'Wild Bill,' OP's headline-grabbing top cop, dead in Newark of all places

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It is not nice to speak ill of the dead. 

So skip to page 5. 

William R. Kohnke is dead. "Wild Bill Kohnke," we usually called him in headlines. Used to be the chief of police in Oak Park. He was police chief in several places before he landed in Oak Park in the 1980s. He was police chief in many more places after he was booted out of Oak Park, a couple of years later, by a village manager as ticked off as any I've seen.

Bill Kohnke had that effect on people. Charming, arrogant, bright, stupid. He made good copy when he drove a police motorcycle into the Des Plaines River while chasing a suspect through a Forest Park cemetery. He raised my looney-meter when he told me in lascivious detail how much he loved Russian women while we stood around sipping white wine at the grand opening of Dominick's.

Mainly, though, he made a spectacle of himself when he ditched the wife he'd come to town with to take up with Village Trustee Patty Andrews. It was mutual spectacle-making, actually, with Andrews, among the first independently elected trustees in village history, vaporizing her credibility through her liaison with Kohnke. It got more sordid, though, as the paper prepared to report that Kohnke was using his chiefly powers to regularly send Andrews' husband (yes, he was a sergeant on the force) out of town to extended training sessions.

We called the village manager, a sweet guy and a gentleman, named Neil Nielsen, for a comment on our blockbuster. "Dan," he said, "give me 30 minutes and I'll have them both in your office, and we'll clear this whole thing up."

The trio arrived. Kohnke and Andrews were like gooney kids in heat, giggling and admitting or denying nothing. Truly a strange encounter. It ended with Andrews skipping down our front steps singing "The Good Ship Lollipop." Nielsen called me 30 minutes later and said, "print anything you want." Not long after, Nielsen fired him, Kohnke and Andrews decamped for a police chief's job in Greenwood Village, Colorado. Several other posts followed.

He died suddenly in Newark, N.J. on Dec. 22, according to the obit faxed anonymously to us from village hall on Monday. He had lived the past 10 years in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the obit said. Eight years ago, according to Law Enforcement News, Kohnke left the top spot in Bristol, Conn., to move to Pompano Beach, Fla., because it was three times the size. The trade magazine reported that Kohnke "likes to create new programs and policies and implement them." Translation: "I have the attention span of a toddler."

Having, presumably, lost the Pompano Beach gig, the obit said he was something called a "law enforcement advisor" for Dyncorp International. As recently as 2003, though, he was a finalist for a chief post in Algonac, Mich., a town of 4,600 with a police force of seven. He didn't get it.

Sometimes I wonder if my view of Kohnke is too jaundiced. So I went back in our archives to an interview in 1999 with Joe Mendrick, the long-time Oak Park cop chosen by Nielsen to put the department back together after Kohnke's sensational implosion. He was tougher on the guy than I am.

"He was very difficult," Mendrick said. "When he came in and spoke to me, he said, 'I'm here for a couple of years. I'm a gunslinger. I'm going to do what I have to do, and then they'll get rid of me. That's my history. That's the way it is.'

"He didn't care if he walked on anything or anybody in the process or who got hurt. He had no compassion, no understanding, no loyalty or friendship to any of the people here. He was a very rigid individual."

Mendrick went on to talk about Kohnke's fetish for Russians and the Harley and "blouse pants and sunglasses" that he had the department buy him. But what kind of talk is that for the man's final tribute in the local paper?

Let me close by noting that in the obit we received, it reported that he was the "beloved husband of Christine."  So either Patty Andrews changed her name to Christine under some federal program or she was left behind in Colorado, Connecticut or Florida. Too bad. The pair of them made good headlines together.

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Posted: January 15th, 2014 6:39 AM

I can't speak to his work as a police chief, but he was assistant football coach to my freshman team when he was Villa Park chief and I credit him with instilling in me self-confidence and discipline. He had a huge influence on my life despite the very short time we interacted.

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