The parents of a scientist found dead at a North Side scrapyard traveled from South America last week to retrace their son’s last steps in Chicago — a city foreign to the family — but left Sunday with even more doubts about what happened.
Their son, Hugo Marcial Checo Silva, 35, was found dead early Oct. 29 at General Iron Industries, 1909 N. Clifton Ave., on the city’s North Side.
His parents, Dr. Silvia Silva Vinoli and Hugo Checo, were told by Chicago police that the death appears to be accidental. But after spending days in Chicago, the family isn’t convinced that what happened to their son was an accident. They don’t know what exactly happened, but they don’t think police have thoroughly investigated the hours before their son’s death.
The Cook County medical examiner’s office hasn’t determined a cause or manner of death. The Chicago Police Department said Monday that the investigation into the death remained open.
“If I see (on video) my son walking alone, then I’ll tell myself, yes, it was caused by carelessness,” Silva Vinoli said in Spanish while visiting Chicago. “He drank alcohol, he went walking, he fell and that happened to him. But if I don’t see that, I could imagine that someone put him there. That is to say, I could imagine a million things.”
The scrapyard where her son — whom the family affectionately called Huguito — was found borders the North Branch of the Chicago River and is less than a mile from the gentlemen’s club where Checo Silva was last seen with his colleagues, according to his family.
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Checo Silva, a Paraguay native, worked as a scientist at the National Institute of Applied Sciences of Lyon in France and had traveled to Chicago for the first time last month for a conference about tribology, the study of interacting surfaces in motion, that took place at The Drake hotel. Less than 24 hours before he was found dead, he had served as the vice chair for sessions about fluid lubrication.
Checo Silva stayed at a different Gold Coast hotel, ate deep-dish pizza with colleagues and at some point ended up at a gentlemen’s nightclub in the Goose Island neighborhood, his parents pieced together. Their son last made contact with his girlfriend late Oct. 28.
By 5 a.m. Oct. 29, security guards for General Iron found Checo Silva dead. The news of their son’s death didn’t reach the family until the next day. One of Checo Silva’s colleagues in Japan reached out to a relative in Uruguay, who then contacted one of Checo Silva’s sisters in Paraguay. The family spent a week mourning as they waited for visas to travel to the United States.
Once in Chicago, his parents booked a room at the same hotel where their son stayed and started retracing his steps. They went to the club and then walked to the scrapyard, taking photos of cameras along the way that could have captured Checo Silva walking.
They pressed Chicago police for answers about the death investigation. The couple said they were shown a video that detectives believe shows their son walking. But when the couple looked at it, all they saw was a dark silhouette they were barely able to make out.
The couple also has nagging questions about why their son’s wallet has not been found. And the family questions why police allowed their son’s colleagues to take his laptop and backpack back to France if the investigation wasn’t complete.
Silva Vinoli, who is a medical doctor, examined her son’s body, caressing him one last time while also trying to find medical answers about his death.
“That’s very hard, very hard to have to examine your dead son,” she said in Spanish. “But I had to do it. I had to be strong and do it.”
The couple was told that a heavy object crushed their son. But Silva Vinoli only saw a fractured arm, far from the number of injuries she expected to see. They also haven’t seen any photos from police or the medical examiner’s office showing their son’s body trapped under an object.
“It’s very easy to close the case and say it’s an accident,” Silva Vinoli said. “Show me that it’s an accident, and at least one camera that shows my son walking there.”
Silva Vinoli felt her son was just starting his life as an adult. After obtaining his doctoral degree in Brazil, he went to work in France. He spoke at least four languages, rode his bike to work and liked playing the guitar. He had sent photos of himself tossing dough in France as he made chipa, a traditional bread from South America, for his friends.
The family had planned to spend the holidays in France with Checo Silva, but they will now use that time to continue their own investigation into his death.
“All lives are important,” Silva Vinoli said. “But to a mother, the life of her son is something very special. Like I told his father, now we take him, his ashes, in a small coffin.”