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CHICAGO – Almost three months have passed, and the Chicago Police Department appears no closer to solving one of the most bizarre acts of fan-on-fan violence in recent memory. One that left Pittsburgh Steelers fan Zack Heddinger blind, and local authorities searching for a group of Chicago Bears fans that allegedly poisoned him.
The frustrating search for clues began a few days after Heddinger passed out at South Loop bar Kitty O'Shea's, and was taken to Rush University Medical Center following Chicago's Sept. 20 win over Pittsburgh at Soldier Field. After drinking alcohol that was allegedly offered by a Bears fan, Heddinger blacked out and later went into cardiac arrest while being rushed by ambulance to an emergency room. Heddinger eventually went blind, and doctors began to suspect he had been poisoned with some form of toxic grain alcohol. Almost three months later, Chicago Police are still attempting to sort out exactly what happened on the day Heddinger's nightmare began.
"I don't remember anything from that night, beforehand or after," said Heddinger, who suffered some brain damage in the incident. "I really can't remember a whole lot about any of it."
Heddinger arrived in Chicago as part of a trip he and friends take annually to see a Steelers road game. Heddinger, 46, traveled with companions to Kitty O'Shea's for drinks after Pittsburgh's loss, friends told the police. According to an incident report, a few of Heddinger's friends engaged some Bears fans in trash talking. Later in the night, one of the Chicago fans offered Heddinger's friend an unspecified drink as a gesture of goodwill. He refused, but witnesses told police Heddinger stepped in and offered to take the drink.
"It's a horrifying, horrifying ordeal," said Victor Hunter Pribanic, a Pittsburgh area lawyer who has been retained by Heddinger. "… One of the Chicago guys bought a drink for one of Zack's companions, who was the one who was really engaged in the argument with [the Chicago fans]. This guy declined it, and Zack, trying to be the peacemaker, said 'Oh, I'll take it.' He drank it, and that's the only thing that distinguished him through the night from the other [Pittsburgh fans] who were not similarly affected."
Not long after taking the drink, Heddinger blacked out and was rushed to the hospital. Along the way, his heart stopped several times and paramedics had to resuscitate him. Initially, doctors thought it was merely a case of a fan drinking himself to the brink of death, but after further tests and Heddinger's ensuing blindness, they suspected a type of extremely toxic grain alcohol.
"It's likely something that contained the kind of alcohol that is in antifreeze and that kind of thing," Pribanic said. "You know those old stories about drinking moonshine and it making you go blind? Well they're true if it's the wrong kind of alcohol. That seems to be the leading theory."
Once doctors began to suspect poisoning and the events of the night were pieced together, police were contacted and an investigation began. But months later, arrests still haven't been made, and while Pribanic said he believed a person of interest had been identified, a Chicago Police department source denied that to Yahoo! Sports. The source would only say that an investigation was ongoing and that detectives were still investigating what happened inside Kitty O'Shea's on Sept. 20.
"There have been no developments as far as I know," Heddinger said. "They pretty much don't think they're going to find out what happened with it. They went into it knowing they weren't going to find out a lot. I am [disappointed], but at this point what am I going to do? I'm working on getting healthy."
Pribanic said he is "aware that police have a [security] tape" from the bar. Kitty O'Shea's is actually part of Chicago's downtown Hilton Hotel, and a hotel spokesman said they are fully cooperating with the investigation.
What happens now is unclear. Pribanic is collecting information from the hospital and waiting for the Chicago police department to conclude their investigation before the family weighs its options and decides how to proceed. However, he said he wouldn't rule out potential litigation against either Kitty O'Shea's, Hilton, or even Rush Medical Center.
"That's certainly a possibility," Pribanic said. "Assuming there was something placed in the drink, if the bartender was involved, the hotel could bear some responsibility. As far as the hospital, if it was some condition that they should have picked up on and assessed and diagnosed and treated, there is also that potential. I'm investigating both of those areas for Zack, obviously."
Though Heddinger is employed in management by a jewelry company, he didn't have health insurance at the time of the incident, and said he has not been able to work since the incident. He is living back in Pennsylvania with the help of family, and undergoing treatments to help regain his eyesight.
"I've gained some of it back. It's not at the rate I want to get it back, but it is coming little by little," Heddinger said. "I'm doing hyperbaric oxygen treatments. I'm actually on my way for one right now. "[The jewelry company] is holding my position for me right now, but I don't know how much longer that is going to last. All I can do is get healthy."
- Chicago Police Department