When Carol Stream police discovered nearly 10 ounces of cocaine in an apartment storage locker early this month, the alleged owner of the drugs had a story to tell.
He said that after serving as an informant for three Schaumburg tactical police officers, he had become their business partner. The cops, he said, stole cash and narcotics from drug dealers. The informant peddled the dope they seized.
That claim led the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to mount a sting operation against the Schaumburg officers. When it allegedly bore fruit, federal agents pounced, arresting the men Wednesday outside of Woodfield Mall.
The officers now face a barrage of felony charges that could land them in prison for decades. It's the second recent blot on the Schaumburg Police Department's reputation: Chief Brian Howerton was recently investigated on allegations he harassed his ex-girlfriend, though prosecutors declined to press charges.
Now village officials are left grasping for answers at how this case of alleged corruption could take place in their town.
"I think that this is going to leave a mark on the department," Village Manager Ken Fritz said Thursday after the charges against the officers were outlined at a bond hearing. "It's sad for those people that have to carry on in the future and it's going to take us a long time to earn back some of the trust of the community."
DuPage County Assistant State's Attorney Audriana Anderson said in court that the roots of the alleged conspiracy stretch back to 2010, when officer Matthew Hudak arrested a man on drug charges and convinced him to become an informant.
But that relationship changed in mid-2012, Anderson said, when Hudak and his colleagues John Cichy and Terrance O'Brien — all tactical officers in Schaumburg's special investigations division, which handles drugs, gangs and undercover work — approached the informant with a new deal in mind: They wanted him to buy and sell drugs on their behalf.
Marijuana, cocaine and thousands of dollars repeatedly exchanged hands, prosecutors said. Hudak allegedly funded one buy with $14,000 in cash; he allegedly gave his share of marijuana to another drug dealer to sell.
Other times, prosecutors said, the officers gave the informant a portion of the narcotics they had recovered in legitimate busts. He allegedly sold it for them and split the profits.
Hudak, 29, tried to keep an eye on his partner, Anderson said, by illegally using a law enforcement computer system to check whether the informant had been in contact with other police agencies.
The officers allegedly stashed 6 pounds of marijuana at the Hoffman Estates home of Nicole Brehm, 44, who prosecutors said was O'Brien's longtime girlfriend and the mother of one of his children. O'Brien, 46, who has been a police officer for 20 years, is married and has four other children with his wife, prosecutors said.
A woman at O'Brien's northwest suburban home declined comment to a Tribune reporter Thursday.
The scheme went on for six to nine months, prosecutors said, until Carol Stream police, acting on an unrelated tip, got a search warrant for the informant's apartment. Once they found the drugs, the informant told them about his relationship with the Schaumburg police officers, prosecutors said.
That led to DEA surveillance, in which allegedly illegal exchanges were secretly recorded, and finally a sting operation.
Prosecutors said the informant told the officers that an out-of-state associate was coming into town, and they decided to rip him off. On Saturday, prosecutors said, the officers went to a Roselle storage unit where they believed the dealer had stashed $20,000.
Audio and video equipment captured what happened next, prosecutors said: The officers, wearing masks, broke in and took the cash. Then they brought the money back. Then they returned one more time and retrieved it. Cichy was caught on video lifting his mask, prosecutors said.
On Wednesday, federal agents arrested the officers in a parking lot outside of Woodfield Mall and executed 20 search warrants at the police station, the officers' homes and their cars. They found $10,000 of the bait money in Hudak's home and $5,000 each with Cichy and O'Brien, authorities said.
"Everything you have on tape, I did. You got me on that," Anderson quoted Hudak as telling authorities.
O'Brien told investigators that the trio committed the crimes "for the thrill of it," Anderson said.
The men answered a few perfunctory questions in bond court. Only Cichy, 30, showed any sign of emotion.
He choked back tears, buried his head in his hands and repeatedly shook his head as prosecutors detailed the allegations and possible prison terms. Cichy's girlfriend, mother and aunt sat quietly in the back row of the courtroom gallery as the men were ordered held on $750,000 cash bond.
The two most serious charges the men face — unlawful delivery of a controlled substance and calculated criminal drug conspiracy — carry a prison term of up to 40 years.
Brehm, O'Brien's girlfriend, was charged with calculated criminal drug conspiracy for allegedly letting the officers use her house to stash drugs.
Thomas Glasgow, Hudak's attorney, said his client had been set up by a "snitch" who was trying to wriggle out of trouble. Narcotics officers often make deals with "little fish" to zero in on bigger criminals, he said.
"In order to collar the bad guys, you've got to act like the bad guys," Glasgow said.
The offices of the Cook County state's attorney and public defender are looking at cases in which the officers were involved to determine whether any have been compromised. Criminal defense experts said some prosecutions could be tainted because of questions about the officers' credibility and their unavailability to testify.
A 1998 federal report on drug-related police corruption found that insufficiently supervised narcotics bureaus could be "high-risk environments" for illegal activity.
Howerton, Schaumburg's police chief, said he felt there was sufficient oversight of his department's special investigations unit.
"We believe this is the actions of three individuals, not a pervasive situation within the department," he said.
Freelance reporters Clifford Ward, George Houde and Amanda Marazzo and Tribune reporter Jonathan Bullington contributed.