Chicago’s IRS Criminal Investigation division has its first female leader

Kathy Enstrom is a Waukegan native who hopes to retire here.

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Kathy Enstrom, the first woman to lead Chicago’s IRS Criminal Investigation division.

Kathy Enstrom, the first woman to lead Chicago’s IRS Criminal Investigation division.

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Kathy Enstrom’s career on the criminal investigation side of the IRS began when, as a student, she realized she had found an accounting job that also let her carry a gun.

That job would take the Waukegan native across the country — to New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Early on, in 2006, she also helped send the mayor of one of Chicago’s southwest suburbs to prison.

Thirteen years later, Enstrom, 45, has returned to Chicago. In August, she became the first woman to lead this city’s IRS Criminal Investigation division. And, it just so happens, the team she leads is again digging into the southwest suburbs. 

In a recent interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Enstrom declined to comment on the ongoing investigation that has led federal agents to the home and offices of state Sen. Martin Sandoval and village halls in McCook, Lyons, Summit and Crestwood. 

But, she said, she wants the agents she leads working “the most significant” financial crimes in the area. And, she said, it’s her job to break down barriers that get in their way.

“I think that this law enforcement community . . . has always been aware of how Chicago operates and the historical perspective of a lot of corruption,” Enstrom said.

Enstrom joined IRS Criminal Investigation around 1996 as a student special agent in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She said she discovered the career path when she saw an announcement outside the door of her accounting professor.

“My girlfriend first said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to carry a gun? No thank you,’” Enstrom said. “And I thought, ‘that is the coolest job ever.’”

In her Loop office, Enstrom hung framed pictures of the many cities she has worked in since. She spent time as a special agent in Chicago, a supervisory special agent in Milwaukee, deputy attaché in Ottawa, assistant special agent in charge in Los Angeles, acting special agent in charge in New York City and special agent in charge in Cincinnati — where she also broke a barrier for women by leading that office. She also served as director of operations in Washington.

“I’m very proud to be the very first female (special agent in charge) here,” Enstrom said. “But I’m also saddened that it has taken us 100 years to get to this point.”

Enstrom is excited to be back in Chicago. It’s home and she hopes to retire here. She said Chicago’s IRS Criminal Investigation office — which oversees most of Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota — handles everything from large drug investigations to smaller tax-return-preparer fraud to large corporate fraud. 

“That excites me,” Enstrom said. “That is what brings me to work every day.”

It was in Chicago’s Dirksen Federal Courthouse that she testified against Melvin VanAllen, a onetime mayor of Justice convicted of bankruptcy fraud in 2006. The scheme revolved around VanAllen’s side job in the used auto parts business.

Though the VanAllen case sticks out as one of her more prominent cases, she also pointed to another case she worked. In that one, an attorney for a collection agency was caught stealing money people had sent in to pay down their debts. That case involved real-life victims, she said. 

“At least we were able to reconcile some of that credit history for those individuals,” Enstrom said.

Meanwhile, Chicago has seen recent turnover among federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, where Chicago native Emmerson Buie Jr. is set to become special agent in charge. Enstrom said the agents on the ground are the ones conducting investigations, though, and that continues regardless of any change in leadership. 

“The special agents who work the cases are here and aren’t going anywhere,” Enstrom said. “That is what makes our agencies run and operate. We just help guide it.”

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