It is believed to be the only case of its kind. A self-styled hero cop takes his own life, but makes it look like a murder, to cover up a tempest of misdeeds.
It happened a year ago, in suburban Fox Lake.
“From the second it happened, being in the national spotlight, it certainly disrupted us,” says Village Manager Anne Marrin. “But we always had a plan to move on.”
That wasn’t easy. The radio call which Lt. Joseph Gliniewicz made to his dispatch center, that he was on the trail of three suspicious individuals on the morning of September 1, 2015 put tiny Fox Lake on a troubling road of tragedy, fear, and ultimately, betrayal. For weeks, the community was paralyzed with the belief that the larger-than-life Gliniewicz had been gunned down by three individuals who might still be roaming the community.
In the end, after a laborious two-month investigation, officials pronounced the Gliniewicz case a “carefully staged suicide” made to look like a murder, to conceal a sordid secret life.
“He set this up to make it appear to be this valiant struggle, and that he died this valiant death,” says George Filenko, who ran the task force investigating the Gliniewicz case. “With his personality, what better way to go out--as a hero, rather than a zero?”
Hero was a word thrown around easily during those first few days. Gliniewicz had been found face down in a swampy area of Fox Lake near an abandoned cement plant. He had radioed about the three suspicious individuals, but other officers had gone looking for him after his radio went silent. The longtime cop with a carefully-cultivated tough-guy image, was found face down, with two bullet wounds to the chest. His gun, baton, and pepper spray were missing. To even seasoned investigators, it looked like he had been disarmed and murdered with his own weapon.
“He did a pretty good job, absolutely,” said Filenko. “He made it look realistic, but he did not overdo it.”
The Lake County coroner would later determine that Gliniewicz fired the first shot into his cell phone, the tough phone case and his bullet-proof vest taking the brunt of the impact. A second shot, also self-inflicted, was fired under the vest, directly into his chest.
Searchers eventually found Gliniewicz’s service weapon just 2 and a half feet from his body in tall weeds. His baton and pepper spray, which had been fired, were found scattered elsewhere in the field. The crime scene looked real.
Gliniewicz was given an honor funeral, attended by thousands of law enforcement professionals from across America.
But for some, it didn’t add up.
“I had questions---to be honest I was stunned,” said Marrin, conceding she was suspicious from the very moment she learned of Gliniewicz’s death. After all, she had confronted the officer just 24 hours before, about irregularities in the Explorer Scout post he led.
“I go through everything with a fine toothed comb,” Marrin said. “And when I ask questions, why is this here, and where is this going, nobody would respond. And that led me to dig deeper.”
Investigators now believe that deep digging led Gliniewicz to the conclusion that the walls were closing in, and his days were numbered. Filenko’s team pulled his bank records and hundreds of pages of text messages. They revealed stunning allegations of embezzlement from the Explorer scout funds, along with improper requisitions of thousands of surplus military and SWAT items for the Explorer post----equipment which the state thought was being requisitioned by Fox Lake Police, which the police never saw.
“We have determined this staged suicide was the end result of extensive criminal acts that Gliniewitz had been committing,” Filenko told a packed press conference November 4th, revealing the results of his investigation. “Gliniewicz committed the ultimate betrayal to the citizens he served and the entire law enforcement community.”
Retired New York Homicide Commander Vernon Geberth, whose textbook is considered the Bible of murder investigation, says the case is indeed unique.
“He set this thing up so well,” Geberth said. “I don’t know of any case where the offender---the officer in this case---set up such a perfect storm of confusion!”
Geberth, who has added the Gliniewicz case to his training sessions for police, said the initial police response unfortunately only fanned those flames of confusion.
“(Initially) there was no on-scene command ---it was like a police panic,” he said. But he quickly added the ruse was so complete “I would have jumped on it as a police homicide/active shooter.”
Filenko and his team had come under increasing pressure to reach the suicide conclusion---especially after Lake County Coroner Thomas Rudd publicly raised suicide as a possibility early in the investigation. But the commander noted that “percentagewise, the homicide angle was more realistic.”
And he defends the methodical work his task force did, recalling a moment when the investigation took a sudden turn.
“A few weeks in, there was rumor about a suicide angle,” he said. “But then suddenly, we got the lab results back, and there were a number of DNA sources on the gun. Now we’ve got unknown DNA on his weapon---where did that come from?”
Even unknown DNA is put into a national police database. Filenko raised a scenario where the gun DNA might have been matched to a known criminal in the future.
“Let’s say five years later, there’s a hit?” he asks. “Now what?”
In the end, investigators learned that Gliniewicz had a habit of letting others handle his gun, especially at Explorer gatherings. “That gun could have been in hundreds of people’s hands,” Filenko said.
Soon after that, came the financial records. Thousands of dollars in Explorer funds spent on personal expenses like hormone treatments, gym memberships, adult websites, even a Hawaiian vacation. And incriminating text messages, where Gliniewicz freely discussed the contested accounts.
“You are borrowing from that ‘other’ account, when you get back you’ll have to start dumping money into that account or you will be visiting me in JAIL!” the officer warned someone identified only as “individual #2”. “This situation right here would give her the means to CRUCIFY ME if it were discovered.”
The woman he spoke of was Marrin, who was demanding answers about the Explorers’ money and equipment. Gliniewicz messaged another person, “Individual #2”, raising the possibility of setting her up, or something even worse.
“If she gets ahold of the old checking account, I’m pretty well f***ed,” he said. “Trust me, I’ve thought through MANY SCENARIOS, from planting things, to the Volo bog!”
Filenko said packets of cocaine were found in Gliniewicz’s desk. He wonders if that was intended for a future effort to set up the Village Manager.
“Is he dealing drugs, is this for personal use, what else is it for?” he remembers asking his investigators. “I think he went through a couple of scenarios in his mind, because it looked like things were closing in on him.”
The case of Joseph Gliniewicz closed with that November 4th press conference. His wife’s court battles continue. Melodie Gliniewicz was accused of benefitting from her husband’s embezzlement, and added charges of laundering money. She has denied those charges.
Marrin suggests she has no regrets about her personal investigation which led to a scandal viewed around the world.
“When you are aware that something inappropriate was happening, you are to investigate and report that immediately,” she said. “In the end, did anyone want this outcome? No! Did anyone expect it? No! but in the end, the right things were done to make us move forward correctly.”
A year later, there are few signs of the scandal in Fox Lake. The Police Department has a new interim chief, who says the department has moved on.
“There weren’t the checks and balance in place,” says chief Russell Laine. “People are being held accountable.”
Laine says he believes Fox Lake’s remaining officers share the sense of betrayal felt by the community at large.
“He’s part of the history, but the officers here are looking to the future,” he said. “That’s one of our key words---the future!”
Filenko says he’s proud of the work done by his Major Crimes Task Force, who he said worked “relentlessly” on the case.
“It was the last thing law enforcement needed—to be betrayed by one of their own,” he said. “It just emphasizes, never discount anything, and anything is possible.”