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Four years later, officer still under investigation in woman’s death

The apartment building 3115 N. St. Louis Chicago where police say Catherine Weilkilled herself.  |  JessicKoscielniak~Sun-Times

The apartment building at 3115 N. St. Louis in Chicago, where police say Catherine Weiland killed herself. | Jessica Koscielniak~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 20, 2013 6:02AM

Four years ago, a Chicago Police sergeant responded to a quarrel between a woman and her ex-boyfriend at a restaurant and ended up driving her home, stopping on the way to buy her a bottle of wine.

After he finished his shift, Sgt. Steven E. Lesner went back to Catherine Weiland’s apartment on the Northwest Side with another bottle of wine and a six-pack of beer.

He got there around 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 17, 2009 — a Tuesday night.

By 1:40 a.m., the slender, brown-haired woman was dead in the home where she grew up, shot in the head with a bullet from Lesner’s service weapon.

Lesner told detectives that Weiland, 47, a twice-divorced pharmacy technician, killed herself in the living room while he was in the bathroom.

The police and Cook County medical examiner’s office concluded the death was a suicide.

But four years later, there are questions about what happened that night and about Lesner’s conduct that have never been answered, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation has found.

Lesner told investigators he removed his gun and ankle holster and put it on the living-room floor and left it there when he went to the bathroom.

The police say they found Weiland fully clothed but for her bare feet, seated on a flower-print love seat, her right leg crossed over her left, with Lesner’s gun in her lap near her left hand.

The bullet entered through her right temple, leaving a two-inch hole, exiting behind her left ear.

Tests by the Illinois State Police crime lab found gunshot residue, or GSR, on Weiland’s left hand — not her right hand. Weiland was right-handed, according to her family.

“The test results . . . indicate that Catherine Weiland discharged a firearm, contacted a GSR-related item or had the left hand in the environment of a discharged firearm,” according to a police report filed six months after Weiland died.

Jody Weis, Chicago’s police superintendent at the time of Weiland’s death, says he didn’t recall being told about the case back then.

“It just seems like a very awkward way to commit suicide. The hand and the wound, they don’t really measure up,” Weis says of the gunshot residue being found on Weiland’s left hand even though she was shot in the right side of the head.

Lesner was also tested. “The test results indicate . . . Steven Lesner may not have discharged a firearm with either hand,” according to the police report. “If Steven Lesner did discharge a firearm, then the particles were removed by activity, were not deposited or were not detected by the procedure.”

Asked about the case, the police now are saying for the first time they believe Weiland shot herself with her right hand — the one with no gunshot residue — a conclusion that isn’t in any of the seven reports detectives filed four years ago.

“Based on the trajectory of the bullet, as determined by the Medical Examiner, and the shape of the entry wound, we believe that she used her right hand,” the police department said in a statement released Friday evening. “This is consistent with her being right handed and not inconsistent with the GSR test for a person using a semi-automatic weapon.

“Gun shot residue does not always attach to a person’s hand when they fire a gun.”

The statement doesn’t explain why Weiland had GSR on her left hand — or why detectives reported finding the butt end of the gun near her left hand.

Told of the department’s conclusion, Weis said, “It seems unusual gunshot residue would be recorded on her left hand but not her right hand. There’s got to be something else to explain away the gun in her right hand — fingerprints, DNA.”

Weis also questions why Lesner failed to secure his weapon and says Lesner shouldn’t have gone to Weiland’s home after his shift.

“There’s enough things that the officer did that indicate poor judgment and inappropriate behavior,” Weis says. “The officer would have gotten some suspension for failing to secure his weapon.”

Lesner wasn’t suspended over his conduct the night of Weiland’s death. Nor does he have any suspensions on his record in nearly 20 years as a cop.

But the case remains under investigation by the Internal Affairs Division, police spokesman Adam Collins says. IAD has made “a recommendation that must now complete the process proscribed by” Lesner’s union contract, according to the department’s statement.

Lesner, 47, has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Illinois State University, makes $96,648 a year as a cop, and plays hockey for the F.O.P. Stars, the police union’s team.

At the time of Weiland’s death, he was married with two children. His wife recently divorced him.

Reached by phone last week and asked about Weiland, Lesner responded, “Why are you doing a story on her?”

Told the case was under investigation by internal affairs, Lesner said, “I have no comment.”

When Weiland died, Lesner told detectives he met her when he and two patrol officers responded around 7:40 p.m. on Feb. 17, 2009, to a domestic disturbance at La Villa restaurant in the 3600 block of North Pulaski. The officers made no arrests, and Lesner told investigators he gave Weiland a ride home in his police vehicle because she was intoxicated.

The restaurant was about a mile from her apartment, and he said he stopped and bought her a bottle of wine. Department rules forbid officers from transporting liquor in a police vehicle.

Weiland lived on the second floor of her father’s three-flat at 3115 N. St. Louis. Her father, George Weiland, lived on the first floor. Her brother John lived in another apartment there.

Lesner told detectives he walked Weiland inside her apartment, gave her a business card on which he wrote his cellphone number, then drove her and her brother back to the restaurant to get her car.

Shortly before 11 p.m., Weiland called him at the 17th District station, according to Lesner, who was wrapping up his shift. He told police she asked him to go drinking, but when he said he didn’t want to, she suggested he come over and watch TV. He said he would bring beer and that she asked him to bring another bottle of wine.

He arrived about 11:30 p.m. Lesner told investigators they watched TV in her living room while he drank beer and she drank wine. After half an hour or so, he said, he removed his ankle holster, which held his 9 mm semi-automatic Smith & Wesson service weapon, and put it on the floor beneath him.

Later that night, according to Lesner, Weiland told him she’d forgotten to take her “meds.” He said he was in the bathroom when he heard the shot.

“Sgt. Lesner stated he saw Weiland seated on the love seat in the same place, with his gun in her lap,” a police report says. “Sgt. Lesner stated he went to grab the gun because he wasn’t sure what Weiland had done, but when he saw blood he immediately stopped picking up the gun and left it where it was. Sgt. Lesner stated he touched his weapon but didn’t move it after seeing the blood.”

Lesner told investigators he called 911, then woke Weiland’s father and brother.

Weiland wasn’t examined to determine if she’d had sex, according to the department’s statement: “Sgt. Lesner stated no sexual relations took place between he and Ms. Weiland, and she was fully clothed at the time of her suicide. There were no signs of force or foul play and Sgt. Lesner was off-duty at the time of the incident, so no such tests were conducted.”

Thomas Conley, the lead detective, wrote four years ago that he saw Weiland, who was 5-foot-6 and 119 pounds, “seated upright with her right leg crossed over her left leg” and “her arms at her side.”

Lesner’s gun was “in the victim’s lap,” Conley wrote, and “the barrel of the weapon was pointed towards the victim and the butt end/grips of the weapon were near the victim’s left hand.”

In Weiland’s bedroom, police found a half-empty bottle of Michelob Ultra, the beer Lesner had been drinking. Lesner told them he didn’t know how it got there, that Weiland “must have carried it in.” There were also two empty beer bottles in the living room, one empty in the kitchen garbage and two beers in the refrigerator.

Police found a pill box on a coffee table in front of Weiland, three prescription bottles on an end table and, in her bedroom, a brown paper bag “that contained numerous prescription bottles.” None of the prescriptions is identified.

There are some discrepancies between the police and medical examiner’s reports.

The police said Weiland’s father or brother — both have since died — told them she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder 10 years earlier and was an alcoholic who “had not been taking her medications.” The relative also told police Weiland “had spoke several times about harming herself” following fights with an ex-boyfriend, saying “I would only do it for the attention.”

According to the medical examiner, “The subject had no known medical history, and her family related no prior attempts at self-destruction.”

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