Jewish World Review Nov. 18, 1999 /9 Kislev, 5760
"From bad things,
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
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
The key witness was only 8 years old during the trial
in 1990. He was Lattie's brother, Cornelius
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
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
I had been in Chicago for 20 years at the time. I had
never seen a Bulls game; I had never been to the
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
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
He tried to say something, but the words would not
come out. So the man helped him out by speaking
"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
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
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
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
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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