YORKVILLE, Illinois — All small towns have secrets. Some simply loom larger than others when word gets out.
That appears to be the case in Yorkville, where the combination of power and cash were apparently used for the last five years to keep someone quiet. That much is now known, thanks to the indictment that named Yorkville native and former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert as the subject of a federal investigation.
But Yorkville’s secret, surely known by a few but mentioned by no one over the years, is slowly starting to leak out: Hastert’s money allegedly bought a victim’s silence—a victim he met as a teacher well before he was third in line for the presidency.
There are an impossible number of names that comprise the possible victim pool—anywhere from 10 to 20 wrestlers for every year from 1965 to 1981, Hastert’s tenure at Yorkville High School. On Friday, at least a dozen reporters perused the Yorkville Library’s collection of high school yearbooks, looking for clues to what began as suspicions on Thursday night only to turn into leaks just shy of official confirmation by Friday afternoon.
Several reports confirmed Hastert carried on a sexual relationship with at least one of his former students. That relationship has come at the price of $1.7 million in cash payoffs for Hastert as well as his reputation as the steady hand in a times of chaos inside the Capitol.
But in Yorkville, the news seemed beyond comprehension.
The library and its yearbooks offered the only chance for clues to the identity of Hastert’s victim or victims. But who to look for among the decades of students who learned to wrestle under Hastert’s tutelage? The answer, for now, is unknown.
The man who would later be two heartbeats from the presidency held a few positions at Yorkville High School. He taught social studies—sitting on a desk, gesturing with his hands and wearing a wool sweater vest in an early ’70s yearbook, Hastert certainly looked the part. He also worked with students in the National Honors Society and Chess Club one year, but it was his role as wrestling coach that Hastert was most known.
It was so much a part of his persona, no profile of him would be complete without mention of his glory days coaching on the mat. Even his book, Speaker: Lessons from Forty Years in Coaching and Politics, makes reference to his former occupation.
So maybe it’s fitting that it’s also in the first paragraph of his federal indictment.
“From approximately 1965 to 1981, defendant John Dennis Hastert was a high school teacher and coach in Yorkville, Illinois,” it reads. For Hastert, the document is likely one of very few that list his time at the school before he reached the heights of power. A résumé in reverse.
The indictment also details what appears to be a case of extortion carried out by “Individual A,” who worked out a deal with Hastert to the tune of $3.5 million for their silence. The allegations must have been serious, not only because Hastert saw fit to play ball with whomever was blackmailing him, but because authorities looked right past the crime and to the vague “misconduct” John or Jane Doe suffered.
That Hastert wronged anyone was a surprise to many in Washington, D.C., where the former speaker was regarded as a gentlemanly politician mentioned in the same breath as fellow Illinois statesman Bob Michel. It also raised eyebrows in Yorkville, where Hastert’s secret had laid dormant until Thursday night.
Dave, a farmer who lives about 20 miles southeast of the small community, had heard about Hastert’s indictment. He knew a little about his neighbor’s legal troubles, too, if you were wondering.
He was aware, and thought everyone else was as well, that you don’t pull $10,000 cash out of the bank without expecting a visit from the Feds.
“I just thought that was common knowledge,” said Dave, who also knew you don’t give your last name to a reporter when you live near a town as small as Yorkville.
“My wife just called from there,” Dave said, spitting out a shot glass worth of brown tobacco juice. “Told me the place is lousy with reporters.”
In a state with its fair share of criminal politicians, news of Hastert’s misdeeds brought the expected harrumphing from Dave.
“I thought he was a real up and up guy,” Dave said. “There’s some politicians in Illinois that are crookeder than shit and need to get out, but when I heard about this I was in shock.”
But Hastert’s alleged misconduct appears different than those who have preceded him in Illinois’s Criminal Politicians Hall of Fame.
Having spent most of the day on a tractor, Dave wasn’t quite up to speed on the leaks coming from authorities that Hastert had carried on a sexual relationship with a student.
“Oh, really?” he said, eyebrows raised, eyes rolling. “Well, that is something.”
With no more money to gain, it may only be a matter of time before the secret Hastert left behind at a pretty price grows too big for little Yorkville to contain any longer.