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Thursday, April 4, 2013

NEWS: In addition to sex photo scandal, Villa Park's secret files on ex-police chief are released

--I have a couple of questions.
How come when it's a police chief that is accused it is always 'preposterous', 'petty', and 'political'?
How come they named the two dismissed officers in the article but not the convicted felon that is part of the story?
I think gag orders should be outlawed unless it pertains to someones actual safety.
These trustees telling people "everything is fine" is B/S.
I have seen this kind of cover up in Wood Dale and Grayslake before.--
Duke

Story at Chicago Tribune

By Joe Mahr and Christy Gutowski
Chicago Tribune reporters
April 4, 2013

Long before an Internet sex picture overshadowed his candidacy, John Heidelmeier was the popular police chief of Villa Park — and was facing secret accusations of mismanagement.

He and the western suburb cut a deal to let him retire with a $78,000 severance package and an agreement that nobody would ever discuss the reasons for his departure.

Then, in a political twist, Heidelmeier announced his run for village president, taking on the very power structure that pushed him out of the chief's office.

That removal helped shape a race that some residents said had become unusually intense even before publicity over a picture of Heidelmeier on an Internet phone sex site.

In apologizing for the picture, Heidelmeier pointed to his long record of serving the village as the reason he should be elected. But the Tribune found that record is steeped in controversy and secrecy.

The newspaper's review of hundreds of pages of records previously denied to the public found that, before the ink was dry on last year's gag order, village officials had quietly begun accusing the chief of assorted mismanagement, including:

• Keeping an evidence room that was in disarray, with $10,000 in cash and a bucket of guns left unlogged.

• Hiring an officer against the advice of a psychological assessment who then was later accused of roughing up a teenage girl who had done nothing wrong.

• Giving a convicted felon wide access to the department, including riding along with officers on patrol.


Heidelmeier disputed the allegations to the Tribune, saying they're part of a conspiracy to derail his candidacy against Trustee Deborah Bullwinkel.

As the campaign heated up this year, both sides cited the retirement deal's secrecy order and refused to mention the allegations, let alone debate their merits. That leaves many voters in the dark about which candidate to choose at the ballot box Tuesday.

The race has ratcheted up political drama that has stewed for years in the modest middle-class suburb between Elmhurst and Lombard.

The records show an anti-Heidelmeier trustee alleged that one of the chief's supporters had talked about trumping up a drunken driving charge on another anti-Heidelmeier trustee. That second trustee, John Davis, later reported an anonymous death threat that prompted a state police investigation.

"Let's put it this way," said Davis, "I never had cameras on my house or owned a firearm before this. I now have both."

On the other side are supporters of Heidelmeier, who argue that the chief is a victim of petty politics. As for the Internet picture that surfaced last week of Heidelmeier's genitals, it was an isolated mistake, they say.

"The fact that he was an idiot for at least a day doesn't change the fact that he's the only guy who has put the village before himself," Trustee Chris Aiello said.

At the center of the political drama is Heidelmeier, 51, an affable native of Chicago's Northwest Side.

He hopes voters will look past the picture: "I have 29 years of proven, tested leadership experience."

A similar pitch on leadership helped land him the chief's job three years ago.

The cop and the felon

Over two decades, the Air Force veteran began a slow climb up the small department's career ladder to become a sergeant overseeing the midnight shift.

Along the way, the married father of two overcame personal and financial struggles. That included a 1993 paternity lawsuit that confirmed he had a third child and a 2008 foreclosure and bankruptcy.

When the chief's job opened in 2010, Heidelmeier lacked a college degree common for chiefs. But he was armed with a bevy of endorsements about his leadership.

"I have earned a reputation as someone worth following," Heidelmeier told the Village Board in his application. "People follow my lead not because they have to, but because they want to."

But not everybody was following him. A new village manager, Rich Keehner, had begun questioning a friendship the chief had with a frequent critic who had done two stints in prison.

The felon had become a local political gadfly of sorts, befriending several trustees, including some who would later oppose Heidelmeier. One of the anti-Heidelmeier trustees, Robert Taglia, later told state police that the felon had become a behind-the-scenes power broker who threatened and intimidated trustees, allegations Heidelmeier called "preposterous."

Records show the chief's friend had convictions two decades ago for felony theft, burglary, passing bad checks, pandering and unlawful use of a weapon by a felon. He served a total of more than three years.

Keehner complained that the man was given "unrestricted access" to enter the department and join officers on patrol. That was despite a department policy prohibiting officers from associating with felons.

The friend did not respond to a message left at his home for comment.

Heidelmeier said he met the man through trustees and eventually became close enough friends that he was in the man's wedding party. The ex-chief said he didn't think department policy barred them from being friends, particularly because the convictions were so old, and — regardless — that the man got no special treatment.

Heidelmeier said he suspected Keehner's complaint had more to do with politics than policy.

The confrontation

Early in January 2012, Keehner accused Heidelmeier of ignoring the "chain of command" and "providing misinformation" to a village trustee and to police employees about various personnel issues. He told him to step down or be fired as chief.

Heidelmeier's supporters packed the next Village Board meeting. For nearly 11/2 hours, more than 40 people spoke of the Heidelmeier they knew: the guy who coached youth baseball, who helped out the Girl Scouts, who boosted crime-fighting and officer morale.

Some residents demanded to know why he faced dismissal. But the village attorney suggested it was better discussed behind closed doors, as state law allowed.

So the board resumed its meeting away from the crowd. At some point, Heidelmeier's attorney met with the village attorney and, by 1 a.m., they emerged to announce a tentative deal to let him retire.

The political drama, however, would only grow.

As the chief was at home on paid leave, and lawyers were negotiating details of the deal, questions arose about two recent hires who had just been ousted by Heidelmeier's replacement.

Records show that Officer Daniel Messina was hired in 2010 against the recommendation of a psychological assessment.

Heidelmeier said his department thought the conclusion was flawed, so it recommended that the police board hire another firm to do another assessment, which Messina passed.

A year later, according to an internal department investigation, Messina arrested a teenage baby sitter after dragging her down six steps and forcing her to the ground. She had nothing to do with the crime he was investigating, record show. The girl and her mother sued, leading to a $75,000 settlement with the family, according to village records.

Joining Messina on the department was William Tobias, who records show had resigned from Oak Brook's department after admitting to an inappropriate sexual relationship with a shoplifter weeks after he had arrested her.

Tobias said in court records that he was later accused in Villa Park of improperly following an anti-Heidelmeier trustee, which he denied.

Heidelmeier defended Tobias' hiring. The ex-chief said there were only unconfirmed rumors of past problems, and Heidelmeier said he was assured they weren't true.

Messina and Tobias have both sued Villa Park, arguing in their lawsuits and through their attorneys that they did nothing wrong and were unfairly discharged.

Beyond the new hires, Keehner complained of mismanagement, including improperly handling cash in evidence.

After Heidelmeier left the department, an inventory of the evidence room found "in excess of $10,000 cash and a bucket full of weapons."

Keehner called the findings a "serious violation of cash-handling and logging procedures."

Heidelmeier scoffed at the allegation. It was common practice, he said, to store guns there until they could legally be destroyed. Heidelmeier also said a "money box" had long been accumulating in the evidence room because detectives and officers, under various chiefs, were too busy to determine how to properly disburse the cash after cases ended.

Phone-sex scandal
By March 2012, the lawyers had reached a settlement between the village and the former chief.

Heidelmeier started his $61,000-a-year pension. He also received nearly $28,000 for unused sick and vacation time and another $78,000 in severance pay.

The police pension board's chairman, Scott Schroeder, called it a "sweetheart deal."

"I think the (Village Board) should be ashamed," Schroeder told the Tribune.

Under the deal, if anyone asked village officials or Heidelmeier about the issues behind his dismissal, they were directed to say one of three things: "I do not want to talk about it." Or "I have no comment." Or "It has been resolved, and everything is fine."

But the agreement wasn't fine with two trustees. Taglia and Bullwinkel said they voted against it because they opposed the gag order.

Residents tried to use the state's open-records law to access documents on why Heidelmeier was forced out, but the village initially refused. The village released them this year after the Tribune showed officials legal opinions that supported the documents' release.

That itself created controversy, with the ex-chief complaining that one released record was altered by the village. A year ago, Heidelmeier had gotten a memo that told him he could retire or be demoted to sergeant. The Tribune got a version saying he could retire or be fired. The village manager told the Tribune that Heidelmeier was mistakenly given a draft and the Tribune got the final version.

Last month, residents packed a candidate forum, and the top question submitted in advance asked why Heidelmeier was removed.

Heidelmeier was sitting there. So was Bullwinkel. But the question wasn't asked. Those running the forum said they knew it wouldn't be answered because of the gag order.

In that void of information, anonymous letters began circulating with allegations privately made by some trustees.

Then came the recent bombshell. Last week, someone distributed printouts of an Internet site that billed itself as offering "your most diverse phone sex experience." The site hosts two-way video chats over the Internet, and the site took two pictures of Heidelmeier during a Feb. 7 encounter — one of his face and the other of his exposed genitals — and named Heidelmeier.

Heidelmeier apologized but said he's frustrated that a mistake in his private life has overshadowed his campaign.

To some residents, however, the high-profile incident only reinforces the need for more information on what happened to end his tenure as chief.

"There's this (picture)," said Angie Rojek, who helped run the candidate forum. "Now, what else is going on?"

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