County officials are investigating the May 13 death of a Villa Park teenager from multiple angles.
On May 22, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that it has launched a criminal investigation into the death of Cameron Sanders, 16, who jumped into the Des Plaines River last Saturday and never resurfaced.
In addition, Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st) said Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard has agreed to launch an investigation into why it took authorities five days to recover Sanders’ body, which they found about 150 yards away from the railroad bridge the teenager reportedly jumped from.
On Monday, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, which took over the recovery effort on May 16, said the criminal probe is standard protocol. Cara Smith, the chief policy officer for the sheriff’s department, told reporters last week that the department doesn’t suspect foul play.
In a phone interview on Monday, Boykin said he asked Blanchard to conduct a thorough investigation into the recovery effort. The commissioner also said he has called on the state to conduct its own independent investigation into the matter.
“I’m really horrified about what happened in terms of the recovery efforts,” Boykin said. “I’m also horrified about how nasty Ms. Sanders [Cameron’s mother] said that she was treated by the Forest Preserve police.”
According to witnesses, Sanders was hanging out with about a dozen friends on May 13, around 4:30 p.m. somewhere in the 8300 block of West North Avenue in unincorporated Cook County. The bridge, commonly called Railroad Bridge, is a popular hangout spot for area young people and is located directly behind Lincoln College of Technology in Melrose Park.
Family members say Sanders, who could not swim, may have jumped into the water after being pressured by peers. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart confirmed on May 16 that there was cellphone video of Sanders “struggling” in the water.
Dart said the video didn’t show any signs of foul play or bullying, adding that it does show a young boy who was also in the water trying to save Sanders. The video captures two other boys in the water as Sanders struggles to stay afloat, Dart said.
According to a WGN TV news report, emergency crews were on the scene just before 5 p.m., having responded to 911 calls made by the teenagers.
By Sunday morning, officials described the search for Sanders as a recovery mission that an ABC 7 report said was being led by the Melrose Park Fire Department in coordination with the Canadian National Railroad police, the Cook County Forest Preserve police and the Illinois State Police.
“Boats, canines and helicopters were employed Sunday in the search efforts,” according to the news report.
Later in the day, ABC-7 reported that Sanders’ family said the search had been cancelled and that authorities weren’t aggressive enough in their efforts.
By Monday, residents from different communities in the area, including Oak Park, converged on the banks of the Des Plaines River to conduct their own search. Oak Park teacher and activist Anthony Clark circulated a flyer on Facebook calling for volunteers to help Sanders’ family and friends find the teenager’s body.
The reported cancellation also incited the frustration of state Rep. Chris Welch (7th), who represents part of River Forest. Welch said he reached out to the Illinois State Police to see why the search had reportedly been called off.
But before the day was over, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office announced it had taken the lead on the recovery effort, with numerous witnesses saying that Sheriff Tom Dart was on a boat searching the river himself, along with over 200 officers from various law enforcement agencies, including the River Forest Police Department.
Authorities recovered Sanders’ body around 10:25 a.m. on May 18, about 150 yards from the railroad trestle that witnesses say he jumped from.
Boykin said an investigation by the county and the state into the recovery efforts would be helpful in finding out “what procedures and policies failed.”
River Forest Deputy Police Chief James O’Shea said his department found out about Sanders’ disappearance through a TV news report, which is also how they learned the recovery effort had been taken over by the Cook County Sheriff.
“We were never notified by the county or the state that there was a search happening,” O’Shea said in an interview on May 22. O’Shea added that his department nonetheless deployed officers to assist with the recovery effort.
There could have been better communication between the multiple jurisdictions involved in the recovery effort, he noted.
“I think Boykin is definitely asking the right questions right now,” O’Shea said.
Officials from numerous levels of government are demanding that the Canadian National Railway, which owns Rainbow Bridge, take steps to secure the structure, “including installing fencing and posting signage to prevent another tragedy,” according to a statement put out by the sheriff’s department last week.
O’Shea said he’d like to see cameras installed in the area that would allow police from Melrose Park and River Forest to monitor activity near the bridge 24/7.
Patrick Waldron, a spokesman for Canadian National, couldn’t be reached for comment. Waldron, however, told the Chicago Tribune that Rainbow Bridge is an “active railway line, though trains seldom cross it” and that, because it isn’t abandoned, the railway doesn’t have plans to demolish the structure. He said several no-trespassing signs were installed in the area last week.
County officials have said they aren’t aware of any other drownings or major accidents reported near Rainbow Bridge.