After 19 months of anguish, this suburban man has finally cleared his name: “Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get a Smollett deal”

Jim Van Buskirk with his daughters and wife in 2016. “They’re the four strongest women you’ve ever met,” he said. | Family handout

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It took 19 months, roughly 26 court appearances, two lawyers, a bench trial, and more than $15,000, but a suburban man who prosecutors accused of filing a false police report finally cleared his name last Wednesday. And, for the record, he was never offered “the Smollett deal.”

Jussie Smollett, you surely remember, is the Hollywood actor who faced 16 felony counts of filing a false police report earlier this year after investigators said he made up an elaborate story of being beaten in an anti-gay, anti-black, pro-Trump hate crime near his home in Streeterville.

Prosecutors in the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx dismissed Smollett’s case one month after his arrest in a last-minute hearing that ended with the court file being sealed (albeit temporarily) from the public eye. Smollett pleaded guilty to nothing, he gave his $10,000 bail deposit to the city, and prosecutors dropped everything on the spot.

Public outrage at the secretive and unusual handling of a celebrity case grew quickly. But Joe Magats, Foxx’s top deputy bristled at the notion that a TV star with political connections received special treatment.

The deal Smollett received “is available to all defendants,” Magats said. “It’s not something out of privilege. It’s not something out of clout.”

But, like every similar defendant who’s faced false report charges under Foxx, former Union Station restaurant manager Jim Van Buskirk never received the offer that Magats said is available to everyone.

Beaten, robbed, tied up…and arrested

March 29, 2018, started like any other day for Van Buskirk. He drove into the city from his family’s suburban home and started preparing for a day of business at The Junction, a bar and restaurant on a busy commuter corridor inside Union Station.

Around 10:15 a.m., a man walked into his office.

“I was beaten up, pistol-whipped, tied up, and I still have marks on my wrists” from the zip ties that were used as restraints. “He knocked me over, and I hit my head on the floor.” 

Van Buskirk said he remained on the ground for about 30 minutes until an employee arrived for work, forced the office door open, and found him on the ground. Taken were his phone, wallet, keys, and $30,000 to $40,000 of the restaurant’s money, Van Buskirk said.

Amtrak police and Chicago cops scoured the Loop and surrounding areas for a suspect. Police in suburban Evergreen Park even dispatched a patrol unit to Van Buskirk’s home to make sure that his child, who was home on spring break, was safe.

“When I was still in the hospital, I was shown a picture of a suspect,” Van Buskirk remembered. “I said, ‘that’s him, except he didn’t have that hat on.’” Police let the suspect go.

Two weeks later, a Chicago police detective showed up at The Junction and took Van Buskirk into custody. Prosecutors charged him with one felony count of filing a false report.

Even though between $30,000 and $40,000 was allegedly taken, neither prosecutors nor the grand jury ever accused him of taking a single dime.

“My phone was found outside Rensselaer, Indiana,” 85 miles away from Union Station, he said. “There was no investigation.”

“We gotta do what we gotta do.”

“Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get a Smollett deal,” he said. ”God bless Smollet for getting that deal, because — the hell my family has gone through for 19 months — I wish I had one.”

The Junction, where his team of five years was “like a second family,” fired Van Buskirk, he said.

“The anguish my family, wife, kids, went through. We’re all very close. It’s tough, my kids defending their dad, which is something they should never have to do. It’s tough.”

“I survived on diet Coke and cigarettes,” he joked on Sunday afternoon, adding that he shed 44 pounds during the ordeal.

Prosecutors in January offered Van Buskirk a deal, he said. “Two years of second-chance probation, random drug testing, and five days of SWAP,” a reference to the sheriff department’s work crew program.

Van Buskirk said the case had brought so much angst and problems for him and his family, he gave the offer serious consideration. Even his attorney was looking to settle.

Adding to the pressure: The restaurant’s insurance company sent him a notice in January. He says they wanted $140,000 in compensation from him. Pleading guilty to a crime he didn’t commit could put him on the hook for the insurance claim, he figured.

Shortly after prosecutors made their plea offer, the state’s attorney’s office suddenly settled the Smollett case. Smollett had been charged with sixteen counts of filing a false report, the exact same charged that prosecutors filed against Van Buskirk. Except Van Buskirk only faced one count.

“When I saw that, I had a glimmer of hope that they may go across the board and do that for everyone,” Van Buskirk remembered. But they didn’t. 

Then, he read a news story about an attorney friend who was handling a big case. He called the guy and hired him as his new counsel.

In April, Van Buskirk said, he heard his new lawyer tell the prosecutor that the state’s case wasn’t winnable. Van Buskirk remembers the prosecutor’s response to be roughly, “Yeah, but we gotta do what we gotta do.”

He rejected the state’s settlement offer and took the case to trial.

“Yes!”

Last Tuesday, Nov. 12, Van Buskirk and the state squared off in a bench trial before Cook County Judge Charles Burns.

Prosecutors spent the first day putting on their case with a string of witnesses. Before trial, the state claimed to have two videos showing Van Buskirk going into his office alone. When it came down to it, the state showed only one video in court. It showed the Union Station concourse. And it was missing parts, Van Buskirk said.

Everyone returned to court midday Wednesday for the defense put on one witness, an Amtrak police officer. Then, Van Buskirk’s lawyer rested. As soon as closing arguments ended around 2 p.m., Burns announced his finding: not guilty.

Van Buskirk impulsively shouted, “Yes!”

“He said there was no evidence. It was a sense of relief. The weight of the world off my back. You have so many thoughts going through your head. You’re entrusting one person to make a decision that could change the rest of your life.”

“Everyone was fair. The Chicago police, Amtrak police, the two state’s attorneys. There was no impropriety. You hear people say ‘police did this’ or ‘they did that.’ There’s none of that. CPD treated me fairly.”

“It’s been a long 19 months. It’s taken a toll on my family. People said things to them. People you thought were your friends sometimes are not.”

“If it wasn’t for some retirement money and my siblings, I couldn’t have done it,” Van Buskirk said on Sunday. “I will always be grateful.”

“Look forward”

On Friday, Van Buskirk went to a high school football game. 

“I’m a pretty happy guy… I felt good for the first time, finally,” he said. “Before, it felt like people were talking about me.”

“If I did get a Smollet deal, people would say, ‘he did it.’ They can’t say that now.”

Since getting axed from The Junction, Van Buskirk has been working for another bar while he cleared his name. But the job is not an ideal use of his decades of experience, he said.

“I would love to move to a bigger and better place,” he said, “I’ve been doing this since I was 13-years old. I’m good at it. I love high volume restaurants and bars.”

“All I can do is look forward. All I can do is work hard.”

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CWBChicago was created in 2013 by five residents of Wrigleyville and Boystown who had grown disheartened with inaccurate information that was being provided at local Community Policing (CAPS) meetings. Our coverage area has expanded since then to cover Lincoln Park, River North, The Loop, Uptown, and other North Side Areas. But our mission remains unchanged: To provide original public safety reporting with better context and greater detail than mainstream media outlets. Our editorial email address is news@cwbchicago.com