Lake County Sheriff John Buncich

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich at a recent news conference.

John J. Watkins, The Times

HAMMOND — Defense lawyers for Lake County Sheriff John Buncich calls to the witness stand Tuesday included Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, a Carmelite nun and a tow truck owner who is a convicted felon.

The seventh day of the sheriff's public corruption trial ended in verbal fireworks between Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip C. Benson and John "Lefty" Nauracy, of East Chicago, who is a convicted felon and owner of JAN towing.

Nauracy left the courtroom after testifying and being called to the bench by U.S. District Court Judge James Moody. He later declined to comment on whether Moody ordered him to get out of the courtroom when he tried to stay.

It was the first full day of defense witnesses for Buncich, who 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.

His lawyers indicated they could rest their case as early as Thursday unless the sheriff takes the stand in his own defense, a decision they won't make until then.

Freeman-Wilson testified Tuesday morning she and the sheriff agreed to have the sheriff deploy county police officers to assist the understaffed Gary Police Department in reducing crime in the city.

She said that included county officers towing derelict vehicles that were contributing to blight and crime in the city. She said she contributed to Buncich's political campaigns but only wrote checks, never gave cash.

On cross examination, Benson asked her if she ever retrieved campaign contributions from the driver's seat of a towing truck. She said she never did that.

The question was in reference to testimony last week in which William "Willie" Szarmach, of Hobart, and former owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station, said he gave money to the sheriff, including $3,500 in two separate envelopes. He said he left the envelopes in the driver's seat of his new truck and invited the sheriff to look inside it. He said the sheriff grabbed the money. Szarmach is a witness for the prosecution.

Susan Pelfrey, a former New Chicago town councilwoman, testified Tuesday to address allegations last week the sheriff used his influence with Pelfrey to get more towing work for Scott Jurgensen, a 20-year veteran of the Merrillville Police Department and owner of Samson's Towing in Merrillville, and an FBI confidential informant.

FBI agent Nathan Holbrook testified last week the sheriff's influence won Jurgensen sole towing rights in the town.

But New Chicago Police Chief James Richardson testified Tuesday he became dissatisfied with one of Jurgensen's competitors and removed that firm from the town's towing list a month before the sheriff called, and he added another towing firm to the list along with Samson's.

The defense called two character witnesses. The first was Darryl Dean Robinson, a mental health counselor who works with jail inmates. Robinson, who stated he is blind, said he believes the sheriff has a reputation for truthfulness. "He never lied to me," Robinson said.

The second character witness, Sister Maria Giuseppe, Carmelite Home administrator, also testified on behalf of the sheriff. "He has a very good reputation. He is a person of integrity," she said.

Nauracy testified he didn't have to pay the sheriff to get on the county police towing list, but he said Timothy Downs and Dan Murchek, the sheriff's top administrators, came to his business one day and tried to sell him tickets.

"I ripped up the tickets and threw them in their faces and told them to get off my property. I thought they were crooked cops," Nauracy said.

Defense lawyers argue the sheriff did nothing wrong and Downs, who has pleaded guilty to collecting bribes for the sheriff and is cooperating with the government, kept the bribe money.

Benson asked Nauracy on cross examination whether he tried to intimidate government informant Jurgensen shortly before the trial began, by driving to Jurgensen's towing business and his home and videotaping Jurgensen's daughter, who was in the front yard.

Nauracy said he only drove to those locations at the request of Ricardo "Streetwise" Moreno, an East Chicago political activist, and Moreno either took photos or video with a cellphone.

Nauracy denied the sheriff was involved. He said he only wanted to dispel rumors broadcast by listeners of a Hammond WJOB radio talk show that Nauracy was the confidential FBI informant referred to in Buncich's indictment as "Individual A."

Benson said Jurgensen already had been identified as Individual A by The Times, which reported Jurgensen's role in the investigation five days after Buncich's indictment.

Nauracy accused Benson, saying, "You asked Streetwise to do it." An incredulous Benson responded, "I did it? I did it?"

Benson told Nauracy: "Nobody forced you to drive there." Nauracy said, "I've got my reasons. He was trying to get me out of the towing business," though Nauracy never identified who "he" was in his comment.

Nauracy was sentenced to about four years in federal prison after pleading guilty in Chicago federal court to mail fraud. 

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Lake County reporter

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.