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Neighbors rally to local handyman locked up in Cook County Jail as threat of coronavirus spreads

Annie Sweeney, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

CHICAGO -- Peter Baumgartner's tool belt hangs exactly where he left it more than a month ago.

Nothing in the handyman's tidy work station along the east wall of the garage -- not the hanging lawnmower or push broom, the rope or work boots -- has been disturbed since the day in late February when he was taken to Cook County Jail.

Like many Chicagoans, Baumgartner's neighbors on their West Rogers Park block have been gripped by news of the COVID-19 pandemic. They've stood on front lawns together, at a distance, holding candles to support first responders.

But worries over the impact of the deadly virus have hit even closer to home, with one of their own neighbors stuck in Cook County Jail on an unusually high bond of $475,000.

Baumgartner, 55, pleaded guilty to a 2017 charge of evading a drug test but has a long history of missing required probation appointments and court dates, including once when he walked out of a courtroom on a hearing date, according to court records. He was finally picked up in February on an outstanding warrant.

Some of his neighbors were aware that Baumgartner has had struggles with the law. But on their block, they said he is still a gentle giant they also know has worked to overcome issues in his life.


On Wednesday morning, Baumgartner's case was before a judge for the second time since he was picked up on the warrant.

But a lot had changed since February. The Cook County court system is now on a near-shutdown with a reduced number of courtrooms open. Two "duty courtrooms" at the county's main criminal courthouse are open to hear cases on an emergency basis.

Baumgartner was not even in the courtroom, as jail detainees are no longer being brought to the courthouse. Instead, his public defender waived his presence and asked that the bond be reduced.

Judge Angela Petrone, the duty judge who that day was handling cases from more than a dozen other judges' court calls, immediately asked for time to catch up.


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