An off-duty McCook police officer visiting Harrah’s Casino Joliet last winter ended up slugging a panhandler in the valet area of the gaming facility, in an incident caught on surveillance video recently obtained by the Better Government Association and FOX 32.
The officer, Robert Wells, was suspended without pay for two days by his tiny southwest suburban department and ordered to attend “private counseling services,” according to records obtained from the Village of McCook under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
The records said about Wells, “your failure to remove yourself from the situation allowed this incident to escalate . . . your conduct will be held to a higher standard than the general public and you will be held accountable for your actions on-duty as well as off-duty.”
While several jarring videos have recently been publicized involving Chicago-area police officers, Wells’ case isn’t so clear cut because there’s no audio accompanying the video, the man brushed against Wells prior to the punch and then took off, never filing a complaint, authorities said.
An investigator for the Illinois gaming board – which regulates casinos in Illinois – stated in a report that, after reviewing the evidence, “it is clear Mr. Wells was the aggressor.”
But Wells and his wife, who had been at the casino with her husband, told a Joliet police detective that the man punched by Wells had made “harassing statements of a blatantly sexual nature” and threatened to bite off Wells’ ear and “kill him,” according to a written account from the detective, who interviewed the couple more than two weeks after the Jan. 17, 2015, incident.
In a brief telephone conversation with the BGA, Wells said he “definitely” was not the aggressor.
The Joliet detective, Paul Rodriguez, relayed to a reporter, “I don’t have an opinion on . . . who’s the aggressor.”
Shortly before midnight on the night of the altercation, Wells and his wife were standing in the valet area of Harrah’s, waiting to leave the far southwest suburban casino, when they were approached by a man, according to records and interviews.
A casino security supervisor described the man “as homeless looking,” who approached Wells and his wife “begging for money” as a “heated” conversation ensued, according to a police report from a Joliet officer who responded to the scene.
Surveillance video shows the man approaching the couple, a “discussion occurs,” and the man “backs away and then approaches them again,” according to a Harrah’s security incident report. The man “then backs away again and Wells approaches him.”
The unidentified man “extends his arm or elbow and makes contact with Wells,” according to the security report. “Wells then grabs the [man] and then pushes him and then punches him in the face and takes him to the ground. Wells then goes into the valet attendant outside area and the [man] gets up and approaches him. Wells then goes into the trunk of his vehicle and takes an item out and moves toward” the man, who “then walks quickly away and leaves property.”
The item was a “police-type” baton or flashlight, records indicate.
When casino security arrived, Wells “became argumentative and aggressive” towards a security official, placing “his hand on [the official’s] chest when explaining the situation,” according to the casino incident report.
Wells also mentioned he was a cop, the report indicates.
Wells said “he was upset with Harrah’s security because of what he felt was a lack of protection,” according to the detective’s report.
Wells and his wife drove off before Joliet police arrived, though Wells told a reporter he did so because his wife was upset, and that he left a business card at the valet stand for follow-up questions.
Wells added that the man he punched was not homeless; he had come out of the casino, so must have been a patron.
McCook Mayor Jeff Tobolski, who also is a Cook County commissioner, said the two-day suspension was appropriate given the circumstances, but added, “I have concerns with the inability of either the Joliet Police Department or the casino to provide safe and adequate protection out there. My understanding is that this officer may be looking into bringing a lawsuit against the City of Joliet and also the casino for failing to do that.”
Wells wouldn’t comment on that.
Darren VanDover, senior vice president and general manager of Harrah’s Joliet, released a written statement saying, “The safety of our patrons is the company’s top priority, and we regret that, over a year ago, this unfortunate incident occurred. Upon learning of the incident, our on-site security team responded in approximately 3 minutes. We will, nevertheless, review our security procedures to determine how a similar situation might be avoided in the future.”
The gaming board has not taken any enforcement action against Harrah’s relating to the incident, and no criminal charges have been filed against anybody, officials said.
For now, Joliet police said their investigation is “suspended.”