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How the Waukegan cops behind a teen’s false confession to a shooting avoided discipline

The mayor of north suburban Waukegan says the detectives who extracted a 15-year-old’s false confession to a shooting last year were not subject to a disciplinary investigation, even after allegedly violating an Illinois law that prohibits deceiving children during interrogations.

The boy spent two nights of February 2022 locked up on charges including attempted murder — a case the police dropped only after his basketball team proved he was on a high school court 18 miles away during the shooting. Now Mayor Ann B. Taylor’s administration says no formal inquiry of the detectives was needed because reviews by their bosses and an outside consulting firm found no violations of any policy or law.

“No internal investigation by the Office of Professional Standards was deemed necessary,” Taylor’s administration wrote to WBEZ on Wednesday, referring to a Waukegan police unit that was set up to investigate cops accused of misconduct.

Taylor’s administration has kept the consulting firm’s report hidden from the public, but WBEZ has obtained a copy.

Multiple experts on public corruption probes and Waukegan’s long history of false confessions said the outside review fell far short of the rigorous and transparent investigation the city’s residents need.

“The Police Department can’t and shouldn’t be trusted by the public if the department itself does not undertake an inquiry into whether its officers, and possibly even its command chain, broke the law,” said Joseph Ferguson, who oversaw high-profile police misconduct investigations during a 12-year tenure as Chicago inspector general.

“Conduct a proper investigation and make a proper public accounting of it,” said Ferguson, a former federal prosecutor. “If it’s anything other than that, there is no trust, no legitimacy.”

Impossible confession

The shooting took place at a Dollar General in Waukegan on Feb. 4, 2022. A store clerk was shot in the face but survived. On Feb. 14, police released surveillance photos showing the suspect in a balaclava ski mask and asked the public for help identifying the person.

The next day, the case’s lead detective, Sean Aines, heard from a detective in nearby Round Lake that the masked person resembled a 20-year-old Lake Villa man known to police from a gang investigation, according to a case report by Aines that WBEZ obtained.

But Aines did not initially pursue that lead. Instead, according to his report, he focused on tips from anonymous students who said the masked person looked like the 15-year-old, whom WBEZ is not naming due to his age.

The detective also prepared two photo lineups that police carried out that day, according to his report. The store clerk who was shot “was unable to make a distinction on any subjects pictured in the lineup.” But his coworker later circled the image of the 15-year-old.

On Feb. 16, police officers including Detective Joshua Amann found the teen in class at Waukegan High School’s Brookside campus. They handcuffed him there and drove him to the station to be interrogated.

As detectives tried to reach the teen’s mother, Aines started the interrogation around 12:15 p.m., he reported. Amann acted as the 15-year-old’s advocate. Within an hour, the teen had admitted to being in the dollar store at the time of the incident and to firing one shot, according to Aines, who wrote that the teen also admitted to tossing the gun in a dumpster.

The teen was booked on charges of aggravated battery with a firearm and attempted murder. Aines drove him to Lake County’s juvenile detention facility in Vernon Hills.

Within a day, however, police started receiving calls, including one from his basketball coach, who said the 15-year-old was with his team at an away game during the shooting, Aines reported.

It took Aines until the following morning, Feb. 18, to initiate the teen’s release from the jail. He went to work on the lead from Round Lake, he wrote, which eventually led to the 20-year-old’s arrest for the shooting in a felony case that remains pending.

After the teenager’s false confession became national news, the city’s mayor and police chief apologized and promised reforms. But police records about the case, including video footage of the interrogation, remained hidden from the public.

“Cardinal sin of an interrogation”

On March 21, 2022, Taylor convinced the City Council to approve $60,000 for a review of the case by Jensen Hughes, a Baltimore-based consulting firm.

“Jensen Hughes specializes in helping police departments implement best practices and improve trust between police and the communities they serve,” Taylor said, reading prepared remarks and vowing to keep the community updated about the review. “Expediency and transparency are of the utmost importance to me.”

The project manager for the Jensen Hughes report, according to the firm’s Waukegan engagement agreement, was Sydney Roberts, a former head of Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

Last June, Jensen Hughes delivered two “final” reports, both marked “confidential.” Despite her promise to be transparent, Mayor Taylor’s administration initially kept both from public view.

A WBEZ request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act led to the release of one of the reports last August. But the city continued to withhold the second Jensen Hughes report — a 35-page “sufficiency review” focused on the shooting investigation and the 15-year-old’s interrogation. A statement from Taylor’s office at the time pointed to juvenile privacy under Illinois law and said the teen’s family had not consented to the report’s release.

Nine months later, WBEZ has obtained the hidden Jensen Hughes report, which did not identify any violations of police policy or Illinois law yet called attention to numerous blunders and ethical lapses. Among them:

  • The store clerk said the man who shot him in the face was not in a photo lineup prepared by Aines, the lead detective. The clerk kept saying so even after Aines entered the room and peppered him with questions about it. The victim’s co-worker, in a separate photo lineup, did not circle the 15-year-old’s photo until viewing the images for more than seven minutes.

Former federal prosecutor Ronald Safer, who examined the Jensen Hughes report on WBEZ’s request, said the police violated any reasonable standard on suggestiveness in a lineup procedure. “It made it clear to [the witness] that the police wanted him to pick someone [and] completely nullifies the important admonition that the suspect might not be in the photo array.”

  • Aines delivered a lengthy and misleading prologue about the shooting and the teen’s alleged role before letting him know he had a right to remain silent and to have an attorney or a parent present, according to the report.

Ferguson, the former Chicago inspector general, described the prologue as “conditioning the landscape” for the confession: “It doesn’t appear he received Miranda rights until an awful lot was said. That’s a problem.”

  • Aines then led the 15-year-old through a long series of leading questions that fed him information about the incident he did not know, the report said.

“I cannot think of an innocent explanation for this,” Safer said. “When you are dealing with a suggestive witness, including a juvenile, it is particularly important not to tell the witness what you think happened. The suggestive witness will repeat that back to you in some form, and that is how false confessions commonly occur.”

  • Amann, the detective designated as the teen’s “advocate” during the interrogation, “inappropriately injected himself” by showing a map for the teen to falsely indicate where he ditched the gun, according to the report.

  • Aines at several points of the interrogation raised leniency as a possibility. He said, for example, that suspects who shot because they had no other choice can “go home.”

“Telling a child that he can go home is the cardinal sin of an interrogation,” said Steven A. Drizin, a Northwestern University law professor who co-directs the school’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. “It is the most common reason we find for why juveniles falsely confess.”

The state’s Juvenile Court Act since Jan. 1, 2022, has prohibited deceptive tactics during the custodial interrogation of a juvenile. The law defines deception as “the knowing communication of false facts about evidence or unauthorized statements regarding leniency by a law enforcement officer or juvenile officer to a subject of custodial interrogation.”

A Waukegan police policy mirrors that law.

But the Jensen Hughes review, without explanation, reached this finding about the lead detective: “We do not find that Detective Aines raised any false facts, nor did he make any statements of leniency, that would amount to a violation of state law or WPD policy.”

“Tunnel vision”

Waukegan’s engagement agreement with Jensen Hughes said the firm would be interviewing a range of police personnel, including the officers involved in the interrogation.

But the firm, according to the city, ended up interviewing only four high-ranking officers, including Keith Zupec, the police chief at the time, and his brother-in-law Scott Thomas, who was the detective commander when the events took place.

“I don’t understand that at all,” Safer said.

The report backs Aines’s decision to set aside the Round Lake detective’s lead about the 20-year-old.

Larnell Farmer, a former Waukegan detective who retired from the force in 2012, said the Police Department has resources in a shooting case to follow more than one lead at a time.

“It sounds like the detective had tunnel vision,” Farmer said, criticizing Aines’s decision to focus solely on the 15-year-old. “He wasn’t going to leave the country. He wasn’t going anywhere.”

Aines declined to comment about the case. Amann could not be reached.

Chip Mitchell reports on policing, public safety and public health. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.

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