In 1984, two Oak Park police officers, both on the short list to become sergeants, independently turned up at the door of Keith Bergstrom, the police chief. Each brought allegations that they had observed Oak Park detectives stealing from the homes of homicide victims.
Stunning in a town with a police department that was not without challenges but which was assumed to be clean. The two officers, Patrick Kelly and Ron Surmin, became permanently linked in the months that followed as Bergstrom, new to the department and seen as a full blown “egghead” in a still blue-collar department, went straight to the Illinois Department of Law Enforcement and asked it to lead an investigation.
Kelly and Surmin cooperated fully and for a time their identities as whistleblowers were protected. However, as the pair laid out in a lawsuit filed against the village and a raft of top officers in the department, pressure within the department to out the turncoats was intense and the chatter was vicious. Threats to the health of the whistleblowers were heard in the halls of the department, declarations that they would not have backup in critical moments was shared. Eventually a sting operation in a room at the Carleton Hotel, planned by state investigators, was compromised. And then a state report, including the identities of Kelly and Surmin, was leaked within the department.
The eventual settlement of the suit, which by that time had narrowed to just Kelly and Surmin vs. the village government, included this line of legalese: The Defendant Village of Oak Park stipulates these allegations will be assumed to have occurred and that such occurrences have occasioned damages to the Plaintiffs by virtue of the denial of their constitutional rights and because of emotional pain and suffering.”
By now both Kelly and Surmin were on medical leave and the settlement allowed their resignations and an agreement they could collect pensions starting when they turned 50.
And that brings all this back to the present and our front page story that a new lawsuit has been filed against the village government, this time by the second wife and widow of Pat Kelly. Kelly died in 2017 and, under the provisions of the 1987 agreement, the village began to pay a $30,000 annual pension to Kelly’s widow, Kimellen Chamberlain, an assistant state’s attorney with Cook County. Those payments were made for two years before Carol Kelly, the first wife and a retired Cook County judge, wrote the village’s attorney and argued the pension payments should be hers.
For its part the village attorney won’t comment except to say that the village made no pension payment in 2020. The suit will play out, a resolution will be accomplished.
This hails back to the early years of Wednesday Journal and for us this was a major story that we told pretty much week by week. That we had a pipeline into the department was clear and did nothing to improve our relationship with the rank-and-file.
Looking back, the gradual, painful resolution of these allegations was the start of a turn within the department. As deeply unpopular as the multi-degreed Bergstrom was, he was the outsider brought in to begin reforms, and the corruption charges only accelerated the process. A department that had doubled in size only a decade earlier as Oak Park faced integration was stuck with a young force of high school graduates not built for diversity or community policing. Those repercussions were lasting and eased ultimately with the eventual retirements of that era’s officers. There were exceptional officers in that group, too, of course.
Bergstrom got bounced in fairly short order and became a chief in Florida where he promptly hired Surmin. Bergstrom died young and I lost track of both Surmin and Kelly.
It was a charged moment in Oak Park and the emergence of this pension fight makes it a good moment to remember.
Donna Carroll’s exit interview
Donna Carroll, longtime president of Dominican University, is retiring mid-June. Spent an hour with her last week for a recorded interview, which we’ve just posted.
In this interview you will find her candid on many topics — funny, proud and humble. In our editorial when her retirement was announced we called her a “consequential leader.” Tune in and you’ll understand why.