Will eliminating cash bail lead to more defendants skipping court?

This column has been updated to clarify what was posted for the release of Jose Godinez, Enrique Ruiz and Michael Buhrman from jail.

Critics of Illinois' eliminating cash bail next week often ask why someone facing a criminal charge would show up to court as required without the threat of financial consequences for skipping out.

After all, the risk of your or a family member's losing thousands of dollars would seem a strong incentive to show up.

It doesn't always turn out that way. Over the years, we've seen numerous cases of defendants who have disappeared after posting significant amounts for bail.

DuPage County authorities sure would like to know where Giovanni Portillo is, for example.

The former Aurora resident was charged May 15, 2021, with attempted murder and aggravated battery. He's accused of shooting a man outside a Naperville restaurant, in what police believe was a gang dispute.

$150,000 was posted on Portillo's behalf on July 13, 2021, after a judge ruled that the money came from a legitimate source. Portillo was ordered to wear a GPS monitor and showed up at an August 2022 court date.

But on Sept. 3, 2022, authorities were alerted to a problem with the GPS. His girlfriend told police that when she arrived home from work, he was not there and she found the device, cut off. He has not been seen since.

Then there's Michael Buhrman, a nuclear plant operator charged with carjacking a woman at gunpoint in May 2012 in Woodridge. DuPage County prosecutors said he did it for the thrill.

Buhrman was freed after posting $20,000, and a judge later ordered him to home confinement after a girlfriend told authorities he had discussed fleeing to Chile.

Sure enough, a few months later, he cut the anklet and disappeared. He was convicted in absentia in April 2013. He was found and arrested six months later in Chile.

In recent years in Kane County, several men have been convicted in absentia. Jose L. Godinez, 48, of Aurora, was free after posting $30,000 when he did not show up for his 2021 trial on charges of criminal sexual assault of a person under age 18.

And Enrique Ruiz went missing in November 2013 while released on $25,000 while awaiting trial on charges he sexually assaulted a child. His family said Ruiz, 85, told them he was going for a walk in a nearby forest preserve. At his trial the next year, his wife testified his passport was missing and that the family owned a house in Mexico.

A hint of what to expect?

It'll be months, if not years, before we know what impact the elimination of cash bail has on defendants' showing up for court. But a study released in 2020 by Loyola University's Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy, and Practice may offer clues.

The study examined the impact of a 2018 Cook County bail reform measure that encouraged judges to release defendants who pose no danger to the public without monetary bail, or to set bail at a figure they can easily afford.

The study found that the change led to a small increase in the number of felony defendants who skipped court - to 20% from 17% - but no increase in the number of new crimes committed by people awaiting trial.

Teacher's conviction stands

Did purportedly harsh remarks from a judge deprive a former Aurora kindergarten teacher of a fair trial on charges he sexually abused a student?

A state appeals court rejected that claim this week and upheld the convictions and 18-year prison sentence handed to Juan Avendano last year.

A jury found the 67-year-old Aurora man guilty of predatory criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual abuse charges alleging he repeatedly abused a girl in his classroom at Bardwell Elementary School in Aurora.

In his appeal, Avendano claimed that "disparaging comments" made by Kane County Judge Salvatore LoPiccolo during the trial showed judicial bias and may have swayed jurors against the defense. These included telling Avendano's lawyer "get off this topic" while questioning a witness and "I don't need a speech" when discussing an objection.

He also argued that LoPiccolo showed favoritism by taking a break in the middle of the defense's closing arguments and barring testimony that may have helped the defense.

Appellate justices, however, said there was nothing inappropriate or unfair about LoPiccolo's remarks or the way he presided.

"When viewing the trial court's actions in context, we cannot say that the trial court abandoned its role as a neutral arbiter or showed unfair favoritism toward the prosecution," Second District Appellate Court Justice Mary Schostok wrote in the unanimous ruling.

Still hoping

The sister of John Spira, a St. Charles man who went missing in February 2007, is organizing a flyer handout Saturday to remind people about the case.

Anyone interested in distributing the flyers in the Wheaton, Winfield, West Chicago and St. Charles area should meet Stephanie Spira McNeil at 11 a.m. at the parking lot in front of the DuPage County sheriff's office, 501 N. County Farm Road.

"It's just kind of to let people know we are still around, we still care, and we're not done hoping," McNeil said. Spira was 45 when he was last seen at his business near West Chicago. The family maintains a Facebook page, Missing John Spira.

Lake County takes on opioids

Lake County plans to spend more than $1.5 million to hire an opioid coordinator and launch an educational program with the Regional Office of Education to warn young people about the dangers of opioid use.

Funding for the effort, approved by the county board Tuesday, comes from money the county has received through national settlements with drug manufacturers. In all, the county expects to get $3.9 million over 18 years to fund treatment and educational programs.

According to coroner's data, 241 people died of opioid-related overdoses in Lake County from January 2021 to April 2023.

"The opioid crisis is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Lake County residents and, tragically, families are grieving the loss of children, parents, and even grandparents every day," county board Chair Sandy Hart said in an announcement of the program Wednesday. "While we have actively been fighting the opioid epidemic for several years, the infusion of money into Lake County to directly combat this scourge will help us do even more."

The planned education program will include training school employees how to administer the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, and the creation of age-appropriate lesson plans to be taught in schools beginning in January.

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Bail set at $1.5 million for suspect in Naperville shooting

Former Aurora kindergarten teacher convicted of assaulting student

Former Aurora kindergarten teacher gets 18 years for sexual abuse, assault of student

Juan Avendano
John M. Spira
Sandy Hart, Lake County Board chair
Giovanni Portillo
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