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Fire deputy had nearly double legal limit of alcohol after crash

John McNicholas was involved in a crash off Lake Shore Drive near North Avenue on April 20. | Provided photo/File photo

The third-highest ranking member of the Chicago Fire Department had nearly twice the legal limit of alcohol in his system last month when he crashed a city-owned SUV near Lake Shore Drive in Lincoln Park, City Hall disclosed Wednesday.

Results of a Breathalyzer administered by the Chicago Fire Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau at 4:32 a.m. — nearly four hours after the crash — show that John McNicholas, who ran the department’s Bureau of Operations, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.154, according to Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford.

A second Breathalyzer administered five minutes later showed a blood-alcohol level of 0.151, Langford said.

The Fire Department has as close to a zero-tolerance policy as it can get. Any department member whose blood-alcohol level exceeds 0.02 — which is possible after just one or two cocktails — is considered “under the influence” of alcohol.

That’s why McNicholas, who resigned as deputy commissioner after the crash, agreed to a “full separation” from the Chicago Fire Department after taking the Breathalyzer that is mandatory after all accidents involving Fire Department vehicles.

McNicholas could not be reached for comment.

The state standard for charging a motorist with DUI is 0.08. Since police officers on the scene never tested McNicholas for that standard, he has not been charged with DUI.

So far, McNicholas has only been ticketed for negligent driving.

The Chicago Police Department has been hard-pressed to explain why McNicholas was neither tested for alcohol in his system nor charged with drunken driving after crashing his city-owned SUV.

Chicago Police officers were on the scene of the crash on LaSalle Drive just off Lake Shore Drive for about two hours but never administered a field sobriety test, sources said.

The failure to administer those tests raises questions about whether McNicholas was given preferential treatment by police. It comes at a time when Police Supt. Eddie Johnson is struggling to regain public trust shattered by the video of white Police Officer Jason Van Dyke pumping 16 rounds into the body of black teenager Laquan McDonald.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has acknowledged that there is a code of silence in the Police Department as evidenced by some of Van Dyke’s fellow officers tailored their stories to match his. They claimed McDonald was aggressively moving toward Van Dyke with a knife in his hand when he was walking away or already on the ground.

Police handling of the crash involving McNicholas raises questions about whether that code of silence extends to the Fire Department.

Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi responded to the Breathalyzer results in an emailed statement that held open the possibility that McNicholas may yet face more charges.

“The Chicago Police Department continues to investigate the circumstances around the off-duty incident involving former CFD Commissioner John McNicholas. Detectives have met with prosecutors and presented their investigation. Additional follow-up items have been requested by the state and those are being completed. The case remains open and active,” Guglielmi wrote.

Unlike Illinois State Police, Chicago Police officers do not carry Breathalyzers in their squad cars. If a Breathalyzer is administered, it has to be done at the district station. That was not done in McNicholas’ case.

Still, Guglielmi told the Chicago Sun-Times, “Yes, blood alcohol was above legal limit, and we’re using that BAC for the prosecution.”

Other sources questioned whether a Breathalyzer administered by the Fire Department for internal disciplinary purposes could be used for a criminal prosecution.

Last month, Guglielmi would not confirm that police officers who were on the scene failed to administer tests to McNicholas — much less explain why.

But he maintainted that if officers gave McNicholas a pass, “I can assure you that, if that is the case, they’ll be in trouble with Johnson. Johnson won’t tolerate that.”

The crash that sent City Hall scrambling into an all-too-familiar damage-control mode happened about 12:50 a.m. on Wednesday, April 20.

McNicholas was driving his Chicago Fire Department SUV west on LaSalle Drive just off Lake Shore when another vehicle cut him off, police said. The SUV swerved to avoid a collision, went over a curb and struck a utility pole. No one was hurt, but the vehicle was heavily damaged.

Instead of calling 911 and having the conversation recorded, sources said McNicholas called a “black phone” at 911 center that is not recorded.

The call taker noticed immediately that the deputy commissioner sounded as if he had been drinking and followed protocol by dispatching a battalion chief and deputy district chief along with police officers, sources said.

McNicholas was well known to the call takers. His father once served as a Fire Alarm office supervisor. His son is a police officer.

“There were enough police officers on the scene. Why didn’t they test him? If it had been you or me, police would have given us a Breathalyzer and charged us with DUI. Instead, they handled it internally. That doesn’t make any sense,” said a source familiar with the investigation.

“It sure looks like he got a free pass because he was the No. 3 guy in the Fire Department.”

The Chicago Fire Department appears to have handled its investigation by the book.

McNicholas chose not to return to his career service rank of battalion chief. Nor was he eligible for the “last-chance” policy included in the firefighters contract that allows members with drug or alcohol problems to keep their jobs if they submit to and pass random drug and alcohol testing over a one-year period.