Official Convicted In Tainted Water Case

Crestwood's former water department supervisor found guilty on all counts

By Michael Tarm
|  Monday, Apr 29, 2013  |  Updated 6:12 PM CDT
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Theresa Neubauer, who is on paid leave as Crestwood's police chief, was found guilty on all 11 counts of making false statements, with each count carrying a maximum five-year prison term. The judge set a tentative sentencing date of Oct. 2. Phil Rogers reports.

Theresa Neubauer, who is on paid leave as Crestwood's police chief, was found guilty on all 11 counts of making false statements, with each count carrying a maximum five-year prison term. The judge set a tentative sentencing date of Oct. 2. Phil Rogers reports.

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A one-time suburban Chicago official was convicted Monday of lying for decades about drawing water for residents from a well tainted by a cancer-causing chemical.

The only Crestwood official to go to trial in a scandal that shocked the region for the apparent callousness displayed by village officials stared down at the defense table and showed no emotion as a judge read the verdict.

But Theresa Neubauer, 55, struggled to keep her composure 15 minutes later as she spoke to reporters at the federal courthouse in Chicago.

"I'm devastated," she said, her voice breaking.

Prosecutors said the village for decades mixed contaminated well water with cleaner but pricier water from Lake Michigan to keep water rates low. It infuriated residents and left many fearing for their health.

Crestwood resident Tricia Krause, who is credited with first raising questions about the water, said she and others remain bitter.

"What did the citizens of Crestwood and my family do to the water department? Nothing," she said, crying. "But we were secretly poisoned and it wasn't right."

Neubauer, who is on paid leave as Crestwood's police chief, was found guilty on all 11 counts of making false statements, with each count carrying a maximum five-year prison term. The judge set a tentative sentencing date of Oct. 2.

Neubauer repeated in her remarks Monday what her lawyer had told jurors during the trial: Officials higher up the chain of command devised and carried out the plot to divert a percentage of well water into the village's supply.

"I was unknowingly sucked into it," she said. Despite being the longtime supervisor of Crestwood's water department, she described her role as little more than a clerk.

"I do apologize for what happened," she said. "But I would also like to add that it was none of my decision."

It took jurors two days of deliberations — starting Friday and resuming Monday — to reach a verdict.

Prosecutors say the decision to pump cheaper, polluted well water was an effort to score political points with voters in the suburb about 20 miles south of Chicago: They could boast about keeping water rates low in the 11,000-resident village. Officials saved nearly $400,000 annually, prosecutors said.

During closings Friday, a prosecutor said Neubauer was part of the Crestwood government's inner circle. He displayed disclosure forms where she indicates no well water was drawn.

"She told lie after lie, month after month, year after year," Tim Chapman said.

But defense attorney Thomas Breen said Neubauer was made the scapegoat of a scheme concocted by powerful men in the village.

Breen questioned how Neubauer could have possibly known the water was poisoned when she herself took showers in and drank the same water, and when she made oatmeal for her children with the water.

But Chapman scoffed at the notion Neubauer was ignorant.

"That is nonsense," he told jurors. "She carefully tracked the use of that well for nearly 30 years."

The only other official charged was Frank Scaccia, 61, Crestwood's certified water operator. He changed his plea to guilty earlier this month to one count, and now faces a maximum five-year prison term.

Officials drew the tainted water until 2008 even after environmental officials warned in the mid-1980s that cancer-causing chemicals had oozed into the well, prosecutors have said.

Pending lawsuits blame the well water for a variety of illnesses. A 2010 health department report did find cancer rates were higher than average in Crestwood, but it didn't make a definite link to the tainted water.

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