TIMELINE: The Investigation Into Alleged Abuse Of Chicago Lifeguards

Chicago Park District pool
A timeline of the investigation into allegations of abuse and misconduct in the Chicago Park District's lifeguard program. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Chicago Park District pool
A timeline of the investigation into allegations of abuse and misconduct in the Chicago Park District's lifeguard program. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

TIMELINE: The Investigation Into Alleged Abuse Of Chicago Lifeguards

The Chicago Park District has been the subject of a long-running investigation into allegations of widespread abuse, assault and harassment in its lifeguard program. Here’s a timeline of that investigation, with links to WBEZ’s ongoing coverage, which began in April 2021.

February 7, 2020: A first complaint is filed.

A former Chicago lifeguard wrote to Chicago Park District CEO Michael Kelly to complain that when she was 17 years old and working at Oak Street Beach in 2019, she suffered in “a work environment where sexual harassment, hazing, and other employee misconduct, was the norm,” according to a copy of her letter to Kelly.

She recounted an end-of-season banquet at which junior lifeguards were given “awards” meant to degrade them, including “Slut of the Beach.”

Within hours, Kelly replied, promising the woman to forward her complaint to the inspector general.

March 6, 2020: A second complaint is sent.

A second, five-year veteran Chicago lifeguard wrote to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office, complaining that she was sexually assaulted at age 17 by another higher-ranking employee, but said she feared retaliation and did not formally report it.

She said when she tried to speak up, “managers” at the park district disregarded and even mocked her. She wrote that it was difficult to get allegations escalated, and those found to have committed wrongdoing suffered only “mild” consequences.

And she said what happened to her turned out to be only part of “a huge incidence of sexual violence within the Park District.”

“I have both heard and witnessed more horrifying stories about employees experiencing sexual violence: employees being groped, individuals being forced to make-out, managers giving unwanted attention to female employees,” she wrote.

Lightfoot’s office forwarded this second letter to Chicago Park District CEO Michael Kelly.

March 19, 2020: The investigation begins.

Chicago Park District CEO Michael Kelly sent both complaints to the park district’s inspector general, 41 days after receiving the first complaint.

The inspector general launched an investigation immediately.

Over the next months, other female lifeguards would come forward to the I.G.’s office to report allegations of abuse and misconduct at the beach and pools, according to confidential reports.

Sept. 17, 2020: Lifeguard is suspended.

According to an inspector general’s office report, a lifeguard supervisor was found to have sexually harassed and made unwanted sexual advances and employment-related threats toward three female lifeguards under his supervision.

The supervisor had also previously worked at the Chicago Public Schools as a lifeguard, but was fired in 2016 for making “inappropriate advances” toward teenagers, records show. He was placed on the CPS “do not hire” list, but still maintained his job at the time at the park district.

Then, on Sept. 17, 2020, on the recommendation of the inspector general’s office, the employee was placed on emergency suspension, and he remained so until he resigned on April 27, 2021, after WBEZ reported on his case.

February 2021: Lifeguard resigns.

According to an inspector general report, a second male lifeguard supervisor was found to have assaulted and harassed a younger, female lifeguard in 2018 and threatened her in 2020. Investigators say the man allegedly forced the 16-year-old subordinate to perform a sex act and attempted to rape her. The man resigned from the park district on Feb. 24, while under investigation.

March 2021: Another lifeguard resigns.

A third lifeguard who worked for the park district for eight years was found by investigators to have “sexually harassed and sexually attacked two junior female lifeguards in 2016 and 2018,” according to the I.G.’s report.

One lifeguard told the I.G. that the male lifeguard “molested” her in the women’s locker room at Portage Park in 2016, fondling her over her clothes even as she pushed his hands away and “repeatedly pleaded” for him to stop, according to the report.

A second accuser told the inspector general’s office of a similar attack by the same man two years later in the locker room at Jefferson Park’s pool. The man restrained the junior lifeguard and forcibly fondled her beneath her clothes, according to the report.

When the office tried to talk to the veteran lifeguard, his union said he’d already decided not to reapply for seasonal work at the park district and wouldn’t cooperate with the investigation, according to the report.

The accused lifeguard told a WBEZ reporter he did nothing wrong.

April 27, 2021: I.G. report surfaces.

WBEZ obtained confidential I.G.’s reports into the year-old lifeguard abuse investigation, and published a story detailing sexual misconduct allegations against three veteran lifeguards. But the documents show there are dozens of employees facing similar allegations.

On the same day, one of the lifeguards identified in the report as committing wrongdoing resigned from the park district.

April 28, 2021: Mayor calls for ‘thorough’ probe.

Reacting to WBEZ’s reporting, Mayor Lori Lightfoot publicly urged park district officials to contact law-enforcement authorities if they’ve learned anyone had experienced criminal misconduct in the lifeguard program.

Julie Tortorich
Julie Tortorich poses for a photo at her home on June 7, 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

June 17, 2021: Nearly a dozen women tell WBEZ about alleged abuse.

Nearly a dozen women contacted WBEZ to share stories about abuse they say they endured while working as lifeguards in the Chicago Park District over five decades.

The 11 women spoke with WBEZ about what they said was pervasive sexual abuse in the ranks of Chicago’s lifeguard service for generations. They also allege that park district officials — who say they do not tolerate such behavior — have failed to adequately deal with the problem since the 1970s.

“Sexual harassment was the norm, daily, and assault was common and dealt with in-house,” said one woman, now a teacher in her late 30s, who worked as a lifeguard at a beach on the North Side starting when she was 17. “It happened to all of us.”

July 15, 2021: Inspector general publicly calls for more resources for probe.

In a letter to the agency’s board, Park District Inspector General Elaine Little asked for more resources to continue the probe into allegations of misconduct and abuse of lifeguards at the city’s pools and beaches.

July 20, 2021: Two aldermen call for an I.G. investigation.

Two Chicago aldermen file legislation asking for Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson to aid his counterpart at the park district in the lifeguard abuse probe. But Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot rebuffs their suggestion a day later, saying outside assistance isn’t needed and Little’s office has adequate resources.

Aug. 13, 2021: Whistleblower decries city’s handling of investigation

The former lifeguard who wrote the complaint that kicked off the investigation came forward, telling WBEZ she was deeply disappointed in how Mayor Lori Lightfoot and park district CEO Michael Kelly had handled the allegations.

The whistleblower told WBEZ she thought her February 2020 complaint initially got “brushed under the rug” by her one-time bosses at the park district – and felt Lightfoot and Kelly have failed to adequately address what she called a “constant abusive environment” for young workers at the city’s public beaches and pools. The woman also claimed Kelly reached out to her directly and asked her to keep him in the loop about the investigation in April, after WBEZ revealed the investigation.

Kelly said he had “vowed to root out the bad actors and behavior” as soon as he became aware of the allegations.

Aug. 16, 2021: Chicago Park District CEO Michael Kelly announces discipline

At a press conference, Kelly announced that two supervisors who oversee lifeguards for the Chicago Park District were suspended.

Aug. 19, 2021: Lead investigator in the probe is suspended.

Nathan Kipp, the park district deputy inspector general, released a letter saying he’d been suspended a week earlier from his job for unknown reasons. Kipp alleged he’d been suspended to “impede” the investigation, and said he was told his suspension came not from his boss, I.G. Elaine Little, but from unnamed park district officials. He said parks officials interfered in what’s supposed to be an independent watchdog’s office.

Kipp called on the Cook County state’s attorney’s to take over the investigation.

The same day he spoke out, Kipp got fired from his job. Ald. Scott Waguespack later decried the firing of Kipp, calling it “direct retaliation.”

Aug. 23, 2021: Mayor Lori Lightfoot defends Little and the probe.

The whistleblower who wrote the March 2020 letter to Lightfoot told WBEZ she was “very disappointed” in Lightfoot and called on the mayor to fire Chicago Park District CEO Michael Kelly and the park district board’s politically-connected president, Avis LaVelle.

Lightfoot replied that she “understood” the woman’s anger but supported the investigation by I.G. Elaine Little and believed in its independence from park district officials.

“We’ve got to let the I.G. do their work without litigating this in the press,” she said. “That’s not appropriate.”

Sept. 14, 2021: Elaine Little resigns as Park District Inspector General.

WBEZ reported that Elaine Little was herself the subject of an internal probe at her previous job as director of investigations at the Cook County juvenile jail, but quit before it was completed, in 2018.

The “extensive” probe, according to documents, centered on allegations of conflict of interest. It came after Little’s ex-husband filed complaints with the county and state about an extramarital affair she had with an employee at the juvenile jail.

While calling it a personal issue, Little resigned from her post within hours of WBEZ’s report, saying she didn’t want to distract from the ongoing investigation. Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the resignation “absolutely appropriate,” saying she didn’t know about the previous investigation of Little. Lightfoot called for outside lawyers to be hired to continue the park district I.G.’s probe.

Sept. 16, 2021: Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s investigation is revealed.

In response to a public-records request from WBEZ, Foxx’s office released a letter she sent to parks officials nearly a month earlier. Foxx said her office was looking at not only the complaints of sexual misconduct at the Chicago Park District’s beaches and pools, but also alleged obstruction of the investigation by officials.