2 tied to false confessions now instruct cops on investigating

Jeffrey Pavletic, right, has spent 15 years as second-in-command in the Lake County state’s attorney’s office. (David Trotman-Wilkins, Chicago Tribune 2008)

Hoping to prevent bungled police probes and prosecutions like those that have plagued Illinois' legal system, state lawmakers mandated the creation of a class to certify officers as "lead homicide investigators."

But one of the teams being paid tax dollars to teach the five-day course consists of two law-enforcement figures who were involved in — and sometimes central to — a spate of collapsing prosecutions in Lake County, including high-profile cases that disintegrated in the face of contradictory evidence.

In December, appeals judges called out former Waukegan Detective Lou Tessmann by name as they ordered the release of Juan Rivera after almost 20 years in prison. The judges questioned Tessmann's interrogation tactics and the believability of the confession he took from Rivera in the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl.

The other trainer, Jeffrey Pavletic, has spent 15 years as second-in-command in the Lake County state's attorney's office, an agency battered by recent legal losses in cases where defendants were pursued for years after DNA seemed to suggest their innocence.

Pavletic prosecuted Rivera and handled pretrial hearings for Jerry Hobbs, who was released in 2010 after evidence pointed toward another man in the stabbing deaths of two Zion girls. Like Rivera, Hobbs had confessed after a grueling interrogation that prosecutors defended as legally sound.

Pavletic also tried another man, James Edwards, whose guilt has been called into question by DNA.

The legal and financial fallout from these cases promises to trouble Lake County for years, and critics of its judicial system said they were disturbed to learn that officers around the state are being taught by two of the county's key law enforcement figures — at taxpayer expense.

Proper police training could help stem the flow of false confessions and wrongful convictions revealed in the last 25 years by advancing DNA technology, experts said. Steven Drizin, legal director of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, said he fears Lake County's approach to investigations, interrogations and prosecutions could be transmitted "like a virus."

"Are they spreading the wrong lessons throughout the state?" he asked.

Legislators who pushed the certification law, which took effect Jan. 1, questioned the vetting process for instructors. Sen. William Haine, the former Madison County state's attorney, was "shocked" when told by the Tribune that the men taught the course in a nearby county in December.

"I'm at a loss as to why they went up to Chicago to get (instructors with) more baggage than a Greyhound bus when they have diamonds right there in their own backyard," he said.

Pavletic declined to comment. But the lawyer defending him against Hobbs' civil lawsuit, James Sotos, called his client an "extremely ethical and diligent prosecutor."

Tessmann declined to comment.

David Zulawski, chairman of Wicklander-Zulawski & Assocs., the firm that hires out Tessmann and Pavletic for state-sponsored courses, expressed confidence in the men and questioned Rivera's innocence.

"I don't have any doubts about their integrity at all," Zulawski said. "If I did have doubts, they wouldn't work for me."

Cashing in on courses

Although the lead homicide investigator certification class is new, Tessmann and Pavletic have been teaching similar ones for years. Taxpayers have paid nearly $300,000 for courses involving one or both men since 2007, a Tribune investigation has found.

They aren't the only Lake County law enforcement figures who teach police. The Tribune revealed in 2010 that Waukegan Officer Domenic Cappelluti — who helped obtain confessions from Hobbs and another murder suspect who was later cleared — teaches investigation and interrogation through a private firm.

Newly obtained documents show public agencies statewide have paid about $158,000 for classes involving Cappelluti since 2007.