|By Hal Dardick, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Feb. 3, 2007 - A high-profile case in which Will County authorities accused Joliet-area hotel owners of selling their customers' credit card numbers collapsed Friday, raising questions about the faith officials placed in an informant with a well-documented history of deception.
Saying the informant "was apparently compromised," prosecutors dropped identity theft and other charges against four hotel owners, the wife of another and a clerk. Charges against six other defendants previously had been dismissed.
It was the second collapse in as many years of a high-profile case that resulted from an investigation led by detectives working for Sheriff Paul Kaupas, who was easily re-elected five days after Operation Sleepover raids on seven hotels made national news.
In June 2005, charges were dropped against Kevin Fox in the slaying of his daughter, Riley, 3, who was abducted from her Wilmington home. A civil rights lawsuit filed by the Fox family names as a primary defendant one of two detectives who led Operation Sleepover.
The Operation Sleepover informant, identified by defense attorneys as Timothy A. Hecker, has a history of convictions for forgery, theft and deceptive practices. Defendants maintained from the start that Hecker, 37, of Joliet fabricated evidence against them, duping authorities in the process.
"He set up the law enforcers and our clients," said Daniel Purdom, an attorney for Holiday Inn owner John Seo, against whom charges were dropped.
Seo expressed his relief Friday. "I'm back in America," said the Korean immigrant who served in the U.S. military and became a citizen. "This should not have happened in America. It was really an insult to me, the hotel industry and America."
Seo filed a police report that led to Hecker's Aug. 7 arrest on an identity theft charge. Hecker, who remains in jail, allegedly used other people's credit card numbers to cover a $9,700 bill at the Holiday Inn while staying there for two months last summer.
Hecker "stole money from our hotel, and then he lied to law enforcers to try to get even with the hotel owners for reporting him to police," said Joe McMahon, another attorney for Seo.
As requested in the motion to dismiss, Circuit Judge Richard Schoenstedt transferred subpoenaed materials from Operation Sleepover to a civil case file. In that case, a judge earlier this year authorized a grand jury to name two investigators.
The transferred materials "will be relevant in cases involving charges against any individual or individuals who may have fabricated or participated in the fabrication of evidence related to this investigation," the motion states.
Hecker has been convicted five times since 1991 on felony charges of forgery and theft in Will, DuPage and Kankakee Counties. He served four prison sentences in connection with those cases.
But legal experts noted that informants often lack clean backgrounds.
"Generally, you need someone who is sleazy to work with sleaze," said defense attorney Richard Kling, a professor of clinical law at Chicago-Kent College of Law.
"You have to be ever-vigilant, because sometimes these guys go awry," he added. "You have to keep an awfully short leash on these guys."
In their motion, prosecutors said "the state's informant was apparently compromised, and this will render that informant's testimony either inadmissible or extremely suspect in a trial on the related cases."
Kaupas said the informant, who was monitored every step of the investigation, was compromised in the case against Mary Lynn, general manager at a Ramada Inn in Joliet. Prosecutors dropped charges against her last week.
A Ramada Inn security tape viewed by authorities after Lynn's arrest showed Hecker's former girlfriend, Karen Sunde, dropping off an envelope at the hotel in October. Lynn's alleged sale of credit card numbers to the informant occurred the day after Sunde was videotaped dropping off the envelope.
Sunde, a onetime Seo employee who in November publicly defended her former bosses, said she too was duped by Hecker, who wrote her letters from jail after Seo's complaint led to his arrest. "I am going to do whatever it takes to fix this--ruthless I will be," he wrote. "We are going to set them up."
The envelope Sunde dropped off at Hecker's request contained Holiday Inn scratch paper, with guests' credit card numbers on the back. The numbers had been used at the Holiday Inn but not at the Ramada Inn, said John Schrock, Lynn's attorney.
"I am sorry she was arrested," Kaupas said Friday, adding that the overall investigation, including FBI examination of computer records seized from the hotels, is continuing.
He said the timing of the raids had nothing to do with the election, noting his strong lead in internal polling. Kaupas said he decided to proceed because he feared the theft of credit card numbers used at hotels could be widespread.
Police said Hecker bought 150 credit card numbers during the three-month probe, and Hecker told them he purchased about 10,000 credit card numbers from one hotel and thousands from others during six years leading up to his arrest.
"Based on the information we had at the time, this was an incredibly significant issue for consumers everywhere," said State's Atty. James Glasgow, who took part in a news conference after the raids.
Officer also worked Fox case
In the Riley Fox slaying, Glasgow dropped the charges against Kevin Fox after DNA tests failed to link him to the crime. The family's lawsuit names as a defendant Sgt. Edward Hayes, a detectives' supervisor who also played a key role in Operation Sleepover.
The suit alleges Hayes told Fox he would be repeatedly sexually assaulted in jail unless he confessed. It also accuses Hayes of telling the FBI to discontinue DNA testing--lab work that was resumed under Glasgow, who inherited the case after defeating former Will State's Atty. Jeff Tomczak, and led to Fox's release.
Department policy prevented Hayes from commenting, but Kaupas defended him, saying he had confidence in the Operation Sleepover investigators. "That includes Sgt. Hayes," he said.
Copyright (c) 2007, Chicago Tribune
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