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Tuesday, March 11, 2014 02:57 pm

Questions about hiring

Turner case prompts district review

The Springfield School District plans to review hiring practices in the wake of revelations that Lanphier High School basketball coach Blake L. Turner was hired in 2008 despite a long criminal history.

“What I want to make sure of, going forward, is we make all of our (hiring) decisions based on as much information as we can possibly have,” interim superintendent Bob Hill said. “Are we doing everything we can to ensure we’re hiring the right people? Is everyone in the information loop fully informed? We’re going to review those processes.”

Hill, who was not employed by the district when Turner was hired, said that he did not know whether he would have hired the coach.

“We don’t know what conversations took place,” Hill said. “We don’t know what questions were asked of Mr. Turner and I don’t know what answers he gave. In the absence of that information, I can’t tell you what I would have done.”

Hill said he didn’t know whether district officials reviewed police reports about Turner before offering him a job, but he would have liked to have seen reports if he had been making the hiring decision.

“Who wouldn’t want all the information they could have?” Hill said.

Springfield police reports paint a picture of man prone to violence, particularly against women, who continued to attract attention from law enforcement even while his job application with the district was pending. Turner broke the law in front of witnesses, according to reports, and police sometimes had physical evidence. But prosecutors rarely charged Turner, and when they did, the state’s attorney’s office either dismissed cases or reduced charges.

Click here to download Turner's police reports (PDF)

Turner’s personnel file is filled with red flags.

The district knew that Turner had been arrested for possession of more than five pounds of marijuana in Texas in 2002 and had admitted that there was sufficient evidence to find him guilty. The district also knew about five local arrests, and the district knew that Turner was facing a felony battery charge when he applied for a job as an assistant basketball coach.

“There’s a lot of blinking lights that would demand our attention,” Hill allows.

Indeed, Turner’s application was initially rejected by the district.

“Cannot work,” reads an unsigned note, dated January 2008, affixed to Turner’s application dated Nov. 21, 2007. “Did not clear background check.”

“Approval rescinded,” reads a notation alongside Turner’s name on a list of athletic coaches hired by the district for the 2007-08 seasons in several sports.

But the district didn’t give up on Turner, the son of Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner. He was hired after the felony battery charge was reduced to a misdemeanor and he completed probation on the marijuana possession charge in Texas, which handled the matter as a deferred adjudication, meaning that Turner was left with no conviction.

Nine months after the district determined that Turner could not work because he’d failed a background check, officials reversed the decision and hired him as an assistant coach for the 2008-09 season. Turner’s personnel file shows that the hire was approved by Alexander Ikejiaku, the district’s former human resources who resigned in 2012 after reports that the district hadn’t properly credentialed some teachers, including Jennifer Tyree, a former Lanphier English teacher who is charged with having sexual relations with a student.

The job application Turner filled out asks whether the applicant has ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor other than minor traffic offenses. Turner answered no. In fact, he had been granted court supervision twice after pleading guilty to misdemeanors, but supervision is not considered a conviction in Illinois.

In 2002, Turner pleaded guilty to reckless conduct, a misdemeanor. Turner, according to a police report, had punched someone in the face, then tried to run over four people with a car. He was angry because someone had accused him of stealing a video game system, according to police, who found tire tracks in a yard where Turner had pursued the victims and allegedly struck a person in the knee.

That same year, Turner pleaded guilty to misdemeanor property damage for damaging a door. He was granted supervision and ordered to pay restitution.

In 2006, Turner was charged with marijuana possession, possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of a .44-caliber revolver without a FOID card and possession of ammunition without a FOID card after police found a gun, ammunition and drugs in Turner’s home. Officers had accompanied process servers who were seizing a television set pursuant to court order obtained by Aaron’s, a rent-to-own company that filed a theft report and also sued Turner for not paying for the television.

Springfield police between 2002 and 2005 wrote seven reports documenting alleged domestic violence by Turner, whose alleged misdeeds included intentionally hitting a girlfriend’s car with his vehicle and grabbing a woman by the hair, throwing her to the ground and smashing her cell phone when she told him that he would go to jail. Statements from victims and witnesses were buttressed by scrapes, bruises and other physical evidence. In one case, an ex-girlfriend needed three stitches after Turner punched her in the mouth.

Charges were filed in just one of the domestic incidents, when Turner in 2002 allegedly kicked a woman’s car, punched her, then followed her to a house and resumed the beating in front of bystanders who pulled him off the victim. Charges of domestic battery and property damage were dropped.

Turner’s troubles with women who called police continued even after he applied to work as a Lanphier coach.

In April, 2008, a woman told police that Turner, whom she described as an ex-boyfriend, had poured bleach over clothing and her living room furniture, causing more than $4,000 in damage, when he went to her house to retrieve belongings. The woman wasn’t home at the time – she told police that she left the house with her new boyfriend when Turner called, saying that he was en route. But the woman’s 10-year-old son, who remained behind, said that he woke up while Turner was there and saw him pouring bleach.

In August, 2008, a different woman twice called Springfield police about Turner, her ex-boyfriend. The first time, she told officers that Turner, who was removing possessions from her house, had kicked her front door hard enough to push the door frame out of position. Hours later, the woman again called police. This time, she said, Turner had broken into her home.

The front door had been forced open and pieces of artwork thrown on the floor, with glass from picture frames shattered. Jewelry was missing, as was a set of automobile tires and rims. Police found blood on a doorknob and a handwritten note left on a coffee table:

Keep fucking that white boy. U ain’t shit. I got the tires and I will bring yours. Don’t ever call me again.

“According to the victim, there was little doubt as to (who) broke in and damaged her home,” an officer wrote in a report.

Police collected a sample of the blood found on the doorknob and also took the note as evidence. No charges were filed. One month later, district officials cleared Turner for hiring, and he became an assistant coach.

District officials who hired Turner knew that he owed more than $70,000 in restitution to a man whom Turner admitted hitting with a car in 2007, less than two months before he submitted his job application. At least one witness told police that Turner appeared to have the accelerator floored when he hit James P. Davis, who had intentionally damaged the rented Dodge Charger with a pipe or club.

“(Redacted) stated that the driver of the Charger…quickly backed the vehicle up while stating ‘You fucked up, white boy,’” an officer wrote in a report. “The driver…then began to accelerate rapid (sic) towards James. (Redacted) stated that the vehicle struck James at a high rate of speed while he was standing just north of the sidewalk at the end of his driveway. (Redacted) stated that James was struck with the front of the vehicle (in the center). (Redacted) stated that James was thrown into the air and his head landed on the windshield.”

Turner drove off and was stopped a few blocks away by police, who found hair and blood on the shattered windshield. Officers initially feared that the victim, who ended up in a drug-induced coma, might not survive and suspected that Turner, who had bloodshot eyes and alcohol on his breath, might have been intoxicated.

Afraid that Turner might flee, police decided against taking him out of a patrol car to perform sobriety tests. Police reported that an assistant state’s attorney, Gabriel Grosboll, now an administrative law judge for the Illinois Department of Public Health who is running for circuit judge in Menard County, told officers that they could not get an involuntary blood or urine sample.

“At the time of this decision, early into the investigation, it appeared that Turner was the suspect in a homicide or manslaughter,” an officer wrote in a report. “I asked whether we could obtain a search warrant and Grosboll, while never saying we could not try, felt a judge would not authorize a warrant.”

While Turner was on the phone with his lawyer Rudy Braud, now a Sangamon County associate judge, police called a second assistant state’s attorney, William Vig, who told them that they could force Turner to provide a urine or blood sample, but that never happened.

“Because I had received two conflicting legal opinions, and the nature of the conflict pertained to the proposed use of physical force to obtain a blood/urine sample, I decided to use the first opinion and not seek an involuntary sample,” an officer wrote.

Steven Beckett, a University of Illinois law professor who also practices criminal law, says that police don’t need a warrant to draw blood if they have probable cause to believe a driver is impaired and someone has either died or suffered serious injury.

Grosboll says the case doesn’t stand out.

“It’s seven years ago,” Grosboll said. “I don’t remember this at all.”

John Schmidt, who was state’s attorney from 1999 until 2010 and is now a circuit court judge, also said that he doesn’t recall cases involving Turner. Schmidt said that all defendants were treated equally during his tenure as state’s attorney.

Originally charged with felony battery, Turner in July, 2008 pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor that came with a restitution order for more than $70,000. Less than two months later, he was cleared for hire by the district.

Hill says that Turner’s history with law enforcement wasn’t enough to bar employment.

“There was nothing in the file that would have legally precluded the district from hiring,” the interim superintendent says. “At some point, someone makes a judgment call: Do we risk or do we not risk hiring this person? The judgment call was made by somebody, and I can’t tell you who.”

Hill said that the district sometimes looks at the circuit clerk’s website to determine if a job applicant has a pending case. The district does not look at police reports when deciding whether to hire someone, Hill said, but that practice might change.

“That and a lot of other things will undoubtedly get on our list of should we do this and is it practical to do this,” Hill said. “I want the most information we possibly can get in making decisions. … Let’s make certain that we’ve got all the right processes in place for screening applicants. The last thing we want to do is in any way jeopardize the well-being or safety of the kids in the district by us not properly screening applicants.”

As for Turner, Hill said that there has been no sign of trouble since he became a coach.

“He’s had no problems,” Hill said. “There’s nothing in his job performance that would lead me to say we should take another look at his performance.”

Turner could not be reached for comment. But he told the State Journal-Register in a recent interview that he’s a changed man.

“I’m not perfect,” the coach told the newspaper. “I’ve made mistakes in my past and I have learned from them.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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