Already garnering unwelcome attention for its spiraling gun violence, Chicago was thrust into the national media spotlight Thursday as hate crime charges were filed against four kidnapping suspects accused of broadcasting a live Facebook video of their attack on a mentally disabled man while yelling obscenities about
The racially charged video showing the assailants cutting the 18-year-old victim's scalp with a knife, punching and kicking him and laughing as they repeatedly forced his head into a toilet, was aired on news stations worldwide and prompted strong reaction from political leaders of every stripe.
It also marked a shocking level of brazenness even at a time when smartphones can be used like satellite feeds. While criminal investigations have increasingly included evidence from social media posts, live broadcasting a crime in progress is exceedingly rare — let alone an allegedly racially motivated attack.
"I can't understand why anybody put anything on Facebook," Near North Area Commander Kevin Duffin said when asked about the video at an afternoon news conference at
President Barack Obama called the news from his hometown "despicable" and said the Internet has exposed long simmering racial tensions.
"What we have seen as surfacing, I think, are a lot of problems that have been there a long time," Obama told Chicago's WBBM-TV Ch. 2 in a prearranged interview in Washington. "Whether it's tensions between police and communities, (or) hate crimes of the despicable sort that has just now recently surfaced on Facebook."
Charged in the attack were
The four — who are all African-American — were each charged with aggravated kidnapping, hate crime, aggravated unlawful restraint and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, according to police. Hill also was charged with robbery, possession of a stolen motor vehicle and residential burglary, while both Covingtons were charged with residential burglary, police said.
Police said all four have given statements admitting to their roles in the alleged attack. They're scheduled to appear for a bond hearing Friday at the Leighton Criminal Court Building.
Late Thursday, David Boyd, who identified himself as the victim's brother-in-law, said in a brief statement to reporters that the family was grateful for "all the prayers and efforts" that led to his safe return.
"He's doing well, as well as he could be at this time," Boyd said. He said "everyone has seen the video" but declined to comment on what he thought of it.
"We appreciate all the support from everyone," Boyd said, adding they were focused on "trying to stick together as a family."
Police said the victim, who is white, was found walking with Hill in the 3400 block of West Lexington Street about 5:15 p.m. Tuesday. The victim appeared "injured" and "confused" and was wearing little clothing despite the freezing temperatures, police said.
"I observed him wearing a tank top, inside-out, backwards, jean shorts and sandals on," Harrison District Officer Michael Donnelly said at the news conference. "He was bloodied. He was battered. He was very discombobulated."
Police ran his name and discovered he'd been reported missing Monday by his parents, who said he disappeared after they dropped him off at a McDonald's in suburban Streamwood to meet up with Hill on Saturday. Police said Hill knew the victim because they had attended the same school in Aurora.
According to police, Hill had stolen a van in Streamwood before picking up the victim and passed it off as his own. He and the victim then drove to Chicago's West Side, visiting with friends for two days. The victim slept in the van before being brought to the Covington sisters' apartment on West Lexington on Tuesday, police said.
Hours into the visit, the victim and Hill got into a "play fight" that got out of hand, police said. The sisters got angry and tied the victim up, according to police.
"That's when the attack begins," said Duffin, the police commander.
The chilling Facebook video shows the victim crouched in a corner and mostly motionless with an expression of fear on his face. His mouth is taped shut and his hands and feet appear to be bound with orange electrical tape.
The 28-minute video is recorded by and focuses mostly on the face of Brittany Covington, who smokes what appears to be a blunt — a cigar emptied and stuffed with marijuana — while narrating some of the action. Liquor bottles appear to be sitting on a windowsill of the sparsely decorated apartment, along with a crumpled bag of chips.
As the group laughs and music plays in the background, Covington pans from her face to the victim and back. The two men can be seen cutting the victim's shirt with knives, then taking turns punching him and kicking his head. One of the men cuts the victim's hair and scalp with a knife, and the victim's head appears to be bleeding. Later, they pretend to tap ashes in the wound while Covington laughs.
As the attack continues, someone off camera shouts "F--- Donald Trump" and "F--- white people." About 15 minutes into the video, one of the men says the victim "represents Trump," and threatens to put him in the trunk of a car and "put a brick on the gas."
A later clip shows the victim kneeling over a toilet while his assailants force his head into the water and order him to drink.
At one point in the video, Covington can be heard telling the rest of the group that her little sister doesn't "think it's funny." She also expresses mock disappointment in the attention the live feed is getting on Facebook.
"Y'all ain't even commenting on my s---, man!" she says into the camera.
Duffin said police believe the victim was tied up for four or five hours. He said the attackers became distracted after a downstairs neighbor complained about the noise and threatened to call 911, prompting a confrontation.
"They booted her door and they actually grabbed something on their way out," Duffin said.
During their absence, the victim managed to leave the apartment and was later found wandering the street with Hill.
After discovering he had been reported missing by his parents on Sunday, police took the victim to a hospital and reunited him with his family. About the same time, officers found signs of a struggle and property damage at the apartment on West Lexington that they linked to the attack, according to police.
Streamwood police, meanwhile, said the victim's parents had reported getting text messages from someone claiming to be holding their son captive. As Streamwood officers investigated the texts, they discovered the Facebook video.
Before the charges were announced Thursday, the video had became a national rallying cry for conservative pundits who tried to pin the blame for the attack on the Black Lives Matters movement. Debate also raged on social media and cable news stations about whether the police would consider the black-on-white assault a hate crime.
"If this had been done to an African-American by four whites, every liberal in the country would be outraged, and there'd be no question but that it's a hate crime," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Thursday on
"Let me be very clear, the actions in that video are reprehensible," Johnson said. "That, along with racism, have absolutely no place in the city of Chicago. Or anywhere else for that matter."
At a separate event Thursday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the acts on the video "sickening," adding that anyone who views it is "sickened by it."
He declined further comment, citing the criminal charges, but also said "there is more to our city than that."
Records show that the two sisters have previous arrests but only Tanishia Covington has been convicted, and of only one misdemeanor. She was arrested in the 1300 block of West Touhy Avenue on March 26 while riding in a car that had been reported stolen, records show. She pleaded guilty in April to misdemeanor criminal trespass to a vehicle and was sentenced to a year of court supervision.
While the other charges filed against the four defendants Thursday have much more serious consequences — aggravated battery with a deadly weapon carries up to 15 years behind bars — it was the hate crime count that garnered the most attention.
Illinois' law, passed in 1991, states that a hate crime is committed if the offender launches an attack "by reason of" the person's race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality or physical or mental disability. A first-time offense is punishable by one to three years in prison, with probation also an option. Under the law, a judge can also consider the hate crime component after conviction on other counts to enhance whatever sentence is given.
A spokeswoman for the Cook County state's attorney's office said Thursday the office did not have updated figures available for how many hate crime prosecutions it has brought in recent years. The office told the Tribune in 2014 that it had brought 44 cases in the previous three years.
Most hate crime cases escape public notice, but several have made recent headlines. Last summer, a Cook County judge acquitted an Edgewater man of a hate crime and all other charges in an alleged attack on an elderly African-American judge outside the Daley Center. David Nicosia had been accused of spitting on and slapping the jurist and calling her "Rosa Parks" after becoming annoyed with her cigarette smoke.
In November, two former Northwestern University students pleaded guilty to reduced misdemeanor charges after spray painting racist and homophobic slurs along with the word "Trump" in a campus chapel. The former freshmen, one of whom is the son of the Massachusetts Appeals Court's chief justice, had been charged with a felony hate crime.
There have also been felony convictions. Norwood Park resident Tom Diamond was found guilty by a judge of a hate crime and sentenced to a year in prison for yelling racial slurs at an African-American woman walking by his porch in 2013. According to the woman's testimony, Diamond threatened to kill, rape and hang her from a tree if he saw her in his neighborhood again.
In 2014, Terry Glover pleaded guilty to hate crime and aggravated battery charges after taking part in the beating of a lesbian couple walking home from a West Side liquor store, according to court records.
Josh Kutnick, a longtime criminal-defense attorney who has represented several people charged in Cook County with hate crimes, said such cases are often difficult for prosecutors to prove.
"It's hard to prove that something was done 'by reason of,'" Kutnick said. "No one ever says, 'I'm pounding on you because you are black,' or, 'I'm pounding on you because you are gay.'"
Chicago Tribune's Nereida Moreno, Grace Wong, Tony Briscoe, Robert McCoppin, Kim Janssen and Hal Dardick contributed.