Maywood Confidential: The Unsolved Murder of Police Officer Tom Wood

Most cop murders get solved. But nearly six years after Maywood police officer Tom Wood was gunned down, the killer is still at large and the investigation is in shambles. Who murdered him and why aren’t the only nagging questions

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Illustration by Gluekit
 

Helene Wood sat anxiously on a love seat in Deb Sheppard’s “office,” a converted second-floor bedroom in a pleasant house just south of Denver. The room’s simple decor and burning candles created a soothing mood. Which was exactly what Helene needed.

Six weeks earlier, in October 2006, someone had murdered her husband of eight years. Tom Wood, 37, had just finished his shift as a police officer in Maywood, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago. The only officer ever killed in the village’s 143-year history, he was riddled with bullets while sitting in his marked SUV on a dark residential street. The investigation that followed had yielded suspects but no arrests.

Helene, 36, a mother of five, was desperate for answers. While Tom was widely known as a good cop, Maywood was a high-crime place rife with municipal mismanagement; many officers were reputed to be heavy-handed and crooked. After getting no answers there, Helene had decided to consult Sheppard, a psychic medium who lived a short drive from one of Helene’s sisters in Colorado. With family roots in the Bayou, where, for many, the mystical world is intertwined with daily life, Helene felt comfortable seeking answers from Sheppard. She flew in just for the hourlong meeting.

When the session began, Helene placed a voice recorder on the table. Soon Sheppard, 46, who looked more like a suburban housewife than a communer with the dead, indicated that she had found Tom. Speaking haltingly, she conveyed tidbits of information she said she gleaned from him about the murder. The gun, for instance, did not belong to the shooter, she said. Another cop might have been involved, she added—a frightening possibility for Helene.

“I just want to know what happened,” Helene pleaded at one point, crying. “I know he loved me, but I just want to know . . . why was he so depressed? What was going on at work?”

In the months before Tom’s death, she said, when he wasn’t working the 3 to 11 p.m. shift at the police department or at his second job as a security guard at Proviso East High School, he had retreated from her and the kids. He spent hours holed up alone in the basement of their two-story Schiller Park home, in a space the family called the Cave, where he tinkered with computers and watched movies. And although Helene didn’t know it at the time, weeks before his murder he had quietly taken out a large life insurance policy on himself, payable to his family.

The dark mood, the lack of intimacy: Helene thought she knew what was going on. One night after waking to an empty bed, she found Tom sleeping in the Cave and asked, “Are you cheating on me?”

“There are some things going on at work,” he replied, reassuring her that he loved her.

In Sheppard’s home, Helene hoped to learn more about her husband’s death. But the psychic told her: “It’s not time to be completely revealed.”

In part because a cop killing is viewed as a particularly egregious crime, most such cases get solved quickly. According to the FBI, of the 48 law enforcement officers nationwide who were “feloniously killed” in the line of duty in 2006, only three cases remain unsolved. Tom Wood’s murder is one of them.

The police had no lack of suspects. There was the ex–Maywood cop who lived just a few doors down from the murder scene and had previously butted heads with Wood. There was the local troublemaker whose license plate Wood was looking up on his squad car computer just before bullets started flying. And police were told that two reputed gang members may have been in the area. Some in town also held the theory that Wood was killed by a fellow police officer. But no charges were ever filed.

Why? The nonprofit Better Government Association and FOX Chicago teamed up with Chicago to look into that question. We reviewed hundreds of documents and interviewed dozens of people, including Wood’s friends and relatives, current and former police and village officials, suspects, and gang members. When it became clear that Maywood officials were stalling in turning over public documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act, the BGA sued Maywood (which ultimately turned over some, but not all, records).

What emerges is a sobering tale about a problem-plagued investigation at best and a possible cover-up at worst. Top leadership appears to have paid so little attention to Wood’s murder in recent years that neither Maywood’s chief of police, Tim Curry, nor its mayor, Henderson Yarbrough, and other village officials could answer many basic questions. One ex–Maywood cop says: “It seems like they didn’t really want to solve it.” (For more on Yarbrough and his wife, state Rep. Karen Yarbrough, see “Village power couple presides over municipal mess”).

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Illustration: Gluekit

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