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Ex-Gov. George Ryan out of prison, handed late wife’s ashes

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Updated: March 2, 2013 7:39AM



Former Gov. George Ryan had been back in his Kankakee Victorian home a little less than an hour Wednesday morning, when one of his grandchildren approached, holding a golden urn.

It contained the ashes of his late wife, Lura Lynn Ryan.

George Ryan was finally out of prison, facing a very different life than the one he left behind more than five years ago.

“He has paid a severe price: The loss of his wife and brother while he was in the penitentiary; the loss of his pension, his office, his good name and 5½ years of imprisonment,” former Gov. Jim Thompson, Ryan’s lawyer, told reporters later. “Now near 80 years old, that is a significant punishment.”

Gov. Pat Quinn called it the culmination of “a very, very sad chapter in Illinois,” but the Democrat suggested the punishment was warranted.

“Justice had to be served. So, Mr. Ryan … served his time, and we’re moving forward.”

Ryan, 78, was released from a federal prison in Indiana early Wednesday in the midst of a roaring thunderstorm. After a brief stop at Thompson’s Chicago home, Ryan reported to the Near West Side halfway house where he was expected to finish out his term, only to be told he go home to Kankakee.

“He’s not bitter. He’s not angry. He’s accepting,” Thompson said later. “He’s not expressing any feelings at the moment. He’s getting accustomed to his new surroundings, that takes a bit.”

Thompson told the Chicago Sun-Times’ Michael Sneed that Ryan left the federal prison around 1 a.m. Wednesday and was brought to Thompson’s house in Chicago where he had a cup of coffee and changed from sweats into a gray blazer and dark pants brought from Ryan’s home.

“The maroon tie he wore was the first he had worn in 5½ years,” Thompson said.

Ryan wasn’t particularly chatty along the way, Thompson said.

“Just small talk about how good it was to be out, how he was sorry he didn’t get a chance — because of the early hour of his release — to say goodbye to people at Terre Haute who had been good to him,” Thompson said.

They got into a car around 5 a.m. and proceeded to the halfway house where Ryan was processed.

With Ryan’s son, Homer, and Thompson beside him, Ryan showed no emotion as he passed the media Wednesday morning. Scurrying reporters yelled questions at Ryan, but he didn’t answer.

“We had hoped he was going to get released to home confinement, but George did not know until he got to the halfway house,” Thompson said. Thompson did not find out until later after he left the halfway house.

“This is a decision of the Bureau of Prisons. We didn’t ask for it,” Thompson said.

Ryan’s grandson, Mike Pignotti, drove the former governor home. Ryan’s son, Homer, was another passenger in the car.

Ryan arrived at the Kankakee home where he and his wife raised their six children about 10:30 a.m. The former governor was immediately mobbed by his children and grandchildren, Thompson said.

“The kids were smiling, George was smiling, it was a beautiful sight,” Thompson said.

Before one of his grandchildren handed him the urn, Ryan and the 21 members of his family munched on ham-and-cheese sandwiches and started to make up for the time lost while Ryan had been away.

Most former prisoners spend at least a few weeks at the halfway house — not a few hours as Ryan did — before being allowed home. But Ed Ross, a spokesman with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in Washington D.C., said so quick a release is “very common” for elderly inmates.

While at his home in Kankakee, Ryan will not be allowed to leave home during non-working hours and will remain “under the strict supervision of the Bureau of Prisons,” Ross said.

“The whole point of community corrections is to transition the individual back into their community. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis as to how much halfway house time ... an individual needs,” Ross said.

Thompson said Ryan will be required to report to the halfway house at least a couple of times a month and may be called at any time by either the halfway house or his probation officer.

Ryan was sentenced to 6½ years on racketeering and fraud charges and served a bit longer than five years in a prison camp within the sprawling federal complex in Terre Haute. His expected full release date is in July.

“Today is another step in a long journey for George Ryan,” Thompson told reporters shortly after Ryan checked into the halfway house. “He would like me to tell you he is grateful to leave the penitentiary, he’s grateful also for the support and encouragement he’s received from many people by way of visits or phone calls or cards or letters.”

Asked if Ryan was sorry for the licenses-for-bribes scandal that revolutionized state law, Thompson said they hadn’t talked about it. He said Ryan didn’t yet have a job lined up as required by his release.

Thompson said he’s unsure what Ryan plans to do after he’s released.

But Thompson said it’s likely Ryan will be involved with death penalty issues, whether that’s consulting or giving speeches on the subject.

“He looks pretty good,” Thompson said. “He lost weight. He told me he’d been lifting weights and walking a mile a day. He worked in the carpenter’s shop. So he understands something about woodworking now. Look, he’s an old-timer. He’ll get along.”

The curtains were drawn Wednesday at the red-brick Ryan home in Kankakee. People filtered in and out to take quick drags on cigarettes or run errands. A group from inside played a quick game of basketball in a neighbor’s driveway, before overcast skies turned to slushy rain, driving them away.

At one point, Ryan’s son could be seen retrieving from his SUV what appeared to be enlarged photos of his mother — Ryan’s wife — taken when she was a young woman. Lura Lynn Ryan died in 2011, never giving up efforts to win her husband’s freedom.

Donald Patterson of Danville parked his truck outside Ryan’s home for a while to take it all in.

“The halfway house, it probably doesn’t have any room,” Patterson said. “And I don’t know that he’s a threat to society. So maybe this is the best thing for him with his age. You know, what’s he going to do with his future? With his record? So maybe this is the best place for him. It’s just a sad thing.”

Quinn issued a statement calling it “a very, very sad chapter in Illinois. And I happen to know the mom and dad of those six children who died, who were killed and incinerated by someone who shouldn’t have a license. They stayed at the governor’s mansion. I had breakfast with Scott and Janet Willis.”

Six children of the Rev. Scott and Janet Willis died in a fiery car accident caused by a truck driver who got his license with a bribe while Ryan was secretary of state. The Willis family tragedy was not directly a part of Ryan’s trial, although there was some testimony about Ryan putting an end to an investigation into the role corruption played in the children’s deaths.

Scott Willlis declined to comment on Ryan’s release.

Contributing: Dave McKinney



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