Decade of despair boiled over to paranoia

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Bart Ross spent nearly a decade waiting to be heard, living with a face disfigured by cancer surgery, in constant pain, sinking deeper and deeper into a state of paranoia and growing ever more convinced the medical and judicial systems were out to get him.

People saw the frustration boiling up inside him. He went back and forth to the courts claiming the cancer treatment he underwent in the early 1990s destroyed his life, preventing him from working and causing him to pile up debt and sell his home.

Attorneys he approached said his quest for justice consumed him. Neighbors described a reclusive man with no family who routinely walked an intimidating German shepherd mix along the block wearing a three-quarter length military coat. Surveillance cameras monitored his North Side home, and his back yard was hidden by a high fence and overgrown evergreen trees.

The downward spiral of Ross' life ended Wednesdaywhen he shot himself to death during a traffic stop in Wisconsin, leaving a rambling note that claimed responsibility for the murders of a federal judge's husband and mother.

The judge, Joan Humphrey Lefkow, ruled against Ross four times last year and ultimately dismissed his case. In one of his filings, Ross compared attorneys and state and federal judges to "Nazi-style criminals" and wrote that they "are to me terrorists as much as Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda are terrorists to the United States."

Through hundreds of pages of court filings and an array of different letters, one thing is evident: Ross was desperate to have his case heard, and the fact that no one would listen was making him angrier and angrier.

He was repeatedly rebuffed by attorneys telling him his case had no merit. He tried representing himself, but his cases all got dismissed and his appeals failed.

In 1996, he sent a threatening letter to lawmakers in the Illinois House and Senate: "I would like you all to take into consideration and remember, if you conspire and play this game of law and justice against me for too long, you will bring me to the point of hatred toward you."

In 1999, he sent a petition seeking $25 million in damages to, among others, President Bill Clinton, the entire U.S. Congress, Ross Perot and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.

During a hearing in 2003, he accused a judge of committing treason against the United States.

Ross, 57, a Polish immigrant who made a living in Chicago as an electrician, was diagnosed in 1992 with deadly metastatic head and neck cancer. He was treated at the University of Illinois at Chicago Hospital with radiation, but the cancer came back the next year, requiring surgery. Part of Ross' jawbone was removed during the surgery, and his teeth had all been extracted before the radiation treatment.

According to a statement from the hospital released Thursday, Ross "provided full written consent at every step" of the treatment and was declared cancer-free in 1995. Ross filed numerous lawsuits against the hospital, "all of which were dismissed, including the most recent several-hundred-page complaint filed in 2004 alleging federal and state conspiracy to violate his civil rights," the statement read.

In 1996, Ronald S. Scott, a radiation oncologist with the South Coast Tumor Institute in San Diego sought by Ross as a potential expert, wrote a three-page letter saying he had reviewed his medical case and did not see any indication of negligence.

"Indeed, I feel that the treatment you received was technically excellent," Scott wrote. "My concern is your apparent complete lack of acceptance of your condition. I re-emphasize, nothing was done wrong in your treatment."

But Ross remained convinced that the treatment caused him permanent damage. Throughout his court filings, he complained of near-constant pain, writing in 2003 that he was taking morphine, Tylenol with codeine and other pain relievers "24/7 for over a year." He wrote that he could open his mouth only a quarter of an inch, had little control over his lower lip and was unable to "prevent spilling of drinks when drinking and spilling food when eating."

The judges who ruled on Ross' cases were not unsympathetic. Though Lefkow ruled last year that Ross' claims "lack any possible merit," she made note of his "understandably overwhelming frustration" and the tragic turn of events in Ross' life "which have left him physically disfigured, in incessant severe pain and unemployed."

The constant rejection of his claims seemed to feed Ross' conviction that the medical and legal communities were working against him. His case became the focal point of his life, as he abandoned work and sought every judicial avenue possible, including at least two failed attempts to get his case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

According to a federal suit he filed in 2000, Ross "read about 50 medical books" about the treatment of head and neck cancers.

"I can't imagine what this guy's life must have been like. He lived this case," said Barry Bollinger, an attorney who represented the hospital's doctors when Ross filed his malpractice suit in 1995. "He would file literally thousands of pages of documents."

U.S. District Judge David H. Coar heard motions from Ross on several occasions, and he dismissed them each time. He described Ross--who was 5 feet 6 inches tall and about 130 pounds--as a persistent man who became visibly unhappy each time his case was dismissed. But he said Ross was never intimidating.

"He's a very mousy guy," Coar recalled. "Physically he was not imposing and other than being a little slow to leave the courtroom, there was nothing that he did [in threatening fashion]. Sometimes he would, after I told him no, he would stare for a few minutes, just stare. You know how people sometimes when they don't like something, they will leave more deliberately than you ordinarily expect people to leave."

Don Rose, a Chicago political consultant, had known Ross since 1989 when he hired him to do extensive electrical work in his Lincoln Park home. Rose said he watched the man slowly deteriorate over the years from a competent electrician to a person who saw the whole world through the lens of conspiracy theories.

"He got to be paranoid," Rose said. "The more he got turned down by lawyers, the more paranoid he became, and he thought the world was against him."

Rose said Ross came to him about a half-dozen times over the last decade asking for referrals to lawyers, but the lawyers would never take his case. Each time Ross showed up at Rose's home, he had a larger and larger stack of documents that he believed supported his case.

Several years ago, Rose came home and the phone rang. It was Ross, who said, "I'm in my car, can I see you right now, I'm right across the street."

"He waited for me in his car and he asked me for $1,000 to pay for his legal costs," Rose said. "He was becoming a pest. He said he was going to pay me $5,000 at 200 percent interest when he won his case."

Several people who had dealings with Ross said he never gave up his belief that he would eventually win a large cash settlement.

Jessica Salaksana, the daughter of Ross' current landlord, said Ross used to own the home where he lived in the 4500 block of Bernard Street. But he had to sell it, according to court filings, to cover his debts, and he was now leasing the property with an option to buy.

"He was waiting for the lawsuit to pay for [the house]," Salaksana said. "He had told my mother he was expecting like a half-million dollar settlement from the lawsuit. He loved that house. He never left it. He was holding onto the house."

But Ross' lease expired in February and he owed one month's rent, Salaksana said, so her mother began eviction proceedings against him. Ross had apparently abandoned the home within the last month, leaving behind all his belongings and his dog, which Salaksana stopped by to feed regularly.

Salaksana said she was inside the home Wednesday.

"It was really dirty. It smelled bad," she said. "He had the house wired for surveillance. There was a black and white TV in the kitchen with four screens. The basement was a mess. The kitchen was a mess."

Over the years, Ross amassed considerable credit card debt, including, according to court records, $18,106.68 owed to Streamline Capital Partners. Brian Glass, an attorney who represented the company that sued Ross for unpaid bills, said Ross was "completely nuts" and filed long, rambling, nonsensical pleadings.

"He was completely off his rocker," Glass said. "The guy scared me every time. You got that sense that there was just something wrong."

Several neighbors agreed.

Jason Koziara and his wife, Carolyn, live directly behind Ross' home. They said they'd try to say hello to Ross when they saw him but he'd never respond.

The summer before last, Jason Koziara said, they were having a family cookout and Ross walked into their yard uninvited wearing a bathrobe and slippers complaining about someone playing drums too loud.

"He was kind of not right. He was really off and weird," Jason Koziara said. "It's obvious that he wasn't rational."

Tribune staff reporters Trine Tsouderos, Bonnie Miller-Rubin, Tom Rybarcyk, Jamie Francisco, Jon Yates, Matt O'Connor, Judy Peres, Robert Becker, Ray Gibson and Rex W. Huppke contributed.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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