CHICAGO — Drew Peterson officially lost his freedom last month — and now he could lose his pension, too.
The Bolingbrook (Ill.) Police Pension Board has hired an outside attorney to help decide whether it should strip Peterson of his retirement pay following his murder conviction and sentencing. The move marks an ironic turn in the high-profile case, given that prosecutors argued that Peterson killed his third wife, Kathleen Savio, partially because he did not want to share his pension with her.
The five-member panel — which includes three current or former officers who worked on the force with Peterson — recently retained public pension expert Charles Atwell to review trial transcripts and determine whether the former police sergeant’s conviction requires him to forfeit his $79,000-a-year pension.
Bolingbrook officials will figure out their next step, if any, after they receive Atwell’s report, pension board attorney Richard Reimer said.
Under state law, the board could revoke Peterson’s pension if it finds he used his law enforcement powers or skills to drown Savio in 2004. His pension cannot be stripped without a public hearing in which Peterson could call witnesses and board members would act almost like jurors.
“That’s why we wanted an independent third party to handle the investigation and make a recommendation,” Reimer said. “It’s a very, very fact-specific decision.”
Indeed, proving a direct connection between Savio’s death and Peterson’s municipal employment won’t be easy, experts said.
Will County prosecutors were never able to pinpoint an exact time of death in the largely circumstantial case, but the evidence suggested that Savio drowned when Peterson was off-duty. They also could not prove the events leading up to her drowning, which could make it difficult to determine whether he used police training or know-how to commit the murder.
“It’s extremely hard to take a pension away,” said James Dobrovolny, an Urbana-based lawyer who works with police pension boards in central Illinois. “It (the Savio murder) had nothing to do with him being a cop. I’d be really surprised if they could take his pension away. I just don’t see it happening.”
Other pension boards have faced such situations after high-profile convictions, only to find themselves unable to revoke the retirement.
Disgraced former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge — who was fired in 1993 after years of allegations of police torture under his watch — still receives his $3,000-a-month pension check despite a felony conviction for lying about interrogation techniques. Amid ongoing challenges from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office, his attorneys so far have successfully argued that Burge’s perjury occurred long after he left the department and was not connected to his old job.
There are instances in which Illinois pension boards have determined that the skills that public servants develop on the job facilitated off-the-clock criminal behavior. In 2011, for example, a state appellate court upheld the city of Chicago’s decision to strip a firefighter of his pension after he was convicted of committing multiple arsons. Although they occurred when he was off-duty, the court found that the firefighter had “specialized knowledge” gained from his department experience and training that helped him ignite the fires.
“Those are rare exceptions,” Dobrovolny said. “Most of the time, it’s difficult to prove those connections.”
Peterson has not publicly expressed any concerns that Bolingbrook officials will be able to establish a link between his training and Savio’s murder. He made no mention of his pension last month in a presentencing statement that spiraled into a 40-minute rant about perceived wrongs against him. Judge Edward Burmila sentenced him to 38 years in prison.
Though authorities believe he was off-duty when he killed Savio, he was on the clock when he helped neighbors discover her body and when he was questioned by investigators. Prosecutors also suggested that his training as a crime-scene evidence technician allowed him to stage the death to make it look like an accident.
None of those things will be enough to take his retirement away, his attorney Steve Greenberg said.
“He wasn’t convicted on an obstruction of justice charge. He was convicted of murder,” Greenberg said. “There’s no connection between Kathleen Savio’s death and his job as a police officer.”
Savio’s family, however, contends there’s enough evidence to connect her death to Peterson’s employment.
“He murdered our sister for financial reasons like protecting this pension,” her sister Sue Doman said. “By letting him keep his pension, you’re giving him the power and control that he wanted.”
Peterson, 59, retired in November 2007 while under investigation for Savio’s death and the disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy. He has not been charged with Stacy’s vanishing, but he remains the only suspect.
His retirement checks are being used to care for his two young children, both of whom are still in grade school, his attorneys said. Stephen Peterson, one of the former officer’s sons from his first marriage, has been taking care of his half-siblings since his father’s arrest in May 2009.