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

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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. Foxx would later start a hotline for abusers to call and report.

Oct. 4, 2021: Fourth Park District worker quits.

A Chicago Park District worker resigned after officials said he was accused of sexual misconduct involving “an underage former seasonal employee,” a parks spokeswoman confirms. The park district declined to name the employee, but a source tells WBEZ it was a supervisor at Humboldt Park, who was 31 when accused of inappropriate conduct with a 16-year-old female lifeguard. He was the fourth park district worker known to have resigned after being accused of serious sexual misconduct, records show.

Oct. 9, 2021: Parks District chief resigns.

Longtime Chicago Park District CEO Michael Kelly quits, hours after Mayor Lori Lightfoot called for his firing over the expanding sex abuse scandal . After weeks of dodging questions about Kelly, Lightfoot said in a statement that the park district board should fire him immediately over his response to the explosive allegations.

“The culture of sexual abuse, harassment, and coercion that has become pervasive within the District’s Aquatics Department lifeguard program under his leadership, combined with the Superintendent’s lack of urgency or accountability as new facts have come to light, is unacceptable,” Lightfoot said in a statement sent to WBEZ.

Oct. 13, 2021: Kelly’s temporary replacement is appointed

Lightfoot and the park district board name City Hall veteran Rosa Escareno as interim CEO. Escareno came out of her recent retirement. She had served under three Chicago mayors over more than thirty years.

Oct. 15, 2021: Chicago police confirm they’re investigating lifeguards and supervisors.

A police spokeswoman confirms to WBEZ that officers interviewed a “person of interest” the case involving a male park district supervisor at Humboldt Park accused of committing sexual misconduct against a 16-year-old female lifeguard when he was 31.

Records obtained by WBEZ show police also opened investigations into two complaints filed earlier this year against another senior lifeguard on the city’s Northwest Side, who was accused of sexually attacking other park district employees at the Portage Park and Jefferson Park pools.

Oct. 27, 2021: Chicago Park District leaders were told of broad lifeguard abuse claims more than a year ago.

WBEZ reveals that in August 2020, the Chicago Park District’s watchdog prepared a “highly confidential” presentation for two top parks leaders, detailing “wide-ranging” sexual misconduct against young employees at many public beaches and pools.

The lead investigator in the case told Park District Board President Avis LaVelle and then-parks CEO Michael Kelly that more work was needed to “determine the extent of the troubling work environment and culture.” But the presentation made clear that the allegations included potential sex crimes – and that the probe “may necessitate the involvement of law enforcement.”

But LaVelle and Kelly kept the existence of the lifeguard abuse probe entirely out of public view for another eight months, even as the park district recruited applicants as young as 15 to be lifeguards at scores of public swimming spots. LaVelle told WBEZ that she could not recall receiving the presentation authored by Nathan Kipp, who was the park district’s interim inspector general at the time.

Oct. 28, 2021: A Chicago Park District supervisor is charged with criminal sexual assault of a teen lifeguard

Chicago Police arrested longtime park district employee Mauricio Ramirez, who became the first person to face criminal charges in the expanding scandal involving widespread complaints of sexual harassment, abuse and assault of female park district lifeguards.

The 32-year-old lifeguard at Humboldt Park, who quit his job Oct. 4, repeatedly had sex with a 16-year-old girl he supervised there, prosecutors alleged in charging him with two felony counts of criminal sexual assault and abuse of a minor.

Nov. 2, 2021: Chicago Park District leaders sat on a lifeguard abuse complaint for more than 6 months

A report from a former federal prosecutor is released that strongly criticized the Chicago Park District’s response to widespread allegations of sexual harassment, abuse and assault against lifeguards at the city’s beaches and pools. The 40-page report by an independent counsel hired by the Chicago Park District board prompted a wave of firings of top parks officials — and apologies to the girls and young women who have suffered in a toxic workplace culture at the park district’s Aquatics Department.

The review concluded that the former park district chief Michael Kelly knew about the explosive allegations for more than six months longer than previously revealed. And investigators accused Kelly of doing nothing to investigate the complaints immediately, contrary to his public claims before he was forced out.

The report also alleged that park district leaders did not take any “corrective action” to reform the lifeguard corps and prevent continued problems until late April — when WBEZ first reported on an internal investigation into “dozens” of serious allegations.

Nov. 4, 2021: ‘Can u call me?’ the park district board president texted to Kim Foxx as lifeguard abuse scandal deepened

As the sex abuse scandal involving lifeguards was deepening this past summer, the Chicago Park District’s politically connected board president, Avis LaVelle, sent a personal text message to Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and asked to speak with her, according to a copy of the message obtained by WBEZ.

Foxx firmly rebuffed LaVelle’s request — quickly responding instead with a curt and formal letter, informing park district leaders that law-enforcement authorities had opened an active investigation into allegations of sex crimes and official misconduct. In an email to WBEZ, LaVelle said she wanted to talk to Foxx about the park district scandal.

“I had heard media reports that her office would be conducting an investigation, but the Park District had not received any official notification,” LaVelle said. “I also wanted to assure her of my full cooperation, wherever her probe of the Chicago Park District may lead.”

The text message emerged into public view as some critics of the park district have called on LaVelle to resign the post, which she has held for nearly three years.

Former Chicago Park District board president Avis LaVelle
Chicago Park District Board President Avis LaVelle appeared at a press conference about the lifeguard sexual abuse scandal. Dan Mihalopoulos / WBEZ

Nov. 10, 2021: The Chicago Park District’s board president resigns

After months of fumbling with the fallout from widespread complaints of sexual harassment and violence against young lifeguards at the city’s beaches and pools, Chicago Park District’s board president Avis LaVelle resigned. The former top aide to former Mayor Richard M. Daley said it was her decision to step down after less than three years.

“I am not being forced out,” LaVelle said. “While the facts may not matter to everyone, I am confident that the facts to date and those yet to be disclosed will show that I acted honestly and responsibly here, as I have throughout my entire public career.”

LaVelle said she did not inform her fellow parks commissioners about the long-running, ongoing internal investigation.

“I take responsibility because it came to light on my watch,” LaVelle said. “My fellow board members are not to blame for this culture of abuse and should not be held responsible. I want to make that clear.”

Dec. 1, 2021: A former Chicago lifeguard supervisor is charged with assaulting a second underage victim

Former Chicago Park District lifeguard supervisor Mauricio Ramirez allegedly sexually assaulted another teenage girl, authorities alleged in new charges. He supervised the teen three to five times a week — and punished her when she refused to agree to engage in sex acts with him, authorities said.

The new charges date back to 2013 and 2014 and mark the second time that Ramirez, who’s now 32, has been charged with sex crimes against a much-younger girl he supervised.