Lake County's top newsmakers of 2012
A lawmaker with a health crisis, a man who was wrongly convicted of murder and a bureaucrat at the center of a battle over a land plan were among the people who made headlines in Lake County in 2012.
The following vignettes look at five of the year's most prominent newsmakers.
When U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk suffered a debilitating stroke in January, friends, voters and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were shocked and worried about the 52-year-old Highland Park resident's prognosis.
But within days of the incident and surgery to alleviate brain swelling, there was a good sign: Doctors reported the longtime congressman and freshman senator asked for his Blackberry.
Kirk has spent all of 2012 recovering from the stroke, which left him with limited movement on the left side of his body. He's undergone rehabilitation for movement and speech.
The public spent months not knowing anything about Kirk's condition, however. His medical team gave a few interviews, but his staff was virtually silent on the matter and Kirk gave no interviews until October, when he participated in a charity stair climb at the Willis Tower in Chicago.
Instead, he released some videos that depicted his recovery.
The stroke couldn't keep Kirk out of the election limelight, however. Through videos, he stumped for suburban Republicans Robert Dold and Judy Biggert ahead of their Nov. 6 showdowns against Democratic challengers; unfortunately for the GOP, both Dold and Biggert lost.
Kirk plans to return to work in Washington, D.C., Jan. 3.
Convicted three times of the 1992 rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker in Waukegan, Juan Rivera walked out of prison in January, a free man for the first time in more than 19 years.
Rivera was released from Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet after Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller said he would not challenge a December 2011 appellate court ruling throwing out Rivera's latest conviction.
Rivera was a 19-year-old Waukegan resident when Staker was murdered. A tip to police identified Rivera as someone who might know something about the crime, and during questioning he reportedly confessed.
He was first convicted in 1993, but the case was overturned.
He was convicted again in 1998 and again in 2009.
Upon his release, Rivera expressed no bitterness.
"There's no bitterness or anger toward anyone," he said. "Mistakes happen."
The Rivera case was one of several high-profile embarrassments for Waller's office in recent years concerning wrongfully prosecuted or convicted suspects. Waller opted not to seek re-election this year and was replaced by Republican Mike Nerheim.
In October, shortly before Nerheim's election, Rivera filed a federal lawsuit against Lake County, and officials in the sheriff's and state's attorney's offices, claiming malicious prosecution, constitutional violations and other misdeeds. The case is pending.
For much of the summer, a large plot of land near Hawthorn Woods and North Barrington was at the heart of one of the year's biggest controversies.
And Eric Waggoner — the county's planning, building and development director — was in the middle of it.
Waggoner was the county's primary representative regarding the Dimucci family's request to have the 109 acres they own at Rand and Old McHenry roads rezoned to allow a shopping center.
Facing strenuous opposition from residents, conservationists and others, Waggoner guided the plan through seemingly endless hours of public hearings. When it looked like concerns from the leaders of the two neighboring towns might scuttle the plan, Waggoner suggested the public talks be halted so county and village leaders could negotiate a mutually beneficial agreement in private.
A deal was reached. And in October, eight months after the first public hearing was held, the Lake County Board approved the rezoning and a conditional use permit for the land. It also approved an intergovernmental agreement with the villages that governs what type of retail center can be built on the land.
But as Waggoner often told people during the hearings, the agreements are contingent on the county board approving a development proposal for the site — and neither an interested developer nor a plan has surfaced yet.
Never one to shy from controversy, Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran garnered headlines statewide in November when he began advocating for a new law that would allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses in Illinois.
Curran wasn't the first politician to take that stand — Gov. Pat Quinn, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart were there first. But he is one of the few conservative Republicans to join them, and he's the most vocal proponent of the policy change in Lake County politics.
Curran's stance on illegal immigration conflicts with the traditional GOP message on the issue. When he was first elected sheriff in 2006, Curran was a Democrat who had a hard-line view, requesting jail officers be given formal deportation powers. He also backed a program that would help identify illegal immigrants arrested in the county.
By early 2010, however, Curran had jumped to the Republican Party but moved to the left on immigration reform, endorsing a pathway to citizenship and other changes.
A devout Catholic, Curran has said discussions with church leaders prompted the attitude adjustment.
In a November interview, Curran quoted the biblical Gospel of Matthew when explaining his position, saying, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me."
A few weeks after speaking to lawmakers in Springfield about the driver's license proposal, Curran announced plans to run for Illinois attorney general in 2014. He'll challenge incumbent Democrat Lisa Madigan if she runs again.
Two years after he murdered his mother's girlfriend in her Vernon Hills home, the Deerfield resident was found guilty but mentally ill of the crime in November.
The verdict, delivered by Lake County Judge Daniel Shanes, marked the end of a dramatic and sometimes odd bench trial.
Prosecutors argued Baker bludgeoned 50-year-old Marina Aksman to death and then took off with Kristina Aksman on a four-day drive. He was arrested in Montana and admitted to the crime during a police interview, authorities said.
Baker was loud, boisterous and often disruptive during the trial. He suffers from multiple mental disorders, and defense attorney Ed Genson argued he was insane at the time of the crime.
"He was the most difficult client I have ever had," Genson said after the verdict.
Prosecutor Ari Fisz said most of Baker's courtroom disruptions were "for show."
Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 9. Baker faces 20 years to life in prison.
Daily Herald wire services contributed to this report.
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