Jury convicts Illinois official of lying about cancer-causing water

April 29, 2013

The Associated Press

A one-time suburban Chicago official was convicted Monday of lying for decades about drawing water for residents from a well the village knew was tainted by a cancer-causing chemical.

Theresa Neubauer, 55, is the only Crestwood official to go to trial in a scandal that shocked the region for the apparent callousness displayed by village officials. It also infuriated residents and left many fearing for their health and the health of their families.

As the verdict was read, the former water department supervisor showed no emotions. It took jurors two days of deliberations — starting Friday and resuming Monday — to reach a verdict.

Neubauer, who is on paid leave as Crestwood's police chief, was found guilty on 11 counts of making false statements. Each count carries a maximum five-year prison term.

Prosecutors say she and other officials decided to pump the cheaper, polluted well water to score points with voters: They could boast about keeping water rates low in the 11,000-resident village.

During closings Friday, a prosecutor said Neubauer was part of the Crestwood government's inner circle and knew about the practice. He displayed disclosure forms where she indicates no well water was drawn.

"She told lie after lie, month after month, year after year," Tim Chapman said.

But defense attorney Thomas Breen said Neubauer was a scapegoat. And he portrayed her as a glorified clerk who took orders from Crestwood officials higher up the chain of command.

He then pointed to her and apologized for what he was about to say.

"You served cake and coffee," he said, looking at Neubauer. "That's how close you got to the inner circle."

The only other official charged was Frank Scaccia, 61, Crestwood's certified water operator. He changed his plea to guilty earlier this month to one count, and now faces a maximum five-year prison term.

During closings, Neubauer displayed no expression but fidgeted constantly with a pen, rolling it over her fingertips. Dozens of Crestwood residents looked on from courtroom benches.

Raising his voice, Breen told jurors that those truly responsible for the decisions to draw the contaminated water were, in his words, letting Neubauer "wear the jacket" for their misdeeds.

"It's about a bunch of men who, when push comes to shove, are cowards. Cowards!" he shouted.

He questioned how she could have possibly known the water was poisoned when she herself took showers in and drank the same water, and when she made oatmeal for her children with the water.

But Chapman, the prosecutor, scoffed at the notion Neubauer was ignorant of the village's water practices.

"That is nonsense," he told jurors. "She carefully tracked the use of that well for nearly 30 years."

Officials drew the tainted water until 2008 even after environmental officials warned in the mid-1980s that cancer-causing chemicals had oozed into the well, prosecutors have said.

Officials in Crestwood, about 20 miles south of Chicago, saved nearly $400,000 annually by mixing in contaminated water with cleaner but pricier Lake Michigan water, according to prosecutors.

Pending lawsuits blame the well water for a variety of illnesses.

A 2010 health department report did find cancer rates were higher than average in Crestwood, but it didn't make a definite link to the tainted water.