Excerpts from the ChicagoTribune.com:
A Cook County judge on Wednesday acquitted a former Oak Forest deputy fire chief of criminal responsibility in connection with his wife’s embezzlement of about $350,000 from her employer.
After a three-day trial, Circuit Judge Kerry Kennedy found Charles Sopko not guilty of theft and operating a continuing financial crimes enterprise. Kennedy said he was not completely swayed by the prosecution’s argument that the couple’s increased spending reflected the stolen funds and that Sopko should have known the money was not legitimate.
They presented evidence during this week’s trial that Charles and Michelle Sopko spent money on luxury vacations, cars and a mobile home and ran up expensive credit card bills for other personal expenses. While Charles Sopko may not have actively participated in the thefts, he was guilty of a crime once the money went into his bank account and he spent it, prosecutors contended.
But in announcing his verdict, Kennedy said he had a “doubt in my mind” that the Sopkos’ lifestyle was afforded largely by the embezzled money, mentioning that several family members and friends of Charles attended the trial. “There are a whole cadre of people out there who care about him. How do I know they didn’t give him some of this (stuff),” the judge said.
In his closing argument Wednesday, Assistant State’s Attorney Michael O’Malley said Sopko should have realized that his family’s spending during the period of the thefts far exceeded its annual income, which consisted of his Oak Forest Fire Department salary of about $91,000 and his wife earning about $10,000 per year. “This family survived on the pocketbook of Palos Heights taxpayers,” O’Malley said “This guy had developed a lifestyle that was well above (the family’s) means.”
But Kennedy responded, “Did the Sopko family live above their means? Show me someone who doesn’t.”
The key prosecution witness was Detective Sgt. James Hennelly, of the Cook County sheriff’s police financial crimes unit, who in great detail showed how much the Sopkos spent during the time that Michelle was stealing funds from the fire district.
Michelle Sopko was expected to testify Wednesday in her husband’s defense, saying he had no knowledge of her thefts, but she was not called nor did the defense present any evidence or testimony.
In his closing argument, defense attorney Jason Danielian said his client was not aware of the embezzlement scheme and that he should be seen as a victim of his wife’s criminal activity.
Charles Sopko, who while removed as deputy chief remains a fire lieutenant, declined to comment on the verdict. He previously turned down a plea agreement from prosecutors that would have placed him on two years’ probation — choosing instead to go to trial on charges that would have mandated prison time if he had been found guilty.
Also Wednesday, Michelle Sopko appeared for a hearing before Kennedy on her request for a reduction of her prison term, which is being served at the Decatur Correctional Center in central Illinois.
The hearing could not be conducted because she no longer has an attorney. A public defender was appointed to represent her, and the hearing was continued to September.
More on this can be found HERE.