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Jewish World Review Nov. 18, 1999 /9 Kislev, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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"From bad things,
good can come" -- THE PHONE MESSAGE caught me by surprise.

The caller, the message said, had been a Cornelius Abraham. He had left his number.

I returned the call. A young man answered.

"I don't know if you remember me," he said.

"I remember you, Cornelius," I said.

- - -

On a sweltering August day in 1987, paramedics and Chicago police officers arrived at an apartment where a 4-year-old boy was said to be unconscious.

There they found Lattie McGee. Officer Roberto Garay, his voice breaking, said, "I have never seen anything like that in my life. . . . There were these terrible burns on his ankles. It didn't make sense. Later we found out that the burns were rope burns from when they would hang him upside down in the closet. We lifted his shirt up, and his chest . . . it was totally raw. All of the flesh."

It would turn out that this 4-year-old child had been tortured constantly over the summer by his mother, Alicia Abraham, and her boyfriend, Johnny Campbell. Because Lattie had a high-pitched voice, Campbell accused him of being "effeminate." He beat Lattie with fists and sticks, he burned him with cigarettes and a clothing iron, he repeatedly stuck him with sewing needles, he dunked him in scalding water.

At night, Campbell would leave Lattie hanging tied upside down from a rod in a darkened closet. On the night before Lattie died -- by this time the child had pneumonia and a broken collarbone and broken pelvis, and was complaining that he could not swallow -- Campbell stuffed a rag in the boy's mouth, taped potato peelings over his eyes so that he could not see, and hung him as usual in the closet.

In the morning the mother watched "The Incredible Hulk" on television and did not check on her son in the closet. When Johnny Campbell eventually took him down from the rod, Lattie begged for water. Campbell told him to be a man and get it for himself. Lattie, who weighed only 26 pounds, tried to walk, but did not have the strength. Campbell, angered by the boy's weakness, slugged him on the ear. Lattie collapsed and died.

- - -

Cook County Assistant State's Atty. James Bigoness prosecuted Johnny Campbell and Alicia Abraham. "This is the worst case imaginable," he said at the time. "There's a special place in hell for them."

The key witness was only 8 years old during the trial in 1990. He was Lattie's brother, Cornelius Abraham.

Cornelius underwent some of the same torture that Lattie did, but somehow he survived.

With enormous courage, he took the witness stand at the Cook County Criminal Courts building, and -- facing down the killers -- he told what had happened.

Cornelius, who had been 6 that terrible summer, had not been able to stop Johnny Campbell and Alicia Abraham from murdering his little brother; there had been no one to hear the boys' cries and help them during the long months of torment. But because of his bravery in court, the truth came out. The murderers were sentenced to life in prison.

- - -

In one of the columns I wrote about the case, I mentioned that the great loves of Cornelius' life were reading and basketball.

I received a call from the Chicago Bulls after that column ran; a team official said that if Cornelius would like to see a game, the Bulls would provide tickets.

I had been in Chicago for 20 years at the time. I had never seen a Bulls game; I had never been to the Chicago Stadium.

But on an April Sunday afternoon in 1990, prosecutor Bigoness and I took Cornelius to see the Bulls play the Miami Heat.

Cornelius was a thin, extremely quiet boy; he had the wide, all-seeing eyes of a frightened doe. He seemed almost unable to believe that he was in the Stadium. He had been locked up and tormented and hurt, with no one to save him; the adults in his life had wanted only to belittle and humiliate him -- and now here he was. He said nothing. He just looked around.

Bigoness and I took Cornelius down a flight of stairs to the basement level. A door opened and a man came out. Cornelius looked up, and his eyes filled with a combination of wonder and awe and total disbelief.

He tried to say something, but the words would not come out. So the man helped him out by speaking first.

"Hi, Cornelius," the man said. "I'm Michael Jordan."

I had never met Jordan before that day; he had heard about the case, and had volunteered to do this. He knelt down and spoke quietly with Cornelius; he did not rush. He said, "Are you going to cheer for us today? We're going to need it."

During the game that day, Cornelius sat with the Bulls. When Jordan was on the court, Cornelius saved his seat on the bench for him; when Jordan was out and resting, Cornelius would sit right next to him.

The killers were in prison, and the rest of Cornelius' life was beginning. I was looking at him at one point during the game, as Jordan took a pass and sailed into the air and slammed home a basket. There was Cornelius, laughing out loud with joy.

- - -

But I worried about what would come next, as did everyone who knew him. If ever there were a child who could be excused for failing in life, it was Cornelius. After what he had been through, after what he had seen and endured.

And even after the trial was over, he went through some very hard times. There was turmoil in the home of a relative with whom he originally was sent to live; he ended up having to leave that home. His next placement did not last, either.

The politicians and government officials who talked solemnly about their concern for Lattie and Cornelius moved on to other things. The State of Illinois -- which paid, and is still paying, to feed and shelter Lattie's killers during their prison terms -- did not see fit to pay for a proper resting place for Lattie. He was buried in an unmarked grave; there were no public funds for a headstone.

So the people who read about Lattie here bought him one. And two stonecutters who read about Lattie -- Tom and James Gast -- carved the inscription. The words, on the headstone above Lattie's burial place in the children's portion of the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, are simple. There is Lattie's name. There is the date he was born: December 29, 1982. There is the date he died: August 14, 1987.

And there are three additional words, words that Lattie may never have heard, as gentle as a whisper:

You Are Loved.

- - -

Now, all these years later, here was this telephone call, from Cornelius Abraham.

He told me that he was being honored.

He had graduated from high school -- Thornton Township High School, in Harvey, where last spring his fellow students elected him as prom king -- and he had applied to and been accepted at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where he planned to study computer sciences. He was 18 now, he said.

Much of his healing had come with the help of the YMCA Network for Counseling and Youth Development of Greater Chicagoland. That organization was initiating an award to be given annually to a child whose determination and drive to overcome formidable obstacles is especially inspiring.

The award, the organization had decided, would be called the Cornelius S. Abraham Award. The first recipient would be Cornelius.

The reason, YMCA counseling officials said, was because of Cornelius' brilliant spirit and refusal to give up. His example, they said, was the finest possible to emblemize what they attempt to instill in the children they counsel: "Wish. Hope. Believe."

Cornelius said that he would be coming home from college to accept the award.

He asked me if I would present it to him.

- - -

On a recent Friday night in a banquet room in Alsip -- not far from the cemetery where Lattie rests -- Cornelius arrived with his foster parents, Dwayne and Ingra Cooper, a family he says he loves.

It was not a large event; fewer than 100 people were present. No blood relatives of Cornelius had shown up. I looked across the room and saw Jim Bigoness, the man who had prosecuted the case against Lattie's killers and Cornelius' tormentors; now an attorney in private practice, he had come to be present on Cornelius' big night.

Cornelius had bought a suit that afternoon, to wear to the ceremony. He was happy, nervous, proud.

"From bad things, good can come," he said.

He is a college student with career goals, and a desire to do good things with his life. Nothing is ever guaranteed to anyone -- but against every odd, he has made it this far. He's on his way.

He and I talked for a while, and when it was time to present him with the award that has been named for him, I said to those hundred people what I will say right here, to so many more of you:

That Cornelius has had a much more profound effect on my life than I have had on his.

That he has inspired me from the first moment I met him, and that in many ways he is the reason that, on my better days at work, I try to do what I do. That his courage in venturing out into a world that conspired to hurt him and hold him down since he was a little boy, and his determination not to let that hurt stop him from endeavoring to lead a worthy life, is as impressive as anything I have ever been privileged to witness -- and that he is his little brother's finest legacy.

That for anyone who thinks there is no hope in the world -- for anyone who thinks that giving up is sometimes the only option -- Cornelius is the proof that they are wrong. Cornelius is the proof that hope can overcome anything.

And I told him this:

That of all the things that have ever happened to me, the fact that he would ask me to be by his side on this night is the highest honor I can ever hope to receive.

The award in Cornelius' name is meant to serve as a beacon of hope for children who think there is none --- as a sign that even in the darkest nights, they must not forget that the morning will come.

I am so proud of him.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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