FOX LAKE, Ill. — For weeks, investigators said they were searching for the killers of a small-town police officer known as “G.I. Joe.” Thousands attended the funeral of Fox Lake Police Lt. Charles Joseph Gliniewicz. Many lauded him as a hero, the latest law enforcer to die at a time when police feel under attack.
But after an intense and costly manhunt for three phantom suspects came up empty, investigators realized he was something else: A small-time embezzler, who meticulously staged his death to make it look like he was slain in the line of duty.
In fact, the 30-year police veteran killed himself on Sept. 1 because his theft of thousands of dollars from a youth program was about to be exposed, authorities revealed Wednesday.
“Gliniewicz committed the ultimate betrayal,” announced Lake County Major Crimes Task Force Commander George Filenko, who endured blistering questions from skeptical journalists about his handling of the two-month investigation. “We completely believed from day one that this was a homicide.”
Recovered text messages and other records now show Gliniewicz embezzled from the village’s Police Explorer program for seven years, spending the money on mortgage payments, travel expenses, gym memberships, adult websites and loans to friends, Filenko said.
“We have determined this staged suicide was the end result of extensive criminal acts that Gliniewicz had been committing,” he said.
Filenko said he could not reveal more details about these crimes because “the investigation strongly suggests criminal activity on the part of at least two other individuals.”
The revelation shocked people in Fox Lake, a village of 10,000 about 50 miles north of Chicago where the 52-year-old married father of four had long been a role model.
“He was a great guy. I looked up to him. I am really upset about this. It really opens your eyes up,” said Tim Pederson, 22, who was an explorer under Gliniewicz and now works as a corrections officer.
Minutes before he died, Gliniewicz radioed that he was chasing three suspicious men into a swampy area. Backup officers followed a trail of equipment to the Army veteran’s body, about 50 yards from his squad car.
The first bullet from his handgun had struck his cellphone and ballistic vest. The second pierced his upper chest. His head was scraped and bruised, although the coroner said that could have been intentional.
The swampy terrain was otherwise undisturbed, and his gun wasn’t found for more than an hour, even though it was less than three feet from the body, Filenko said.
By then, an intense manhunt had begun and was growing quickly, with hundreds of officers searching houses, cabins and even boats on area lakes. Helicopters with heat-sensing scanners and K-9 units scoured the area for days. Some 50 suburban Chicago police departments and sheriff’s offices assisted, racking up more than $300,000 in overtime and other costs, according to an analysis the Daily Herald published in early October.
More than 100 investigators stayed on the case for weeks, even after questions arose. The vague description Gliniewicz had radioed in — two white men and a black man — didn’t help. No one was ever arrested.
More than 100 people submitted DNA for tests that ultimately found nothing, Filenko said. Asked Wednesday whether that evidence will now be destroyed, Filenko said he didn’t know.
One hint was made public relatively quickly: The Lake County coroner, Dr. Thomas Rudd, announced on Sept. 9 that Gliniewicz was killed by a “single devastating” shot to his chest, and that he couldn’t rule out suicide or an accident. Filenko responded angrily that releasing such details put “the entire case at risk.”
Gliniewicz’s family had dismissed the suggestion of suicide. He “never once” thought of taking his own life, and was excited about his retirement plans, his son D.J. Gliniewicz insisted.
Incriminating texts and Facebook messages Gliniewicz sent tell a different story, revealing his increasing anxiety after Fox Lake hired its first professional administrator, Anne Marrin. She began auditing all the village departments, including the Explorer program.
Gliniewicz deleted the messages, but investigators recovered them, and released some of them verbatim on Wednesday, without identifying whom he sent them to.
“If she gets ahold of the old checking account, im pretty well f(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)ed,” the officer wrote in May.
“This village administrator hates me and explorer program,” he wrote in June. “This situation right here would give her the means to CRUCIFY ME (if) it were discovered.”
Filenko wouldn’t say how much money Gliniewicz allegedly embezzled, only that it’s in the “five figures.” Marrin told the AP that the village didn’t know how much the program took in or spent, and also needed an accurate inventory of assets for insurance purposes. “That was the problem — we didn’t have any of the financials.”
On Aug. 31, she asked again about the inventory.
“I said do you have that and he said ‘yes ma’am. And I said, ‘good, can you have that to me at 2 o’clock?’ And he said ‘yes, ma’am.’
Gliniewicz also met that day with Mayor Donny Schmit, who told the AP during a vigil after his death that the officer wanted to ensure that the Explorer post would continue after his planned retirement at month’s end.
Schmit, who said Gliniewicz had been his close friend for three decades, told the AP on Wednesday that he knew nothing of the allegations. “I haven’t got my thoughts together yet. It’s shocking,” he added.
Marrin also was shocked, when she learned that Gliniewicz had threatened her personally.
In one of the texts, Gliniewicz and “Individual #2” discussed trying to get Marrin out of office, perhaps by arresting her for drunken driving, or something more ominous. “Trust me ive thougit through MANY SCENARIOS from planting things to the volo bog,” Gliniewicz wrote, referring to a local body of water that would be difficult to search.
After his death, pundits called him a victim of an increasingly dangerous environment for police as citizens challenge what they see as overzealous enforcement. Gliniewicz’s picture was hung in storefront windows, blue ribbons were put on trees and telephone poles, and flags flew at half-staff in his honor. Villagers donated to support his family and screwed in blue light bulbs in front of their homes to show support for police.
“You never thought he was this kind of man,” said Kathy Pederson, a single mother who considered Gliniewicz a father figure for her son. Now, she said, “people are outraged and they are taking down the posters and the light bulbs … they want their money back.”
Public works crews took down the ribbons on Wednesday. Someone put up a “Joe = Liar” sign in a bar. Someone else removed a “We Love You Joe” sign.
“It’s breaking my heart,” school bus mechanic Mark Weihofen said.
The officer’s relatives asked Wednesday for time and privacy. A statement issued through their lawyers doesn’t mention the investigation’s findings, and says it “has been another day of deep sorrow for the Gliniewicz family.”