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Former Normal police chief, 2 officers dismissed from federal lawsuit

A gavel sits on a judge's bench. On top of that photo, the words "WGLT Courts" appears.
WGLT file photo

A federal judge has dismissed allegations against former Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner and two officers in a lawsuit filed by the victim of a $12,000 theft by former officer Brian Williams, leaving Williams and the Town of Normal as defendants.

U.S. District Court Judge James Shadid ruled that Lindsey Holzhauer failed to meet the legal standard for claims that Bleichner, former Lt. James Ferguson and current Lt. Tim Edmiaston conspired to thwart an investigation into the money missing after first responders came to Holzhauer's home on Nov. 25, 2019, to assist her husband who was unresponsive.

Holzhauer’s claims that the three caused her emotional distress also failed, said the ruling.

Left undecided in the ruling was the question as to whether the Town of Normal is liable for damages arising out of claims against Williams for actions he took as a police officer. That decision will come later, said Shadid, after Williams' liability is determined. Normal has argued the town has no duty to indemnify Williams, arguing his illegal actions were outside the scope of his job.

Williams has hired his own lawyer and did not participate in the motion seeking summary judgment in favor of the town and the three police officials.

Williams, an 18-year veteran of the police force, pleaded guilty to official misconduct in November 2020 and was sentenced to 30 days in jail and 30 months probation. He paid restitution.

Holzhauer’s complaint lays out what she says took place at the Normal department after she reported the missing money the day following her husband’s death of an apparent drug overdose. Holzhauer found $12,000 on the kitchen counter after she went to check on her husband who had shown signs of distress. The cash, she told authorities, may have been left by her husband for his funeral expenses.

Before police and a medical team arrived, she put the cash in a kitchen cabinet, Holzhaurer told police.

A police timeline and footage from the officer’s body camera shows Williams alone in the kitchen during the medical call. The body camera evidence was reviewed by Edmiaston after he received Holzhauer’s complaint about the missing cash. The ruling notes that “at some point Edmiaston noted that Williams’ camera had been temporarily turned off and did not show him opening the cabinets.”

Two days after the theft, Edmiaston sent patrol officer Ryan Ritter to take a report from the victim, an assignment the officer objected to, given the knowledge among department staff of potential police misconduct. Edmiaston disputes the patrol officer’s claim that he was told not to list the officers who responded to the call as suspects in the report, instead being instructed to name Holzhauer’s two brothers, who were not in the home at the time.

The victim shared with police that she could not find $20,000 she moved from her car and placed in a dresser drawer at the home after the theft. The money, also left by her husband before his death, was returned by one of her brothers, who insisted she had overlooked it during her search.

Bleichner first learned of Williams’ potential involvement with the missing money and body camera footage on Nov. 25 from then-assistant chief Steve Petrilli.

On Thanksgiving, three days after her husband’s death, Holzhauer packed up her children and left home after she received what she considered a threatening call from a man who identified himself as Jonathan. The money was taken by his friend and would be returned if Holzhauer agreed to abandon the investigation, the caller said. His mention that the return of the funds would benefit her children was considered a threat by the mother.

Following the call, one of Holzhauer’s brothers contacted the Illinois State Police and requested their help with the investigation. The following day, Holzhauer met with Bleichner, Ferguson, Sgt. Rob Cherry and Brian McCabe, Holzhauer’s cousin who is a retired Livingston County sheriff’s deputy. He had recommended she contact state police to conduct an independent investigation.

According to court records, Bleichner asked Holzhauer if a family member may have been involved in the theft, a statement that upset Holzhauer. In a deposition taken as part of the lawsuit, Bleichner later testified that it was not clear to him during the meeting that the first responders were the only ones at the home.

A lengthy “statement of undisputed material facts” filed in June on behalf of Bleichner, Ferguson and Edmiaston includes recollections each officer had of what took place during the investigation. Ferguson recalled his conversation with Cherry and Bleichner on the ride back to the police station following the meeting with Holzhauer.

The three “discussed that if they worked their tails off and gave it everything that had and came up empty handed through no fault of their own and did not solve it, it would look absolutely terrible. Ferguson did not think that the risk would outweigh the decision to hand the investigation off to another agency. That way there would be no appearance that they may have tried to do anything under the table to make it go away,” said court filing.

In his statement, Bleichner notes that he contacted the Illinois State Police prior to the meeting with Holzhauer to let the agency know he may be referring a case to state investigators. Following the meeting, Bleichner made a formal request for an outside investigation.

A sting operation was coordinated, with Holzhauer agreeing to meet Jonathan, who turned out to be Williams, at a gas station in Pontiac. He handed over $13,000 in a plastic bag and was arrested as he pulled away.

Edmiaston received a supervisor’s note, which is not considered discipline by the department, by Petrilli after the incident “that stated Edmiaston did not follow up with the complaint in a timely manner and failed to notify Petrilli” of the theft until November 27.

In his comments on Holzhaurer’s conspiracy claim against the officers, Shadid said, “ It might be that Plaintiff and her brother forced Defendant’s hand when they preemptively contacted ISP, and if they had not done so, the outcome would have been different.”

But that question was not before the court, said Shadid, noting that a few days’ delay in arresting Williams did not violate Holzhauer’s constitutional rights.

On the issue of emotional distress, the judge also found Holzhauer’s claim lacking allegations that the officers told Williams about the victim’s complaint, essentially tipping him off, coupled with an alleged police cover-up, did not meet the legal threshold, ruled Shadid.

“While Williams’ conduct might well reach the level necessary“ for intentional infliction of emotional distress, the same cannot be said for Bleichner, Ferguson and Edmiaston, said the ruling.

Edith Brady-Lunny was a correspondent at WGLT, joining the station in 2019. She left the station in 2024.