URBANA — Colleagues say a young Champaign County prosecutor who died of an apparent heart attack was a good lawyer with a penchant for research and a wonderful friend with a great sense of humor.
Christopher "Chris" Kanis, 41, of Savoy, died Wednesday while on a Caribbean cruise with his wife, Laura Steigmann Kanis. They were celebrating their ninth wedding anniversary, which was March 13.
"He's so young," said a stunned Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz, who was also on vacation when she heard the news Thursday.
"He was one of the first people I hired. He had a lucrative career in civil practice but he wanted to be a prosecutor and he was a damn fine prosecutor," Rietz said of her colleague.
Rietz hired Mr. Kanis shortly after her election in 2004. He started as an assistant state's attorney in Champaign County on Jan. 10, 2005, after having worked for the Champaign law firm of Thomas Mamer & Haughey, doing insurance defense work, since 2002. Before that he was a clerk for former Illinois Supreme Court Justice James Heiple and also worked at the Chicago law firm of Wildman, Harrold, Allen and Dixon, where he concentrated in commercial litigation.
Mr. Kanis went to Palatine High School and got his law degree in 1997 from DePaul University in Chicago.
Fourth District Appellate Court Justice Robert Steigmann and wife Sherry Steigmann of Urbana are Mr. Kanis' in-laws.
Mr. Kanis met Steigmann's daughter when they were both working in Chicago. He was the author of a political blog that Laura Steigmann read online.
"She contacted him and said, 'You sound like an interesting, terrific guy. I'd like to meet you. If you're involved or not straight, disregard this.' Chris thought it was a joke from his college buddies," said Steigmann.
But when the two finally did decide to meet, as Mr. Kanis told his in-laws, "I knocked on her door and she opened it and took my breath away."
"They loved each other and were having a wonderful time on a cruise," said Steigmann, who said his son-in-law had "the best instincts as a rookie prosecutor I ever encountered."
"He loved being a prosecutor more than anything," said his best friend and co-worker, Assistant State's Attorney Stephanie Weber.
Mr. Kanis was hired two months before Weber and the two of them shared a corner office for about the first year-and-a-half they worked for Champaign County.
"I would try to work and he would be shooting rubber bands at the back of my head. That was his funny side. But any time a legal question came up that was kind of obscure, he was the one we went to and he always knew the answer," she said.
"He loved this office. He loved the law. He loved being a prosecutor more than anything. Part of the reason we bonded is because we both came from firms in Chicago where we both made six figures. He just had a passion for this job. Some of that came from Judge Steigmann," said Weber, noting Steigmann's roots as a Champaign County prosecutor for many years before being elected circuit judge and later to the appellate court.
Rietz and fellow Assistant State's Attorney Lindsey Clark echoed what Weber said about Mr. Kanis' ability to help them research complex legal issues quickly and thoroughly.
"Any time anything unusual came up legally, he had the answers. He knew how to find it. We went to him for everything," said Clark, who also lives in the same neighborhood as Mr. Kanis.
For the last year, Clark, Weber and Kanis spent a lot of time walking and exercising together. Weber, who likes to run, said she was acting as Mr. Kanis' fitness coach.
"We have a very high-stress job and I know he was trying to improve his health," said Rietz.
Weber estimated that Mr. Kanis had lost at least 100 pounds during 2012. He was feeling good and looking forward to his vacation with his wife.
"He was really excited. He needed a vacation. He just texted me a picture of the beach from their hotel in Fort Lauderdale. The last thing I said to him was bring some of that warm weather home," Weber said of their exchange Saturday.
Weber said Mr. Kanis told her he would try seafood on the cruise.
"He hated it. He was going to try to develop a taste for it and we were going to work on his diet when he got back," said Weber.
Clark said the two of them walked a lot in their neighborhood and had recently embarked on an exercise program together that he was looking forward to getting back to after vacation.
Besides his ability to research legal issues quickly, Rietz said Mr. Kanis was known in the office for his love of gadgets and his grasp of technology.
"He did amazing things with PowerPoint presentations in closing arguments," she said.
Like many new prosecutors, Mr. Kanis began in traffic court and worked his way up.
"He did pretty much everything — traffic, drugs, juvenile delinquencies, misdemeanors. I had just moved him into a general felony caseload," Rietz said, an assignment that Mr. Kanis was excited to get.
"He was very highly regarded as a DUI prosecutor. He won an award from MADD," Rietz added.
News of Mr. Kanis' death was being taken very hard Thursday at the courthouse, where he was friendly to all.
"Everyone is in absolute shock about Chris. He was so good to so many people," said courtroom clerk Bob Burkhalter. "He was always helpful, always had time for questions, and always tried to make me smile."
"He was just incredibly well-respected by the entire judiciary and the courthouse staff. He was a good lawyer, a good person and had a great personality," said Presiding Judge Tom Difanis, who was known to joke with Mr. Kanis from the bench about having to buy lunch when and if he made a courtroom mistake.
Associate Judge Rich Klaus was appointed to the bench about nine months after Mr. Kanis was hired.
"Chris was my first prosecutor in 2005 in traffic court. He taught me as much about being a judge as I've learned from a lot of people. Chris was a great lawyer because Chris had perspective and he never lost his sense of humor. It's a real loss," said Klaus.