Column: Dolton worker caught up in political turmoil says he was demonized – Chicago Tribune

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Lavelle Redmond shared a cautionary tale about how volunteering to do campaign work for Dolton Mayor Tiffany Henyard upended his life.

Redmond worked as a code enforcement officer for the village until Wednesday, when he was fired. He lost his job apparently because he talked to me. His hiring last year triggered a firestorm of controversy because of his status as a registered sex offender.

“Mr. Redmond is no longer employed by the village of Dolton,” village administrator Keith Freeman said in a statement Wednesday after I reached out to offer Henyard the chance to respond to Redmond’s story.

Freeman’s statement contradicted Redmond’s claim that the mayor knew about his past.

“Mayor Henyard was unaware of his criminal background upon his initial hiring,” Freeman said. “Upon learning of that background, the village initially opted to include him in the Second Chance Program, which aims to create new pathways to employment for formerly incarcerated members of the community. Mr. Redmond’s hiring was unrelated to any external or previous volunteer work.”

Redmond described the circumstances of the crime for which he served 24 years in prison. He explained his role in the political ascent of Henyard, who is also Thornton Township supervisor. Redmond’s story offered insight about the sometimes blurred lines between campaign work and government employment.

“My life has been flipped completely upside down for trying to be loyal to Tiffany,” he said. “I felt like she was setting me up for failure. I was supposed to tell my side of the story to the press after the Fox News report. I never got a chance to do that.”

Fox 32 Chicago in October revealed Redmond’s employment with the village. A TV reporter visited Dolton Village Hall and shared the news with residents who said they were terrified that a sex offender might inspect their homes.

“I was demonized,” Redmond said. “A lot of people who were loyal to her from the start are being thrown under the bus.”

Redmond said he has experienced homelessness while working for the village.

“It’s hard to find housing,” he said. “It will be hard to find another job.”

He said he realized publicly criticizing Henyard might cost him his job, but he wanted to clear his name.

“I feel like my story needs to be told, in truth and in detail,” Redmond said.

His saga began in late 2020 when Redmond was living in Chicago, he said. He regularly visited his mother and met a man who helped carry her groceries. He questioned him, he said, and concluded he was a good Samaritan helping out.

The man said Henyard, his cousin, was running for mayor in Dolton. The primary election was a dirty race between Henyard and the incumbent, Riley Rogers. Henyard said she was subjected to death threats, bullying and other intimidation.

“He would try to get me to go out to Dolton and I was like, ‘No, I don’t want to deal with politics and none of that type of nonsense,’” Redmond said.

Mayor Tiffany Henyard’s name adorns the exterior of a newly renovated Dolton Village Hall. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown)

Redmond relented and drove out to Dolton to meet Henyard and show thanks for how her cousin helped his mother, he said.

“When I saw her she had these big, doughy eyes,” Redmond said. “I just couldn’t say no to her. She asked if I came out to campaign for her. I didn’t want to say no. That same night I ended up going door to door passing out campaign literature.”

Redmond’s account is consistent with others who have described Henyard as a savvy political candidate who falls short as a public servant. Henyard can win over skeptics with big smiles, but at public meetings she can be ruthlessly combative with foes.

Redmond said he worked the town for weeks. He passing out literature and helped Henyard defeat Rogers in the February 2021 municipal primary.

“She had nobody that would get off their couch at home and campaign for her,” he said. “I believed in her movement. I wanted to be part of something positive, despite not being paid.”

Campaign funds were scarce. Henyard knew how to leverage connections, however. Former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas donated $5,000 because he formerly mentored one of the trustee candidates on her “dream team” slate. Former Gov. Pat Quinn told me he introduced Henyard to President Barack Obama when Air Force One landed at O’Hare.

Redmond’s volunteer campaign work paid off when Henyard won the primary and went on to easily win the April 2021 mayoral election. Henyard wanted to show thanks by putting Redmond on her security detail, he said. But there was a problem with that plan.

Redmond, 47, was released from prison in 2018 after serving 24 years for aggravated criminal sexual assault with a weapon. As a felon, he cannot carry a firearm. Redmond said he told Henyard that his background could damage her political career.

He was 17 in 1992 when he was sentenced to 50 years in prison for his role in the brutal gang rape that occurred when he and three friends abducted two Roseland girls at gunpoint and forced them into an abandoned garage in March 1991, when he was 16.

“Although it was over 30 years ago and I was a child at the time, I knew that potentially it could come back to harm her,” he said.

Redmond said he told Henyard and her campaign manager that he did not rape the girls.

“I told them I really wasn’t guilty of the crime I went to prison for, yet I was there,” he said. “I accompanied the other boys and an uncle of the boys but I wasn’t guilty of any sexual violations. It was just that I could not fight the case.”

Redmond said at the time he was a slow learner who was unable to defend himself.

“The judicial system makes examples of people who either can’t think for themselves or can’t find any proper legal representation,” he said. “You will become just another casualty of a broken judicial system. It happened to me and hundreds of thousands of boys who came after me.”

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As a registered sex offender, Redmond said he checks in with authorities every week and any time he changes his residency or employment situations. He said he tried to warn Henyard that giving him a job was a bad idea, but she insisted, he said.

“She was vivacious, aggressive and probably a little naive at the same time,” he said.

Redmond’s employment formed the basis for one of three lawsuits the board majority has filed against Henyard. The suit accused Henyard of violating a village ordinance that requires background checks for new hires.

Redmond, who declined to be photographed, said he regrets getting mixed up with Dolton politics. He campaigned for all the candidates on Henyard’s “dream team” slate, and feels as if now some of them are using him to score political points against Henyard.

“I campaigned day and night for all of them,” he said.

Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.

tslowik@tribpub.com

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August 3, 2022 at 06:20PM

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