A SON MURDERED. A KILLER JAILED. A HERO MADE.
The Maldonados have mourned their child’s death, but they’re grateful to the cop who helped them find justice
Italian ice or ice cream? That’s what Brett Goldstein and his wife debated on a sunny Saturday afternoon in 2009. They were rolling up to a red light in Pilsen, their 1½-year-old son in the car seat in back. Goldstein, an off-duty cop, saw a man fire into a van stopped at the intersection. Instincts kicked in.
“Shots fired!” he shouted automatically, even though it was his wife and toddler with him, not a partner in a squad car.
Goldstein slammed on the brakes, drew his 9mm handgun and bolted from his car to chase the gunman. With his adrenaline pumping, even the Birkenstock sandals he wore didn’t slow him down as he pursued the gunman, who darted into an alley.
According to his court testimony, Goldstein yelled he was a cop and that he would “f----- kill” the man if he didn’t get on the ground. The man stopped and turned his head.
Goldstein couldn’t see the man’s hands, but feared he was armed and going to take a shot. Goldstein aimed and started to pull the trigger, but stopped when the man threw up his hands and fell to his knees.
“This was the most intense couple of minutes of my life,” Goldstein said.
Police said they found the silver murder weapon near a dumpster in the alley, along with a black shirt that covered the suspect’s face during the shooting.
In September, a jury found the suspect, Marcelino Sauseda, guilty of murdering 19-year-old Jeff Maldonado Jr..
At the sentencing hearing for Sauseda last week, Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Brian Holmes called for a stiff prison term that would “send a message” to other gang members to put down their guns.
Judge Lawrence Flood handed Sauseda a 62-year sentence — about a decade more than the minimum.
“These shootings are senseless,” Flood said. “There is absolutely no reason why Jeff Maldonado is dead today.”
Maldonado’s parents were in court, sitting next to Goldstein.
Maldonado’s mother, Elizabeth, took the witness stand and spoke directly to Sauseda, who rocked in his chair looking away from her.
She managed not to break down in tears when she told the 29-year-old convicted killer: “Because of your cowardly actions, we will never be able to see our son fall in love for the first time. ... His life was snuffed out. A huge part of us was snuffed out as well.”
When Sauseda got his chance to speak, he said only: “I really intend to pursue my innocence and freedom.”
The motive for the shooting was revenge, law enforcement sources said.
Sauseda was gunning for a rival gang member who’d killed his father, the sources said.
But he shot the wrong person: Maldonado, a college student and aspiring musician, had no gang ties, according to his family and the police.
Although Maldonado’s parents lost their shining star, they got something many families of murder victims don’t get: They saw the killer locked up.
“Brett’s our hero,” said Maldonado’s father, Jeff Abbey Maldonado. “If it wasn’t for Brett, we wouldn’t have this kind of closure and resolution.”
Tech guru turns cop
Goldstein wouldn’t be the obvious guy to chase a gunman into an alley.
He previously was an executive with OpenTable, the San Francisco-based restaurant-reservations firm.
But he longed to get involved in public service, and he read that police needed more white-collar professionals in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
He took the Chicago Police Department’s entrance exam and, at age 31, was admitted to the academy in 2006. It wasn’t easy.
“Two weeks into the academy, I am doing pushups. I am in extreme pain. Everyone else is 21,” Goldstein said.
Still, he finished at the top of his class and was given his pick of districts. He chose Harrison, one of the most violent, because he felt he could make a difference. He spent a year in a beat car, but his bosses thought he could make an even bigger difference with his computer know-how.
He went to headquarters where he helped design a system to predict where and when crimes will occur. Then Mayor Rahm Emanuel plucked Goldstein to become his chief data officer. Now Goldstein works for a private financial services firm.
In 2009, though, he was still a cop, at headquarters. Up to that point, he’d made drug busts, locked up people for domestic violence and handled “the other standard arrests you would make on patrol.” But he had never witnessed a shooting, let alone captured a murder suspect.
‘My friend’s been shot’
On July 25, 2009, Jeff Maldonado Jr. was getting ready for his first rap performance. He planned to wear a commemorative Carlton Fisk White Sox cap his dad gave him the day before for his 19th birthday. After a haircut, Maldonado hitched a ride with his barber, Angel Santos. They were parked at the red light in Santos’ van when Maldonado was shot.
Santos asked, “Hey Jeff, are you cool?” before seeing Maldonado slumped over with blood pouring from his head. Santos stopped the van outside a liquor store and screamed, “Call 911! My friend’s been shot!”
Maldonado’s father said gangs didn’t mess with his son because he was a “sweet kid, a musician, an artist.” Under his stage name J Def, the younger Maldonado wrote these rap lyrics:
“We need to work hard to make the world better ... stop killing each other, start coming together ... ’cause the things you want in life like the cars and the bling ... got you blinded by the fact that it’s only a dream.”
Maldonado’s father said his son finished a year at Harold Washington College and planned to transfer to Columbia College to study music management. “He was on his way.”
He was with his son at the hospital when he died. “He woke up from his coma,” he said. “He reached out for us. He was a skinny young man, but we were in awe of his strength.”
In return, Maldonado’s parents were strong for their son at the trial and the sentencing.
“Friends and family were like, ‘That’s really heavy — you have to go to your son’s murder trial?’ ” Maldonado Sr. said. “I said we were lucky to go. A lot of parents out there have suffered a loss, and their killers are still walking the streets.”
It never came out at the trial, but Sauseda was an admitted member of the Latin Counts gang. Police believe he fired into the van to avenge his father, who was shot to death near his Pilsen home seven months earlier. He thought the white van had been used in the murder, sources said.
Sauseda’s attorney, Richard Beuke, argued at trial that early police reports didn’t include the description of the killer wearing a black shirt over his face. He suggested police added the detail to bolster their case and questioned the lineup that led to Sauseda being identified as the killer.
But jurors didn’t buy Sauseda’s defense. One juror, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Goldstein’s trustworthiness as a witness was the key to finding Sauseda guilty.
“Brett Goldstein in this case was seen as the hero because he never lost sight of the suspect,” the juror said. “He put himself and his family at risk.”
After Goldstein testified at the trial in September, Maldonado’s dad walked up and hugged him. Goldstein was relieved.
“A police officer’s No. 1 job is to keep people safe. I frequently reflect on whether there was something more I could have done. Could I have saved Jeff ’s life? That’s the baggage I carry with me,” he said.
Goldstein said the Sauseda case continues to influence how he acts as a parent and a husband. “Every morning, I make sure I kiss my kids goodbye. I am more of a sappy dad, absolutely.”
Goldstein said his wife was proud of him and relieved he was OK.
“I asked myself the question, ‘Did I put my family in jeopardy, the most valuable thing in my life?’ She said, ‘How do you know he would not have shot us next? You protected us.’ ”
But Goldstein said he never thought about it — he just acted.
“I did something any other man or woman on the department would have done,” he said. “It’s what we’re trained to do.”