Hopefully you’ve had the chance to check out my Athletic piece on the lawsuit that was filed by a Chicago Fire supporter against the Village of Bridgeview and Chicago Fire President/GM Nelson Rodriguez, among others. It’s a wild ride to be sure. I had the chance to speak with James Vlahakis, the attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Abraham Calderon, for upwards of 90 minutes. It was a very enlightening conversation and helped me understand the motivation behind the litigation, and the issues at play.
I’ve also fully reviewed the complaint (multiple times) along with a substantial amount of evidence, so I figured I’d give everyone my take on what’s really going on here.
Both Vlahakis and his client Calderon are passionate Chicago Fire supporters…or were.
It’s fair to say that that this experience has soured each on the Chicago Fire generally. Though their unhappiness with the Fire dates well before the May 20 incident. Calderon reported issues at a 2017 event, and the Fire’s general ineptness on/off the field and on certainly has added to the strain of the relationship between the front office and fans. As noted in The Athletic story, Vlahakis has been a fairly vocal critic of the Fire, and cancelled his season tickets. His displeasure with the Fire’s on-field performance even made it into the complaint.
Further Vlahakis used to do contract work for the Fire (though was not an employee). In the interests of transparency, it’s important to note those points before we go into depth.
That said, this doesn’t appear to be a “money play” per se.
Granted, I’m giving some benefit of the doubt. But I think this lawsuit comes from a place of “principal” more than greed. And also, some anger at the alleged treatment by Fire personnel, Bridgeview officials, and security employees named in the lawsuit. How so?
- There doesn’t appear to be any evidence of an assault: I’ve looked at all of the video that was provided to The Athletic. It seems to show the entire incident, and there is NO evidence that an officer was assaulted. That flatly contradicts the police narrative, which claims the officer was punched in the back of the head. Just no way that happened based on the video.
- If there is video showing an assault, nobody has seen it, because nobody from Bridgeview or the companies they contract with have seen fit to turn it over. Makes it difficult to prove a charge, when you have video which looks like it exonerates the defendant.
- Vlahakis showed me *numerous* email correspondences with Bridgeview officials, security personnel and the Fire where he made it clear he wasn’t looking for a payday–he just wanted information that could clear his client. This was back in the summer, while his client was still facing a battery charge. Further, the emails show an ongoing resistance from the parties to assist in obtaining the evidence, even after subpoenas were issued.
- Fire officials showed no inclination towards cooperating with the investigation. This I suppose is understandable from the Fire’s perspective, but appears particularly egregious in hindsight. If Calderon is “actually innocent” (and I mean, the case was dismissed not on a technicality, but because he didn’t actually do what he is alleged to have done), then why were the Fire so adamant about not providing names of witnesses and turning over video evidence? The only answers are that they were a) participating in an attempt to railroad an innocent man, b) they were worried about a lawsuit, c) they are sociopaths who enjoy leaving a man falsely charged with a crime to hang, d) they wanted to make an example out of Calderon based on the ongoing issues with Sector Latino. None of those options paint the Fire in a particularly good light.
- On that note, the Fire’s outside counsel was particularly unhelpful in this regard, not only downplaying the role of personnel at the incident, or turn over video from the incident, but also having a seeming indifferent to the plight of a person who was exonerated of a crime. “I represent the Fire not the Village or the MLS. I am not here to help you identify every non-Fire person you want to learn about. To be blunt, that is your job. “
- Vlahakis definitely believes there is a conspiracy of some sort. The complaint mentions that correspondences between the defendants dried up as this case went further along, which Vlahakis believes was for the purpose of scapegoating Mr. Calderon and not leaving a “paper trail,” as it were.
- Vlahakis argues that Rodriguez refused to rescind the ban, even in light of the cellphone footage, which appears to exonerate Calderon of any battery, and still refuses to lift the ban after the charges were dismissed.
The two officers are up against it.
The role the two security guards/Bridgeview officers played in this incident is…not good for them, and they likely have the most legal exposure. Simply put: The police narrative does not match up with the video. They’re going to have a hard time explaining that away, to say nothing about why they along with their attorney were so adamant about pursuing this case for six months. Perhaps they didn’t know the video existed (though it looks like everyone and their mother were filming, as evidenced by the fact that Fire officials were on scene with their iPhones), but of course that’s not really an excuse.
This all probably could have been resolved with a rescinding of the ban and an apology.
For reasons which escape me, this thing was allowed to escalate far further than it likely needed to be. Granted, there is a lot of upheaval going on with the Fire, but not intervening in the apparent wrongful prosecution of an innocent man is a terrible look from a PR perspective (to say nothing of doing the right thing). That said, Vlahakis let it be known that as far as the Fire and Rodriguez are concerned, this could have been squashed by vacating the ban at the start. Or at least when it became clear that the video did not support a charge of assault.
Expect both sides to dig in.
I don’t see anything that would lead me to believe that the Fire will resolve this case. The relationship between the supporters groups and the front office appears irreconcilable at this point, but perhaps cooler heads will prevail in the future, for the sake of the Fire business. It’s no secret they are the most “troubled” team in MLS at the moment, and with a nigh unbreakable lease, it’s tough to see how that changes in the near term.
The likelihood of success of the lawsuit is unclear.
Mainly, I need to do some additional research on the federal claims. The state claims have a much higher likelihood of success, especially given that the criminal charge was dismissed. The conspiracy charge is an interesting one that I’ll be looking into. The civil rights violations are probably the most difficult to provide for me, at least upon initial review. I’ll go into this in a separate post after I’ve had time to research.
I don’t know where the Fire go from here.
It seems to be all bad, all the time for the franchise that won MLS cup in their first year, and it’s arguably been downhill from there. Look out for another Athletic story this week on the issues with the supporters’ groups and the front office. The team itself can’t keep people from retiring in the mid-20s, and their roster…needs a lot of work. I’ve talked about their lease ad nauseam, so there isn’t much more to say. We’ll see what the year has in store for them going forward, but right now, it’s just one blow after another. I’ll have more on this as the lawsuit moves along, including a podcast shortly.