Founded to serve Polish immigrants, Washington Federal Bank for Savings, a small, family-owned bank, operated in Bridgeport for more than a century.

Some compared it to the “building and loan” in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But unlike the classic Jimmy Stewart movie, there was no storybook ending for Washington Federal or John F. Gembara, who ran the bank that his late grandfather founded in 1913.

On Dec. 3, Gembara, 56, was found dead of what’s been ruled a suicide inside the million-dollar Park Ridge home of a man who, records show, was a longtime friend and bank customer with five outstanding loans from Washington Federal for a total of nearly $1.8 million.

Twelve days later, on Dec. 15, federal bank regulators shut down Washington Federal for “unsafe or unsound practices” that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. continues to investigate, records show.

The FBI also is involved, according to Luke Casson, the lawyer for Gembara’s widow.

Washington Federal was one of eight banks nationwide that failed in 2017, according to the FDIC, the federal agency that regulates financial institutions.

Some things stand out about this one, according to Casson, who has been conducting his own review of Washington Federal, whose probable losses have been pegged by the FDIC at $60 million.

John F. Gembara. | Provided photo

Casson says that what he’s found has fueled his suspicion Gembara was involved in embezzling from the bank without his wife’s knowledge.

“It looks like your garden-variety bank fraud — except this one involves a banker,” the family’s lawyer says. “There’s $60 million that went out to people,” but the bank’s records show those loans “being paid off without them ever being paid off. Where’d the money go?”

And, despite the findings of the Cook County medical examiner’s office and the Park Ridge police that Gembara killed himself at the bank customer’s house about 25 miles from his own home in Palos Hills, Casson says Gembara’s wife Therese doubts he took his own life.

Attorney Luke Casson: “It looks like your garden-variety bank fraud — except this one involves a banker.” | Andreou & Casson

It’s not that she’s in denial, according to Casson, who says he has been involved as an attorney in multiple cases involving people who killed themselves.

“The evidence is unusual for a suicide,” the attorney says. “This is as strange as it comes.”

Gembara was found dead inside the sprawling home of Marek Matczuk, police records show. Matczuk, a Polish immigrant, is a roofer-turned-developer who also did maintenance work at the bank and Gembara’s home, according to Casson and Robert M. Kowalski, an attorney and developer who describes himself as a lifelong friend of Gembara and longtime customer of his bank.

Matczuk told police in the northwest suburb Gembara said he “needed to hide due to ‘troubles’ at the bank,” police records show.

Matczuk told the police that, on Dec. 1, he and Gembara met at a property Matczuk owns in Chicago. Gembara called a friend who turned out to be out of town. So Matczuk told officers Gembara left his car in a garage at Matczuk’s property. Matczuk said he told Gembara he could stay with him, and they drove to his home in Park Ridge.

Matczuk told police that he, his wife and their three children had dinner with Gembara, who stayed in the couple’s master bedroom for the weekend, records show.

The following afternoon, Dec. 2, Matczuk’s son drove Gembara to a nearby Home Depot in Niles to buy some green rope that he told officers Gembara said he needed to hang Christmas decorations at his southwest suburban home, according to police. Security footage reviewed by police confirmed they were in the store, where they also stopped to have a hot dog.

Matczuk told police that, after his family had dinner with Gembara, their guest went to the master bedroom for the night.

The next afternoon, Dec. 3, when they hadn’t seen Gembara, Matczuk’s wife said they should check on him, and the couple unlocked the bedroom door and found Gembara dead, according to police reports.

The records show Gembara was in a seated position, fully clothed, with his glasses on, and the green rope he’d bought at Home Depot was wrapped around his neck and tied to the bannister of a spiral case.

The reports say there were no signs of a struggle or defensive wounds on Gembara, who was 5-feet-7 and weighed 197 pounds.

There was no suicide note, though Gembara’s wife got a one-word text from his phone, police records show. “Bye” was all it said.

Matczuk says he has been advised not to speak but was shaken up what happened: “I cannot talk to you. Very horrible for me, too.”

Matczuk’s home is being foreclosed on by U.S. Bank, which says in a foreclosure lawsuit filed last summer in Cook County circuit court that he and his wife owe $1.2 million from a mortgage. The suit also names two secondary lenders: JPMorgan Chase, which lent Matczuk $279,000, and Washington Federal, which held a third mortgage on the home, for $662,000, issued in 2007.

Washington Federal Bank for Savings gave loans totaling over $1 million to Marek Matczuk between 2000 and 2005 for two homes in Wicker Park, including this one at 1633 N. Winchester Ave. Both remain unfinished and vacant. | Kevin Tanaka / Sun-Times

Records show Matczuk got four other loans from Gembara’s bank — a $94,000 mortgage on a home in Des Plaines and three loans totaling slightly over $1 million between 2000 and 2005 for construction of two three-story homes in Wicker Park. The homes remain vacant, with construction work yet to be completed.

Frank Kaminski, Park Ridge’s police chief, says his department was aware Gembara had a financial relationship with Matczuk and has discussed the case with the FDIC.

David Barr, a spokesman for the FDIC, says it will take about six months for the agency to issue a report outlining any bad loans Gembara’s bank made, who got the money and whether any of it can be recovered.

The FDIC has the authority to sue to recover money and seek penalties against bank officials who fail in their fiduciary duties.

Any criminal charges would be pursued by the FBI, which won’t comment on the case.

The FDIC routinely audits banks. But it apparently turned up trouble at Washington Federal thanks to a tip, according to Casson, who says he has spoken with an FBI agent involved in the investigation.

Washington Federal Bank for Savings, 2869 S. Archer, was shut down in December for “unsafe or unsound practices” days after its president was found dead in an apparent suicide. | Google Street View

Since the bank’s forced closing in December, with about $166.3 million in assets and $144 million in deposits, its deposits have been assumed by Royal Savings Bank. Royal took over Washington Federal’s main office at 2869 S. Archer Ave. and its lone branch at 1410 W. Taylor St. in Little Italy.

Royal, based on the East Side, took over only two of the loans made by Washington Federal. The rest are now in the hands of the FDIC.

Any of the bank’s losses from loans would be covered by an FDIC fund that’s financed by the nation’s banks.

That same fund also guarantees bank deposits up to $250,000. But about 50 customers could lose a portion of the money they deposited with Washington Federal because they exceeded that threshold.

Kowalski agrees with Casson there was some sort of scam going on involving Washington Federal but says it’s him and other bank clients who were defrauded.

Robert M. Kowalski. | Provided photo

Kowalski has developed townhomes in the West Loop’s Fulton Market district financed by Washington Federal. He says he got millions of dollars in loans from the bank and repaid them, but the payments weren’t recorded by the bank, which showed the debt remained outstanding. He says the FDIC has told him he needs to repay the money — somewhere between $20 million and $26 million.

“John claimed all the loans were alive,” Kowalski says. “Where’d all the money go that was still on the books? The FDIC is looking for the cash.”

Kowalski calls Gembara’s “scheme . . . so deep.” And he blames the FDIC for letting “it go on for so long.”

Kowalski says Matczuk was once his roofer and that he introduced him to Gembara years ago.

Kowalski is entangled in a contentious divorce with Martha Padilla, a onetime aldermanic candidate in the 25th Ward. Padilla’s lawyers subpoenaed Gembara to give a deposition and Washington Federal to turn over Kowalski’s financial records in 2016. Kowalski and the bank’s lawyers filed motions to block those moves.

Separately, last October, the Illinois Supreme Court suspended Kowalski’s law license after he deposited $2,500 in escrow funds from a client in his personal account at Washington Federal, records show.

Washington Federal had a history of lending money to finance homes and small apartment buildings that often were leased to tenants with taxpayer-subsidized Section 8 housing vouchers.

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson. | Sun-Times files

Its customers also have included some well-known names. Among them is the 11th Ward Regular Democratic Organization, controlled by the Daley family for 70 years. Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th), whose uncle John Daley is a commissioner on the Cook County Board and heads the 11th Ward organization, says they got an $80,000 loan from the bank shortly before Gembara’s death to rehabilitate its building at 3659 S. Halsted St.

The alderman says they needed money for “new lighting, flooring” and that he has contacted the FDIC to figure out how to proceed with repayments.

“It’s a horrible situation,” Thompson says of Gembara’s death. “This whole thing sounds so uncharacteristic. He was a quiet, unassuming guy, always talking about his kids.”

Cinespace Chicago Film Studios’ Alex Pissios. | Provided photo

Among others to have gotten loans from Washington Federal is Alex Pissios, president of Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, where movies and TV shows including the NBC-TV hits “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago P.D.” are produced.

Before taking over the West Side studio that opened in 2011, Pissios was a real estate developer working with Edward Gobbo to build homes near the United Center with loans from Washington Federal and other banks.

Both men filed for bankruptcy protection — Pissios in 2011, Gobbo the following year — while they owed money to Gembara’s bank. It’s unclear whether the loans ever were repaid.

Pissios’s studio recently was in the news with the indictment last year of longtime top Chicago Teamsters union official John T. Coli Sr., who is accused of extorting $325,000 from Cinespace.

Though Gobbo owed Washington Federal $12 million when he filed for bankruptcy, the bank continued to lend him and his family money, records show. They got 15 loans for a total of $1.6 million last year to finance homes primarily on the South Side, the West Side and in Waukegan.

Gobbo is a nephew of William Hanhardt, a former Chicago Police Department chief of detectives who went to prison for running a mob-tied jewelry ring and died last year.

Attorneys for Gobbo and Pissios wouldn’t comment.

Gembara took over the bank’s executive role after his father Emil Gembara retired, though the father remained chairman of the board until his death in 2005.

Gembara’s two brothers and sister also had ownership stakes in the bank, according to Casson.

The sister, Janice Weston, was a Washington Federal vice president and was on the board of directors with John Gembara. Washington Federal had three other board members, including William Mahon of Bridgeport, a high-ranking official in the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation.

None of the former board members would comment.

Gembara was the father of two grown daughters. People who knew him said he was a devout Catholic.

As the national economy nosedived in 2008, Gembara sent a message to his bank’s customers to reassure them.

“We are well prepared to ride out the economic storm,” he wrote. “Our Bank is financially secure and we have never engaged in risking lending practices. For 95 years we have been conservative and consistent in our business practices and we will continue to in the years to come.”

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