Former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, wearing his orange prison jumpsuit, stared ahead Wednesday in Hammond’s federal court as he was resentenced to 12 years and 6 months in prison on federal corruption charges.
The Wednesday hearing brought the disgraced law enforcement officer back to Lake County from a federal prison in Springfield, Missouri, in front of Judge James Moody to reconsider his prison sentence.
In January 2018, Buncich, 74, was sentenced to 15 years and 8 months in federal prison after he was convicted of bribery and wire fraud, among other charges, for soliciting bribes from county tow operators.
Inside the jury assembly room of the Hammond courthouse, 11 visitors sat six feet apart wearing masks to watch the resentencing hearing streamed on four televisions spread across the room.
When Buncich entered the court room, those watching straightened up. One man leaned in closer and whispered, “Whoa.” Buncich, walking slightly hunched over, has lost 120 pounds while in prison, and he looked frail as he slowly lowered himself into a seat.
“I didn’t recognize him,” said Lake County Councilman Alfredo Menchaca, D-Gary, who was in the audience.
After Buncich filed an appeal, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in June affirming his conviction on charges of bribery and wire fraud, but vacating convictions on three counts of wire fraud, which the government admitted there was insufficient evidence to convict. The appeals judges said Moody should resentence Buncich.
The U.S. Supreme Court denied Buncich’s request to have his case revisited by the court of appeals in November.
Moody announced Wednesday that Buncich’s sentence will be reduced by 37 months, and with credit for time served, he will remain in prison for about 10 more years. Moody said he reached the sentencing decision based on Buncich’s greed in committing the crime and his “blind obedience to corruption.”
“It reflects the seriousness of the crime,” Moody said. “The citizens of Lake County deserve better.”
In a statement, U.S. Attorney Thomas Kirsch II said Buncich “betrayed the public trust when he took bribes for personal gain.”
“The sentence imposed today should send a strong message of deterrence to others who might consider engaging in the same illegal conduct as Buncich. We will continue to be vigilant and aggressive in our efforts to root out public corruption wherever it exists across the district,” Kirsch said in the statement.
Buncich, former Chief Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of C.S.A Towing, were named in a multicount indictment in November 2016 alleging a towing scheme where the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich Boosters, according to court records.
Downs pleaded guilty in December 2016, according to court documents, and Szarmach pleaded guilty in July 2017. Both agreed to testify against Buncich during his trial.
Buncich’s attorney Kerry C. Connor, of Highland, asked Moody to consider resentencing him to time-served and supervised release coupled with home detention.
“Just looking at Mr. Buncich” in the courtroom, Connor said, it is evident that his prison term has taken a toll on him. Buncich has lost weight because he only eats food offered through the commissary to avoid eating in the cafeteria because – given his background in law enforcement – he’s scared to eat with other inmates, she said.
Buncich has various diseases and conditions, including hypertension and pre-diabetes, and he recently had back surgery, Connor said. Given his medical condition and age, Buncich would die if he caught COVID-19 in prison – and the Federal Bureau of Prisons has had challenges containing the virus in its prisons, Connor said.
Continuing to serve his sentence in prison “would likely be a life sentence” for Buncich, Connor said. she said she would appeal Wednesday’s ruling.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said that while the pandemic has impacted daily life the facts of the case against Buncich haven’t changed.
Benson said that Buncich made a conscious decision to pocket money in exchange for towing contracts. During trial, Benson said prosecutors highlighted Buncich’s attitude as a “law and order” sheriff while engaging in misconduct with others in his department.
“This wasn’t a bad decision. This was a bad administration, which Buncich led,” Benson said.
Addressing COVID concerns, Benson said data shows there are three cases of the virus in the Springfield prison. “Statisically,” Buncich would be more likely to catch COVID in Lake County “moving about” than he does in prison, Benson said.
Before he was resentenced, Buncich’s voice was weak as he read from a prepared statement. Buncich said he has spent his “many long days” in prison “reflecting on (his) transgressions.” Prison has “taken a toll on (him) physically and emotionally,” he said.
When he addressed the “considerable hurt and anguish” he has brought upon his family, friends and colleagues, Buncich’s voice cracked and he paused. Moody told him there were tissues on the table.
“I humbly appeal to you, your honor, and the court for mercy,” Buncich said.
Moody denied Connor’s request for supervised release and home detention.
“The defendant has shown – except for today – very little remorse for his conduct,” Moody said.
John Blount, Buncich’s administrative assistant for eight years, said he’s written weekly to his old boss and friend. He was stunned when he saw him on the federal court monitor.
“I couldn’t believe the weight loss and his voice was very weak. He’s going to be 75 in December,” Blount, of Griffith, said. “The facility he’s in has no air conditioning, and it gets uncomfortable in Central Missouri.”
Nikki Byrd, a retired Lake County corrections officer, said she worked at the jail during Buncich’s time as sheriff. Speaking through tears, Byrd said she came to the resentencing to support Buncich.
“This has been rough on people who know him,” Byrd said. “The good outweighs the bad.”
Holding her keys – with a slightly worn out Lake County Sheriff Department key chain that names Buncich sheriff – Byrd said she was surprised to see he had lost so much weight. Byrd said she had hoped Buncich would be sentenced to home detention.
Byrd said she writes to Buncich three times a month, and that they talk over the phone. When they talk, it’s clear “he’s been through a lot,” she said.
“He’s broken. His spirit is broken, and so are the people who really know him,” Buncich said.