Constable: Suburban cops help Zion felon make up for lost time

  • Telling his story in WTTW's new "Living in Poverty" series, Zion native Gary Ladehoff gives a face to the issues facing the suburban poor.

    Telling his story in WTTW's new "Living in Poverty" series, Zion native Gary Ladehoff gives a face to the issues facing the suburban poor. Courtesy of Liam Alexander for WTTW

  • Director of Photography Alejandro Marin, left, and Producer/Director Pat Odom captured footage in Chicago, Zion and Hainesville for the new WTTW digital series, "Firsthand: Living in Poverty.

    Director of Photography Alejandro Marin, left, and Producer/Director Pat Odom captured footage in Chicago, Zion and Hainesville for the new WTTW digital series, "Firsthand: Living in Poverty. Courtesy of Liam Alexander for WTTW

  • As executive producer of a new WTTW digital series, "Firsthand: Living in Poverty," Dan Protess says he hopes viewers are able to put a face on poverty and consider ways to improve conditions.

    As executive producer of a new WTTW digital series, "Firsthand: Living in Poverty," Dan Protess says he hopes viewers are able to put a face on poverty and consider ways to improve conditions. Courtesy of WTTW

 
 
Updated 1/17/2021 12:28 PM

The first car he stole at age 13, the drug dealer he shot, the $25,000 worth of baby formula he stole to pay for his heroin addiction, the years he spent behind bars -- all of that is in the past for 27-year-old Zion native Gary Ladehoff.

That's because of the help he got from two suburban police officers, a Hainesville couple and his older sister, says Ladehoff, who tells his remarkable story in WTTW's ambitious digital series, "Firsthand: Living in Poverty," which becomes available Monday at WTTW.com/firsthand.

 

"It's crazy. I would have never thought I'd be able to call these guys (the officers) my friends," says Ladehoff, who now lives in McHenry with his 3-year-old daughter, MiaBella, and his girlfriend, and says he is dedicated to being a good father.

"We were looking for people really on the edge," says Pat Odom, producer and director of the latest installment of the WTTW "Firsthand" series. He and WTTW executive producer Dan Protess talked to leaders in five dozen different agencies that deal with poverty to find the subjects for their documentary.

"He's a great kid. He's got a lot of potential," Odom says of Ladehoff. "You need a brave person to open himself up. There's a stigma associated with poverty. There's a lot of shame associated with that."

Other people profiled in the series include Patricia Jackson, who lives with her husband and kids in her mom's basement on the South Side of Chicago and receives financial aid from the not-for-profit Family Independence Initiative; new father Adino Medina, who lives in Chicago's Marquette Park neighborhood and needs to pay off his court fees; Melissa Fonseca, who has been working at the same job for 16 years but barely makes enough to cover the cost of living in her gentrifying Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago; and Dominetrius Chambers, who finished third in her high school class and is working with the not-for-profit My Block, My Hood, My City to take the next step.

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As the only suburbanite in the series, Ladehoff faces unique challenges.

"One of the big issues about poverty in the suburbs is how far spread out everything is," Odom says.

"You need transportation to get a job, but you need a job to afford transportation," Protess says.

Ladehoff was living in Zion, bumming rides and working in the kitchen of a sports bar. He lost a better-paying job after breaking his arm. Living with family friends Mike and Deanna Serio in Hainesville, Ladehoff landed a seasonal job with an asphalt company.

"Before I would apply anywhere, I'd ask, 'Do you guys hire a felon?'" says Ladehoff, who stole three cars by the time he was 14, once getting caught at the border with Mexico and once in Salt Lake City, Utah, as he was attempting to drive back to Zion. Arrested at age 15 in Zion for growing marijuana, Ladehoff spent time at a juvenile facility in Vernon Hills before serving six months at the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles.

In June 2011, Ladehoff shot a man during what he says was "a drug deal that went bad" in Waukegan. The victim recovered, and Ladehoff was convicted of aggravated battery with a firearm and sent to the Dixon Correctional Center. He was paroled in 2013, but ended up back behind bars because he tested positive for heroin in violation of his parole agreement.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

To pay for his heroin, he stole $25,000 worth of baby formula from Walmart before an investigation caught him. He spent another six months in the Vandalia Correctional Center.

In January 2017 he went through rehab in "A Way Out," a Lake County program to help addicts recover and avoid crimes.

"This January is four years clean for me," says Ladehoff, who gives credit to two of the police officers who had arrested him in the past.

An award-winning member of the Winthrop Harbor police, Sgt. Brian Gallaher first arrested Ladehoff for "street racing" and later arrested him on a warrant that sent him back to prison. "When you get out, call me," Gallaher said.

Zion police detective Matt Thornton also has a long history with Ladehoff. "Oh yeah, I've had so many run-ins with him. He chased me down," remembers Ladehoff, who ran from police after fights and problems with marijuana. "I've known him a long time. He was always fair to me. He told me, 'You're going to end up in prison, on drugs, or dead.'"

Connecting with both those officers after prison, Ladehoff attended Thornton's missionary outreach group called My Father's Business. Getting the help and encouragement to get his life back on track, Ladehoff bought a 16-year-old Pontiac, works at a few part-time jobs now and has plans to return to a full-time job in the summer. His mother, ill for a long time with multiple sclerosis, died one year ago. His older sister, Lynnde, has been a constant supporter.

"I think Gary's story will really resonate with other parts of the country," Protess says. Problems such as substance abuse span all demographics.

"I've seen people who had everything and parents who bent over backward for them, and they end up dead in their bedroom with a needle in their arm," Ladehoff says.

Just as wealth can be inherited, poverty can also be passed from generation to generation. The idea that anybody can pull themselves up and live the American dream doesn't always ring true.

"The flip side is if you haven't made it, it's your fault. As a result, we don't like to talk about poverty in America," Protess says.

"We see it firsthand. It's a way for the viewer to have empathy and see what that's like," Odom says of the people profiled in the series. Ladehoff says he's hoping others can find inspiration from his story.

"No matter what you're going through, you've got to keep pushing forward," Ladehoff says. "The sooner you step up and try to take the right path, the easier it's going to be."

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