JOLIET – As the trial opened against a Steger man accused of killing his girlfriend’s son in a drunken driving crash last spring, his attorneys focused their attention Monday on another man they say set the sad scenario in motion.
It was Chicago Heights Officer Chris Felicetti who stopped the young boy’s mother, Kathie LaFond, arrested her and forced her drunk boyfriend to drive, defense attorneys said.
That fatal decision led to the death of young Michael Langford Jr., who was sleeping in the back seat when Cecil Conner crashed into a tree.
“The evidence will show that Officer Felicetti set into play a circumstance that resulted in the death of Michael Langford,” Conner’s attorney Jeff Tomczak said during opening statements. “Kathie knows who caused this accident, and the evidence will show it’s not him,” he said, reaching back toward Conner.
Conner faces two counts of aggravated driving under the influence stemming from the May 10 crash along 34th Street near Carpenter Street that killed LaFond’s son, who was strapped into a booster chair in the backseat.
“Cecil Conner was drinking with the understanding he had a designated driver to take him where he needed to go,” Tomczak said.
LaFond had been driving Conner home from a party. But Felicetti stopped her at about 2:35 a.m. and arrested her on suspicion of driving with a suspended driver’s license. Felicetti ignored her efforts to tell him she was the designated driver and handed Conner the keys, threatening to arrest him if he didn’t take Michael home, Tomczak said.
Conner then called a friend for help, but the call dropped before he could tell her where he was.
Prosecution’s opening arguments
Assistant State’s Attorney Alyson DeBell summed up her case in just five minutes: Conner was drunk and at the wheel. He was speeding, driving more than twice the speed limit. He smashed the back end of the car so hard into a tree that it knocked off the bark.
“What about the little boy, Michael, trapped in his booster seat in the back of the car? Michael never took another breath,” she told jurors.
“It was the defendant alone who crashed the car due to intoxication and alone caused the death of 5-year-old Michael Langford,” DeBell concluded, the only time she looked away from the jury and back at Conner.
Conner sat in a neat blue striped suit and matching tie, keeping quiet as a Steger patrol sergeant and Steger firefighters told jurors that Conner had only focused on Michael’s condition and care in the moments after the crash.
The 23-year-old defendant choked up a little during testimony by a Steger paramedic who kept treating little Michael even though he knew the child was already dead.
Steger Fire Capt. James Baine said he was spurred on by two words uttered by his partner: “He’s 5.”
“We just continued CPR. We couldn’t get anything,” Baine said.
Conner’s attorneys said they do not yet know whether he will testify in his own defense.
LaFond, who has been subpoenaed by prosecutors, also appeared at the Will County Courthouse on Monday morning. She was accompanied by the attorney representing her in a civil lawsuit against the Chicago Heights police department, Felicetti and Conner. Her testimony is expected later during the trial.
She blames Felicetti — not Conner — for her son’s death.
“It’s the cop that should be charged with it and not my boyfriend,” she said outside the courthouse. “I lost my kid because of that cop.”
The night of the crash, the impact of LaFond’s Cavalier against a tree awoke a Steger homeowner who thought the giant evergreen toppled into his home. Daniel Hollingshead dialed 911, threw on clothes and ran out to find, amid the wreckage, a driver calling out for help for a child.
Broken glass and chunks of bark littered the driveway; tire marks scarred two lawns except for a spot where the Cavalier may have been airborne, Hollingshead said.
He talked to the driver of the Cavalier, stuck on top of the uprooted evergreen, then turned his attention to the little boy in the back.
“Once I heard there was a kid in the car, that was the main thing I was worried about,” he said. “The child was unconscious and bleeding and in pretty bad shape.”
Testimony for the state continues today in Judge Edward Burmila’s courtroom.