A veteran Chicago cabdriver was speeding, swerving through traffic and running red lights before his taxi jumped a curb last month and fatally struck a man sitting on a CTA bus bench in the River West neighborhood, prosecutors said Tuesday.
The reckless homicide charge against John Kesse, 60, was somewhat unusual because he was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the crash. He was arrested Monday when he appeared in Cook County Traffic Court because of tickets stemming from the crash.
Friends and supporters of Kesse who showed up Tuesday at the Leighton Criminal Court Building described him as a leader for decades in their North Side community of African immigrants. He never drank alcohol and was a conscientious driver, they said.
"He has always been a gentle, soft-spoken person," said Amos Oladipo, pastor of the African Community United Methodist Church in Lincoln Square, which Kesse helped found in the 1990s. "He is one of our elders."
Kesse had just picked up a fare in his Checker cab about 6 a.m. on Aug. 14 when he accelerated south on Milwaukee Avenue, weaving in and out of traffic and "driving into the oncoming traffic lane to pass the cars in front of him," Assistant State's Atty. Sylvie Manaster said in court.
Kesse blew through red lights at Noble Street and then Chicago Avenue, Manaster said. His cab then jumped a curb near the entrance to the Chicago Avenue Blue Line stop and knocked down two light poles before veering across Milwaukee and Ogden Avenues and striking Eric Kerestes, a University of Chicago MBA student who was waiting to catch a bus for work, Manaster said.
Kerestes, 30, was thrown more than 200 feet and pronounced dead at the scene, the prosecutor said. The taxi passenger, Michael Kim, 28, suffered a fractured spine and a bruised lung, she said.
Witnesses told police the cab was traveling at least 60 mph, double the speed limit, before it crashed.
Kim was taking the cab to his job at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and did not tell Kesse he was in a hurry, said his attorney, Tim Tomasik of Clifford Law Offices. "He gave him the address where he was going — nothing else," Tomasik said.
City records show Kesse has been a licensed Chicago public chauffeur since May 1987 and had no outstanding moving violations or consumer complaints.
His attorney, Bruce Rafalson, told Judge Donald Panarese Jr. that the case was "a tragic accident" and hinted at possible mechanical problems with the cab, which was not Kesse's normal vehicle.
Rafalson said Kesse, of the 4500 block of North Clarendon Avenue, is a father of five and had never been arrested. In addition to his work with the church, Kesse served as president of a Chicago nonprofit that helps support African immigrants, Rafalson said.
Panarese set bail at $200,000. Oladipo said church members would try to raise the $20,000 cash needed for him to be freed from jail pending trial.
Kerestes was a student in the evening MBA program at the U. of C. Booth School of Business and also worked at a Chicago-based infrastructure firm. His wife, Tatijana Stafets Kerestes, has filed a wrongful-death suit against Kesse, Checker Cab and the city of Chicago, records show.