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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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