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Thursday, June 7, 2012 06:34 am

Crumbling cases

Charges dismissed after a top DUI cop takes the fifth – again

A second drunken driving case involving former Jerome police officer Steven Stirmell has been dismissed after the officer refused to testify, invoking his Fifth Amendment privilege because he is under criminal investigation.

Meanwhile, the investigation into Stirmell by the Sangamon County state’s attorney and the state attorney general has spread from Jerome to Divernon, which employed Stirmell as a police officer before he was hired in 2009 by Jerome, where his father is mayor and, until recently, oversaw the police department.

Authorities have not said why Stirmell is under investigation. But Sangamon County assistant state’s attorney Michael Varlotta said that more than a dozen cases might have to be dismissed because Stirmell, on advice of counsel, is refusing to testify on the grounds that he might incriminate himself.

Stirmell has already refused to testify at least twice, once at a May 18 hearing in which Kathleen Vehovic of Jerome won back her driver’s license, which had been automatically suspended because she refused to submit to a breath test when Stirmell arrested her in March. More recently, Sangamon County Associate Judge John Madonia on May 31 dismissed a DUI case against Damien M. Norris at Varlotta’s request. A Sangamon County sheriff’s deputy arrested Norris in August, according to court files, but Stirmell administered a breath test that showed a blood-alcohol content of .084 percent, barely above the legal limit of .08 percent.

“Because of Officer Stirmell’s decision to assert his Fifth Amendment privilege, I can’t ethically proceed prosecuting this case,” Varlotta told the judge.

Stirmell was one of 25 officers from throughout the state honored last fall by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which gives awards to officers who rank highest in DUI arrests. At the time, department officials said that Stirmell had more than 100 DUI arrests in three years.

Now, an untold number may fall apart because Stirmell won’t testify.

“No one in law enforcement, whether that be the state’s attorney’s office, the attorney general’s office and other agencies that are rumored to be involved in this investigation, nobody has told me what the nature of the investigation is,” said Dan Fultz, Stirmell’s lawyer. “I’m very reluctant to put the guy on the stand when I don’t know what he’s being investigated for.”

Stirmell, who had been on administrative leave, was recently laid off in a planned personnel move made before the investigation began, Fultz said.

Investigators are looking into Stirmell’s conduct while he was a Divernon police officer. Divernon police chief Barclay Harris confirmed that investigators have contacted his department within the past two weeks, but he declined to provide details.

“With it being an ongoing investigation, I’ll just leave it up to the state attorney general’s office,” Harris said.

Divernon hired Stirmell on Sept. 11, 2007, less than two weeks after he was dismissed from the Sangamon County sheriff’s auxiliary unit, apparently for impersonating a law enforcement officer. Auxiliary deputies have all the power of sworn deputies, but only when they are in the presence of full-fledged deputies.

It’s not clear how Stirmell became a police officer despite his dismissal from the auxiliary unit. Harris, who became police chief in Divernon after Stirmell left the force in 2009 to become a Jerome officer, said that he wasn’t familiar with the circumstances surrounding Stirmell’s hiring.

Jerome Mayor Harry Stirmell, Steven Stirmell’s father, recently ceded control of the village police department while his son is under investigation. He has told Illinois Times that he didn’t know why his son left the sheriff’s auxiliary before becoming a police officer

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.
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