By Kim Janssen
Chicago Sun Times
CHICAGO — A Chicago cop filmed drinking at least five shots of liquor minutes before he crashed his SUV, killing two young men, could walk free after a Cook County judge ruled that key evidence against him was illegally seized.
In a ruling greeted with fury and anguish by the families of victims Miguel Flores, 22, and Erick Lagunas, 21, Judge Thomas Gainer Jr. found there was "no conspiracy" among Officer John Ardelean's fellow officers to protect him.
It prompted ugly scenes and arrests outside his courtroom as the families clashed with Cook County sheriff's deputies. And it may have fatally damaged the case against 35-year-old Ardelean, who's charged with four counts of aggravated DUI and two counts of reckless homicide in the Thanksgiving Day 2007 deaths.
Video footage from the Martini Ranch Bar showed the officer downing shots just minutes before the crash between Ardelean's SUV and a sedan carrying Flores and Lagunas at the intersection of Damen and Wellington in Roscoe Village.
But Ardelean's attorney, Tom Needham, challenged his arrest because two fellow officers and a sergeant from the Belmont district station where he works and a paramedic said he didn't appear intoxicated at the accident scene.
Prosecutors implied that the officers turned a blind eye.
Ardelean wasn't arrested or given a Breathalyzer test until seven hours after the crash, when the officers' supervisor, Lt. John Magruder, said he noticed Ardelean had bloodshot eyes, smelled of booze and "was walking kind of funny with a limp or something.''
Based on the 0.032 blood alcohol level Ardelean recorded, an expert prosecution witness was due to testify that the officer would have been nearly twice the legal limit of 0.08 at the time of the crash.
But Gainer ruled Magruder did not have probable cause to arrest Ardelean, meaning the Breathalyzer results and expert testimony can't be used.
Describing Magruder as an "incredible" witness who'd given a "rambling" account of Ardelean's arrest and improperly discussed the likely media reaction to the case, telling a prosecutor that "we're damned if we do and damned if we don't," the judge wrote that "this court does not believe Lt. McGruder's testimony."
There was too little time and too many witnesses for a police conspiracy to protect Ardelean to have "gelled," he wrote.
Gainer also acquitted three Chicago cops accused of attacking a group of businessmen in the Jefferson Tap bar beating case last year.
Prosecutors are reviewing the judge's ruling in the Ardelean case and will decide whether to continue by the next hearing on May 25, Assistant Cook County State's Attorney Jim Byrne said.
But victims' relatives fear a conviction may now be impossible
As tempers flared Tuesday, Flores' mother, Blanca Villanueva, and sisters Nancy and Blanca Flores were arrested after they scuffled with deputies outside the courtroom.
Shouting "Murderer!" and "You should arrest him, not us!" at a shaven-headed Ardelean as they left the court, a group of 20 friends and relatives were asked to calm down by the deputies.
When Blanca Flores shouted "I'm going to f--- that bitch up!" as she walked away, the deputies chased and tackled her. Her sister and mother also were tackled and arrested when they tried to intervene.
Blanca Flores said she lost her temper after a deputy told her she was setting a bad example for her 3-year-old son.
"We needed space, but they got in our faces and were disrespectful," she said.
Though a deputy suffered a broken finger in the scuffle, another was bitten and Flores' mother was checked out for a minor head injury in a hospital, all three women were later released.
"It was an emotional situation, and lines were indeed crossed," Sheriff's spokesman Steve Patterson said, adding that charges against the women will not be sought.
Nursing a black eye later Tuesday afternoon, Nancy Flores fought back tears as she described the long road victims families have traveled, first to get Ardelean's charges upgraded to felonies, then to make the charges stick.
Both families still are pursuing a civil case against Ardelean but believe the criminal case will likely be dropped, she said.
"It's very hard to accept that this is almost over," she said. "It's been two long years trying to get justice for my brother."
Lagunas' brother Jose Lagunas, a teacher from Cicero, said he still believes "The witnesses were all lying because [Ardelean is] an officer."
Pointing out that the video showed Ardelean drinking just before the crash, he said, "I understand there are rules of evidence, but what else am I supposed to think?"
Other relatives hugged each other and sobbed as they left the courthouse.
"The decision today is an outrage.," Lagunas' cousin, Mayra Lagunas, said.
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