By Maria Maxham
What do the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), lawsuits, secretly bankrolling Maine and Massachusetts casino campaigns, and criminal and tax investigations in Laos have to do with a cemetery in Forest Park? It's complicated.
Forest Home Cemetery at 863 Desplaines Ave. is on the market, but an absentee owner and IDNR violations concerning the land have paved a rough road for the sale. An IDOT eminent domain takeover of a section of the property along Interstate 290 has added to the complicated issues surrounding the cemetery, which has also seen trouble with suspected gang burials and funerals over the past few years. In fact, shots were fired at the cemetery just this past weekend on Nov. 2, potentially related to a gang burial.
According to Forest Park's 2014 Comprehensive Plan, Forest Home Cemetery is the combination of Forest Home and German Waldheim cemeteries that merged in 1969. It is approximately 230 acres in size.
"In terms of land area, cemeteries are the predominant land use in the village and anchor the west and south sides of the community. Approximately 40 to 45 percent of the village is comprised of this use," according to the document.
Home to famous graves, including the Haymarket Monument, Forest Home Cemetery has long been regarded as an important part of Forest Park's history. The Des Plaines River runs through it, and it houses deer, coyotes, occasionally beavers and other wildlife — an oasis of nature, bounded by I-290 and Roosevelt Road, two busy throughways.
Because of the river, though, heavy rain can cause flooding in and around the cemetery. In March 2013, the village of Forest Park was notified by the IDNR's Office of Water Resources of floodway violations on the cemetery property. Fill from graves had been used as berms to keep the river from flooding, despite the fact that such action is a violation of local and state ordinances. This information, obtained from a FOIA of emails between the Forest Park Department of Public Health and Safety and the village's engineering firm CBBEL, made it clear that the berms had been there for some time; mature trees have grown up through the banked areas.
Today, however, the illegal berms still exist, and were recently brought back into the spotlight due to the property potentially changing ownership in a sale to an unspecified buyer.
Flooding in the area also affects I-290. To eliminate this flooding, IDOT acquired part of the cemetery property along the north side of the property, between the 1st Avenue and Desplaines exits going eastward.
According to Guy Tridgell of IDOT, some of the state's ownership is temporary while the 60-year-old pump station on the property is rebuilt at a cost of $46 million, budgeted in the 2020 fiscal year. The pump assists with drainage to keep water off 290, redirecting it back into the river. IDOT owns about 1.5 acres of the cemetery, and construction is underway. Currently, the right-most lane going eastbound between the two exits has been altered to provide more space for IDOT to set up for the project.
The current owner of Forest Cemetery is John Kevin Baldwin, founder and CEO of Bridge Capital LLC, located in Saipan in the Mariana Islands where he lives. Neither he nor his lawyer, John Kallman of Chicago, could be reached for the status of the sale or ongoing work in the cemetery.
But Baldwin's storied past is filled with lawsuits and controversy from Maine to Cambodia. Although Bridge Capital LLC, according to its website, is an international investment banking firm, it's been in the spotlight more than once for lawsuits and accusations of improper conduct related to the casino industry.
In 2015, Baldwin was under criminal and tax investigation in Lao People's Democratic Republic after being accused of bribing governmental officials with over $300,000 to stop an audit. The government claimed they lost $70 million in tax revenue over a five-year period from this, according to an article in the Saipan Tribune. During this time, the government also said they had an email from Baldwin, in which he instructed his staff to bribe a Cambodian official with $120,000 to obtain a Cambodian lottery license.
In an article on Maine Public's website, it was revealed that Baldwin's partner at Bridge Capital, Shawn Scott, runs a company called Capital Seven LLC. A campaign to bring gambling to Bangor, Maine was funded secretly for over a year by Scott, among others, and by Bridge Capital as well.
Prior to that, Bridge Capital hid $1.4 million in contributions to an unsuccessful campaign to bring a slots parlor to Massachusetts. They were fined $125,000 by Massachusetts regulators.
It's unclear who the potential buyers of the Forest Home Cemetery are because Baldwin and his attorney could be reached for comment regarding the property, and Forest Home Cemetery's current manager declined to comment.