Metra chief Phil Pagano killed by train

May 7, 2010 (CRYSTAL LAKE, Ill.)

Pagano apparently walked in front of a Metra train in Crystal Lake around 8 a.m. in an apparent suicide.

The Crystal Lake Fire Department was called to the scene at East Hillside Road in Crystal Lake. The Secretary of State confirmed with ABC7 that a car registered to Pagano was parked at the station.

Pagano was under investigation for financial irregularities at Metra that included reports that he had received an unauthorized $56,000 bonus on top of his $269,000 salary. His death came just hours before an emergency meeting in which the Metra board of directors planned to discuss Pagano's alleged misconduct. The emergency meeting was abruptly canceled Friday morning without explanation.

Pagano was on paid administrative leave from Metra, where he has worked since 1984. He became the executive director in 1990.

It was widely held that the board of directors would be taking disciplinary action, most probably firing the long-time Metra executive director who had worked with and was friends with many of them for years.

Shortly before it started, grim-faced Metra staffers told the board members that something awful had happened and that there would be no meeting because Pagano had ended his life.

For 20 years, Pagano was Metra's executive director. Within transportation circles nationwide, he was highly regarded.

Promoting rail safety was - of necessity - a big part of his job, and Pagano spoke often of how difficult it was for his engineers who were involved in fatal accidents or suicides.

On Friday morning, Mr. Pagano appears to have purposely walked onto Union Pacific tracks outside Crystal Lake where he was hit by inbound Metra train number 632. Pagano died instantly.

"The engineer did see Mr. Pagano standing in the center of the tracks. He was unable to stop the train before making contact with him. We have secured evidence both at the scene and at the victim's residence that would indicate that this was an intentional act on his part," said Sheriff Keith Nygren, McHenry County.

Ten days ago, Pagano was placed on paid administrative leave by the Metra board amidst reports that he had received an unauthorized $56,000 bonus atop his annual salary of nearly $270,000.

The board hired attorney James Sotos to investigate, and he was to present his report to Metra officials Friday morning. A half hour before the meeting was to begin reporters were told it had been canceled. The reason would soon become apparent.

Metra said in a written statement, "Phil served this agency with distinction for many years. Today we shall remember the good work he achieved with our board of directors and the men and women of Metra...there is a tremendous sense of loss within the agency...we shall remember him as a dedicated husband, father and grandfather."

Word broke Thursday, however, that the Cook County State's Attorney's office was investigating Pagano's bonus as a potential criminal matter. And it's believed that Friday's special Metra board meeting was to have concluded with Pagano's firing.

Earlier, Senator Dick Durbin had asked for an accounting to determine whether there may have been any misuse of federal money.

"I know he was under investigation and obviously, a troubled soul and I just feel badly for his family and his friends and his loss today," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D), Illinois.

The McHenry County sheriff said written documents were found on Pagano's body and in his home. The sheriff would not divulge content, but said, "I would describe it as a letter indicating his intentions."

Pagano annually received 11 weeks of vacation, and a source says he'd taken a $56,000 bonus in lieu of vacation time and to do so, he had forged the name of his longtime friend, Metra board chairman Carol Doris.The Metra board several years ago had discontinued the practice of giving out bonuses, and the fact that a criminal investigation had started suggests that the issue had gone beyond a violation of in-house rules.

The site of the accident is a level crossing of the southbound train from McHenry that eventually terminates in downtown Chicago. Twenty four passengers and three crew members were on board when the incident happened Friday morning. A McHenry sheriff's deputy just happened to drive by the scene a minute later.

"The engineer made a statement to us that he simply saw a person standing in between the rails of the track looking at the train," said Nygren.

The county coroner may do an autopsy Sunday to officially determine the cause of death.

A person at Pagano's home in the Covered Bridge Trails neighborhood of Crystal Lake would not comment. The sheriff said Pagano's wife was out of state and had been informed of her husband's death.

"We believe it was an intentional act. All the evidence and information that we have been able to obtain leads us to believe that, and we have no information to the contrary. We have no information that would indicate that in any way this was a criminal act," said Nygren.

"I haven't seen much activity. It's a very quiet neighborhood and a lot can happen and none of us really know what is going on. I didn't see activity there. I haven't seen cars there," said Diane Brown, neighbor.

Pagano's death is the third high profile suicide in the past year. Chicago school board president Michael Scott killed himself last November and Chris Kelly, a longtime Rod Blagojevich advisor, killed himself last September. Suicide prevention experts are concerned.

"The thing that we could see in almost every case when someone dies by suicide, they're feeling so awful that their willingness to die overrides their willingness to live," said Edmond Yomtoob, Psy.D., Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Phil Pagano leaves behind a wife and two children.

Statement from Metra's board of directors

It is with great sadness that we report the passing this morning of Philip A. Pagano. Phil served this agency with distinction for many years. Today, we shall remember the good work he achieved with our board of directors and the men and women of Metra. He was dedicated to our passengers as he always considered the women and women of Metra his family and there is a tremendous sense of loss within the agency.

We shall remember him as a dedicated husband, father and grandfather who loved his family more than anyone. Our deepest sympathies as well as our thoughts and prayers are with him, his family and all those who loved him.

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