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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Northern District of Illinois

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, January 29, 2015

Chicago Woman Pleads Guilty To Making Hoax Distress Call, Causing U.S. Coast Guard To Launch $13,000 Rescue Effort

CHICAGO — A Chicago woman pleaded guilty today to a federal crime for making a false report two years ago that a person had fallen into Lake Michigan and was in distress, causing the United States Coast Guard and other first responders to launch a dangerous search and rescue operation that cost the Coast Guard $13,613.

LEONA CHEWNING, 24, was charged earlier this month with one count of communicating a false distress message to the Coast Guard.  She pleaded guilty today at her arraignment before U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle in Federal Court in Chicago.

In pleading guilty, Chewning admitted that she knowingly and willfully communicated a false distress message to the Coast Guard resulting in a life-saving attempt when no help was needed.

“Hoax rescue calls are costly and risky for the responding agencies and personnel who put their own lives on the line in an effort to save others,” said Zachary T. Fardon, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.  “We will prosecute those who needlessly make false rescue reports and hold them accountable for their crime,” Mr. Fardon said.

“False distress calls like this one tie up valuable assets and put our crews at risk since we take every distress call seriously,” said Capt. Nicholas Bartolotta, chief of response for the Ninth Coast Guard District.  “They impede the ability of first responders like the Coast Guard and our partners to respond to real distress where lives may be on the line.  We want to make sure people know the dangers and consequences of knowingly making a hoax call.”

According to Chewning’s plea agreement, about 9:10 p.m. on Feb. 4, 2013, she made an emergency 911 call and reported a person was in distress in the lake near Roger’s Park Beach.  The 911 call center transferred the call to the Coast Guard at Calumet Harbor.  Chewning related her claim and provided a description of the person whom she reported fell into Lake Michigan.  Chewning admitted that at the time she made the call, she knew her report was false.

In response to her call, the Coast Guard and federal and state law enforcement officers responded to Roger’s Park Beach.  The Coast Guard initiated a search and rescue team, including launching a government vehicle with an ice and rescue team from the Wilmette Harbor station and a helicopter from the Traverse City, Mich., air station.  A diver with the Chicago Fire Department entered the water, near where Chewning claimed a person fell in, to locate the alleged victim, but did not locate any person in the water.

Chewning is free on her own recognizance while awaiting sentencing, which was scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on April 22.  She faces a maximum sentence of six years in prison and a $250,000 fine, as well as a civil penalty of $5,000 and mandatory restitution of $13,613.  Her plea agreement anticipates an advisory United States Sentencing Guidelines range of 4 to 10 months’ incarceration, and the Court must impose a reasonable sentence.

The government is being represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Storino.

Plea Agreement

Updated July 24, 2015