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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2 years ago
Posted by florida friend

At what point does IDLE get really involved? Isn't the wife and family of a police officer who was known to be a "good cop" and gave his life being a good cop worth the effort?

2 years ago
Posted by flash888

Amen! Way to go BGA! So the truth unfolds. It's about time the civilians of Maywood adhere the truth. They are entitled to that. Evidently, the Yarbrough’s and several others pay to play. Sadly, they propose no support to their very own people whereas relieving your own people out of the slums appears not of interest or concern. What an embarrassing disgrace. BTW- Leave the police department out it! After reading these articles, tragically those poor officers risk their lives everyday for the suffering that you “defiant elected officials” continue to breed/produce. A dog is by far more loyal and that’s without training. These articles remind me of the Hurricane Katrina whereas the citizens of Louisiana “The Super Dome” became trapped with no help or relief for several days. In Maywood’s case- for several years. The citizens of Maywood are in a dome with no economical relief. With years to come these articles conclude how Maywood’s “defiant elected officials” will continue benefitting themselves by abusing their powers of the community. Instead of making officers drive trustees to the airport for security purposes as shown on the news a few months ago (I guess defiant officials some how some way became famous celebrities overnight) what they should have been doing was setting up a fundraiser for Tom Wood’s Reward instead of taking trips that regard unrelated business matters. Six long years have gone by and not one of these village individuals processed a thought of compassion in the behalf of Tom Wood to accumulate funds for the sake of their fallen officer. Here comes the BGA in 2012 and now they want to put on their performance gear.

2 years ago
Posted by another Maywood Resident

Another Maywood Resident.......

Thank you Chicago Magazine and BGA / Fox for the coverage. There are those in the town who have said they did not care for it because it displayed the town's dirty laundry. It's an attitude that seems to plague towns where the leadership is black and to a lesser degree Hispanic. I say hog wash! Corruption where ever it exists, regardless of color, needs and should be rooted out.

I am left with the thought: is this due to political influence, racism or class, that authorities such as Judy Bar Topinka and Anita Alvarez are not compelled to do their jobs? Their offices seem to be unconcerned about the long suffering plight of a majority - minority municipality. If this were River Forest or No. Riverside (their towns) would they tolerate this type of abuse, neglect and illegal behavior?! You show me a town where crime exists and I will show you a town where the police are crooks and the administration is corrupt!

• Who allows the president of a town to vote on an economic development project (e.g.; the grocery store and the Baptist Retirement Home) that personally benefits him and his family?!

• Who allows a trustee of a town to vote on police fire and pension issues when they personally benefit?!

• In a town of 24,000, why is there a law firm paid in the millions of dollars?

• The people of the town voted to consolidate all parks into the existing Maywood Park District (separate tax district) and to convey all buildings and land immediately; 4 years and waiting!

• $1million dollars later we still have an unfinished Park District Building with no indication when, if ever, it will be open!

• How does a local HUD sponsored housing agency (with board members appointed by the Mayor of the Village of Maywood) guilty of corruption, resulting in the termination of the Executive Director for thousands of dollars in theft, still exist and not be taken over by HUD?!

• Why has there been no annual report regarding the use of Tiff Funds?

The hard working citizens of this town deserve better.

2 years ago
Posted by ladeira9

I agree sloppiness and poor judgement have marred the current
office holders' accomplishments in Maywood in recent years, but ask any reasonable long-term Maywoodian and you will hear how much worse it was before 2005.

I moved to Maywood in April, 2005, the same month H. Yarbrough became mayor. He and the more engaged trustees (they haven't all been particularly effortful) have improved the village by:

(1) Systematically getting rid of do-nothing or problematic cops through the Maywood Police Board. Firing the very deficient male
police chief of that era helped here.
(2) Cooperating with and supporting Maywood CeaseFire, which brought down shockingly high murder rates, which peaked in 2003 at ~20, according to ABC TV.
(3) Demolishing structures which would cost too much to restore or
were unsound, paving streets, installing new lighting, etc.

Since I walk to Maywood from Forest Park (where I now live) two to three times a week, I can see the differences, even down to loitering and littering. I'm more inclined to believe in the veracity of specific documentation supporting accusations, rather
than the merely anecdotal.

This article's content was not up to my standards: often too vague, apocryphal, emphasizing points not of the highest priority in solving a struggling community's real and continuing problems.

Let's employ more scrutiny of Stone Park and Melrose Park, nearby villages which long have been deemed corrupt, and not only focus on Maywood.

Meanwhile, I applaud the BGA under Andy Shaw for being far more active than it was previously: shining a light on public bodies has always been necessary.

Amber Ladeira

2 years ago
Posted by Heather Stelnicki

After hearing so much about this article and finally reading it, I find myself wondering what the focus or objective of this piece is. It is unclear what Robert Herguth and Dane Placko hoped to accomplish in writing it. Are they attempting to express outrage for the killing of a police officer? Because if they are, then several of the implications about said officer muddy the waters.

Are the authors intending to engender sympathy for the widow, who was clearly wronged by the murder of her husband? Because if that is the case, the references to psychics are somewhat confusing.

Is the point of the article to indict the Maywood police department? Because the chief of police presiding at the time of the killing and during the investigation is long gone and blaming the current police chief for the sins of his predecessor doesn't make much sense.

Maybe the point of the article is to notify the residents of Maywood that there are problems in government in their town. But if that is the case, Robert Herguth and Dane Placko are a little late, because I defy them to find anyone who has lived here for a minute who couldn't educate them on that point.

So, as a reader, I am at a loss as to what was to be achieved by writing this article. But as a Maywood resident one thing I am clear on is that beating up on Maywood has become trendy in the local press. As if we are the only town in Illinois with an unsolved murder on the books or questionable politics.

And that is what I am really struggling to understand. I was raised to believe that the press in this country existed for the greater good of the people. That the freedoms and protections granted them in our Constitution were there to allow them to uncover truth and inform the populace. But when Chicago Magazine publishes an article of this caliber, that is all over the place, that quotes a former police officer who was dismissed amid murder and drug allegations without even mentioning that fact and makes a mockery of the very victims of the crime they purport to expose, I have to wonder what the state of journalism has come to.

If Chicago magazine wants to help the people of Maywood or show any guts whatsoever, why don't they do a story on what Maywood has to offer in the real estate market, a topic it frequently covers. While Maywood is far from perfect, it is actually a wonderful place to live, close to mass transit, the Eisenhower expressway, O'Hare airport and only 15-30 minutes from downtown depending on traffic. The housing stock here is excellent; many of the homes in our town are built of materials that would be extremely cost prohibitive today and are of historical and architectural significance. Not to mention that due to the devastating effects of predatory lending on minority communities, many of those homes are in foreclosure and can be purchased for less than $50,000. Home buyers could live mortgage free in the friendliest community that I have ever lived in. A place where you know your neighbors, they actually speak to you and if you need to speak with the Mayor, you can.

But let's be realistic, that kind of reporting isn't sensational. That kind of reporting could actually help solve the problems of a struggling, hopeful community instead of kicking it in the teeth.

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