A green road sign heading in to Hopkins Park says the rural Kankakee County village has 700 residents.
The sign going out of town says: pop. 800.
Indisputably, the impoverished hamlet in Pembroke Township, where everyone knows everyone, is tiny.
Yet no one seems to know Robert Ellis, who told a Chicago cop he’s the commissioner of the Pembroke Township police department. Which no one in Pembroke Township has heard of, either.
For more than a decade, the only law enforcement in town — whose Main Street is lined with homes in disrepair, old farm equipment and lots and lots of churches — has been the Kankakee County sheriff, they say. The sheriff’s office says so, too.
That’s important because a Cook County judge will hear arguments Wednesday on whether Ellis, who lives in Englewood, was lying when he told the cop that he works at a police department in Pembroke Township, whose government seat is Hopkins Park, about 75 miles south of Chicago.
Ellis, 59, was arrested in March after the officer stopped him on the South Side for a traffic violation, and Ellis flashed a badge and ID for the Pembroke Township police department, Cook County prosecutors say.
Ellis previously has been convicted of impersonating cops. That’s what he was charged with in March after the Chicago cop called the Kankakee County sheriff’s office and was told there is no Pembroke Township P.D.
Even so, a Cook County judge let Ellis out of jail on electronic monitoring and said he could travel to his workplace in Pembroke Township — from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day of the week — after he presented an official-looking work schedule supposedly signed by the police chief. Ellis also provided a photo showing him riding a white horse.
Now, prosecutors are asking another Cook County judge to revoke Ellis’ electronic monitoring and toss him in jail for lying about his job as a “police commissioner.”
Ellis and his lawyer insist that his job — and the police department — are bona fide. His attorney said in court in March that Kankakee County sheriff’s officials were “racist” in suggesting otherwise.
But a prosecutor said in court last week that she was told Ellis and his three supposed fellow Pembroke Township police supervisors are “crooks.”
On Monday, two of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s top supervisors, Greg Shields and John Webb, went to Hopkins Park to check it out.
On Main Street, they drove past at least six churches — as well as homemade signs showing support for and opposition to plans for a for-profit prison to house illegal immigrants and provide jobs in the mostly African-American community near the Indiana border.
The first stop for Shields and Webb was a meeting with Hopkins Park Mayor Mark Hodge. The mayor told them the town has “nothing to do” with any local police department. There once was a municipal police department, he said, but the town shut it down years ago because of budget problems.
“I have no knowledge of any police department locally other than Kankakee County sheriffs for this area,” Hodge said.
The work schedule that Ellis provided lists what he said is the address for the Pembroke Township police. But all that’s there is a dilapidated building that sits next to the Hopkins Park Village Hall. Hodge said it’s been shuttered for nearly two years.
After visiting him, the Cook County sheriff’s officials went to see Wilma Whitley, a Pembroke Township employee. She read the names of the Pembroke Township police officials listed on the work schedule Ellis gave the Cook County judge in March.
“I don’t know anything about a Robert Ellis,” she said.
Asked whether she knew of a Pembroke Township police force, Whitley said, “Well, if there is, I don’t know where it is.”
The township supervisor, Brenda Miles, had left before the sheriff’s officials got there.
A Chicago Sun-Times reporter who tagged along with the sheriff’s officials also asked other people in town about the Pembroke Township police. A lot of them laughed at the idea, including Eric Trujillo, who recently opened Reynitas Taqueria on Main Street. Trujillo said he moved from Pilsen to open the Mexican restaurant.
Generations of African-Americans have lived in Pembroke Township, which was settled by former slaves. Trujillo estimates the population is about 40 percent Hispanic and 60 percent black now.
“It’s a real nice town,” Trujillo said.
And police? “No, there’s no local police. I haven’t seen any. I’ve seen the sheriff’s department come through. That’s it.”
Kankakee County Coroner Robert Gessner said heroin dealers certainly know about the lack of a local police presence in Hopkins Park. Gessner said they sell to hundreds of people who make the short drive from Indiana to get a fix. Drugs caused 56 opioid-related deaths in the county last year, he said.
In one part of Pembroke Township near a drug house, needles often are strewn along a road near a house where drugs are sold, officials said. Addicts fling them out of car windows.
On a tour of that area last month, Gessner said he spoke with heroin buyers who told him, “There’s no police over here.”
Kankakee County Sheriff Mike Downey said he has only 43 deputies to patrol the county’s 680 square miles — and doesn’t have any law-enforcement partners in Pembroke Township.
He said he doesn’t know of any police department there. And even if there were one, township police aren’t legally allowed to carry guns or make arrests, only to enforce ordinance violations, according to Downey.
There have been several high-profile shootings in Pembroke Township in recent years, but violent crimes go largely unpunished because witnesses won’t step forward, according to Downey. Some of the violence is related to drugs, he said, and some to longstanding family feuds.
Downey said he wouldn’t be opposed if the village of Hopkins Park were able to create a new state-certified municipal police department to help him address the problem.
“I’m sure the [township] trustees may want some police out there, and we don’t disagree with that, but let’s get this done in the right way,” Downey said. “If we can do anything to help them get police out there, we’d be more than happy to do it.”