Only in Chicago: Jail escape has bizarre political dimensions
By DON BABWIN
CHICAGO- Chances are, when six inmates broke out of the Cook County Jail earlier this month, they didn't know they were going to be drawn into a political campaign.
In a case that seems straight out of Chicago's rollicking "Front Page" era, a jail guard is accused of helping the inmates escape in a plot to influence the election for sheriff.
"It certainly adds to the city's reputation for weird politics," said Don Rose, a political consultant in the Windy City, where a former governor is now on trial on corruption charges and legend has it that the mayor in 1960 helped John F. Kennedy get elected by conjuring up votes from the dead.
According to prosecutors, jail guard Darin Gater handcuffed himself on Feb. 11 to make it look as if he had been overpowered, then turned over his uniform, boots, ID, keys and radio. The inmates used the gear to open doors and bluff or bully their way out.
All six inmates were captured within about a day; the last two gave themselves up after authorities surrounded the apartment in which they were hiding.
Authorities said Gater told them he helped the inmates break out to demonstrate lax security at the jail and embarrass outgoing Sheriff Michael Sheahan. That, in turn, would help Richard Remus in his campaign for sheriff. Remus is running against Sheahan's hand-picked candidate in next month's Democratic primary.
Adding to the intrigue: Remus was once the guard's supervisor. (Remus has not been accused of any involvement in the plot and has denied he had any role.)
Because of the city's long and rich history of graft and political chicanery, the jail breakout story has a certain only-in-Chicago quality to it.
"If there was no dateline on this story and you are in Nebraska, you would think this is Chicago or New Orleans," said Bruce DuMont, a veteran Chicago political analyst and host of the nationally syndicated "Beyond the Beltway" radio show.
Gater, 36, is charged with escape and other crimes. He has declared his innocence, and his lawyers have claimed that he was coerced into incriminating himself. Five other guards have been suspended with pay but have not been charged.
Some of the other candidates for sheriff have jumped on the story.
One of them, Sylvester Baker Jr., said the escape offered a chance for the sheriff's preferred candidate, chief of staff Tom Dart, to show his leadership skills in a crisis. Instead, Baker said, Dart "opted to hide under a rock."
The sheriff, for his part, issued a statement saying he would not comment further until the investigation is complete. But in the same statement, he noted that Remus is being represented in a job-related lawsuit against the sheriff's department by some of the same attorneys defending the suspended guards.
Malcolm Young, executive director of a group that monitors jails in Illinois, said that whether the escape story is true or not almost doesn't matter: "It's still a story that would only likely emerge in Cook County politics and in Illinois politics."
In fact, the story may be giving Chicagoans some pleasure, one political analyst suggested.
"This city was not built because we had great plans," said Paul Green, a political science professor at Roosevelt University. "It was built because we out-hustled other cities, out-finessed other cities. The city is full of energy and some of that energy goes to ... crime."
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