Spirited protesters weathered the heat Tuesday outside the St. Clair County Courthouse in Belleville demanding drug tests for St. Clair County elected officials and calling for the resignation of Chief Judge John Baricevic.
Melinda Hult, a Belleville alderwoman, told a crowd of about 100 that Baricevic needs to step down.
“Either he knew his judges were on drugs, or he didn’t, and he should have known,” she said.
In May, Circuit Judge Michael Cook was arrested on heroin possession and weapon charges. His arrest by federal authorities came two months after his colleague and friend, Associate Judge Joseph Christ, was found dead of cocaine toxicity at a Cook family owned hunting lodge in Pike County. So far, two others have been charged in connection with what appears to be a widening investigation, including former St. Clair County probation officer James Fogarty.
East St. Louis civic activist Matt Hawkins also led a group of chanting protesters in a walk around the courthouse.
“What do we want?” Hawkins asked, and “What do we need?”
“Justice,” they replied as they held signs with the words “Boot Baricevic” and “Justice should be blind.”
The rally was organized by Citizens for Social and Economic Progress Chairman Lee Griffin who called the drug scandal a “big money problem.”
“We’ve got to get the power back to the people,” he said as he got the crowd pumped up. “If you mess with me, you mess with the whole trailer park.”
Griffin encouraged the crowd to vote for candidates who will help them.
Belleville City Clerk Dallas Cook (no relation to former Judge Michael Cook) said after the rally that most elected officials were afraid to attend the protest.
“I’m not here to be politically correct," he said. "I’m here to make things right. I’m here to say what needs to be said. We have one group of gentlemen who have run this county for years. They feel they are above the law."
Dallas Cook also said that the local Democratic Party "chooses who runs in the primary."
"That person is a puppet of the Democratic machine," he said. "We have no one to represent us. This is out of control. It’s embarrassing."
Belleville resident Michael Newcombe, 26, came to the rally, he said, because he is sick of “the injustice.”
“What is right for one should be right for all,” he said. “Cops pull me over just because I’m black, and I say something, and it gives them an excuse to arrest me.”
East St. Louis resident Julian Jones, who attended the rally, said he can’t trust the court system. Jones was pulled over by law enforcement for suspicion of drug possession.
“We come to court, and our judge is doing heroin,” he said.
Belleville resident Keisha Mitchell attended the rally out of concern for her children.
“There’s been a lot of corruption going on," Mitchell said. "It’s just a lot of wrongdoing. They think they’re above the law."
Belleville resident Katie Gilroy, 24, attended the rally, because she wants “accountability, responsibility, integrity and transparency at all levels.”
The Rev. Larry Rice of the New Life Evangelistic Center in St. Louis also stood in the crowd with a sign that said “Expose everything.”
Rice spoke before the crowd but was interrupted by a megaphone carried by Belleville resident Kevin Peals who called Rice an “opportunist.”
“Larry Rice don’t care about us,” he said. “You are an opportunist,” he said to Rice as Rice attempted to speak above Peals’ megaphone.
He was then pulled away by other protesters but was later interviewed by reporters.
Rice responded after the rally.
“I’m very concerned with what’s going on here," Rice said. "I feel it’s a tragedy, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. These people have been in office for years and years. Everything done in secret comes out to light."
Soon after his arrest, Michael Cook stepped down from the bench and sought drug treatment. He also entered a not guilty plea on charges of heroin possession and being an unlawful user of a controlled substance in possession of firearms. He is set to go to trial Oct. 1.
Fogarty, who is charged with possession of cocaine with the intent to deliver and being an unlawful user of a controlled substance in possession of a firearm, also pleaded not guilty. He is accused of providing cocaine to Cook and Christ before the two judges went to the Pike County lodge in March. His trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 26.
In connection, Sean McGilvery of Belleville has been charged with conspiring to distribute and possess more than 1 kilogram of heroin with the intent to deliver. Cook was arrested at McGilvery’s home. McGilvery, who has pleaded not guilty, is set to go to trial Sept. 16.