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Charges against McHenry cop may hurt other cases

Chicago Tribune,
BYLINE: Robert McCoppin, Chicago Tribune reporter,
Link to Article

McHenry, IL

Prosecutor's office notifies defense attorneys of potential evidence problems

Dale Hojnacki, a former police officer for the city of McHenry, has been charged with felony theft and official misconduct on allegations he stole more than $500 from an evidence locker at the Police Department. (HANDOUT / May 7, 2012)

A widening investigation into a city of police officer's alleged theft of evidence potentially jeopardizes all recent arrests made by the department, prosecutors have warned.

A letter from the McHenry County state's attorney's office to every defense attorney in the county last week disclosed "potentially exculpatory evidence involving all arrests made by the McHenry Police Department."

Dale Hojnacki, 35, of McHenry, was charged last month with felony theft and official misconduct on allegations he stole more than $500 from an evidence locker at the city department. The subsequent investigation has led police to believe that Hojnacki has been taking narcotics from sealed evidence bags, according to the letter from Michael Combs, chief of the criminal division for county prosecutors, though the former officer has not been charged with additional crimes.

Hojnacki "has potentially compromised the evidence against any person who has been arrested by the McHenry Police Department," Combs wrote. Hojnacki served on the force for 11 years, two as a detective, before resigning following the charges last month. But Combs believes investigators have narrowed down the period of Hojnacki's access to the evidence room to about 17 months.

Such a letter is highly unusual, but Combs said he wrote it to help fulfill his legal obligation to disclose to defense attorneys any evidence that could help defend their clients.

Police are conducting an audit to see which cases might have lost evidence. That will include rechecking the amount of drugs stored in each case, in part to see if any of it was taken and replaced with look-alike substances, Combs said. The process may take through June.

Prosecutors will likely not call Hojnacki as a witness in court because his credibility has been questioned and will determine whether any cases have to be dismissed, but in general will fight to preserve cases using whatever evidence he did not influence, Combs said.

In response, Hojnacki's defense attorney Jamie Wombacher said she filed a request in court for a gag order to keep prosecutors from commenting on the case. Police said a gag ordered was issued Monday.

"My client denies the allegations against him," she said. "He is presumed innocent, and we will fight the charges."

Hojnacki is out of jail on $1,500 bond posted by Brian Maronde, 28, of McHenry, who faces a felony charge of cocaine possession, prosecutors said. Neither Hojnacki nor Maronde could be reached for comment.

McHenry County Public Defender Mark Cook said defense attorneys could raise objections in any case where they could challenge the integrity of the evidence, both in pending cases and appeals. Cook would not cite any specific example, but one case investigated by Hojnacki was that of Luis Gaytan, 31, of McHenry, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison last month for a stabbing after pleading guilty to armed violence.

"We would be obligated to look closer at the cases he (Hojnacki) was involved in because now his veracity and credibility are called into question," Cook said.

A site under Hojnacki's name on states that he has worked in "all areas" of law enforcement, from bike patrol to undercover narcotic enforcement.

"I am posses (sic) street smarts, an accurate ability to detect deception, and a strong work ethic," the site states.

According to the site, Hojnacki was previously a private detective and has a degree in criminal justice from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, which the school confirmed.

There is also a site under his name on Facebook that lists favorites including the pro-police documentary "Heroes Behind the Badge" and "The Shield," a critically acclaimed television series about corrupt cops.

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