Death of Fox Lake cop divides Illinois village

Story highlights

  • Widow and a son of Lt. Joe Gliniewizcz are being investigated, sources say
  • Cop's death -- ruled a suicide by authorities -- is main topic of conversation in Illinois village
  • Fox Lake, Illinois, officer staged suicide to make it look like a homicide, official says
  • Gliniewicz was stealing and laundering money from police program for youth, he says

(CNN)The signs praising police Lt. Joe Gliniewicz as an American hero have started to come down in the village of Fox Lake, Illinois.

Gliniewicz has become the main topic of conversation at coffee shops, bakeries and other small business in the quiet community near the Wisconsin border.
How could the once popular cop known as GI Joe kill himself amid allegations of stealing police department funds? How could his widow and a son be part of the investigation?
    "The signs ... are gone and people are slamming him for being a crooked cop," longtime resident Cynthia Mach lamented.
    Gliniewicz's death September 1 brought national attention to the village where many Chicago residents have built summer homes. Thousands of officers from around the country attended his funeral. The close-knit community rallied around Gliniewicz's widow and four children.
    Now, word that the death turned out to be, in the words of one investigator, "a carefully staged suicide" has divided Fox Lake.
    For many, the allegation that Gliniewicz staged his suicide to look like a homicide, a ruse that came after he had been stealing money from a police mentoring program, was almost worse than the blow of having a cop gunned down in the sleepy community.
    Gliniewicz's widow, Melodie, and a son are being investigated to determine whether they were involved in the embezzlement of funds from the department, three law enforcement sources said late Thursday.
    One source said Gliniewicz referred to his wife and son in incriminating text messages released by the task force investigating money laundering activities. The source also confirmed that cocaine was found inside Gliniewicz's desk.
    An attorney for the family declined to comment Thursday.

    'An academy award'

    Some in the community are finding the story emerging from authorities incredible.
    "I believe Mel and the boys had nothing to do with this," Mach said. "I don't think a lot of people are buying what they're selling."
    Mach, who knew Gliniewicz and his family, added: "I'm so shocked that it's very hard for me to believe this. I knew how he was. He should win an academy award if this is really true. I don't necessarily believe what they're saying."
    What authorities are saying is that the officer had been stealing and laundering money from a police department program that mentored young people hoping to become law enforcement officers, according to George Filenko, Lake County Major Crimes Task Force commander.
    Gliniewicz, a leader in that program, had been stealing money for at least seven years, Filenko told reporters.
    "This staged suicide was the end result of extensive criminal acts that Gliniewicz had been committing," Filenko said, announcing the conclusions of the investigation into the officer's death.
    The investigation found that Gliniewicz, who had experience creating mock crime scenes, staged his suicide to make it look like a homicide.
    The officer placed his equipment at the scene in an "attempt to mislead first responders and investigators to believe this was a homicide," Filenko said.
    In some places in Fox Lake, the signs hailing Gliniewicz's sacrifice have been replaced with new ones calling him an embarrassment.
    "I knew there was something weird going on from the beginning," said Ashley Scott, a worker at the Village Bakery, where a pro-Gliniewicz sign was taken down Thursday. "The whole thing didn't seem right. It's such a small town and they didn't find any suspects in the first 24 hours. To me that was a red flag. Everybody knows everybody here."
    Gliniewicz's name still appears on the website of Fox Lake Law Enforcement Explorer Post 300, which was established in 1985 and offers young people courses in SWAT basics, marksmanship and basic police academy training. Representatives at the post declined to comment.
    "Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with all those involved during this difficult time," the Northeast Illinois Council, which administers the Explorer program, said in a statement.
    Gliniewicz was an Explorer adviser as part of Learning for Life, a program affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America to provide career education, the statement said. The program is geared to young people 14 to 20 contemplating careers in law enforcement.

    Federal benefits in jeopardy

    "We will work with the local authorities and the [Explorer Post] while they closely review this matter, and to make sure we attend to the needs of the Post's youth members," the council statement said. "In the meantime, we will continue to deliver meaningful experiences to youth in the community who are interested in law enforcement as a career."
    Danielle Torres, a restaurant owner, said Gliniewicz had a "great personality" and did many good things for the people of Fox Lake.
    "My reaction was doubtful," she said of the suicide. "Seems to me that we don't have the facts yet. It leaves more questions than answers."
    Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest police union, said Gliniewicz's actions will not diminish the sacrifices of honorable officers who have lost their lives on the job.
    "Unfortunately, tragically, he apparently saw fit to betray his trust and no police officer can excuse that," Pasco said.
    "It's bigger than just him. All police officers take an oath to uphold the law and no one is happy or anything other than disappointed when someone fails to uphold that oath."
    Pasco said the manner of Gliniewicz's death could put in jeopardy federal benefits of as much as $340,000 to the officer's family.
    In a statement Thursday, a lawyer for the Fox Lake Police Pension Fund said the fund provided the officer's spouse, Melodie, with an application for survivor benefits.
    "To date, Ms. Gliniewicz has not submitted that application to the Pension Board requesting a survivor's pension benefit," the lawyer, Laura Goodloe, said in a statement. "Therefore, the Pension Board has no information with regard to which type or types of survivor's benefit Ms. Gliniewicz intends on filing for."
    The statement said the board will hold a hearing if an application is submitted.
    So far, Mach said she isn't buying the theory put forth by authorities.
    "There are a lot of bad cops out there that take money when they shouldn't but they don't take their own lives or stage their own deaths," she said.
    Of the controversial death, she said, "Most of us want this to go away and go back to the quiet community we were."

    'Ultimate betrayal'

    Far from being a hero, Gliniewicz "committed the ultimate betrayal" with his actions over the past several years, Filenko said. "He behaved for years in a manner completely contrary to the image he portrayed."
    A group that gave Gliniewicz's family $15,000 asked for the money back.
    The 100 Club, which assists families of first responders who lose their lives in the line of duty, said it "must stay true" to the group's mission.
    Gliniewicz's family didn't reply to that request, but issued a statement asking for privacy as it coped "with the loss of a beloved husband and father."
    Before becoming a police officer, Gliniewicz served in the Army from 1980 to 2007 first in active duty and then in reserve, earning the nickname GI Joe from those who knew him. He left the military with a rank of first sergeant.
    The initial assumptions about his death shifted when investigators "didn't see anything to indicate there was a struggle physically" in the officer's death, Filenko said.
    Investigators then found that the village of Fox Lake, north of Chicago, had started "a thorough internal audit of all of their assets" that Gliniewicz was concerned might unearth proof of his illicit financial activities, Filenko said.
    Investigators recovered 6,500 text messages Gliniewicz had deleted, Filenko said, and looked at thousands of pages of bank statements that showed financial improprieties.
    The investigation indicates at least two others were involved in criminal activity, though that inquiry is ongoing, and police are not commenting further for now, he said.
    Authorities released text messages Gliniewicz exchanged with unidentified people in which he discussed the Explorer Post, the youth organization sponsored by the police department. Gliniewicz wanted sponsorship moved to another organization so the city administrator would not scrutinize the post finances.
    "Chief won't sign off to move it to american legion and if she gets ahold of the old checking account, im pretty well f***ed," a May 13 text said.
    On June 25 he advised that same person "to start dumping money into that account or you will be visiting me in JAIL!! The 1600 and the 777 all came from there..."
    Gliniewicz was under increasing levels of stress from scrutiny into what the investigators found to be criminal activity, Filenko said.
    The veteran officer had planned to retire in August, but he was asked to stay on for another month.
    The last radio call of his more than 30 years on the job was anything but routine. It would signal the beginning of a mystery that stumped investigators for a time.
    On the morning of September 1, the lieutenant sent word over his radio at 7:52 that he was pursuing a trio on foot. Three minutes later, he requested backup. Radio communication dropped off. Colleagues would not hear Gliniewicz's voice again.
    The backups arrived about 8 a.m. and a few minutes later found Gliniewicz dead. His body was roughly 50 yards from his cruiser, police said.
    Three people who appeared in a surveillance video near the crime scene were cleared of suspicion.

    The shooting

    Gliniewicz was wearing a bulletproof vest at the time he was shot, according to two law enforcement officials briefed on the investigation. One of the officials said two shots hit Gliniewicz -- one stopped by his bulletproof vest, and another entered his torso at a downward angle.
    The officer's .40-caliber pistol was found at the scene. A source involved in the investigation told CNN in September that Gliniewicz's gun was fired, but it wasn't clear who pulled the trigger.
    Lake County officials said the case was being handled as a homicide, but other theories remained on the table during the investigation, including the possibility of a self-inflicted fatal gunshot wound.
    The coroner said he couldn't rule out a homicide, suicide or accident.
    A massive manhunt was launched in the aftermath.
    More than 400 law enforcement officers raked through the heavy woods near Fox Lake on foot, all-terrain vehicles and horseback.
    The FBI, U.S. marshals and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also helped in the hunt as well as police from adjoining areas. But eventually they pulled out, saying no suspects or persons of interest had been identified.