A Staple Gun, a Broken Nose and 7 Felony Charges After Campaign Turns Violent in Illinois
By Patrick M. O'Connell
Politics in Chicago frequently is a rough-and-tumble affair but rarely does a campaign literally draw blood.
That's what happened in the primary campaign, when an altercation turned violent, resulting in the firing of a staple gun to the face, a broken nose, stitches and a grab of the groin, Cook County prosecutors say.
The squabble started when the incumbent's daughter and her boyfriend drew the attention of her mother's challenger by stapling campaign posters outside his campaign headquarters and ended with the challenger's face streaked with blood and a gash on the forehead, authorities say.
Three days after state Rep. Cynthia Soto, D-Chicago, soundly defeated Robert Zwolinski in the primary for the state's 4th District, Soto's daughter, Jessica, and her boyfriend stood before a Cook County judge Friday to face felony charges in connection with the scuffle.
Prosecutors accused Jessica Soto and Bradley Fichter, both 26, of attacking Zwolinski on March 6 outside his campaign headquarters in the 800 block of North Ashland Avenue. Soto and Fichter were stapling pro-Cynthia Soto campaign posters to a nearby building when Zwolinski and his girlfriend drove past, jumped out of his car and approached the pair. An argument ensued.
What happened next is in dispute. Prosecutors said Fichter punched Zwolinski in the eye, striking him multiple times. Soto joined in, punching Zwolinski in the ribs and knocking him to the ground, they said. Fichter got on top of the politician, continuing to punch and choke him, they said.
Soto then "squeezed his genital area," used a staple gun on Zwolinski's face and smashed an empty beer bottle on his nose, prosecutors said. Zwolinski suffered a broken nose and black eye and needed six stitches from the attack, according to prosecutors.
The next day, Zwolinski posted a picture of himself on Twitter with a bloody gash on his forehead and his nose purple and swollen.
"Politics is a contact sport. Apparently that's literally the case," he wrote.
Frank Avila, Jessica Soto's lawyer, disputed the charges against his client, saying Zwolinski started the scuffle by tearing down the campaign posters, pushing Fichter and telling them to stop putting up the signs. His client acted in self-defense, he said.
Avila called the charges "sour grapes," claiming Zwolinski had connections with the state's attorney's office and that the charges were filed only because of his election loss.
"These charges are way exaggerated," Avila told reporters after the bond hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building. "If he's going around saying a girl's beating him up, that's sad too. Maybe it's good he lost the race."
Jessica Soto, of the 1500 block of West Ohio Street, and Fichter, of the 4700 block of North Kewanee Avenue, were each charged with three felony counts of aggravated battery, according to Chicago police. Fichter also was charged with a felony count of disorderly conduct for filing a false report with police.
Judge Maria Kuriakos Ciesil pressed lawyers for specifics about the incident and expressed dismay that a political campaign had ended up violent.
"I'm really sad at how this whole election process is going," the judge said, emphasizing that Soto and Fichter appeared to be within their rights when they were tacking the campaign posters up along the street.
As the lawyers argued at the bench about who started the fight, Kuriakos Ciesil shook her head.
"It's really sad this is going on," she said. "It's an embarrassment to our entire country."
Bond was set at $25,000 for each, and both were ordered to have no contact with Zwolinski and his girlfriend or go near the campaign office or their homes.
Cynthia Soto, who did not attend the court hearing, routed Zwolinski in Tuesday's Democratic primary, garnering nearly 80 percent of the vote. The 4th District includes the Bucktown, Humboldt Park, Logan Square, West Town, Wicker Park and Ukrainian Village neighborhoods.
Zwolinski did not respond Friday to interview requests from the Tribune. But after the charges were filed, he thanked police and the state's attorney's office for their investigation.
"Sadly, these facts came out after the election," he said then. "The real victims are the citizens of the 4th District."
A spokesman for Secretary of State Jesse White said Jessica Soto has worked as an executive assistant in the driver's services department since August 2013 and was expected to submit a letter of resignation by the end of Friday.
The spokesman, David Druker, said Soto was recommended for the $35,532-a-year position by her mother. It was a Rutan-exempt position, meaning political support or affiliation was allowed when considering who to hire for the job, Druker said.
Avila insisted that Zwolinski provoked the attack. He also told the judge that Zwolinski is the one who should be facing charges.
"Taking down somebody's sign and ripping it down is destruction of property," Avila said.
He later said Jessica Soto did not even participate in the altercation, saying that witnesses misidentified her in a police lineup.
Chicago Tribune's Kim Geiger contributed.
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