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Illinois police officer whose death prompted a manhunt was killed in ‘carefully staged suicide,’ officials say

Here's what really happened to police officer Charles "Joe" Gliniewicz. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

In September, Lt. Charles Joseph Gliniewicz, a police officer in Fox Lake, Ill., radioed in one morning to say he was pursuing three possible suspects. A short time later, he was found with a fatal gunshot wound, sparking a massive manhunt that sent scores of police officers and federal agents sweeping through the area.

Two months later, police now say that Gliniewicz, a man known to many as “G.I. Joe,” was not among the handful of police officers shot and killed by a suspect this year. Instead, investigators say they determined that he took his own life after a long run of stealing money from his own police force.

Gliniewicz’s death “was a carefully staged suicide,” Cmdr. George Filenko of the task force said during a news conference Wednesday morning. “We have determined that this suicide was the end result of extensive criminal acts that Gliniewicz had committed.”

Filenko said that officials “have the highest degree of confidence” in their conclusions that Gliniewicz, 52, had been stealing money for seven years from a Fox Lake police program and tried to trick police with a staged crime scene.

But in Fox Lake, a village not far from the Wisconsin border, residents reacted to the news with shock and disbelief that a man viewed as a hero and a friend could have also been a man capable of such deceptions.

“We feel a little duped. We were really hoping it was not going to turn out that way,” said Kelly Herden, who works at the local American Legion Post where many of the regulars were gathered midday to talk about the announcement.

At the Lagoon Lounge, Naile Hasane, 76, peered at the news on a nearby television. She said she cried for days after Gliniewicz’s death because he left behind a young family and was so close to retirement.

“We stood in the street out of respect for him,” she said of his funeral. “I don’t know the truth. He was a nice guy, that’s all I know.”

Others were more insistent that Gliniewicz did not stage his own death and his killers remain on the loose.

“Even if you wanted it to look like murder, you would do something more accurate,” said Jody Neubiser, 57. “He knew too much about guns and their effect. He had too many things going for him. He would not take the risk the way they say he did it.”

Ruth Hogan said she had known Gliniewicz for three decades and described him as “a good and honest man” who was not capable of the crimes alleged Wednesday.

“I find it so hard to believe he was leading a double life,” said Hogan, 51, who owns a local jewelry store.

“He adored his wife, he adored his kids, he adored his police Explorers,” she said of the youth program Gliniewicz ran and, police say, the source of his stolen money. “That is not the man they’re painting. That’s just not him. I feel they’re forgetting all the good things that he’s done,” she said.

The announcement about Gliniewicz’s death was a stunning reversal of what authorities had said they were exploring in the hours after he was shot, when officials described a broad search for three suspects based on Gliniewicz’s radio report. After the county coroner said he could not rule out suicide as a cause of death, speculation mounted about whether Gliniewicz had taken his own life. Law enforcement officials criticized the coroner’s comments, but no official determination followed and uncertainty lingered.

“There are no winners,” Filenko said Wednesday. “Gliniewicz committed the ultimate betrayal to the citizens he served and the entire law enforcement community.”

Authorities did not explicitly say Wednesday why Gliniewicz wanted to hide his suicide and make it look like a homicide, but they offered at least one possible theory.

“This is an individual who was highly regarded by his community…and he was looking at potentially going to prison and basically destroying his name, destroying his reputation, destroying everything hes accomplished over his 30 year career,” Det. Christopher Covelli, a spokesman for the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, said Wednesday evening. He added: “He was revered as a hero and didn’t want to make it look as if he was taking his own life.”

Covelli said nothing suggested that Gliniewicz had staged the suicide to preserve death benefits for his family. The manner of an officer’s death can impact the amount of money given to the family, so Gliniewicz’s family could lose a substantial sum since investigators say he did not die in the line of duty.

Police also say that the investigation into what happened was not over. The investigation “strongly indicates criminal activity on the part of at least two other individuals,” Filenko said, but he added that officials would not comment further on that.

The Justice Department has received a request for assistance in the investigation, Joseph Fitzpatrick, assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, said Wednesday. Fitzpatrick said he could not confirm when the request was made or what it entailed.

Filenko said the investigation determined that Gliniewicz, a married father of four, had stolen funds in his role with the Fox Lake police department, saying that police found incriminating statements, deleted messages and forged signatures during the process.

The stolen money was “in the five figure range,” Filenko said, and investigators believe it was used to pay for travel expenses, gym membership, adult Web sites and personal loans, among other things.

Filenko said that Gliniewicz’s actions would have eventually been discovered whether or not he committed suicide, because Fox Lake had begun an internal audit of its assets. But he also said Gliniewicz’s deceit extended to the final minutes of his life.

“Our investigation has determined conclusively that Gliniewicz intentionally left a staged trail of police equipment at the crime scene,” he said. That included pepper spray, a baton and his glasses, an attempt to “mislead first responders and investigators” into thinking they had found a crime scene.

Investigators said Gliniewicz shot himself twice, with one shot hitting his bulletproof vest and cellphone and the other being fired underneath the vest.

Thomas Rudd, the Lake County coroner, said Gliniewicz fatally shot himself in the upper chest, causing internal bleeding and collapsing his lung. Gliniewicz likely remained alive for one to two minutes after he fired the fatal shot, Rudd said.

“This officer killed himself,” Rudd said at the news conference.

Over the last month, investigators reviewed thousands of deleted text messages containing incriminating comments from Gliniewicz along with other documents, Filenko said. These messages were sent to multiple people, Filenko said.

Police released a selection of some messages they said were recovered from Gliniewicz’s phone. In one message, Gliniewicz complains about being asked for a financial report, and in another he mentions closing one bank account and opening another account “to keep it being traced.” At one point, he wrote to an unidentified person that they need to put money into a specific account “or you will be visiting me in JAIL!!”

The Lake County Sheriff’s Office will continue to investigate the situation, a spokesman said. A federal official familiar with the ongoing investigation said that it is unclear if any federal laws were broken, which is what the Justice Department would look into.

The situation is “a tragedy on multiple levels,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, the country’s largest police union. Gliniewicz was a member of the union, Pasco said.

“First, a police officer went wrong, went bad, which no police officer worthy of the badge would excuse,” Pasco said. “When he felt there was danger of being caught, he chose a cowardly departure from the crime scene, if you will, and did so in a manner that caused untold fear and expense on the part of the state.”

Pasco said he believes law enforcement officials will be even more angry about what happened than civilians “because this man didn’t just betray himself and his family,” he said. “He betrayed a profession that is sworn to uphold the law.”

Anne Marrin, the village administrator for Fox Lake, said the local community was the real victim.

“I want to be very clear on this point,” Marrin said at the news conference. “The village fully supports the prosecution of each and every individual who conspired with Lt. Gliniewicz and/or has engaged in criminal activity that came at the expense of our community, our police department and those we serve.”

Relatives of Gliniewicz could not be reached for comment Wednesday. His family released a statement that did not directly touch on the investigation’s findings and asked for privacy.

“Today has been another day of deep sorrow for the Gliniewicz family,” the family said in the statement, which was released by a law firm in North Barrington, Ill. “The family has cooperated with the Task Force’s investigation and will not comment at this time. The Gliniewicz family requests that their privacy be respected as they continue to cope with the loss of the beloved husband and father.”

In interviews conducted during the weeks after Gliniewicz died, his wife and son both argued with the suggestion that the fatal gunshot could have been self-inflicted.

Gliniewicz reported that he was checking on three people — two white men and a black man — shortly before 8 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 1. A short time later, contact with Gliniewicz was lost and other officers responded to the area.

“We’ve got an officer down, an officer down,” another officer said, according to a transcript of radio transmissions released by authorities Wednesday.

Three men seen on surveillance video from the area were deemed not to be involved, officials said. And during the news conference Wednesday, Filenko suggested that Gliniewicz may not have come up with the descriptions out of thin air.

“There is a great possibility that Lt. Gliniewicz may have driven by those three individuals on his way to that scene,” he said.

The ensuing manhunt for three possible suspects shuttered schools in the area and extended to include more than 150 investigators, officials say. Law enforcement officers and public officials spoke about how the entire community was impacted. “We lost a family member,” Fox Lake Mayor Donny Schmit said at a news conference.

At one point, a woman reported seeing possible suspects, sending dozens of officials into that area. Police say they determined that the report was false and arrested the woman.

Gliniewicz’s death came days after Darren Goforth, a Texas deputy, was gunned down while getting gas, incidents that occurred at a time when police officers are feeling increased anxiety. These deaths were also lumped together as part of a broader argument that protests against how police use lethal force have created an added danger for officers, an argument that has been picked up as an issue on the presidential campaign trail.

The number of officers who are shot and killed in the line of duty is down from the same point last year, according to non-profit groups that track line-of-duty fatalities. There have been 31 police officers shot and killed by a suspect so far this year, the Officer Down Memorial Page reports.

Statistics show that it has become much safer to be a police officer: About 50 police officers were killed on average each year over the last decade, a number that has dropped by more than half since the 1970s, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund.

Still, many police officers say that sustained protests nationwide have left them feeling under siege. Current and former officers, as well as their relatives, have said in interviews this year that they feel like officers are being unfairly portrayed and demonized. Some have also said they feel they need to be particularly cautious, pointing to what Jim Johnson, the chief of police in Baltimore County, says is an increased “anti-public-safety mindset.”

This issue drew national attention after Goforth and Gliniewicz died, and it surged into view again when FBI Director James B. Comey recently suggested that police officers are pulling back amid concerns over being recorded. Comey’s comments echoed what police chiefs and elected officials said in a private meeting in Washington last month, and they were sharply disputed by the White House, law enforcement leaders and civil rights groups.

During a Republican presidential debate, and in multiple public comments since, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie insisted that President Obama and other politicians were to blame for police not feeling supported. In his remarks at the debate, Christie incorrectly said that Comey had blamed politicians for the lack of support; while Comey suggested that police officers were pulling back, he never mentioned a lack of support from politicians, and pointed only to concerns about video recordings.

Authorities now say that Gliniewicz’s death, originally roped into a roiling national debate, was something else entirely. In Fox Lake, though, locals were reeling at the news. In some cases, they were not convinced.

“How many people are sitting on death row or in jail for crimes they didn’t commit because somebody got it wrong? They can be wrong,” said Ruth Hogan, the jewelry store owner. “There is always that chance that they could have gotten it wrong.”

Mark Berman reported from Washington. Mark Guarino reported from Fox Lake, Ill.

[This post has been updated. First published: 11:07 a.m.]