Oak Forest resident Michelle Sopko and her husband Charles Sopko, an Oak Forest deputy fire chief, were arrested Thursday morning on charges of embezzling $350,000 from the Palos Heights Fire Protection District.
Michelle and Charles Sopko were each charged with felony theft of government property over $100,000, according to the Cook County Sheriff's Department. That is a Class X felony. Police descended on the couple's Oak Forest home Thursday, seizing computers and other electronics, reports a neighbor.
Michelle Sopko worked at the fire district as a part-time administrative assistant, from October 2008 through December 2012. She is accused of redirecting the district's money to the couple’s joint bank account.
Michelle Sopko was arrested during a traffic stop and her husband was taken into custody at the couple's home in the 5200 block of Kathleen Court, according to the Palos Heights Police Department.
In a news release, Palos Heights Police Chief George L. Yott, Jr. remarked on the arrest.
“Although the Palos Heights Fire Protection is not a City of Palos Heights agency, we are saddened that someone who was put in a position of the public trust would violate that trust," Yott said.
The investigation began on Feb. 4, 2013 when the Palos Heights Police Department was notified of missing funds from the fire protection district, police said.
An investigation was then launched that included the Cook County Sheriff’s Police Financial Crimes Unit and the Palos Heights Police Department. Police say that members of the Oak Forest Police Department played an important role during the investigation and ultimate arrest of the couple.
Michelle Sopko also is a member of the Arbor Park School District 145 Board of Education. Charles Sopko is currently the vice president of the Oak Forest Park District.
The couple is currently being held at the Palos Heights Police Department where they will spend the night before appearing in bond court on Friday, Dec. 20.
Charles Sopko has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation, according to a release by the City of Oak Forest.
“We expect the highest standards of ethics from our staff and we will conduct a thorough internal investigation,” City Administrator Troy Ishler stated in the release. “Once that investigation is complete, we will review the status of his employment.”
Other city officials also released statements concerning the arrest:
- “I am stunned by this arrest. … This will not affect the fire department from providing outstanding services to the public.” —Oak Forest Fire Chief Terry Lipinski
- “It is a difficult time when a public servant is arrested. However, this arrest is not related to his duty as deputy fire chief for the City of Oak Forest and I want to be clear that we will continue to cooperate with the investigation as needed.”—Mayor Henry Kuspa