Crestwood police chief found guilty in tainted water cover-up
BY CASEY TONER Sun-Times Mediafirstname.lastname@example.org April 29, 2013 9:10PM
Updated: June 1, 2013 6:47AM
After being found guilty Monday of lying repeatedly to state regulators as head of Crestwood’s water department, Theresa Neubauer said she was at the “bottom of the food chain” when it came to a long-running scheme to use polluted well water in the village’s drinking supply.
Neubauer told reporters that former longtime Mayor Chester Stranczek and another village official were responsible for using the tainted water to supplement the Lake Michigan water the village obtained from Chicago.
Neither Stranczek nor the other official was charged by federal prosecutors for their alleged roles in the scandal, in which the well water that contained vinyl chloride, a cancer-causing chemical, was used for about 22 years until 2007.
“All of the sudden, Theresa Neubauer, the water clerk, must have run the whole town of Crestwood because I’m the only one standing here answering for these charges while everyone else is off enjoying their life,” Neubauer said at the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago. “Yes, I do apologize for what happened, but I would like to add it was none of my decision. It was never any part of my plan.”
Neubauer, who has been on paid leave as Crestwood police chief since August 2011, was found guilty on all 11 counts of deliberately misleading environmental regulators. The jury reached its decision after about 6 1/2 hours of deliberations, including two hours on Monday.
Former water operator Frank Scaccia, 61, pleaded guilty on April 11 to one count of making a false statement in connection with the water scheme and is awaiting sentencing. Both are due in court May 15 for a hearing.
U.S. District Court Judge Joan Gottschall tentatively set Neubauer’s sentencing for Oct. 2, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. She faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.
“I suppose today I have to say I am the unfortunate person that the village of Crestwood hired when I was an 18-year-old girl,” Neubauer said. “I’ve never seen the inside of the well, the pump house, a water main, any of that.”
As the jury’s verdict was read, Neubauer had a blank look on her face and stared down at the table where she was seated. Family members and supporters in the first two rows behind her began crying.
Her attorney, Thomas Breen, said he planned to ask for probation for Neubauer.
“I have a 55-year-old woman, a mother of four children whose whole life has been Crestwood,” Breen said, reiterating that his client was a pawn of other officials in the scandal. “She has been a wonderful person, and she got had in this whole deal.”
Breen also denied that the well water was tainted, saying that “no harm was done to any resident” by tapping into it.
“This is not an Erin Brockovich case,” Breen said, referencing the California woman whose legal fight against a company in a water pollution case became the subject of a movie.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency determined in 1986 that the well was contaminated and ordered Crestwood to stop using it, but top village officials ignored the order and plotted for years to hide the continued use of the well, according to trial testimony.
The Illinois Department of Public Health has said the use of the well could have been a factor in elevated levels of cancer among Crestwood residents, but the agency couldn’t conclusively tie that to the water.
Former Crestwood resident Tricia Krause began investigating and drew media attention to the water scandal after her son and daughter developed leukemia and tumors among other health issues as children, On Monday, she said she was grateful for the verdict.
“My children have suffered, and so have the citizens of Crestwood for a very long time,” Krause said, standing in front of her children in the federal courthouse. “We were secretly poisoned, and it wasn’t right.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Chapman said Monday that Neubauer committed an “extraordinarily serious crime” that went beyond a marginal role, as her defense alleged.
“Safe drinking water is one of those fundamental things,” Chapman said. “There are no exceptions to these rules, and there should never be exceptions to these rules.”
Krause and her children are among about 250 current and former residents who claim in about 100 lawsuits filed against Crestwood that they developed cancer, tumors, immune system disorders and other serious health problems from drinking the water for so many years. The village also has been sued by the Illinois attorney general’s office, a case that’s expected to move to a faster track now that Neubauer’s trial has ended.
Stranczek, 82, who was mayor for 38 years, is retired and living in Florida, apparently suffering from dementia related to Parkinson’s disease. His son, Robert, who succeeded him as mayor in 2007, did not run for re-election this spring.