FOX LAKE, Ill. — He gave teenagers their own keys and 24-hour access to the police department. He forged the police chief’s signature to obtain surplus military equipment. He often refused to wear his police uniform on duty in favor of camouflage fatigues. And he spent most of his workday on a police-sponsored youth program that he was supposed to run on his own time.
Lt. Charles Joseph Gliniewicz, the small-town Illinois cop who staged his own death to look like a homicide after realizing he would be exposed as a thief, was able to run roughshod in the department for years because officials exerted little control over him or the award-winning youth program that made him a popular figure known as “G.I. Joe” in the bedroom community of 10,000 people 50 miles north of Chicago.
They glossed over serious transgressions — including allegations of sexual harassment and intimidating subordinates — rather than fire the public face of the police department, according to internal documents and interviews with officials.
Now, the investigation of Gliniewicz’s death on Sept. 1, which touched off a massive, weekslong manhunt for killers who didn’t exist, is bringing to light not only the officer’s abuses but the official acquiescence that nurtured his behavior.
“Joe Gliniewicz was allowed to do whatever Joe Gliniewicz wanted,” said Michael Keller, a Lake County Sheriff’s detective who was brought in to run the department after Gliniewicz took his own life in an apparent attempt to cover up his theft of thousands of dollars. “He should have been fired a long time ago.”
A reconstruction of Gliniewicz’s 30-year career in the department shows a series of problems followed by second and third chances, and eventually promotions to positions of more authority.
When a sheriff’s deputy found Gliniewicz passed out in his truck after drinking, his foot on the gas, a Fox Lake officer took him home and had the truck towed. Gliniewicz, who reported the truck stolen, was not punished.
When a female officer complained in 2001 that she was pressured for sex in exchange for him protecting her job, the police chief at the time gave Gliniewicz six, 5-day suspensions to avoid informing the village police commission, which had to approve suspensions longer than five days, according to court records.
The woman told The Associated Press that Gliniewicz got off easy because “he was the one that ran the whole Explorer program. He put out the news releases and talked to the reporters.”
Keller agreed: “He was put on a pedestal,” even though his fellow officers distrusted him — so much so that none attended a party earlier this year for Gliniewicz’s 30th year on the force, Keller said.
There is no evidence that anyone took action after then-Mayor Cynthia Irwin received a letter in 2009 signed only by “Anonymous Members of the Fox Lake Police Department” with numerous allegations involving Gliniewicz — including sexual harassment and being drunk and belligerent at bars. The letter said morale was “destroyed” because then-Chief Michael Behan would not act on their complaints.
Neither Behan, who resigned four days before Gliniewicz’s suicide, nor Irwin has responded to numerous attempts to reach them for comment.
Gliniewicz did surprisingly little police work, serving as the lead or backup officer in only 13 criminal cases that resulted in convictions since 2006, when he was promoted to lieutenant over the patrol division, officials said. Instead, Keller said, Gliniewicz spent his time on the youth program that he took over in 1987.
The Explorer program teaches interested teenagers about police work, and they often help direct traffic at public events.
When the village’s new professional administrator, Ann Marrin, began asking for an accounting of the program this summer, Gliniewicz stalled and then finally staged his death. He sent a radio message that he was chasing three suspicious men before shooting himself.
Since learning the truth, people in the town have tried coming to grips with how they were deceived.
William Dam, who was mayor from 1985 to 1989, said he admired Gliniewicz, who would talk to youth to steer them in the right direction.
“Officer Gliniewicz went out of his way to help people in town who were misbehaving,” including his own son, said Dam, adding that he was so appreciative that if he had known about the theft, “I would have gladly loaned him the money to pay it back to avoid embarrassment for him in town.”
Ed Bender, who served as a village trustee for eight years, said he was never told about the sexual harassment complaint.
“It was kept quiet from the board,” he said. “This is an unbelievable story and it keeps getting worse.”
And a current trustee and police board member, Jeff Jensen, said he and other elected officials in the small town relied entirely on police to raise any issues.
“I’m a carpenter. … I (have to) trust the police,” he said.
Fox Lake Mayor Donny Schmit told a village board meeting Tuesday that Fox Lake must put “accountability measures in place to ensure something like this never happens again.” And he added, “We are fools if we don’t at least acknowledge we can do better.”