FOX LAKE – The basement that is home to the Fox Lake Police Explorers post looks like disgraced Lt. Joe Gliniewicz was preparing for a zombie apocalypse rather than teaching youth about police work.
The room at the bottom of a flight of stairs behind a padlocked door at the village community center is packed full of military gear meant to equip combat troops. Kevlar helmets, including several with built-in radio sets for tank drivers, fill several boxes and bins, as do numerous pairs of combat fatigues in woodland and desert colors. Other boxes hold bulletproof vests, gas masks and load-bearing vests that allow soldiers to carry high-capacity magazines and hand grenades.
It’s a stockpile that authorities said Gliniewicz illegally obtained over the years through a controversial program that has allowed law enforcement nationwide to obtain military weaponry, vehicles and equipment at little to no cost. And it was the discovery of the stockpile by new Village Administrator Anne Marrin, and her eagerness to get a full accounting of it, that could have led Gliniewicz to kill himself.
The size of the stash still amazes Marrin and Lake County Sheriff’s Detective Chris Covelli, who was part of the task force that investigated what at first appeared to be a heroic officer killed in the line of duty.
“We were overwhelmed with the amount of surplus gear located in here,” Covelli said as he looked through one of the boxes.
Gliniewicz was found shot dead Sept. 1 after radioing in that he was pursuing three suspicious individuals near an abandoned building. The community mourned “G.I. Joe” and police officers came from all over the country to give him a hero’s funeral. But investigators concluded earlier this month that Gliniewicz, a 30-year veteran of the force, shot himself and staged the crime scene out of fear of getting caught for stealing tens of thousands of dollars from the Explorers program that he led for years.
His personnel file reveals he was continuously promoted and given increased responsibilities, despite a work history filled with misdeeds such as sexual harassment, threats to co-workers and problem drinking. And documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act from the state office that administers the surplus program reveal the misplaced blind trust that police and village officials placed in Gliniewicz allowed him to obtain piles of military gear in plain sight on village property.
“It was most definitely a lack of oversight and a lack of accountability,” Marrin said.
Fox Lake is one of more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide that obtains excess Department of Defense equipment through the Law Enforcement Support Office. The program has transferred more than $5.4 billion in property, from socks and office supplies to assault rifles and armored personnel carriers, since its creation more than 20 years ago, according to the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency, which administers what is known to police as the 1033 Program.
Critics allege the program contributes to what they call the “militarization” of police officers – they argue that equipping police officers like soldiers is making them act like soldiers, and look at the communities they serve as an enemy.
And among Gliniewicz’s responsibilities was being the main point of contact for Fox Lake’s participation in the 1033 Program since at least 2006, according to documents.
Documents reveal Gliniewicz made at least seven trips to Springfield since 2006 to procure much of the equipment now taking up space in the Explorers’ room. In June 2010 he brought back 37 Kevlar helmets, 18 combat boots and 65 pairs of camouflage pants, a small part of the military wardrobe that he amassed. An April 2011 trip yielded 25 gun holsters, 25 magazine holders and 19 bulletproof vests, not to mention a Humvee for the department.
Gliniewicz stated in text messages that he forged the signature of then-police Chief Michael Behan to obtain some of the orders, Covelli said – investigators combed over more than 6,500 pages of texts that Gliniewicz deleted from his phone before his death.
Even the items that Gliniewicz obtained without deception appear to violate LESO’s rules. Equipment obtained through LESO can be used only for “bona fide law enforcement requirements,” which the Police Explorers program is not.
More alarmingly, Gliniewicz was listed in the paperwork as the point of contact for obtaining weapons under the program. Fortunately, federal oversight for military weapons and vehicles is much more stringent than for “general issue” items that only stay on the books for one year.
Weapons stay on the government’s books for as long as departments have them, and they must be returned, transferred or verified destroyed if departments want to get rid of them. The entire inventory of weapons obtained by the Fox Lake Police Department under LESO – 24 .45-caliber handguns, seven M-16 rifles and three M-14 rifles – has been accounted for in the police arms room, Covelli said.
Not all of the surplus was combat-related. Gliniewicz obtained a large amount of computer equipment under LESO – a table near the shelf holding the Explorers post awards holds keyboards, monitors and other items.
Day of reckoning
Marrin started as Fox Lake’s first professional village administrator in March 2014. While she had seven different departments and 106 full-time employees to look after, she became particularly interested in the goings-on at the police department.
“Things just didn’t seem right to me with the police department, and the more I asked, the less I found out,” Marrin said.
Text messages from Gliniewicz showed that her questions and eagerness to look around made him very uncomfortable. In one he called her a “power monger” who is “trying to control everything in the village.” In another, he seemed to indicate either planting something on her to frame her or killing her and disposing of her in Volo Bog – investigators later learned that Gliniewicz was interested in arranging a meeting to put a contract out on her.
It was Marrin’s visit on Aug. 28 to the community center basement – which the Explorers had taken over despite no paperwork or written agreement – that apparently marked the beginning of the end for Gliniewicz. “Wow” was the first thing that Marrin said came to mind when she saw all the gear.
“Where did this all come from, was my first thought, and why do we need so much of it?” Marrin said.
Marrin approached Gliniewicz after morning roll call Aug. 31. She wanted answers.
“I said, ‘Lieutenant, I need a full inventory of everything in the Explorers’ building – every item, every purchase order, every authorization. Do you have that?’ He answered, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ ” Marrin said.
Marrin said she told Gliniewicz that she wanted everything by 2 p.m., and he again responded, “Yes, ma’am.”
But Gliniewicz was upset and worried about where the inventory would lead next, according to his deleted text messages. Shortly after his exchange with Marrin, he texted former chief Behan, who retired under pressure days earlier over an unrelated issue.
“She has now demanded a complete inventory of exploder central [sic] and a financial report…FML,” which is a text abbreviation for, “(expletive) my life.”
“It was very clear that what was coming next would be the village administrator would want documents pertaining to the [Explorers] financials,” Covelli said.
Five o’clock came and went, and Gliniewicz had not submitted any paperwork. Marrin sent him an email again demanding it.
At 6:54 a.m. the next day, Gliniewicz sent Marrin an email saying he would have everything to her by noon. He would not – his body was found by his fellow officers, in what turned out to be an elaborately staged scene, an hour and 15 minutes later.
The improperly obtained surplus is not the only disturbing thing that investigators found in the Explorers’ basement. Covelli and Marrin said the room contained bags of live handgun and rifle ammunition. A drug-sniffing dog twice detected the presence of narcotics in the room, although none was found. The room set aside for youth also contained manuals for SWAT and police sniper operations.
More than 900 pieces of government surplus now fill the Explorers’ basement – the sheer amount of it forced the village to hire an outside firm to catalog it all.
The next step, Marrin said, is to compare that list to the lists obtained from the state LESO office to determine if anything is missing, which would raise questions about whether Gliniewicz was giving it away or selling it.
“We have the final inventory of what’s there. Now starts the reconciliation – we have to move to find how we got it, and then try to match up what’s supposed to be where,” Marrin said.
Marrin is not the only person going over Fox Lake’s participation in LESO. The state LESO office also plans to do its own on-site review for compliance, said Meredith Krantz, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Central Management Services.
“If irregularities are found during the review, Fox Lake police could be suspended from LESO while they work to create a corrective action plan,” Krantz said in a statement.
After everything is settled, the village has to determine what to do with the stockpile that Gliniewicz accumulated.
Some items may have legitimate police use – Covelli said the Kevlar helmets possibly could end up staying with the department. Other items could end up being given to other police departments that may have a use for them.
Marrin said she is looking into giving the cots and sleeping bags that Gliniewicz acquired to area homeless shelters, or a county emergency management agency.
Covelli said any uses would have to be good and positive ones.
“We’ll go through piece by piece and determine what the police officers here can use, and what to do with the rest of the gear,” Covelli said.
While civil liberties groups have raised concerns over the 1033 Program for years, the program and the underlying concern of police militarization began undergoing significant scrutiny last year in the wake of police response to civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.
President Barack Obama earlier this year signed an executive order forbidding police departments from obtaining certain items they were previously able to under the program, such as grenade launchers, bayonets, tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and firearms chambered in .50-caliber or higher.
Several states and other governments have taken action on their own to slow or stop the flow of military gear to local law enforcement. The McHenry County Board last year, out of financial concerns, started requiring a full board vote for any acquisition of military surplus that would result in added costs for fuel, maintenance, training or insurance.