Prosecutors: Cop might have stolen drugs from evidence
WOODSTOCK – A former McHenry police officer accused two weeks ago of stealing money confiscated from a drug bust might have been taking narcotics from sealed evidence bags, according to a letter from the McHenry County State's Attorney's Office.
If true, Dale Hojnacki's actions potentially compromise cases of anyone who has been arrested by McHenry police, says the letter signed by Criminal Division Chief Michael Combs.
Dale A. Hojnacki, 35, of McHenry was charged last month with theft more than $500 after the department discovered that the money was missing during a routine audit. McHenry Police Chief John Jones has said that the exact amount was under investigation, but the theft took place between June 2010 and November 2011, according to the criminal complaint.
Court records also show that the man who posted $1,500 bail for Hojnacki on April 17 has a pending felony drug case. Brian Maronde, 28, of McHenry, is charged with unlawful possession of a controlled substance for allegedly having less than 15 grams of cocaine. He was charged by McHenry police.
In a letter obtained by the Northwest Herald, which was dated Tuesday and addressed to McHenry County Bar Association President Jaime Rein, Combs said he wants lawyers to be aware of potential evidentiary problems related to all McHenry Police Department arrests.
"A subsequent investigation has revealed that Officer Hojnacki may have tampered with narcotics evidence," Combs wrote. "The McHenry [P]olice [D]epartment has reason to believe that Officer Hojnacki has been opening sealed evidence bags and removing narcotics."
Evidence of Hojnacki's alleged misconduct may be admissible in court for arrests by McHenry police because of chain of custody issues, Combs said.
An audit will be performed by an outside agency, Combs said, with the results expected by the end of June. He plans to give the audit results to the Bar Association.
Chief Jones confirmed that an audit will be conducted of all evidence in the department's custody, including currency, drugs, and guns.
"Once you have a breach in one of those items, it's part of our procedure to make sure to inventory all those items," he said.
Hojnacki was not assigned to the evidence vault and was not an evidence custodian, Jones said.
How – and if – Hojnacki gained access to the vault is under investigation, he said.
Combs said he had an ethical obligation to provide the information to defense attorneys, who could bring the issue up during cross examination. That is typically when police officers testify in detail about who handled evidence, when and how it was collected and sealed, and if and when seals were broken.
Evidence of gaps or irregularities with evidence custody allows defense attorneys to question whether the evidence might have been tainted.
"It's not really for me to determine what a defense attorney wants to do with that," he said. "They could attack the chain of custody and argue that evidence wasn't secure if any officer could just go in there and start taking things."
But that doesn't mean that the State's Attorney's Office agrees with that position and prosecutors are not going to dismiss every associated case, Combs said.
There also may be issues with previous cases where a defendant has already been found guilty or accepted a plea deal.
Combs said that anybody sitting in prison from a case in which the McHenry Police Department was involved could have an issue to take to the appellate court.
"We'll take the position that it does not affect it, but that's not our decision," Combs said. "That's for a judge to decide."
An 11-year veteran of the department, Hojnacki resigned after being charged. He had been a patrolman at the time of his resignation, but also was a detective from December 2009 to November 2011.
In regard to Hojnacki's bond being posted by a man with the pending drug case, Jones said he knew of no connection between the two men. Hojnacki is no longer an officer with the department and he cannot control who Hojnacki associates with, Jones said.
Hojnacki is a criminal in Jones' eyes, and he does not want Hojnacki's actions to reflect on the rest of the department, Jones said.
"This is an officer that has tarnished the reputation of the McHenry Police Department and I feel very strongly that we addressed this positively and swiftly," Jones said. "He is someone who had the public trust and thought nothing of it."