John Buncich

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich

HAMMOND — Presentation of evidence opened Monday afternoon in the public corruption trial of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip C. Benson told jurors Buncich sold his office to pay off his campaign debts in his opening statement to the jury. Benson told jurors they will see video and hear audio tapes of the sheriff personally accepting bribe money from tow truck drivers.

“You will see the sheriff taking money and putting it in his back pocket," Benson said Monday afternoon in an opening statement where he pointed his finger at the sheriff, seated at the defense table. The sheriff remained passive during these accusations.

One of Buncich's lawyers, Bryan M. Truitt, of Valparaiso, said in his opening statement the sheriff did nothing wrong. "The FBI tried to buy a crime where one didn't exist."

The first witness Benson called was Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson’s Towing, of Merrillville. He was cross-examined by Larry W. Rogers, of Valparaiso, Buncich's other attorney.

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

Jurgensen, a 20-year veteran of the Merrillville Police Department, said he got into towing after a back injury ended his police career.

Jurgensen said he experienced difficulty getting contracts to do towing for local police departments including Merrillville's. He said an FBI agent asked him why and he answered, "I don't pay bribes."

He said the agent asked him to start paying the bribes as a confidential informant of an FBI investigation.

Jurgensen said he balked initially because he feared for the safety of his family. He said he agreed after an FBI agent told him, "Evil men prosper because good men do nothing." He said the FBI paid him more than $130,000 over five years for his work and the expenses involved, including bribe money.

Jurgensen said he already was on the sheriff's approved tow list before he became an informant and started paying bribes because he was a friend of Timothy Downs, the sheriff's second-in-command.

But he began working with William Szarmach, a Lake Station towing firm owner who said he was cold to the sheriff. They agreed to jointly pay bribes to increase the work they received from county police.

"I knew that if I wanted to stay on the tow list, I had to pay," Jurgensen said.

Jurgensen said Downs and Daniel Murchek, the sheriff's third-in-command, brought him the sheriff's campaign fundraising tickets, and he bought thousands of dollars of tickets even though he never went to the fundraising events.

Jurgensen said he was prepared to support Downs for sheriff once Buncich left office because of term limits, but Downs later backed out after Dan Murchek opened his own campaign for sheriff.

He said he gave Murchek campaign contributions and Murchek promised him a county police towing list that would be shorter than Buncich's.

Jurgensen said he and Szarmach met personally with the sheriff and made payments to him several times last year and Jurgensen said he recorded the meetings without the sheriff's knowledge.

He said at one meeting, in April 2016, Szarmach invited the sheriff to look at Szarmach's new truck. The sheriff went inside and came out with what appeared to be thousands of dollars in cash Szarmach left on the seat.   

Jurgensen said he gave the sheriff an envelope containing money too and he and Szarmach later got exclusive work to tow derelict cars in Gary, which allowed the sheriff to enforce cars in violation of the city's ordinances.

Jurgensen said he later gave the sheriff $7,500 to get exclusive towing rights in the town of New Chicago. He said the sheriff said he would speak with Sue Pelfrey, then a town councilwoman, on Jurgensen's behalf. Jurgensen said he later got sole towing rights in the town.

Larry W. Rogers, who is part of Buncich's defense team, questioned Jurgensen how he knew others were paying the sheriff bribes. Jurgensen said he trusted those who told him so, including Szarmach and Downs.

Jurgensen said he believes the sheriff had sole authority over who stayed on the approved towing list. He said after he became identified as a confidential informant for the FBI in the bribery case, he said the county stopped sending him towing work.

Benson told the court he expects to begin presenting video and audio surveillance as early as Tuesday.

Check back at nwi.com for updates to this story.

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Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.