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Praetorian Guard is key in Vanecko investigation

Hearing Friday takes up 2004 involuntary manslaughter case

John Kass

January 18, 2013

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The Praetorian Guard of Chicago won't be part of the formal hearing Friday in what's now called the Vanecko case.

But understanding what happened in the political heater case of the year won't be complete without Praetorian input.

Many of you know that Richard J. Vanecko, nephew of one mayor of Chicago, grandson of another, stood 6 feet 3 inches and weighed 230 pounds in April 2004 when he allegedly punched an inebriated David Koschman, 21, 5 feet 5 inches tall and 125 pounds.

Koschman died 11 days later.

Vanecko, nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, has been charged with one count of involuntary manslaughter. That part of the case continues Friday.

But the political part involves what happened in the weeks after the punch, and whether Chicago Way clout compelled police and prosecutors from the Cook County state's attorney's office to look the other way.

Dan Webb is the special prosecutor running the grand jury. He was appointed because of the many questions raised by the Sun-Times about the shoddy initial investigation of Koschman's death.

If I were Webb, investigating a possible law enforcement cover-up, I'd begin with the Chicago Praetorians.

The Praetorians in ancient Rome guarded the emperors. When the Praetorians appeared, lowly constables didn't dare question them. They knew who the guards called boss.

It is the same in modern Chicago. The Praetorians are called the mayor's detail. They're the bodyguards, and they're connected. Members of the detail don't need a sign over their heads or a badge around their necks to announce their influence.

They're the detail. The blue shirts, the detectives in suits, the deputy superintendents and the state's attorneys know them by sight. Cops don't have to be told. It's the way of things here.

If I were Webb, I'd have some questions for the Praetorians of Chicago.

I'd sit them before the grand jury and walk them back years before Koschman, back to 1992, in Grand Beach, Mich. I'd walk them back under oath.

I'd try to find out how the mayoral bodyguard detail responded in 1992, when the mayor's son Patrick and his cousin Richard J. Vanecko became involved in a teenage beer brawl at the family's Michigan vacation home.

Someone swung a bat. Vanecko, then a teenager, pleaded guilty to aiming a firearm "without malice" at other teens. Fines were paid. I thought the only way to point a gun was "with malice."

Patrick Daley has not been implicated in the current Vanecko case. And what Vanecko did back then isn't material. They were kids then, and kids do stupid things when they're full of beer. I'm more interested in how the Praetorians of Chicago do their work.

And if I were prosecutor, I'd want to know what happened to that bat. I'd also want to know if any Praetorians left City Hall to make the drive to Grand Beach to talk to the local cops about the bat. I'd also want to know if anyone took that bat.

It just might inform the grand jury about how things work in Chicago when princelings get into trouble with the law.

There is no bat at issue in Friday's hearing. The issue is a fist. And since both Vanecko and Koschman had been drinking in the bars near Rush Street, a conviction might prove impossible. Still, Koschman had no chance. It was a mismatch, physically and politically.

The Illinois Supreme Court decided that, given the ties between criminal court judges and the Daley family, that going outside Cook County and into McHenry County would do. McHenry Judge Maureen P. McIntyre will preside over the first hearing scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Friday in Rolling Meadows, about as close as you can get to McHenry in Cook County.

She won't be dealing with how the case was handled, how files were reportedly lost and witnesses not interviewed. That's Webb's job.

Police brass and City Hall are facing other heat on other fronts. The gang wars on the South and West sides continue claiming lives in the city that for decades has had the strictest gun control laws in the nation.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and President Barack Obama play assault weapons-ban politics, and it offers them easy, symbolic righteousness.

I guess fighting the National Rifle Association on assault weapons bans is easier for Emanuel than hiring enough cops to stop the Gangster Disciples and others who use handguns exclusively.

Recently, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy embarrassed himself by holding a news conference with tables full of guns as props. The guns were presented to reporters as those seized in the first two weeks of the year.

But it wasn't true. They were guns seized last year. It was just a dog-and-pony show. Some TV news stations ran with it anyway. The Tribune exposed the sham.

Meanwhile, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, under fire for not vigorously pursuing the Vanecko case, has suffered her own series of blunders. That disastrous appearance on "60 Minutes" was one. And the other day, she was forced to suspend two prosecutors who failed to file charges against a man who threatened to burn his children. Later, the man followed through on the threat, leaving his daughter dead and his son critically injured, authorities said.

The Vanecko case has the potential to create more bad news for Chicago law enforcement. But it also has the potential to expose some old truths — if Webb to can compel the Praetorians of Chicago to tell what they know.

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass