Constable: Retiring chief went from victim to mall cop to lead investigator on Gliniewicz case
Born on the West German side of the Iron Curtain to parents who met after their time at Nazi labor camps during World War II, George Filenko honed his police instincts growing up in a tough Chicago neighborhood.
"I actually saw my first homicide when I was 9 or 10," says Filenko, who worked on 200 homicides during his years with the Lake County Major Crime Task Force, where he rose to commander. "It was a drive-by. Everybody knew what was happening, so we scrambled."
Two guys on a porch a couple of houses away were shot in an apparent gang crime. One made it to the hospital, the other made it to the appropriately named gangway, where he died. Shootings, Molotov cocktails, and the growing influence of gangs made his Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago a dicey place for a kid who would grow up to be a police officer.
"I was sort of leaning toward the other side just because of the people I hung out with," Filenko admits. He stepped down this month as chief of police in Round Lake Park because of the mandatory retirement age of 65, after a career that saw him lead investigations of infamous crimes including the death of Fox Lake police Lt. Joe Gliniewicz in 2015 in a suicide staged to look like murder.
The summer before his freshman year of high school, Filenko was waiting to catch a bus to visit his dad, who was working as a janitor at the Merchandise Mart. Filenko figures a couple of gang members came up behind him and hit him in the head with a baseball bat. They beat him so severely that the Chicago police officers who found him in a pool of blood rushed him to the hospital in their squad car because they couldn't wait for an ambulance.
"They told my parents they thought I was dead," says Filenko, an only child, who suffered broken ribs, nose, jaw and other bones in his face.
"I had a full head cast that summer, and we had no air-conditioning," remembers Filenko, who underwent extensive plastic surgery and suffered damage to his vision. His parents understood the danger.
His father, Aleks, was born in Ukraine, and his mother, Sophia, was from Poland. During World War II, the Nazis shipped Aleks to labor camps, including a stint working coal mines in Belgium, where he developed black lung disease. Then he was sent to German cities that were being firebombed, "where his job was to retrieve corpses," Filenko says.
"My dad always said she had it tougher," Filenko says, noting his mother wouldn't talk about her war experience, except to say that potato chips given to her by American soldiers were the best food she ever ate. His parents met at a displaced persons camp after being liberated by the Americans.
When Filenko was 4, he and his dad flew to New York and found a home in Chicago. His mother came the following year. Churches, such as St. Sophia's Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago, were central to immigrant communities. His family eventually settled in a three-flat, where his family lived on the top floor above his grandparents and his grandfather made moonshine in the garden apartment. Curfew was when the streetlights came on.
A police officer neighbor would come home for his daily lunch of a baloney sandwich and a Schlitz beer and tell Filenko stories. He also gave the boy "hot sheets" with the most wanted criminals and the license plates of stolen cars. "I thought it was cool," Filenko says.
After Filenko's vicious beating, his parents scraped up the money (his mom worked nights at a factory) to move to Mount Prospect. "I started as a freshman at Prospect High School three days later," Filenko says. "I was a little rough around the edges. Suburban living took a little bit to get used to."
Mrs. Fitzgerald, an art teacher, encouraged him to draw and paint, and a drawing he did of the Picasso statue in Daley Plaza won a Chicago citywide award. Not sure what he wanted to do after high school graduation, Filenko enrolled at Harper College in Palatine.
"That was the jumping-off point to becoming a police officer," Filenko says. One of the women in his group of friends worked as a secretary for the campus chief of police and talked Filenko into applying to be a community service officer, but he was rejected as "too city, too edgy." Determined to get the job, he pleaded for an interview with the chief, a retired Chicago police officer who had worked in the Humboldt Park district.
Given the job and a maroon blazer, Filenko had a knack for heading off trouble. "This was something I knew all my life," he says. Filenko discovered he had to be a U.S. citizen to get a police department job. Studying on his own for a year, he passed the citizenship test and became an American on Nov. 13, 1979. That's also the day he legally changed his name to George, as his given name was Yuri.
He worked security jobs, including as a night-shift "mall cop" at Randhurst Shopping Center in Mount Prospect. "I just had the instincts. I was good at it," Filenko remembers.
Lerners, a women's fashion shop, had a lousy alarm system that often went off for no reason. Filenko got to know the employee who had to meet him many times to shut it off. They've been married for 35 years and have a son and daughter.
Filenko moved to a job answering emergency calls for a central suburban fire and police dispatch service.
"Of all the law enforcement jobs I've had, that was the hardest and most stressful," says Filenko, who discovered the importance of listening. "You've got to be wired differently to do that. The ability to read people through the phone is a talent. It's hard."
He memorized the streets and made it his job to get every detail correct. "You say east instead of west, and someone could die," he says.
He impressed the Deerfield Police Department, which hired him as consultant to improve their technology and then hired him as the department's director of communication. That led to the same position for the Lake County sheriff's department.
"I really wanted to be a cop. The problem was my vision," Filenko says, explaining how he had to wear glasses after the beating he took as a teen. It wasn't until the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990 that police departments hired officers if they qualified with corrected vision, which Filenko did.
That enabled him to take part-time police officer jobs in Golf and then Hainesville. His first full-time police job was in 1995 as a patrol officer at Round Lake Park, which he says "felt like home."
"Those were the best times of my police career," he says. "There wasn't an evening I didn't drive home and think, 'I got something done.'"
Recognizing his potential, departments sent Filenko to the Law Enforcement Academy at College of DuPage, the prestigious 12-week intensive training at the University of Louisville Southern Police Institute, and dozens of other classes where he literally spent thousands of hours training. He became chief of police for Round Lake Park in 1999 and was courted for special drug units and SWAT teams before taking on an additional role as a detective with the Lake County Major Crime Task Force in 2005.
"I had a lot to learn," Filenko says, noting he "couldn't get enough" of the knowledge passed down by senior detectives. "Keep your mouth shut, your ears open and learn."
Too inexperienced to be in the top corps of detectives, or the backup team, Filenko says he was on the C-team, canvassing crime scene areas and conducting routine interviews. His patient wife tolerated him always being on call.
"For whatever reason, nobody gets murdered at noon in Lake Forest. It's always 3 in the morning in the worst area," Filenko says.
When a supervisor at a Burger King restaurant in Lindenhurst was strangled and robbed in 2006, Filenko was thumbing through the hundreds of files of everyone who had ever worked at that restaurant when his instincts kicked in. "It was like someone knocked the breath out of me," remembers Filenko, who interviewed James Ealy of Lake Villa and turned him over to veteran investigators, who eventually got a murder conviction and life sentence.
Earning a reputation for conducting calm, cool interviews and interrogations, Filenko says the "good cop, bad cop" routines in police shows are not the way to talk to suspects. "Don't lie. Don't talk down to them," Filenko says, adding that he gives people options and avoids escalation. "If you're able to communicate, a good percentage of the time you can convince them to be cooperative."
One case that sticks with him resulted in the conviction of a man who murdered a baby in 2013, stuffed the body in a backpack and dropped it in the garbage. Detectives spent days poring through the garbage of a landfill in Zion, but they never found the body. "The physical and psychological toll that took on detectives was incredible," Filenko says.
His most famous case was the bizarre death of Gliniewicz, who died of a gunshot wound on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015. The case instantly became an international news story, for which Filenko was the public face. He was interviewed by scores of media members and received criticism and death threats. There was speculation that the Fox Lake police officer known as "G.I. Joe" was ambushed by members of an anti-police movement, or that the white officer's death was in retaliation for police brutality against Black people.
As hundreds of leads failed to pan out, pressure to solve the crime intensified. After two months and thousand of hours of detective work and lab tests, investigators concluded the 52-year-old Gliniewicz was a crooked cop who staged his suicide to look like murder in the face of evidence he'd been stealing money from the youth club he led.
"I lost 35 pounds during that case," says Filenko, an avid runner who stays in shape. "My dog, Carson, is probably what got me through Gliniewicz."
An officer accustomed to grisly crime scenes, Filenko says he had to stay in the car and let his wife take the puggle, a mix of a pug and a beagle, when the old dog had to be put down.
Fluent in English, Russian, Polish, Ukrainian and Serbian, and able to understand a handful of other languages, including German, Spanish and some Italian and Croatian, Czech and Slovak, Filenko the police chief could have been mistaken for an administrator hired out of business school or law school throughout his long career in law enforcement.
"No, I'm a cop," Filenko says. "My assignment is chief of police. My job is police officer."