A man charged with impersonating an officer got out of jail on electronic monitoring to work at what Cook County authorities now believe is a fake police department in rural Pembroke Township, Illinois. Population: 2,000.
Robert Ellis insists he works at the department in Kankakee County.
But on Friday, Cook County prosecutors went to court to have him returned to jail, nearly two months after he was sprung. Assistant State’s Attorney Amanda Pillsbury said she contacted the Kankakee County sheriff’s office to verify Ellis’ employer was a law-enforcement agency and was told: “These individuals are trying to become chiefs of police and they are crooks.”
Ellis’ attorney La Coulton Walls countered that state law allowed the township to create its own police department and that the “white racist Kankakee County” sheriff’s office had no authority to say otherwise.
Judge Carol Howard ordered Ellis to remain at home in Chicago on electronic monitoring until both sides can make their cases on May 9 about whether the township police department in Kankakee County really exists.
It all started on March 8 when a Chicago Police officer stopped Ellis because the temporary license plate on his car was expired. Ellis showed the officer a Pembroke Township police badge and ID, according to the police report.
According to the report, Ellis told the officer he was the police commissioner of Pembroke Township. But the officer contacted a Kankakee County sheriff’s official who said Pembroke Township — about 70 miles south of Chicago — doesn’t even have a police department.
What’s more, Ellis was arrested twice in the 1990s for felony police impersonation and convicted of both offenses, along with arson in 1997.
After his most recent arrest, he was also charged with impersonating a police officer. On March 19, Ellis asked Judge Sandra Ramos to let him out of jail on electronic monitoring.
He showed the judge a letter from the “Pembroke Township Police Department” with his work schedule: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Sunday. The department, according to the letter, is based in the tiny, dirt-poor town of Hopkins Park.
According to the letter, other department officials include Police Chief Robert Robinson, Police Supt. Jerome Frazier and Deputy Chief of Police Charles Miller.
Ramos agreed to let Ellis out of jail, saying he could leave his West Englewood home from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. from Monday through Sunday as long as he was working at his police job in Hopkins Park. But the judge said her ruling was “pending verification.”
In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Ellis acknowledged that he traveled to Pembroke Township several times since his arrest, but says he stopped when Cook County sheriff’s officials ordered him to do so.
Cook County sheriff’s officials say they never approved his travel there because his employment couldn’t be verified. Sheriff’s officials say they consulted with prosecutors, who determined he violated the conditions of his bail, which included electronic monitoring. Ellis originally was being held in the Cook County Jail in lieu of 10 percent of his $150,000 bail.
Ellis told the Sun-Times that he’s a cop with full arrest powers. He showed a reporter an official-looking Feb. 20 resolution by the Pembroke Township board appointing him as police commissioner. He says two other police officials also were appointed the same day — and the Pembroke Township Police Department was formed.
Ellis, 59, says he has an administrative job in the Pembroke Township Police Department. He says he draws a salary of $100 a year, though he receives “donations.”
Ellis says he attended the Chicago Police Academy in 1986, but didn’t join the force.
In the early 1990s, Ellis set up what he called Beta Christian University along with a campus security force in south suburban Harvey, but the state deemed the operation to be bogus and shut it down.
Then he created his own narrow-gauge railroad, complete with a short section of tracks and a small locomotive. He made himself the chief of police of the railroad and gave badges to officers to serve on his police force.
He received strong opposition from the city of Harvey, which has its own police department.
In both 1994 and 1996, Ellis was arrested for impersonating a police officer. He received probation for those crimes. In 1997, he was sentenced to three years in prison for burning down a house for insurance money, court records show.
A psychological evaluation of Ellis, done for a Cook County judge questioning Ellis’ mental state, found he was “extremely self-aggrandizing, self-centered, narcissistic, controlling, manipulative and lacking in empathy.”
“He described himself as a minister with doctorate degrees, a police officer . . . and boat captain, a social activist, an administrator, a university professor and an aspiring politician,” according to the psychologist’s report.
He still insists the police departments he formed were legal. “I always went through the system,” he says.
Other law-enforcement agencies, he says, “don’t like these organizations and seek to destroy them.”
Ellis says he also was once with the now-defunct Dixmoor Park District Police. The tiny park district maintained a single playground, but its police department bulged to more than 80 officers because of a badge-selling scheme in the mid-1990s.
In 1995 and 1996, then-Chief James Parks and his associate, Marshall Thompson, the founder of soul R&B group the Chi-Lites, took bribes of $1,000 to $2,500 from people who wanted to carry a gun and a badge. The badge-holders were supposed to raise money for the department by selling tickets to fundraisers and would lose their badges if they didn’t meet the quota, according to the FBI.
In 1997, Ellis told The Times of Northwest Indiana newspaper that he had become the new “superintendent of police and chaplains” of the Dixmoor Park District Police.
Four years later, Parks, Thompson and another man were charged in the badge-for-sale scheme. They were convicted and sent to federal prison. Ellis wasn’t tied to any wrongdoing in that case.
Ellis was featured in a Chicago Sun-Times story in 2006 about people posing as fake cops. The story prompted then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich to propose tougher penalties for the crime.
Ellis says he doesn’t currently have a state firearm owner’s ID card needed to own a gun — and says he doesn’t carry a firearm.
On Friday, Ellis said he thinks sheriff’s officials have a “racist” agenda in questioning his current status as a police officer.
“They assumed because I live in Englewood and am black that I’m a liar,” he says.
Cara Smith, policy chief for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, countered: “The sheriff’s office verifies the movement for everyone in our electronic-monitoring program. Mr. Ellis is no exception. To date, we have not been able to verify he has valid employment.”
Authorities in Pembroke Township and Hopkins Park, along with the Kankakee County sheriff’s office, could not be reached for comment.
The township has been ranked among the poorest in Illinois. News stories say township officials shut down the police force in 2009 and Kankakee County records show that sheriff’s deputies patrol the township now.
The mostly African-American township was in the news about 15 years ago over its failed attempt to attract a new prison — and its promise of jobs. More recently, acting Pembroke Township supervisor Leon Eddie Mondy was sentenced to three years’ probation for stealing more than $60,000 from township accounts to cover his gambling debts.