Six years after the death of hero-turned-villain cop Joe Gliniewicz gripped the suburbs, his story is captivating the rest of the country this fall through a new podcast with some familiar names involved.
“Over My Dead Body: Fox Lake” revisits the killing of Gliniewicz, the Fox Lake police lieutenant who staged his Sept. 1, 2015, suicide to appear as if he’d been gunned down in the line of duty, hoping it would head off revelations that he’d been stealing from a law enforcement youth group and allow him to go out a hero.
It’s the third season of the Wondery podcast, which two years ago first introduced the world to “Tiger King” Joe Exotic. The new season’s six-episode run — the final episode dropped Monday — has ranked as high as No. 1 on the national podcast charts.
Hosted by Matt Baglio, who wrote the book on which the Oscar-winning film “Argo” is based, the podcast recounts the larger-than-life “G.I. Joe” persona Gliniewicz crafted during his long career in Fox Lake and how his fatal shooting in a marshy area near an abandoned cement plant became national news.
With help from insiders like former Round Lake Park police Chief George Filenko, who headed up the investigation, and former Daily Herald reporter Lee Filas, Baglio describes the chaotic days that followed, Gliniewicz’s memorial service that included an 18-mile-long procession of police vehicles, and the eventual realization that not all was as it seemed.
Beyond the mystery and ultimate betrayal, the story is driven by those who lived it: Filenko, the former mall security cop turned respected detective; Ann Marrin, the chain-smoking village administrator whose financial acumen threatened to expose Gliniewicz’s crimes; and Fox Lake itself, the small community known mostly as a party town for summer boaters that reluctantly found itself in the spotlight.
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We spoke this week with Baglio and Filas about the podcast’s success and why, six years later, the tale of “G.I. Joe” still resonates.
Like a Coen Brothers movie
Baglio said he wasn’t familiar with the Gliniewicz story until a friend from the Chicago area suggested it as his next project. After diving in, it didn’t take long for him to see why the case generated so much interest then and now.
“It’s just such a crazy story in so many ways. It’s hard to fathom that something like this would really happen,” Baglio told us. “He was a cop. He was a hero. And he wanted to put a hit out on the village administrator.”
“It also does speak to that larger discussion that we are having as a nation, you know, who are our heroes? Who should be venerated? Who’s a good guy, who’s a bad guy?” he said. “I think there’s a little bit of all these elements, and it’s kind of one of those stories, like a Coen Brothers movie, where it’s almost too crazy to believe that a guy who can be this much of a hero (also) can be something completely different.”
The podcast puts Gliniewicz’s death in context of the time in which it occurred, roughly a year after protests and riots erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of a Black man by a white police officer. That gave rise to Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter, and a national conversation about policing in America.
“I think that back and forth, that battle, was definitely a reason why Joe was elevated to the status he was,” Baglio said. “Joe became a hero and he fit into that mold, right? He was ex-military. He was a small-town cop, a father married to the same woman all this time. And I think for a certain segment of Americans that’s very heroic and like a Clint Eastwood character.”
From hero to villain
The podcast details how investigators digging into Gliniewicz’s troubling work and personal life began accumulating more and more evidence that his hero persona was a mirage covering for something much darker.
And while those investigators later faced harsh criticism for allowing the public to believe Gliniewicz died a hero long after they suspected otherwise, Baglio is sympathetic to their position.
“It’s very hard for cops to just come out right away and say, ‘Stop giving money and stop treating this guy like a hero,’ because they were still trying to figure it out,” he said. “And I think it took a little bit longer perhaps because of the public nature of this case. They wanted to be extra cautious.”
Among Gliniewicz’s victims, perhaps none had more reason to feel anger and disappointment than the members of the Explorers police youth group, from whom he stole thousands to pay for travel, meals and other personal expenses.
“For me, they were the group of people that I talked with that were the most powerful, because they weren’t trying to politicize it,” Baglio said. “They just said, ‘I looked up to this guy. He was my hero. And he let me down.'”
One mystery the podcast couldn’t solve is why Gliniewicz decided to take his life, leaving behind his wife and children, rather than face the consequences.
“As a father, I really struggled with that because he had kids and I know he loved his kids, and yet he chose to go out this way,” Baglio said. “And it wasn’t the only choice he had, absolutely not. I do think that there is some truth to the idea that he was very much enamored with the image and he perhaps didn’t want those kids in the Explorers to see him in any other way.”
While “Over My Dead Body: Fox Lake” is a hit, Filas said the people of Fox Lake aren’t reveling in their hometown’s return to the national spotlight.
“People (in Fox Lake) are sick and tired of dealing with the story of Joe Gliniewicz,” said Filas, who’s put away his reporter’s notebook and today runs Filas Media Consulting. “It’s kind of a dubious honor to be the location where this took place. People just want to be done with it. I know. I’ve spoken to a number of people in town and they all want to be done with it.”
Not done yet
As much as the people of Fox Lake might want to put Gliniewicz in the rearview mirror, the fallout from his actions aren’t going away just yet.
That’s because his widow, Melodie Gliniewicz, is still awaiting trial in Lake County on unlawful use of charitable funds, conspiracy and money laundering charges that allege she played a part in her husband’s crimes.
Her trial has been postponed for years by legal battles over the admissibility of text messages between her and her husband, but barring any further delays, she’ll go on trial Jan. 10. She faces up to seven years in prison if found guilty of all charges.
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