Sonneveld, investigator in 'license for bribes scandal,' passes away at 63

October 18, 2012 5:54:56 PM PDT
Russell Sonneveld, the investigator and whistleblower whose work and testimony helped convict former Illinois governor George Ryan in the "License for Bribes Scandal" succumbed to a long bout with cancer on Tuesday, just 12 days after his 63rd birthday.

"I liken him to Eliot Ness, he was untouchable" said eldest son Brian. "Except, instead of bringing down a gangster, he went after the most powerful man in the state. In the end, integrity won."

The Roseland native's dream was to become a Chicago cop, though he would began his career in Forest Park in Oct. 1970 while on the CPD waiting list. A year later, he got the call. Sonneveld advanced to plainclothes fairly quickly and became one of the city's top investigators, handpicked by the brass to be part of a then-secret taskforce rooting out dirty cops.

Sonneveld admired the honor and courage of Frank Serpico, the New York cop who famously battled police corruption in 1971, and, like Serpico, couldn't abide any abuse of the public trust.

Under the administration of Governor Jim Thompson, Sonneveld worked his way through the state ranks, becoming the Area Code Commander and, later, Chief Medical Investigator.

Including his stint with the Elk Grove Police Department, Sonneveld had been a part of some of Chicagoland's most notorious investigations, going undercover as a homeless man when that population was being targeted by an arsonist in the 1970's, helping to crack the Patty Columbo homicides, and joining the task force that dug up the cellar of the John Wayne Gacy home.

His most notable work, however, remains his pivotal role in the "License For Bribes Scandal," which found Sonneveld following an evidence trail that led directly to his boss, Secretary of State George Ryan, who was allegedly selling Illinois driver's licenses to fill his campaign-for governor coffers, among other indiscretions.

The investigation began when parts of an improperly hooked truck by one of the unqualified drivers came loose and resulted in an auto accident which killed the six children of Rev. Scott and Janet Willis.

Reports have claimed unqualified drivers caused additional traffic fatalities. Sonneveld's stance against Ryan and his commitment to the truth cost him his job and made him a pariah in state affairs, despite having been one of Ryan's top investigators.

Ryan would often leave messages on the family's telephone answering machine when he couldn't reach Sonneveld directly. Yet, during the tumult, Ryan stated he even denied knowing Sonneveld.

On April 17, 2006, Ryan was found guilty in federal court.

Sonneveld is survived by his children Brian, Stephen and Nicole from his marriage to Jo Anne (Giuffre), his grandchildren Elizabeth, Jessica, Brian and Samantha, and his son Nathanial, from his marriage to Florine (Danno).

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