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Friday, April 23, 2004 12:23 am

Redemption story

Renatta Frazier’s long journey to justice


The first time Renatta Frazier talked to Illinois Times, she was so leery of the press that she sent her attorney and two cops to screen the reporter before agreeing to an interview. She arrived with her husband, B.J., glued to her side for moral support, and they both insisted that their kids be kept out of the article for safety reasons. It took several hours for Frazier to recount everything that had happened to her at SPD, but the conversation was never interrupted by her cell phone -- which, from today's perspective, seems incredible.

Then again, in October 2002, nobody much wanted to talk to the Frazier family.

Back then, Renatta Frazier was just that infamous black rookie who had resigned from the Springfield Police Department in disgrace -- the so-called "poster child for affirmative action" said to be so utterly unfit to serve and protect that she had allowed a fellow officer's daughter to be raped.

When Illinois Times discovered that the accusations against Frazier were false (see "Cop Out Series" at www.illinoistimes.com), the public outcry resulted in unplanned departures for several high-ranking city officials and raised the expectation that a new administration might compensate the former cop sooner rather than later.

After all, as one citizen proclaimed at a community meeting shortly after the truth was revealed, "Ray Charles could see that this lady was done wrong."

It took longer than Frazier and many others expected, but a year and a half later -- and in the wake of another flurry of media scrutiny (see "Turnabout" on p. 12) -- the city finally settled her race discrimination lawsuit to the tune of almost one million dollars.

Nowadays, everybody wants to talk to Frazier -- from the local AM radio talk show hosts all the way up to National Public Radio's Tavis Smiley, who recently gave Frazier a full week of play. This week, Frazier and her husband are in Los Angeles meeting with several movie production companies interested in filming her story.

Renatta Frazier's world has changed considerably in the 18 months since that first encounter with IllinoisTimes. Now when she schedules an interview, she agrees (almost gleefully) to meet in a restaurant frequented by city powerbrokers. She arrives not in the raggedy 1991 van her family used for both transport and shelter during a period of homelessness not so long ago, but instead in a shiny new Lincoln Navigator. The kids aren't kept under wraps anymore; they're happy to pose for a photo. B.J. still tries to hover over his wife, but she keeps shooing him outside so his ever-chirping phone won't disturb the conversation. Frazier sets her phone to silent, diverting callers to a voice mail message that refers them to either her publicist in Chicago or her "public relations assistant" in Washington, D.C.

Aside from the media interest, the most noticeable transformation in Frazier is just the tone of her voice. It's lighter, less edgy, less burdened by stress, almost even bubbly. She's a living, breathing testament to the amazing healing power of money in the bank and a good night's rest.

"Before [the settlement], I was not sleeping well just because of the stress and the horror of what myself and my family experienced," she says. "And now I may kinda toss and turn at night, but I'm thinking about different things."

Like which movie deal you should take?

"Exactly!" she laughs.

There's another subtle change. The small amethyst ring she has worn on her left hand for the past two years has now moved to her right to make way for a new 3-carat wedding set that she swears is "just beautiful." Problem is, she keeps forgetting to wear it.

"I can't believe I forgot to put it on! But it's been so long since I've worn one," she says.

New wedding rings for herself and B.J. were the first major purchases Frazier made with her settlement money. These new rings represent more than just their marriage: they replace the wedding bands discarded with the rest of their belongings when the family was forcibly evicted from their apartment on April 29, 2002.

It's the event Frazier always identifies as the absolute nadir of her marathon ordeal. Not only was the eviction unexpected and possibly illegal (just a month behind in rent, they weren't notified in advance), it drew an audience of SPD brass who seemed amused by Frazier's irate reaction. (They later filed an internal affairs complaint, charging her with conduct unbecoming an officer.)

Lt. Rickey Davis, a friend and fellow officer who tried to halt the eviction by handing the landlord full rent in cash, figured this public humiliation was timed to coincide with the Rev. Jesse Jackson's visit to Springfield, scheduled for the following day.

But to the Fraziers, the timing was even more intimately traumatic. The eviction coincided with the 16th birthday of their oldest kids, twins Kourtney and Kurtis.

Months later, when Kourtney recapped his family's experience for Illinois Times' 2002 "Year in Review," he summed up the eviction in one eloquent sentence: "The people who did this to my family hated my mother."

The eviction was the beginning of a long, dark chapter for the Frazier family. They spent the next year living like vagabonds, some staying with one friend or relative, some with another, some with B.J.'s kin in Springfield, some with Frazier's relatives in New York.

They were not an easy family to house. Between them, they have five kids -- the now 17-year-old twins; the one daughter, Dianna, 16; Little B.J., 14; and Shug, now 6. Since no one in the family drinks, smokes, or ever dares to skip church on Sunday morning, they tried to avoid staying with people who weren't good role models for their children.

At the time of the eviction, Shug was just a toddler, and in New York he became desperately homesick for his grandmother in Springfield. The four teenagers went through the trauma of leaving their friends, teachers, and athletic teams in Springfield. About the time they made close friends at their new school in New York, they were uprooted again.

Frazier, a fiercely devoted mother, was acutely aware of the toll this lifestyle was taking on her children. When the twins and Dianna went to spend the summer with their father, who works in law enforcement in another state, she noticed something unusual every time they called. "They sounded happy! There was no stress going on, nothing to worry about. They sounded great!" she says. They were enjoying taking SAT prep courses, hanging out at the mall, and going to movies like normal kids. Frazier became distraught over the realization that they might not want to come home -- and who could blame them?

But the kids say they never seriously considered that option. "Moving away from a best friend is the hardest thing in the world, and my mom is my best friend," Dianna says. "We all felt the same way. There was no possible way we could leave our mom here, knowing what she was going through."

Clouding everything was their difficulty finding work. B.J., who had two-year tenure as an aggregate technician with the state, never regained his position when they moved back from New York. He finally got a low-paying job installing dry wall and earned pocket change giving his friends haircuts.

Frazier held down a full-time job and a part-time job in New York, but in Springfield, she never found permanent employment, despite filling out dozens of applications. Uncomfortable sitting idle, she used her free time to write a book and to re-examine the rape case that ended her police career. News Channel 20's "exclusive investigation," which aired over two weeks in February, was prompted in large part by information she uncovered.

She did find some part-time and seasonal work. Her church, Abundant Faith Christian Center, hired her as day camp director last summer, and she kept her name on District 186's substitute teacher list. But the stigma of the lawsuit followed her everywhere. At one school, she went into the teacher's lounge to microwave her lunch and overheard staff members grousing about "that Renatta Frazier case." She froze facing the oven, looking for a way to escape without the teachers noticing her. Realizing that was impossible, she decided to just share the awkwardness. As the microwave beeped, she grabbed her lunch, spun around and said, "Hi, I am Renatta Frazier," then scurried out the door.

But her sporadic teaching gigs and B.J.'s menial labor pay didn't always make ends meet. Whenever the family's financial situation reached a crisis point -- utilities about to be shut off, or the rent coming due -- African-American SPD officers who call themselves the Black Guardians would come up with the needed cash. Over the past couple of years, they've given Frazier's family thousands of dollars and other assistance. They provided a security deposit and first month's rent on a small East Side house, then rounded up beds, used sofas, and lawn chairs to furnish it.

These officers believed in Frazier from the moment she was recruited and their faith never wavered. They did not jump on her bandwagon after learning the truth about the rape; they were already driving it.

Still, Lt. Davis says they were surprised when Frazier brought them a check soon after her settlement. "We just did it because it was the right thing to do," he says. "It was just a total blessing for us to get the money back."

It's possible that her settlement might end up hurting the Black Guardians. Until last month, Frazier was the marquee plaintiff in the racial discrimination case Davis and five other current and former officers, all Black Guardians, filed against the city of Springfield and SPD. And though she always knew city officials were interested in settling with her separately, Frazier fervently believes that what happened to her couldn't have occurred without a culture that tolerated discrimination.

"It affects those officers every day. They do work in a racially hostile environment," she says.

For that reason, she tried to hang tough with the Black Guardians as long as her family could stand it. But at some point, she apparently realized that, unlike her, the other plaintiffs all had homes, cars, and steady paychecks coming in. "It was just time to move on and bring my family into a different place," she says.

The way she tells it, the negotiations that led to the resolution of her case were anticlimactic. "Basically," she says, "a call was just made to my attorney that they wanted to talk, and he responded, and not long after that, an agreement was reached."

On the morning of April 7 -- the day after the City Council approved the deal -- she got a call inviting her to pick up her check at City Hall. She and B.J. met briefly with Mayor Tim Davlin, who delivered a bonus with the check.

"He apologized," Frazier says. "Of course, he and I both understand that this didn't occur on his watch, so for him to apologize for something that he's not responsible for, I wouldn't expect that. He worded it as, 'I'm sorry that it's taken so long to reach resolution,' and I think that's appropriate."

Frazier says she's gotten one other formal apology -- from SPD Sgt. Kevin Keen. Keen is the former public information officer who took the blame for feeding the State Journal-Register the incorrect chronology regarding the rape. (A subsequent investigation commissioned by then-mayor Karen Hasara revealed that an SJ-R reporter had called Deputy Chief Jim Burton asking whether Frazier was being investigated for "inaction which allowed the rape of a daughter of an SPD officer" several weeks before Keen became involved. )

Still, Keen says, he felt the need to make amends with Frazier.

"I had an opportunity to meet her at the retirement of a fellow officer, and I wanted to make a point to go up to her and personally apologize for my part," Keen says. "It was an honest mistake on my part. It was unintentional."

Frazier says she was touched by his gesture, but not surprised.

"It's just kinda my opinion that he probably didn't have a very big role in it at all, but he was the one that took the fall," she says.

"People like that, and people who have approached me to wish me good luck and congratulations . . . I think those are the people who already had good hearts and never intended for this to happen. The people that haven't, it's because they had some character and integrity issues going on anyway, long before they ever met Renatta Frazier."

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