Lori Lightfoot’s ‘Lax’ Response To Fatal Fire Led To Sanctions By Judge | WBEZ
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Lori Lightfoot’s ‘Lax’ Response To Fatal Fire Led To Sanctions By Judge

Updated at 1:05 p.m. on March 26

Late one night in 2004, Lori Lightfoot was summoned to a meeting with other top officials of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications. Lightfoot, who is running for mayor, was working at the time as OEMC chief of staff and general counsel.

The meeting was about a house fire in Austin, a West Side neighborhood. The bodies of three young children had been found in an upstairs bedroom. A teenager, found at the foot of the stairs with severe burns, was not expected to survive.

Neighbors said it took too long for firefighters to arrive from a station just 1,000 yards away. Some said 911 operators had ignored their calls. At least one said she was treated as a prank caller.

After the late-night meeting, Lightfoot returned to OEMC the next morning, a Saturday, and began a review of the agency’s performance. One of her jobs, she testified later, was to prepare for expected litigation.

The family of three of the children did in fact take steps the following week toward a wrongful death lawsuit against the city. The first step was getting a Cook County judge to issue a “temporary restraining order” requiring the city to “preserve any and all evidence in any form whatsoever” relating to 911 calls the night of the fire.

The order reached Lightfoot six days after the blaze.

“I took the fire and resulting litigation very seriously, both to figure out what happened and to prevent further tragedy,” Lightfoot said in a written statement Sunday to WBEZ from her mayoral campaign.

What Lightfoot did with the judge’s order to preserve evidence, she said in a 2006 deposition, was attach a Post-it note so her secretary could forward it to the OEMC’s tape-review unit. Lightfoot said she did not follow up to see what that unit did with the order.

Lawyers for the family said the city provided recordings of only 19 of the night’s incoming 911 calls and “intentionally destroyed” recordings of 2,105 other incoming calls during those hours.

Lightfoot said in the statement from her campaign that she “directed OEMC to preserve the tape, and this directive was disregarded.”

But Cook County Judge Lynn M. Egan, who oversaw the lawsuit proceedings, put the blame squarely on Lightfoot. During a 2008 hearing, Egan characterized the attorney’s performance as “shockingly lax” and “cavalier” and said there was a reasonable argument that the city was deliberately hiding evidence from the plaintiffs — something that judges have repeatedly accused city attorneys of doing in lawsuits over the years.

Repeatedly rebuked

Lightfoot arrived at OEMC in July 2004. Her boss, Executive Director Ron Huberman, had arrived just that spring. Mayor Richard M. Daley was putting both Lightfoot and Huberman in top posts at city agencies to fix problems.

The OEMC problems included an October 2003 fire in a Cook County administration building that killed six people and a July 2004 power failure that knocked the 911 call center offline.

The fire that got Lightfoot in trouble with the judge took place Sept. 24, 2004. It ravaged the two-story frame house of Dwayne and Emily Funches at 5056 W. Huron St., killing three of their children — ages 14 months, 7 years and 15 years — and a 12-year-old godson.

The Funches and the 12-year-old’s mother, Cynthia Olloway, filed lawsuits. The defendants included the city, the maker of the RCA television set suspected of starting the fire, and Circuit City, the retailer that sold that TV.

In their claims against the city, the families contended that there were at least three calls to the 911 intake center about the fire by 11:25 p.m., the time that Huberman and other OEMC officials said the first 911 call about the blaze arrived.

“There were allegations that calls came into 911 and that they couldn’t get through or they were hung up on,” Lightfoot said in her deposition, which lasted nearly three hours May 31, 2006.

“And so part of what I set about doing [the day after the fire] was working with staff to track down every single call that came in, in connection with that fire, and to get the tapes and to listen to the tapes,” Lightfoot testified.

Besides gathering the recordings, Lightfoot said, she created reports and a timeline about the fire and used manila folders to organize the material “in anticipation of what came to be litigation.”

“Did you make any notes?” the Funches' attorney, Daniel Biederman, asked.

“I’m sure I did,” Lightfoot answered.

“Where would those notes be today?” he asked.

“I have no idea,” she said.

Lightfoot said she did not “have a recollection” of reviewing her records about the fire to see if they were covered by the judge’s order to preserve evidence. Asked if she turned over the records to the city’s Law Department, she said she did not believe so.

Walter Jones Jr., an attorney for the city, later insisted in court there was no “intentional destruction of records” though he admitted “perhaps the conduct was negligent.”

Another attorney for the city called the disappearance of records merely a “clerical slip-up.”

Egan, the judge, did not buy it.

During an October 2007 hearing, she said Lightfoot’s “response to receipt of a temporary restraining order … was so cavalier and inadequate that it comes close to violating her duties as an officer of a court.”

The following January, city attorneys insisted that neither Lightfoot nor OEMC possessed her records on the fire.

The judge responded by scolding them about Lightfoot again.

“That is very problematic given her deposition testimony that she created multiple files,” Egan said. “I just can’t underscore enough how troubled this court is by her approach to this situation.”

“What you just told me,” the judge said, “suggests that there has been destruction of documents.”

“You might want to alert Ms. Lightfoot [that] she may want to retain personal counsel,” Egan warned.

In April 2008, Egan chastised city attorneys about Lightfoot yet again.

“When she gets a temporary restraining order from a judge, this experienced lawyer — this general counsel of the most sophisticated 911 center in the world — says she takes that piece of paper, puts a Post-it note on it and hands it off to a secretary, never follows up again,” Egan said.

“We have a record that supports a reasonable argument that the city is deliberately withholding evidence,” the judge said.

Sanctions ordered

Egan ordered monetary sanctions against the city to cover plaintiff costs resulting from OEMC’s failure to follow the court’s instructions to preserve the evidence, according to court transcripts.

Ultimately, however, the judge ruled against claims about the OEMC response the night of the fire, finding that the city did not have a legal duty to protect the decedents — a judgment upheld by an Illinois appellate court and the state Supreme Court.

The claim against Circuit City fizzled when that company entered bankruptcy. RCA agreed to settlements totaling $6 million with the Funches family and Olloway.

In her statement to WBEZ, Lightfoot referred to a 911 dispatcher that Huberman accused of hanging up on someone who was calling about the fire.

“We thoroughly investigated the dispatcher’s conduct to determine appropriate disciplinary actions and created additional training for all dispatchers to screen, track and prevent prank 911 calls,” Lightfoot said in the statement.

“As mayor, I will continue working with OEMC and other city departments to keep our communities safe,” she said.

Egan, who retired from the bench in 2017, did not respond to questions about Lightfoot. The parents of the Funches children did not return requests for comment. Their attorney and Olloway both declined to comment.

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about criminal justice. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Dan Mihalopoulos contributed. Follow him at @dmihalopoulos.

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