#By Ben Joravsky
The last thing Andre Van Vegten saw before the crash that changed his life was the concrete flower planter rising unexpectedly in the middle of Cicero Avenue.
“I was answering a call about a man with a gun, and the car in front of me slowed suddenly and I had to swerve left to avoid a crash,” says Van Vegten, a southwest-side police officer. “I didn’t see the planter until it was on me. I didn’t see it until it was too late.”
The crash that followed broke Van Vegten’s legs, ruptured his aorta, dramatically limited his vision, and paralyzed him below his waist. He spent six weeks in a coma. He’s still in rehab, and doctors say he may never walk again. What’s happened to him in the last few months is the strange, sad story of a cop bad luck knocked off the force.
“It’s depressing in here [the Rehabilitation Institute],” he says. “I mean the nurses and doctors are great, but it’s boring and dreary and very, very difficult. The worst part is the loss of vision–I can’t read and I love to read. I do my rehab but mostly I’m in bed with too much time–time to think about how it is that I wound up here.”
By background and temperament, Van Vegten was an unlikely candidate to be a cop. Born and raised in Amsterdam, he came to the U.S. at age 18 in 1972 for reasons having nothing to do with law enforcement.
“I fell in love with Americans–there must have been 100,000 of them in Amsterdam back in the 70s,” he says, laughing. “They went to Amsterdam and then on to Morocco, I guess. Those were the days. I was always fascinated by this country. The freedom here really was amazing to someone raised in Europe. It’s like, you want to get something at the store at two in the morning, you go get it. It’s so much more structured in Europe.”
He moved to Philadelphia in connection with a Dutch college program that awarded him credits for working with a neighborhood group to organize block clubs. A few years later he found his way to Chicago. “I loved it here, absolutely loved it,” he says. “I loved the lake, the architecture, the blues. I was going store to store helping the farm workers organize a lettuce boycott. I read Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals. I was going to be an organizer.”
By 1975 he was living in Hyde Park, studying modern European history at the University of Chicago, and working part-time at the Hyde Park Co-op. “I may be the only cop on the force ever to work at the co-op. I started as a stock boy and worked my way up to frozen foods manager. But I got restless there, decided to become a cop. I don’t know why really. It looked like a pretty nice job. My father was a cop in Amsterdam, maybe that had something to do with it. What the hell–it’s more adventurous than moving cans of peas from one shelf to another.”
In 1985 he passed the police exam; a year later he was on the force. “It was good for me. I stopped smoking, I started jogging like crazy, I lost all this weight. I totally changed my life. For over four years I worked out of the Third District at 71st and Cottage Grove. Then one night I was working with a kid, fairly new on the job, and we see a guy running down the street–and my partner, he tries to cut him off. The whole thing was pretty stupid. We chased him down an alley and ended up in a pitch dark basement without our flashlights–we left the car in too much of a hurry to bring them. I can’t see a thing except the muzzle flashing. I don’t know who’s shooting who, but I hear my partner go down and the guy runs off into an adjoining room. I called for help and like a real dummy I go looking for him. I found him hiding and he peacefully gave himself up. He had a revolver but it was out of bullets–he’d fired all six shots. When I think about it, he could have killed me because he saw me before I saw him.
“My partner got shot in the butt and the thigh and after that he didn’t want to be a cop anymore. He quit the department and moved away. When the case came to court he told them he didn’t want to testify. The guy got eight years–as far as I know he’s back on the streets, if he didn’t get killed in jail. He was a crackhead who robbed people to buy his drugs. He kept saying he thought we were robbers. Can you believe that? We’re in uniform and driving a marked car. If we were in tac the jury might have believed that crap.”
Van Vegten asked to be reassigned and wound up driving a car beat in Pilsen. “I loved working Pilsen. It was like a piece of old Warsaw or maybe a town in Czechoslovakia, only with a Mexican flavor. I loved those murals. I’ll tell you a story. One of the gangs had their own mural on 18th and Wood. It’s a beautiful mural of Jesus, except Jesus’ left hand is giving the gang sign. Hey, very inventive artists, those guys.”
In 1992, after his daughter was born, Van Vegten asked to be transferred to the Eighth District so he could be closer to his home in Clearing, a community on the southwest side. He wound up driving a rapid-response car. “It was very different. You’re just flying around from one end of the district to the other. You don’t understand the history of the neighborhood as well as the beat guys. You answer a lot of domestics–endless, endless domestic disturbances. You have a tendency to drive too fast–it’s the nature of the job, since everything’s an emergency coming over the phone. Anyway, that’s where I ended up.”
On January 8 he and his partner, Matt Koman, got a call about a man with a gun at the CHA’s LeClaire Courts housing complex: “We took off on Cicero and we were near 44th Street when the car slowed. They’d put these planters in the middle of the road to make things look good for the Democratic convention. I hit that thing hard, and it didn’t give way. The crash knocked me out. Everything went black. When I came to I thought I was dreaming. The car’s on fire and there are flames licking at my boots, and I can see some bones sticking out of my leg. This motorist comes up and looks at me and says, ‘Oh my God.’ I say, ‘That bad, huh?'”
Two passersby, Ben Howard and Valdemar Delgado, pulled Van Vegten and Koman from the car just before it exploded. “They had to reach through the burning car and drag us out. They were guardian angels. If they didn’t pull us out, Matt and I probably would have died in the explosion.”
Koman was released from the hospital in February; Van Vegten has at least another month to spend at the Rehabilitation Institute. “The worst part’s the loss of vision,” he says. “The doctors say when the aorta ruptured it deprived my optic nerve of blood and oxygen. I listen to books on tape. I just heard Lake Wobegon–it’s kind of cute. I hope I can get back to reading. I love reading.”
His story might have been lost in the din of other more sensational tales, if not for the efforts of a few fellow cops and neighbors from Clearing. Van Vegten’s bills were mounting and he had no extended family nearby to help. His parents in Amsterdam didn’t have the money to fly in; he needed help selling his two-story house and buying a one-story place accessible to wheelchairs; he was going to have to make do on disability pay, 75 percent of his salary; he and his wife had unforeseen child-care expenses.
“I read about Andre in the papers and it broke my heart,” says Linda Dougherty, librarian at the Clearing library. “Officer Koman is in relatively good shape, and it’s presumed that in a year he’ll be back on the force. But with Andre we don’t know what the future will be. I had the opportunity to see him in the hospital. You think of how active policemen are, and he’s flat on his back. You know, the days are long and the weekends are longer. The frustration must be mind-boggling. We’re a close community. I decided something had to be done.”
So Dougherty and John Andrews, the sergeant in charge of neighborhood relations for the Eighth District, formed a fund-raising group and went to the media looking for publicity.
“It was kind of hard getting interest,” says Dougherty. “The media’s attention is very short-term. They were writing a lot about Jimmy Mullen [the police officer shot in Rogers Park]. I guess they only have room for one injured cop in the papers. It was a cataclysmic time, when you think about it–Girl X, Lenard Clark. Maybe people can only take so much. Meanwhile, Andre Van Vegten’s sitting up there in the hospital.”
On May 21, the Police Department will hold a medal award ceremony (which Van Vegten will attend) for Howard and Delgado. On June 14 Dougherty and Andrews will hold a fund-raiser for Van Vegten (and Koman, who also has medical bills) at Groucho’s Bar & Grill, 8355 S. Pulaski (for more information call Andrews at 312-747-3515 or Dougherty at 312-747-3970).
“He’s a good officer. He deserves our help,” says Andrews. “I’m very proud that Chicago poured its heart out for Jimmy Mullen, but there are other guys in need of help. Maybe getting shot is much more sexy than getting hurt in a car accident. But Andre and Mullen were officers responding to the same exact call–a man with a gun. Every officer, when they hear something like this, thinks, ‘It could be me.’ You got to pull together and keep going. You got to figure no matter what, you have something good to offer. We’ve got to help him get on with his life.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Andre Van Vegten with friends and family by Eugene Zakusilo.