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Chief's firing a complex saga

Geoffrey Ritter
Carbondale Times

CARBONDALE — Former Carbondale Police chief Jody O’Guinn says he has no idea why he was fired this week, although he is certain it had to do with a string of recent controversial death cases that have shaken the Police Department, despite the city manager’s statements to the contrary.

Speaking exclusively to the Times on Tuesday, O’Guinn said he had absolutely no indication he was about to be fired as he reported to the city staff meeting Monday morning.

Once at City Hall, O’Guinn was summoned to City Manager Kevin Baity’s office, where he said he was given a pre-typed resignation letter, which he refused to sign. Then, he was fired and told to turn over his badge and other city-owned property, including his work phone.

“I told Kevin I had done nothing wrong,” O’Guinn said. “I was told the city needs to move in a different direction.”

In announcing O’Guinn’s firing later in the morning, Baity was unquestionably vague, saying only that O’Guinn’s dismissal and Deputy Chief Jeff Grubb’s elevation to interim chief were the results of a confidential matter.

“I want to stress that my decision to dismiss Chief O’Guinn is a confidential matter and has nothing to do with the unsolved cases or recent litigation filed against the City and the Chief,” Baity said in his brief statement. “Any assumptions/allegations to this effect are completely unfounded.”

O’Guinn says he doesn’t know what “confidential matter” Baity was referring to in the press release and that he was given no further explanation at the moment he was let go.

“I really don’t know why this occurred,” O’Guinn said. “I have no idea what [confidential matter] means.”

O’Guinn said he “absolutely” believes his termination had to do with a string of recent controversial cases, including the unexplained deaths of Molly Young and Pravin Varughese — situations over which he maintains the Carbondale Police Department had little control.

Tuesday evening, Baity said that was simply not the case.

“This was a personnel matter,” Baity said. “This had nothing to do with Molly Young, Pravin Varughese, his stolen gun or the recent lawsuit filed by the Varughese family.”

Baity again declined to give the real reason. He said that on Monday morning, “I was prepared to have a conversation” with O’Guinn, and O’Guinn’s termination was the end result.

O’Guinn also struck back against recent allegations from Jerrold Hennrich, chair of the city’s Human Relations Commission and filer of a recent grievance against an officer of the Police Department following an incident that occurred in his driveway.

“His assertions he makes all the time are nonsensical,” O’Guinn said.

Hennrich responded to that Wednesday, saying “a prudent investigator would wait until investigations are complete” before making final conclusions about a case.

“Jody has been a police officer for over 20 years,” Hennrich said. “An officer with such a plethora of investigatory knowledge should at the very least, know why he was fired.”

In a printed statement issued Wednesday morning, O’Guinn elaborated further on the supposed reasons for his termination, saying that the closest thing Baity gave him as a reason for his firing was that his “car wasn't seen at headquarters enough in the last thirty days.”

“Obviously, off-site meetings, vacation time, flex time, community meetings and appointments, as well as performing traffic stops and other police related activity, can frequently cause one's vehicle to not be at headquarters,” O’Guinn wrote in his statement.

O’Guinn said Tuesday that right now, he is simply “trying to keep myself solid” and hold his family together. He said his biggest priority is finding a new job, whether or not it is in law enforcement.

A ‘disconnect’ from the public

In the end, one of O’Guinn’s first best intentions failed to materialize. 

When the now-dismissed chief first assumed his post in June 2009, he spoke about goals of being an active officer in the community, hitting the streets and working the front lines with the rank and file.

“I’m not the kind of chief who sits in the office and shoots rubber bands at the wall,” O’Guinn, at that point a veteran of more than 20 years at the Alton Police Department, told the Times shortly after taking over as chief of the Carbondale Police Department. “I want to get out. I want to get involved in the community.”

Instead, O’Guinn’s five-year tenure as chief ended after years of what some said was quite the opposite.

Instead of building bridges between the Police Department and the community, O’Guinn’s tenure was marred by numerous controversies and growing divisions not just between the public and the police, but also between the chief and his own officers. 

Last spring, State’s Attorney Mike Carr said a “disconnect” existed between the police and the community and that the city needed to take immediate steps to reassess the department’s leadership.

In addition, one former officer, Dee Cross, told the Times earlier this year that O’Guinn’s implementation of bureaucratic performance standards on officers had alienated him from many in the department — and, perhaps in response to that, he became more isolated from many of them. 

She also said he was frequently absent from police headquarters or locked away in his office, adding that many of the department’s employees had little or no personal relationship with him. This situation was exacerbated, she said, following the firestorm over his stolen gun in 2011.

O’Guinn seemed to come dangerously close to losing his job after that incident, when it was revealed that a pistol stolen from his unlocked vehicle had been the weapon in a murder on the city’s northeast side. 

Problems kept coming after that, each seemingly eclipsing the last. In spring 2012, 21-year-old Molly Young was found dead from a gunshot wound to the head in the apartment of a Police Department dispatcher, Richie Minton. 

Although O’Guinn quickly called in the State Police to investigate in order to avoid a perceived conflict of interest, the incident — and lingering questions about how Carbondale Police officers handled the scene during their first response, including allowing Minton to wash his hands, as detailed in a State Police report — cast a pall over the department.

Perhaps even more contentious was the disappearance in February of SIU student Pravin Varughese, whose body was found five days later in a wooded area just east of Carbondale. The day the body was found, O’Guinn said Varughese appeared to have frozen to death but had suffered no other suspicious trauma; a second autopsy commissioned by the family, however, purported that blunt force trauma played a role in the student’s death. 

Earlier this month, the Varughese family filed a $5 million civil lawsuit accusing O’Guinn of, among other things, failing to secure a crime scene and failing to investigate possible criminal activity.

In light of these simmering controversies, O’Guinn shot back earlier this year.

“The negative innuendo and the conjecture and the different things that have been raised that are not factual, that are just people’s own opinions being spread that have no factual basis, it weighs heavily on the men and women in our place,” O’Guinn told the Times in June.

“There are a lot of players in these investigations that we have no control over. But whenever mistakes are made or mistakes are perceived, everybody points the finger back at the Carbondale Police Department and says we’re inadequate somehow, or there needs to be some investigation done on the Carbondale Police Department, or the administration of the department needs to be looked at.”

Dee Cross, the retired Carbondale officer, took exception to that interpretation earlier this summer.

“In [O’Guinn’s] fuzzy world, morale is an individual responsibility,” Cross told the Times. “So when he makes comments about morale being low at the Police Department because of the community … really? And who has alienated the community from the Police Department? It’s not the rank-and-file working the streets.”

Stolen gun defined chief’s time

Of everything that happened during O’Guinn’s tenure, perhaps nothing came to define it more than the theft of his gun in 2011.

A special prosecutor reviewing the circumstances surrounding the theft of the handgun says his office has done preliminary work on the case but that he has no idea when it will be done.

Patrick Delfino, director of the Special Prosecution Unit of the State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor office, said Tuesday that he has “not looked at that in a while,” although he added that O’Guinn’s dismissal from his job would have no bearing on how the case is handled.

The case was passed to Delfino’s office by State’s Attorney Carr a year ago this month. In the time since, Delfino has given no indication what might happen with it. 

Delfino’s office also has been in charge for a year of any potential criminal proceedings in the Molly Young case, although there has been little public movement in that case either. Earlier this summer, Young’s father filed a civil case against Minton in Jackson County court.

Revelations about O’Guinn’s stolen gun became public after it was used as the weapon in the September 2011 murder of 20-year-old Deaunta Spencer outside a home on Brush Street in Carbondale. Matthew J. Jones was sentenced in 2012 to 35 years in prison following a plea of guilty to the murder.

Another man, Jewlious Causey, received six years in prison in early 2012 for having possessed O’Guinn’s gun prior to the murder. 

O’Guinn first reported his personal handgun, a Colt .380 Mustang, missing from his personal vehicle about three months prior to the murder, and Carbondale Police initially filed the theft report as an animal control complaint — a mistake the city said in a subsequent internal investigation was the result of human error, not an attempt to cover up the theft.

Twelve days after the Spencer murder, then-state’s attorney Mike Wepsiec and Sheriff Robert Burns interviewed O’Guinn, who told them he had spent a weekend in June 2011 shopping at several local businesses with visiting family members and that the gun had been in the vehicle they used.

After his visiting family members left, O’Guinn said he went to retrieve the weapon from his vehicle but could not locate it. He finally reported it missing more than a week after he first failed to find it.

O’Guinn reiterated to the Times earlier this year that he was a victim in the incident.

“I violated no policies, and I violated no laws,” O’Guinn said. “I was a victim of a burglary, and my gun was stolen.”

Other cases caused trouble as well

Although O’Guinn said his department received unfair criticism as a result of them, he took time Wednesday to address the Young and Varughese deaths.

“I am aware, of course, that there have been several high profile cases that have occurred during my tenure. The media has constantly sought information from my office, and there was some, limited, information that could be supplied to the media and the family members of the victims and to the public at large,” O’Guinn wrote. “I was given a verbal directive by Mr. Baity and the Jackson County State’s Attorney that I was to not to talk to the media about these cases. Mr. Baity informed me that he would take responsibility for all media activity as to those cases. Mr. Baity's regular practice, however, was to offer a ‘no comment.’ In many instances this left the victim's family and friends as well as many Carbondale citizens frustrated. It appears that a disproportionate amount of this frustration was directed at my office.

“I would like to speak directly to the Young and Varughese families. The details in your cases were never obfuscated in an attempt to cover up negligence or malfeasance. In fact, the Carbondale Police Department, under my direction, was one of the most transparent agencies in the state. Unfortunately, the law enforcement community is limited by law in what we are allowed to say about ongoing investigations. In the case of Molly Young, we immediately referred the incident to the Illinois State Police to ensure an unbiased investigation. And in the case of Pravin Varughese, Pravin was reported missing 21 hours after he disappeared. The Carbondale Police Department took every possible action to find Pravin as soon as we were notified. I have children of my own, and my heart has broken for the loss of yours.”

Department in transition

Meanwhile, the city’s new interim chief of police, Jeff Grubbs, says a comprehensive review of department operational policies instituted by O’Guinn already is underway.

Grubbs said Tuesday that his planned review of procedures will include everyone from patrol officers all the way up to command staff.

Grubbs, who previously served as interim chief from 2008 to 2009 and was deputy chief under O’Guinn, also said he will be seeking input from other city department heads.

“We’re going to be doing a lot of talking and a lot of reflection,” Grubbs said.

Grubbs said the review would encompass all policies “that are specific to operations of police officers.” He did not give a firm timeline for the review.

Varughese suit seeks $5 million in damages

Geoffrey Ritter
Weekend Times

CARBONDALE — The family of an SIU student found dead earlier this year has filed a five-count civil lawsuit alleging wrongful death against the last person to see him alive and negligence on the part of Carbondale’s police chief and the city of Carbondale.

In a complaint filed Thursday in Jackson County, Lovely Varughese, the mother of Pravin Varughese, alleges her son was attacked and left for dead in February. Then, she says, Police Chief Jody O’Guinn failed to properly investigate the incident.

Authorities found the body of Varughese, an SIU sophomore from Morton Grove, the morning of Feb. 18 in a wooded area on Carbondale’s east side, five days after he was reported missing after having last been seen at a house party. The day he was found, O’Guinn said foul play was not suspected in the incident and that Varughese likely died of hypothermia in the woods after running from a vehicle on Rt. 13. Reportedly, a fight had ensued between Varughese and the vehicle’s driver just moments before Varughese fled.

The lawsuit filed this week accuses the driver, Gaege Bethune, of contributing to Varughese’s death by allegedly hitting him in the head with a blunt force instrument — an assertion that stems from an independent autopsy commissioned by the family that, unlike the original autopsy, concluded such trauma had contributed to the student’s death. 

That first count of the suit seeks damages in excess of $1 million. Bethune’s father said Friday that the family had no statement to make at this time.

The rest of the lawsuit centers mostly on O’Guinn, accusing him of failing to secure a crime scene or take any other action during the days Varughese was missing. It also accuses O’Guinn of failing to be aware of an Illinois State Police trooper’s encounter with Bethune just moments after Varughese fled into the woods — something that Carbondale Police apparently remained unaware of until after the body was found, but which the lawsuit still accuses O’Guinn of failing to further investigate.

In total, the lawsuit seeks in excess of $2 million in damages from O’Guinn, who said Thursday he was unable to comment on pending litigation.

The final two counts of the lawsuit focus on the city of Carbondale, which the Varughese  family contends is liable for the actions of O’Guinn. The suit also alleges the city failed to institute adequate standards for searching for missing persons or requiring that the Police Department establish a crime scene. 

The total demands of the lawsuit are in excess of $5 million.

Lovely Varughese said Thursday that the lawsuit is not about putting a price on her son’s life, but rather about making sure justice is done for him. She said she has to speak for her son since he no longer is able to do so himself.

Last month, Lovely Varughese also urged friends and supporters to petition state officials for a grand jury or special prosecutor to look at the circumstances surrounding her son’s death. Any local criminal proceedings in the case currently are in the hands of State’s Attorney Mike Carr, who has made no recent statements on the future of the case.

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