Special report: How Fox Lake cop went from hero to crooked cop

  • A sign once honoring Fox Lake police Lt. Gliniewicz is defaced after it is determined his death is a suicide.

    A sign once honoring Fox Lake police Lt. Gliniewicz is defaced after it is determined his death is a suicide. Courtesy of NBC 5 Chicago

 
 
Updated 11/24/2015 3:33 PM

Fabricating an elaborate crime scene as a police-training exercise for the Explorer Post he directs, Fox Lake police Lt. Charles "Joe" Gliniewicz barks orders to the young people under his command.

"Rescue the downed officer," he shouts in a scene captured on a video investigators took from Gliniewicz's home. Eager Explorers find his clues, compile his evidence and solve his pretend crimes exactly as Gliniewicz plans.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

After years of success manufacturing mock crimes such as that one, a confident Gliniewicz figures he can plant clues that will stump the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force, investigators now surmise. On Sept. 1, the day Gliniewicz, 52, kills himself before he can be exposed for stealing funds from Fox Lake Explorer Post 300, the veteran officer leaves a trail of evidence to make it appear he is a hero, gunned down in the line of duty.

And in the first days, his plan succeeds.

Drawn to an abandoned concrete plant by Gliniewicz's phony radio report that he is following two white men and a black man, three fellow officers hear the fatal gunshot. They trample through dense underbrush and hanging branches, guns drawn, to find the dead officer shot twice, his equipment strewed about and his .40-caliber gun missing.

"It looked like a homicide," said George Filenko, commander of the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force.

Evidence points to a scuffle. Gliniewicz used his pepper spray, then dropped the canister. His baton and glasses are scattered on the path down the hill to the swamp.

Only the gunmen are missing. But the forest is so dense the first officers on the scene don't see much. Killers could be escaping, or waiting to ambush them.

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A mace cannister is placed in the same spot as the one found as Lake County Major Crimes Task Force Cmdr. George Filenko retraces the footsteps of Fox Lake police Lt. Joe Gliniewicz on the day he staged his suicide. Filenko explained what police officers found as they responded to his call for help and what lead to a major manhunt for suspects in the wooded area in Fox Lake.
A mace cannister is placed in the same spot as the one found as Lake County Major Crimes Task Force Cmdr. George Filenko retraces the footsteps of Fox Lake police Lt. Joe Gliniewicz on the day he staged his suicide. Filenko explained what police officers found as they responded to his call for help and what lead to a major manhunt for suspects in the wooded area in Fox Lake. - Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

"In these conditions in a wooded area, anything is possible," Filenko says as he revisits the scene.

In the two hours it takes for police to establish a perimeter two miles in every direction, anyone familiar with the deer paths in that forest could have killed Gliniewicz, made it to a road and been home in time to watch the spectacle play out on national and local TV broadcasts.

A dog picks up a trail of gunpowder, but his handler is overcome by the 88-degree heat and high humidity of the swamp, and that promising lead fizzles. A deputy coroner and two dozen of the 400 law enforcement officers who join the manhunt require emergency medical treatment. SWAT teams, along with four dozen police dogs, blanket the town and nearby marinas. Helicopters patrol the skies. Schools close. National media swarm the town of 11,000 people.

False reports spread about a woman being involved or a suspect being in custody. An hour and a half after the shooting, a deputy finds Gliniewicz's gun in tall grass about 30 inches from his head. Social media buzz with wild speculation that Gliniewicz's death has something to do with the #BlackLivesMatter campaign or that he was executed as part of a war on police.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

At 10:30 that night, a Coast Guard helicopter equipped with heat-detecting equipment scans the area and finds nobody in hiding.

The manhunt ends, and old-fashioned police work begins.

Examining evidence

A cross was setup along the path as Daily Herald reporter Burt Constable walks with Lake County Major Crimes Task Force Cmdr. George Filenko as they retrace the footsteps of Fox Lake police Lt. Joe Gliniewicz on the day he staged his suicide. Filenko explained what police officers found as they responded to his call for help and what lead to a major manhunt for suspects in the wooded area in Fox Lake.
A cross was setup along the path as Daily Herald reporter Burt Constable walks with Lake County Major Crimes Task Force Cmdr. George Filenko as they retrace the footsteps of Fox Lake police Lt. Joe Gliniewicz on the day he staged his suicide. Filenko explained what police officers found as they responded to his call for help and what lead to a major manhunt for suspects in the wooded area in Fox Lake. - Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

A team of nine evidence technicians combs the crime scene during the next four days. Dozens of investigators go door to door to see if residents have seen or heard anything unusual. Task force members compile surveillance videos from homes and businesses and send them to a special lab that uncovers a clip of Gliniewicz driving past two white men and a black man shortly before his death, Filenko says.

Investigators identify the suspects, find them and determine their alibis are backed up by ATM records, a signed credit-card receipt from a local restaurant and the identification from a waitress, who picks their faces out of a photo lineup. Law enforcement officers track down and interview every teenager who was absent from nearby schools the morning of the shooting. They visit dozens of local parolees, some of whom they arrest on new charges of drugs, weapons or other violations even though none had any connection to Gliniewicz's death.

"None of this stuff floated to the top," Filenko said. "We went over every possible theory."

The fatal shot adds to the puzzle. It entered Gliniewicz's body from above at a 40-degree angle between his vest and collar bone. Police consider the possibility Gliniewicz had his gun stolen and was shot first in the abdomen, with his vest stopping the bullet, and then again as he lunged at his attacker, Filenko says. Did a gunman reach over Gliniewicz's shoulder from behind and execute him? Did someone target him? Was his killer someone he knew and trusted? Another police officer? A woman? Was his death a bizarre accident? A suicide?

An autopsy shows Gliniewicz had no alcohol, drugs or steroids in his body at the time of death, just nicotine from his Marlboros and caffeine from his coffee.

Eight days after the shooting, Lake County Coroner Thomas Rudd ignites a storm of criticism by saying suicide is a possibility. The task force can't rule out suicide, either, but members don't want to air every theory.

"We can't just come out and say, 'Well, this is what we think,'" says Lake County sheriff's detective Christopher Covelli, the spokesman for the task force. "We need proof."

In the beginning, it isn't there.

Investigators find it stunning "that he'd be willing to shoot himself the first time in the abdomen," Filenko says.

"Somebody that is going to kill themselves is not going to shoot themselves twice," Gliniewicz's widow, Melodie, tells TV's "Crime Watch Daily."

Replicating the custom vest Gliniewicz wore and using his gun, the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia, fires shot after shot and uses high-tech and time-consuming gunshot residue tests to determine the first shot stopped by Gliniewicz's vest was fired from a distance of 3 to 6 inches, Filenko says. Tests on the second, fatal shot turn up gunshot residue that indicates the gun was fired when the muzzle was wedged between Gliniewicz's vest and his shirt.

Even with that evidence, the death could be ruled "undetermined," because of the possibility Gliniewicz wrestled his killer for the weapon and it fired.

A break in the case

The turning point in the investigation comes after the task force subpoenas Gliniewicz's bank records and federal agents recover more than 1,000 texts and Facebook messages he had deleted.

Investigators believe Gliniewicz lived a secret life far different from the popular "G.I. Joe" reputation he had around Fox Lake. During more than three decades on the police force, Gliniewicz earned promotions even while compiling a long list of transgressions.

"You cannot fathom how he stayed on the job," marveled Covelli.

Gliniewicz once was suspended for telling a dispatcher he could "put bullets in your chest," talking about places to dump her body and then bringing a gun into her work space, his personnel file shows. He earned another suspension for a sexual relationship with a co-worker who said he coerced her into sex acts several times. His fellow officers wrote complaints about finding Gliniewicz drunk and unconscious in his pickup truck along the side of the road with the engine roaring. They wrote of times when Gliniewicz was drunk, groping women and belligerent, sometimes when he was supposed to be on duty.

While these misdeeds seldom leaked out to the public, an audit by new Village Administrator Anne Marrin was closing in on evidence Gliniewicz stole money from the Explorer Post.

Filenko said Gliniewicz stole between $10,000 and $100,000, a Class 2 felony punishable by anything from probation to a seven-year prison sentence. A charge of official misconduct, often levied against public servants accused of wrongdoing, is a Class 3 felony, which could lead to a sentence of probation to five years, according to the Lake County state's attorney's office.

Eventually, the task force develops a hypothesis about what was going through Gliniewicz's mind in those final days, Filenko says. The Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI confirms that theory.

"There was some vanity involved. He wanted it to appear that it was a valiant struggle, that he went down fighting," Filenko said. A fit officer, Gliniewicz would have wanted people to believe he could have handled one or two attackers.

"But with three people, it would be impossible for him to overcome that," Filenko said. Gliniewicz left clues as if he were leaving a trail of "bread crumbs" to lead investigators to conclude he died a hero, Filenko said.

Police demonstrate how the gun was hidden in tall grass as Lake County Major Crimes Task Force Cmdr. George Filenko retraces the footsteps of Fox Lake police Lt. Joe Gliniewicz on the day he staged his suicide. Filenko explained what police officers found as they responded to his call for help and what lead to a major manhunt for suspects in the wooded area in Fox Lake.
Police demonstrate how the gun was hidden in tall grass as Lake County Major Crimes Task Force Cmdr. George Filenko retraces the footsteps of Fox Lake police Lt. Joe Gliniewicz on the day he staged his suicide. Filenko explained what police officers found as they responded to his call for help and what lead to a major manhunt for suspects in the wooded area in Fox Lake. - Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

"This was crafted by a professional," Covelli said.

"He takes this first shot in the side, but he valiantly fights on," Filenko said. Outnumbered three to one, Gliniewicz finally loses the battle.

"I think he expected a hero's funeral," Filenko said. "And that's exactly what he got."

The truth comes out

A tough guy who competed in grueling obstacle-course competitions, Gliniewicz once tore his biceps and lived with the pain for days without treatment. But he couldn't take the pain of being exposed as a fraud, Filenko said, citing the extensive personality profile.

"You are a hero, beloved by the community, and you are now cornered into a spot where there is no way out," Filenko says. Gliniewicz knew his financial misdeeds would come to light.

Fabricating a slew of clues to make his suicide appear to be the death of an officer in the line of duty, Fox Lake police Lt. Charles "Joe" Gliniewicz was given a majestic farewell as a "hero" police officer with thousands of mourners. Two months later, the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force revealed Gliniewicz had been stealing money from the Fox Lake Explorer Post 300, which he directed.
  Fabricating a slew of clues to make his suicide appear to be the death of an officer in the line of duty, Fox Lake police Lt. Charles "Joe" Gliniewicz was given a majestic farewell as a "hero" police officer with thousands of mourners. Two months later, the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force revealed Gliniewicz had been stealing money from the Fox Lake Explorer Post 300, which he directed. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

"We think he thought, 'I'll go out a hero,' knowing in his mind the village will take over the Explorers and do some audits. But dying a hero in the line of duty will outweigh the Explorer issue in the public eye," Filenko says. "He perceived this whole thing, that if he died in the line of duty, he could create this entire facade of a huge struggle, so all his struggles would be forgiven. He would be looked back on as this great police officer who died in the line of duty."

Criticized by some for taking two months to solve the case, Filenko said the task force members were concerned only with solving the case correctly. Even after investigators embrace the suicide theory, it takes another two weeks to prove it before they announce it in a Nov. 4 news conference that stuns many in Fox Lake and beyond.

"In the beginning, I was the bad guy," said Marrin, who received threats for coming down so hard on Gliniewicz before his death. "Now, I've had a lot of apologies, a lot of support."

Vandals defaced a sign once honoring Fox Lake police Lt. Charles "Joe" Gliniewicz after his death is ruled a suicide.
Vandals defaced a sign once honoring Fox Lake police Lt. Charles "Joe" Gliniewicz after his death is ruled a suicide. - Courtesy OF WBBM-TV/CBS 2

As the sordid details of his suicide become public, vandals deface signs honoring "Lt. GI Joe." Many groups and individuals who donated money to the Gliniewicz family ask for that money back. The fantastical rise to hero status for Gliniewicz simply makes his stunning fall more devastating.

"This was the toughest case we worked," Filenko said, noting officials logged more than 125,000 hours to find the answers. "It's been taxing on all of us. You can look in the eyes of everyone who worked on this and see that they left a little bit of themselves."

Some former critics now praise the task force for exposing Gliniewicz.

"I went to Wal-Mart and three people came up and thanked us," Filenko said. "I'm humbled by that."

The sad story of Gliniewicz serves as a cautionary tale to reinforce a truth Filenko tells rookie law enforcement officers during training.

"You walk in with one thing -- your integrity. And that's what you have when you leave," Filenko says. "No police officer wants to be perceived as a bad cop among his peers. He (Gliniewicz) was very proud of the fact and liked being a police officer. He liked it that the public perceived him as a good police officer. So, him being exposed would be devastating … . When faced with a decision to have that integrity ruined or to die as a hero, in his mind, what choice did he have?"

• Filenko walks Burt Constable through the scene where Gliniewicz staged his murder.

See Part 1 of the Two Faces of Gliniewicz here.

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