By Bob Meadows
He’s back, not quite where it all went down, but at the place where his life took a turn that he always imagined could come true. He’s at Sacramento Lot Park, a place he used to play with his cousins, with friends, with fellow gang members, with people who hung around the gang, with people he was cool with.
But on this windy, warm September day on Chicago’s far north side, 16 years after it all went bad, Thaddeus ‘TJ’ Jimenez is far away from his previous life. At least, he thinks he is. He pulls up to the park in his navy blue 2006 Chrysler 300. As always, he’s wary. Eight guys are playing basketball on the concrete court, and they pause to check out the new guy and his sweet ride. “Those guys are looking at us, but they’re not gang members. They’re not throwing up any signs,” TJ says before stepping out of the car. “It’ll be OK.”
He walks to the park, without the old posse, now a man where a boy once walked. “None of this was here back then,” he says, pointing to the jungle gym and swings. “It was all weeds.” TJ has been out of prison for four months, since May 1, exonerated for a murder he didn’t commit; the real killer, Juan Carlos Flores, finally behind bars. He’s been to this park once before since his release, and TJ, an introspective sort, a deep thinker, is happy to talk about what happened here 16 years ago.
On February 3, 1993, Sacramento Lot Park marked a pivotal place for him. Just 13 years old, TJ and his friends had come here to play basketball. He got in the game for a bit, enough to work up a sweat, but wasn’t interested. “They wanted to go some other place and play some more ball. I didn’t feel like it, so I left,” he says. “My mom had been on my ass about not coming home straight from school. I left early so I could check in with her. I went to my Grandma’s place.”
As TJ tells his story, two little kids, neither older than 4, scamper past with their mother. He steps aside so they can clamber up the monkey bars. He turns and watches them. The mother sits down on a bench to watch them from about 20 feet away. One of the basketball players, a shirtless, well-muscled man, has had enough of his game for the moment. He walks over to the woman and sits beside her.
TJ, who notices everything, glances briefly in their direction. The muscular man stands up. For some reason, the day feels slightly cooler.
TJ is about to pick up the story again when Muscle Man calls to him.
“Are you TJ?” he asks. His tone isn’t friendly and neither is his expression. He certainly doesn’t come off like an old friend running up on a buddy he hasn’t seen in years.
“Is your name TJ?” Muscle Man calls again.
TJ nods. The man is moving toward him now. He is wearing sweatpants and sneakers and sweating. He is shirtless and has a bullet wound beneath his right pec. He isn’t carrying anything in his waistband. His boys, who until this moment had been engrossed in hoops, have stopped to watch the exchange.
“I know your story,” says the man, closing the distance between them too quickly, not quickly enough. “For years, I thought you killed my best friend.”
For years, a lot of people thought TJ killed Eric Morro.
And why wouldn’t they? TJ, the only son of Ricardo and Vicki Jimenez—a couple who split when he was a baby—was a punk, by his own admission “a little troublemaker“ who “didn’t listen to nobody.” He wasn’t big—even today he’s only 5’8”. But he had a lot of guts. Even before he joined his gang, the Simon City Royals, as an 11-year-old, he was a bully who took lunch money from other kids, stole bikes, smoked weed and got drunk. And once he got into the Royals—two uncles were already gang members (friends and cousins belonged to another gang that was friends with his)—he became even worse. The older guys gave him orders and TJ was a willing and able and eager soldier.
“This is what they had us do: Standing on the corner keeping an eye out for cops, patrolling the neighborhood, extortion, stealing, dealing drugs—anything for intimidation or extortion they used the little guys for that,” he said. The reason, of course: “It was real easy for somebody underage to get out of jail. Somebody could just sign us out with no bail or anything.”
TJ’s juvenile record has been expunged. But he says old newspaper reports that he was arrested 22 times are pretty accurate.
He loved to steal cars. Stealing them was how he learned to drive.
“I never stole cars to chop them up,” he says. “I stole them because I liked to drive. I would keep a car for a week just to drive it. I once parked a stolen car in front of my house.”
But shoot Eric? That wasn’t TJ’s thing. The arrest report said Eric, who was 19, and TJ had beef, that TJ had been in Sacramento Lot Park throwing up gang signs at a passing school bus and Eric told him to stop that gang “bullshit.” Eric then told him what he thought about the Royals, putting them down as well as other gangs. Cops said TJ stormed off—but first told Eric that he’d be back, that he had something for him.
The police report explains what happened later that day. Around 6:25 p.m., three blocks south of Sacramento Lot on Belmont Avenue, a busy thoroughfare, Eric and a friend, 14-year-old Larry Tueffel, were confronted by two pipsqueaks, one of them a 5’4” or 5’5” curly-haired kid wearing a purple jacket and baggy jeans. The kid told Eric he owed him money. Eric said he didn’t have it. The kid pulled out a small caliber silver handgun. Eric told him to put it away. The kid did, and Eric took a swing at him. They tussled, and the kid pulled out the gun again. This time, he held it against Eric’s chest and fired one round. The two pipsqueaks took off.
Cops arrived within minutes, but too late for Eric. He was pronounced dead at Illinois Masonic Hospital 41 minutes later.
Nine hours later, cops arrested T.J.
The story makes sense. To everyone, that is, except for TJ. Eric, though six years older, was his boy.
“Eric was a friend of mine,” TJ says. “He grew up in the neighborhood where my gang was. He wasn’t in the gang, but he was cool with us. If I had been throwing up gang signs, he wouldn’t have had a problem with it because he was down.”
Two juries didn’t buy it. Eric bled out on Belmont Avenue at a time when violent crime in Chicago, in the U.S., was cresting. The Windy City had endured 943 murders in 1992, the second most ever behind the 970 killed in 1974. In 1993, the figure would drop only slightly, with Eric being one of the 931 people to meet Death prematurely.
TJ, then a 13-year-old 5’4” pipsqueak with straight hair and 22 juvenile arrests (for charges, he says, ranging from assault to ‘mob action’) was sentenced as an adult first to 50 years and then, after a judge threw out that verdict, to 45 years in prison for killing Eric.
So 16 years later in Sacramento Lot Park, when Muscle Man approaches him, saying he thought TJ had killed his best friend, everyone gets nervous.
Until Muscle Man diffuses the situation with his very next words.
“I’m glad you got out. I’m glad justice was served. Seriously man, I’m happy for you,” he says. Muscle Man is Demetre Lambropoulos. He’s 34, a year younger than Eric would be now. “All us guys who were Eric’s friends are truly relieved that justice is served, cuz Eric can truly rest in peace now.”
But even to Demetre, TJ seemed like a good suspect.
“This nigga was wild,” he says. “Don’t get it wrong. This motherfucker was buck. We was all wild. I was wild, but this little fucker was more wild. We were all just a bunch of boys running around with no fathers, with nobody to show us what was right, what was wrong. We didn’t know any better.”
He remembers February 3, 1993, well.
“It was report card day,” says Demetre, a father of three. “I was a senior in high school, and it was the first time I had passed all my classes. ‘I’m going to graduate now!’ I was so happy. It was the best day. But then it was the worst day.
“Me and Eric were a year apart. He was no angel. He was a troublemaker like we all were. We all just wanted to be a part of something. You got to get in where you can fit in. I can’t knock TJ because he was just living the life.”
Demetre extends his hand to TJ, who takes it.
“It’s good to see you. It’s good that you’re free. If you ever need anything, let me know. You can call on my anytime.”
He gives TJ his phone number, and then offers some parting advice: “Be careful out here.”
Moments later, TJ is back behind the wheel of his baby, his girlfriend, the navy blue Chrysler 300 he’s named Bertha. He sits for a minute before starting her up. He’s thinking of Demetre, of encountering someone who knows him but he doesn’t know.
“That happens every once in a while,” he says, betraying no emotion. “It’s cool.”
T.J. was 13 and a middle schooler when the police arrested him early in the morning on February 4, 1993.
After leaving Sacramento Lot, he went to his grandmother’s home nearby. He stayed at Grandma’s as often as with his Mom. Gloria Makowski’s house was like Grand Central Terminal, a place where everyone came, where all the grandchildren were doted on, where TJ could eat and sleep in peace.
“I would go back and forth between her house and my mom’s house,” TJ says. “She was always cooking, there was always food. She would spoil her grandchildren. Both places were both home. I was there the whole day, me and one of my cousins.”
But at 3 a.m., the peace was shattered. Police banged on the door and demanded that TJ come out.
He had been arrested before, but was taken aback by the swarm of cops who had surrounded his grandmother’s building.
TJ, who had been asleep, searched his mind—what had he done to deserve this?
“I figured it was something I had done, but I couldn’t remember doing anything that serious, because there were police everywhere. They told me to get dressed. I told my Grandma ‘Wait by the phone and I’ll let you know when to pick me up.’”
TJ’s grandmother kept asking the police why they were taking away her grandchild.
Finally, “This one cop looked at her and said ‘Murder.’”
TJ would never see his grandmother again. That moment at Gloria Makowski’s doorway was his last breath of freedom for 16 years, 2 months and 27 days.
How can a man come out of prison after all that time, and not be bitter? Not be hard-bitten? Not be institutionalized? How can he even survive in a faster, more confusing world, let alone thrive? Everything has changed. In February 1993, Bill Clinton was just beginning of his first term. Now the president was black. Cell phones were the purview of drug dealers; now everyone had one. Google, dotcoms, DVRs, DVDs, mp3s, none of them existed. Do you feel like an alien dropped into some strange world? Are you as afraid as Brooks Hatlen, the old con from The Shawshank Redemption, who was so out of place in the new world that he climbed on a chair and hung himself?
But even more, how can a man come out at 30 and live a good life, when he went in a boy? A gangbanger, yes. A car thief, yes. A thug, yes. But still, a boy. What do you know about girlfriends, about getting a job, about talking to people, about love, when all of your teachers were as dysfunctional, if not moreso, than you?
“I was really worried about that,” says Angela Jimenez. At 34, she’s TJ’s older sister by four years. She changed his diapers, she wouldn’t let their mother slap her baby brother’s hand, she babysat him. And the life he led broke her heart.
“I used to tell my mom that TJ was my baby. But when he started getting in trouble, I would say, ‘That’s your baby now.’
“I thought he was going to come out some real hard punk. I thought he was going to be bitter, a little guy with a bigger attitude. But he didn’t. I was so surprised. He didn’t have that punk attitude. TJ was a good kid. He got into some bad stuff, but he was a good kid. And when he came out, he was still TJ.”
Why? How? TJ doesn’t know either. Even after being out for six months, and people asking him over and over, he can’t pinpoint the reason.
“I don’t know why I’ve adapted so well. I guess I can easily adjust to situations. When I was locked up, I didn’t want to be there, I didn’t want to be locked up, but I adjusted. Still, I wanted to get out. I wanted to be free—and I got what I wanted. I’m free. I’m not complaining,” he says in November.
“I’m not going to waste my time. I’m having a blast out here. It’s fun being free.”
But there are reasons initially. When TJ got out, his circumstances were far different than those of most exonerated cons. He had a place to stay. He had a $200,000 award from the state, though he’s yet to see a dime. He had employers willing to give him a job, though it didn’t work out. He had a completely clean record. And just as important were the things he didn’t have: Children who hated him, an ex-wife that he’d abused, a drug problem, people seeking revenge.
Most important, he had a family that loved him, just waiting to embrace him once again. The Jimenez and Makowski clans run deep and strong in Chicago. And when TJ went to jail, they never let him go. His mother, Vicki Jimenez, wouldn’t let it happen any other way.
“When we were little, my Aunt Vicki used to sit all us kids at the table and make us write letters to TJ. She said you can write, you can draw a picture, something, anything, but you have to do it,” recalls TJ’s cousin Amanda Makowski, 23. “On the Fourth of July, we used to go to where he was and pop firecrackers out front. We used to sneak food up to him. My aunt used to make me wear a sports bra so I could sneak in sandwiches.
“He was really good writing us back. We would have lemonade stands and save up the money for TJ. There was a jar in my grandma’s house and everybody had to put change in that, so he would have money.”
Vicki Jimenez visited TJ all the time, making one-way trips that took up to nine hours, depending on where he was transferred. TJ moved around to five prisons after leaving juvenile detention at 17. Yet he could count on Vicki to be there, without fail.
“I would take other people with me, I’d take his goddaughter with me, even when she was just a year old. My daughter went, cousins, the whole family would come,” she says.
“This one time, the car broke down five miles outside of Joliet, where he was. It was 100 degrees out and I walked five miles there and five miles back. That was a hard one. It was easier when I had a car. Joliet is an hour by car. By bus it’s an all-day affair. I always went on Wednesdays. But they kept moving him further and further away.’
When her only son got locked up, she told him to make the best of it.
“I told him to get his education, use the time. Don’t waste your time getting in trouble. Make the best out of it.”
TJ got his GED in prison and took enough college-level courses to get 15 credits towards a degree. He’d like to go to college now—Northwestern University is his dream destination because “It’s a great school and it’s close. I hope it could fit my schedule.”
One of the classes he took was art history. It turned him into quite the critic.
“I really liked it. You had Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso…I guess they were great in their time, but I’m not all that impressed by it. It was only the ancient, ancient guys who I really liked. Michaelangelo and Davinci. They were great.
“But Jackson Pollock, his stuff just seems very random. Give me a million dollars and I could do what he did. I did like Georgia O’Keefe, though, with all the flowers. She was really good.”
Before he went to prison, TJ had no aspirations of college. He had no aspirations for anything.
“If I hadn’t gone to prison, I would either be dead or I would have gone some other time later. Or maybe I would have grown out of all that and moved on. That’s what happened to all the gang members I was with then. They’re either dead or in prison or they got a family and moved on.”
So was prison a blessing in disguise, I ask.
Not even a little?
But it might have saved you.
His silence, his look, say it all: Hell no.
When TJ got out of prison May 1, he held a cell phone for the first time in his life. He knew they existed; he’d seen them on TV. In fact, he saw the iPhone commercials while still in prison and knew he wanted one—but because he had no credit history, AT&T was going to charge him an exorbitant fee for the privilege of owning one.
Still, on his first day out, when someone asked why he had called, why he didn’t just send a text, TJ didn’t know what they meant.
“He had no idea what a text was,” says Steve Drizin, a lawyer from the Innocence Project.
“He still has trouble with stuff, with technology, computers, cell phones, things like that. But he’s doing well,” says TJ’s sister, Angela.
A few months later, it’s hard to tell where TJ ends and his cell phone begins. His phone rings constantly—usually either family or his lawyers. Texting is the best way to reach him, the best way to ensure that he’ll get back to you.
“I love texting. You can control the conversation,” he says. “Some of my family members, they want to have me on the phone for hours.
“Sometimes email still confuses me. I can’t remember my passwords. I’m not too good with it yet, but I’m not worried about it.”
Here is an inviolable truth: TJ is an awful driver. He learned to drive as a kid, by stealing cars. A few weeks after he got out of prison, he took the driver’s test and, somehow, passed.
“Everyone tells me I’m a bad driver,” he says.
Everyone is telling the truth. Riding with him causes passengers to engage in a kung-fu death grip on anything that seems solid. He drives fast. He drives recklessly. He drives while he texts. He forgets to look at the road ahead of him SO STOP ASKING HIM QUESTIONS IF YOU ARE SITTING IN THE BACK AND THE PHOTOGRAPHER IS SITTING IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT.
By mid-November, he had crashed Bertha twice, the first time incurring $3,000 in damage. He hit another car while it was raining. The other car was stopped. TJ hit him in the back. The other car wasn’t damaged.
TJ had a rental to replace Bertha—a Chevy Tahoe. But he missed his main squeeze.
“That’s my baby,” he says.
Exactly seven days after getting back Bertha, he crashes her again.
“I was texting,” he admits, surprising exactly no one. The damage isn’t so severe—he doesn’t call his insurance agent this time. Nonetheless, “I was pissed. I have to be more careful.”
More than technology changed while he was inside.
“A gallon of milk costs more, pop is more. It was 25 cents when I went in; now it’s 50 cents. But I knew prices were up, because prices went up in prison too,” he says. “My mom needed money for cigarettes. I gave her $5. She said ‘I need $10.’ I couldn’t believe it. When I went to the adult prison in ’96, cigarettes were $1.70.”
He’s four inches taller. The bits of his formerly long hair that nature hasn’t taken, a barber’s clippers have, leaving him with a shaven head. He’s about 70 pounds heavier that when he went in, some of that a result of natural growth, some of it because of his prison routine.
“One of the first questions prison officials asked me when I got to adult prison was ‘What gang are you in?’” he says. “I told them the Royals, and so I got assigned to a certain floor. The gangs controlled the prison at that time, and one of the things we did was exercise every day. I was in really good shape for a while there.”
Yet there are more, so many more changes.
His grandmother Gloria Makowski died in 2001. She loved to have picnics and had a big one every August at a park. The family continues the tradition, but TJ missed those huge gatherings every year.
His mother battled cancer and had open heart surgery.
His father’s mother died.
His best friend committed suicide, shooting himself in the head over a girl. He was only 20.
The two uncles who were Simon City Royals before him—one of them was Uncle Mark, his cousin, Amanda’s father—both died, years after they’d left the street life.
Other relatives passed on. TJ couldn’t attend any of their funerals. He tried, but, in maximum security prisons, there’s little chance of getting out, even for an afternoon.
“You gotta pay for the guards’ salaries, you gotta pay for transportation. So your family’s not only gotta pay for the funeral, but they gotta send you a couple thousand so you can come,” he says. “But every time someone died, I asked, just so they [prison officials] couldn’t say I didn’t ask.
“I was really sad I couldn’t go,” he says.
Did he share that pain with the gang? I ask.
TJ is quiet for a moment. Then quietly, he says, “No. I usually kept that to myself.”
In early September, Vicki and TJ drove to a cemetery in Niles, Illinois, to visit her father, brother and grandparents. Vicki hasn’t been here in about five years. “I apologized for taking so long, but TJ had to come see them,” she says. “Everyone in my family is buried here, unless they’re cremated [like her mom, Gloria]. She named TJ for her godfather, who she called Uncle Teddy.
“He never had any kids. I knew TJ was going to be my last one, so I wanted an unusual name, not a John or Michael. My Dad said if the baby’s a boy, I should name him after Uncle Teddy.’ Right away, that’s what I was going to do.”
When she called Uncle Teddy and told him her plan to name her son Theodore, she got a surprise.
“He said, ‘Well, my real name is Thaddeus.’ As soon as he said it, I fell in love with the name. I really do love it.”
“I would never do that to my kid, though. There will not be a TJ junior.”
Vicki says, “It’s a great name. My Dad’s family never called him TJ. They were old Pollocks, so he was always Thaddeus to them. I called him Thaddeus when I was mad at him.”
Which was often.
“I love him to death. But he didn’t listen to no one. He wouldn’t listen. You couldn’t tell him anything. You would say one thing; he would do the other. The only time he listened was if I grabbed him.”
She goes quiet for a moment.
“I didn’t see him grow up. He grew up in jail, not at home. I still see him as 14 years old. He had such a belly laugh when he was little. I told the judge in the trial that TJ would rent movies and he had such a belly laugh. Even now, there’s still a little boy in there. He has that laugh.”
Other relatives say it’s taken time to accept TJ as an adult.
Angela Jimenez, who is pregnant with her first child, a daughter she plans to name Priscilla, lives more than an hour outside Chicago, in blink-and-you-missed-it Coal City. She moved here in June, to live with her fiancé, Donald Ballard, and his two children.
[The little girl is born February 9, 2010: 6 lbs, 6 oz].
Donald was her childhood boyfriend, but they broke up when she was 19. She hadn’t seen him in years, and family had heard he’d died. But Donald heard about TJ’s release and got back in touch with Angela. It was just like old times, and they got engaged shortly thereafter.
Angela, raised on Chicago’s north side, still isn’t sure about Coal City. But TJ drives out a few times a week.
“If I was having a boy, I would name him Thaddeus Mark. Mark is my uncle who died,” she says. “TJ and I have always been real close.
“But now, he thinks I’m his maid.”
TJ asks her to iron his pants. Angela fusses, but as her brother goes into a back room to change, she sets a small ironing board on the kitchen table.
“He’ll look at the iron and say ‘Ang, how come it don’t work?’ and I’m like ‘TJ, why don’t you try plugging it in.’”
She laughs. The two of them have the familiarity and playfulness of very close siblings. TJ walks through her house as if it’s his, and she does the same at his place, as do the cousins who stroll in and out of both places. They got it from Grandma, Gloria Makowski.
Angela says her brother is “still like a kid. He’ll still wrestle with the boys, and a lot of their uncles and male cousins will do that too, but TJ is really into it more than anyone else.”
But she encourages it. The first night TJ got released, “I had him in a headlock and put my fingers in his nostrils,” just as she did when they were little.
“I look at him and he’s grown, but sometimes it’s like he’s still a kid. That first night, I was hitting him, I was pushing him. We were playing like we were 12 years old.
“You can see that he gets excited about things that adults don’t get as excited about. He’s excited about every day things, like going to Great Adventure. TJ’s doing good.”
Her face turns serious.
“I try not to ask him some of the things he’s been through. But I know. He spent a lot of time in segregation. I only asked the questions that I wanted to know the answers to. I can’t say in his situation that I would have handled it as well as he did, come out the way he did.”
The few months he’s been out have been brilliant.
“This was the first Mother’s Day he’d been home. This year we rented out half the Ten Pin [a restaurant where several family members work]. My mom was ecstatic that he was there. For years, it’s always been ‘TJ, TJ, when will TJ be out?’ and this time he was there. Finally.
“When he first got out, I think he was just excited. But in the last couple months, he’s started thinking about his future, what he’s going to do with the rest of his life. He can really talk to people, really handle himself around police and lawyers and people like that. I think he should be a lawyer.”
TJ got a part-time job with Investigative Research Consultants shortly after he was freed. IRC was one of the investigators on his case. It’s spotty work, but he likes it. He serves subpoenas and does occasional stakeouts on people who file disability claims.
“Law enforcement still makes me jittery,” he says. “But I’m glad to not be on the wrong side of it anymore.”
T.J. wants to see everything, do everything, revel in being free. His father is of Mexican descent. He wants to drive to Mexico. He got his passport, his first one ever, in November.
A few weeks after he got out of jail, he went sky-diving.
“It was me and a friend of mine He had done it before. He’s an adrenaline junkie. He said ‘I’m gonna take you sky-diving.’ I didn’t take him seriously.”
But in June, the friend called him and said they were going the next day. TJ was scared to death.
“The whole time, I was like ‘what the hell have I gotten myself into.’ I was scared. I started calculating the odds that I would die.”
He went through a half-hour class and signed a contract where “basically every paragraph says that you could die, you could be seriously injured. I was thinking that’s not the best way to promote a business.
“And then we all jumped out of a perfectly good plane.”
TJ jumped in tandem with an instructor. The rush was incredible, plummeting to the Earth so wide and open below.
“The instructor told me that when I jumped, I was going to be terrified, I was going to tense up. That’s exactly what happened. We were falling straight down. But after a few seconds, I relaxed. He asked me if I wanted to do flips. I said ‘Hell yeah.’ So we started doing flips.”
Too soon, the jump was over.
“It was great. I didn’t let them take my picture because I knew I’d be terrified and I didn’t want any evidence of that. I knew I’d be making faces. Next time I do it, I’ll let them take pictures of me.”
He was awarded $199,150 for unjust incarceration. While he still hasn’t gotten the money, his lawyers were able to get him a loan against the impending judgment, so he could get a car, an apartment, furniture and clothes.
By November, however, the job that was lined up for him has dissipated. The guy just didn’t have enough work.
“I have very little job experience, except for what I could get in prison. I was cleaning in jail, I was in maintenance. Janitorial work. That didn’t require any training. I don’t want to do that. Hopefully I can get something where I can train on the job.
In October, he insisted, “Nah, I’m not frustrated. Things can always be worse. A year ago, I would’ve dreamed of having these kinds of problems.”
A month later, however, he admits that not working “is getting on my nerves. I hate not doing anything.”
He’s learning the ropes, though. He’s visited the unemployment office. He worked briefly with a friend who owns a tow truck, until he had to lay people off.
TJ got more involved with his lawsuit. He picked the team of attorneys that will represent him.
On December 31, the team filed Thaddeus Jimenez v. the City of Chicago and the arresting officers. It alleges police coerced witnesses, ignored evidence and “procured a fraudulent identification…by using unduly suggestive and otherwise improper lineup…procedures.”
Andrew Hale is the lawyer for the defense. He tells me to call him ‘Andy,’ but refer to him in print by “the name my Mom gave me.” His reaction to TJ’s lawsuit would define the word ‘scoff.’
“I don’t see any evidence the police did anything wrong. I don’t see anything credible that he’s innocent. This guy got convicted twice and the kid with the guy who got shot, Larry Tueffel, he IDs TJ as the shooter all along. They’re in the same gang, he was afraid to testify, and he testifies that TJ’s the shooter.
“I’m very skeptical that 17 years later… We see this a ton of times in gang cases. I don’t buy this recantation or ‘the police coerced me.’
Hale and his defense team have a batch of letters young TJ wrote to his girlfriend. They’re rage-fueled and violent.
“We have five letters saying he was going to kill Larry Tueffel or have Tueffel killed. Now 17 years later, Tueffel is saying he’s innocent? I don’t buy it. The tape recording, there is nothing new about it. The court didn’t find it to be reliable. Victor Romo testified at trial that Juan Carlos Torres shot Eric. The jury didn’t buy it.”
Besides, says Hale, Victor is a liar.
“I just read Victor Romo’s trial testimony. What he says is he was walking down the street and Torres and Eric Morro got into an argment. Romo says he runs away, turns the corner and then hears a gunshot. Other witnesses say two guys push him against the wall. What gives? I’m sitting here scratching my head frankly.
“I’d like to hear how this recantation came about 17 years alter. There’s no evidence of police pressuring this kid. That happens all the time, these gang guys flip. I’m telling you, there’s more to this story.
“We just have to show the police did nothing wrong. What did the police do wrong? Nothing. They just did their jobs. This is a civil case about money. There’s no evidence the police withheld exculpatory evidence. I don’t buy it.”
They will be in court March 10, and depositions should begin by summer.
The lawsuit asks for unspecified damages.
In June, a month after TJ got out of prison, he moved into his very first apartment, a three-bedroom place on a quiet, tree-lined street in a suburb just west of Chicago. He moved here because other family lived nearby. He liked the layout.
It’s only a few miles from the old neighborhood, but it might as well be on the other side of the world.
He doesn’t worry about Bertha getting stolen when he parks her for the night. He doesn’t think anyone will break in. He doesn’t look over his shoulder when he comes in late—well, not too much anyway.
TJ, after all, remains wary. In Bertha’s backseat, he keeps an aluminum baseball bat. It’s not for softball.
“Dudes rush people out here,” he explains.
In September, TJ visited a gun shop around the block from his sister Angela’s home. He talked for about 40 minutes with the owner about guns and ammunition. TJ has his eye on one particular gun, an elephant gun that the owner says, “would be good to have in case Al-Qaeda ever marches on your house.” Unconvincingly, he adds, “Not that that would happen.”
TJ loves guns. And he loves the guy’s prices. The Glock 9 is beautiful. The .45. the elephant gun (which is not its real name, by the way). He says that when he gets enough money, he’s going to come back and buy a gun.
In December, he does just that. He pays $10 for membership to the driving range near his house, and whenever he can, he takes his brand new .45 there to pepper targets with round after round.
“It’s my second girlfriend,” he says. “Amanda went with me to buy it. Afterward, on the way back to Chicago, we stopped along the road and went into the woods and shot it off. It’s just for the house, though.”
He hops in his car, and drives east on West Belmont to visit his old haunts. He tells what happened when he rode through here the day before.
To the naked, virgin, untrained eye, Belmont doesn’t look so bad. The side streets are as tree-lined as where TJ lives now. People aren’t standing on the corner drinking or selling. Graffiti and broken windows and huge tenements aren’t all around. Babies aren’t wandering freely, playing with used crack pipes.
But it is also the middle of a beautiful, clear day.
A new gang runs this area now; the Simon City Royals have moved on or faded out since ’93.
TJ has 2,800-watt speakers in his car, and uses them whenever he drives. The day before as he was on Belmont Avenue, the street we’re now on, he saw some young toughs. The thug lifes started flashing gang signs at him. He ignored them, even though he knew he was breaking rules. If you aren’t in the gang, you’re supposed to be invisible. Blasting music was a good way of getting rushed.
“I ignored them, but kept playing my music. If you’re a civilian, people will leave you alone. They’ll flash gang signs, and if you respond with the right sign, then they know you’re a friend. But if you flash a rival gang sign, then you get jumped. And if you’re a member of a rival gang, and they flash you, but you don’t flash back, then that means you were cowed, so they’ll leave you alone too. A civilian, though, wouldn’t know what was going on, so you don’t get jumped either.
“But I ignored them and kept blasting my music. They tried to rush me. I took off.”
He points to a corner.
“They chased me from there, then,” he points to a gas station, “they tried to cut me off there. But I wasn’t worried. I was in a car and they were on foot, and I didn’t see any guns.”
T.J. has, in a way, become his grandmother. His 3-bedroom apartment is the new Grand Central. By September, another cousin, Susan Jimenez, and her kids, Mahalia, 11, Jay, 8, and Justin, 5, had moved in. Their cousin, Amanda Makowski, comes over all the time and watches the kids.
She looked up to TJ before he went to prison.
“He used to beat me up and pick on me. He put me on the fridge and told me to jump off it. Now we get to beat him up,” she says.
“When he got out, we were all just lying in the bed giggling like he’d ever been gone. He didn’t sleep. We wouldn’t let him sleep for a whole week.”
Amanda is due with her first child on Feb. 10.
“He’s come home to a lot of babies. He missed a lot of them being born,” she says.
[Amanda’s son, who she calls by his middle name, Mark (after her Dad), was born in December, many weeks premature. But he’s survived].
Given his full house, it seems that after being separated from his family for so long, TJ can’t bear to be without them now.
Susan Jimenez and TJ are double first cousins: Their fathers are brothers, their mothers, sisters. Susan often made the long drive with her kids to see TJ, so when she was having a hard time with her landlord, TJ didn’t even think twice about his next move.
“I told her to just come live with me. So she packed herself up and moved in. It’s loud, but I like the atmosphere. I like having them around. When I was here by myself, I couldn’t stand being here by myself. I would always leave, I was never home. I just like it. The kids love me.”
As if on cue, Jay walks up behind the couch where TJ is sitting and tosses a Nerf football at his head. TJ warns him to stop, but Jay throws it twice more.
TJ reaches behind him and lifts Jay up, turning him over. First he tickles him—but then, in a move that would make TJ’s sister Angela proud, he puts Jay in a headlock and sticks his fingers in the boy’s nostrils.
Jay is squealing laughter. He screams for Mahalia to help him, but she sides with TJ. Mahalia is the goddaughter Vicki used to take with her to visit TJ. TJ has her name tattooed across his stomach.
Jay takes TJ’s cell phone and threatens to call his girlfriends.
“I’m going to say ‘We’re through!’ cuz you’re a nerd,” he says.
TJ answers, “Me? You know I’m cool. I’m the coolest guy you know.”
Jay tells TJ he is not cool.
“Jay whipped him at the Xbox 300,” Amanda says.
“I was all about Sega Genesis right before I went to jail,” TJ says. “It had just come out.”
Cops were always trying to scare people with big charges in order to get them to confess to smaller crimes, so 13-year-old TJ wasn’t terribly worried when told about his murder charge.
But his calm changed when told who had been killed.
“I was like ‘Eric? I was just with him,’” he recalls. “They said ‘We know. And you killed him.’ I was tripping out. Now this doesn’t even sound right to me, that Eric was dead. It took me a while to figure out that they weren’t bullshitting. They were like, ‘You’re going to jail,’ and I’m trying to convince them it wasn’t me.’”
Police reports show that four witnesses placed TJ as the shooter. One of them was Larry Tuefell, another Simon City Royal gang member who had been walking beside Eric when he was killed. The report shows, however, that Larry initially told people that TJ wasn’t the shooter. He only changed his story after repeated questioning.
But another eyewitness also told cops TJ wasn’t the shooter, and never wavered from his story. This person was Victor Romo.
Victor was 12 years old, and in the seventh grade. He was 5’3”, 110 lbs. And he was the person who was with the shooter when Eric got murdered. Victor was arrested one week after the shooting.
Yes, he was with the shooter, he told cops. But TJ wasn’t him. The shooter, he said, was a curly-haired, 13-year-old named Juan Carlos Torres. “He met his friend [Juan] at the Burger King…they began walking down Belmont and went past the victim. [Juan] then asked the victim about some money and a struggle began. Victor then ran off, and he heard a gunshot. He did not look back, nor did he know if [Juan] had a gun. He further denied knowing THADDEUS JIMENEZ,” the police report reads. Victor’s father, Ezequiel “stated that he had since talked to [Juan] who told him he had shot the victim in self-defense.”
Police went to Juan’s house that day and asked him if he shot Eric. “[Juan] stated that he hasn’t talked to VICTOR ROMO or his father for about 2 or 3 months. He was not at the scene at the time of the homicide,” says the report.
Victor was subsequently charged with first-degree murder—but being only 12, he couldn’t be tried as an adult. He was in juvenile detention until he turned 18.
TJ, nearly 14, hadn’t been so lucky one week earlier.
“The cops said either confess or go to jail for a long ass time,” TJ says. “I was scared as hell. They said if you confess it won’t be so bad, but I was too scared. The next morning, they charged me with murder.
“That was it. That was the last time I seen the streets until May.”
Shortly after being charged, TJ was in juvenile awaiting trial. One day, he heard someone calling his name. It was someone he’d never met before.
“Are you TJ? A Royal?”
“Yeah. Who the hell are you?”
“Are you locked up for killing Eric Morro?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t do it.”
“I know. Me and my friend did it. I’m Victor Romo. I turned myself in.”
TJ was floored—and pissed.
“I didn’t even know there was a second guy. I was like ‘Hell nah. You told them I didn’t do it and they still didn’t believe it?’”
Victor’s father, Ezequiel, secretly recorded Juan saying, “I fired the shot and took off running.” He turned the tape to the police [who re-interviewed Juan, who again denied making such a statement], and TJ’s lawyers—then public defenders—tried for years to get the recording admitted into trial. But judges would never allow it, since it was hearsay, a confession made outside of any legal jurisdiction.
TJ was convicted of second-degree murder in October 1994. In sentencing TJ to 50 years, the judge said he was a “little punk, probably too young to shave, but old enough to commit a vicious murder.” Newspaper reports say TJ lunged at the prosecutors following the sentencing, but sheriff’s deputies subdued him before he could land a punch.
“I was mad,” TJ says. “I couldn’t believe I was actually going to jail for something I didn’t do.” The conviction was voided in 1996 due to legal technicalities, but in November 1997, TJ was again convicted, this time to 45 years.
T.J. almost served his entire sentence. He spent a couple years in juvenile jail before moving to the adult prison when he was 16. With good behavior, he would’ve gotten out in 2015, exactly half of the 45 years he was sentenced to. He could’ve done it easily, he says.
“The first eight years were the hardest. After that, I could’ve done the time easily,” he says.
He didn’t, though, because the Northwestern University Bluhm Center on Wrongful Convictions got involved. The center investigates cases to determine whether someone has been wrongfully convicted.
His case came to their attention in July 2005, when TJ sent a letter to Steve Drizin, a law professor at Northwestern. The center receives about 200 letters a month, but TJ’s stood out for its passion.
The center conducted an investigation spread out over the next two years, speaking with TJ’s former lawyers, his mother, witnesses, Eric Morro’s family, journalists and others. They noticed immediately that Victor Romo, TJ’s purported accomplice, had consistently said that TJ was not with him—in fact, he didn’t even know him—and someone else committed the crime.
In September 2007, the center sent its findings to the state’s attorney’s office. The state attorney’s office launched its own review and, along with Jimenez’s attorneys, in April asked a judge to vacate Jimenez’s sentence. The judge agreed. The decision to drop the case was “a powerful example of a prosecutor’s office living up to the highest ideals of what a prosecutor should be,” said Steven Drizin, one of Jimenez’s attorneys and a law professor at Northwestern. Jimenez “would still be locked up today if not for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.”
Drizin and Stuart Chanen, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice, worked the case pro bono. Their team spent more than 1,200 hours on it, including interviews with all the witnesses. In August 2007, after Larry Tuefel and another witness recanted their testimony, the team gathered its information and contacted the state attorney office. The office then conducted its own investigation.
On May 1, T.J. walked out of prison, free and exonerated. His lawyers, Steve Drizin and Stuart Chanen, were there to meet him. They had told Vicki that something was up, that there was movement in his case. But they tried to keep his release a secret. It was after midnight when he arrived at her North Side home.
Vicki had no words. Only sobs. Her hugs encompassed him.
“It was the greatest feeling ever,” T.J. said later. “Seeing her, hugging her. All my cousins came over. I never gave up hope.”
“My heart nearly burst out of my chest,” says Vicki. “When I was sick, my mom said the reason I was hanging on was because I was waiting to see him get out. I knew it. I knew it would happen one day. He was home at last. They took away my boy. They gave me back a man.”
On the same day TJ walked out of prison, police in Hammond, Ind., arrested a 30-year-old man without incident at his home. His name was Juan Carlos Torres. He was extradited to Chicago, and booked on June 2 by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.
He faces trial for the first-degree murder of Eric Morro. His bail is $450,000.
He has pleaded not guilty.
Editor’s Note: This reporting was conducted from July 2009, one month after T.J. was released, until April 2010. T.J. has since had a son, been arrested again, and awarded $25 million from his lawsuit.