Editorial: 'The ultimate betrayal' and the distinction between fact, right

  • Lake County Major Crimes Task Force Cmdr. George Filenko and Lake County Coroner Thomas Rudd discuss the investigation into the death of Fox Lake Police Lieutenant Charles Joseph Gliniewicz at the Round Lake Beach Civic Center.

    Lake County Major Crimes Task Force Cmdr. George Filenko and Lake County Coroner Thomas Rudd discuss the investigation into the death of Fox Lake Police Lieutenant Charles Joseph Gliniewicz at the Round Lake Beach Civic Center. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 11/4/2015 4:25 PM

At the start of a news conference announcing shocking details uncovered in the two-month investigation into the death of Fox Lake police Lt. Charles Joseph Gliniewicz, the commander of the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force emphasized, "Some wanted the results fast. We wanted them right."

That statement does provide some explanation for the long period of time between the officer's death and Wednesday's announcement, but it doesn't necessarily follow that investigators brought their conclusions to the public as promptly as they could have. It does emphasize, though, the complex challenges everyone faces -- investigators, public officials and, to be sure, the news media -- when it comes to getting the facts "right."

 

Commander George Filenko said the crime scene expert whom everyone in Fox Lake knew as "GI Joe" went to no small amount of trouble to throw investigators off track and protect his reputation. If so, it's easy to see why police, the community and the news media would respond with the narrative of "the slain hero" that flowed naturally from this tragedy. Considering Wednesday's announcement, it's now just as easy to see how far we all were from the "right" understanding of the story.

And, don't forget, how far we still may be from that understanding.

Despite Filenko's protestations Wednesday and previously, there remain serious questions about why investigators were willing to let the public believe that homicide was such a strong possibility in Gliniewicz's death, and why they did nothing -- beyond the stock retort that "we are investigating every possibility" -- to acknowledge that suicide was at least as strong a possibility and to temper a narrative of a cop killing that attracted sustained national attention and tens of thousands of dollars in donations in his memory.

No, investigators did not encourage these reactions, and, yes, they had to both follow leads that competently suggested murder and protect the purity of their investigation. But given the frequent suspicions expressed by the public, especially following Lake County Coroner Thomas Rudd's early findings that a single "devastating" gunshot wound caused Gliniewicz's death, and considering the evidence that we now know they had from the crime scene itself, it's hard to believe that investigators weren't themselves beginning to seriously question the murder narrative.

It's natural to wonder why they didn't do more to restrain the tendencies so many people and agencies had -- we in the news media included -- to fit Gliniewicz's then-presumed murder into the long-simmering national controversy about tense police-public relations.

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Perhaps they, and all the rest of us, were overwhelmed by the reaction and by the undisputed community service that produced Gliniewicz's reputation.

Perhaps we who reacted were too enthralled by the suggestion of a heroic myth at a time when such stories are particularly needed. Whatever the cause, the circumstances now remind us of just how complicated it can be sometimes to get things "right."

Should authorities have told the public earlier that there was strong evidence Gliniewicz killed himself? Should we in the media have done more to question police methods and to temper our own stories of GI Joe's heroic activities? Those are easy questions to answer in hindsight, but in reflecting on things from this point forward, they emphasize how important it is to resist the tug of emotion and concentrate on the facts.

There are, indeed, many more facts and conclusions still to come regarding this case. The size and method of Gliniewicz's presumed thefts. The depth of his remorse and shame. The management of Fox Lake police operations overall. The remaining individuals whose associations with Gliniewicz's presumed misdeeds are being investigated. The professionalism and dedication of the investigators who uncovered Gliniewicz's activities. The cost of all this to the taxpayers. The impact on social attitudes toward police in an uneasy time and many more.

Assuming now that investigators are right about Gliniewicz's actions, he has committed a grave disservice to his fellow officers, both through the crimes he committed and through his efforts to hide them while exalting himself. It was indeed, to quote Filenko again, "the ultimate betrayal." His death remains a tragedy on many levels. His story reminds us all of the difficult distinction between getting things "fast" and getting them "right."

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