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Officials trip over themselves explaining their handling of police beating of bartender

By Annie Sweeney, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — In riveting testimony Tuesday, high-ranking law enforcement officials tripped over themselves trying to explain to a federal jury how they handled the early days of the explosive reports that an off-duty Chicago police officer had pummeled a female bartender half his size — and that it had all been caught on videotape.

Debra Kirby, who was head of the Internal Affairs Division at the time and remains a ranking member in the department, told the jury at the civil trial stemming from the 2007 beating that during a phone call she told a Cook County prosecutor she wanted Officer Anthony Abbate charged with a felony and denied ever seeking a misdemeanor offense.

“Absolutely I never said that,” Kirby said of the lesser charge. “. . . I wanted him charged with a felony.”

Minutes later, IAD Sgt. Joseph Stehlik told the jury that he, Kirby and others discussed the beating as a misdemeanor, or simple battery, and that he heard Kirby tell that to the prosecutor during the same phone call. He never heard her seek a felony charge in the conversation, he said.

“I don’t recall hearing her say that, no,” Stehlik said under questioning by attorney Terry Ekl, who is representing the bartender, Karolina Obrycka, in the lawsuit against the city and Abbate.

The case took an even odder turn in the afternoon when the prosecutor took the witness stand and denied the phone call took place at all.

“I did not get any such call,” said Thomas Bilyk, who is now the chief of juvenile division for the state’s attorney’s office but in 2007 oversaw investigations into officers suspected of criminal behavior.

How charges were secured against Abbate is a central point in the trial. Obrycka’s attorneys argue that the department’s longstanding unofficial code of silence led to Abbate’s assault as well as efforts to cover up or minimize a beating that Obrycka says left her bruised and still suffering panic attacks to this day.

Abbate was initially charged with a misdemeanor by Chicago police for the attack inside Jesse’s Short Stop Inn on Feb. 19, 2007. Charges were later upgraded to felonies by the state’s attorney’s office just before the videotape was released to the public, bringing a firestorm of media attention on the vicious beating.

Obrycka’s attorneys have said they released the tape because of the department’s inaction.

Tuesday’s testimony focused on a series of decisions at the upper rungs of the department that laid bare how police officials hoped to make the matter disappear quickly and quietly with misdemeanor charges, according to Obrycka’s attorney.

Stehlik testified that after watching the videotape, he believed the beating was likely only a simple battery. He said he filled out a misdemeanor complaint form and took it to Obrycka’s house for her to sign.

“I was investigating a simple battery,” he said. “I printed it up on my own.”

Bilyk, who in 2007 was the supervisor of the state’s attorney’s Professional Standards Unit, testified that he was shocked to learn that Chicago police initially charged Abbate with a misdemeanor.

Bilyk said he had one meeting with police and officials from the department’s Office of Professional Standards, which investigated police misconduct at the time, after OPS had contacted him about the egregious nature of the videotape. There was no discussion of what kind of charges to bring, he said. Bilyk then launched an investigation. Only later, he testified, did he learn that Chicago police had gone to Obrycka’s house and had her sign a misdemeanor complaint.

“It was fairly shocking information,” said the veteran prosecutor, who indicated that never in his dealings with the police or OPS had misdemeanor charges been brought against an officer during an “ongoing investigation” by prosecutors.

That decision, Bilyk testified, could have crippled efforts by prosecutors to upgrade the charges. If Abbate had pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charges, that would have “knocked out” any chance he would be charged with a felony, he said.

Bilyk said that would have left prosecutors facing “a double-jeopardy situation.”

Abbate was eventually convicted of aggravated battery but spared of prison. He was placed on probation and ultimately fired from the department.

The city has denied that Chicago police were seeking anything but felony charges against Abbate and argued instead that it was prosecutors who balked at the more serious charges.

Matthew Hurd, an attorney for the city, referred to a report filed by another IAD officer involved in the Abbate investigation who after a meeting with prosecutors, including Bilyk, indicated that misdemeanor charges would be sought against the officer.

Hurd also pushed Bilyk about the unusual nature of the felony charges finally filed against Abbate. Bilyk said he had never heard of such charges — aggravated battery on or about a public way, public property or public place of accommodation or amusement — being used before.

When Hurd asked whose idea it was to bring those charges, Bilyk responded: “I don’t recall.”

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