Ex-clerk who donned judge's robe found dead before trial

A former law clerk who was facing trial next week in Chicago for impersonating a judge in 2016 has been found dead at her suburban Chicago home, the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office said Friday.

Rhonda Crawford, once on a fast track to a high-salary, high-status job as a judge, was pronounced dead Thursday at her Calumet City home, a daily coroner's ledger said. It offered no details on the cause of the 46-year-old's death, indicating only that an autopsy was pending.

The former nurse drew headlines and ridicule around Chicago after word spread she'd donned black judge's robes on Aug. 11, 2016, and presided over traffic cases that should've been heard by a real judge. Early that year, she had won a primary for an open county judgeship.

She told reporters later she had been shadowing judges to prepare for becoming a judge, which she called "a life-long ambition." At one point, an actual judge, Valarie Turner, invited her to sit on the bench. Accepting was a spur-of-the-moment decision, which she regretted, she said.

Her lawyer, Rob Robertson, told the Chicago Tribune Friday he didn't know how his client had died.

"Rhonda was a truly great person who led an incredibly good life and wound up caught in a situation that was well beyond what it should have been," he said.

After word spread about what she'd done in 2016, she was fired from her $57,000-a-year position and charged with official misconduct, which carries a maximum five-year prison term. She pleaded not guilty to that charge and a charge of impersonation. Her trial was to start Monday.

Even after the incident, Crawford went on to win the general election that year. But her license had been suspended and the Illinois Supreme Court prohibited her being sworn in to $180,000-a-year judge's job. Turner was removed from the bench.

During disciplinary hearings, Crawford described being shocked when another judge approached her in a hallway shortly after she took the robe off. The judge sounded angry, asking, "What would you put your career on the line like this?" Crawford responded, "I didn't know I was."

After she was charged criminally, many observers, including Chicago Sun-Time columnist Mark Brown, agreed Crawford wasn't fit for a judgeship. But Brown also wrote that "the criminal charges are an unnecessary bit of piling on."