By David Heinzmann, Todd Lighty and Jeff Coen
The Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO — The U.S. attorney's office has joined the ongoing criminal probe of an elite squad of the Chicago Police Department, working with Cook County prosecutors to investigate why police officials did not stop rogue officers who allegedly robbed and kidnapped civilians over at least four years, sources familiar with the investigation said.
The move raises the stakes for the Special Operations Section officers who now face the specter of harsher federal punishment and also signals that more cops could be swept up in the probe as law enforcement authorities reach back at least a decade for evidence of criminal conduct.
Federal prosecutors are focusing on how Officer Jerome Finnigan and half a dozen others continued to operate the alleged robbery ring even though numerous citizens complained to the department about their conduct between 2002 and 2006, the sources said..
The new federal push will look at "the entire SOS unit" as well as the role played by the department's Internal Affairs Division, which investigates allegations of wrongdoing against officers, the sources said.
Randall Samborn, spokesman for U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald, declined to comment on the expanding investigation. "We will continue to cooperate with authorities," said police spokeswoman Monique Bond.
Cook County prosecutors sought the help of their federal counterparts months ago, the sources said, because of the greater resources and authority held by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Last year then-Police Supt. Philip Cline had credited the Internal Affairs Division for starting the investigation. But years passed without the Police Department taking any action on numerous citizen complaints before the state's attorney opened its own investigation and charged four men last September. Charges against an additional three SOS officers were added in the following months.
Authorities charged that the rogue officers stole $450,000 in cash from a private citizen's home in 2004; broke into a city firefighter's home in 2002 and beat him; stole a 1952 Mickey Mantle baseball card worth as much as $20,000 in another burglary; and handcuffed a pregnant woman after she tried to call for help when she found them in her home.
Finnigan, 43, the alleged ringleader, and the other six officers — Keith Herrera, 28; Carl Suchocki, Tom Sherry and Margaret Hopkins, all 32; Frank Villareal, 38; and Sgt. James McGovern, 40 — have been charged with offenses varying from home invasion and armed violence to official misconduct. All have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Last month, disclosure of a secret list compiled by the department's Office of Professional Standards showed that SOS officers accounted for a disproportionately large number of excessive force and misconduct complaints over the last five years. The top four police officers on the list, all of whom had 50 or more misconduct complaints, were assigned to the special squad.Some police veterans say SOS officers, who are sent to troubled spots all over the city, are more likely to be falsely accused of misconduct because they work in high-crime areas of the city on drug and gang investigations.
In recent months more than a dozen SOS officers have testified before a grand jury in the case. At least nine of them were granted immunity from prosecution.
Federal prosecutors are sifting through evidence gathered in the state's probe and plan to bring their authority to bear in the case as well, the sources said.
For instance, the financial crimes expertise of the FBI and IRS will be used to track the money the SOS officers allegedly stole from victims, the sources said. In addition, federal prosecutors have more options for charging crimes, such as racketeering and civil rights violations. The racketeering statute allows federal prosecutors to search for crimes committed as many as 10 years ago or longer.
And federal charges can result in severe penalties. Gangs crime cop Joseph Miedzianowski was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2003 for his racketeering conviction, and Edward "Pacman" Jackson Jr., the ringleader of seven Austin District officers convicted in a series of robberies of drug dealers, was sentenced in 2001 to 115 years in prison.
Federal subpoenas have been issued to some police employees, and prosecutors plan to question the officials about what they knew and did while the members of the squad allegedly committed crimes on the streets of Chicago, the sources said.
The Police Department began settling lawsuits filed against Finnigan and the others in 2002. Among those was Billy Glover, who filed a lawsuit against the city in 2004 alleging that Finnigan, Herrera, Suchocki, Sherry and five other officers pulled him from his truck, beat, robbed and threatened him. He was charged with illegal possession of a shotgun, a charge that prosecutors later dropped. The city settled his claims for $25,000.
After the charges had been brought against the seven officers, the state's attorney's office dropped charges in 110 criminal cases in which the SOS officers had made arrests.
Copyright 2007 The Chicago Tribune
Feds join probe of elite Chicago police unit