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Tom Wood’s last Maywood Police Department photo
For decades the Village of Maywood, nestled on former farmland along the west bank of the Des Plaines River, was a prosperous place. But in the 1970s, big manufacturers such as the American Can Company and Canada Dry began pulling up stakes, throwing thousands out of work. By 1990, a declining economy, white flight, and growing gang violence had helped make the suburb one of Chicago’s most troubled.
It was also one of the most mismanaged. In 1991, outside auditors brought in to evaluate Maywood’s books declared them “unauditable.” Two years later, Illinois had to bail out the village with a $12.5 million bond issue—the first time the state had to rescue a municipality from bankruptcy with bonds. “If a textbook were written about how not to run a community, perhaps no suburb would provide a more fitting example than Maywood,” harrumphed the Chicago Sun-Times.
The problems in Maywood extend far beyond bad management. One FBI official cracked, half seriously, that Maywood is so corrupt that the bureau puts the village in its tickler file to be reinvestigated as a matter of routine practically every few years. In an FBI sting in late 2010, a Maywood police officer was caught allegedly stealing money from suspects. Between 2005 and 2010 alone, village records show that two dozen lawsuits claiming police misconduct were settled for a collective $1.5 million. (Read more about controversies surrounding Maywood police here).
There were also some troubling connections between village officials, police brass, and the drug trade. For example, Jason Ervin, the former village manager who helped oversee Maywood’s police force during the investigation into Wood’s murder, owned a reputed drug house at the time, according to interviews and public records. Police logs show numerous complaints at the three-flat he rented to others on West Madison Street. (Ervin, who was appointed as alderman of Chicago’s 28th Ward last year, acknowledges crime problems but says that conditions have improved.)
But it’s hard to top what happened in 1997. The entire Maywood Park District Police Department was disbanded amid allegations that officers were selling badges and robbing residents, one of whom was an undercover FBI agent posing as a drug dealer. There were so many cops on the force at the time that nobody seemed to know how many badges were on the street.
That same year, a 28-year-old East Leyden High grad named Tom Wood was sworn into the Maywood Police Department, a small force of about 50 officers, and assigned to patrol duty. Just over six feet tall and a sturdy 200 pounds, Wood kept in shape with martial arts and gymnastics, and he rarely drank. He was so strait-laced that fellow officers at his previous employer, the Stone Park Police Department, had suspected that he was an FBI mole. “They openly called him 007,” Helene recalls.
The upside of Wood’s stint in Stone Park was getting reacquainted with Helene, a divorced mother of three with whom he had coached gymnastics for a time. They’d lost touch, but when he spotted her car—with its memorable plate BUZOFF7—speeding through town, he pulled her over, and soon they were dating. They married in 1998 and went on to have two children.
While Wood didn’t always love Maywood’s problem-plagued police department, for the most part he enjoyed working in the town. He loved the excitement of the street, the community itself, and the company of his four-legged partner, Daro, a coyote-size Belgian Malinois trained to sniff out drugs. “He said he didn’t want to get bored—he wanted to be in a place with constant action,” says Helene.
Over the years, Wood often encountered Maywood’s ugly side: entire neighborhoods blighted by drugs and violence. In 2006, for instance, there were 11 homicides, a staggering figure considering that Maywood has just 24,000 residents. (Nearby Cicero, with three times the population, had the same number of killings that year.) Helene occasionally wondered about her husband’s sanity. “I didn’t understand why he wanted to work in this . . . depressed area,” she says. “But after he died, I got it. People needed him.”
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Photograph: Courtesy of Wood Family