Drew Peterson soon could find himself fighting to keep his pension, as an investigator hired by the Bolingbrook Police Pension Fund has found there’s enough evidence to begin forfeiture proceedings against the retired sergeant.
Attorney Charles Atwell forwarded his decision after a nine-month review that included examining court transcripts and other records to determine whether Peterson’s murder conviction meant he should be stripped of his pension. In a brief letter sent to village officials the earlier this month, Atwell said state statutes would support holding a hearing to consider terminating the benefit.
Under Illinois law, the board could revoke Peterson’s $79,000-a-year pension if it finds he used his law-enforcement powers or skills to drown his third wife, Kathleen Savio, in 2004.
“By reason of the aforesaid felony conviction, I believe there exists sufficient evidence, upon which the Board may proceed to conduct a hearing to consider termination of Peterson’s pension benefits,” Atwell wrote in the letter, which the Tribune obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Atwell’s findings mark an ironic turn in the high-profile case, given that prosecutors argued that Peterson killed Savio partially because he did not want to share his pension with her. They also come as welcome news to Savio’s sister, Sue, who believes Peterson has long held himself above the law.
“As a police officer, you’re supposed to serve and protect. He didn’t protect,” Sue Savio said. “He used his law-enforcement skills and knowledge to go out and murder my sister. If you do the crime, you should pay the full price. There shouldn’t be any exceptions.”
Peterson’s pension, however, cannot be stripped without a public hearing at which he could call witnesses and board members would act almost like jurors. He has a right to attend the proceedings, too, which could create a logistical nightmare for village officials.
The hearing cannot be held at Menard Correctional Center – the maximum-security facility where he’s currently being held – because it would violate state laws that require such proceedings to held in an open forum. It’s also unlikely a court would force the Illinois Department of Corrections to transport Peterson to Bolingbrook for a pension board meeting, board attorney Richard Reimer said.
“If the board decides to move forward, there would be a lot of issues that need to be figured out,” Reimer said.
Peterson, 60, retired in November 2007 while under investigation for Savio’s death and the disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy. He has not been charged with Stacy’s vanishing, but he remains the only suspect.
A Will County jury convicted him of Savio’s murder in September 2012, after a seven-week trial that made national headlines. He was subsequently sentenced to 38 years in prison.
Bolingbrook’s five-member pension board – which contains three current or former officers who worked with Peterson – still must decide whether it wants to bring proceedings against him. The trustees are slated to meet next in April, but they most likely will hold a special meeting before that time to discuss the Peterson issue, board attorney Richard Reimer said.
Proving a direct connection between Savio’s death and Peterson’s municipal employment won’t be easy, experts have said.
Will County prosecutors were never able to pinpoint an exact time of death in the largely circumstantial case, but the evidence suggested that Savio drowned when Peterson was off-duty. They also could not prove the events leading up to her drowning, which could make it difficult to determine whether he used police training or know-how to commit the murder.
Other pension boards have faced such situations after high-profile convictions, only to find themselves unable to revoke the retirement. For example, disgraced former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge — who was fired in 1993 after years of allegations of police torture under his watch — still receives his $3,000-a-month pension check despite a felony conviction for lying about interrogation techniques.
There are instances in which Illinois pension boards have determined that the skills that public servants develop on the job facilitated off-the-clock criminal behavior. In 2011, for example, a state appellate court upheld the city of Chicago’s decision to strip a firefighter of his pension after he was convicted of committing multiple arsons. Although they occurred when he was off-duty, the court found that the firefighter had “specialized knowledge” gained from his department experience and training that helped him ignite the fires.
Though authorities believe Peterson was off-duty when he killed Savio, he was on the clock when he helped neighbors discover her body and when he was questioned by investigators. Prosecutors also suggested that his training as a crime scene evidence technician allowed him to stage the death to make it look like an accident.
None of those things will be enough to take his retirement away, his attorney Steve Greenberg said.
“There is absolutely no basis in law or fact (to strip his pension),” Greenberg said. “This is simply the flavor de jour to pile on Drew. At some point, I hope, they will start applying the same laws that apply to everyone else to Drew Peterson, and make it a fair fight.”
Peterson’s retirement checks currently are being used to care for his two young children, both of whom are still in grade school, his attorneys said. Stephen Peterson, one of the former officer’s sons from his first marriage, has been taking care of his half-siblings since his father’s arrest in May 2009.
Peterson formally appealed his conviction earlier this month, arguing that mistakes by both the judge and his former lead defense attorney denied him a fair trial.
By Stacy St. Clair Tribune reporter
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