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Seeking Justice: A Call for Accountability In Bellwood, IL

September 28, 2023

Purple Heart recipient and decorated war veteran Gregory Middleton received a strange notice in April of 2022. Apparently, someone had reported that his vehicle was involved in a hit and run accident. 

But no such accident had occurred—of that, Gregory was positive. No one else had access to Gregory’s vehicle, and he was sure he hadn’t been involved in accidents lately, let alone a hit and run. 

The truth was that things were about to get a lot more complicated than a mere hit and run. In reality, Gregory was about to step into a 17-month battle to protect his constitutional rights, and possibly, even his freedom. 

The Ruse

The notice was from Detective Warren Hernandez of the Bellwood Police Department. Gregory didn’t know this at the time, but 12 years earlier on December 17, 2010, a Bellwood man had filed a suit in the Circuit Court of Cook County against Detective Hernandez. 

In Judge John W. Darrah’s opinion on the case (which was later dismissed), he recalls the man’s disturbing allegations against Hernandez and his then partner: 

“Plaintiff claims during the visit by Defendants Hernandez and Guliano, the officers used excessive and unlawful force in restraining Plaintiff, caused him injury, held him without probable cause, and deprived him of his Fourth Amendment rights.”

Soon enough, Gregory would endure a similar experience with Detective Hernandez. But in good faith, Gregory reached out to Detective Hernandez the same day he received the accident notice, sure that this was all a misunderstanding. 

He wrote in an email to the detective: 

“Good evening Det.,  

I just received a letter from you informing me that my vehicle was involved in a hit and run accident. I  assure you that my vehicle was not. No one drives it but me, and I, nor it were involved in an accident. On  4/2/22, I don’t believe I left my property on the Southside of Chicago. I’d like to resolve this as quickly as possible. Please call me ANYTIME…” 

There was one more thing that Gregory didn’t know: the alleged hit and run was a ruse designed to lure him down to the station. In reality, Gregory was a suspect in a robbery that had occurred in Bellwood several months earlier on December 19, 2021. 

The Robberies 

In fact, three armed robberies had occurred that night. The first armed robbery occurred at 11:05 p.m. on December 18. The second one occurred forty minutes later, and the third occurred thirty minutes after that. 

The second two robberies occurred in the same location, and the first within a half-mile of the other two. The description of the offender in each robbery was remarkably similar—all three involved the offender pointing a gun at the victim and demanding money. 

The overwhelming likelihood is that all three armed robberies were committed by the same offender. 

Yet for unknown reasons, Bellwood police investigated each of these armed robberies as separate incidents with separate personnel. There was no attempt to determine if the robberies were related, and to this day, none of those robberies have been solved. 

The third robbery, involving a victim named J.W., was the only robbery in which a suspect was named. 

The Accusation

At the scene of the crime, J.W. described the offender as a male black subject, wearing black  clothing, a skull cap, and a black facemask, about 5’8”, with medium build. 

She did not identify the offender as someone she knew. 

On January 4, 2022, two weeks after the incident, J.W. informed Detective Hernandez that she  had received a text message from Gregory, whom Hernandez’s report characterizes as “a subject that she knew from her past.” 

How long in the past she had known him, and when was the last time she had seen him? Was it five years ago? Ten years ago? Twenty? We don’t know, because there’s no information in Hernandez’s report reflecting the nature of J.W.’s prior relationship with Gregory.

Were they good friends, acquaintances? Was he an ex boyfriend? Hernandez later testified he had no recollection of asking J.W. these basic, crucial questions. Nor did Hernandez ask J.W. if there was anything about the offender that made her believe it was Gregory. 

He didn’t even ask her if she recognized his voice. 

J.W. informed Hernandez that once she determined the text message to be from Gregory, she conducted a social media search and found a video of him. At that point, J.W. decided that Gregory was the person who robbed her. 

According to Hernandez’s report, J.W. “theorized that after her items were taken, he used the phone numbers located in her wallet and on the business cards to her business to reach out to her to see if she may have recognized him.”  

This, of course, is utter speculation and nonsensical.  

The text message from Gregory related to his attempt to start a cleaning business, which was also J.W.’s business. And the phone number Gregory used to text J.W.? It was listed on her cleaning company’s website. 

The Botched Lineup 

Hernandez prepared a photo lineup for J.W., which violated Bellwood policy in multiple ways:  

  • Hernandez placed two photos of the same person in the lineup, which Hernandez later admitted was improper and violated his training.  
  • Per BPD policy, the lineup process “shall be used when a suspect is not known to the  victim…” The process is not intended for a victim who claims to know the suspect. 
  • BPD Policy strictly prohibits the presence of anyone in the room who knows the identity of the suspect when the witness is viewing the lineup. But the Village of Bellwood  admitted that Hernandez–who obviously knew the identity of the suspect – was present when J.W. viewed the lineup.  

When J.W. viewed the lineup, she said she was “leaning toward” Gregory’s picture. Of course, she already knew Gregory, so her tentative identification of him was no surprise.  When he later applied for a search warrant for Gregory’s phone records, Hernandez misrepresented the lineup results to a Cook County judge, claiming that J.W. identified Gregory without noting the equivocal responses. 

Of course, the lineup should never have been conducted in the first place under BPD policy.  

By January 4, 2022, Hernandez had the name of the person he believed robbed J.W. –and the two other victims–with a deadly weapon. With the resources of the police force at his disposal, Hernandez had all the tools to locate this alleged armed and dangerous offender.

Yet for some inexplicable reason, Hernandez was not able to track down Gregory for nearly five  months. Gregory was not hiding–he had no idea the police were looking for him. On January 10, Hernandez went to Gregory’s registered address to see if his vehicle was in the driveway. 

Yet he never so much as knocked on the door to see if Gregory was inside. 

When asked why he failed to see if Gregory was in the home, Hernandez later testified: 

“I don’t want to tip my hand…if we go and speak to somebody at the house, they can let him know, hey, the police are here looking for you. Now he knows that the next thing you know, they’re in the wind.”  

Hernandez claimed in a deposition that he made additional attempts to locate Gregory in the  following months, but admitted that he did not document a single attempt in his report. In short, there is no record of any attempts to find Gregory for questioning.  

As a result of Hernandez’s inaction and apparent lack of interest in locating this alleged armed  offender, he did not find Gregory until he sent the fake accident notice to Gregory’s registered  address in Aurora on April 14, 2022, over four months after the armed robberies. 

So without knowing anything about the shoddy investigative work that had been done to “identify” him as a suspect in the crime, Gregory unwittingly headed down to the station hoping to clear things up on May 3, 2022.

The Confrontation 

To his horror, Gregory was cuffed and detained for seven hours upon his arrival without explanation when he arrived at the Bellwood Police Department. Hernandez also immediately seized Gregory’s phone, for which he had no warrant. 

He kept the phone for two months before allowing Gregory to return to the station to pick it up. No one ever searched or tested the phone. It sat in the Bellwood Police Department for two months collecting dust.  

Gregory was then taken to an interview room where Hernandez read Gregory his Miranda warnings, which Gregory verbally acknowledged. The exchange was captured on surveillance video and Hernandez’s body camera, which sat on a table. 

However, the video footage was ultimately destroyed by Bellwood despite a letter from my office requesting that the footage be preserved. Hernandez then directed Gregory to sign a form acknowledging his Miranda rights. 

Gregory was bewildered and alarmed, and had no idea why he was being held in custody.  As a result, he declined to sign anything. At this point, his senses were on high alert—in addition to being a healthcare executive, a volunteer, and a devoted father to four children, Gregory is also former U.S. Marine who suffers from PTSD. 

In 2006, Gregory was shot in the head by a sniper in Iraq. The same year, he was severely injured jumping out of a building after making sure the men under his command had safely escaped. He broke both feet, shattered both knees, broke his back and tore his left rotator cuff. 

Not surprisingly, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite being triggered by the events at the station, Gregory told Hernandez that while he wasn’t going to sign his form, he was willing to speak with the detective. 

But Hernandez didn’t not ask Gregory a single question. Not his address, not his occupation, not his whereabouts on the night in question, or whether he was ever in Bellwood–nothing. 

This bears repeating: Hernandez had allegedly been searching in vain for Gregory for nearly five months. He suspected Gregory of at least one armed robbery— probably three. 

If Gregory was the offender, he should have been considered armed and dangerous. But Hernandez, who had him in custody, refused to speak to Gregory because he wouldn’t sign a form. 

Felony Charges Rejected

Unbeknownst to Gregory, J.W. was also present at the station. But rather than confirm police had the right man in custody, she refused to give a video-recorded statement implicating Gregory. 

Instead, she told Hernandez and the Felony Review prosecutor that she saw the face of the offender who robbed her, but did not recognize him

Hernandez omitted this fact from his report. 

Because J.W. refused to give a video-recorded statement implicating Gregory, and because she  admitted she saw the offender’s face but did not recognize him despite knowing Gregory, the State’s Attorney rejected felony charges. 

After keeping Gregory locked up for seven hours, Hernandez released him without interviewing him and without informing him why he was arrested.  

After being released, Gregory did not flee the jurisdiction, go into hiding, or any of the other  things a guilty person would do. 

Instead, he obtained an attorney, who contacted Hernandez and scheduled a time for Gregory to return to the Bellwood police station to speak with Hernandez and clear up what Gregory still believed was a misunderstanding.  

Lies, Theft, & False Imprisonment 

Gregory and his attorney returned to the station on May 10, 2022. At this time, Hernandez  informed Gregory and his attorney that the accident notice was a ruse to get Gregory to come to the  station. 

For the first time in the entire investigation, Hernandez took the opportunity to ask Gregory where he was on December 19, 2021. It was the first time Gregory had heard this date, and told Hernandez he’d have to check his calendar, which was on his phone.  

Hernandez refused to allow Gregory to see his phone. Gregory’s attorney demanded the return of Gregory’s cell phone, but Hernandez refused again. Hernandez said he was in the process of obtaining a warrant for the phone—a blatant lie

In fact, Hernandez never sought a warrant for the phone, and was never authorized to confiscate or hold Gregory’s phone. 

Hernandez later sent an email to Gregory’s attorney, stating that:

“Your client’s cell phone was seized with probable cause and a search warrant was conducted at the request of the State’s Attorney’s Office.” 

This was also a lie. Hernandez never sought a warrant for the phone, and the State’s Attorney’s office never requested that he seize the phone. 

The only warrant Hernandez obtained–10 days after Gregory and his attorney came into the station–was a warrant to subpoena Gregory’s cell phone records from his service provider. In other words, Hernandez had taken and kept Gregory’s phone without legal process. 

Which is theft. 

On July 15, 2022, Gregory was finally allowed to pick up his cell phone. He was forced to wait two hours in the Bellwood police station before the phone was returned to him. Gregory’s attorney, Kent R. Brody, sent an email to Hernandez asking why his client had to wait so long. 

Hernandez responded by demonstrating the same level of professionalism with which he approached this investigation, telling Mr. Brody that: 

“We’re not just sitting around inside of the Police Dept eating donuts waiting for offenders to come in and retrieve their property.” 

For this, he was rightly reprimanded by Chief Allen, but that is the extent to which he has been disciplined so far for his egregious neglect of duty throughout Gregory’s case. 

Arrested and Detained Without Probable Cause

There has never been probable cause to believe Gregory is the offender. There was no probable cause for Gregory’s arrest, and no probable cause has ever been established to believe he committed the J.W. robbery or any robbery.  

  • There is no physical evidence tying Gregory to the crime. 
  • Other than the victim’s half-baked, after-the-fact identification, there is no eyewitness who identified Gregory or puts him anywhere near the crime scene or the Village of Bellwood.  
  • There is no evidence Gregory was in or near Bellwood on the date in question.  
  • Gregory’s phone records do not indicate he as in Bellwood on the night in question.  
  • J.W. stated she saw the offender’s face but did not recognize the offender, despite the fact that she knew Gregory. 
  • The victim did not believe Gregory was the offender until well after the robbery, when she received an unrelated text message from Gregory, and theorized he was trying to figure out if she knew he was the offender. 
  • J.W.’s description of the offender–a male black subject, about 5’8”, medium build–could apply to tens of thousands of people in the Chicago area.  

Herandez never sought an arrest warrant, or a search warrant for Gregory’s home. He never  sought to subpoena Gregory’s credit card records or other evidence that might establish his whereabouts on the date in question, or if he was ever in Bellwood. 

He only subpoenaed Gregory’s  cell phone records, which indicated his phone was off at the time of the incident. 

In short, for someone who claims to be convinced Gregory was the offender, Hernandez did very little to establish sufficient evidence – independent of J.W.’s cooperation or non-cooperation – to get charges approved.  

Hernandez never investigated Gregory for the other, nearly identical, robberies.  

Gregory never learned why he was arrested until after he filed suit against Hernandez and  Bellwood. If not for the lawsuit, he would still be looking over his shoulder wondering when he  will be tricked into coming into a police station where he was falsely arrested. 

Righting A Bellwood Detective’s Wrongs 

There are two possibilities suggested by the facts of this case: the first possibility is that  Hernandez believes Gregory is the offender. If that is the case, he showed very little interest in  pursuing charges. 

He never investigated whether Gregory was involved in the other two robberies  that night. It took him five months to find Gregory even though he had virtually all of Gregory’s  information. 

He did not even knock on the door of his registered address, preferring to let this alleged armed felon walk free for fear of alerting him that the police were looking for him. He refused to even speak with Gregory, because he would not sign a form.  

The second possibility is that Hernandez knows Gregory is not the offender, but exploited his  police authority to disrupt someone’s life for his own unfathomable reasons. 

Under either possibility, Hernandez demonstrated a bewildering combination of disregard for the constitutional rights of citizens and for the safety of those he is sworn to protect. 

On July 1, 2022, Gregory filed a federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Illinois against Hernandez and Bellwood, claiming false arrest, unlawful detention, illegal seizure, conversion, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Village of Bellwood agreed to pay Gregory $130,000 to dismiss his case. 

(Need a few sentences here.) When those powers are abused, trust erodes. This, in turn, has a direct and immediate impact on the ability of good officers to fulfill their duties. 

This is why Detective Hernandez’s conduct is so disturbing and cannot be swept under the rug.  

According to The Illinois Public Salaries Database, Hernandez earns an annual salary of $125,188. That’s higher than 97.18% of the rest of Bellwood’s police department. 

Is this the kind of salary a detective like Hernandez deserves after costing the taxpayers a $130,000 settlement? The actions of Detective Hernandez were not the actions of a law enforcement officer  performing his job in good faith. 

Instead, while purporting to conduct a legitimate investigation,  Hernandez acted as a school-yard bully, albeit one with the powers of the State. He had no interest in any legitimate law enforcement objective – he certainly had no interest in solving any crime. 

To  this day, an armed felon is free–and Bellwood residents are less safe–because of Hernandez’s complete lack of interest in doing his job. 

A Call For Justice 

Civil rights litigation has many public benefits, but there are some things it cannot do. 

One of those things is to achieve the kind of accountability and acknowledgment a jury verdict or a financial  settlement is not designed to accomplish, especially when the settlement does not include an admission of liability, as is the case here. 

So what would justice look like for a case like Greogry’s? 

For starters, the department should provide an official apology to Gregory and take appropriate disciplinary action against Detective Hernandez.  

These small but meaningful gestures would be a symbolic first step in showing the people that the department is wary of wayward officers, and dedicated to upholding their sworn commitment to justice. 

Experiencing Police Misconduct? Chicago Civil Rights Attorney Can Help 

If your rights have been violated, it’s crucial to consult with a civil rights attorney who can provide the most appropriate guidance based on your case’s specific circumstances.

Reach out for a free consultation today and see how Jordan Marsh can help you get the justice you deserve. 

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