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Judge throws out charges against Illinois officer in alleged beating of teens

By Jason Meisner, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — Cook County, Ill., prosecutors referred to the gathering as the “ducks-in-a-row” meeting.

Lt. Jason Leavitt, a veteran Park Ridge police officer, had just been sued for allegedly beating two teenagers who had smashed his car window. All of the officers who had been summoned to the scene that night in 2006 were told to gather in a room at the suburban police station.

As Leavitt looked on, one official announced to the rank-and-file cops as well as the commanding officers present that Leavitt was denying any involvement in the beatings, according to prosecutors.

“And he looked at everybody. ‘Anybody got anything different to say,’ or words to that effect,” Assistant State’s Attorney John Mahoney, testifying at a court hearing in November, quoted the official as saying. “So it was kind of intimidating and that was the beginning of the conspiracy.”

With a deadline fast approaching in 2009, prosecutors indicted Leavitt in connection with the alleged beating just two days before the statute of limitations ran out. They then but won a presiding judge’s approval to seal the indictment to pursue a broader investigation of the alleged cover-up by police.

Earlier this week, Judge Nicholas Ford threw out the charges against Leavitt, saying prosecutors missed the statute of limitations and violated Leavitt’s due-process rights by having the charges sealed for more than a year while they continued their investigation.

Prosecutors are still deciding whether to appeal Ford’s ruling, but the decision represents a blow to State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s efforts to beef up public corruption investigations since taking office three years ago.

The ruling also means that despite years of work, prosecutors at this point are left with nothing to show for their lengthy investigation of the Park Ridge Police Department.

Leavitt’s attorney, Thomas Needham, said prosecutors developed “tunnel vision” in their zeal.

“Everything anyone told them that was bad about Jason Leavitt, they accepted,” Needham said Thursday. “Every person who got a lawyer was somehow participating in some conspiracy. It’s just not the case.”

In a telephone interview, Park Ridge Police Chief Frank Kaminski, who was brought in to lead the department in 2009 amid reports of a lack of public confidence and low morale among officers, acknowledged the probe of the beatings caused deep internal division within the 55-person police force and left wounds that have yet to heal.

That is unlikely to change any time soon, since Kaminski said he wants to launch an internal investigation into what went on to try to determine if any officers, including Leavitt, should be disciplined. He said he might bring in an outside firm to conduct the inquiry.

“The whole thing has been a huge drain on the department,” the chief said. “But it’s important to find out what really happened, was anything done that was inappropriate and how did it get to that point?”

Leavitt, 40, who has been on paid administrative leave since his arrest in November 2010, will rejoin the department next week, Kaminski said.

Some officers were implicated by colleagues but denied witnessing the beatings, according to court records.

The incident that sparked the controversy occurred at about 2 a.m. in October 2006 as Leavitt drove his personal car home from a second job, according to prosecutors. Two 15-year-old boys, using a slingshot to fire rocks at passing cars, shattered Leavitt’s back window.

Prosecutors alleged that Leavitt gave chase, knocking one boy to the ground with a blow to the head and then straddling the teen and punching him in the face. Another officer arrived at the scene and pulled Leavitt off the boy, but he continued to take swings at the boy as he was put in a squad car, they alleged.

Minutes later, the second boy was arrested nearby by responding officers. When Leavitt arrived at that scene, prosecutors alleged, he kicked the boy multiple times while he was handcuffed behind his back and lying face down on a concrete driveway. After the boy had been put in a squad car, Leavitt reached into the car and punched him five to 10 more times in the face and also choked him, prosecutors alleged.

The beatings were witnessed by at least five other officers, according to prosecutors. Separate federal lawsuits were filed on behalf of both boys in 2007. The suits eventually ended in six-figure settlements without admissions of wrongdoing.

According to court records, prosecutors began investigating the incident in early 2009 after receiving an anonymous letter alleging the police department was covering up misconduct. It named two Park Ridge police officers who saw what had happened and would be willing to testify.

The FBI joined the probe, but with time ticking on the three-year statute of limitations, investigators were soon forced to make a decision. Leavitt was indicted by a Cook County grand jury on Oct. 26, 2009, just two days before the statute of limitations was to expire.

But prosecutors asked Presiding Criminal Courts Judge Paul Biebel to seal the indictment, arguing in a motion that revealing the charges would damage their broader investigation into the alleged cover-up.

The day the indictment was handed down, Mahoney told Biebel in a hearing in the judge’s chambers that numerous Park Ridge officers had been subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury “with really disturbing results.”

One officer who witnessed the beating pleaded the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination, while another claimed that nothing occurred, Mahoney said, according to a transcript of the proceedings. He told the judge the “investigation is ongoing into charges of perjury, subornation of perjury, obstructing justice and conspiracy to commit all these offenses.”

Biebel agreed to seal the indictment. Leavitt later testified in court that he believed he was in the clear when the three-year date passed with no word of charges. Leavitt said he went ahead with a major addition to his residence, a move he never would have made if he knew he would be charged later.

Needham said Leavitt is looking forward to rejoining the department he loves.

“They spent an awful lot of resources trying to see if there was some conspiracy and ultimately nothing came of it,” Needham said.

But in testimony at the November hearing, an FBI agent hinted the federal probe of the alleged cover-up might not be over. The investigation “is still evolving,” said Special Agent Eugene Jones.

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