Prosecutors object to using term ‘whistleblower’ at leaker cop’s trial

Defendant not a whistleblower under law, prosecutors says

Javier Esqueda's employee photo from the Joliet Police Department.

Prosecutors are seeking to block a Joliet police sergeant’s defense attorneys from calling him a “whistleblower” at his trial in July because he is not an actual whistleblower under Illinois law.

On March 22, Mark Shlifka, the first assistant state’s attorney in Kendall County, filed a motion asking a judge to prevent Sgt. Javier Esqueda’s attorneys from using the term “whistleblower” or calling Esqueda a “whistleblower” during jury selection, opening statements, evidence presentation, closing arguments or any other portion of the trial.

A judge has not yet ruled on the motion.

Prosecutors have charged Esqueda with official misconduct for accessing a Joliet Police Department squad video that was evidence in a Will-Grundy Major Crimes Task Force investigation of the fatal overdose death of Eric Lurry, 37, who was in police custody, in 2020. Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow cleared the police of wrongdoing in the incident.

The arrestee who died, Eric Lurry, overdosed in the back of a police car in January. The Will Grundy Major Crimes Task Force investigated Lurry’s death and the Will County State’s Attorney’s Office cleared the officers involved of criminal wrongdoing. The Will County Coroner’s Office ruled Lurry’s death was due to heroin, fentanyl and cocaine intoxication and the result of his “ingesting large quantities of the narcotics as depicted in the squad car video."

Esqueda’s attorney Jeff Tomczak has said his client was subjected to a “biased investigation.”

“This is punishment for exposing wrongdoing at the department,” Tomczak said.

Tomczak said he received Shlifka’s motion and is in the process of determining whether they will call an expert witness in the field of police whistleblower cases.

Tomczak said Esqueda “was appalled by the video and that it was being hidden from the family.”

“His motives were pure,” Tomczak said.

Shlifka’s motion argued a whistleblower under the Illinois Whistleblower Act is not merely an employee who “exposes what they believe to be corruption” but one who does so to a government authority or agency.

“Because the defendant made no such disclosures to an entity described in the act, he does not fit within the definition of a ‘whistleblower,’” Shlifka said.

Shlifka contends the use of the term would not be relevant to the case and should be deemed inadmissible under the Illinois rules of evidence for court proceedings.

“Even if the court were to find the use of the term ‘Whistleblower’ to be relevant, the use of the term would be misleading in that it has been characterized, as done by local radio figure Scott Slocum, to fit the conduct of someone who does not even fit the legal description of a whistleblower under the Whistleblower Act,” Shlifka said.

Shlifka referred to a 2020 interview that Tomczak had with Slocum, WJOL-AM content director and Channahon village trustee.

Shlifka said Slocum defined the Whistleblower Act as a law which “allows government officials or police officers to expose what they believe to be corruption,” which Shlifka said was a “rather generic and incomplete description” of the term under Illinois law.

Shlifka said the Esqueda case has received “significant media attention” where certain reporters have labeled Esqueda as a whistleblower.

Prosecutors have also filed a motion to introduce evidence that Esqueda was the subject of two internal investigations and that witnesses claimed he was planning to use the Lurry video “against others if he were to be disciplined for the internal investigations, which were pending against him.”

Shlifka said one investigation was over Esqueda’s failure to supervise in a 2019 incident involving Konika Morrow that led her to file a federal lawsuit against Esqueda and Officers Adam Stapleton and Alan Vertin, Shlifka said.

Shlifka said the other investigation was over improper social media posts by Esqueda.