybody would leave him lying unconscious in the street and jump in a cab and disappear—which witnesses said the bruiser who walloped him had done.
“But a lot of guys believed that—that it was little-guy syndrome,” Novak says. “I didn’t mind that—those kinds of comments kept me going.”
“We didn’t do this story to put R.J. [Vanecko] in prison. We did it to figure out why they didn’t charge him. It was about accountability.”—Sun-Times reporter Tim Novak
Novak has a realistic understanding of the Sun-Times‘s role in the quest for justice for David Koschman. “It was like a relay race,” says Novak. “We started it—we took the baton. But if not for Joe moving the ball further ahead, we might not get to Locke and Flint.” Joe Ferguson was the city’s inspector general, and he got interested when the Sun-Times published its first story. Flint Taylor and Locke Bowman, attorneys who are old hands at facing off against the city’s powers that be, petitioned chief criminal judge Paul Biebel on Nanci Koschman’s behalf to appoint a special prosecutor. “For whatever reason,” Novak goes on, “Biebel assigns the case to [judge Michael] Toomin, who sees the story the way we do and orders a special prosecutor.”
Meanwhile, in 2011 Rahm Emanuel succeeded Daley as mayor—and Novak says even the police became more cooperative.
The special prosecutor, former U.S. attorney Dan Webb, made his case to a grand jury that went on to indict Vanecko, but no one else—even though several officers identified by name in Webb’s 162-page report come off looking terrible. Webb said there simply wasn’t sufficient evidence to go after the cops. “It’s not enough,” Novak says, referencing the fact that no one else was indicted. “We didn’t do this story to put R.J. in prison. We did it to figure out why they didn’t charge him. What we were always looking for was to see people held accountable for the two cases that went through the cracks. The first wallpapering was back in ’04, and it was wallpapered over again in 2011.”
Novak’s Sun-Times colleague Mark Brown read Webb’s report and ruefully reported, “Webb’s team couldn’t really penetrate how the investigation into Koschman’s death came to be so badly mishandled by the Chicago Police Department. . . . We’re left still not knowing whether that’s just the sorry state of affairs in a big bureaucracy like CPD or the unseen hand of corruption.”
Eric Zorn read the report and concluded in a blog post that the botched investigation most likely began, “as with so many cases of justice gone awry, with an ordinary series of screw-ups.” In which case, Zorn went on, “all the dissembling, deflecting and other shenanigans that followed were in the service of covering police rear ends, not mayoral sensibilities.”
Novak doesn’t buy this. He doesn’t believe incompetence can explain away not merely the first investigation that went nowhere but also the second, seven years later. In Monday’s paper, he and Fusco published a time line correlating the Sun-Times inquiry with scurrying around not only in the police department but also in the state’s attorney’s office and City Hall. “We started our investigation and they started their investigation,” he says. “Ours ended with him pleading guilty. Theirs ended with ‘he did it in self-defense.’ I think the name of the game was to keep R.J. out of jail.”
I asked Zorn what he thought about the Sun-Times stories. “I think their true moment of triumph was when the special prosecutor was appointed,” he e-mailed me. “That finished their job—forcing the system to unearth and take another hard look at a case that had been bungled and distorted from the git go. Spurring the system to act responsibly is our role, and if Vanecko had gone to trial and been acquitted or never even been charged, I don’t think it would have dimmed Novak/Fusco’s accomplishment in the least.
“I know that’s not realistic.”
Not a bit. There isn’t a reporter who covered police commander Jon Burge who would look back and say that when a special prosecutor was appointed in 2002 to investigate allegations of police torture, journalism’s work was done. And if Rolando Cruz had been convicted yet again at his third trial instead of finally acquitted, Zorn might still be writing columns about him.
When it’s your own story, a journalist’s concept of justice isn’t procedural. It’s visceral.
Correction: This article has been amended to correctly reflect the spelling of Nanci Koschman’s first name.