"Evil men prosper because good men do nothing"
[Officer Scott Jergenson: Federal trial of Sheriff John Buncich]
Retired Merrillville Indiana police officer Scott Jergenson was detrimental in the federal investigation and indictment of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.
During Sheriff Buncich's trial, Jergenson was asked why he cooperated with the FBI investigation of Buncich. Jergenson replied, "(An agent) told me evil men prosper because good men do nothing".
So, with that powerful quote in mind, I am going to hope and pray that somewhere out there in the town of Portage Indiana, that someone as honest and good as Officer Scott Jergenson exists - and that person will finally break the silence about the unlawful police entry into my home and the resulting deaths of Abbi and Bailey, because I dared to report the corruption in Porter County.
Lake County Sheriff Buncich not original focus of bribery investigation, feds say
August 11, 2017
A multi-year investigation culminated last November when FBI agents raided the office and home of Sheriff John Buncich, but Lake County's top cop wasn't the initial target when towing first piqued federal investigators' interest, according to courtroom testimony.
Federal authorities sought information on an alleged pay-to-play scheme, starting in 2012, but testimony presented in federal court this past week revealed Buncich was an unintentional target after investigators chased other leads.
FBI Special Agent Nathan Holbrook testified Tuesday that an investigation into the potential for corruption within municipal towing operations started when talking with Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson's Towing in Merrillville.
The FBI went to Jurgensen's tow yard in 2012 to find out who picked up an impounded truck in an unrelated case, Holbrook testified. An agent asked why Jurgensen didn't do more towing since he previously worked for Merrillville police.
Jurgensen told FBI agents his business suffered because he refused to bribe municipal officials to get towing territory.
"You don't pay, you're not going to tow," Jurgensen said.
The sheriff's public corruption trial began Monday in Hammond's federal court over allegations that Buncich accepted thousands of dollars in bribes for his campaign as part of an illegal towing scheme. The Lake County towing ordinance left sole discretion to the sheriff as to what companies got the contracts — a power federal prosecutors say was used to solicit bribes.
While Buncich has maintained his innocence, his two co-defendants, Timothy Downs, former Lake County chief of police, and William "Willie" Szarmach, owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station, pleaded guilty.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson presented the government's case in the first week of Buncich's trial, calling Downs and Szarmach to the stand and playing audio and video recordings made by informants going back to 2014.
Leading up to that first encounter in 2012, the FBI had not had done any investigations into municipal towing, Holbrook said, but the FBI asked if Jurgensen would wear a wire and cooperate in an investigation.
"I thought about it for a few days," Jurgensen testified, saying he was worried about his business and safety of his family.
Benson asked Jurgensen in court what convinced him to cooperate.
"(An agent) told me evil men prosper because good men do nothing," Jurgensen said.
The investigation began looking at a Merrillville official reportedly soliciting bribes, before looking at alleged bribes to a Schererville official. Neither were charged, federal court records show.
It was then, Holbrook said, that the investigation turned to Lake County.
Downs first approached Jurgensen, a longtime friend, in 2013, Holbrook said, and wanted to collect money for Buncich's campaign. Jurgensen said he thought the contributions could help him with getting more towing business.
In the early meetings in 2014, Jurgensen and Downs met at area restaurants, with Jurgensen giving Downs thousands of dollars in checks made out to Buncich's Boosters, the sheriff's political campaign, and the Lake County Central Democratic Committee, of which Buncich was chairman, Benson said.
Defense attorney Bryan Truitt asked Holbrook on Thursday if the FBI ever saw any red flags that Downs kept the money for himself.
"No," Holbrook said.
As the meetings continued every couple of months, Jurgensen and Szarmach gave Downs thousands of dollars in checks along with hundreds of dollars in cash, according to exhibits Benson presented in court.
On June 3, 2015, FBI agents staked out at a meeting between Szarmach, Jurgensen, Downs and another sheriff's department employee, who was not charged in the case.
By that time, the FBI was trying to decide whether to approach Downs to cooperate, Holbrook said, but if he didn't agree, that could blow the undercover investigation.
"It was a risk," Holbrook said, during cross examination Friday. Holbrook said the more people who knew about the investigation, the riskier it became.
After the meeting, the FBI stopped Downs in his sheriff's department-issued car. Agents took Downs back to the FBI's Merrillville office, and Downs agreed to wear a wire, Holbrook said.
Downs started recording his trips to collect thousands of dollars from Szarmach and another Lake County tow operator not charged in the case, Holbrook said.
"I will get this over to the sheriff," Downs said in the recording of Szarmach.
On July 15, 2015, Downs filmed himself walking into the sheriff's department and the sheriff's office, handing Buncich $7,500 in cash, which the sheriff took and put in his desk drawer, Benson said.
By 2016, Jurgensen started meeting with Buncich directly, according to prosecutors. At an April 2016 meeting between the sheriff, Jurgensen and Szarmach at a Merrillville restaurant Buncich accepted thousands of dollars from the tow operators before going inside to eat, Benson said.
The meetings continued in 2016 until the FBI raid at the Lake County Government Center in November and the three were indicted, prosecutors said.
When questioning the government's witnesses, the defense argued that Buncich and Downs did not directly say that if the towers didn't pay money, they would be kicked off the county's tow list.
"Did ( Buncich ) tell you give me X amount of dollars and you will tow for me?" asked Larry Rogers, Buncich's other defense attorney.
"No," Szarmach said.
"John Buncich never promised you anything, did he?" Rogers said.
"No," Szarmach said.
Benson asked Szarmach, "Did (Buncich) ever say Willie, you can't be doing this?"
"No," Szarmach said.
Buncich's trial resumes Monday for its second week. The defense is expected to begin presenting evidence early in the week.