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Ross' threats not heeded
Legal system was unfazed by repeated `warnings' of Lefkow killer

By David Heinzmann, Hal Dardick and Jeff Coen, Tribune staff reporters. Tribune staff reporters Brendan McCarthy and Michael Higgins contributed to this report

April 3, 2005 - Dr. Howard Kotler was dismayed in 2003 when he learned that Bart Ross had told a federal judge, "I will be your end."

The judge, though, seemed unfazed.

Kotler saw Ross, who was suing him, as a dangerous menace. But it seemed that no one in the legal system--not the judges, not the lawyers, not court security--was paying enough attention to the threat Ross posed.

"Surprisingly, you continue to ignore what drives a person like Mr. Ross," Kotler wrote in an Aug. 11, 2003, e-mail to one of the attorneys on the case.

"I would have thought that as a group of professionals who deal indirectly with human reaction to adversity, that you might have had more foresight than demonstrated," he wrote. "You have grossly underestimated the tenacity and personal threat that Mr. Ross represents."

A year and a half later, Ross' obsessive hatred of lawyers and judges exploded. On Feb. 28, he murdered the husband and mother of U.S. District Court Judge Joan H. Lefkow, who had ruled against him, and then two weeks later he killed himself.

It didn't happen without warning.

The story of Ross' last decade of life is told in thousands of pages of court documents that spell out his torment as he lays down threats. An examination of those documents--many filed in his pursuit of a malpractice claim after being treated for oral cancer--shows that the threats were more frequent and pervasive than many knew.

But the response to these threats from the legal system was always moderate.

In March 2000, Ross made a threatening remark to an Illinois Court of Claims employee: "The only solution to his problem was death and that he wasn't going alone," according to a secretary of state police report obtained by the Tribune through the Freedom of Information Act.

An investigator assigned to look into the threat called Ross at home and talked to him for a half hour. Ross told the investigator he hadn't meant to sound threatening. The investigator hung up satisfied, noting in the report: "1.5 total manhours utilized... I recommend that this case be closed."

At least three times Ross made ominous allusions to the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

"The only way to get your attention and respond is tragedy like Oklahoma bombing," Ross seethed in a "Petition for Clemency from Abuse of Governmental Powers Against Me," which he sent to then-Gov. Jim Edgar and scores of others in 1996.

He called the petitions his "second warning."

"I WILL MAKE YOU REGRET IT, IF YOU SCREW ME UP," he wrote to the governor.

Ross apparently believed that these threats were clear. In the suicide note found in his van, Ross wrote that he had been warning the courts and others involved in his cases of what he would do, referring to his "over 10 years long multiple stating that I would get my own justice if I was deprived governmental justice."

Some legal authorities now recognize that, cumulatively, Ross had indeed given them an indication of where he was headed. They say their struggle is how to sort out the few who would carry out violence from the many who threaten it. Court officials and investigators who looked into Ross' threats at the time maintain that it would have been difficult to take harsher action against him.

Nevertheless, some judges and lawyers are calling for reforms, ranging from greater emphasis on assessing the mental health of contentious plaintiffs to creating a database that would flag people who make repeated threats.

"Maybe there needs to be a mechanism where all of these just get taken to the state police and they run them down. Like they do with the president....I think it's probably something that needs to be addressed," said Roger Sommer, who was chief justice of the state Court of Claims in 1996, when Ross sent one of his threats there.

Threats gained intensity

Kotler, a physician who had been involved in Ross' treatment, had little experience with courtrooms, but he said he had studied Ross' successive court filings for years. Although the lawsuit was their only contact, he considered the man still to be his patient. From reading what Ross wrote, Kotler said it was clear to him that Ross should have been evaluated for mental illness, and coupled with his frequent allusions to violence, the plaintiff should have been regarded as a serious threat.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see" that there were emerging mental-health issues, Kotler said in a recent interview. "I was watching it ramping up, really ramping up, over a decade."

Kotler's frustration-filled e-mail in 2003 was addressed to his lawyer, Michael Krause, whose firm defended the University of Illinois doctors against the malpractice lawsuit that Ross had obsessively pursued since 1995.

The doctor saw Ross' "I will be your end" comment in a copy of a letter that Krause himself had dispatched to an insurance company representative involved in the case. Krause was no stranger to Ross' rhetoric and expressed his own frustration with U.S. District Judge David Coar's reluctance to take the threat more seriously.

"Judge Coar, unfortunately, took no action other than advising Mr. Ross that there was no relief that he could be seeking in this courtroom," Krause wrote.

Later in the letter, Krause said he did not think it wise to seek sanctions against Ross over the threat because it "will only `turn up the fire' with Mr. Ross."

Krause said that officials took the threats seriously, but there was not much they could do to stop him, partly because he usually veiled his threats in innuendo. And Ross had been making the same kinds of remarks for nearly a decade without ever acting upon them.

"I think everyone took him seriously," he said. But "as time went on, you think it must just be a threat. I think all of us who are still here are very fortunate."

In 1996, another attorney defending the doctors sought a protective order to block Ross from serving subpoenas on hospital officials.

"Mr. Ross' argumentative and violent nature required that security be called before he would leave the medical records department," Eileen Lysaught wrote. "Mr. Ross then proceeded to harass [Circuit Court] Judge [Michael] Hogan's clerk and ended up in security at the Daley Center."

A month later, Lysaught told the court that Ross had asked a colleague of one of the doctors Ross was suing to review his medical records. "When he wouldn't further see Mr. Ross, Mr. Ross stated that he was going to have to get a gun," she said.

Ross already had at least one gun. The 9 mm pistol he used to kill himself had been legally purchased, with his Illinois Firearm Owner's Identification card, at a suburban gun shop in 1993, federal officials said.

By September 1997, Ross' Social Security disability payments had ended, and his case in Circuit Court had been dismissed. His level of desperation was clearly intensified by the dead end in Circuit Court.

"I have to get governmental justice on this, otherwise I'll do my own justice," Ross told Judge Philip Bronstein, after Bronstein denied his motion for reconsideration.

After the hearing, Ross said "something to the effect of, `You don't want this place to end up like Oklahoma City,'" said Kevin Illia, a former FBI agent who was then in charge of court security at the Daley Center.

Illia confronted Ross, who told him "the courts are corrupt," and then conducted a criminal background check on Ross that turned up a clean record.

Some judges, lawyers and doctors said their anxiety over Ross' belligerence was tempered by sympathy for his suffering. Most notably, Judge Lefkow herself said in her dismissal of his case that she was troubled by the pain he had endured as a result of his cancer and treatment.

Oncologist James Bruckman, perhaps the first doctor Ross contacted in his pursuit of an expert to label his treatment malpractice, described the hardship Ross would have to endure the rest of his life.

"In a way, I felt sorry for him," said Bruckman, who saw Ross twice in 1995 and had two additional phone conversations with him. "He was tongue-tied and had dry mouth. Patients who have that kind of cancer, and survive, live with that for the rest of their lives."

The dryness and disfigurement are usually the greatest hardship, Bruckman said. "But those weren't the worst of it for him. He felt he had been done wrong... I do think that the tongue-tied [effect] on top of his [Polish] accent made him self-conscious about being understood."

Patients who suffer from such permanent repercussions are guided into speech and physical therapy, Bruckman said, and in Ross' case he might have been counseled to find a different line of work that did not require him to talk to customers who hired him to do electrical work.

In the beginning, Bruckman said, "he actually tried to go about solving it in the right way--in the courts and getting other physicians involved to evaluate his case."

But Ross was unable to accept what all of the doctors told him. Bruckman said he urged Ross to redirect his energy from litigation toward therapy and learning to live with his difficulties. He referred him to the ears, nose and throat surgeon in his hospital department to pursue that line of therapy, but Ross would hear none of it.

"He didn't want to accept that," Bruckman said. "He was driven to get his case heard and won."

Reforms up for discussion

Now, the legal system is left trying to learn from Ross' attack on Judge Lefkow's family.

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) plans to hold Judiciary Committee hearings to discuss increasing courthouse security and greater protection for judges. The scope of the hearing is still being discussed, but Specter hopes to hold the discussion sometime in late April or early May, a committee official said. One concern senators expect to discuss is the amount of personal information about judges available in public records, the official said.

Officials of the U.S. Marshals Service say they are constantly reviewing their methods of protecting judges and federal courthouses, but they declined to discuss specific measures being taken after Ross' crimes.

Countering inclinations toward tighter scrutiny are constitutional questions how far investigators may intervene in people's lives before a crime has been committed, as well as court officers' responsibility to treat litigants fairly.

Judges can order a psychological evaluation for anyone who appears before them, but it rarely happens in civil matters, experts say.

Judges are inclined to grant plenty of leeway to people confronting adversity in their courtrooms, said Sandy Stavropoulos, supervisor of the Seniors and Persons with Disabilities Division of the Cook County state's attorney's office.

"And, remember, it can't just be because someone is angry," said Stavropoulos, whose division oversees involuntary commitments of mentally ill people in the county. "I am sure judges are used to hearing a lot of angry things said to them all the time."

 

 

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