Crusader Fights Crime with Law Degree and Attitude
Less than a year out of law school, Peorian strives to clean up the neighbourhoods
Peoria Journal Star/1995-03-12
By Wes Smith
PEORIA -- Lillian Knight says she was having "weird thoughts." The sort of thoughts you'd not expect from the wife of a retired cop. Thoughts about staging a demonstration. Thoughts about blowing up the house across the street. Lillian-as-vigilante kinds of thoughts.
"I was afraid I'd get violent," Knight confessed. "I thought if they have the guts to put a 72-year-old woman in prison, go ahead. I'd plead insanity because it was driving me insane."
The inspiration for Knight's uncharacteristic visions of violence was a small, gray-and- black, wood-frame house in the working-class North Side neighborhood where she and her family have lived for 43 years.
The house across the street had become a crack house.
In most cities, residents look to local law enforcement and elected leaders for help in fighting neighborhood crime. Peorians have the usual array of overburdened crime-fighters, and they also have a secret weapon: a young lawyer with an attitude.
While waiting to be officially sanctioned to practice law early this winter, Peter "Chase" Ingersoll, 25, a May 1994 graduate of the University of Illinois Law School, went with a friend to a meeting of North Side Peoria residents.
"I'm just there killing time, waiting to be admitted to the bar, and I hear all these little old ladies complaining about prostitutes and pimps and drug dealers, and I finally stand up and say, `Gee, why don't we sue 'em?' "They all turn around and look at me and say, `Can we do that?' "And I say, `I don't see why not.' " An unusual day in court Several weeks later, on Feb. 22, a Peoria County sheriff's deputy led four bewildered jail inmates into the courtroom of Circuit Judge Joseph Vespa. The judge patiently tried to explain to the four defendants that this was a hearing on a civil matter, not the usual criminal stuff.
The defendants didn't seem to readily grasp that concept, so the amused judge pointed a finger at the lanky, square- jawed rookie attorney seated before him in a woefully mismatched suit purchased at a secondhand store for $5. "This guy is trying to clean up the neighborhood, and you got caught up in the sweep," Vespa explained. "He is suing to get you out of there. He is suing you for money. He is suing you for your furniture and everything else."
The expressions on the faces of the four defendants changed from befuddlement to incredulity. When they were informed of the monetary award being sought, they snickered aloud.
"I'm suing you for a million dollars," declared Ingersoll, on behalf of Peoria residents.
The preliminary hearing in Ingersoll's million-dollar civil lawsuit on behalf of North Side Peorians ended with the young lawyer delivering a courtroom sermon that betrayed his churchgoing upbringing.
Young, bright and full of vinegar, he has been a lawyer only a few months but has already sued the city and its police department, taken on street gangs and their crack houses, and tried to garnish the wages of a local car salesman for the rest of his life because he hit on a hooker in a Peoria neighborhood.
What really puzzles the local legal establishment is that Ingersoll isn't getting paid for any of the half-dozen lawsuits he has brought. In fact, he's paying court costs out of his own shallow pockets.
Is he in it for the glory then? No, say the few people who know him well -- Ingersoll has always just had an attitude.
His high school teachers recall that he questioned everything, including their ability to teach him anything. Former schoolmates refer to him as a "legendary figure" who accepted nothing as law, even in law school. Family members advise the world to stand back.
"I hate to say it, but every one of my children seems to be born for controversy, excitement and intensity," said his father, Lewis Ingersoll.
Chase is the firstborn of seven children in a family that looks for all the world like some blueblood brood. But their contrary ways are rooted in a background of material poverty and intellectual striving.
Children of God
The oldest son spent the first four years of his life roaming the United States and Europe under the communal supervision of the now-defunct Children of God religious cult. His father, then known as Brother Abel, was the cult's official spokesman. His mother, known as Raheal, was personal secretary to cult leader Moses David, whose real name was David Berg.
Founded in the late 1960s in California, the spiritual hippie commune fell into controversy over the next two decades for its practice of soliciting new members by "flirty fishing," a form of sexual evangelism.
Chase said one of his earliest memories of the group was seeing a racy recruitment brochure. His father, who now sells printing services for a small company in Astoria, said that he and his wife, now divorced, left the cult for a conservative religious commune in rural Illinois before the "flirty fishing" started in earnest.
Nearly 12 years ago, the Ingersolls moved to Tiskilwa, a village of 850 people 50 miles north of Peoria. There they affiliated with a communal Christian group, the Plow Creek Fellowship, and raised their children in a ramshackle farmhouse in an atmosphere that emphasized mental challenge above material possessions.
Lewis Ingersoll kept his family in "intentional poverty," he said. "I've always been more interested in family than career. I still live paycheck to paycheck, but I consider myself to be the richest man in the world -- and if you see my kids you'll see why I feel that way."
The four oldest Ingersoll children have all excelled in school. In addition to Chase -- who graduated from high school and Bradley University in just six years -- the next son, Sam, graduated from Yale University. The only daughter, Hope, is at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and son Adam is attending the University of Southern California.
Although academic overachievers, the Ingersoll children often were taunted for their shabby clothing and rundown house. As the oldest, Chase took the brunt of it, and it left him with an attitude. Sam Ingersoll credits his older brother with having a "brilliant mind," a passion for the underdog and great determination.
"I remember a time when (Chase) and I were digging through a dumpster for food and suddenly boxes of grapes were dumped on us," Sam recalled. "I panicked and said, `What do we do? ' And he said, `Shut up and eat the grapes. ' "He has always made do with the resources he had, and he has always identified with people who get pushed around. He knows what it is like to not have any power like the people in those neighborhoods in Peoria. And now that he has some tools (as a lawyer), he is using them, and I am sure that is part of the spirit that drives him."
After attending his first meeting with residents concerned about crime in their neighborhoods, Ingersoll looked to his law books for a way to help them. In his research, he came upon a 1957 state statute, the Controlled Substance and Cannabis Nuisance Act, designed to help close down houses of prostitution.
When he found the old statute, he thought it might be applied to crack houses. But he didn't realize it was already a favorite weapon of law enforcement officials in the Chicago area until he was referred to Wilbur Crooks of the Cook County state's attorney's narcotics abatement unit.
Crooks has been using the law to crack down on crack houses for about five years. "It is one of our primary weapons," said Crooks. "We use it as a unit of the state's attorney's office, but nothing precludes a private citizens' group from doing it."
Commonly referred to as a nuisance-abatement law, the act allows police to board up properties whose owners allow illicit activities. It also empowers residents to sue landlords and tenants who disrupt their neighborhoods.
In the Chicago area, the nuisance law is wielded by law enforcement officials, but in Peoria it's Ingersoll using it against the bad guys.
A `Wyatt Earp' lawyer
"Chase is kind of like the Wyatt Earp of the lawyer set," said Carrie Alms, whose neighborhood has benefited from what one local judge described as Ingersoll's "one-man war on drugs."
Some lawyers praise Ingersoll as a "breath of fresh air" in Peoria's legal community, but he has not exactly been embraced by the establishment.
"Mr. Ingersoll strikes me as a ready-fire-aim type of person," said Peoria County State's Attorney Kevin Lyons, a tough-minded prosecutor who has not taken kindly to the righteous young lawyer's trampling on his turf.
Ingersoll has criticized Lyons for not following his lead in using the nuisance law to chase crack dealers from Peoria neighborhoods.
"The resources are very thin, but we apply them as we are able to," Lyons said. "I think that the approach of law enforcement is to cut out the roots, not simply darken the windows of their homes. Taking away the house they rented in October does not mean they will be out of business in November."
Although some street cops envy the freedom with which he operates, Ingersoll ticked off Peoria police officials when he sued their department after he was refused permission to review daily arrest reports in his search for crack-house landlords and tenants to sue.
The police backed down and now provide him access to the reports, but high-ranking cops suspect his motives are less than altruistic. "I think he has a vested interest, and because of that I have some problems with him," said Police Capt. John Stenson, who works with neighborhood groups.
Ingersoll, who lives in a seedy apartment building with drug problems of its own and drives a bolt-spewing 1974 Porsche sports car with all the sport run out of it, counters that if there was money in suing crack houses, lawyers would be standing in line. As it is, he stands alone. A money-losing cause "No other attorneys want to do this, because there is no money in it. I'm losing money because I have to pay my own process fees," he said, noting that he made $350 in legal fees last month. "I've got other cases, but my clients don't have enough money to pay me a retainer."
While some question his methods and his motives, Ingersoll is perceived as a "godsend" by Lillian Knight and other residents who now feel they have a champion in their fight to reclaim their neighborhoods.
"I think the police tried their best, but we needed something more," said Knight. "It wasn't until Chase got involved that we finally got rid of the crack house. I don't know what we would have done without him."
Ingersoll has been warned that he has made some dangerous enemies in winning friends among Peoria residents. "One landlord took my dad aside and said that somebody is going to put a bullet in my head," he said.
"I understand that when you are out there turning over rocks looking for cockroaches that sooner or later a rattlesnake will jump out. But what are you going to do, quit because you're afraid of one rattlesnake? I can't live like that.