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Da Region's Unabated Crime Spree

John Buncich only seemed a burly, powerfully connected Indiana sheriff. That's who he seemed for 16 of the past 20 years.

He officially ran the Democratic Party in Lake County. He was a Big Shark who wore expensive suits.

But events have shown he was only a small fish in a barrel.

Mr. Fish, meet Mr. Guy with a shotgun.

With slightly reduced charges, Buncich got 151 months in his second and likely final sentencing last Wednesday, which is survivable if you are 30 but not if you are 74. It's a death sentence by another name.

Buncich's sentencing curtain call marks another in the series of tableaus examining how theoretically smart people do really dumb things. Is there a patron saint of hubris?

For 30 years in cop work, Buncich watched compatriots in the FBI and Northern Indiana federal prosecutor's office snag lowdown public officials and dispatch them to prison. All of them. It was an assembly line.

They busted cops of all stripes, ex-congresswomen, county officials, well-wired township trustees, county council folks, city councilmen, judges and even mayors - all Democrats. They imprisoned almost literally every person in the modern political history of East Chicago.

No one escaped in seven decades of federal pursuit.

The only technical exception was Frank Kollintzas, an East Chicago city council bagman who stole millions of dollars before being caught.

But he fled before sentencing and has been hiding in Greece for 15 years. The land of Socrates does not return foreign crooks to other countries if they have joint Greek citizenship, which Kollintzas' immigrant parents provided Frank.

He went to O'Hare two days before his sentencing, bought a Swissair ticket at the counter, and was never seen again. His precipitous migration has made it all but impossible for corruption inmates to be freed pending sentencing.

If the feds were to catch him now, he'll be 77 and likely will spend the rest of his life in federal prison, too. He had $25 million stashed away then. The feds snatched it before his wife could.

By financial comparison, Buncich was small fry - usually a few thousand at a time from local bidders. But because Buncich expressed shocked dismay at his conviction, no one could tell how long he'd been stealing. He didn't think of corruption as stealing; it was just politics. You'll remember Mr. Blagojevich.

This common attitude stokes a more or less perpetual crime spree, and public suspicion that every elected official there is a crook. When political kings die in Da Region - such as East Chicago's mayor Robert Pastrick four years ago - their funerals are like Mafia circuses with jugglers, dancing bears and someone in a clown costume belting out the Pagliacci aria.

Steel is not Lake County's primary product. It's chiseling public officials.

Every time they get caught, officials there are shocked, which likely proves they either are great actors or none of them is as smart as they thought.

Yes, but that can't happen to me because I'm a clever crappie, and can't be caught. If fish could think, that's what they would be thinking, too.

You can almost hear Buncich muttering those words which, in fact, was very close to his public defense. The FBI had undercover videos of Buncich stuffing wads of cash in his pocket - actually stuffing loot - while selling county vehicle towing contracts.

Buncich's defense was: Who are you going to believe, me or your eyes watching the video? Plus, this is how Blagojevich did it and no one ever had a problem with him, right?

After a 13-day trial, the jury took five hours to convict and convert Mr. Smart Fish into a lifer.

When Buncich walked out of court in Hammond last week, he was just an old man who limped back into the world's largest senior assisted living center: America's federal prisons. He returned to the fed lockup in Springfield, Mo.

He joins 5,000 other 70-plus-year-olds nationally likely to die in their federal cells.

He got 12 years and six months for being a political maestro turned bribery extortionist. When you are 74 and suffering from ever-advancing health complications, that is essentially the end.

Some old friends wept when they saw him appear for the resentencing. He was no longer the fearsome physical force he had been.

Federal prisoners usually serve 80 percent of their time because of sentencing rules.

In Buncich's case, he is unlikely to live for that long. Federal prison is not a loving environment for the elderly.

Unless unforeseen intervention occurs for him, you will not see John Buncich again. Even the Supreme Court said no to him.

Do you not wonder why a man of advanced years would be tempted to that fate by money? He was making $165,000 in salary alone; that's $2.6 million over his four-term elected life.

Not one result of Buncich's current pitiful state was a surprise, particularly where justice occurred and who was pointing the shotgun into the barrel.

No one who has ever been a cop in Lake County could be honestly unmindful of that risk. So, it's merely greed.

Once the FBI nabs a crooked politician in Lake County, he or she is going away. The only legal presumption is how long the federally guided sentence will be.

That's partly because local FBI practitioners have mastered the art of catching the targets lying to them - a felony.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Indiana through both Democratic and Republican national guidance has not lost a conviction in that category for at least 70 years. Fish in a barrel meet guy with a shotgun.

That string of convictions might be longer, but no one was paying attention to metrics in the 1940s when the FBI was more interested in Nazi spies and Commie labor instigators.

But in modern contexts, Lake County offers frequent flyer miles to federal prisons across the country.

In the current crop, former East Chicago Mayor George Pabey, who got five years for taking $14,000 from the city, went to Duluth, Minnesota.

Former Calumet Township Trustee Dozier Allen, sentenced to 18 months for stealing $143,000 from the township, went to Ashland, Kentucky.

Former East Chicago Controller Edwaurdo Maldonado, sentenced to more than eight years for stealing $25 million from the city, went to Duluth.

Former North Township Supervisor Robert Cantrell, sentenced to six-and-a-half years for stealing $68,000 from the township, as well as tax and insurance fraud, went to Ashland.

Former county clerk and coroner Thomas Philpot, sentenced to 18 months for stealing from the county, went to Milan, Michigan.

Former Lake Station Mayor Keith Soderquist, sentenced to four years for theft, went to Thomson, Illinois.

Former Lake County Surveyor George Van Til, sentenced to 18 months for using county resources for his campaign, went to Terre Haute.

When he was initially convicted two years ago and sentenced to 188 months, Buncich was literally amazed that day. "This is the darkest day of my life," he said then.

So his legal team spent two years squirming and wiggling and finagling to get him leniency he had never offered anyone in his jail. They earned their money, and got the time reduced.

But there was no one who saw Buncich in court last week who believes he will survive the experience.

He was a fish in the barrel.

And he is not getting out alive.


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David Rutter is the former publisher/editor of the Lake County News-Sun, and more importantly, the former author of the Beachwood's late, great "The Week In WTF" column. You can also check him out at his Theeditor50's blog. He welcomes your comments.


Posted on August 13, 2020

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