A South Bend mother who asked Mayor Pete Buttigieg to help her seek a full investigation into the hanging death of her son now says she wants the case reopened.
The county’s new coroner told The Young Turks he thinks police should consider doing just that, and also revealed that his office is unable to locate the investigative report that was supposed to have been completed when her son died.
Despite the new coroner’s statement, Sheriff William Redman told TYT he won’t consider reopening the case without new evidence. Neither the mayor’s office nor the Buttigieg presidential campaign responded when asked whether Buttigieg supports reopening the case.
The family says they believe the 16-year-old boy, who was black, was the victim of a hate crime. At his school he was the subject of racial epithets and threats just prior to his death in 2011.
Then-Chief Deputy Coroner Chuck Hurley, who declared the death a suicide, had no medical training and conducted no examination of the body or the scene. No autopsy was performed. Reopening the case would mean questioning Hurley’s judgment on a case with racial undertones less than a year before Buttigieg appointed Hurley as his interim police chief.
Stephanie Jones met Buttigieg in August 2012, at a Common Council meeting where she discussed the hanging death of her son, Jiha’d Vasquez, and asked the mayor for his help. As TYT previously reported, she says he told her to call his office to discuss the case. She says Buttigieg never returned her calls.
Jones also says that items belonging to Jiha’d were unaccounted for, as was a period of more than 24 hours prior to his body being reported hanging from an electrical tower. The case was closed almost instantly.
The sheriff from that time is no longer in office. Saint Joseph County Coroner Mike McGann told TYT, “I think it would be prudent [of Sheriff William Redman] to look at it and see what his assessment is.”
Despite his predecessor’s office ruling it a suicide, McGann, also a South Bend police veteran, said, “I would be happy to look at it if Sheriff Redman looks at the case and thinks there’s enough evidence to reopen the case.”
Redman, however, says he won’t consider looking at the case without new evidence. In a statement to TYT, Redman said, “The St. Joseph County Police Department has no new evidence since 2011 which would warrant a review of the case by our department or a transfer of the case to the County Metro Homicide Unit for investigation. In response to Coroner McGann's comment that taking a second look at the case would be ‘prudent’ and he would be ‘happy to take a look,’ we have nothing new for him to look at.”
The homicide unit to which Redman referred is now run Commander Mike Grzegorek. Grzegorek was the sheriff in 2011 and called Jiha’d’s death a suicide, closing the case without an investigation.
Redman worked for Grzegorek at the time. He told TYT, “The death of any teenager in our community is a tragedy and lingers painfully for a long time… On April 14, 2011, while on patrol for the County Police Department I was tasked with accompanying other officers to Vasquez’s home to assist with informing and consoling his family.”
The homicide unit is overseen by County Prosecutor Ken Cotter. A spokesperson said Cotter was preparing for a trial but would review TYT’s questions. As of press time, Cotter had not responded.
“Regarding the coroner’s actions in 2011,” Redman told TYT, “I won’t second-guess actions taken eight years ago based solely on the limited information in your article.”
McGann told TYT the coroner’s office also has limited information, because a key record is missing. “We could not find an investigative report by Chief Deputy Coroner Chuck Hurley on this case. Whether it was not made or was lost in transition we don’t know. And we do a public investigative report on every call that we handle.”
“I feel it’s a big scam, it’s a big coverup,” Jones said. After TYT’s report, she said, she was contacted by Pastor Mario Sims, a longtime critic of South Bend politicians and police, to discuss reopening the case.
Asked whether she is hopeful she will succeed, Jones said, “I don’t know, because I’m just overwhelmed… I’ve never given up on my son’s case. With me being a black woman of a biracial son…they just decided to sweep my son under the rug.”
Even before Redman’s statement, Sims told TYT he had little faith in local police. “I think I want to do either state police or the Department of Justice and ask them to intervene as they did in the past with all those unsolved Klan murders.”
As the South Bend NAACP’s legal redress chair in 2012, Tom Bush assisted Jones, including accopmanying her to the council meeting where she met Buttigieg. Asked whether he had hope local officials would reopen the case, Bush said, “You know what? No.”
He said, “They covered the whole thing up… what you got there in Saint Joe County is a good old boys club. It’s been going on for years.” Referring to Jiha’d’s school, Bush said, “There’s a Klan chapter in Indiana; a lot of these Klan kids go.”
Bush also alleged a history of intimidation by local police, recalling times when they came to his home. On some occasions, he said, “They would shine [laser sights] through the window.”
A South Bend native who left home only for military service and recent health problems, the 84-year-old Bush said, “I’ve been intimidated all my life, so it ain’t no big deal. But that’s the way the system is in Saint Joe County.”
Bush said he tried to get the Justice Department involved after Jiha’d was killed. He still sees the federal level as their best hope. “I’d like to see all these folks that covered it up brought to justice.”
He told TYT, “I just hope that you can put enough light on this stuff that it would call for a federal investigation… The only reason this will get done is if you’re on a microphone yelling and screaming.”
Jonathan Larsen is TYT’s managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.
If you have tips on this subject or others you can contact us using Proton Mail at [email protected]. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to stay on top of exclusive news stories from The Young Turks.