Hoping to prevent bungled police probes and prosecutions like those that have plagued Illinois' legal system, state lawmakers mandated the creation of a class to certify officers as "lead homicide investigators."
But one of the teams being paid tax dollars to teach the five-day course consists of two law-enforcement figures who were involved in — and sometimes central to — a spate of collapsing prosecutions in Lake County, including high-profile cases that disintegrated in the face of contradictory evidence.
In December, appeals judges called out former Waukegan Detective Lou Tessmann by name as they ordered the release of Juan Rivera after almost 20 years in prison. The judges questioned Tessmann's interrogation tactics and the believability of the confession he took from Rivera in the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl.
The other trainer, Jeffrey Pavletic, has spent 15 years as second-in-command in the Lake County state's attorney's office, an agency battered by recent legal losses in cases where defendants were pursued for years after DNA seemed to suggest their innocence.
Pavletic prosecuted Rivera and handled pretrial hearings for Jerry Hobbs, who was released in 2010 after evidence pointed toward another man in the stabbing deaths of two Zion girls. Like Rivera, Hobbs had confessed after a grueling interrogation that prosecutors defended as legally sound.
Pavletic also tried another man, James Edwards, whose guilt has been called into question by DNA.
The legal and financial fallout from these cases promises to trouble Lake County for years, and critics of its judicial system said they were disturbed to learn that officers around the state are being taught by two of the county's key law enforcement figures — at taxpayer expense.
Proper police training could help stem the flow of false confessions and wrongful convictions revealed in the last 25 years by advancing DNA technology, experts said. Steven Drizin, legal director of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, said he fears Lake County's approach to investigations, interrogations and prosecutions could be transmitted "like a virus."
"Are they spreading the wrong lessons throughout the state?" he asked.
Legislators who pushed the certification law, which took effect Jan. 1, questioned the vetting process for instructors. Sen. William Haine, the former Madison County state's attorney, was "shocked" when told by the Tribune that the men taught the course in a nearby county in December.
"I'm at a loss as to why they went up to Chicago to get (instructors with) more baggage than a Greyhound bus when they have diamonds right there in their own backyard," he said.
Pavletic declined to comment. But the lawyer defending him against Hobbs' civil lawsuit, James Sotos, called his client an "extremely ethical and diligent prosecutor."
Tessmann declined to comment.
David Zulawski, chairman of Wicklander-Zulawski & Assocs., the firm that hires out Tessmann and Pavletic for state-sponsored courses, expressed confidence in the men and questioned Rivera's innocence.
"I don't have any doubts about their integrity at all," Zulawski said. "If I did have doubts, they wouldn't work for me."
Cashing in on courses
Although the lead homicide investigator certification class is new, Tessmann and Pavletic have been teaching similar ones for years. Taxpayers have paid nearly $300,000 for courses involving one or both men since 2007, a Tribune investigation has found.
They aren't the only Lake County law enforcement figures who teach police. The Tribune revealed in 2010 that Waukegan Officer Domenic Cappelluti — who helped obtain confessions from Hobbs and another murder suspect who was later cleared — teaches investigation and interrogation through a private firm.
Newly obtained documents show public agencies statewide have paid about $158,000 for classes involving Cappelluti since 2007.
In Illinois, much of the training that police receive comes through 16 regional organizations affiliated with the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board. The local agencies are almost entirely responsible for selecting and evaluating instructors, state training board officials said, and often hire private firms such as Wicklander-Zulawski.
The firm advertises Tessmann and Pavletic as seasoned professionals from the elite ranks of law enforcement.
Tessmann, a decorated Vietnam veteran, spent 21 years as a police officer, led the county's Major Crimes Task Force and served as Waukegan's deputy police chief. He retired in 2005.
Pavletic has been in the state's attorney's office since 1984 and has worked on about 150 jury trials, according to online promotional materials.
From 2007 to 2011, before the advent of the lead homicide investigator certification, agencies across the state already had paid Wicklander-Zulawski $267,450 total for training sessions involving Tessmann, Pavletic or both, according to records provided to the Tribune.
State Sen. John Millner, R-Carol Stream, pushed for the law, passed in 2010, that mandated the lead homicide investigator training program. A former Elmhurst police chief and police trainer himself, Millner was alarmed by headlines exposing botched investigations and worried that some detectives were "flying by the seat of their pants."
The certification is not mandatory, but police forces across the state appear to value it. As of mid-March, about 2,500 officers had either taken the classes or were certified based on past training and experience, said Larry Smith, deputy director of the state board.
Wicklander-Zulawski is one of three firms teaching the course. Pavletic and Tessmann had taught the class twice as of January.
The men tackle separate sections, with Pavletic teaching about Miranda rights, search warrants, interrogation, report-writing and testifying, according to a teaching outline shared by Pavletic's lawyer. Tessmann, meanwhile, focuses on crime scene investigation and suspect interrogation, said a detective who took the class.
Though it is not required by the state's curriculum, Zulawski said any class offered through his company would cover the possibility of false confessions. Through his lawyer, Pavletic said risk factors and warning sings of false confessions are discussed.
Two officers who participated gave their teachers positive reviews.
They "had a deep commitment to what we do as police officers, and it came through in the training," said Carbondale Sgt. Anthony Williams.
Though Tessmann and Pavletic have been associated with flawed cases, training officials noted that mistakes happen to everyone in law enforcement.
"A lot of people have something in their history that they're not proud of," said Kevin McClain, executive director of the Training and Standards Board.
But the problems with the cases Tessmann and Pavletic worked go beyond simple mistakes, experts on false confessions and wrongful convictions said.
"Its almost like the Lake County criminal justice system should be in receivership," said Richard Leo, a University of San Francisco law professor who studies false confessions.
Tessmann's record on interrogations is highlighted on the Wicklander-Zulawski website, where his bio touts that he has "obtained over 80 homicide confessions during his career with only three instances where he was unable to obtain a confession from the homicide suspect."
Defense lawyers and experts find that claim unsettling.
"Unless he is making near-perfect clinical judgments (of a suspect's guilt) … that is a confession rate that should be a source of concern," said Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Tessmann's most famous interrogation involved Rivera, who was questioned two months after 11-year-old Holly Staker was raped and stabbed to death in Waukegan in 1992.
Then 19, Rivera confessed after polygraph testing and an interrogation that stretched across four days. After twice being convicted, Rivera was granted a third trial in 2009 based on DNA evidence showing another man's semen was in Holly's body.
Prosecutors sought to explain the evidence by saying the girl had sex with another man around the time of her killing, and the confession was essential to the case. Authorities maintained Rivera gave details only the killer could know.
Rivera's lawyers argued that Tessmann's sworn testimony as to how Rivera confessed was "difficult to take seriously." They sought to convince jurors that Tessmann had supplied the details in a confession the detective himself had typed for the suspect to sign.
Jurors again found him guilty. But last December, appeals judges reversed that, writing in a withering opinion that "no rational trier of fact" could have found him guilty.
The judges noted that Tessmann and another officer acknowledged they might have asked Rivera leading questions, and the judges wrote that the evidence did not "inspire belief in the defendant's candid acknowledgment of guilt." Rivera was freed after 20 years in prison.
The Rivera trial was not the first time Tessmann's account of an investigation had been questioned.
In 1990, a 19-year-old Lombard man was charged with robbing a woman at knifepoint after Tessmann told a grand jury the victim had identified the man in a photo lineup, according to court records. But those charges were quickly dropped when another man admitted to the crime.
The Lombard man sued Tessmann and Waukegan, and the witness said in a deposition she had told the detective something very different about the lineup. She said she told Tessmann, "This is the guy who looks the closest, but it's not him," according to a transcript.
Jurors awarded the man a $71,500 judgment against Tessmann, which Waukegan paid, according to a city attorney.
As to Tessmann's educational credentials, online biographies published by Wicklander-Zulawski raise more questions than they answer.
Until 2004, Tessmann's bio on the site said he graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1974, but the schools in the state's university system reported he had not graduated from their institutions.
During Pavletic's 15 years as chief deputy prosecutor, two cases have been dismantled by DNA, and two more remain in question. He tried or handled pretrial activities for three of the four cases.
At two trials in the 1990s, Pavletic worked to convince jurors that a confession outweighed other evidence. He personally prosecuted the first Rivera trial. The other was that of James Edwards, whose conviction in the 1994 killing of Fred Reckling in Waukegan has been cast into doubt by blood evidence linking another felon to the scene.
Then in 2005, Pavletic was called to help handle the case against Hobbs, who was charged with the heinous stabbing deaths of his daughter Laura, 8, and her friend Krystal Tobias, 9, in a Zion park.
A recent transplant from Texas with a long record and little education, Hobbs had confessed at the end of intermittent questioning that lasted about 24 hours.
By August 2007, defense lawyers had learned semen found in Laura Hobbs' body didn't match that of her father.
Pavletic was in court in 2008 when then-Assistant State's Attorney Michael Mermel told a judge the semen didn't indicate Hobbs' innocence, according to a transcript. Couples sometimes had sex in the woods, Mermel said, and the girl could have touched some semen and then wiped herself.
Almost three years after the DNA mismatch was revealed — and after Hobbs had spent nearly five years in jail — the FBI's DNA database revealed a link between the semen and former Marine Jorge Torrez, a Zion native and close friend of Krystal Tobias' brother, according to court records. Pavletic appeared in court to drop the charges against Hobbs in 2010.
While Hobbs was jailed, prosecutors in Virginia allege, Torrez killed a Navy petty officer in her barracks. He faces trial in that case and is already serving five life sentences for attacks on women in Virginia.
The cases of Hobbs and Rivera could be used to show police and prosecutors how not to try to solve a murder, experts said, from the long, aggressive interrogations of the suspects to prosecutors' unwillingness to change course in the face of forensic evidence.
Although it's unclear exactly what Pavletic and Tessmann are teaching, Williams, the Carbondale sergeant who took the class, recalled one thing the former detective discussed — the Rivera case.
The retired detective told his pupils that Juan Rivera gave details of the crime only the killer could have known, Williams said.
On the last day of that downstate training in December, the appeals court disagreed.
A few weeks later, Rivera walked free. The Staker killing remains unsolved.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times