A Cook County judge has acquitted a former Elmwood Park police sergeant of charges that he financially exploited a dementia-stricken elderly man for $20,000.
Cook County Associate Judge Joseph Michael Claps’ ruling came last week for defendant John Wasilenko, who stood accused of taking the money in December 2012 after previously responding to a theft call for then-84-year-old Angelo Ditore, who has since died.
In October 2012, Wasilenko and another officer responded to a complaint from Ditore that someone had broken into and stolen money from his home. Ditore — who was suffering from dementia at the time — lived alone and kept considerable amounts of cash in his home largely because he was an area landlord, said Ralph E. Meczyk, owner of Ralph E. Meczyk & Associates who represented Wasilenko.
The officers interviewed Ditore’s neighbors, cautioned him about leaving his money in the open and requested that nearby banks at which he held accounts deter him from withdrawing large amounts of cash. But that wasn’t the last time Wasilenko saw Ditore, Meczyk said, as the officer had since befriended him and helped him run errands.
“He was a good police officer, but he had a big heart and felt bad for (Ditore),” he said. “He’s not a caregiver, certainly, but he does in fact visit (Ditore) from time to time and make appointments for physicians and takes him to them.”
Two months later, Wasilenko deposited a check dated Dec. 4, 2012, and signed by Ditore into his personal bank account. Ditore wrote the check to compensate Wasilenko for his errand help, Meczyk said.
But two weeks later, Ditore visited the First National Bank of Brookfield, where he was a frequent customer, complaining that a $20,000 check cleared his account despite never writing, signing or giving anyone else authority to issue it.
The bank then notified Wasilenko’s personal bank about the alleged forgery, and it froze his account.
Wasilenko tried to explain his situation to officials at Ditore’s bank the following day after learning his account had been frozen. He explained that he did favors for Ditore as a “sort of caregiver” and that Ditore’s check was a gift, but the officials grew concerned and contacted Brookfield police to conduct an investigation.
He returned the money to Ditore shortly after the incident, Meczyk said.
In January 2014, Wasilenko was arrested and charged with four counts of financial exploitation of an elderly person or a person with a disability, two counts of theft, two counts of forgery and three counts of official misconduct. He was placed on administrative leave following his arrest but resigned from the department that September.
Meczyk said part of the state’s case revolved around the theory that Ditore’s dementia was so severe that he didn’t have the capacity to make a gift or enter into any financial transactions. He said he fought that theory by highlighting instances — such as an interview with the Cook County public guardian’s office and encounters with renters — where Ditore was of sound mind when it was most important.
“His house was in disarray, but the light went on, so he’s paying his bills,” he said. “He’s forgetful, yet he knows about eviction. There were times where he was lucid and sometimes not as lucid.”
However, Meczyk said the state’s case against his client “falls between the cracks” because the conduct for which he was charged didn’t rise to the level of official misconduct.
While the state argued Wasilenko breached a fiduciary duty established between him and Ditore, Meczyk said he argued such a relationship didn’t exist between the two because of police officers’ legal ability to lie to and adversely advise people as a means to an end.
“They didn’t show any undue influence. They didn’t show one bit of proof,” Meczyk said. “His conduct may not have been laudatory, but it certainly was not predatory.”
Cook County Assistant State’s Attorneys Lynn McCarthy and Clarissa Palermo represented the state. A spokesperson from the state’s attorney’s office declined to comment.
While it was pleasing to receive a favorable ruling for his client on Friday, Meczyk said, Wasilenko is just relieved that the process is over.
“His reputation is irreparably damaged by just being charged,” Meczyk said. “He doesn’t have this job and so he has to pick up the pieces, so to speak.”
The case is People v. John Wasilenko, 14CR-2492.