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More Questions Than Answers After Probe Finds Ill. Officer Shot Himself

George Filenko, commander of the Lake County Major Crime Task Force (left) and Chris Covelli with the Lake County Sheriff's Department talk during a news conference at the police station on Sept. 2 in Fox Lake, Ill.
Michael Schmidt
George Filenko, commander of the Lake County Major Crime Task Force (left) and Chris Covelli with the Lake County Sheriff's Department talk during a news conference at the police station on Sept. 2 in Fox Lake, Ill.

He was considered a model police officer — a devoted family man and a mentor to the young people in the small Illinois town of Fox Lake, near the Wisconsin state line.

The death of Illinois police Lt. Charles Gliniewicz on the morning of Sept. 1 sparked a massive manhunt involving hundreds of his fellow officers from around the region, where he was known to many as "GI Joe." Law enforcement officers from coast to coast came for his funeral to honor a man many believed to be a hero, who became the latest symbol in the "police lives matter" countermovement to the "black lives matter" protests against police misconduct and use of excessive force.

But in the end, he was a crooked cop desperately trying to cover his tracks, according to Lake County, Ill., authorities who investigated his death and found a trail of malfeasance.

"This extensive investigation has concluded with an overwhelming amount of evidence that Gliniewicz's death was a carefully staged suicide," says Lake County Major Crimes Task Force Cmdr. George Filenko. "This staged suicide was the end result of the extensive criminal acts that Gliniewicz had been committing."

Gliniewicz, a 52-year-old father of four, oversaw the Fox Lake Police Department's Explorers program, which engages youths interested in police work with various aspects of the field. The investigation found that the officer had been stealing and laundering money from the group for seven years, Filenko says.

"Thousands of dollars were used by Gliniewicz for personal purchases, travel expenses, mortgage payments, personal gym memberships, adult websites," and loans to friends, the task force commander says. "Gliniewicz committed the ultimate betrayal to the citizens he served and to the law enforcement community. The facts of his actions proved he behaved in a manner completely contrary to the image he portrayed.

"This is the first time as a law enforcement officer in my career that I've felt ashamed by the acts of another police officer."

A Pursuit, A Body, A Manhunt

Filenko and Lake County authorities endured a lot of criticism in the past two months for the pace of the investigation, and for allowing area residents to believe armed cop-killers might still be on the loose.

"Our intention was never to mislead the public — we completely believed from Day One that this was a homicide," Filenko says. "We explored every possibility of what could have happened out there. In the first several weeks of this investigation, there was nothing ... leading us toward determining this as a suicide."

At about 8 a.m. the morning he died, Gliniewicz radioed in to report that he was pursuing three suspects, two white and one black, into a marshy area of the village, which is about 50 miles northwest of Chicago.

Officers arriving to provide backup found him shot and mortally wounded, and authorities launched a massive manhunt that included hundreds of officers, dogs and helicopters with infrared cameras. An analysis by the Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago newspaper, estimated the cost of the search in overtime, equipment and other expenses was more than $300,000.

After Fox Lake Police Lt. Charles Joseph Gliniewicz was found dead Sept. 1, a manhunt was underway for his supposed killers. On Sept. 3, his photo was displayed during an NFL preseason game between the Chicago Bears and the Cleveland Browns in Chicago.
Nam Y. Huh / AP
After Fox Lake Police Lt. Charles Joseph Gliniewicz was found dead Sept. 1, a manhunt was underway for his supposed killers. On Sept. 3, his photo was displayed during an NFL preseason game between the Chicago Bears and the Cleveland Browns in Chicago.

Two Close-Range Shots

When several days of intense searching turned up nothing, speculation began to swirl. The first official indication that Gliniewicz's death might be a suicide came about 10 days after the shooting, when the coroner ruled the cause of death to be a catastrophic gunshot wound to the torso and refused to rule out that it might have been self-inflicted.

On Wednesday, the evidence laid out by Lake County coroner Thomas Rudd sounded like something scripted for a TV procedural like CSI or Law & Order.

"The first shot hit his right chest region, went through the phone, lodged into his bulletproof vest," said Rudd in describing an initial gunshot Gliniewicz fired at himself to throw off investigators.

"The fatal, catastrophic gunshot wound," Rudd continues, "was in the left upper chest. ... The gun had to be placed in such an angle that the gun was close to the chest; it went under the vest at a 40-degree angle, which was confirmed by the trajectory of the bullet."

That angle suggested that the shot was self-inflicted; other evidence included gunshot residue on the officer's hands.

A Meticulous Scene

Other evidence at the scene initially appeared to indicate a struggle with one or more assailants — but as detectives looked closer, it indicated just the opposite.

Approaching what was believed to be a crime scene down a path through the grassy and overgrown marsh area, investigators first came upon Lt. Gliniewicz's pepper spray canister, then, after several more yards, his baton. Later, they came upon the officer's eyeglasses and a first shell casing.

They found his body near a swamp; his weapon, buried in the weeds just 2 1/2 feet away, wasn't discovered until almost two hours after the shooting.

"This is pretty classical, if you look at any police policy, of a use-of-force kind of continuum," said Cmdr. Filenko, who notes that Gliniewicz had expertise in crime-scene investigations and staged mock crime scenes for Explorers to investigate. "This is laid out to seem as if there was an ongoing type of struggle through the scene."

But other elements of the scene were amiss.

"We didn't see any signs of trauma to the hands, or anything that would indicate that there was a struggle physically. The uniform was not disheveled."

'The Means To CRUCIFY ME'

But detectives still hadn't begun to unravel the elaborate ruse until they dug more deeply into Gliniewicz's background and financial records — producing what investigators call a "victimology." Evidence turned up in reviews of department documents, and most notably in incriminating text messages and communications that had been deleted from his phones but recovered at the FBI lab in Quantico, Va.

Filenko says that text messages the officer exchanged with two other individuals who may have been in on the embezzlement indicated that Gliniewicz was concerned his malfeasance soon might be discovered by a new village administrator conducting an internal audit of police department funds.

"This village administrator hates me and the Explorer program," Gliniewicz writes in a message, in which he and an "Individual 2" discuss missing Explorers funds and how they might cover their tracks. "This situation right here would give her the means to CRUCIFY ME [if] it were discovered."

"If she gets ahold of the old checking account, im pretty well f*****," writes Gliniewicz in another text exchange, in which he and his alleged co-conspirator suggest harming the administrator or arresting her for drunken driving.

"Trust me, ive thougit [sic] through MANY SCENARIOS from planting things to the Volo bog," he texted, referring to an area bog that would be difficult to search.

In communications the day before he died, Gliniewicz indicated he was supposed to meet with the administrator, who had demanded a complete accounting of the Explorer program's inventory and funds.

'He Was A Great Guy; I Looked Up To Him'

Assisted by the FBI, ATF and other state and federal authorities, the major crimes task force tied the financial and communications trails together with the evidence at the scene, and led the Major Crimes Task Force to believe Gliniewicz killed himself.

Fox Lake Village Administrator Anne Marrin noted in a statement that the high-ranking officer threatened her when she began to ask hard questions about the Explorer program and its finances.

"You've heard today about a side of Lt. Gliniewicz that is in stark contrast to how he was previously portrayed in the community," she said in her statement at a news conference with Lake County investigators. "The community is the real victim, so let's always carry that in mind."

Many in the Fox Lake community, where residents tied blue ribbons around trees and put up photos and posters of Gliniewicz to honor him, still cannot believe it. Tim Pederson, a 22-year-old who was in the Explorers group under Gliniewicz, told The Associated Press that he was really upset by the news.

"He was a great guy; I looked up to him," said Pederson, who now works as a corrections officer. "It really opens your eyes."

A neighbor of the Gliniewicz family, 79-year-old Leroy Marre of Antioch, told the Chicago Tribune thatthe news of the late officer's suicide left him in shock.

"What a surprise, from hero to criminal," he said.

Late Wednesday, through their attorneys, survivors of the officer released a statement: "Today has been another day of deep sorrow for the Gliniewicz family. The Gliniewicz family requests that their privacy be respected as they continue to cope with the loss of the beloved husband and father."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.