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Article updated: 4/5/2013 12:33 PM

Why former Villa Park chief was forced out

By Marie Wilson

John Heidelmeier's tenure as Villa Park police chief ended after less than two years because of questions about his communication and management style, according to recently released documents that had been kept secret.

One memo obtained by the Daily Herald indicates Village Manager Rich Keehner sought to fire Heidelmeier in January 2012 for providing incorrect information to some police employees about upcoming changes to their duties.

A separate memo from roughly a year after the chief's departure lists what Keehner called "weaknesses" with the department under Heidelmeier's leadership, including improper management of cash and weapons in the evidence room, "unrestricted access" to the police station for a felon and failure to properly handle a complaint of excessive force against an officer.

Heidelmeier's employment ended when he and the village board reached a settlement agreement that allowed him to retire during a meeting that carried into the early morning of Jan. 10, 2012. A longtime member of the department, Heidelmeier received a severance package in which he continued to be paid until Oct. 11, 2012, and also received payment for unused sick and vacation time. He said Thursday he is collecting a pension worth about $61,000 a year from the village.

The agreement contains a nondisclosure clause that was supposed to prevent anyone involved from publicly discussing the reasons behind Heidelmeier's departure.

But it also includes a clause allowing the village to release information about Heidelmeier's termination when legally necessary.

Although the documents explaining the reasons Keehner sought to fire the chief have surfaced, Heidelmeier said his hands still are tied by the nondisclosure agreement and he declined to comment. He also said he cannot comment on how the documents might affect the results of the April 9 election, in which he is running for village president against Trustee Deborah Bullwinkel.

"I'm still bound by that agreement," Heidelmeier said Thursday. "I'm not going to jeopardize my part of the agreement."

Bullwinkel also declined to comment.

The latest revelations come about a week after photos showing Heidelmeier on a pornographic video chat site became public.

Firing explained

According to a Jan. 5, 2012, memo from Keehner, Heidelmeier told three community service officers in late 2011 that they soon would lose their squad cars, police uniforms, keys and ability to enter police headquarters.

"There was absolutely no basis" for spreading that information, the memo to Heidelmeier says. "These topics were not discussed with you and you were not authorized to convey that message."

Keehner said the real plan was to create a desk for use by all police officers within an office for community development, economic development and code enforcement that opened in spring 2012 at 325 E. North Ave.

He said he asked community service officers to use the satellite office as well as the police station because the nonsworn, unarmed officers were about to gain more responsibility for code enforcement under a new contract.

"I told everyone I wanted CSOs and code enforcement to bump shoulders and to communicate daily," Keehner said. "We have four CSOs and two code enforcement people and they're driving the same streets."

Keehner said community service officers still work out of the police department, wear police uniforms and drive squad cars. The incorrect information Heidelmeier provided was something Keehner deemed unacceptable in his memo, saying it would "not be tolerated."

Police 'weaknesses'

A memo Keehner said he sent to current Chief Robert Pavelchik on Jan. 18, 2013, mentions more problems with management of the department under Heidelmeier's watch.

Improper management of cash and weapons in the evidence room, "unrestricted access" to the police station for a felon and failure to properly handle a complaint of excessive force against an officer are listed in the memo, which Keehner says calls for a review of police policies and procedures.

He said those issues were not related to his push to fire Heidelmeier because he was not aware of all of them until after the former chief's employment ended.

On Thursday, Heidelmeier said he had been unaware of the allegations while he was chief. He called the charges "preposterous."

When Pavelchik, a former Darien chief, took over in Villa Park, Keehner said the evidence room was in "disarray" and contained more than $10,000 in cash that wasn't logged, a bucket full of weapons and $1,100 worth of un-cashed checks related to pawn broker licenses.

Heidelmeier said he never had a key to the evidence room, but during his time as chief the department's top detective was working to sort the money, determine where it should go and ensure confiscated weapons would be destroyed. He said the guns and money in evidence apparently had been neglected for years, and it was only during his tenure that anyone began to address the problem.

"I left rather abruptly and it just wasn't done yet," Heidelmeier said. "They're putting out an allegation like this without any of the background information."

Keehner said another issue that arose during Heidelmeier's time as chief involved a felon who was allowed to bypass police security and gain "unrestricted access to the building."

Heidelmeier denied that claim, saying no one has "unlimited access" to the police station -- not even the chief.

After Heidelmeier was gone, Keehner said he also discovered the ex-chief did not make him aware in a timely fashion of an excessive force complaint against an officer that ended up costing the village $76,000 in a settlement.

Federal court records show former Villa Park officer Daniel Messina and the village were sued by the family of a 17-year-old Villa Park girl who alleged he threw her off a porch and "body-slammed" her during a December 2011 arrest.

Keehner said he did not find out about the incident, or an internal investigation of Messina's conduct, until at least Jan. 10, 2012 -- five days after he notified Heidelmeier that his time as chief was over.

"With legal matters, I need to know right away," Keehner said.

Heidelmeier said he was following proper policy, which is to investigate claims internally to determine their merit before informing the village manager of possible litigation.

He said the investigation into Messina's conduct was in its "very preliminary stages" and the last thing he did as chief was review an initial report about the investigation. When he was informed that he was relieved of his duties, he said he was no longer responsible for the investigation and could not notify Keehner about it.

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