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Former C-U activist commits suicide in jail

5-25-2011 Illinois:

URBANA — A former homeless activist who was sentenced to prison Monday for sexually molesting a young child apparently killed himself in the Champaign County jail early Tuesday.

Sheriff Dan Walsh said in a prepared release that Jesse Masengale, 24, who last lived in Urbana, was found hanged in the shower room of the satellite jail on Lierman Avenue in east Urbana about 3:30 a.m. He had been an inmate there for eight months and had shown no indication of self-harm, Walsh said. He apparently used a piece of cloth torn from a bed sheet.

Correction officers provided emergency medical care, and Mr. Masengale was taken to Carle Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 4:19 a.m.

Hours earlier, Mr. Masengale had been sentenced to 30 years in prison for molesting an 8-year-old girl who was the child of a woman with whom Mr. Masengale had a relationship.

He pleaded guilty in April to two counts of predatory criminal sexual assault, admitting to sex acts that occurred with the girl in an Urbana home between November 2009 and September 2010.

Judge Tom Difanis imposed sentences of 15 years on each count. Because the charges alleged separate acts, the sentences had to be served one after the other.

Assistant State's Attorney Duke Harris said the girl and her mother submitted emotionally charged victim impact statements for the judge to consider that touched on the girl's fear of Mr. Masengale and the sense of betrayal that both mother and daughter felt.

The girl had told her mother of the abuse in September and the mother immediately reported it to Urbana police. Mr. Masengale was arrested Sept. 20 and had been in the county jail since. Harris said he had no other criminal convictions.

Mr. Masengale was represented by Urbana attorney Bob Auler, who called friends of Mr. Masengale's from the Catholic Worker House in Champaign to testify on his behalf Monday.

Auler described Mr. Masengale as an example of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He said Mr. Masengale had readily admitted his criminal behavior but had a kind-hearted side ministering to those less fortunate. Auler said Mr. Masengale was "shattered" by the sentence. He knew at the time of his guilty plea that prison was the only option.

A Paxton native, Mr. Masengale was active in helping set up a tent city for homeless people in late May 2009 in the back yard of the Catholic Worker House, 317 S. Randolph St., C.

The tent city brought much attention to the plight of the homeless but was short-lived at that location because of zoning violations and complaints from neighbors. The community eventually transformed itself into an advocacy group known as Safe Haven.

After stays at a Mahomet campground, a couple of Champaign churches, and Restoration Urban Ministries, 1213 Parkland Court, C, Safe Haven disbanded about a year later because organizers and supporters said the its members lost energy and didn't have the "human or financial capacity" to establish a more permanent community.

The last suicide at the Champaign County jail happened in June 2009. Three suicides in 2004 prompted Walsh and the county board to contract for professional mental health counseling for inmates.

Walsh said Mr. Masengale apparently acted alone.

"In accordance with normal procedure, following being sentenced to a lengthy prison term on Monday, Mr. Masengale was interviewed by mental health professionals and there was no indication of any concern of self-harm. Mr. Masengale was housed in an open dormitory-like setting with about 30 other prisoners and had no significant problems while at the jail," Walsh said. ..Source.. by Mary Schenk

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