CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – Erick Lagunas’ family came to court Friday morning clinging to the slimmest of hopes.
But their 2½-year quest for justice ended in bitter tears, as the Chicago Police officer they say killed Lagunas and his friend, Miguel Flores, in a Thanksgiving Day 2007 drunken-driving crash walked out of the 26th and California courthouse a free man.
“It’s a joke — they say we can continue with a civil suit,” said Mayra Lagunas, 22, Erick Lagunas’ cousin. “But no amount of money is ever going to bring Erick back.”
Cook County prosecutors met privately with the Lagunas family Friday morning, gently telling them they had no choice but to drop the aggravated drunken-driving and reckless homicide charges against officer John Ardelean. Prosecutors said their case fell apart after Cook County Judge Thomas Gainer Jr. threw out key evidence against Ardelean in late April.
The Lagunas family couldn’t stand to be in the courtroom when the case was officially dismissed. The family — knowing what was coming — said they couldn’t bear to look at the police officer’s face.
A few moments later, Ardelean — wearing dark sunglasses and surrounded by four beefy men in casual clothing — walked briskly down the courthouse steps. Reporters barked questions at him, but he said nothing and offered no hint of his feelings.
Tom Needham, Ardelean’s attorney, said his client’s silence shouldn’t be mistaken for indifference.
“He’s always been upset and distraught and completely understanding of the emotion and anger on the other side of this case,” Needham said. “But he’s always insisted he didn’t commit a crime that night.”
Prosecutors made two attempts to prove that Ardelean did. After the two-vehicle fatal crash Nov. 22 in Roscoe Village, Ardelean was charged with misdemeanor DUI — later upgraded to a felony. But those charges were dismissed when Cook County Judge Don Panarese ruled there was “no indication” Ardelean, who was off-duty at the time, was drunk. Prosecutors reinstated charges after saying they had a lengthy surveillance videotape showing Ardelean drinking five shots and other drinks at a North Side bar shortly before the crash.
Prosecutors also suggested in pretrial hearings that police the night of the crash turned a blind eye to Ardelean’s intoxication. Among other things, he wasn’t arrested or given a Breathalyzer until seven hours after the crash. But Gainer ruled in April that the supervising officer who ultimately made the arrest didn’t have strong enough evidence to do so. Gainer’s ruling also suppressed key blood-alcohol evidence.
That ruling sparked a furious reaction, resulting in the arrest of three of Flores’ relatives after they scuffled with sheriff’s deputies.
Flores’ relatives didn’t show up Friday. Lagunas’ family said that’s because the Flores family knew how the case would end.
In a written statement, prosecutors said they’d done “extensive and in-depth” research but found there weren’t sufficient grounds to appeal Gainer’s ruling or continue with the case.
Ardelean is currently on administrative leave and has been relieved of his police powers, pending the outcome of an internal affairs investigation, the Chicago Police Department said in a statement.