Cabbie Who Killed Eric Kerestes Seriously Injured Man in 1998, Still Driving
Not long after taxi driver John Kesse killed Eric Kerestes last summer, another of Kesse’s victims contacted me. On August 14 the cabbie was speeding down Milwaukee Avenue at 6 a.m. when he blew through the Milwaukee/Chicago/Ogden intersection, jumped a curb and struck Kerestes, who was walking to the Blue Line’s Chicago station. The pedestrian was thrown 200 feet; he died at the scene.
Kesse, who claims his vehicle sped up on its own accord and the brakes failed, was charged with reckless homicide along with multiple traffic violations. Bail was set at $200,000, and members of a church he helped found raised the $20,000 bond required to keep him out of prison. Kerestes’ widow Tatijana Stafets Kerestes has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the driver, Checker Cab and the city of Chicago.
We published a post about the crash on our old site Grid Chicago on August 15. The next day Noel Thomas emailed to say that he was seriously injured while driving in 1998 when Kesse ran a stoplight at Inner Lake Shore Drive and Chicago Avenue. Thomas suffered a shattered femur and a broken hip and spent six months in a wheelchair. He said he suffered major emotional trauma and lost his job as a sales executive due to his inability to work. He filed a personal injury lawsuit against Yellow Cab, Kesse’s employer at the time, and settled the case four years later.
Lake Shore Drive at Chicago Avenue.
Thomas told me he was unwilling to go on record discussing the case or tell me how much money he got from the settlement due to fear of legal retribution, but his attorney provided me with the case number. I spent an hour at the Daley Center pouring over the Cook County circuit court records of the lawsuit but was unable to find a mention of a settlement.
However, while searching for updates on Kesse’s current legal status, I recently came across an October 14 Chicago Tribune article about Thomas’ crash – apparently he changed his mind about going public with his story. The Tribune piece mentioned that Yellow Cab paid the plaintiff a $400,000 settlement but did not admit liability. Kesse did not lose his cab license after the 1998 crash because he was not ticketed, the Trib reported, adding that it’s likely there were conflicting reports at the crash scene over who was at fault. Years later, during the civil case, witnesses agreed Kesse was to blame.
“In 1998 no citations were issued, the secretary of state considered [Kesse] in good standing as a driver, and the city did not have information on the civil suit,” Jen Lipford, spokeswoman for the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, told me.
“But, today we would have been informed of the [crash] because we get a bi-weekly report from the police department regarding any [crashes] involving taxis. Today when we look at a driver’s record we are considering many sources of data, including [crashes], traffic violations, red light tickets and consumer complaints, to determine if a driver should stay on the road.”
Lipford said Kesse voluntarily surrendered his cab driver’s license after he killed Kerestes, but added that BACP would have suspended his cab license anyway due to the felony charge of reckless homicide. However, Kesse’s regular driver’s license has not been suspended, according to David Drucker, spokesman for the Illinois Secretary of State’s office. “He is still able to drive,” Drucker said. “The secretary of state doesn’t have the power to impact the driver’s license unless there’s a resolution to a ticket.”
Kesse, who has worked as a taxi driver since 1987, has racked up 33 tickets for moving violations, most of which were dismissed or pleaded down to supervision. His most recent conviction for a traffic charge was for a 1998 speeding ticket, unrelated to his crash with Thomas. The Tribune piece mentions that the cabbie has declared bankruptcy three times in the last five years and has amassed $10,000 in unpaid Chicago parking tickets; he’s currently on a three-year payment plan.
Kesse’s defense lawyer Bruce Raffalson has said his client has no criminal record, but according to an April 5 NBC report, the cab driver has been named as a defendant in a total of six personal injury cases, including the lawsuits from Thomas and Kerestes’ widow. Two of the other suits were likely filed by Kesse’s passengers who were injured in the 1998 and 2012 crashes; it’s not clear who the remaining two plaintiffs are. Kesse is due back in court next week, according to Raffalson, who declined to talk about the details of his defense strategy.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Thomas’ ordeal will be used as evidence against Kesse in the criminal case. “The law tries to keep prior acts from coming in as much as possible,” Howard Weisman, a former Cook County state’s attorney who now works as a defense lawyer, told me. “We want to judge the defendant on his current case, not because we think he’s a bad guy.” He added that prior legal issues are usually only considered in court if they are felonies that occurred during the last decade. “I would say almost certainly that the 1998 crash won’t be a factor.”