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Slayings in Judge’s Home May Be Solved

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Times Staff Writers

An unemployed electrician who shot himself to death during a traffic stop outside Milwaukee was linked Thursday by DNA traces and suicide notes to the slayings of a federal judge’s relatives.

Chicago Police Supt. Philip J. Cline said that Bart Allan Ross claimed to have targeted U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow after she ruled against him in a lawsuit over his cancer treatment. On Feb. 28, Lefkow’s husband and mother were shot to death in their north side Chicago home.

“We’re satisfied that there is information ... that points to his having been in the Lefkows’ house” the day of the killings, Cline said.

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Late Thursday night, spokesman Matthew Jackson said that Illinois State Police forensics examiners had linked genetic material found on a cigarette butt at the Lefkow crime scene to Ross’ DNA.

“You can extrapolate from that,” said Officer John Mirabelli, a Chicago police spokesman. “The connection was made. This is one piece of the puzzle. The investigation continues.”

For the last week, law enforcement officials had been looking into whether the slayings were the work of white supremacists angry over another Lefkow ruling.

But police and federal authorities said that details in the letters linked Ross to the slayings. According to reports in Chicago newspapers, investigators recovered a box of several hundred .22-caliber shells similar to spent casings found in the Lefkow house. The shells and the suicide weapon were being analyzed by forensics experts, Cline said.

Ross, 57, killed himself inside his minivan Wednesday night in West Allis, Wis., as a policeman approached after observing Ross driving erratically near a school.

“When you read this, I should be dead, so I am writing in the past tense,” Ross said in one passage of a rambling note that arrived Thursday in the mail at an NBC television affiliate in Chicago. “I was on my way to Justice.”

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In debt, threatened with eviction and armed with several handguns, Ross wrote that he had been on the road in recent weeks, living out of his weather-beaten Plymouth minivan and plotting vengeance.

“When I got numb enough to care about nothing, I finally did it,” he wrote.

Last fall, Lefkow had dismissed Ross’ billion-dollar lawsuit, which alleged that a group of doctors had marred his face and throat during radiation treatments for cancer.

According to West Allis Police Chief Dean Puschnig, a local officer saw Ross “writing something down in his vehicle” moments before the officer heard a gun blast.

“I thought for sure he was coming out of the van at me,” said Police Officer Ricky Orlowski Jr.

Ross had shot himself in the head. Inside the van, investigators found “some material that led us to believe this man might have a connection to the Lefkow homicide,” Puschnig said.

According to media reports, the evidence included munitions and a suicide note similar to the one received at the TV affiliate. The documents also reportedly included a hit list of other judges who had angered Ross, including five members of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals who had upheld Lefkow’s ruling.

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In his hand-scrawled letter to the NBC station, Ross said that he broke into the Lefkow home and hid in a utility room, waiting for the judge with a “.22 with a noise reducer relatively quiet and effective.” Ross wrote that he shot the judge’s husband, Michael F. Lefkow, 64, and mother, Donna Humphrey, 89, when they discovered his hiding place. Then he fled.

“I regret killing husband and mother of Judge Lefkow as much as I regret that I have to die for the simple reason that they personally did to me no wrong,” Ross wrote in the note to WMAQ.

The note described Ross breaking into the Lefkow home at 4:30 a.m. and hiding in a utility room. His plan was to “spend all day there and in the evening, ‘to get’ Judge Lefkow and then others, whoever I could get.”

But when Michael Lefkow found him in the utility room about 9 a.m., Ross wrote, “I had no choice but to shoot him.” “Then I heard a voice, ‘Michael, Michael,’ so I looked to the hallway and saw an older woman.”

It was Humphrey. “I had to shoot her, too. I followed with a second shot to the head in both cases to minimize their suffering,” Ross wrote. Ross said he later stalked the homes of another judge and one of the doctors he had sued.

During a news conference Thursday at Chicago police headquarters, officials said there was no evidence suggesting that Ross had accomplices or any ties to the white supremacist group that had been the focus of the homicide investigation in recent days.

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The group’s leader, Matthew Hale, was convicted last year of soliciting Judge Lefkow’s murder; he is due to be sentenced next month.

In a 2002 trademark infringement case, Lefkow initially sided with Hale. But after an appeals court reversed her ruling, she ordered Hale and his group to stop using the name World Church of the Creator on his website and in printed material.

After a campaign of intimidation -- in which the judge’s personal information and family photographs were posted on racist websites -- Hale, 33, was convicted of soliciting her murder.

Police and FBI agents questioned Hale, his relatives and supporters about the Lefkow slayings.

As federal agents, Chicago detectives and forensic experts in blue antiseptic suits rummaged through Ross’ north side home Thursday, Cline and other members of the Lefkow task force said they were not ready to identify him as the presumed killer.

“This case is by no means closed,” Cline said. But the disclosure late Thursday of the DNA link left only ballistics tests on Ross’ gun and bullets to be completed. Cline also said Ross appeared to be the older man whose face was released on a composite police sketch last week.

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Thursday’s developments clearly diverted the task force’s focus from the extremists.

In a telephone interview from her East Peoria, Ill., home Thursday, Hale’s mother, Evelyn Hutcheson, said that police owed her son “a great big apology for raking him over the coals.”

Ross appeared to have closely followed news coverage of the killings, and even made a reference to the government’s focus on extremists. “Judge Lefkow, to her neighbors, is a church-going angel,” he wrote. “To me, Judge Lefkow is a Nazi-style criminal and terrorist.”

In the neighborhood where Ross had lived alone for nearly two decades, neighbors had trouble imagining him as a killer.

Carolyn Skibba, 32, described him as “one of those quiet, keep-to-yourself kind of people. Very anonymous.” When she tried to chat with him, “he wouldn’t say ‘Hi’ back. It seemed like he was kind of scruffy and quiet.”

Other neighbors said they had seen Ross as recently as last month wearing a neck brace while walking his dog. They added that Ross seemed to have vanished in recent weeks.

“He was having difficulties because he couldn’t work any longer with his condition,” said Nancy Adkins, who lived across the street from Ross’ gray, wood-frame house. “Poor man; I haven’t seen him or his dog in awhile.”

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A Polish immigrant, Ross came to the U.S. in 1982 and changed his name from Bartlomiej Ciszewski.

Acting as his own lawyer in the cancer treatment lawsuit, Ross swamped attorneys, state and federal courts and even the U.S. Supreme Court with hundreds of pages of legal boilerplate and barely contained rage.

He described a cross-country odyssey, traveling from Corpus Christi, Texas, to New York, in an attempt to find physicians to support his complaints against specialists at the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus. He furnished a grisly set of black-and-white photographs showing his ravaged face -- a gash of a mouth, a disfigured jaw and chin that he claimed were the result of “fraudulently concealed” radiation treatments.

Acknowledging that Ross “faced a grave diagnosis of metastatic head and neck cancer” in 1992, UIC officials said Thursday that he had been “fully informed of the risks, benefits and alternate treatment options at all stages of his care” and that he was “cancer-free in 1995 when he was last seen.”

In one legal reply, doctors claimed that Ross was an alcoholic and that he smoked two packs of cigarettes a day.

A Cook County judge, a federal judge and then Lefkow all rejected Ross’ arguments as unfounded.

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In his note to the TV station, Ross said Lefkow “finished me off and deprived me to live my life through outrageous abuse of judicial power.” Expressing outrage over the targeting of her family, Lefkow has vowed to return to the bench.

Don Rose, a veteran Chicago political consultant, said that he and a housemate had hired Ross as an electrical contractor in recent years and aided him briefly in his effort to find a lawyer. But Rose said the attorneys Ross contacted declined to take on his case because they thought it had no merit.

Ross told Rose that he had been treated with radioactive seed implants. “Apparently there was a lot of degeneration,” Rose recalled, “which he attributed to some sort of improper use of the seeds.”

Ross turned up repeatedly at Rose’s home with bulky case files, “asking for more lawyers or imploring me to reapproach them,” Rose said. Out of work and exhausting his resources, Rose said, Ross asked for handouts -- requests that Adkins and other neighbors recounted Thursday.

Rose said that when Ross asked to borrow money, he promised to “return it many times over when he won his case.”

But there were never any wins.

The final loss came Sept. 16. The terse one-page rejection by Lefkow found no merit in any of Ross’ arguments.

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“Case is hereby dismissed with prejudice,” she wrote, “for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.”

*

Simon reported from Chicago and Braun from Washington. Times researchers John Beckham, Lianne Hart and Nona Yates contributed to this report.

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