Illinois Lieutenant Claims Arson Charges Were Fabricated

A black Illinois fire lieutenant who was acquitted of arson charges last year for a 2015 fire has filed suit in US District Court alleging that state and local investigators fabricated evidence and tried to frame him.

Lt. Samuel Wilson of the Country Club Hills Fire Department was charged with setting fire to a sports bar in Sauk Village. He was a co-owner of the bar, named Levels Sports Bar. Lt. Wilson was acquitted on March 19, 2019 after a bench trial.

The suit names the Village of Sauk Village, a Sauk Village police officer identified only as Officer Grossman, and an investigator with the Office of the Illinois State Fire Marshal, Kevin Smith. Lt. Wilson claims he previously reported Smith for making “racially charged remarks.”  

According to the complaint, the bar had been vandalized several times prior to the fire. As explained in the complaint:

  • In the early hours of October 24, 2015, the Plaintiff, Samuel Wilson, was in his car watching over the bar in an attempt to catch the vandals.
  • In the early morning hours, the Plaintiff saw someone suspicious approach the bar.
  • He immediately called the police and then went to the bar to try and catch the vandal himself.
  • Sauk Village police responded to the scene, where they discovered the Plaintiff’s bar had minor fire damage.
  • It was apparent from police reports submitted in the case about that initial police call that the Plaintiff was a victim of the arson, not the perpetrator.
  • Defendant Smith investigated the matter.
  • However, Defendant Smith was not an independent evaluator of the evidence.
  • Instead, Defendant Smith and the Plaintiff knew one another through the Plaintiff’s work as a firefighter.
  • Defendant Smith, who is white, and the Plaintiff, who is black, had an adverse relationship due to some racially charged remarks that the Defendant made in regard to the Plaintiff, some years ago.
  • As a result of that incident, Defendant Smith was admonished and banned from visiting the Country Club Hills fire station, causing Defendant Smith embarrassment.
  • Defendant Smith completed a report in this case that he submitted to Sauk Village Police and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
  • Defendant Smith concluded the fire to the Plaintiff’s bar was the result of the Plaintiff committing arson, even though he knew this was false, and that, in fact, there was no probable cause to believe the Plaintiff committed a crime.
  • Defendant Officer Grossman also investigated this matter, and he also knew there was no probable cause to believe the Plaintiff committed a crime, including arson.
  • To support the false charges, Defendants Smith and Grossman fabricated evidence and/or knew that the other was fabricating evidence, and/or agreed to submit this false evidence to the State’s Attorney’s Office to get the Plaintiff charged with arson.
  • In furtherance of this agreement, Smith and Grossman agreed to submit a staged crime scene and/or knew the other was doing so.
  • Specifically, Defendants Smith and Grossman agreed to claim that a paper towel roll, a lighter, and a paper towel were found together at the crime scene, and that the Plaintiff left them there when police arrived on the night in question, when, in fact, these were random items found separately in the Plaintiff’s bar, and were not instrumentalities of the fire.

The suit alleges malicious prosecution and a violation of Lt. Wilson’s constitutional rights under  42 U.S.C. § 1983. Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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