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Thursday, May 24, 2012 07:20 am

Taking the fifth

An officer under investigation refuses to testify

A Jerome police officer under investigation by the state’s attorney and attorney general last week invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify in court. During that proceeding a motorist he arrested in March won back her driver’s license after being arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.

After being sworn and providing his name, Steven Stirmell, the son of Jerome mayor Harry Stirmell, refused to say anything else, including whether he had even stopped Kathleen Vehovic, who is the daughter of Todd Renfrow, former head of City Water, Light and Power as well as former chairman of the Sangamon County Democratic Party. Sangamon County Associate Judge Chris Perrin subsequently rescinded a suspension of Vehovic’s driver’s license imposed because she refused to submit to a breath test that produces results admissible in court.

A portable breath test, which is deemed not accurate enough to be considered as evidence in DUI trials, showed that Vehovic, 58, had a blood-alcohol content of .156 percent, which is nearly twice the legal limit of .08, according to Steven Stirmell’s written report. The officer stopped Vehovic at 11:47 p.m. on March 16 because she was driving without headlights, according to Stirmell’s report.

Vehovic on Friday testified that she had two cans of beer and a glass of wine in the space of four hours before she was stopped.

Charges of DUI remain pending, but Tim Timoney, Vehovic’s lawyer, said he was “confident after the hearty.”

Once a police officer invokes the Fifth Amendment, his credibility could be questioned in other cases, according to Jon Gray Noll, a Springfield criminal defense attorney.

“It’s like an oil spill, honestly,” Noll said.

Steven Stirmell is on administrative leave and under investigation by the Sangamon County state’s attorney’s office and the state attorney general. Neither agency will disclose any details of the probe. Dan Fultz, Steven Stirmell’s lawyer, said that his client invoked the Fifth Amendment because he is the target of a criminal investigation. If Stirmell were to testify under oath now, before authorities have said why the officer has fallen under suspicion, he could lose the right to invoke the Fifth Amendment in future proceedings, Fultz said.

“At this point, we’ve been given no information about the nature of the investigation,” Fultz said.

Steven Stirmell was hired in 2009 while his father was in charge of the police department. Village trustee Sharon McConnell, who was elected a year ago, said the position was newly created, and she has heard from residents who do not believe that it is appropriate for the mayor to oversee a department where his son works.

“I’m very concerned,” McConnell says. “That has been a concern of the people of the village before I ran. … Number one on the top of the list (of voter concerns) was Harry in charge of the police when he had a son on the police force.”

Two years before he was hired as a Jerome officer, Steven Stirmell was removed from the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Office auxiliary patrol.

Unpaid auxiliary officers have all the power of deputies so long as they are in the presence of deputies and have completed required training. Sources said that officials were concerned that Steven Stirmell had been impersonating a full-fledged deputy without authorization. Two letters from sheriff’s officials make it clear that Stirmell’s departure was not voluntary.

“As a result of recent incidents that you were involved in, effective today, August 31, 2007, you are removed from the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Auxiliary,” Deputy Staci Buecker wrote in a letter to Steven Stirmell.

Chief Deputy Jack Campbell, who was then a captain, followed up with a letter written to Steven Stirmell the same day.

“This letter is to follow up with further instructions,” Campbell wrote. “Effective immediately you are to cease and desist unauthorized use of any image or any transmission which represents you as an employee or of any affiliation with the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Office. … If you continue with any unauthorized use of the sheriff’s office image, I would remind you of (statutes prohibiting false impersonation of peace officers).”

In an interview, Harry Stirmell said that he had known that his son was once in the sheriff’s auxiliary unit but was not aware of the circumstances surrounding his departure.

McConnell said that any police department that hires an officer who had a prior affiliation with a law enforcement agency should know why the person left the prior position.

McConnell, who criticizes Harry Stirmell for wielding too much power in the village, seconded a motion at the May 17 village board meeting to remove the mayor from his position as commissioner of public safety overseeing the police department. The motion wasn’t voted on after Harry Stirmell and village attorney Herman Bodewes said that trustee Sue Dennis is now in charge of police. That came as news to McConnell and at least two other board members, who said that they hadn’t been notified that the mayor is no longer in charge of police.

When the transfer of power took place isn’t clear. On May 10, the mayor told Illinois Times that he was village police commissioner.

McConnell said she believes that the mayor should resign his office.

“I can’t imagine how this board is ever going to go forward,” McConnell said. “If he does not resign, he is going to have a very hard time.”  

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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