Illinois a thankless land when it comes to heroes

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When former Republican Gov. George Ryan gets out of prison, it'll be a big story, and his pal and former Gov. Big Jim Thompson will put an arm around old George and they'll pose for the victory photograph.

And at least some of their lickspittles will treat it as a return of the king, a media frenzy as sickening as it is predictable.

The six Willis children who were burned to death as a result of an auto crash with a bribe-paying truck driver will be mentioned. They were the victims of corruption in the licenses-for-bribes scandal under Ryan's watch when he was Illinois secretary of state. But Ryan's press agents will trumpet other aspects of his legacy, too.

Like that $12 billion in public works money he once dangled before boss Republicans and Democrats, to buy their love before his gubernatorial election. The bosses stepped eagerly over the bodies of those children to reach for the treasure, taking their voters with them, and in the process they corrupted the soul of this state.

But on Saturday, a man was buried with no media frenzy. His death wasn't a big story. It was an important story, but a quiet one.

Russell Sonneveld was 63. He died last week after a lengthy battle with cancer. He left a son, Nathaniel; a wife, Florine; a sister, and two brothers.

He wasn't some politician. He didn't dangle tax dollars before the people as a feast so they'd eat his sins.

Sonneveld was a cop. He did his job. That led him to investigate his boss, Ryan. Without Sonneveld and his partner, Ed Hammer, George Ryan would probably be a free man today.

"When Russ passed away this week, what I was thinking … so when George Ryan's released, when he goes to the halfway house or when he's totally released in July, you know all the (TV) channels and all the newspapers are going to be covering it," Hammer said. "And here Russ passes away from this horrible disease, kind of as an unknown."

But not unknown to Scott and Janet Willis, whose children were killed in that crash on Election Day in 1994. Ryan's people, including Dean Bauer, Ryan's inspector general, knew that bribes had been paid for licenses. Hammer and Sonneveld were investigators in Ryan's office. They'd already found a pattern of corruption. And their bosses had quashed their investigations.

It's one thing for investigators to go after someone outside the office. It is quite another for them to realize that the guy behind it all is the boss. They kept at it, knowing that it would cost them.

"A toll was taken. He was treated terribly," Scott Willis told me last week. "I remember that Janet and I stopped by to see him. He still felt badly that he had not done more to prevent the accident. We told him that he had done all that he could. And that we were so grateful for his willingness to stand up for what was right.

"(We told him) he was a good man, a decent man. But he wouldn't accept it. We told him it was a burden that he didn't have to bear. He did his job, and did good work, and for that he was shoved aside and disposed of. I think that took its toll on him. … He was a hero to us."

As Hammer and Sonneveld investigated, they worried. Their boss Ryan, then secretary of state, had the bipartisan Illinois Combine behind him in his 1998 run for governor. The investigators knew the Combine reached into local prosecutors' offices. They didn't know where to turn.

"We also knew George Ryan was a very powerful politician," Hammer said. "He was not just a Republican, he was a powerful politician for all politicians in the state of Illinois, Democrat and Republican. … It's the Illinois Combine. So where do we turn? Our boss is closing the cases, we can't go to the local state's attorney.

"We never really gave up," Hammer said. "Russ especially. And when the Willis kids were killed, we went through this whole discussion again. Where can we go?"

Finally, they went to the U.S. attorney's office and talked to prosecutor Patrick Collins. The federal licenses-for-bribes investigation ultimately took the corrupt governor down. But before charges were filed, Sonneveld felt Ryan's wrath. He was demoted. The official reason was to save taxpayers money. Sonneveld and Hammer got the message.

Sonneveld lost his $40,164-a-year job and was bounced to a much lower-paying post as an auto parts inspector, which he ultimately left. Hammer was transferred to another job in the secretary of state police.

By then, Sonneveld had given an affidavit to the feds, and the investigation became public during Ryan's run for governor. Ryan never apologized to the Willis family. His allies circled around him, and Ryan blustered his way through the final phase of the campaign.

And part of that bluster was to personally attack Russ Sonneveld.

"We deny all those allegations," Ryan said. "I'm amazed that (Sonneveld) comes forward three weeks before the election and says there's been a cover-up. Where has he been for the last four years?"

He was doing his job. And that cost him his job.

That's how heroes are thanked in Illinois.

jskass@tribune.com

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