The city of Waukegan has agreed to pay $200,000 to the family of a 15-year-old boy who falsely confessed to shooting a dollar store clerk last year. Officials of that north suburb are also confirming for the first time that no cops were disciplined for extracting the confession — not even the lead detective, accused of deceptive tactics banned by an Illinois law that protects children under interrogation.
A court filing Wednesday by Mayor Ann B. Taylor’s administration disclosed the settlement in a federal lawsuit brought for the teen, whom WBEZ is not naming because of his age. Waukegan cops handcuffed him in school, drove him to a police station for the interrogation, and sent him to juvenile detention for two nights on charges including attempted murder — a case the police abandoned only after his family and basketball team proved he was on the court in another town during the shooting.
“No officers were relieved of duty or reassigned,” Taylor’s administration wrote Wednesday to WBEZ, saying internal and external investigations by the city found that the cops had violated no policies or laws.
The city statement touted police reforms following the false confession, which brought a storm of unflattering news coverage. The reforms include a ban on cops interrogating children without the presence of a parent, guardian or attorney and a ban on arrests of children at school unless the alleged crime took place there.
But those steps fall short of the accountability needed for Waukegan police to build community trust, given the city’s long history of false confessions and wrongful convictions, according to Lauren Kaeseberg, co-director of the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois Springfield.
“There should be some consequence,” said Kaeseberg, an attorney who helped win exonerations of two people imprisoned for decades after Waukegan officers extracted false confessions from them in cases unrelated to each other.
“For the Waukegan Police Department to still be relying on these old outdated methods that are known to produce false confessions is unacceptable,” Kaeseberg said. “There does need to be some discipline.”
The shooting took place Feb. 4, 2022, at a Dollar General in Waukegan. The store clerk was shot below his right eye.
The patrol officers who arrived on the scene failed to get the names and contact information of witnesses in the store, according to a confidential review commissioned by Taylor’s administration and obtained by WBEZ.
On Feb. 14, police released surveillance photos showing the suspect in a balaclava ski mask and asking the public for help identifying the person.
The next day, Det. Sean Aines, the case’s lead detective, received a lead from a Round Lake police officer who said the masked person resembled a 20-year-old man known to police, according to a report that Aines filed and WBEZ obtained. That man, months later, was charged with the dollar store shooting.
But Aines set aside the lead and focused on the 15-year-old. He worked with anonymous tips from students and with allegedly botched photo lineups.
The teen’s interrogation took place Feb. 16.
“Aines used a persistent sequence of leading questions,” the review found.
“I first explained to [the teen] that I was aware that he had been involved in an incident at Dollar General,” Aines wrote in his report. “I explained … that he may have been profiled in the dollar store and that he may have felt that his safety was in jeopardy, causing him to react by shooting the employee.”
Aines, the review added, hypothesized that the store employee could have been a racist or an “asshole” or had threatened him or cursed at him.
The detective said there is a difference between shooting someone for no reason and shooting someone in self-defense or because the shooter fears for his life, according to the review.
Aines, the review added, said he needed to hear what was going through the teen’s head during the incident. As the teen tried to respond, the detective interrupted him to discuss the wealth of evidence about what took place at the store.
Aines also told the teen that some suspects have shot people because they had no other choice and those suspects can go home, the review said.
At one point, a detective who was designated as the teen’s “juvenile advocate” during the interrogation “inappropriately injected himself in the investigation” by providing the child a map to indicate where he ditched the gun, according to the review.
An Illinois law prohibits “deceptive tactics” by law-enforcement officers interrogating children in custody. 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.”
Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart told WBEZ this week that a video recording of the interrogation includes “statements of leniency” by police.
The law, which took effect Jan. 1, 2022, does not hold officers liable for such statements but renders the evidence inadmissible at trial.
A Waukegan Police Department policy also commits officers to enforcing “all laws, statutes and ordinances of the state of Illinois and the city of Waukegan.”
Aines, reached Thursday, declined to comment on the case.
Rinehart said even well-meaning officers “get false confessions because of the vulnerability of the juvenile.”
“We have a kid who is traumatized by the false arrest by the time that he’s in custody,” Rinehart said. “And there’s not always [so much evidence] of the alibi here. And so we have to have a culture change, where people understand that individuals are vulnerable to false confessions.”
The teen’s mother brought the lawsuit in February. The planned $200,000 payment settles her claims against the city, Aines and two other police officers.
The family’s attorney, Kevin O’Connor, said he is still negotiating with school district attorneys representing six other defendants in the suit.