Chicago police sergeant says ‘I feel terrible’ about woman’s death involving his gun
BY CHRIS FUSCO AND TIM NOVAK Staff Reporters May 23, 2014 2:58PM
Sgt. Steven Lesner, during a break from his disclplinary hearing Friday. | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times
- Four years later, officer still under investigation in woman’s death
- Chicago cop washed hands before tests in death involving his gun
- Chicago police sergeant agrees to 60-day suspension after his gun was used in woman’s shooting death
- Police board rejects deal to suspend Chicago cop 60 days in woman’s death
Updated: June 25, 2014 6:02AM
A Chicago police sergeant facing a suspension or firing testified Friday he feels “terrible” about the death of a Northwest Side woman he said used his gun to shoot herself in the head while he was in her bathroom.
“I feel terrible for my mistake,” Sgt. Steven Lesner told a Chicago Police Board hearing officer reviewing his conduct regarding the Feb. 18, 2009, death of Catherine Weiland. “I feel terrible that her life was ended.
“I feel terrible for how I represented the Chicago Police Department.”
The 20-year department veteran — who has been stripped of his police powers and put on restricted duty — said he met Weiland when he answered a domestic-disturbance call at a Northwest Side restaurant. After getting off work later that night, he said he went to her apartment and drank alcohol and watched television with her. Then, he said he left the gun on the floor while he went to the bathroom.
“I urinated. I washed my hands and heard a pop, a bang,” Lesner testified.
He said he came out of the bathroom and saw his gun — which he said had been in an ankle holster when he set it down — on Weiland’s lap.
“I realized she wasn’t moving,” Lesner testified. “She looked DOA . . . I saw blood dripping out of her ear. I called 911 immediately.”
Lesner said he woke Weiland’s father and brother, who lived on other floors of the family’s three-flat at 3115 N. St. Louis, then let in paramedics and the police.
“It was a helluva night,” Lesner testified.
Weiland died six hours after meeting Lesner. His testimony was the first time he has publicly discussed Weiland’s death, which was the subject of a series of Chicago Sun-Times reports last year.
The hearing officer, attorney Thomas Johnson, will present the case to the police board, which will decide Lesner’s punishment for violating departmental rules including leaving his gun unattended. A decision isn’t expected before mid-July.
Lesner, 48, a divorced father of two, hasn’t been charged with any crime.
In 2009, police and the Cook County medical examiner’s office determined that the bullet from Lesner’s gun killed Weiland and ruled her death a suicide. The bullet entered Weiland’s right temple. The only gunshot residue found was on the 47-year-old woman’s left hand.
She was right-handed, according to her family.
“It just seems like a very awkward way to commit suicide,” Jody Weis, the police superintendent at the time of the death, said in an interview last year. “The hand and the wound — they don’t really measure up.”
Lesner washed his hands before they could be checked for gunshot residue, according to police reports.
Daniel Myerson — the City Hall attorney laying out current Supt. Garry McCarthy’s disciplinary case against Lesner — didn’t question Lesner Friday about the amount of time Weiland was left alone in her living room with the gun or about the hand-washing.
Lesner’s lawyer, Thomas J. Pleines, questioned Thomas Conley, the lead detective who investigated Weiland’s death, about the gunshot residue. Conley offered “two theories” — which he said he never put in any police report.
He suggested that the Illinois State Police Crime Lab mistakenly switched the caps on the vials of gunshot residue they tested: When the “crime lab put the two vials down, they put the ‘L’ cap on the right vial and the ‘R’ cap on the left vial.”
His other theory: “When she had the weapon in her right hand, I don’t think she realized how much pressure it takes to pull the trigger,” so she “reached over with her left hand covering her right hand and then pulled the trigger with her thumb.”
Conley also testified that Weiland’s brother, now dead, had told police she had long suffered from bipolar disorder, had once been hospitalized for cutting her wrists and had been prescribed medication. Her father also has since died.
The police Internal Affairs Division had been investigating Weiland’s death for years when the first Sun-Times story was published last August. About two months later, McCarthy proposed a 60-day suspension for Lesner, who agreed to the suspension.
But, in an unusual move, the police board — which has eight members, all of them appointed by the mayor — rejected the deal without explanation and ordered a full hearing.
“We need to remember Sgt. Steve Lesner did not kill Ms. Weiland,” Pleines told the hearing officer. “She took her own life. Sgt. Lesner is not responsible for her decision to take her own life.
“Certainly, Sgt. Lesner’s presence in her apartment at that time led to tragic consequences, but going down that tragic road was Ms. Weiland’s decision completely . . . . He’s not responsible for her death.”