Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson is set to come to embattled Lake County Sheriff John Buncich’s defense | Crime and Courts

HAMMOND — Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson could be one of several witnesses to testify this week in defense of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to six counts of wire fraud and bribery that allege he corruptly used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself by soliciting and accepting cash and campaign contributions.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip C. Benson was expected to rest the government’s case against the sheriff late Friday afternoon or early Monday after five days of testimony saying the sheriff shook down towing firms for money to pay campaign debts exceeding $80,000.

Defense lawyers Bryan M. Truitt and Larry W. Rogers, of Valparaiso, are expected to immediately begin presenting their evidence the sheriff only engaged in legitimate political fundraising, and his accusers are unbelievable.

Truitt said he planned to call the Gary mayor at some point in their case.

He didn’t discuss her anticipated testimony, but earlier disclosed in a pre-trial document that she met FBI confidential informant Scott Jurgensen, a 20-year veteran of the Merrillville Police Department and owner of Samson’s Towing in Merrillville.

It states Jurgensen “attempted to corrupt numerous municipal and other public officials, including at least three runs at Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.” There has been testimony the mayor didn’t put Jurgensen on the city’s tow list.

There also has been testimony the sheriff and Freeman-Wilson have been political allies who met more than a year ago to discuss granting the sheriff’s police permission to identify and tow derelict vehicles that violate city ordinances.

Jurgensen said he met the sheriff and gave him $7,500 in cash Sept. 2 for a larger share of Gary’s ordinance enforcement for his towing firm and that of William “Willie” Szarmach, owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station, another target of the FBI investigation into towing bribery.

Nathan Holbrook, an FBI agent, testified Friday be believes the sheriff wanted to get involved in Gary towing to generate more bribe payments from Jurgensen and Szarmach.

The sheriff’s legal team argue the sheriff only wanted to help clean up blight in the city of Gary and didn’t push for excessive towing there.

They are expected to call at least three witnesses to testify the sheriff has been a pillar of the community during a four-decade career in law enforcement who was never arrested until his indictment Nov. 18 in the current case.

Truitt indicated in his cross examination of government witnesses that jurors should be suspicious of Timothy Downs, the sheriff’s former second in command, who distributed the sheriff’s campaign tickets and collected payments on government time. 

Truitt asked Holbrook why the FBI didn’t investigate whether Downs was keeping the political contributions for himself because he was in financial difficulties since he purchased a campground in downstate Monticello, Indiana.

Holbrook said he believed Downs was delivering the money to the sheriff. Jurors saw Downs through an FBI surveillance video carry $7,500 to the sheriff at his office July 21, 2016, and saw the sheriff take the money and put it in his desk without question.

Truitt also argues Szarmach’s credibility is questionable since he also is overheard on FBI surveillance bragging falsely about the value of his home and the money he spends on towing equipment.

Benson said Szarmach wasn’t exaggerating his close relationship with the sheriff. He said telephone records indicate Szarmach and the sheriff talked to each other by phone more than 60 times between 2012 and the arrest of Szarmach and Buncich last fall.

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