Pat Kelly had been an Oak Park detective for a couple of years when he found himself caught up in one of the games policemen play. He and his partner found an alcoholic man dead of natural causes in a hotel apartment. The man did not have any relatives, but he did have several hundred dollars cash. As Kelly was counting the money, his supervisor asked what he planned to do with it. “Bring it back to the station to be inventoried,” Kelly said. Without hesitation the supervisor responded “You’re a fool” and walked out.
“A lot of my naivete left me then,” Kelly recalled later. “The appropriate response was, ‘I’m going to split it with you and my partner.’ This was the answer he was looking for.”
Because Kelly didn’t give that answer, he was a chump, or at best an oddball. Years later he became an “asshole,” in policeman’s parlance, when he and another Oak Park detective, Ronald Surmin, blew the whistle on their fellow cops.
In 1984, Kelly and Surmin told the man who was then Oak Park’s police chief, Keith Bergstrom, about thievery among their fellow detectives. Bergstrom took their allegations to the Cook County state’s attorney and to the Illinois State Police. Both agencies began to investigate, but the investigation went awry and sprang a leak. In February of this year, the entire Oak Park Police Department learned that Kelly and Surmin were whistle-blowers. The two are now outcasts, unable to work because they cannot count on their fellow police officers to protect them.
Kelly and Surmin have responded to this difficult situation in the only way available to them: they have filed a million-dollar lawsuit in federal court, charging that their civil rights–including their right to speak out about the alleged wrongdoing and their right to work in their chosen profession–have been violated by various Oak Park officials who failed to protect them from the recriminations of their fellow police officers. Named as defendants in the suit are an acting police chief, a lieutenant, two sergeants, the village manager of Oak Park, and the village itself.
After the suit was filed, the village of Oak Park hired a special prosecutor, former Greylord prosecutor (and best-selling novelist) Scott Turow, and he has hired private investigators to ferret out the mess.
Turow’s investigation may well vindicate Kelly and Surmin and bring down the cops whom they’ve charged with thievery. And the lawsuit the two have filed might eventually bring them police pensions, and perhaps even a healthy cash settlement. But nothing can turn them from assholes back to regular police officers. They are two young cops whose careers are ruined.
Pat Kelly grew up on the northwest side and graduated from Prosser High School in 1969. He went to night school for eight years and is now at Loyola University in an undergraduate program in criminal justice. He joined the Oak Park force in 1974, just after the village ruled that new cop hires had to live in the village. Now he and his wife, an assistant state’s attorney, live with their baby boy in a pretty house on a cul-de-sac in the heart of the village’s picturesque architectural tour area. He sat in his living room on a Sunday afternoon and discussed his and Surmin’s plight. With him were Surmin and former chief Keith Bergstrom.
Bergstrom, a 27-year veteran of the Oak Park and two other police departments, in Tucson and Miami, had been chief since June of 1982, when he was hired, after a nationwide search, by then village manager Ralph DeSantis. A PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin–his dissertation is on police undercover investigations–Bergstrom is a straight-arrow veteran with a penchant for the academic and for careful adherence to legality and right order. He is universally regarded as one who for better or worse goes by the book.
Ron Surmin, a 1965 graduate of Chicago’s Luther High School North, joined the Oak Park force in 1973, just after receiving his degree in criminal justice from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Joining the force before village residency was a requirement, he continued to live in Chicago. He has the look of a man who does not sleep well. He and his wife, who has worked on a project basis for the village park district, have a young daughter and a second child on the way.
A detective only six months after joining the force, Surmin felt pressure to conform to various illegal practices. His way of dealing with it was to act before a crisis arose, taking the initiative before a subtle invitation could be made to go over the line. After the armed robbery of a Jewel store in Oak Park, for instance, when the getaway car was abandoned after a chase into Chicago, Surmin ran down the street picking up loose bills until he had gathered together the stolen $2,000. He made his intentions “real obvious,” so none of his fellows would proposition him about splitting the money among them. “I would desperately try to mind my own business,” Surmin said. “I survived by not listening and staying out of situations.” One result of such behavior was that Surmin was “not invited to too many social affairs.”
None of this swag splitting was ever to be reported. “It was something you learned when you left the [police] academy, stock information,” said Kelly. “You never talk about a fellow officer to someone not on the force. Not to citizens, not to police staff, not to anyone who is not a uniformed officer. This is the code. It’s enforced by your knowing that one day you will need the help of your fellow officers. If you have violated the code, the help won’t be there. Someday, to save your life, you might need that help.”
Not that you hear about this sort of thing at the academy. “It doesn’t come,” said Surmin. “You never hear ethics there,” said Kelly.
In 1982, shortly after arriving in Oak Park, Chief Bergstrom assigned Kelly and another detective, Joseph Mendrick, to a secret investigation of parking-meter thievery by a village employee. The employee was not a policeman, but had many friends who were, which is why Bergstrom wanted the investigation to be secret. Other cops in the department, vaguely aware that Kelly and his partner were investigating something, began to suspect them of betraying their fellow policemen. “It drove them crazy” not knowing what he and his partner were working on, Kelly said. When the investigation concluded (successfully), Kelly’s fellow cops said they wished he’d told them what it was about.
The meter-theft investigation “pushed me over the line,” Kelly said–out of the category of the trusted. “It answered the question that every policeman had to answer: are you a game player or not?” Now the Oak Park cops knew: Kelly wasn’t a game player.
The meter case also had the effect of giving Kelly confidence in Bergstrom as a professional who knew how to handle delicate investigations without betraying the investigators. Kelly was not yet ready to blow the whistle on his fellow detectives–one doesn’t shed the mores of one’s culture overnight–and he did not feel he had anything concrete to lay in Bergstrom’s lap, but he was beginning to feel that this was a chief in whom he could confide.
Bergstrom, for his part, sensed that Kelly experienced a lot of pressure during the meter investigation, but he didn’t know why. The possibility of corruption had never entered his mind. “I had been told I didn’t have to worry about it in Oak Park.” He didn’t, until Ron Surmin came to him in January of 1984.
Surmin’s problem was quite specific. In October of 1983 a deranged father had shot his wife and infant son, killing the son, and Surmin had been in charge of the investigation. It was one of nine Oak Park murders in a two-year span. The man was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Surmin’s investigation of this killing was hampered, or at least distracted, by what the Kelly-Surmin lawsuit would later call “stealing from the homes of homicide victims.” Surmin knew it had happened in this case: someone in the department had obtained the keys to the victims’ apartment and taken things. It bothered him, and he was pretty sure Chief Bergstrom would take it seriously, but he had no handle on it. The thieves had not taken him into their confidence. He was the one, after all, who had chased dollar bills down Madison Street and brought them all back to the Jewel store. The thieves had simply taken the key on his day off.
Later there was another murder, a stabbing. Surmin was not the investigator on this case, but the detective who was told him a story that sounded familiar, a story about lifted keys and a looted apartment. This detective was pissed, as Surmin had been, over what amounted to interference with his investigation. And he knew who did it. The thieving detectives had told him, trusting him not to tell. But after he spouted off in front of a surprised Surmin, Surmin sent a memo to Chief Bergstrom.
The memo was anonymous, but Surmin didn’t disguise himself very well, and Bergstrom figured out who the informant was. Before long they were talking about it, and Bergstrom was saying he wanted someone else to corroborate Surmin’s story. Did Surmin know of anyone?
Well, maybe Kelly, Surmin said. He’d once heard Kelly wisecrack that a certain detective ought to be weighed in and out of the station each day, to see how much he was lifting from the valuables taken as evidence–that sort of thing. Maybe Kelly can help you, Surmin said. It was just a feeling. The two had never discussed these matters.
Bergstrom, a cautious man, talked to Kelly about six months later. His opportunity came when a friend invited the two, with their wives, to a cookout in another suburb. There were Kelly and Bergstrom, detective and chief, sitting in the backyard with the barbecue going. Bergstrom broached the topic tentatively, as Surmin had to him, but his intent was unmistakable.
“Do you recall saying a certain detective should be weighed in and weighed out of the station?” he asked Kelly as the hamburgers sizzled.
Kelly looked at him. So this is how it’s going to happen, he thought. A cop for all these years, and now a chance to put it on the line. The time seemed right. Events were building to a head in the department. Kelly had reason to believe it could all work out. The chief was straight.
“You want to hear about it?” Kelly asked. Bergstrom said he did. “Hold on to your hat,” Kelly said. And he became the corroborating whistle-blower.
The specific allegations that Kelly and Surmin brought to their chief are detailed in their lawsuit against the village. According to the suit, they charged that Oak Park detectives had stolen goods from the homes of homicide victims in two cases, one in which “a woman was shot by her husband and the infant son was killed,” and another in which “a man was killed in what may have been a homosexual killing.”
These incidents happened in 1983 and ’84. According to the suit, Kelly and Surmin also charged that years earlier, “approximately $10,000” had been taken in a gambling bust and that two detectives had tried to split the money with a third, who refused.
The story of the gambling bust was later corroborated by the third detective, who is no longer with the police force. He is James Zilligen, who as a fledgling detective one day early in 1979 had his best and worst day as a policeman. Seeking a suspect for arrest, in true TV series fashion, Zilligen pushed open a partially hidden door in a Grand Avenue men’s club just north of Oak Park in Chicago. Gun drawn and warrant at the ready, he nabbed his bad guy, a “low-Mafia type” who was wanted for armed robbery.
He and his two partners also nabbed the proceeds from the high-stakes card game that the bad guy had been playing with seven others. Piles of twenties, fifties, and hundred dollar bills were on the table; Zilligen estimates $10,000. Chicago police were called (it was their jurisdiction), and Zilligen took his man in. Later in the day, floating with exhilaration, he was hailed by his partners, “the two top dicks in the department,” who told him they liked him and held out a fat sealed envelope. It was his “cut of the gravy,” he was told.
Stunned, Zilligen joked lamely, “I took a vow of poverty when I became a detective.” They didn’t laugh, and Zilligen walked away. In the locker room moments later, he sat with his head in his hands and said to himself, “I’m done.”
A few days later, Zilligen put his house up for sale, intending to leave the department and the village for good. Three months later he was transferred out of the detective bureau. By August 1982 he had sold the house and was gone. He now runs his own chimney-sweeping and home-repair business.
Coming forward with these stories was “a very hard decision,” said Kelly. “Such a scary thought, in fact, that I would never have mentioned it to another policeman. I wouldn’t have come to Bergstrom’s predecessor, because he had come up from the ranks. But I saw things that turned my stomach. It came down to my morals or my career. It’s still hard to talk about it. To this day I never lose that feeling. My stomach tightens every time.”
Bergstrom took Kelly and Surmin seriously. He went to Frank De Boni, assistant state’s attorney in charge of special prosecutions; De Boni in turn sent Bergstrom to the Illinois State Police, headed by James B. Zagel (who has since become a federal judge). De Boni went to Zagel because he felt he didn’t have the manpower for a full investigation; federal investigators could not be called in because the case did not fall under federal jurisdiction. Zagel assigned the investigation to the state police Division of Criminal Investigation under Lieutenant Daniel McDivitt, who is based in Elmhurst.
For a long time after the investigation got under way, Kelly and Surmin did not fully inform each other of what they knew, and Bergstrom had to guard his every contact with the two whistle-blowers, planning excuses for two-minute meetings and not even trusting the telephone. He didn’t let anyone else in on it, not even a succession of village managers and village presidents.
“The state’s attorney and State Police strongly requested I tell nobody,” said Bergstrom. “This is standard procedure. Confidentiality is the key to a successful corruption investigation. At least in the beginning, the village manager and president didn’t have to know about it. It’s hard for some to understand that the chief is derelict in his duty if he doesn’t follow through on something like this. I had to cooperate with the other agencies [the state’s attorney’s office and State Police], who had sole legal responsibility to do something about it. Oak Park authorities had no legal responsibilities in the matter.
“The fewer who know, the greater the security for the informing officers. This knowledge was no burden to put on others.”
In the State Police investigation (which has apparently ended without visible results, except for the ostracism of Kelly and Surmin), six state detectives questioned Kelly for an hour and a half in a hotel room.
“I was made to feel as if I were guilty,” recalled Kelly. “I came expecting a spirit of cooperation but instead felt like I was getting the third degree. I was close to being badgered. I lost my temper at one point. I wasn’t offering them more than I had. They could take it or leave it.” They didn’t seem to want it. Kelly couldn’t get out of the room fast enough. “I left feeling I should never have opened my mouth. It took years to get up the courage to talk, and they didn’t want to hear it.”
Surmin met separately twice with two state policemen who made him feel as if he were the problem. “I thought they would be enthusiastic about it, but they weren’t. Instead, they were caught in the middle and felt obligated to do something with what I told them. If they didn’t follow my leads, they would look bad. It had never occurred to me that I was putting others in the middle, telling them what they didn’t want to hear. I was putting them in a tight situation.”
Eventually the state investigators planned an elaborate sting to test two of the detectives on the Oak Park force. Without informing Kelly or Surmin (Bergstrom was told only a day or two before the sting occurred), they devised an Abscam-style operation that would give the allegedly crooked detectives a chance to incriminate themselves. (Neither of these detectives, whom I will call simply A. and B., would comment for this article.) According to the plan, a phony informant would lead these two detectives to a phony fencing operation, where they could do whatever they wished with the “stolen” goods. This was in October 1985, more than a year after Surmin and Kelly were first interrogated by the State Police. Why it took so long for the state to act isn’t clear. Lieutenant McDivitt will not comment.
The sting was bungled from the start. The “snitch” used by the State Police showed up one day at the Oak Park station and told his fabricated story to A. and B. Obviously nervous, he told the detectives that he and another man had a load of stolen goods stashed in Oak Park’s Carleton Hotel. But he had been burned once by his partner, the snitch said, and wanted to burn him in return; so he was offering to lead the detectives to the cache.
While the snitch was in their office, the detectives did some checking on him. They learned his address through the license plate of his car, which was parked in the police station lot, and they called the Carleton to see what other rooms the man might have taken there. They learned that the snitch had rented a second room next to the one where he said the loot was stashed. What or who might be lurking there was anybody’s guess. A. and B. took the man immediately to the hotel. There they found the stolen goods he’d promised, but no accomplice. In a transparent move, the snitch told the two detectives to help themselves to the loot, and he began to leave.
But the two detectives didn’t let him leave. Instead they went next door and tried to force their way into the second room. The door opened, and out came four or five men with guns and badges, among them McDivitt of the State Police. The two Oak Park detectives had called for help, and the hallway was quickly filled with two kinds of detectives, milling around and flashing guns and badges in a sort of Keystone Kops ballet.
In the midst of it, A. and B. saw what was inside the second room: cameras and other surveillance equipment, aimed through a small hole in the wall at the room where the snitch had taken them. The state cops tried to convince A. and B. that the cameras and so on were stolen goods, the result of cartage theft. They took the snitch with them (he was their man, after all), saying they would return him to the Oak Park detectives the next day. They didn’t, but A. and B. probably didn’t expect them to. It didn’t take them long to figure out that they had been the targets of a botched sting attempt.
This version of the aborted sting was told daily by A. and B. all over the Oak Park Police Department, to anyone who would listen. It was common knowledge among the detectives.
Immediately after the aborted sting, A. and B. were permitted by their immediate superiors (not Chief Bergstrom) to go after the snitch, whom they found in his apartment in a south-side public-housing project. They took him to the station and, with the help of $400 from the Oak Park “informant” fund, extracted from him after eight hours the whole sting story, though not the names of the Oak Park whistle-blowers, which he apparently didn’t know.
A. and B. began an unrelenting search for the identity of the whistle-blowers, asking their fellow detectives to call in their favors, looking to all their state contacts and pressing all the buttons they could. Meanwhile, the shit hit the fan in the Oak Park Wednesday Journal, which reported the attempted sting a few weeks after the fact. Bergstrom, sticking to the rules of the investigation and doing as he was told by the state, at first denied everything, then admitted his role in starting the investigation. The recently formed 21-member Oak Park Sergeants and Lieutenants Association chewed him out for deceiving them. “I find it ironic,” he told the Wednesday Journal, “that I am being criticized for doing precisely what I had a duty to do.” The state told village officials nothing. (It has told them nothing to this day. Only special counsel Turow has been given a copy of its report on the investigation, which remains unavailable even to Oak Park village officials.)
The Oak Park Police Department was in an uproar. Everyone wanted to know who the whistle-blowers were. “From hearing idle conversations, we knew within 30 days of the sting that the others knew two Oak Park detectives had cooperated in it,” said Surmin. “Around me they talked openly. It was a full-time obsession with them.”
“We had 17 months to sit and watch it unravel,” said Kelly, who overheard comments “daily.”
“I can’t wait till we find out who those motherfuckers are,” said one policeman, according to the lawsuit; another cop responded that he would have to wait in line, because there would be nothing left of the squealers when their identities were discovered.
“Of the 12 detectives, they had it down to three or four,” said Kelly. “It scared us to realize that a large part of the department’s higher administration was united in the search to find out who these two assholes were, never whether they had anything [worth pursuing].”
Kelly and Surmin got on the phone to their state contacts. “No problem,” they said. “We can handle everything.”
But the state people began to get nervous. When Kelly told one of them–one “fairly high in one of the agencies,” he said–that information was leaking, this individual, whom Kelly did not name, blurted something to the effect of “Oh my God, I hope it never comes out; these guys know where I live.”
“I knew then that we were alone,” said Kelly.
“We had become a problem,” said Surmin.
“For 17 months,” said Bergstrom, “these two went to work every day knowing they were in jeopardy. Or hoping that when the others found them out, they would confront them rather than do something else.
“If there was one error in all this,” Bergstrom said, “it was the underestimation of the diligence and commitment of people to thwart this investigation. This was the biggest single mistake.”
In November 1986, Bergstrom was forced to resign as police chief.
Finally, in early February of this year, word got out that Kelly and Surmin were the whistle-blowers, and the roof caved in on them. Their lawsuit alleges that the Oak Park police had a sort of mole in the State Police. Apparently the mole disclosed to the Oak Parkers the contents of the State Police file on the corruption investigation. According to James Zilligen (the policeman who left the force after the gambling-bust incident), who still has friends on the department, the file was communicated in toto, first over the phone to detectives at headquarters and later on paper. Those to whom it was communicated then contacted the police officers mentioned in the report–calling them into the office one by one–and gave them the bad news, including Kelly’s and Surmin’s names. The cops paraded in and out, emerging angry and full of hostility for Kelly and Surmin.
Once Kelly and Surmin were identified, the harassment began, according to their lawsuit. Surmin was called in on a Sunday to be questioned by acting chief Joseph Mendrick, who had been Kelly’s partner years before in the parking-meter-theft investigation. Surmin’s infant daughter was sick and his wife wasn’t home. He had to bring the baby with him to headquarters, where Mendrick threatened disciplinary action. Kelly was approached the same day by Sergeant Ronald Ballarini, his immediate superior and now a defendant in the lawsuit. According to the suit, Ballarini asked Kelly why he did it, saying “This shit happens everywhere”; he also told Kelly he was “lower than shit” and said some officers on the force wanted to kill him for what he had done.
The suit also alleges that Lieutenant Paul Briggs, another defendant, called Kelly an “a–h—.” The term, disguised apparently to spare the court’s sensibilities, has special meaning in this context, as may be judged from MIT associate professor John Van Maanen’s 1978 article on police practice entitled “The Asshole” (from Policing: A View From the Street, Goodyear Publishing Company):
“The asshole . . . is part of every policeman’s world,” wrote Van Maanen, an organizational studies specialist who spent a year as participant-observer with an unnamed big-city police department of over 1,500 uniformed officers. The asshole, according to Van Maanen, is one who won’t or can’t accept the police definition of a given situation. He may be a motorist stopped for a traffic violation who complains because the officer isn’t spending his time going after real crooks. Or he may be a violator of “the code.”
The suit says Oak Park’s Joseph Mendrick accused Kelly and Surmin of violating “the code,” which has its own literature and is widely accepted by students of police behavior. University of Texas sociologist Ellwyn R. Stoddard’s “A Group Approach to Blue-Coat Crime” (first published in the Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science, Northwestern University School of Law, 1968) is full of references to this code–a kind of police omerta, or pledge of silence, about the illegal activities of fellow police.
Mendrick told Kelly (the suit alleges) that he was “guilty of violating the moral code of the blue” and, later, that he would “eventually . . . have to come and take what’s coming.” Kelly and Surmin, having heard the previous months’ talk around the department that the informers would be “dead meat” once they were discovered, went home and stayed there, unwilling to find out what would happen to them the first time they needed backup help in an emergency.
They couldn’t sleep or eat and had chest pains. Kelly’s father had just died of a heart attack, and now Kelly was showing signs of heart disease. A doctor told him it was stress reaction and prescribed medicine and a trip to a psychiatrist. He and Surmin each attended a number of therapy sessions, and both were told not to return to work. “There was a question,” said Kelly, “of how much we could stand.”
Both eventually took medical leave. Neither ever returned to work.
The revelation last February that Kelly and Surmin had been responsible for the state investigation should have stunned Oak Park officials: these were not rogue or rookie cops, they were number one and number two on the promotion list for sergeant. But the officials’ statements did not betray any alarm that something might be deeply wrong with their police department. Village President Clifford Osborn said it was up to the state to “prove or disprove” Kelly and Surmin’s charges. Village Manager Neil Nielsen, who had called the matter a “nonstory” just before Kelly and Surmin were exposed, defended the right of “anybody to come forward with information” and said the village would “not allow” a “negative reaction” by fellow policemen to what the two had done. He also “implored the state to end this [investigation].” Village Trustee Lois Hall said she was “distressed,” but presumed the village manager and acting police chief would address the problem.
Trustee Susan Helfer was “upset and angry”–not at the alleged corruption, but at former chief Bergstrom for helping to start the probe. She called the matter “a distraction we don’t need.” Trustee Patricia Andrews said she thought Kelly and Surmin had acted in good faith, adding, in the circumlocutory fashion of one who says the unthinkable, “I’m not sure they should be criticized to the extent they are.” She left open the question of how much they should be criticized. Acting Chief Mendrick said the two officers should not be criticized at all, and he predicted (inaccurately) that they would be back to work shortly. He said the police, however, were “asking a lot of questions.”
So were Kelly and Surmin, who weren’t sure what to do. One of their state contacts said they should get a lawyer. Cook County Public Guardian Patrick T. Murphy took the case as a private practitioner. Murphy ascertained that no grand jury activity was imminent that would vindicate his clients, so he filed the million-dollar civil rights suit, which is being heard by U.S. District Judge Ilana Rovner.
“None of the village administrators asked us to sit down,” said Surmin. “These were veterans making these allegations, and they were not upset.” Nor did they take any steps to protect the informants from their angry fellow officers.
“Mendrick [the acting chief] said the police were all professional and civilized people,” said Kelly. “But these were the same ones we had heard telling what they would do to these assholes once they were discovered.” To Kelly it was “almost laughable” that the village officials either could not or would not understand the policemen’s code.
“The information we provided means that some fear jail,” Kelly said. “You don’t threaten this without expecting serious reactions on their part. It’s a bad assumption that those threatened would react in a civilized way. The trustees won’t be there when we respond to the first robbery in progress. You always assume you can call for help [when in trouble]. If you can’t assume that, you’d better not leave the station.”
“That’s what’s unique about our situation,” said Surmin. “They needn’t do anything to us. They can just let things happen.”
A week or so after the suit was filed, a blue-ribbon ad hoc committee of former Oak Park elected and appointed officials called the Kelly and Surmin allegations “devastating,” “demoralizing,” and provocative of “outrage and fear” and said they sent “a chilling message” to honest policemen.
The committee included Federal Home Loan Bank president Leo Blaber, State Street Council president Sara Bode, near north developer Eugene J. Callahan, Loop attorney and former Northeastern Illinois Planning Council president James McClure, public relations consultant Vernette Schultz, insurance industry spokesman and former Chicago Daily News city editor Robert G. Schultz, Purdue University dean of construction technology Dennis Korchek, and University of Illinois art historian David Sokol. Eleven days after they called for an outside investigator, the village manager appointed special counsel Scott Turow.
This was no “Summerdale West,” as one former village president joked, referring to Chicago’s police-burglary scandal of 1960. But it was a nasty object lesson in what can happen to policemen who bring police-corruption charges even in a onetime “all-American city” like Oak Park, where racial diversity is policy, handguns are illegal, and police corruption had been almost unheard of. (One of the village’s few black policemen resigned in 1983 after being found in possession of stolen railroad ties. No police protest arose over this incident.)
“To this day,” said Surmin, “no one in the department has asked what I knew or offered any support for what we did.”
“Instead,” said Kelly, “we were repeatedly asked by supervisors, “Why did you do it?'”
“Even after the suit was out [with its allegations of theft from murder victims’ homes, etc], I was asked why I came forth, as if that weren’t clear,” said Surmin. “It made no sense.”
“They asked me, ‘Were you forced to do it?'” said Kelly. “They couldn’t conceive anyone doing it voluntarily.”
“The whole thing shows a significant attitude problem,” said Bergstrom.
Special counsel Turow expects “public results” from his investigation–if not criminal prosecution, at least a report to his clients, the village manager and trustees, who he assumes would make the report public. Beyond that, Turow would not comment.
Village President Clifford Osborn, cautious about predicting what results might come from the Turow investigation, noted, “If he finds nothing, there would be nothing to report.” Village Manager Neil Nielsen said he expects that a public report from the village will follow Turow’s report to Oak Park’s manager and trustees.
Neither Osborn nor Nielsen appears eager to get to the bottom of a sordid mess if there is one, or excited about what Turow might accomplish. Nielsen hesitated to call the appointment of Turow “a major step” in resolving the controversy. He ranked it with “doing our own informal investigation.”
Nielsen can be forgiven for not wanting Turow to come up with a scandal; he ousted the man who did as much as Kelly and Surmin to begin uncovering one, namely former chief Keith Bergstrom. When Bergstrom resigned last November, it was because Nielsen had given him 48 hours to do so before being fired.
It had taken a year for the village to find Nielsen as a replacement for Ralph DeSantis, who has landed the plum job of city manager of fast-growing Naperville. But it took only four months for Nielsen to bounce Bergstrom. Nielsen, a 33-year veteran of municipal administration who came to Oak Park after nine years as city manager in Rock Island, doesn’t want to talk about it.
It’s a “closed chapter,” he said in an interview full of smiles and shrugs and at times great indignation. He was asked whether firing Bergstrom was a condition of his own employment. Some bright and upcoming members of the city managers’ fraternity passed up the Oak Park job during the year-long interim after DeSantis’s departure–twice what’s normal for such a gap–and an ignorant outsider might incautiously wonder why.
“Get off this,” Nielsen said. “It’s my integrity you’re getting at here.” Asked again, a few days later, he said the possibility “shouldn’t even be thought” and that he wouldn’t have taken the job under such a condition. (One former candidate for the Oak Park post said he had run into no such implication during interviews. Another said it would be inappropriate to comment.) Oak Park’s director of parks and recreation, John Hedges, who was acting manager during part of the interim, said he was never asked to fire Bergstrom, though it was clear enough to him where some trustees stood on the question.
Nielsen told the board that he considered Bergstrom an ineffective administrator who could not bring about change in the ranks because he lacked the confidence of his subordinates. Nothing was said about the state investigation: it had been out of the news for a year, and the state had never formally acknowledged it, but for all anyone knew it was still going on.
Bergstrom was not given severance pay, a point that Nielsen wouldn’t discuss: “A personnel matter,” he said. Osborn said Bergstrom hadn’t asked for any. Bergstrom believed he had no leverage for negotiating any. And he declined to fight for his job.
Bergstrom says he had no inkling what was coming. “I received no notification that the manager was dissatisfied with my performance in the four months I served under him,” said Bergstrom in an interview. “Neither in writing nor by word of mouth. I didn’t know then why he fired me, and I don’t know now, not in an empirical sense in which I would go beyond speculation. I could have dragged [my dismissal] out [by refusing to resign], but I would have had no base from which to run the department. The 48-hour limit gave me no room to negotiate anything.”
Nielsen exercised his power to fire with drumhead-court finality, in the middle of budget preparations and while two investigations were pending, the one by the State Police and an internal one about the leaking of police documents during the 1985 village elections. Ten months after he was fired, Bergstrom was hired as interim chief of the Tarpon Springs, Florida, police department, and Oak Park had a new police chief, William Kohnke, who took over in September, coming from Battle Creek, Michigan.
“The investigation has been the most difficult thing in my adult life,” said Bergstrom. “I have been on departments where such an investigation has taken place, but never chief while one was going on. The lives of none of us will ever be the same again.”
“It will never be gone from my daily life,” said Surmin. “My law enforcement career is dead. I have not the slightest idea what to do. It’s all I know. Money problems are coming too, once our sick leaves run out. I’m trying to get out with my life and go from there.”
“Since 1978 I have been going to night school, trying to better myself in a career that to me is now obscene,” said Kelly. “That’s how I look at it.”
Asked why they filed their suit, Surmin said, “If we hadn’t called public attention to the situation, we would still have administrators avoiding the issue. We wouldn’t be sitting here [talking to a writer].”
“Filing the suit got attention,” said Bergstrom. “Once it was known I had started the investigation, it was never a question [for village officials] how to define the nature and scope of the problem, but rather of skepticism and reluctance to grapple with the problem. With three agencies taking it seriously, including their own police department, there had to be a serious issue here. They should have treated it that way. I won’t speculate about whether it cost me my job.”
“It was a lonely feeling when someone said get a lawyer,” said Kelly. “I remember a line from Greek history where the dying soldier sent the message, ‘Go, stranger, to the Spartans and tell that here, obedient to their laws, we fell.’ We did our duty, and this is what happened.”
“It’s up to the community how to respond to this,” said Bergstrom. “For the next year or two, it has to be among the top two or three public policy questions for Oak Park, along with economic development and racial diversity. Because of citizens’ response and because of the Turow hiring, I can be cautiously optimistic about how this will work out.”
The Oak Park police story is full of loose ends, but two dangle longer than the others: First, what was in it for Kelly and Surmin? Why did they screw up their careers and endanger their lives by accusing their fellow cops? Second, why did village officials respond so flaccidly at first to the allegations, and why did they acquiesce so quietly in the firing of the police chief who had put his own career on the line?
On the first question, Kelly and Surmin plead the demands of conscience. On the second, Trustee Patricia Andrews pleads the village’s inability to do anything at all without knowing what police had been accused of. Until the suit was filed, for instance, the village trustees knew nothing of any high-stakes gambling bust. And once the suit was filed, officials were bound by the usual lawyer-imposed silences. As soon as they answered the suit in Judge Rovner’s court, Andrews said, they hired their special counsel to investigate their own police.
This fall, Pat Kelly sent the village of Oak Park a letter waiving his right to a promotion. A sergeant’s job had come up, and Kelly was first in line for it. Surmin, second in line, also refused.
Being offered it made “a bad situation worse,” Kelly said, because it told them their “careers were progressing at the same time [they were] being deprived of them.” But they couldn’t accept the promotion without giving up the case against their offending colleagues and walking back into the arms of a hostile police force. (Later the village put the sergeant’s promotion on hold. It also extended sick-leave payments through the present, at Judge Rovner’s suggestion. A monetary settlement of the lawsuit is apparently at hand.)
Former chief Bergstrom sees the whole business as a Greek tragedy moving inexorably to the destruction of all. Including the villains, one may add, if special counsel Turow nails the allegedly crooked cops. Turow presumably knows at least as much as the State Police knew after their long investigation, since he has been given the State Police report that James Zagel had for months refused to give to village authorities. Turning over the report was one of the last things Zagel did before he left the Department of State Police to don his federal judge’s robes.
Pat Kelly, finishing his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, intends to start law school next fall. Ron Surmin is looking for a job. Surmin’s wife was scheduled for a cesarean-section delivery of their second child on Tuesday, the day before this paper went to press.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.