* The names of the juveniles in Audy have been changed with the exception of Adam Gray.
By Grant Pick
“We’re going to do self-portraits today,” says Mike Hedges, as he passes out sheets of drawing paper and colored charcoal to 20 teenagers at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, better known as the Audy Home. “We don’t have a mirror here to copy off of, but you know what you look like. If you draw anything that resembles a gang sign–even vaguely–let me know. A gang sign could get you in trouble.
The six-foot-two, muscular Hedges, the after-school art and music teacher, bounces about the room giving advice. “Very good, Nakesha*,” he says to one taciturn girl, who cracks a grin. Most of the juveniles in Audy, which is at 11th and Hamilton, are boys, but there are a few girls. “That’s the best damn picture I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Hedges, who’s wearing a blue shirt, red shorts, and sandals, scratches his beard and moves on to a clump of boys. “Jose, is that a head you’re drawing there? A mushroom or a head? Billy, now you get going.”
Billy tells another girl across the room, “You look like a space monkey.”
Hedges redirects Billy’s attention to his drawing, explaining that a head should be shaped like an egg and that the proper place for the nose is halfway down the face, with the corners of the nostrils matched to the corners of the eyes. “Billy, if you continue to clown around you won’t be back here again.”
During the day the young detainees, who are being held for everything from violating probation to murder, attend the Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School, operated by the Board of Education on the second floor. Afterward they can play sports and games in the gyms and third-floor recreational yards, but they can also take classes with staff members such as Hedges or with tutors and volunteers.
Hedges, now 46, has served as a recreation worker at Audy for more than 20 years. What’s remarkable is that he continues working with these troubled youngsters even though two and a half years ago his 18-year-old son was killed by a man whose history mirrored many of theirs.
“I’m amazed Mike has the tolerance and patience to still find good in the Audy Home kids,” says Dale Janush, his brother-in-law. “Bless his heart. He’s a product of the Woodstock Nation.”
Hedges grew up in Buffalo, New York, in a working-class household with ten siblings from his father’s two marriages. He attended Canisius High School, a prestigious Jesuit institution. “I never did my homework, and I was always in trouble,” he says. But he played three sports and taught himself to play the guitar.
The rest of his class went on to college, but Hedges drifted into drugs and petty crime–“burglaries and whatever little thing came along.” He was never caught. He traveled aimlessly and eventually came down with a bad case of hepatitis. In 1972, when he was 21, he moved to Chicago to live with his sister Kate, then started studying education and art at Northeastern Illinois University. While there he got involved with B.U.I.L.D., a gang-intervention program then based in West Town. “I found I was good at getting things across to the kids,” he says. He thought he’d found his calling, and in 1976 he took a job at the Audy Home.
Hedges played dodgeball and basketball with the Audy boys. “They told me I broke the stereotype that white guys can’t play basketball,” he says, laughing. “After the games I’d head up to the units, where I’d play cards, mellow out, and watch TV with the kids. They needed someone who was approachable–and there I was. There were always conversations going on. I got a chance to emphasize the need to read and to get an education. Problems usually came up–with family, staff, or the school–and I addressed them.” But he always preferred not to know the specifics of the crimes the kids had committed, fearing it would blind him to whatever positive was left in them.
He began to do drawings for some of the kids to boost their self-esteem. “I’d pick out a kid who nobody would talk to, and I’d say, ‘I need to draw your portrait.’ I’d give the kid the portrait afterwards, and he’d be thrilled. At Christmastime I also did drawings for the hustlers and the County boys [teenagers who will be tried as adults and are therefore headed for Cook County Jail] so they would have something to send home to their families.” Several years ago he and another artist sketched large portraits of, among others, Cesar Chavez, Albert Einstein, Malcolm X, and Hillary Clinton on the dividers between the third-floor yards and had kids fill them in. They’re still there.
For several years Hedges remained assigned to the gym, largely, he says, because he openly criticized the administrators when he thought they made bad decisions. The current superintendent, Jesse W. Doyle, says, “Mike’s a rebel and can be difficult to deal with. But he’s dedicated to the kids, and they respond to love and caring.”
But Hedges liked being a gym teacher. “The job was a dream come true. It was fun and satisfying–better than selling insurance, working in a bank, or doing other meaningless jobs. I was making my little dent in the world.”
At least he believed he was, though he’s never known for sure what influence he’s had on the kids at Audy. When he would meet them on the street or on the el after they’d been released, they were friendly and cordial. Once at an art opening on the west side the young man handling sound for a video walked up to Hedges and said without elaboration, “You changed my life.” But such moments have been rare.
Brendan Hedges was born in October 1976, around the time Hedges was hired at Audy. His mother, Maggie Astacio, is a native of the Dominican Republic. A younger sister, Bianca, was born in 1983. The family moved from Rogers Park to Skokie to Oak Park “chasing good schools,” according to Maggie. In 1990 they bought a small house just south of the Eisenhower Expressway in Oak Park.
By then Brendan was in high school, a quiet boy who dressed in preppy garb, steered clear of organized sports, and didn’t drink or use foul language. When his parents told him to be home at nine o’clock, he’d show up at 8:30. He was good-looking and fit, but bashful with girls and so modest he was reluctant to take off his shirt during pickup basketball games.
Brendan was an average student, but his teachers remember that he had a heightened moral sense. Marlene Kolz, his physics teacher at Oak Park & River Forest High School, says that when other students got out of line “you could just see he was offended, that he thought that wasn’t the way the world should work.” Violence of any sort bothered him–he walked out of Natural Born Killers. “This guy literally had a guilt trip stepping on ants,” recalls Moran Beasley, Brendan’s best friend. But Beasley says Brendan didn’t force his opinions on others. “If he thought a movie was lousy, he would immediately start revising his opinion once we got out the door so he wouldn’t appear so negative.”
It was music that captivated Brendan. He sang in the high school a cappella choir and under his father’s tutelage took up acoustic guitar. “He was a talented player–pretty much at the top of the class,” says Steve Denny, the music teacher who had Brendan as a guitar student his sophomore year. The next year he was playing Beatles songs in the basement, and with just a few formal lessons and his father to guide him, he moved on to piano, drums, and electric guitar. For his 17th birthday his parents bought him an upright piano, which he played morning and night, though his instrument of choice was the electric guitar–a green Fender Telecaster. His favorite songwriters were Billy Joel, Elton John, and the Beatles, and his particular favorite was Paul McCartney.
“When Brendy was a little boy he wouldn’t let me out of his sight,” says Maggie Hedges. “But after a while he sprang away and he became his dad’s kid.” Even as an adolescent, Brendan stayed close to his father. “He respected that his dad was making a difference,” says Beasley.
Mike Hedges says, “He didn’t go through any kind of rebellion, at least with me. We were like buddies.” One time Hedges took Brendan to see Veruca Salt. He remembers that during one set Brendan turned around, smiled at him, and gave a thumbs-up. The two of them discussed music and watched David Letterman and The Simpsons together. When they went swimming they would come at each other feet first and then thrust each other in the opposite direction like human torpedoes.
The bond between them impressed Brendan’s friends. Beasley says, “The two of them loved each other, truly loved each other. And how many of us can say that of our dads when we’re teenagers? I envied the relationship.”
Brendan went on to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he chose to major in music. “He was a nice young man who was interested in jazz and in New Age things,” says William Kaplan, his music-theory professor. “A little spark came through. He was gifted.”
The summer before he started at UIC Brendan had met guitarist Carter Lee Scott and drummer George Banks, two seasoned street musicians who were playing in the subway at Washington and Dearborn. They called themselves Carter Lee and the Hired Guns and specialized in the songs of Chuck Berry, U2, and the Beatles. “We were looking for a bass player, and Brendan fit right in,” says Scott. “He was calm and cordial in the way he interacted, and you couldn’t help but love him. I drew on his inner strength.”
Scott helped Brendan learn new chords and improve his singing. A tuxedo store loaned the trio evening wear in exchange for distributing promotional flyers. Over the holidays they donned Santa hats. “It’s so dark and dank in the subway, but it was festive down there with the band,” says Mike Hedges. “People wouldn’t be in such a hurry to get home. Sometimes they would let several trains go by just to listen, and sometimes they danced.”
“Some of the musicians who play in the el are obnoxious, and others just stink,” says Gary Szparkowski, a tactical sergeant with the police mass-transit unit who occasionally stopped to listen. “But these guys were good with their 60s stuff and rock and roll. It was nothing original, you’d have to say. But it was listenable.”
On a good day each band member earned $50 or more for several hours’ work. Brendan saved $300 and bought a used Fender with a soft vinyl case.
The band began to attract attention. They performed on the first Thursday of every month at the Deja Vu in Lincoln Park, and they made two appearances on John Landecker’s program on WJMK. Brendan sent a demo tape of his own to Atlanta, and a producer wrote back saying he wanted to hear more.
Hedges noticed a change in his son. “It was amazing how loose he was getting. His shoulders were slack, and he would talk to anyone who came along–boys, girls, blacks, whites, it didn’t matter. He was growing up.”
Brendan had long been proud of his multicultural heritage. “I am the human race,” he would say. But Hedges knew he looked Hispanic and worried that gangbangers would “wonder what flag Brendy was flying” and confront him. On Christmas Eve Brendan was out with his guitar and didn’t come home when he was supposed to. Hedges drove around looking for him. “Dad, don’t worry,” Brendan said when he finally materialized. “I’m a big boy now.”
On January 15, 1995, at a family brunch, Brendan brought out his guitar and led everyone in singing. At 2:30 he put on a blue parka, and Maggie’s sister Sonya gave him a ride to Carter Lee Scott’s Uptown apartment. The Hired Guns rehearsed for four hours, then, augmented by a keyboard player, they made a demo tape of rockabilly songs. Scott remembers how confident Brendan seemed. In the early evening Scott took Brendan to the el stop at Lawrence. “Carter, take it easy,” Brendan called out as the train pulled up.
At midnight, when Brendan still hadn’t shown up, Maggie and Mike were worried, but they didn’t want to call people, afraid they’d embarrass him. At 2 AM Hedges finally phoned Scott, who said he hadn’t seen Brendan since early that evening. They began calling everyone in Brendan’s circle, and Mike drove over to the house of a friend who didn’t have a phone.
Hedges was convinced something awful had happened. “Somebody’s hurt my Brendy,” he told Maggie. She was calmer. Perhaps he’s with a girlfriend, she suggested. No, said Mike. A girlfriend is out of his realm so far, and besides he would have called.
When daylight broke they filed a missing person’s report with the Oak Park police. An officer stopped by and suggested that Brendan might have run away.
Late that morning Scott called to say the television news had reported that an unidentified male had been shot on the el and that he’d had a guitar case. Scott advised them to call Cook County Hospital. They called and were told that an unknown person had in fact been brought in during the night.
At around 8:45 the night before, Brendan had been traveling west on the Congress el, seated in the back of the car by the window, when 32-year-old Ricky Phillips slipped into the seat next to him. According to court records, witnesses later told authorities that Brendan and Phillips engaged in friendly conversation for a couple minutes, then an angry Phillips rose and grabbed the handle of Brendan’s guitar case. When Brendan refused to release his grip, the witnesses said, Phillips pulled out a gun. The story that Brendan wouldn’t let go is supported by bruises the medical examiner later found at the base of his fingers.
In a statement he subsequently gave police, Phillips said he pulled out a .32-caliber revolver and demanded money, and Brendan gave him several dollars. Phillips then asked for the guitar, and Brendan said no and “got up and hollered to the other people on the el.” Phillips then shot Brendan through the left lens of his glasses.
In his statement Phillips said he shot Brendan because he “was mad that the guy ‘fucked with him'” by shouting to the other passengers. Witnesses stated that Phillips said, “Everybody sit down. That’s what he gets for fucking with me. He shouldn’t have fucked with me.”
Brendan stumbled out of his seat and fell into the aisle. The other passengers who jumped up to help him told him to be still. The train almost immediately stopped at Western Avenue, and Phillips fled.
Mike Hedges was just getting off work and recalls that as he passed the Western el stop he saw a man carrying a guitar case. He remembers thinking, you don’t see many guys carrying guitars in the ghetto. He also thought the man looked like Brendan.
Paramedics drove Brendan to Cook County Hospital, where he was admitted and treated. But he had no identification on him–he often didn’t carry a wallet–and doctors couldn’t identify him.
“When we walked in, there was Brendan, so quiet, with a patch over his left eye,” recollects Hedges. “He was being kept alive by a half a million tubes. Seeing him, Maggie went into a convulsion, and the nurses and technicians had to restrain her.”
When Maggie managed to compose herself sufficiently, a doctor took the couple aside and said, “Has anybody talked to you about the organ-donor program?” Hedges figured, my boy is going to get a new eye, but it quickly dawned on him that the physician was speaking of donating Brendan’s organs. The doctor said that their son had no brain waves. “He’s brain-dead,” Hedges remembers mouthing to the doctor, who nodded.
The distraught Hedgeses went home but returned later that afternoon. When an elevator operator wouldn’t let Maggie go up because she didn’t have a pass, Mike started yelling. Several security officers shoved him against a wall and put handcuffs on him until he managed to explain why they were there.
“We sat there, looked at Brendy, and tried to absorb the madness,” recalls Maggie. “We didn’t say anything to each other. We just watched our son. Finally I went over and hugged him, kissing his face and fingers. Mike held my hand and then drew me away.”
The next afternoon Brendan’s heart, liver, and kidneys were donated through the Regional Organ Bank of Illinois. He was buried in a cemetery in Hillside wearing his tuxedo.
Meanwhile police–including Gary Szparkowski, the mass-transit sergeant who’d liked the Hired Guns–were checking pawnshops for Brendan’s guitar. They soon located it in a shop at Madison and Ashland. “I had a sixth sense about that guitar,” the pawnbroker said later. “I knew what it was.” The police ran down the man who’d signed the pawn ticket, Len Dawkins, who told them that Ricky Phillips, an old friend, had persuaded him to hock the guitar for half the take–$50.
Dawkins sent police to an apartment building in Lawndale, where they found several people with whom Phillips had been staying. Szparkowski found a green army jacket like the one witnesses said the shooter had been wearing.
Then Phillips walked in. “We grabbed him, and believe it or not, he still had a gun on him, with one spent casing,” says William Hougesen, a lead detective on the case.
Back at Area Four headquarters Phillips was advised of his rights. He denied that he’d been involved in Brendan’s murder. “He first said he’d been with his mother and his sister,” says Hougesen. “But I pointed out that we had tested his gun, and its ballistics would match that of the one that killed Brendan. After that he just gave it up. He gave a full oral statement within a half hour.”
The confession notes that Phillips can barely read or write; it also says that an assistant state’s attorney read him the confession, Phillips stopping her when he didn’t understand a word. “This isn’t the smartest guy in the world, but he’s far from the dumbest,” Hougesen would later say. “On the outside he got by. He wasn’t under anyone’s care. Just because he’s illiterate doesn’t mean he’s stupid.”
Even without a confession the police had ample evidence implicating Phillips: the gun and the spent shell casing, a CTA transfer pulled from Phillips’s jacket that placed him on the el at the time of the slaying, his fingerprint on the guitar case found at the pawnshop. The pawnbroker had identified Phillips as having accompanied Dawkins into the store, and two witnesses, including a department-store security guard, had identified Phillips in a lineup. “Some cases are from hell, but this one was from heaven,” says Hougesen. “Everything worked out. There were no loose ends. The only thing we were missing was a video.”
Hougesen called the Hedgeses to say that Phillips had been arrested and would be charged. Hougesen told Mike, “This Phillips is a real bad guy.”
As a child Ricky Phillips lived with his mother, brother, and two sisters in a rented brick bungalow on South Oakley, just blocks from the Audy Home. He never knew his father, though for many years his mother, Azzlee Phillips, had lived with another man who gave him some affection.
“Ricky was just one of the kids on the block,” says blues guitarist Jimmy Dawkins, Len’s father. “He wasn’t very bright, and he was a little off in the head anyway. He was always grinning goofylike. He’d lope on down the street, and the cops were usually after him.”
Ricky attended Medill Primary School. His kindergarten teacher wrote in a report compiled by the school psychologist, later part of the court record, “He is very immature and fights the children. He has no friends. He is hostile towards all the other children. He keeps his two fingers in his mouth at all times, sucking and slobbering. He cannot do any readiness work, does not show any interest. He can respond to direct questioning about himself but doesn’t respond otherwise. Cries very easily.” The report also notes that his IQ was 76.
“There has been something wrong with Ricky since kindergarten,” says Azzlee Phillips, who worked in factories and as a teacher’s aide during this period, “but wherever I went everybody said there was no help for him unless he got in jail.” When Ricky was around 12 and had started being stopped by the police, Azzlee tried to persuade a youth counselor to admit her son to the Audy Home. At 15, she says, Ricky spent a brief time in the psychiatric ward at Mount Sinai Hospital.
By the time he was 17 Ricky had been arrested several times–for stealing a car, for falsely reporting a shooting, and for stealing a smoker’s kit and toy pistol from a Jewel store. Each offense drew probation from a juvenile court judge. Azzlee says Ricky warmed to one female probation officer, but she was soon taken off his case, and he didn’t like her replacement. Around this time Ricky’s older sister died, at age 22, of what Azzlee describes as poisoning.
In 1979 Ricky, his IQ now measured at 69, was a freshman at Manley High School. His skills hadn’t progressed much beyond the kindergarten level; Azzlee says he hadn’t learned to read or write beyond the most rudimentary level in his special-education classes. “By the time Ricky was in high school they were always calling me because Ricky had cut class and was walking the hallways. They told me, ‘Mrs. Phillips, you might as well be going to school here yourself, you’re here so much.'” It would be Ricky’s last year in school.
Outside school Ricky was now robbing people at gunpoint on public transportation. Armed robbery on a crowded train is easier to get away with than you might think. “People who have witnessed an armed robbery on the el don’t want to be bothered afterwards, or else they’re scared out of their minds,” says Gary Szparkowski, the mass-transit sergeant. “Anyway, when the doors open, they often walk away.” According to police, armed robbery on CTA trains resulted in 27 arrests in 1995, the year Brendan Hedges was killed, and 42 the next year. But the real numbers may be much higher.
When Ricky Phillips got caught it was because of mistakes he made after his robberies. On February 12, 1981, Nathan Gardner was traveling east on the Roosevelt Road bus when Phillips sat down next to him and struck up a conversation. When Gardner refused to hand over a foreign coin he was carrying, Phillips drew a handgun and demanded his money–all of $21–and his CTA pass. That night Phillips was arrested at a roller rink, carrying a gun and Gardner’s pass. Found guilty in a bench trial that December, Phillips received a four-year prison sentence.
Within two years he was out of prison. On July 29, 1983, he robbed a man of $360 on the Lake Street el. Two weeks later the victim saw Phillips on the el and informed police. When Phillips was arrested he was carrying the snub-nosed starter pistol he’d used in the robbery. That November he pleaded guilty and was handed a 12-year sentence.
Phillips was sent to Menard Correctional Center in downstate Chester, where he was into trouble from the outset. He became affiliated with the Conservative Vice Lords, and in October 1984 he was cited for starting a paper fire and for hiding a shank, or homemade knife, in his shoe. According to Department of Corrections spokesman Nic Howell, the next day he was placed in disciplinary segregation–confined to his cell 23 hours a day. A month later Phillips threw hot tea in a corrections officer’s face, saying he was going to “kick his motherfucking ass.” A few days later he was cited for fighting in the yard. Court records show that he ultimately racked up more than 50 infractions, including theft, forgery, arson, and weapons possession. On March 10, 1987, he lured officer N.W. Bradley into his cell, supposedly to examine some papers, then stabbed Bradley in the top of the head and the wrist. “I am going to fuck you up,” Phillips told him. “I will fuck all you mothers up. I’m tired of being fucked with.”
“When he was at Menard they kept Ricky in solitary a lot,” says Azzlee Phillips. “That’s enough to drive you crazy right there.” She visited him only once in nine years.
When he was released from Menard in October 1993 Phillips returned to Chicago and moved in with his mother, now on disability with high blood pressure and “seizures,” and his niece Tabitha. He found work at Acme Barrel, which made 55-gallon industrial drums, but was eventually fired. He later told a court investigator it was “because someone told the manager I tried to break into their car.” He also worked day-labor jobs.
A bond formed between Phillips and Tabitha, then a student at Orr high school. The two of them would go bowling and to the movies, or they’d sit outside on the stoop listening to the radio. “We had fun together,” says Tabitha. “We talked about everything, and we got along.”
Azzlee, however, found her son had changed. “He would talk back to me. He was meaner.” According to court records, he turned violent when he drank, and occasionally he used marijuana and crack cocaine. Sometime before Christmas 1994 Azzlee kicked her son out for having wild parties and for bringing women into the apartment against her wishes.
In February 1995, a couple of weeks after Brendan died, a numb Mike Hedges returned to Audy for a day, then took two more weeks off. He started putting on weight and took to sleeping in 12- to 14-hour stretches. Maggie says he talked about “doing his time and then dying.” He couldn’t watch Pete Sampras, who resembles Brendan physically, and later he couldn’t watch Tiger Woods, whose pride in his multicultural heritage reminded Hedges of his son. Both he and Maggie sought help from a therapist.
“For a long time I was angry at almost everybody–at people at the Audy Home, at people on the street,” says Hedges. He’d always been an easy mark for panhandlers knocking on his car window, but now they pissed him off. One afternoon a year after Brendan died Hedges was taking the el home when a CTA teller asked for exact change, then laughed at him when he fumbled for it. Angry, he jumped the turnstile trying to catch the train. He missed it and kicked at the car. Two CTA workers who’d chased him demanded that he give them the $1.50 fare. Instead he jumped on top of the turnstile and yelled his lungs out. The police arrived and handcuffed him, pushing him up against a wall until he managed to explain what had happened to his son.
In March 1996, after Hedges had returned to Audy full-time, the assistant superintendent asked him to write and lay out Audy’s annual report, an opportunity he welcomed. “It was something new,” he says. He also began producing the facility’s newsletter, the Perspective.
He went back to teaching gym, but when he tried to organize a basketball game a kid confronted him, saying, “This isn’t your gym anymore.” Hedges decided he needed a change. “Gym was losing its allure,” he says. “With my age I had lost a step or two, and the kids couldn’t help but notice. How humiliating is that? Plus music had been Brendan’s life. Jesus, here there had been an intelligent, talented kid with drive and a moral sense, where lots of musicians are limited and dumb as dirt. In my mind I got to thinking that if I could show kids about music or encourage their creativity, that would be in Brendy’s memory.”
Hedges asked to be assigned to teach art, music, and performance to the kids. Most of the teenagers who came to learn about music just played around with an electronic beat machine, though occasionally someone wanted real lessons. Some kids also took drawing seriously. Once a week on Sunday they would put on a talent show, performing skits, poems, and rap songs they’d written for an audience of other Audy residents.
“Mr. Hedges doesn’t swear and cuss at us,” Sue, a 16-year-old facing murder charges and the possibility of 45 years in prison, said last summer. “Mr. Hedges doesn’t let the audience goof off at the talent show. He gives out information that makes you feel better about yourself. When I have crap with my family I talk to him, and he says to have faith in God and that one day I’ll get out. Be good, he tells us, and don’t get into no more trouble.”
“I’m disappointed when Hedges doesn’t come to get me off the unit, because I look forward to drawing and to the talent shows,” said Benny, a 16-year-old who’d been at Audy for over two years on murder charges that were then dismissed, though he was still being held on drug charges. His delivery of a Luther Vandross song had stolen the previous talent show. “When I first came to the Audy Home I was a bad little shortie, but I’m calm now and can deal with other people better. Hedges has helped me, been like a role model to me, taught me a lot about myself. I can talk to him about what’s on my mind.”
Amid the clutter of the art and music room–among masks, old drawings, books, a snare drum, a public-address system–was a microphone stand that once belonged to Brendan. Among the tapes the kids played on the boom box were songs Brendan once played. And in one corner of the room, “my inspiration corner,” Hedges had hung a photo of Brendan.
“I know about his son, that Brendan was Hedges’s idol and his best friend,” said Benny. “In his eyes you can see how much he misses him.”
One of the most understanding kids was Adam Gray, who at 14 had been accused of torching the building where his ex-girlfriend lived, killing two of the tenants. He’d had trouble adjusting to Audy and had tried to kill himself by cutting his wrists.
During the summer of 1994 Hedges had been assigned to help Adam, who was often in solitary confinement. They would walk around, talk, and wrestle. Hedges would push Adam around on a cart and crash him into walls. “He was just a young kid really, and he loved to play. We would discuss philosophy, religion, and the meaning of life.” Hedges gave the boy books by Sigmund Freud, Konrad Lorenz, and existentialist philosophers. Adam’s favorite book was William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, the moral of which is that life isn’t fair.
“We clicked from the very start,” Adam wrote me in a letter describing their relationship. “Being around him is a respite from everything that troubles you. He makes you laugh–laugh to tears. My father was incarcerated [for murder] three weeks before I was born. I never knew what it [having a father] was like until I met Mike. He was like a father, and he was my best friend.” Adam’s mother believes it was Hedges who kept her son from killing himself.
“The night following Brendan’s murder Mike came to the Audy Home to let me know what happened,” wrote Adam. “I saw it in his eyes. He was gone. Seeing him in pain broke me down. All the dignity, pride, libido for life that he instilled in me–bam! Man, it was gone. I saw life with a new perspective–no matter what’s done, no matter what’s accomplished, there will always be a fall. So I stopped trying. I became suicidal again.”
But slowly the two helped each other. “I did what little I could to get his mind off his sorrow,” said Adam. “I would pester him until he would throw something at me. Tell him he was old, make him chase me around the gym. He resumed teaching me things. He attained a state of–I guess you could call it a peaceful or content existentialism.”
In February 1995 a grand jury indicted Ricky Phillips for armed robbery, armed violence, and murder, and the case was assigned to criminal court judge James Flannery Jr. Hedges and Maggie hadn’t gone to the early hearings, though Hedges’s brother-in-law, Dale Janush, had.
Assistant state’s attorney Mary Kay Moore, Phillips’s prosecutor, decided to ask for the death penalty. Before Brendan’s murder Hedges and Maggie had both steadfastly opposed the death penalty, but now Maggie agreed with Moore. Hedges listened to her arguments but couldn’t agree. “Mike was way too liberal on this,” says Moore. “He was always trying to intellectualize it, to try to understand this situation from a social perspective, to come to terms with the individual who did this.”
Because there was so much evidence against Phillips, Jack Carey, the assistant public defender assigned to represent him, says he knew the only options were getting his client ruled unfit for trial, having his confession tossed out, or having him plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence. Moore refused to consider a plea bargain.
Meanwhile Phillips waited in Cook County Jail. He was placed on the residential treatment unit there for a year and prescribed an antipsychotic and an antidepressant. In January 1996 he was admitted to Cermak Hospital, claiming he was having hallucinations and feeling paranoid, but after six days the doctors returned him to jail, saying he was faking his symptoms. Carey says Phillips tried to hang himself while in jail and once ended up in restraints for 24 hours.
Tabitha Phillips remembers that when she visited her uncle in jail he was sad, but they never talked about anything substantial. “I would just play around with him,” she says. Bill Ryan, a vice president of the Hull House Association who’s a volunteer counselor for capital-offense defendants at the jail, spent a lot of time with Phillips. “From a young age Ricky had what we would now call attention-deficit disorder,” he says. “He was a loner who wound up in Menard, where he had a very difficult time. ‘Whenever a guard called “nigger,” I would attack him,’ he told me. Then he was locked up in isolation. That was the final embitterment of Ricky.”
A hearing on whether Phillips was fit for trial was finally held in January 1997. Stafford Henry, a psychiatrist with the Department of Forensic Clinical Services, the psychological-assessment arm of the county courts, testified that he’d examined Phillips four times. “I believe that Mr. Phillips’s behavior is very suggestive of antisocial personality disorder, which is essentially characterized by a failure to adhere to social norms of behavior, a florid and flagrant disregard of the rights and responsibilities of others, deceitfulness, impulsivity, aggressiveness, reckless disregard of others, and a lack of remorse for often heinous activities.” Paul Fautek, another DFCS psychologist, concurred. But psychiatrist Jeffrey Teich, an Evanston private practitioner frequently summoned as an expert defense witness, testified that Phillips was a paranoid-schizophrenic who had mild mental retardation and an antisocial personality disorder. On January 6 Judge Flannery declared that Phillips was fit for trial.
In another hearing, on March 25, Carey argued that Phillips’s confession should be thrown out because his mental retardation and psychological impairment had compromised his understanding of his constitutional right to remain silent. Flannery ruled against him.
Around this time, Adam Gray, the boy at Audy who’d been suicidal, was transferred to County Jail to await trial. He was to be tried as an adult and his case was to be heard by the same Judge Flannery. Hedges wrote a letter to Flannery: “As a 20-year employee of the Audy Home I have been part of the Justice system throughout my adult life. I say adult life because in 1976 I had a son born, and it was his presence, his promise and potential that made me an adult. Despite my two decades of service in the system it is a pair of tragedies that brings me to your courtroom on a regular basis and prompts me to write this letter….My son, a musical genius with a saintly disposition, is gone. Nothing can change that. So I’ll spare you the details of his beautiful and promising life. Suffice it to say that his death was a loss for all humanity. Adam is also a genius. A boy-genius who, despite being deprived of schooling and kept in the most solitary of conditions, has continued to grow intellectually, emotionally and spiritually….Please do not infer that, in my grief, I have made some sort of substitution. For it is only in their great potential that Adam and Brendan are similar. Adam truly is a ‘hard egg to crack.’ I urge you, though, the keeper of Adam’s fate, to take time to crack the egg. With the proper help Adam will achieve greatness. Future generations may thank you for saving him.”
The letter made no difference. A jury found Adam guilty of arson and murder, and Flannery sentenced him to natural life in prison without possibility of parole. Flannery doesn’t remember Hedges’s letter but says “nothing anybody said could have affected the sentence.” He says he might have considered a finite prison term for Adam, but mandatory sentencing dictated the punishment. “You have this kid who did something so stupid at 14 sent away for the rest of his days,” says Flannery. “It’s so sad.” Hedges later visited Adam in prison and noticed that his attitude seemed to be hardening. Adam insisted he was innocent and said his confession was coerced, and Hedges believes a judge or the governor will eventually be persuaded to set him free.
As Ricky Phillips’s day in court approached, Jack Carey and Bill Ryan, the volunteer counselor, pressured him to plead guilty, to throw himself on the court’s mercy and avoid the death penalty, which was possible for a murder committed in the course of another felony and more likely because of his previous record. But Phillips knew that technically, even if found guilty, he could receive a term of less than natural life, perhaps as few as 20 years. “I want a trial,” he told Carey.
On May 12, 1997, the day the trial was to begin, assistant state’s attorney Mary Kay Moore had her witnesses assembled and set to testify. Carey was prepared to lay out an insanity defense. A jury stood ready. Finally Phillips began to waver.
For an hour Carey, Azzlee Phillips, and Tabitha Phillips sat in a conference room off Flannery’s courtroom, trying to persuade Phillips to plead guilty. Carey yelled, and Azzlee insisted. But Carey says it was Tabitha’s words that finally swayed Phillips. She told him, “Ricky, one of these days I’m going to have a baby, and I want to bring that child to see you. I don’t want to point to a patch of ground, your grave, and say, ‘That is your uncle.'” Back in court Phillips entered a guilty plea.
Afterward Azzlee walked across the room and approached Maggie Hedges. She extended a hand and said, “I’m so sorry what my boy did to your boy.” Maggie was shocked, but she shook Azzlee’s hand.
Out in the hallway Mike Hedges told Azzlee, “I didn’t want your son to be put to death. I’m sorry about Ricky.” He went to embrace Azzlee, but she grabbed at her heart and crumpled to the floor. She spent the night at Mount Sinai Hospital, doctors monitoring her to see if she’d had a heart attack; it turned out that she hadn’t.
When Hedges went back to work someone who’d heard that he’d wanted to hug Azzlee called him a “chump.”
On the afternoon of June 12, both families reassembled in Flannery’s courtroom for Phillips’s sentencing. Mike Hedges, Maggie, and a few friends and relatives huddled together. Azzlee and her daughter Beverly, but not Tabitha, sat across the way. Bill Ryan sat with them. Phillips and Jack Carey occupied the defense table.
That morning Phillips had been searched on the way to the courthouse; he had a seven-inch shank–a screwdriver with a sharpened point–sticking out of his rectum. “Ricky thought some guy was going to stab him,” says Carey. “He’s an institutionalized guy–he thought he had to protect himself. So a couple of hulking sheriff’s deputies now stood behind Phillips in the courtroom.
Mike Hedges walked up and sat in the witness stand to deliver a brief victim-impact statement. He quoted Earl Woods, Tiger’s father, as saying he’d been “personally selected by God himself to nurture this young man and bring him to the point where he can make his contribution to humanity. This is my treasure.” In a steady voice he then spoke directly about Brendan. “In my line of work I have met literally thousands and thousands of young men and women, and none even comes close to Brendan Miguel Hedges in talent, drive, and pureness of life. And I don’t see anyone to take his place.” But he concluded without asking for the death penalty.
Maggie, who’d dictated what she wanted to say to her therapist, had practiced reading her statement until 4 AM that morning. Her two sisters accompanied her to the witness box to ensure that she read every line of the statement; if she faltered they were to touch her shoulder. “For the rest of my life and that of my family we will forever try to understand why Brendan would be the target of a messy execution on the day we honor Martin Luther King,” she stated, her voice even. “Our Brendan, who had just turned 18, was the gentlest soul I have ever known. Brendan never in his life raised a hand to anyone. He was the butt of jokes and teased as a kid at school, and he never raised a hand. The first time Brendan decides to stand up to protect something that was important to him, he ends up dead at the hands of a criminal. How dare this man put a gun in my Brendan’s face? How dare he?”
Maggie painted a picture of Brendan as a pianist, band member, UIC student, and son. “Brendan started to play in clubs in Chicago together with Carter Lee and George. Mike would always be with him. Keeping an eye on him. Using our station wagon as a transport, as an excuse to be with him. Brendan was Mike’s dream. He lived through Brendy.” Her voice rose. “Since my Brendy has vanished, the sun doesn’t shine the same. Spring isn’t the same. Christmas–nothing’s the same, or will it ever be. The fabric that kept our family whole has weakened. What’s become of my boy? A plot in the cemetery with his name on it.
“There is nothing, nothing you can possibly do to this man to justify what he has stolen from us. State of Illinois, show me your outrage. Judge Flannery, show me your outrage. And to you, my precious son Brendan, I miss your jokes, I miss your constant laughter and music. We will never grow old together, because you have ceased being in our lives. If I had you for just one more second, I would tell you just how proud I am of you. What I would give to hear you play your guitar and sing your last song.”
The courtroom was silent. Later Carey would say that even Ricky Phillips was on the verge of tears.
Assistant state’s attorney Moore then detailed all the infractions Phillips had been responsible for at Menard, and as she did, Mike Hedges recoiled. My God, he thought, he did all those horrible things too. He says his shoulders slumped, and for a moment he felt himself flip in favor of the death penalty.
Then Beverly Phillips recounted the fun her brother had shared with Tabitha. And Bill Ryan read a statement in which he said, “I’ve seen a change in Ricky. He’s learned a bit more about reading and writing. He’s talked about his behavior, and how it’s hurt people. He’s expressed remorse and sorrow. He feels for Brendan and his family, but I’m not sure he understands the enormity of this. I’m not sure anybody could.”
In her closing argument Moore stated, “I can’t describe how brutal and cold his murder was, of such an innocent young man….Ricky hasn’t contributed a thing to society except pain and heartache. He’s a danger outside the penitentiary and inside the penitentiary. It’s my true conviction that no other penalty fits this crime and this defendant than death.”
Carey then stood and said, “There’s nobody with a drop of humanity who couldn’t have been moved by what’s happened in this courtroom.” But, he went on, Phillips was mentally retarded, unemployed, and homeless, “suffering from emotional distress at the time of the crime.” Carey asked that Phillips be given natural life in prison.
Finally it was Phillips’s turn. From the witness stand he said, “I’m sorry for what I did. I made a mistake. Words cannot describe how sorry I am for his family. I pray for his family and also for my mother and the pain I have caused her.” Then he went back to the defense table.
Flannery called for a recess, and when he returned he delivered his judgment. He said that Phillips had “absolutely no chance of rehabilitation. The defendant is a coward and a bully, an uncivilized person who cannot live in a civilized society. Mr. Phillips must be warehoused. He cannot ever be let out of the Department of Corrections.” Later Flannery, who in four years on the criminal bench had never handed out a death sentence, explained why he again hesitated. He said he remembered a 1979 case where a murderer had been given the death sentence, which was later reversed three times, turning the defendant into a capital-offense martyr. If he gave Phillips death, Flannery told the courtroom, “10 or 15 years from now people will make Mr. Phillips a cause. But Brendan’s family doesn’t deserve to have to listen about him ever again.” Flannery said he was giving Phillips natural life in prison.
Phillips appeared impassive. Hedges, his arms around Maggie, looking relieved, thrust his fist toward Dale Janush, who was sitting in front of him. Bill Ryan approached from the Phillips’s side of the courtroom and embraced Maggie.
Carey says that Phillips later asked if he would ever be released from prison. “No Ricky, you got what you got,” Carey told him. “Don’t push it.” He says Phillips looked resigned and asked to see his mother and sister.
Phillips was sent to Menard again on June 26. “There aren’t too many people who’d trade places with Ricky now,” says Carey. “He’s locked up with father killers and mother rapists, and to protect himself he’ll be walking around with a shank up his ass. You could say this is a cursed existence–a life worse than death.”
Two months later Phillips told Bill Ryan over the phone that he was proud he hadn’t been put in segregation. And he said he was trying to read–he rattled off the alphabet as proof. Ryan promised to send him some easy books.
Maggie Hedges says she still can’t make simple decisions, even about such things as whether to take a trip or buy a new phone. In some ways Mike isn’t doing much better. “He sees a guitar, he sees his kid, and he loses it,” says Dale Janush.
But Maggie sets hair for the owners of Hecky’s Barbecue, a carryout restaurant in Evanston, and they’ve set up a $1,000 annual music scholarship in Brendan’s name that has already helped send two students to college. And Bianca, who plays flute, has just started high school. Mike, who adores his daughter, hopes she’ll turn out to be as dedicated a musician as Brendan was.
Asked how she sees Ricky Phillips now, Maggie says, “He’s just a disease to me, like polio or HIV. He’s not a person at all, so I have no feelings for him at all.” Mike says, “This wasn’t a young kid who killed my son, but this son of a bitch, this Ricky Phillips. If somebody had gotten to him when he was 16 and had shown some interest in him he might not have become the person he was.”
“Mike has a big, forgiving heart–too forgiving, if you ask me,” says Maggie. “He gives people too many chances.”
This past July Mike took a supervisor’s job at Audy, though he made sure that he could still stage the talent shows and teach art classes once a week. He gave up teaching music.
“Jeez, some of his Audy Home kids are already murderers,” says William Hougesen, the police detective who helped solve Brendan’s murder. “How can he still do this work knowing that among these kids are potential Ricky Phillipses? It’s hard to figure.”
“They’re a nice bunch of kids,” Mike says. “They work well with me. They aren’t as smart or creative as I’d like them to be, but they’ve been dealt a bad deck of cards. They grew up in poverty, and now they have track marks on their arms. In the hallway one time Jack Carey referred to Ricky as a lost soul, and he is, in every sense of that word. Many of the kids I work with are lost souls too, and I know that. My hope has been to engage at least some of them so they don’t stay lost souls.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mike Hedges photo by Kathy Richland; Brendan Hedges photo uncredited; Bianca, Mike, and Maggie Hedges photo by Kathy Richland; Mike Hedges with Adam Gray photo uncredited;.