Chicago Police are investigating alleged sexual misconduct by at least two ex-lifeguards

a sign reading pool only open when lifeguard on duty
The police activity follows a months-long WBEZ investigation revealing allegations that workers in the Aquatics Department regularly committed “sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, workplace violence, and other criminal acts” against other employees – including minors. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
a sign reading pool only open when lifeguard on duty
The police activity follows a months-long WBEZ investigation revealing allegations that workers in the Aquatics Department regularly committed “sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, workplace violence, and other criminal acts” against other employees – including minors. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Police are investigating alleged sexual misconduct by at least two ex-lifeguards

Chicago Park District lifeguards have filed at least three reports of sexual misconduct against co-workers and Chicago police detectives are investigating the alleged abuse of Aquatics Department employees, WBEZ has learned.

A police spokeswoman said that officers interviewed a “person of interest” this week in one case involving a male park district supervisor at Humboldt Park who’s accused of committing sexual misconduct against a 16-year-old female lifeguard when he was 31.

And records obtained by WBEZ show police opened investigations into two complaints filed earlier this year against another senior lifeguard on the city’s Northwest Side, who was accused of sexually attacking other park district employees at the pools in Portage Park and Jefferson Park.

The police closed one of those two cases on the Northwest Side after a detective determined that the statute of limitations for the alleged crime had expired. But the other case remains “open and assigned,” a spokeswoman for the department said Friday.

The police activity follows a WBEZ investigation that started in April, revealing the park district’s inspector general was secretly conducting a “broad investigation” into allegations that workers in the Aquatics Department regularly committed “sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, workplace violence, and other criminal acts” against other employees – including minors.

The station later uncovered accusations of sexual misconduct from more than a dozen female lifeguards going back decades.

Meanwhile, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is now conducting an investigation into workplace sexual misconduct allegations from lifeguards – and the park district’s handling of a long-running internal investigation into the matter.

Foxx said she assigned specialists in sex crimes and public corruption to the case and recently called on victims to come forward and contact prosecutors using a hotline for park district survivors: 312-603-1944.

When asked Thursday about the complaints made to police, a spokeswoman for Foxx said, “No charges have been filed in connection with the investigation into allegations of sexual assaults committed by Chicago Park District staff members.”

But the Foxx spokeswoman added that prosecutors continued “to actively investigate these matters with law enforcement partners.”

On Saturday, longtime park district CEO and General Superintendent Michael Kelly stepped down over the scandal, hours after Mayor Lori Lightfoot called for the park district board to fire him “immediately” for mishandling the allegations from lifeguards.

Last week, park district officials said the Humboldt Park lifeguard supervisor facing sexual misconduct accusations had resigned. He was the fourth senior lifeguard known to have left the park district payroll in the growing lifeguard abuse scandal.

When asked about the Humboldt Park case, the police spokeswoman told WBEZ, “Detectives questioned a person of interest [Tuesday], but the individual was released without charging. The investigation is ongoing.”

Park district officials have said they were “made aware” of the man’s alleged misconduct against an “underage former seasonal worker” on Aug. 26. Lastmonth, the park district said it received “screenshots of text messages which include reports of inappropriate communications and choking done in a sexual manner.”

The supervisor was suspended on Sept. 13 and he quit on Oct. 4, officials said.

Lightfoot cited that case in her statement Saturday calling for the park district board of commissioners to fire Kelly, who was paid $230,000 a year and held the position for more than a decade.

Police investigate multiple incidents

Earlier this year, investigators for the park district inspector general’s office told top agency officials and board members that they had found evidence corroborating accusations of serious sexual misconduct against three senior lifeguards, according to confidential documents obtained by WBEZ.

One of those three lifeguards was the subject of two police reports filed with officers on the Northwest Side in May and July, according to records obtained recently through an open records request to Chicago Police.

In the first case, a woman told police that she was assaulted in the women’s staff locker room at the Portage Park pool in 2016, when she was an 18-year-old summer employee who worked as a lifeguard.

But officers closed that case on June 13, according to a police report in the case. A detective wrote, “This incident is outside the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution.”

On July 2, another woman filed a police report against the same man, who is now in his mid-20s. She alleged she was sexually attacked in a room near the pool at Jefferson Park in 2018, records show.

“The victim stated that during the sexual incident, she continually told the offender ‘No, stop’ but he dismissed her pleas,” according to the police report in the case. “The offender was in a position of authority over the victim as the offender held a supervisory position.”

The young woman was a seasonal lifeguard and the alleged attacker held the title of “mate” at the park district, records show. The vast majority of on-site supervisors at public beaches and pools – known as mates and captains – are male, a WBEZ analysis of lifeguard payroll has found.

On Friday, a police spokeswoman said that case remained under investigation.

Those two accounts given to police tracked closely with the detailed, 14-page report that the park district inspector general’s office wrote about the alleged attacker on April 9. The report was shared with the park district’s CEO, its top lawyer and the parks board commissioners.

In March, records show, a representative from Service Employees Union Local 73 informed the inspector general’s office that the man was “no longer an employee of the park district” and did not intend to reapply for a summer job there.

The alleged attacker “declined to cooperate with the [inspector general’s] investigation,” according to the internal park district report in his case. And the man told WBEZ in the spring that the allegations against him were false.

Records show he worked for the park district as a lifeguard for eight years. Investigators for the park district wrote that one of his two accusers told them “it really ‘sucks to be a female’ in the Aquatics Department because females are always bullied.”

She said the male lifeguard “molested” her in the women’s locker room at Portage Park in 2016, fondling her over her clothes even as she pushed his hands away and “repeatedly pleaded” for him to stop, according to the inspector general’s report.

The second accuser told the park district investigators of a similar attack by the same man two years later in the locker room at Jefferson Park’s pool. The man allegedly restrained the female lifeguard and forcibly fondled her beneath her clothes, according to the report.

The park district inspector general concluded in the April report that the man “more likely than not” committed criminal sexual abuse and assault against the two women, according to documents.

The woman who said she was attacked at Jefferson Park told park district investigators she did not file a police report at the time or tell park district officials about the alleged assault “because she did not think that anything would be done.”

The other young woman who said she was assaulted at Portage Park similarly said she had not considered going to the police after the alleged attack because “she believed that she could not do anything about what he had done.”

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him @dmihalopoulos.