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Lawyer charged with impersonating judge found dead days from trial

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© Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune Rhonda Crawford, a lawyer accused of impersonating a judge, after her bond court hearing at Leighton Criminal Courthouse Oct. 21, 2016.

By Todd Lighty, Megan Crepeau, Chicago Tribune

A lawyer who was just days from going on trial on charges she impersonated a Cook County judge was found dead Thursday in her south suburban home.

Rhonda Crawford, 46, was pronounced dead at her home in 300 block of Hoxie Avenue in Calumet City, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office. An autopsy was scheduled for later Friday.

Crawford's lawyer, Rob Robertson, confirmed her death but said he did not know how she died. Calumet City police could not be immediately reached for comment.

“Rhonda was a truly great person who led an incredibly good life and wound up caught in a situation that was well beyond what it should have been,” Robertson said. “I feel very sorry for her friends and her family.”

Crawford was scheduled to go on trial Monday at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on one count of official misconduct, a felony, and one count of false impersonation, a misdemeanor. She pleaded not guilty to the charges and was free on $10,000 bond at the time of her death.

Prosecutors indicted Crawford after she had put on a judge’s robe and presided over a handful of traffic cases in a suburban courtroom in summer 2016. That fall, Crawford was elected to the bench, even though she was under indictment, her law license had been suspended and the state’s highest court barred her from being sworn in.

Crawford’s troubles began Aug. 11, 2016, when then-Circuit Court Judge Valarie Turner gave her robe to Crawford to don. Crawford, who had won the Democratic primary at that point but still faced the general election, put on the robe and ruled on three traffic cases from the bench in the suburban Markham courthouse.

Chief Judge Timothy Evans, whose office had hired Crawford as a law clerk/staff attorney, responded to the embarrassing episode by firing her from her $57,000-a-year job.

Turner was forced into retirement in late 2017 by the Illinois Courts Commission, a state oversight agency that found the judge was “mentally unable to perform her duties.” The commission revealed that Turner, first elected to the bench in 2002, had Alzheimer’s disease.

Crawford had said she was sorry for what had happened.

“Now of course I regret the day it happened,” Crawford told reporters in September 2016. “I allowed my respect for the judge, and my enthusiasm to learn the procedures of being a judge, to become a distraction to others and to my own lifelong ambition of being on the bench. It is a lesson I will never forget.”

tlighty@chicagotribune.com

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com

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