Farflung fallout from Schaumburg cops' arrests
Numbers tell the story of the ongoing fallout from the January arrests of former Schaumburg undercover police officers charged with selling drugs skimmed from seizures.
Three months after the scandal broke, the toll stands as follows: Three former officers charged, one police chief retired, four federal lawsuits filed, and charges against at least 19 former defendants dismissed over concerns about the credibility of former officers John Cichy, 30, Matthew Hudak, 29, and Terrance O'Brien, 46.
The three have pleaded innocent to multiple charges in DuPage County, including criminal drug conspiracy, delivery of a controlled substance, armed violence, theft and official misconduct.
Unable to sustain their burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, prosecutors had no alternative but to dismiss selected cases involving the officers, said Sally Daly, spokeswoman for Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez.
But while defense attorneys praise Alvarez's decision to drop the charges, some law enforcement officials worry former defendants returning to the street could pose a threat.
"Speaking from an agent's point of view, it frustrates you," said Jack Riley, special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Chicago office. "There are probably some bad people involved who got a free pass."
"In some cases you're throwing out the baby with the bath water," said Robert Irsuto, who represents O'Brien, a 23-year Schaumburg police veteran. "Most of the arrests (the former officers) made appear to have been legitimate arrests."
Not necessarily, said Cook County Assistant Public Defender Patrick Reardon, who says the accusations against the Schaumburg officers casts doubt on the veracity of the original accusations against the 19 defendants.
Prosecutors dropping charges "doesn't mean we're releasing crooks into the community," he said. "It means whoever was accused was accused falsely."
Schaumburg police supported the decision to dismiss the cases but said the number should be kept in perspective.
The dismissed cases "represent a small amount of the more than 300 drug-related cases that the SPD has brought before the courts over the last three years," Schaumburg police spokesman Sgt. John Nebl said in an email, pointing out the dismissed cases "involved nonviolent and/or drug-related charges."
An interim chief was named March 29 to head the department until a new chief is selected.
"With new leadership will come new ideas and fresh perspectives on how the SPD will tackle these and other challenges," Nebl said.
Drug cases dismissed
Most of the defendants whose charges were dropped in the weeks following the Jan. 16 announcement of the former officers' arrests were men in their 20s and 30s who lived in the suburbs, police and court records show.
In most cases, officers initiated investigations after informants said other individuals were selling drugs, which the informants -- under the direction of police -- then arranged to buy. Although Cichy, Hudak and O'Brien worked for Schaumburg, their status in the department's Special Investigations Unit gave them freedom to pursue cases in other towns.
The drug transactions typically took place in parking lots outside suburban malls, groceries and liquor stores. All involved Cichy, Hudak or O'Brien -- sometimes all three -- who either participated in buys directly or helped provide surveillance, a review of police department and court records shows.
The amount of drugs police said the former defendants had in their possession varied. Some, like 19-year-old Raina Lewerenz, of Franklin Park, had a few pills, police reported. Others, like Richard Roh, 33, of Lincolnshire, had hundreds of grams of a controlled substance, police said. In Roh's case, police reported they recovered 474 grams of cannabis in a backpack they found in his car after his March 2012 arrest.
Several of the former defendants had criminal backgrounds. Diangelo Beasley, 25, of Chicago, has arrests for drug possession dating back to 2008. Court records indicate Robert Thomas, 29, of Hanover Park, is an "admitted addict," whose arrests for aggravated assault, possession and theft date back to 2002.
Others had access to weapons. Caesar Hernandez, 22, of South Beloit, had a loaded .357 Ruger handgun -- which had been reported stolen from Janesville, Wis. -- in his front pocket and 44 grams of cocaine when police arrested him in a Schaumburg parking lot on Aug. 7, 2012, police records show. When police searched Xavier Neodina's Streamwood home on Oct. 25, 2012, they recovered 119 grams of heroin and 68 grams of cocaine, along with registered weapons including a loaded Smith & Wesson AR-15, a loaded .410 caliber handgun and a loaded Ruger, records show.
Prosecutors dropped charges against all of them, including 23-year-old Russell Disney, of Palatine.
Palatine police arrested Disney in October 2012 after they say he sold Cichy a total of 2.7 grams of cocaine on two separate occasions. Prosecutors in February dismissed the charges of possession and delivery of a controlled substance against Disney, who says he was wrongly charged. Disney, who completed substance abuse treatment while on bond, says he will take advantage of his second chance.
"I'm just glad this is over with," he said.
One man's story
Also breathing a sigh of relief over his recently dropped charges is Victor Aguilar-Abazan, a 24-year-old who goes by the childhood nickname "Buddha" and admits he has a "a smart mouth."
Aguilar-Abazan, who attended court-ordered drug school after a 2008 marijuana charge, was arrested Jan. 4, 2012. He said about a half dozen cops -- including Cichy, Hudak and O'Brien -- entered his Streamwood home looking for drugs. He admits having used drugs but denies selling them.
Aguilar-Abazan said he never saw a search warrant. He also said the officers took $2,300 in cash that was a loan from his aunt to his mother, a couple of jars used to store marijuana, and two chains and a bracelet that belonged to his father. He said the officers handcuffed him and drove him to the Schaumburg Police Department. While he sat outside in a minivan with Cichy, Hudak and O'Brien, Aguilar-Abazan said the trio asked him to work with them as a confidential informant. He said they told him they wouldn't charge him if he helped them out.
"I was so scared. I wanted to get out of the situation," said Aguilar-Abazan, who said he agreed to cooperate, but said he needed time to set something up. After consulting his attorney, however, he rejected the offer and turned himself in on Jan. 25, 2012.
His attorney, Mike Norris, said something about the case didn't feel right. He turned up a confidential informant agreement supposedly signed by Aguilar-Abazan on Jan. 4, 2012. Aguilar-Abazan said he signed no such document. And his signature on his driving license doesn't match the signature on the agreement, Norris said.
"The only paper I signed was on the day I turned myself in," Aguilar-Abazan said.
Aguilar-Abazan spent 2012 preparing for his trial -- which had been scheduled for January 2013 in Rolling Meadows -- knowing that a conviction could send him to prison for up to 30 years.
He calls the day he learned the men who arrested him had themselves been arrested the happiest day of his life. But he said his father's jewelry, as well as $600 of his aunt's $2,300, hasn't been returned. And he said he fears the police, which he calls "the biggest gang out there."
Looking back, the experience was something of a blessing, Aguilar-Abazan said, "a smack in the head to get myself together." He said he's drug-free, employed and working on his high school equivalency diploma.
After the officers' arrests, Schaumburg hired Hillard Heintz -- a consulting firm headed by former Chicago Police Superintendent Terry Hillard and former U.S. Secret Service Special Agent Arnette Heintz -- to review police department operations.
On March 19, Schaumburg Police Chief Brian Howerton resigned. Even before the officers' arrests, the 32-year Schaumburg veteran, who spent the last four years as chief, had been the subject of an investigation that concluded in a report made public last week that he had violated policy by having an estranged girlfriend visit the police station for unofficial reasons.
Meanwhile, several former defendants have filed federal lawsuits saying Cichy, Hudak and O'Brien acted without probable cause, threatened them and stole property.
Hudak's attorney, Thomas Glasgow, questioned the timing of the lawsuits, which he says consist of "outrageous allegations that are dubious at best."
Former defendants coming out of the woodwork to make charges doesn't surprise Irsuto.
"Every defendant says they were trumped-up charges and they should be free," he said.
Victor Alvarado, of Elk Grove Village, said one of the officers lied under oath, prompting Alvarado to plead guilty to drug charges in June 2012 in exchange for a six-year sentence, rather than risk a conviction at trial that could have resulted in an even longer prison stay. A Cook County judge will rule on Alvarado's motion to vacate his sentence on Friday, April 12, in Rolling Meadows.
He likely won't be the last prisoner seeking to have a guilty verdict thrown out as prosecutors and public defenders continue reviewing cases to determine the extent of the accused officers' involvement and whether new trials are warranted.
The ripple effect of allegations of wrongdoing extends beyond Schaumburg to other law enforcement agencies.
"We all feel the pain when something like this occurs," said Chris Sullivan, director of the Lake County Metropolitan Enforcement Group, a multijurisdictional task force dealing with drugs, gangs and weapons. "It's discouraging."
Such allegations degrade public opinion of law enforcement across the board, said the DEA's Riley.
"There's an expectation from society and the communities that officials wearing uniforms aren't going to be involved in this," said Ray Rose, Mundelein's former police chief who retired in January.
"It shakes everyone's confidence," he said, and makes residents question, "is this a safe community on both sides of the equation?"
Even someone stopped for a mundane traffic infraction might wonder, "Are you one of them?" Rose said.
Trust can be rebuilt, but it takes time, said Rose, who expects Schaumburg officers will redouble their efforts to re-establish the department's credibility.
Those efforts have already begun, Nebl said.
"When that trust exists, people are more likely to share information about crime with the police, and we are more effective addressing those concerns," he said.
Ultimately, "time will right the ship again," Riley said. "What happened there was an aberration ... We were able to cut the cancer out."