Pam Adams: Peoria's own Willie Horton

Pam Adams

The most provocative TV commercial of the campaign season is the one that didn't happen. It might have gone something like this:

Early morning, school building in the distance, foreboding music in the background. A glimpse of the back of a young girl, walking alone, wearing a backpack. It ends with a scream and a dark figure hulking toward her.

The dusky scene cuts quickly to a brightly lit, close-up shot of the candidate. He's sitting at a desk in white shirt and tie, talking on the phone. Then he's on the street, talking to a man. The man's face isn't clear, but his blue uniform and badge are.

As the shot moves from the badge to the candidate, a voice warns us, in so many words: Peoria's own Willie Horton was free to roam the streets because the prosecutor didn't care. Elect a state's attorney who will prosecute every police arrest.

"I'm Darin LaHood and I approved this message."

End of commercial.

Maybe LaHood had noble intentions when he went to the home of a victim in a pending rape trial. Maybe he had no plans to relay a father's anger into ads promoting his campaign for Peoria County state's attorney.

For an attorney who wants to be the county's chief prosecutor, LaHood's defense of himself is unconvincing. He blames his opponent, incumbent Kevin Lyons, for calling the press conference that forced him to explain how he got a juvenile rape victim's name, why he went to her home and why he sped away when he saw Lyons' investigators at the house.

Here's the strange part: The sexual assaults Monterius Hinkle is accused of get far more attention now than they did when they were happening. Girls, at least three, were attacked as they walked to school. Nobody - not Lyons, not Peoria's police department, not the school district - called a press conference to warn us that girls were in danger as they walked to school.

The victims' parents made reports to the police department, but the department didn't release reports to the media. Initial stories appeared in print only after mothers began calling the Journal Star asking why no one was warning the public. Nothing was in the paper because the police department didn't release reports involving juveniles, not even juvenile victims.

Lyons has taken heat for releasing Hinkle too quickly after earlier arrests. But the police department deserves some of the heat for failing to release - or leak - news that might have alerted the public to the possibility of a serial rapist. The department changed a blanket policy only after the Illinois Attorney General's Office said it was violating the Freedom of Information Act by not releasing reports involving juveniles.

With that history, the police department ought to be doubly invested in assuring the public that no police officers divulged a juvenile victim's name to a political candidate when they weren't releasing news of the crime when it occurred.

"You went to the white family's home," Lyons told LaHood during a NAACP candidate's forum Monday night, when a question about the victims came up. "Shame on you. You went to the one you thought would be receptive to you."

In 20 years as state's attorney, Lyons has not made it easy for people to want to re-elect him, particularly the type of people who would attend an NAACP forum, particularly when he rants against an "extremely liberal" 3rd District Appellate Court or brags about the high numbers sent to prison from Peoria County and the lengthy sentences they get.

In fact, once LaHood announced his candidacy, a number of diehard black Democrats were ready to bolt the party and support Republican LaHood. But after LaHood started touting endorsements from every police officers' union in the county, several rethought their animosity toward Lyons, including Robert Johnson, a Peoria Park Board member and neighborhood activist from the South Side.

"That was too many police officers for me," he says.

LaHood may think endorsements from officers' unions work to his advantage, but the appearance that one or some of them may have given him privileged information is not good for him or them.

Pam Adams is a columnist with the Peoria Journal Star. Her e-mail address