While visiting Universal Studios with his wife and kids, Dewayne Smalarz, a veteran Chicago cop, walked out of a souvenir shop with a “SpongeBob SquarePants” book bag and other items without paying, records show.
Another Chicago police officer, Alicia Roman, was charged with shooting up her estranged husband’s bungalow while off-duty as he dove for cover.
After hanging out at a popular southwest suburban bar for hours while off work, police records show, rookie Chicago cop Steven Brandenburger drove off in an idling sport-utility vehicle that didn’t belong to him to a late-night burrito stand.
All were fired. But that didn’t keep them from continuing their law enforcement careers elsewhere. Today, Smalarz is a cop in Summit. Roman is an officer with Loyola University’s campus safety department. Brandenburger is a police officer in Homewood. They are among 15 sworn officers a Chicago Sun-Times investigation found left the Chicago department under a cloud but ended up finding other police jobs, mostly in the suburbs.
In most cases, their new employers knew they were hiring cops who’d either resigned from the Chicago Police Department or been fired over allegations they’d broken the law or violated a departmental regulation, including the residency rule requiring Chicago government employees to live in the city.
In one case, the Cook County Forest Preserve District’s police apparently didn’t know when they hired Jerome Ficaro in 2013 that he had tested positive for cocaine while on-duty as a Chicago cop in 2002, according to records and interviews. Ficaro, now 44, was facing firing when he resigned in 2004 — something John Roberts, the forest preserves police chief, says he didn’t know.
Ficaro was a forest preserves cop from 2013 to 2015, then came back earlier this year, making about $49,000.
The Cook County Sheriff’s Merit Board does pre-employment background checks, and Roberts says of Ficaro’s troubles: “I don’t think they would have missed that.”
Days after telling that to a Sun-Times reporter, Roberts’ agency reported Ficaro had been fired but wouldn’t say why.
Ficaro worked briefly as a Matteson cop, from 2015 until earlier this year. The police chief in the south suburb also says he didn’t know Ficaro previously worked in Chicago or that he’d left after a positive drug test.
“If he lied . . . he should not be a police officer,” Matteson Chief Michael Jones says.
Ficaro’s prior employment somehow wasn’t turned up even though he underwent a background check there that included a polygraph.
In an email prior to his termination this month from the forest preserve district, Ficaro says, “The incident with CPD was an unfortunate situation for me with extreme consequences to my life. I was young, stupid and careless.”
The Chicago Police Department helps other police agencies “with any and all information that they may request” during background investigations, a spokesman says. But one suburban chief says getting meaningful information on ex-Chicago cops can be “frustrating.” And he says pre-employment vetting is “only as good as the information.”
A state law that took effect in 2016 should make it easier for departments to find whether cops had problems at past jobs. Officers with a “willful violation” of a policy who’ve been fired as a result or resigned while under investigation for certain crimes now must be reported to the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, the state agency that regulates police. There are 27 officers currently in that database, according to the training board’s Cora Beem, who says, “It’s a great tool, but agencies have to avail themselves of it.”
Most of the former Chicago cops who left under a cloud for other law enforcement jobs haven’t had serious problems with their new departments, the Sun-Times found.
But Ficaro was issued a written reprimand while still on probationary status with the forest preserves for not reporting a New Year’s Eve incident in which someone brought booze to his police station, and it was “consumed by officers,” records show.
Smalarz was accused of leaving his squad-car window down during a storm, soaking the car and a $2,500 laptop inside it, records show.
While a Chicago cop, Smalarz faced 19 formal complaints.
Smalarz, now 50, and his family were at Universal Studios on April 20, 2006, when a “loss-prevention agent” spotted him “pushing a stroller” and putting “store items on top of the stroller” including the “SpongeBob” book bag and two “Fear Factor” shirts, records show.
After Orlando police arrested him for theft, Smalarz avoided prosecution by entering a pretrial diversion program, in which he did community service and took an impulse-control class, records show.
Questioned by Chicago internal affairs investigators, he portrayed the incident as a misunderstanding. Regardless, at the urging of then-police Supt. Jody Weis, the Chicago Police Board fired Smalarz in 2009.
Months later, he was hired as a part-time cop in Summit while suing the city of Chicago, unsuccessfully, to get his job back.
Now full-time with Summit and paid over $68,000 a year, Smalarz didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Nor did Roman, 36. The daughter of a Chicago cop, Roman was a probationary officer in the city when she got into an argument March 1, 2006, with her estranged husband and fired “several shots” into the walls of his bungalow in Scottsdale on the city’s Southwest Side, according to police records. He filed a complaint more than a month later, saying that, after opening fire, Roman told him, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t want to hurt you, I just wanted to scare you, don’t tell anyone because . . . I’ll get fired.”
Roman later denied shooting her gun, but five bullets were recovered from the walls, and investigators determined they came from her pistol, records show.
She lost her job and was arrested for aggravated assault and criminal damage to property, but no court records could be found to show the disposition of the case.
Two years later, Roman joined Loyola University’s police department.
“She was hired before I got here,” Loyola Police Chief Tom Murray says. “She’s a good employee. That’s all I can tell you.”
Brandenburger, 34, was fired as a Chicago cop in 2007 after an incident that started at a bar and ended outside a burrito joint. Today, he makes nearly $88,000 as an officer in Homewood, where his bosses consider him “an exemplary employee.”
A rookie Chicago officer a decade ago, Brandenburger was outside the sprawling Merrionette Park bar 115 Bourbon Street when he hopped into an idling Ford Explorer that belonged to a band playing there and took off, records show.
Police spotted the SUV and Brandenburger, who was off-duty, soon after by a nearby burrito place and put him in handcuffs and questioned him, according to Chicago police records.
Brandenburger initially said “he did not take the stolen vehicle and denied driving the stolen vehicle,” the records show.
Later, he told Chicago internal affairs investigators he had not said that and indeed had taken the SUV but with permission.
“Steven Brandenburger is a CPD member whose parents are former CPD members and he could not locate or provide further information about his potential alibi,” according to Chicago police records.
While Brandenburger was detained, he asked that his father “be present.” He showed up and spoke with the SUV’s owner, who decided not to press charges and “let the father handle it,” according to Merrionette Park records.
Brandenburger wouldn’t comment.
Homewood officials were aware of his problems when they hired him full-time in 2010, according to Denise McGrath, the suburb’s deputy police chief. Among his references for the Homewood job were two police officials in Chicago: a captain and a police lieutenant, Glenn Evans, who was later charged with sticking a gun in a suspect’s mouth, though acquitted.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi says that, in general, the department can’t “prevent an individual from providing a personal reference on behalf of a colleague.”
Police departments each have their own hiring rules. Under Illinois law, they can’t employ someone who’s been convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors, including theft.
Among the other cases the Sun-Times found:
• David Staszak was a Chicago cop in June 2006 when — not even six weeks after joining the department and still on probation — he was charged with DUI after his car hit a utility police in Joliet and flipped while he was off-duty.
But Staszak didn’t tell his bosses, who finally, several months later, figured things out and fired him, records show.
He got hired as a part-time officer in Palos Park.
“He was very forthcoming with us,” says Joe Miller, the police chief there. “He obviously made an egregious mistake,” but “he worked out well for us. . . . We never had an issue or problem.”
In the past, Miller says, any mark could keep someone from being a cop. But now he says there’s a greater willingness to “look at the totality of what happened,” so “an incredibly stupid decision” made while younger doesn’t automatically rule out people with otherwise-good backgrounds.
Staszak, 35, went on to be a K-9 officer in Orland Park, where he now makes more than $90,000 a year. Chief Tim McCarthy says he’s a good cop, and, “in most cases, people deserve a second chance.”
Staszak says, “They decided to hire me and give me a shot . . . I was told, ‘This is your chance; don’t screw it up.’ ”
• Sandy Garrett had been at the Chicago Police Academy for only a few weeks in 2004 when she began a consensual sexual relationship with an instructor, Officer Bert Major, police investigators found. She told officials he sexually assaulted her, but she was fired, in part, because investigators concluded she lied about her relationship with Major and that there had been “fraternization,” according to police records.
“I don’t think it was fair,” says Garrett, now 44 and, since 2006, a Dolton police officer making more than $60,000 a year.
Major, a 26-year veteran cop who’s been the subject of 45 disciplinary cases, got a 20-day suspension, records show. Now assigned to the mass-transit unit and making more than $90,000 a year, he declined to comment.
• Sgt. Robert O’Neill took a leave of absence from the Chicago Police Department to run the fugitive warrant unit for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart in 2012, months after City Hall paid $700,000 to settle a lawsuit accusing Chicago cops of being part of a scheme to extort money and steal drugs from drug dealers. O’Neill was among the defendants because he supervised accused officers.
O’Neill, 47, who’d been the subject of 55 disciplinary complaints, got a five-day suspension for allowing his officers to conduct unsupervised searches in which they failed to inventory all seized items.
“To my knowledge, we were not aware of disciplinary issues with him at the time he was hired,” says Cara Smith, Dart’s policy chief. “We believed his background and experience would be helpful as we tried to completely reform our warrants division.”
O’Neill, paid more than $106,000 last year, has made nine campaign contributions to Dart totaling nearly $4,000 since 2010, including $900 the year he went on Dart’s payroll, records show.
He was once a neighbor of Dart in Mount Greenwood. He and his wife moved to a $932,000 home in Orland Park while on leave from his Chicago job, records show. After the Sun-Times first asked about O’Neill, then-Interim Supt. John Escalante refused to extend his leave of absence last fall, and O’Neill “retired.”
O’Neill didn’t return calls.
• Some ex-Chicago cops now at other departments were forced to leave because they were found living outside Chicago’s city limits.
Duane Perry, 44, resigned in 2013 before being fired for living in the suburbs. He was hired in 2015 as a cop with Metra — the transit agency says it was aware of the residency issue — and was paid more than $72,000 last year.
In a reversal of the typical pattern of other departments hiring Chicago cops who left their jobs under a cloud, the Sun-Times found the Chicago police hired an officer who was fired by a suburban department — a cop Chicago officials have since tried to fire.
John Loconsole, 60, was a Skokie cop for nine years before being fired in 1989 for infractions including allegations he harassed an ex-girlfriend who was a dispatcher, court records show. Loconsole sued, and a judge ordered Skokie to rehire him. It appealed, lost and offered him his job back — but in the interim he was hired in Chicago in 1994 and turned Skokie down.
Chicago officials knew about Loconsole’s troubles, according to city records, which say “there was nothing within our background standards that would disqualify” him from being hired.
Loconsole says a department official “read through everything” related to his firing in Skokie and concluded “it’s all bull—-.”
But Loconsole has had a rocky tenure in Chicago, where his salary has risen to more than $90,000. He’s been the subject of more than 35 misconduct investigations and half a dozen disciplinary actions, city records show.
Then-Supt. Garry McCarthy tried to fire Loconsole twice in 2011 — once over an accusation of filing a false report and once for making threatening comments. Escalante recommended firing Loconsole last year for operating a snowplow business while on medical leave for a back injury.
The Chicago Police Board — an appointed panel that adjudicates serious misconduct cases against Chicago cops — instead suspended Loconsole 30 days over the false report, dismissed the threat case and gave him an 18-month suspension without pay last September for running the snowplow business on medical leave.
Loconsole says he’s a good cop, and “It’s not a fair world.”
Soon after his suspension ends, he says, “I plan to retire.”
Contributing: Jacqueline Campbell
MORE FROM THE WATCHDOGS:
• Red-light cameras reap suburbs millions: a Sun-Times / ABC7 special report, May 23, 2017
• Taxpayers paid for weekend resort getaway for recorder of deeds, staff, May 21, 2017
• A look inside the watch list Chicago police fought to keep secret, May 14, 2017
• For billionaire gov hopeful J.B. Pritzker, mansion’s disrepair has saved $230K in taxes, May 14, 2017