Three years after the death of St. Clair County judge Joe Christ revealed a drug scandal, three judges have staked their jobs on a conviction that they have restored public faith in the judiciary.
Chief Judge John Baricevic and circuit judges Robert Haida and Robert LeChien tested that faith last November, when they decided not to stand for retention.
They resigned instead, not because they intended to give up their robes but because they wanted to run like new candidates.
Retention would require 60 percent approval, rather than a simple majority.
When they decided to run, Baricevic said an election campaign would provide an opportunity to answer questions about former judge Michael Cook.
Since then, however, the focus of their campaigns has been to preserve their access to the ballot amidst a court challenge.
Cook found Christ’s body on March 10, 2013, in a Pike County hunting lodge that the Cook family owned.
At an autopsy, a device for snorting cocaine fell to the floor.
On March 15, 2013, Pike County sheriff Paul Petty and deputy Matt Frazier met with Cook at a Hardee’s restaurant in Belleville.
According to Frazier’s report, “Judge Cook appeared nervous and asked Sheriff Petty if he was being arrested or if he needed to sign anything.”
“Sheriff Petty explained that he knew he used controlled substance, but was concerned as to whose cocaine vial it was that was located with the deceased during autopsy,” Frazier wrote.
Frazier wrote that Cook said he used cocaine in the past.
“Sheriff Petty explained he wasn’t out to ruin any lives if possible but if the evidence showed Judge Christ died of a cocaine overdose and he provided it there could be a real issue,” Frazier wrote.
“I inference that both of them were referring to drug induced homicide.
“Judge Cook stated that there were several people like him within the judicial system in his area that were a part of this activity.”
Frazier further wrote that Cook said Christ received the device as a gift for becoming judge.
He wrote that Cook said he believed an attorney gave the device to Christ.
On May 14, 2013, state police scientists sent Petty a report stating that they found more of Cook’s genetic material than Christ’s on the cocaine-snorting device.
The report identified Christ as victim, Cook as suspect.
Petty chose not to deliver his case file to Pike County state’s attorney Carrie Boyd because he doubted her competence.
She later filed a baseless felony charge against him, losing the case, resigning her office, and leaving Pike County in disgrace.
With no hope of local prosecution, Petty delivered his file to U.S. Attorney Stephen Wigginton, in Fairview Heights.
Federal agents then arrested Cook on charges of possessing heroin and using it while possessing firearms.
They arrested his heroin supplier, Sean McGilvery, and Christ’s cocaine supplier, St. Clair County probation officer James Fogarty.
Fogarty admitted that he sold cocaine to Christ, but successfully pleaded that he didn’t sell the cocaine that killed Christ.
The investigation ended as suddenly as it began.
To this day, no one has determined who provided the cocaine that killed Christ.
No one has confirmed Cook’s statement about “several people like him.”
No one has identified the attorney who gave the cocaine device to Christ.
Cook, Fogarty, and McGilvery negotiated pleas within months.
Wigginton and Cook agreed that Cook would serve 18 months in prison.
Senior judge Joe McDade of Peoria, who took Cook’s case after all Southern District judges recused themselves, rejected the agreement.
He found it didn’t account for the damage Cook caused to public faith in the judiciary, and he increased the sentence to 24 months.
Cook and Fogarty have served their time, and McGilvery will go free next year.
Since his arrest and prosecution, Cook’s record as a judge has been repudiated.
Haida overturned jury verdicts finding two murder suspects guilty, on no grounds but prejudice due to Cook’s heroin addiction.
A second murder trial for suspect William Cosby resulted in acquittal.
Fifth District appellate judges reversed several of Cook’s judgments, not on account of his addiction but on account of errors he committed.
A transcript in one case showed Cook failed to rebuke a prosecutor who referred to the mother of a young abuse victim as “Brandy Crackhead.”
St. Clair County voters returned a verdict of their own in 2014, electing Stephen McGlynn for the position Cook once held.
McGlynn, a Republican, had held the position on a temporary basis by appointment of the Illinois Supreme Court through the recommendation of Justice Lloyd Karmeier.
County voters hadn’t elected a Republican judge in decades.
Baricevic, Haida and LeChien then adopted their strategy to quit and run.
From the adoption of the Illinois Constitution in 1970 through 2005, no sitting judge in the state had resigned in order to run.
Former St. Clair County circuit judge Lloyd Cueto did it in 2006, without objection, and he won the election that November.
No one had done it since, until Baricevic, Haida, and LeChien decided to try it.
Belleville city clerk Dallas Cook filed an objection with the State Board of Elections, and a hearing officer recommended that the board overrule the objection.
At a meeting in January, four Democrats on the board voted to accept the recommendation and four Republicans voted to reject it.
The tie vote meant victory for Baricevic, Haida, and LeChien, because the board needs five votes to reject a recommendation.
Cook petitioned for judicial review in Sangamon County, and associate judge Esteban Sanchez ruled against him.
Cook petitioned for review at the Fourth District appellate court in Springfield, which had taken no action as of March 8.
Baricevic, Haida and LeChien will appear on March 15 Democrat primary ballots without opposition.
They will advance to the general election ballot in November, unless the Illinois Supreme Court finds that their plan violates the Illinois Constitution.