How Waukegan police officers behind a teen’s false confession to a shooting avoided discipline

WBEZ has obtained a city-commissioned report detailing police blunders. But that review helped the officers avoid a formal investigation.

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Waukegan Police Department

Sun-Times

The mayor of north suburban Waukegan says the detectives who extracted a 15-year-old’s false confession to a shooting last year were not subject to a disciplinary investigation, even after allegedly violating an Illinois law that prohibits deceiving children during interrogations.

The boy spent two nights of February 2022 locked up on charges including attempted murder — a case the police dropped only after his basketball team proved he was on a high school court 18 miles away during the shooting.

Now Mayor Ann B. Taylor’s administration says no formal inquiry of the detectives was needed because reviews by their bosses and an outside consulting firm found no violations of any policy or law.

“No internal investigation by the Office of Professional Standards was deemed necessary,” Taylor’s administration wrote this week, referring to the Waukegan police unit that investigates cops accused of misconduct.

Taylor’s administration has kept the consulting firm’s report hidden from the public, but WBEZ has obtained a copy.

Multiple experts on public corruption probes and Waukegan’s long history of false confessions said the outside review fell far short of the rigorous and transparent investigation the city’s residents need.

“The Police Department can’t and shouldn’t be trusted by the public if the department itself does not undertake an inquiry into whether its officers, and possibly even its command chain, broke the law,” said Joseph Ferguson, who oversaw high-profile police misconduct investigations during a 12-year tenure as Chicago inspector general.

“Conduct a proper investigation and make a proper public accounting of it,” said Ferguson, a former federal prosecutor. “If it’s anything other than that, there is no trust, no legitimacy.”

Impossible confession

The shooting took place at a Dollar General in Waukegan on Feb. 4, 2022. A store clerk was shot in the face but survived. On Feb. 14, police released surveillance photos showing the suspect in a balaclava ski mask and asked the public for help identifying the person.

Tips from anonymous students said the masked person looked like the 15-year-old, according to a case report by Sean Aines, the lead detective. WBEZ is not naming the teen due to his age.

In a photo lineup, the victim’s coworker circled the image of the 15-year-old.

On Feb. 16, police found the teen in class at his high school. They handcuffed him there and drove him to the station to be interrogated.

Within an hour, the teen had admitted to being in the dollar store and firing one shot, according to Aines.

The next day, however, police started receiving calls, including one from his basketball coach, that the 15-year-old was with his team at an away game during the shooting, Aines reported.

It took Aines until the following morning, Feb. 18, to initiate the teen’s release from juvenile jail.

After the teenager’s false confession became national news, the city’s mayor and police chief apologized and promised reforms. But police records about the case, including video footage of the interrogation, remained hidden from the public.

On March 21, 2022, Taylor convinced the City Council to approve $60,000 for a review of the case by Jensen Hughes, a Baltimore-based consulting firm.

“Jensen Hughes specializes in helping police departments implement best practices and improve trust between police and the communities they serve,” Taylor said, reading prepared remarks and vowing to keep the community updated about the review. “Expediency and transparency are of the utmost importance to me.”

The project manager for the Jensen Hughes report, according to the firm’s Waukegan engagement agreement, was Sydney Roberts, a former head of Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

The agreement said Jensen Hughes would interview a range of police personnel, including the officers in the interrogation. But the firm, according to the city, ended up interviewing only four high-ranking officers, including Keith Zupec, the police chief at the time, and his brother-in-law Scott Thomas, the detective commander.

Last June, Jensen Hughes delivered two “final” reports, both marked “confidential.” Despite her promise to be transparent, Mayor Taylor’s administration initially kept both from public view.

A WBEZ open-records request led to the release of one of the reports last August. But the city continued to withhold the other report — a 35-page “sufficiency review” focused on the shooting investigation and the 15-year-old’s interrogation. Taylor’s office pointed to juvenile privacy under Illinois law and said the teen’s family had not consented to the report’s release.

‘Cardinal sin of an interrogation’

Now WBEZ has obtained the hidden Jensen Hughes report, which called attention to numerous blunders and ethical lapses. Among them:

• The case’s first lead came from a Round Lake detective, who said the masked person resembled a 20-year-old man known to police from a gang investigation. But Aines, the Waukegan detective, set aside that lead and focused on the 15-year-old. Months later, the 20-year-old was charged with the shooting in a felony case that remains pending.

“It sounds like the detective had tunnel vision,” said Larnell Farmer, a former Waukegan detective who retired from the force in 2012. Farmer said the Police Department has the resources available in a shooting case to follow more than one lead at a time.

• In a photo lineup, the store clerk said the man who shot him in the face was not among the images. The clerk kept saying so even after Aines entered the room and peppered him with questions about it. The victim’s co-worker, in a separate photo lineup, did not circle the 15-year-old’s photo until viewing the images for more than seven minutes.

Former federal prosecutor Ronald Safer, who examined the Jensen Hughes report on WBEZ’s request, said the police violated any reasonable standard on suggestiveness in a lineup procedure: “The police wanted him to pick someone.”

• Aines delivered a lengthy and misleading prologue about the shooting and the teen’s alleged role before letting him know he had a right to remain silent and to have an attorney or a parent present.

Ferguson, the former Chicago inspector general, described the prologue as “conditioning the landscape” for the confession: “It doesn’t appear he received Miranda rights until an awful lot was said. That’s a problem.”

• Aines then led the 15-year-old through a long series of leading questions that fed him information about the incident he did not know.

“I cannot think of an innocent explanation for this,” Safer said. “When you are dealing with a suggestive witness, including a juvenile, it is particularly important not to tell the witness what you think happened. The suggestive witness will repeat that back to you in some form, and that is how false confessions commonly occur.”

• Aines at several points of the interrogation raised leniency as a possibility. He said, for example, that suspects who shot because they had no other choice can “go home.”

“Telling a child that he can go home is the cardinal sin of an interrogation,” said Steven A. Drizin, a Northwestern University law professor who co-directs the school’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. “It is the most common reason we find for why juveniles falsely confess.”

The state’s Juvenile Court Act since Jan. 1, 2022, has prohibited deceptive tactics during the custodial interrogation of a juvenile. The law defines deception as “the knowing communication of false facts about evidence or unauthorized statements regarding leniency by a law enforcement officer or juvenile officer to a subject of custodial interrogation.”

A Waukegan police policy mirrors that law.

But the Jensen Hughes review, without explanation, concluded: “We do not find that Detective Aines raised any false facts, nor did he make any statements of leniency, that would amount to a violation of state law or WPD policy.”

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