Breaking News Bar
updated: 12/29/2011 9:36 AM

A look back at 2011's top Lake County stories

Success - Article sent! close
  • Many motorists became stranded on roads in the Mundelein area during February's blizzard.

       Many motorists became stranded on roads in the Mundelein area during February's blizzard.
    STEVE LUNDY | Staff Photographer

  • Gabriella Drozdz of Lake Zurich was killed in a hit-and-run accident in July.

      Gabriella Drozdz of Lake Zurich was killed in a hit-and-run accident in July.

  • A bicyclist watches out for traffic near a memorial for hit-and-run victim Gabriella Drozdz.

       A bicyclist watches out for traffic near a memorial for hit-and-run victim Gabriella Drozdz.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • The Lake County Fielders baseball team dealt with several problems in its second season, some of which led to legal action.

       The Lake County Fielders baseball team dealt with several problems in its second season, some of which led to legal action.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer


Crime dominates the list of Lake County's top news stories of 2011.

Nearly all of the 10 stories selected as the year's most important by staffers of the Daily Herald's Libertyville bureau involved cops, courts or criminals, sometimes all three.

There were a lot of big stories this year, so many that it was difficult for some of us to limit our selections to 10 choices. When the nominations were tallied, these tales received the most votes.

Rivera conviction overturned

Juan Rivera has been convicted three times of killing 11-year-old Holly Staker in 1992 -- and each conviction has been tossed by higher courts. The most recent reversal came just a few weeks ago at the hands of the 2nd Appellate Court.

Rivera's most recent conviction could not stand because, in the words of Justice Susan Hutchinson, "No rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt."

The case has been fraught with controversy since it was established in 2005 that DNA samples taken during an autopsy excluded Rivera as the source of the semen found inside the girl.

The controversy intensified in recent weeks following the publication of a scathing New York Times Magazine article that led the lead prosecutor in Rivera's last trial, Mike Mermel, to announce his retirement.

The ruling means State's Attorney Michael Waller, who is not seeking re-election in 2012, cannot prosecute Rivera a fourth time. Even so, Rivera has yet to be freed from the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet.

Wild weather

The entire Chicago area was hit hard by a blizzard in early February, but portions of Lake County got it particularly bad.

Schools, courtrooms, businesses and offices were shut down because of the storm, which dumped more than 20 inches of snow on the region.

Many roads became impassible, too, thanks to heavy winds that created enormous snowdrifts. On Route 83 and other roads in the Mundelein area, police officers, firefighters and other rescue workers shuttled people from stuck cars to shelters.

But Mother Nature wasn't done with Lake County for the year, not by a long shot. A July 11 windstorm produced 18,000 lightning strikes and hurricane force winds and cut power to 907,000 ComEd customers, including many in Lake County.

That same month, heavy rains drenched the region. Flash floods occurred, but the Des Plaines River never spilled over its banks in Lake County.

'Death camp for dogs'

The owner of a Deer Park shelter was convicted of animal torture, aggravated cruelty to animals and cruelty to animals in September.

Diane Eldrup, who also lived at the now-defunct Muddy Paws Dog Rescue, later was sentenced to 30 months in prison, but the sentence was reduced to about 18 months in November because the original sentence exceeded the maximum legal penalty.

The case began in December 2010 when Kildeer police went to Muddy Paws and discovered 30 dogs, three birds and an opossum that officials said all starved to death. Officials called the facility "a death camp for dogs."

In her own testimony, Eldrup said she failed to care for the animals because she was overwhelmed by financial problems and a collapsing marriage.

The kennel structures were demolished this summer.

Calusinski trial

It took a Lake County jury seven hours to find Melissa Calusinski guilty of first-degree murder and aggravated battery to a child in the death of 16-month-old Benjamin Kingan of Deerfield.

The November verdict followed a two-week trial for the 25-year-old Carpentersville woman. Calusinski faces up to life in prison; sentencing is expected early next year.

Calusinski was a teacher's aide at a former Minee Subee day care center in Lincolnshire that Benjamin attended with his twin sister, Emily.

Police said Calusinski was alone in the classroom with Benjamin and other toddlers when she became frustrated and hurled Benjamin to the floor.

Judith Katz, who owned the day care center, still faces an obstruction of justice charge. Authorities say she encouraged employees to mislead investigators.

Calusinski's lawyer has asked for a new trial, citing judicial errors.

Fielders follies

The Lake County Fielders started their second season as an independent professional baseball team without a long-promised stadium. They finished what became a scandal- and accusation-plagued year by skipping a scheduled trip to Hawaii and then playing a bunch of statistically meaningless games against semipro ballplayers from Wisconsin.

It was far from a heavenly experience.

The stadium that was supposed to be built by Zion officials remains missing, leaving what few fans attended home games to sit on temporary bleachers.

In July, manager Tim Johnson and a radio announcer quit over allegations they weren't fully paid.

An Aug. 4 game was suspended after the Fielders were accused of providing subpar baseballs for the contest against the Calgary Vipers. The same month, the Fielders put just nine players in uniforms for a game.

After the season ended, lawsuits were filed by and against the Fielders' parent company, Richard Ehrenreich's Grand Slam Sports.

Most recently, Grayslake resident Gregory Koeppen sued Grand Slam Sports, saying he hadn't been paid for his work as a public-address announcer at home games.

It is unknown if the Fielders will play in 2012.

Yang convicted

More than three years after Deerfield resident Rhoni Reuter and her unborn child were gunned down outside Reuter's condominium, Marni Yang was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison.

Prosecutors said Yang, 43, of Chicago, was obsessed with her on-and-off relationship with former Chicago Bears safety Shaun Gayle. Yang targeted Reuter because Gayle was the father of Reuter's unborn child, they said.

The murder was well planned. Yang ordered a book about building a pistol silencer and purchased the parts called for on the same day the book was delivered; she rented a car to drive to Reuter's home on the day of the attack; she even equipped the car with stolen license plates.

The judge called the killing "methodical, meticulous and maniacal."

A Cook County jury later ordered Yang to pay Reuter's family $40 million, following a civil suit prompted by the murder.

Schmidt unravels

Beleaguered by domestic problems and questions about her possibly improper use of political influence, state Sen. Suzi Schmidt in October announced she wouldn't seek re-election in 2012.

It was a big fall for Schmidt, a Lake Villa Republican and former county board chairwoman whose political star was rising thanks to her win over one-term Democratic Senator Michael Bond in 2010.

Schmidt came under fire in September after a series of police incidents at her home surfaced. They involved domestic battles between Schmidt and her husband, Robert.

Last Christmas, Schmidt called 911, identified herself as the former county board chairman and told a dispatcher to ignore any calls from her husband, Robert, after a domestic dispute.

In the same call, she told the police dispatcher her husband is afraid of her "because he knows I have connections."

Following a separate domestic incident in September, Schmidt told a sheriff's deputy her husband was trying to derail her Senate career.

Tapes of the calls were played on local radio and broadcast over the Internet.

Schmidt's decision not to seek a second term leaves a vacancy in the 31st District. Four Republicans and a Democrat now are campaigning for the post.

Teacher arrested

Antioch High School teacher Sara Glashagel was arrested in November and accused of illegally changing the grades of students on the school's football team.

The wife of Antioch's head football coach, Glashagel was charged with a single count of computer tampering. Authorities said she changed 240 grades involving 64 students in September.

Forty-one of those students were football players, authorities said.

Glashagel's husband, Brian Glashagel, has denied any knowledge of grade changing.

Glashagel, of Elk Grove Village, resigned after her arrest. She faces up to one year in jail if found guilty of the misdemeanor charge.

Coroner steps down

After what a judge called "the ultimate betrayal of trust," Lake County Coroner Dr. Richard Keller pleaded guilty in February to a pair of felony crimes, resigned his office and agreed to give up his medical license.

The moves came after an investigation of a Waukegan methadone clinic that was linked to an overdose death, and where Keller served as medical director. Keller, a Waukegan Democrat, avoided prison time as part of the plea.

Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran was tapped to run the coroner's office temporarily. Within days, Curran -- an outspoken Republican -- said he and his staff discovered poor or nonexistent inventory and control procedures for evidence collected by the coroner's deputies.

"I essentially walked into a hornet's nest of bad management and poor decision-making," Curran said.

Former Waukegan police chief Artis Yancey, a Democrat, eventually was named as Keller's successor. The post will be on the 2012 ballot, and Republicans and Democrats are running for the job.

Teen hit by car

Eighteen-year-old Gabriella Drozdz of Lake Zurich was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver in July as she and two friends walked to the local Alpine Fest.

Police believe a Chevrolet Astro minivan or GMC Safari was involved in the nighttime accident on Church Street. The vehicle was blue with a second lighter color, possibly silver or gray, authorities said.

The vehicle likely was manufactured between 1985 and 1994. It received damage to a side turn signal and marker light.

About 250 people gathered at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church to remember Drozdz, who had just graduated from Lake Zurich High School. She was memorialized as an amazing young woman filled with energy and compassion.

The case remains unsolved. Earlier this month, relatives announced that Crime Stoppers of Lake County will give a $10,000 reward to anyone with information that leads to an arrest.

Share this page
Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.