The relatives of Ruth Johnson, whose face is on the flyer, protest outside of the Maywood Police Station in 2020. | File
Sunday, November 20, 2022 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
The family of a beloved Maywood woman who was killed during a controversial police pursuit of a stolen vehicle on Father’s Day in 2019 has some closure after police arrested a man suspected to be the driver of the stolen vehicle.
Maywood police arrested Gabriel Ruiz, 21, of Chicago, on Wednesday. Ruiz was charged with felony reckless homicide for his alleged role in the death of Ruth Johnson, 40. Ruiz’s bond was set at $150,000.
The crash happened at around 11:30 a.m., June 16, 2019. At the time, former Maywood Police Chief Valdimir Talley said an officer noticed that the vehicle had committed a traffic violation and activated his squad car lights. That’s when “the kids took off,” he said.
Police said a group of juveniles were in the car and driving south when the vehicle they were in crashed into a car driven by Edward N. Owens near the 400 block of 1st Avenue, between Randolph and Pine. Johnson, who was on the passenger side of Owens’ vehicle, sustained fatal injuries while Owens, who was also critically injured, survived.
Days after the crash, police detained two juveniles who were allegedly inside the stolen vehicle. But the juveniles were released without charges due to a lack of evidence, police said at the time.
In an interview on Nov. 20, Paula Ali, Ruth Johnson’s sister, said she was relieved to hear about the arrest.
“I feel good,” she said. “I feel good and I’m happy because it’s been a long time coming. There are still so many pieces to that case. I’m hoping [Ruiz] opens up and talks so everyone is held accountable.”
Johnson’s death rocked the Maywood community, where she was known for her skills and talents on the basketball court as a member of the Triton College women’s basketball program, as a caregiver and as a poet.
In November 2019, Triton College granted Johnson a posthumous degree during a women’s basketball game, where school officials presented Ali and other family members with Johnson’s framed jersey.
“The family, players and fans were told of a special person, youngest of 10 children, who often gave more than she received,” Triton spokesperson Tim McKinney said at the time.
Community members said Johnson would “often visit the sick and feed the homeless. Acting as a caregiver for many, she looked after many sick family members and friends,” he added. “She was always lending a helping hand to someone. One day she gave a homeless person her last $20 bill and even the shoes off her feet,” McKinney stated.
“She actually taught us how to love, forgive and be kind to everyone,” Ali said of her sister in 2019.
The recent arrest of Ruiz is a sign of hope in a tragedy that has been otherwise mired in controversy. In 2020, the Ali family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the village of Maywood and three Maywood police officers, among other defendants.
Days after the crash, former Maywood Police Chief Valdimir Talley denied that police were in pursuit despite dashboard camera evidence showing officers chasing the stolen vehicle.
The former chief also said that the Cook County Sheriff’s office and Illinois State Police were investigating the crash but several months later denied that either agency was involved in the case.
The lawsuit also provided evidence suggesting that Maywood police started the pursuit “without the aid of an in-car camera video, a dash-cam, or any other video recording device” and “had no basis to commence the pursuit other than that the GMC SUV [driver] had allegedly disobeyed a stop sign.”
In October, Talley said Maywood police conducted its own internal investigation into the crash but he still asked the village board to bring in an outside private contractor to investigate.
The board hired LWM Research, Inc., a private investigative firm based in Huntley to investigate the crash. Huntley charged the village $125 an hour. The board stipulated that the firm should update the village on the progress of the investigation after every 40 hours’ worth of work. But it was not clear if this ever happened with regularity and the village has not released the results of the investigation.
In June 2020, Ali and other Johnson relatives staged a protest outside of the Maywood Police Department, 125 S. 5th Ave., designed to pressure local politicians and village officials to look into the case more aggressively.
During the interview on Nov. 20, Ali declined to comment on the status of the lawsuit, referring questions to her attorneys. She said she and her family hope Ruiz and his co-conspirators are all held accountable.
“I hope that the Cook County State’s Attorney does right by the victims,” she said. “But I’m glad he’s arrested.”
Ruiz will appear in court again next month. Ali said she and her family members plan to be there.