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

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”).

* * *

 

Illustration: Gluekit

 

Tom Wood in his last Maywood Police Department photo
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

 

Tom Wood with his family at Disney World
Tom and Helene Wood with their children at Disney World in 2002

The night of October 23, 2006, was unseasonably cold, in the 30s, with a dusting of snow in some areas. At 10:49, with just 11 minutes left until the end of his shift, Tom Wood responded to one last dispatch: an unspecified problem around a storefront parking lot near South Fifth Avenue and Madison Street.

Robert Welch, then a Maywood police officer who was in a separate car, responded to the call too. Finding no signs of trouble, Welch headed back to the station. Wood, with Daro in back, kept driving along Fifth Avenue. “I assumed he was going home,” says Welch.

Instead, Wood swung by the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Erie Street, the same residential block where hours earlier he had been dispatched on a drug traffic call. He pulled over near a battered two-story house, at 319 North Sixth Avenue, with a reputation among cops for gang and drug trouble. Police sources indicate that he ran the license plate of a white Pontiac Grand Prix parked in front. He called Maywood police dispatch at least twice shortly after 11 o’clock. According to law enforcement sources, around that time, for unknown reasons, he also called a woman who was dating an admitted Maywood gang member.

Investigators generally agree that Wood was in his SUV, talking through his partially opened window to someone in the street—likely someone he knew—who then opened fire. A man who lives a few houses away, Robert Novak, recalls hearing shots around 11:15. Novak says he went outside barefoot to see what happened and ran over to Wood’s SUV.

Novak had plenty of experience with emergencies; he had been a Maywood cop until 1997, when he left the department following unspecified complaints. Novak says that he found Wood’s bullet-riddled body slumped in the driver’s seat. The taillights indicated that the SUV was not in park; Wood’s foot was still on the brake. Novak says he reached inside and shifted the vehicle into park to prevent it from rolling. Daro was in the back, unharmed. Over $600 was later found on Wood’s body, so robbery was considered unlikely.

The first Maywood cops arrived almost immediately. Inexplicably, they allowed Novak to linger in the area for a while, sources say. “I helped them look for evidence,” Novak admits. “I made coffee.”

But Novak quickly became a suspect, and not just because of his presence on the scene. It turned out he had had previous run-ins with Wood that prompted him to complain to Wood’s bosses. And records show that the police were at Novak’s home 81 times since 1999, on calls ranging from disputes with neighbors to domestic troubles; Wood was among the officers who responded to these often-contentious calls.

Within hours of Wood’s killing, say police sources, Novak was handcuffed, questioned extensively, and polygraphed. His house was searched, his skin tested was for gunshot residue, and his .380 handgun was checked to see if it was the murder weapon.

The gun wasn’t a match. And while tests found gunshot residue on Novak’s body, there was a plausible explanation: He had reached into Wood’s SUV, which had residue everywhere. And the polygraph? Novak says investigators told him that he had failed, but he suspects they were just trying to trick him into confessing. (He was never charged, and officials say he is no longer a suspect.)

If allowing a potential suspect to linger at a crime scene was a serious error in judgment, the errors were just beginning. The scene “was just chaos,” according to one police officer who was there. Maywood officers, without a warrant, kicked in the door of a home on the block and conducted a search while terrified occupants cowered. Ultimately, the police department apologized.

 

Photograph: Courtesy of Wood Family

 

Tom Wood's burial at Memory Gardens Cemetery
Wood’s October 27, 2006, burial service at Memory Gardens Cemetery in Arlington Heights
 

The ensuing homicide investigation was equally haphazard. Several witnesses whom Wood saw or called in the days leading up to his murder were never questioned. And although the flooding problems at Maywood’s police station were well known, officers allowed evidence in Wood’s case, including a cell phone, to get wet. (Officials insist that the material was not badly damaged.)

Meanwhile, Elvia Williams, who had been Maywood’s police chief for only a few months when Wood was killed, made a decision that, according to current and former police officials, complicated and perhaps encumbered the investigation: She asked for help from the West Suburban Major Crimes Task Force (known as WESTAF), a consortium of detectives and other specialists from police departments in the western suburbs.

Some Maywood officers were angered by the outside interference (Maywood isn’t part of WESTAF) from a group they thought had little knowledge of the local bad guys. And the WESTAF members—well aware of the history of corruption and brutality on the Maywood force—did not fully trust the local cops. One former WESTAF member even suggests that the Maywood cops held back relevant information.

A major disagreement between the two sides eventually erupted. Maywood police had questioned a reputed member of the Latin Kings street gang whose family lived close to the shooting scene and had once rented an apartment to Wood, and whom Wood had arrested on a gun charge in 2005. The man fingered as Wood’s killer the alleged gang member whose girlfriend (now wife) Wood had called just before his death.

The Maywood cops figured they may have cracked the case. But the WESTAF side—which included Cook County prosecutors—believed the snitch wasn’t credible, sources say.

Meantime, WESTAF had its sights on another suspect: Terry Gilford, the driver of the Grand Prix that Wood had been looking up just before he was killed. Gilford was a felon and a known troublemaker in Maywood, according to police records and interviews. He had once tussled with Wood during a traffic stop, recalls Dwayne Wheeler, a former Maywood police sergeant.

But Gilford had an alibi, albeit an embarrassing one: At the time of the shooting, he says, “I just so happened to be cheating on my wife.” His mistress lived near the murder scene, which he says explains why the Grand Prix was there. Still, Gilford remained a “person of interest” for months. The intense focus on him angered some on the Maywood police force who believed that WESTAF had the wrong guy.

While the investigation was petering out, Helene still hoped that the $100,000 reward offered by a community bank for information leading to Wood’s killer would bring results. A reward so large would be awfully hard for one of Maywood’s street thugs to resist, say police sources. But as the months passed, the reward went unclaimed—lending credence to a theory held by some of Wood’s family members and others that he was murdered not by a thug but by a fellow cop.

Before his death, Helene says, Wood was being pressured to change his account of an incident in which a suspect was beaten by officers. As Helene tells it, Wood walked in on the aftermath of the beating and the other officers feared he would turn them in. Helene also says that Wood had a falling-out with an officer he suspected of shaking down drug dealers. The officer told Wood it was all an undercover ruse—a story her husband didn’t believe. The officer, she adds, “made it sound like it was a misunderstanding. [But] if Tom believed in something, he absolutely would not back down.”

It’s unclear how much focus investigators put on the possibility that Wood was killed by—or at the behest of—a fellow Maywood cop. Asked whether a police officer could have been involved, Curry, Maywood’s police chief, dismissed the suggestion. A former village official called it “innuendo.”

So was it a coincidence that Wood took out that life insurance policy weeks before his murder? And there’s another troubling detail: a break-in at the Wood home months after Wood’s death. The thief stole two computer hard drives and nothing else. Curry confirmed that the theft was reported but said he has no details.

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Helene Wood
Helene Wood in her living room in June

Helene may be left hanging, but Maywood has in many ways moved on. Within the past few years, Maywood’s police chief began taking down the reward posters, even though our investigation shows the $100,000 reward was still available. (See “What happened with the reward money in the Tom Wood case?). At presstime, nobody on the police force was assigned full-time to Wood’s case.

Curry strongly disagrees with the idea that the Maywood police don’t want to solve Wood’s murder. “It’s a cold case, but it’s still active,” he says. “I’m hopeful that it will come to resolution.” (The office of the Cook County state’s attorney, which oversees the cold case unit now assisting Maywood police, refused interview requests.)

For Helene, being hopeful doesn’t cut it. She is now hiring a psychic detective from Pennsylvania who purports to use a sixth sense to solve crimes. Helene knows this will sound strange to some people, but she doesn’t care. The way she sees it, if the police can’t or won’t provide answers, she’ll try to get them herself—however she can. She says, “If they can kill a police officer, where are their limits?”

Robert Herguth is the editor of investigations at the Better Government Association.

Dane Placko is an investigative reporter for FOX Chicago. See his story on the station’s website.

 

Photography: (Helene Wood) Nathan Kirkman; Photographer Assistant: (Helene Wood) Brett Bulthuis; (burial) courtesy of Wood Family

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