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The life and death of Bobby Russ

Twenty years ago, the former Northwestern defensive tackle was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer. Those who knew Russ remember him and question the circumstances surrounding his passing.

Courtesy of Brandi Thomas

Bobby Russ never got his Northwestern degree.

On June 19, 1999, Vera Love walked across the stage at the School of Education convocation to accept her son’s diploma.

Less than three weeks earlier, Russ was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer on the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Two decades after NU’s class of 1999 graduated, his degree hangs on the wall of his mother’s room in suburban Chicago near a large picture of the former Wildcat football player in the cap and gown he never wore to graduation.

Love says her son was murdered. Others think the ex-defensive lineman’s 6-foot-3 frame put officers on edge. No criminal charges were brought against Officer Van Watts IV, who shot Russ and remains employed by the Chicago Police Department. The City of Chicago paid nearly $10 million in damages to Russ’ estate after losing a wrongful death suit.

Experts say the shooting helped increase citizen scrutiny around the Chicago Police Department. The department, currently under federal oversight as part of a consent decree, has enacted major reforms, though it continues to wrestle with a troubling pattern of unreasonable force.

Memories of Russ — good and bad, in life and in death — still linger according to those who knew him. Some of those who knew Russ as “Fluff,” a deeply religious, quick-witted gentle giant, repress their memories of June 4, 1999. Others have moved toward acceptance and forgiveness. Each June brings a sinking feeling for Russ’ family and friends, who continue to wonder exactly what happened on the expressway that summer night.

On the night of June 4, 1999, Russ drove from Evanston to his family’s home in Calumet City to take his mother to a movie. Chicago police officer Philip Banaszkiewicz allegedly saw Russ driving erratically on southbound Lake Shore Drive near Monroe Avenue.

According to police documents, Banaszkiewicz approached Russ’ car stopped at a red light and knocked on the window. Russ locked the door and drove away, although an eyewitness told investigators that Banaszkiewicz had not reached Russ’ car before the light changed, according to police documents. Banaszkiewicz began following Russ at or below the speed limit, according to police documents.

[News coverage of Russ’ death via ABC 7 News and]

Two other Chicago Police officers, Van Watts IV and George Renner, joined the pursuit onto the Interstate 55 ramp toward the Dan Ryan Expressway, with Watts eventually trying to block Russ’ path. According to internal documents, police investigators said Russ rammed Watts’ car before spinning out on the side of the highway near 29th Street, just before the split between the express and local lanes of the expressway.

The officers surrounded Russ’ car and yelled for him to exit the vehicle. Watts approached the rear door on the driver’s side and began kicking it, yelling, “Get out of the fucking vehicle,” according to court and police documents. Watts claimed he couldn’t see through the car’s tinted windows, so he smashed in the rear driver’s side window with a tire iron and drew his gun.

The window Officer Van Watts IV shattered with a tire iron moments before he shot Bobby Russ.
Courtesy of

Banaszkiewicz and off-duty officer Robert Helson were positioned on the other side of the car and observed Russ through the now-open passenger’s front door, allegedly sitting motionless and unresponsive with his hands between his legs as officers shouted commands at him, per police documents.

According to Watts, Russ quickly turned over his left shoulder and grabbed the officer’s service weapon through the broken window, though neither man sustained major cuts to his arms. Watts told investigators he and Russ “pulled the gun in opposite directions several times” before it fired.

In court, lawyers for Russ’ estate argued that Russ turned and put his hands over his left shoulder before Watts fired his gun. One bullet pierced Russ’ right hand before grazing his left index finger and thumb, passing through his lung and heart and stopping in his midsection.

Banaszkiewicz and Helson dragged Russ out of the car, placed him on his stomach and handcuffed his arms behind his back. The 22-year-old was dead on the expressway before the ambulance arrived, per police documents.

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Russ’ body lies on the Dan Ryan Expressway behind his car
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Family members and lawyers disputed the police story. Donald Shapiro, who represented Russ’ estate in the wrongful death suit against the city, argued that the account of events was “a physical impossibility.”

“If you can imagine sitting in your car and trying to reach out backwards out through the back window... and grabbing a gun that was being pointed at you by a police officer, it just was a very improbable story,” Shapiro told Inside NU.

An eyewitness to the shooting told investigators he saw Russ turn his torso toward Watts. The eyewitness did not see Russ grab Watts’ gun, according to police documents

In a police investigation, Banaszkiewicz, Renner and Helson corroborated Watts’ account of the shooting. A 1999 investigation conducted by CPD’s Office of Professional Standards, an independent agency that examined abuse complaints until 2007, verified Watts’ story. The department suspended Watts 15 days for procedural violations, including holding his gun too close to Russ, “which allowed Mr. Russ to grab the gun,” according to the report. No criminal charges were filed.

Read the police investigation into Bobby Russ’ death.

Russ’ death shattered his family’s idyllic life in the south suburbs of Chicago. Brandi Thomas, his younger sister, remembered a childhood full of laughter, singing and sports.

“After Bobby got shot, it was like surreal,” she said. “It was like, ‘No, that doesn’t happen to us.’”

The loss was hardest on Love, who shared a special relationship with her son.

They talked on the phone every day. Known as “Mama” to Russ’s teammates and friends, Love often drove to Evanston to bring her son food, wash his dishes and even take him to Burger King. She quit her job at the post office when Russ was in high school so she could go to her son’s games.

“We always used to joke and laugh and say Bobby was her favorite,” Thomas said. “But he was her favorite.”

Vera Love with her three children [L to R]: Chris, Bobby and Brandi.
Courtesy of Brandi Thomas

Love’s health declined after her son died. She sheltered herself from Thomas and her elder son, Chris, as a defense mechanism.

“I just wanted to push ‘em away because I felt I couldn’t take it if another one passed,” Love told InsideNU.

In the 1980s, she moved the family to Calumet City, away from the perceived dangers of Englewood. Now, the protective bubble she built around her children had burst.

Love returned home from church on the night of June 4, 1999, to a voicemail from her son, letting her know he was on the way home. She decided to stay up until Russ got home. At some point, she fell asleep.

When Love woke up the next morning, the police were at her door. A policeman told Love her son had been shot by an officer at a traffic stop.

“What kind of traffic stop gets you murdered?” Love said.

Barry Gardner remembers the phone ringing early Saturday morning. One of Russ’ roommates at 910 Simpson St. in Evanston, Gardner was preparing to graduate after amassing 458 tackles and two All-Big Ten selections in his NU career.

A worried voice spoke softly.

“This is Mama. Bobby’s dead.”

Gardner bolted out of bed and raced to Russ’ room in the basement. Russ left the light on and the TV still buzzed dimly.

“I didn’t know what to think,” Gardner remembered. “My instant reaction was, like, Am I dreaming?”

Bobby Russ and Barry Gardner in 1994.
Courtesy of Brandi Thomas

Gardner gathered his teammates off-campus, where they drank, reminisced about better times and watched the news coverage of their friend’s death.

“I mean, it was one of the saddest scenes I’ve ever witnessed,” former NU defensive back Harold Blackmon said.

Skepticism followed disbelief for many of Russ’ closest friends.

Gerald Conoway remembered the passive language of a WGN report: “A motorist was killed ... in a struggle with law enforcement.”

“None of that made any sense …” said Conoway, a former defensive back and 1999 graduate. “He was a jokester and a prankster. He was a funny guy. That’s not something that he would have done.”

Almost all of Russ’ closest friends, who arrived on campus in 1994 and 1995, were set to graduate weeks later. In their time at Northwestern, they had earned a share of two Big Ten titles and a trip to the Rose Bowl. But an immense sense of “heartache and pain” permeated commencement, according to Conoway, because the Wildcats had lost two teammates: Russ and Marcel Price, who was accidentally shot and killed by a friend in July 1995. In August 1999, fullback Matt Hartl succumbed to Hodgkin’s disease at 23.

Gardner, a former walk-on who befriended Russ early freshman year, headed to Philadelphia as the Eagles’ second-round draft pick. He missed Russ’ funeral because of training camp but brought his friend’s spirit along during an eight-year NFL career.

“I did what I knew Bobby would want me to do,” he said. “And that’s to go out and kick ass.”

Martha Biondi was watching the news at home when she learned that Russ had been killed. Biondi, then an assistant professor of African-American studies, remembered Russ as a quiet, engaged student in one of her classes. She said the news reports criminalized her former student.

“It completely contravened the person that I knew.”

Bobby Russ with Wildcat supporters
Courtesy of Brandi Thomas

Biondi wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune calling on the public to “to affirm [Russ’] humanity and to demand that the police refrain from shooting unarmed motorists.”

After a preliminary investigation deemed the shooting justified, Biondi and history professor Adam Green led a group of faculty members to City Hall to present the mayor’s office with a letter signed by 150 colleagues, calling on then-Mayor Richard M. Daley to further investigate the incident. The cohort held a press conference afterward.

“I think really the thinking was, there needs to be some way to make sure that the story that circulates about [Russ] is the story about him as an actual person rather than the story that the police were telling,” Green said.

Less than two weeks later, CPD’s Office of Professional Standards overturned the initial ruling after investigators determined the officers deviated from standard procedures. The officers involved were given administrative assignments pending the results of a more extensive inquiry.

After losing her son, Love sprang into action. She marched downtown and spoke at rallies. She attended police board meetings. She spoke at churches and schools, including at Northwestern in October 2001.

“I didn’t want just justice for Bobby,” she said. “I wanted them to stop murdering black people and young people of any color.”

Russ’ death was part of a moment of crisis for CPD. On the same night Russ was killed, LaTanya Haggerty, an unarmed 26-year-old black woman, was shot and killed by an officer who mistook the cell phone Haggerty was holding for a gun. The City of Chicago paid an $18 million settlement to her family in 2001.

On Oct. 17, 2003, a jury ruled that Officer Van Watts IV had acted willfully and wantonly in shooting Bobby Russ. The jury awarded Robert Russ Jr., then 4 years old, nearly $10 million.

According to Dr. Thomas Jurkanin, who wrote a book about the tenure of CPD superintendent Terry Hillard, major policy changes ensued after the two killings.

The department reviewed its use of force, traffic stop and high-speed pursuit policies and ultimately revised its procedures. They also changed how the Office of Professional Standards reviewed instances of misconduct, raised training standards, and increased use of in-car cameras, Jurkanin wrote in an email.

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Two decades later, the Chicago Police Department remains under intense scrutiny.

A 2017 U.S. Justice Department report identified “systemic deficiencies” in the police department and found that officers “engage in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, that is unreasonable.”

After protests and outrage, reforms ensued. The city created a new police oversight agency, updated its use of force policy and outfitted officers with body cameras.

In April, Lori Lightfoot, a former head of CPD’s civilian oversight board who campaigned as a police reformer, was elected as Chicago’s 56th mayor. Green said Lightfoot’s election made it clear that Chicagoans wanted “a different kind of city.”

“This would not have been the case, sadly, 20 years ago, when Bobby was shot,” he continued. “There were a lot of people whose conscience was tweaked by that, but they were not prepared to seek for that transformation of who it was that was in power.”

In June, a Chicago police sergeant in the traffic department confirmed that Watts still works for CPD. According to data collected by the Citizens Police Data Project, he has been an officer for 29 years, suspended just the once, for 15 days. Through CPD, Watts did not return a request for comment for this story.

The Black Lives Matter movement has helped spotlight instances of police brutality and highlighted the challenges communities of color face in dealing with law enforcement. But even if Russ’ death may have resulted in more exposure today, there’s a sense that he would still be denied justice.

“The media coverage [in 1999] was nothing like what you see today, with all of these police brutality cases,” said Stafford Gaston, a friend and a former NU linebacker. “But the result is the same. The cops never go to jail. The cops never face any real stiff penalties. They never get fired. And they get paid suspensions.”

Vera Love sees the portrait of Russ in his cap and gown every day. Twenty years after she lost her son, she still speaks to him.

“I just let him know that I still love him,” Love said. “I just talk to him like he is still here. I might be a little crazy, but I don’t think so.”

Bobby Russ in his cap and gown.
Courtesy of Brandi Thomas

There is a duality to Russ’ memory for many who knew him. Thomas, Russ’ ex-girlfriend, said she remembers his smile and his carefree attitude.

Yet she added that painful reminders resurface each time she reads about a young black man dying at the hands of police.

“I think I have made a conscious decision to not read and engage as much because it’s so incredibly difficult and I get so incredibly angry and sad and feel helpless,” she said.

Love said she is moving towards acceptance. She and her children spend the anniversary of Russ’ death remembering his humorous nature and taking solace in the fact that the milestone is easier for them every year.

“When you think about the times we had, it was a lot of joy,” Love said. “We did a lot of laughing.”

But she has not forgotten the night her son was killed.

“I just wanted [the officer] to be taken away from his family like he took Bobby from me and my family.”

Russ (No. 98) on the field with his teammates during a 1996 matchup with Penn State.
Doug Pensinger /Allsport

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