By Dan Campana
The work of the Lake County Major Crime Task Force exposed Joe Gliniewicz’s double life.
Commander George Filenko says that’s the abridged version of the story. High-end technology, old-fashioned investigative work, patience, frustration, sacrifice and an unwavering push for answers all came together over two months and thousands of hours to figure out what happened to Gliniewicz.
“No stone unturned,” Filenko said more than once during an hour-long interview with Illinois Cops Magazine a month after announcing the Fox Lake sergeant staged his suicide to dodge scrutiny of his embezzlement from the department.
A high-profile case with a high level of complexity – forensics, pathology, technology, victimology – like this one doesn’t come around every day, which means there are plenty of lessons to be learned from it. There’s also a level of satisfaction for Filenko that the task force, which has endured criticism in the past, lived up to its mission and did everything it could it to find a resolution – no matter how ugly it turned out to be.
Filenko shared those thoughts and more during the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
How did all of this get started for you and the Task Force?
I was notified by my administrative assistant because this had occurred somewhere around 8 in the morning. She follows a joint-use CAD system used by many departments in the county and Fox Lake is on that system. She happens to be a part-time dispatcher for Fox Lake as well. She contacted me and said, “Are you aware of what’s going on in Fox Lake?” I said no and called up the CAD system remotely on my iPad and saw officer down possibly and resources starting to respond. If you look at the screen, when it’s completely red, that means you have a multitude of police responding.
We activated our entire team; obviously this was going to be a priority. What we did was set up a command post at the Fox Lake Police Department. We had everybody on our team – the evidence technicians, investigators – respond over there, start setting up shop and waiting. What we had were reports of a hot zone; somewhere around 400 police officers in a two-square mile area searching for, at that point, three armed gunmen who shot a police officer. What we found out was entities that weren’t requested were showing up. We found off-duty police officers responding, which is unusual.
At some point, not sure when, but it was pretty quickly, we were notified that the officer was deceased.
Our evidence technicians were waiting to be escorted into the scene by one of the NIPAS (Northern Illinois Police Alarm System) units four hours into it – and it was still a hot zone. They had to get into a scene that was trampled over a number of times. They were working against some gruesome conditions – extremely hot, humid. When I got there finally, I can tell you it looked like something out of a movie like “Apocalypse Now” with these helicopters crisscrossing and tactical units fully geared up.
What about the man hours and resources that went into this?
Man hours, thousands initially. I can’t give you the totals on the search because that was extraordinary to have that much manpower there. Four hundred officers times 12; you can do the math. We started progressively scaling down throughout the weeks when tips weren’t coming in as often. Aside from the local agencies, we had federal entities that were assigned certain tasks. The U.S. Marshals were looking for three guys – two male whites and a male black – on the vague descriptions Gliniewicz reported. Leads started to pour in immediately and we noted their communications center was becoming overwhelmed. The FBI was there, and I can’t say enough good things about the FBI. They were there from Day 1 until the end of the entire investigation. Initially, we had 150-160 individuals, not all of them investigators. The marshals teamed up with the Illinois Department of Corrections and started doing bed checks. That expanded out further to my community in Round Lake Park and Ingleside.
The biggest thing is to have a structured organization because you’re dealing with different entities and everyone is going to be assigned different responsibilities. In this case, we doubled up on what we normally do because of the vast amount of manpower we had.
In a case like this, was victimology an initial priority?
We thought the victimology was so relevant that we assigned three people to it – an assistant commander and two investigators. Usually it’s one person. The victimology was going to be key because you want to learn biographically everything you can about the victim, no matter what case it is. Does he have any enemies? Was he involved in something else? Did he roll up on a drug deal? There were a lot of moving components here.
Initially, at least for the first several weeks, we were looking at this as a homicide primarily. Again, you can’t tunnel vision yourself. No theory is off the table. I know almost immediately the suicide rumor came out. But then that didn’t make any sense. We weren’t going to release detailed information to the public. You have to keep a lot of those facts, or most of the detailed ones, close to the cuff. Once we got the autopsy results back we realized how even more important that was because he was shot twice.
The interesting thing about that was the first shot was to the lower right abdomen. He had a cell phone hanging on his vest cover. So, the projectile, a .40 caliber, hits the phone, clears it, clears the vest and stops just below the rib line. The proponents of the suicide theory were talking about that; the argument was who in their right mind would shoot themselves twice. And why, if you were going to commit suicide, would you shoot yourself there and not in head or somewhere you knew it would be a fatal shot?
With all these things happening, what was your reaction when this went from the potential murder of a cop to an investigation of his motivation to take his own life?
That’s where your victimology comes in. We all know police officer suicides, unfortunately, are fairly common. We didn’t see anything, at least initially, from preliminary interviews with coworkers. We did examine his personnel file and I know there’s been a lot of talk about some of the disciplinary issues from way back. His public persona was that of a guy who was just an outstanding police officer, a pillar of the community, who did all these great things with this youth program. “G.I. Joe,” this honorable individual – so we didn’t see anything there that was revealing any issues outwardly. Once we started getting back the text messages, which showed who the real “G.I. Joe” was and what the motive behind this started to look like, and the bank records and matching those, now you’ve got the forensics, the pathology and the victimology all coming together and painting this picture which was absolutely shocking.
We were all just stunned.
And this is several weeks after this humongous funeral where there are 4,000 police officers coming in from all over the country. I went to the funeral and stood next to the bagpipers in front of the police station. Then this hits us like a bombshell. The more we dug into those text messages and bank records, I had to actually ask one of my assistant commanders who does white collar crime to explain what money laundering is. He goes, “This is money laundering.” We were speechless.
When did it first affect you personally?
It caught up to me probably about a week and a half to two weeks before we had the formal release of information. We put on an a four-hour presentation to our board – the sheriff, the state’s attorney and all the supervising agents from FBI – that’s when it started hitting. The stunned look of veteran police chiefs and federal agents was incredible.
You mentioned the funeral. Knowing what you know now, what do you think?
I’m just mad. I was mad at the deception. I was mad that his façade affected so many police officers. They were there for one purpose; to honor someone they thought was a fallen comrade who died honorably in the line of duty. I was mad that it was another black eye for law enforcement, and we’ve certainly taken enough hits over the last couple of years. I said it at the press conference: it was the first time in my career – and I’ve enjoyed every single day of this job – that I felt embarrassed and ashamed to be a police officer.
Since all this has come out, what kind of response have you received?
Those first couple of days after the press conference, just running personal errands, I had quite a few individuals come up to me out of the clear blue sky and thank all of us for our service. The vast majority of the public, once we outlined what happened, were very supportive. We’ve gotten one or two questionable comments, and you’re going to get that no matter what kind of case you’re handling. I understand that. There were times when you wanted to get up there and scream and say this is what we found, and put all those naysayers down, but you couldn’t. I think what got us through it when it got very intense and stressful for all of us was that we knew ultimately, in the end, when all of this was released people would understand.
Were you surprised when some people wanted to turn it back on you suggesting you perpetuated his persona to the level where everyone celebrated his life and now you’re telling everyone he was who he claimed to be?
We didn’t perpetuate his life; that was his public image. That’s all we knew about him. I go back to the fact that it took us a substantial amount of time to develop who he was – there were two Joe Gliniewiczes. There was the public Joe Gliniewicz that we initially knew about and then there was this other side. I think the question was “why did we deceive the public?” or “was this some type of conspiracy?” Obviously that wasn’t the case here. If you have anybody to blame here, point the blame to Joe Gliniewicz. He was the ultimate deceiver who brought us to this point. If you have anger to express, don’t express it to us. We’re the ones who uncovered this.
What lessons have you taken away from such a large media response – local, regional and nationally?
Maintain your focus. Stick to what you do. Go where the facts lead you. Learn quickly to develop a thick skin. Don’t read the newspaper or watch the news during a case like this because it really does affect you – no matter who you are – the criticism, the second-guessing. And, not just from the media; from purportedly retired officers as well. And, also, don’t be an armchair quarterback yourself when you see a major case like this develop in another community.
What can departments big and small take away from the totality of this?
I’ve had a number of inquiries, either firsthand or third party, not from police officials strangely enough, but mainly from municipal officials asking is there anything you can tell us to prevent this from happening in our town. It really is about checks and balances, accountability, good supervision and appropriate leadership. Each municipality has annual audits. You need to take that a step further. You can’t just rely on outside auditors coming in annually. You need to keep an eye on things internally and have trust, to a point, with your division heads and make sure they’re accountable. A lot of towns are doing internal audits in certain areas within different departments – it’s kind of like a Gliniewicz effect. They’re all worried that perhaps there is something they’ve overlooked. I think these lessons are going to go on for years.
The Task Force’s public perception has taken different tones over the years – what does the outcome of something of this magnitude say about your organization?
I’m not going to sugar coat the issues of wrongful convictions of the past that have come back to hurt Lake County law enforcement, the Task Force and some of the larger municipalities. Obviously, there’s been a lot of changes made not just internally with the Task Force but legislatively to prevent those things from happening. We should be the best of the best. There are no short cuts. No stone unturned.
I don’t think you’ll ever be completely vindicated in the entire public’s opinion. This certainly helps. Perhaps it gives people a little more insight about who we are and how we operate. I wish we could take the media or the naysayers and show them what we do. A lot of our investigators took exception to some of the criticism and are still a little disturbed by it. We worked hard, non-stop for two months. In some cases we were ordering people to go home after 18-hour days. Whatever it took to bring this to resolution. We just went where the facts led us no matter how ugly it turned out in the end. Whether that vindicates us or not, we know what we do and who we are.