By Dermot Connolly
Oak Lawn Village Administrator Larry Deetjen has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into a hit-and-run incident he was involved in in Chicago Ridge last Thursday night that critically injured a Worth resident.
The Village Board made the decision following an hour-long executive session on Monday morning. The only one missing at the somber meeting called to deal with the crisis was Trustee Terry Vorderer (4th), who was out of the country on vacation. After voting to put Deetjen, 70, on leave, they appointed Police Chief Randy Palmer as interim village manager.
Palmer is an Air Force veteran and 22-year veteran of the department he has led since 2017.
When Mayor Sandra Bury was asked by reporters why Palmer was chosen for the role, she cited his “leadership ability and his long-term commitment to the village, and his willingness to take the job.”
It is not unheard of locally for a police chief to step in as a village manager. Orland Park Police Chief Tim McCarthy recently filled the role in that village on a temporary basis.
Chicago Ridge police said in a statement about the incident that at approximately 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 10, they responded to “a hit-and-run accident in the 10100 block of Harlem Avenue.” The pedestrian who was struck was identified as Mark Berkshire, 48, of Worth. He was transported in critical condition to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, where he remained on Tuesday. His condition could not be confirmed.
Police said that after obtaining information from several witnesses, they were able to determine the car involved was an Oak Lawn municipal vehicle. With cooperation from Oak Lawn police, the vehicle was identified as Deetjen’s and he was taken into custody at his home near 51st Avenue and 96th Street. The car was towed and is being held as evidence.
Chicago Ridge police said that Deetjen and Oak Lawn officials are being cooperative in the investigation. Reportedly, he told police he continued driving because he thought he hit a barrel in the road. They said that at this point, alcohol does not appear to be a factor. He submitted to a breath test, which detected no alcohol. The results of a urine test could take weeks.
The village manager was reportedly on the way home from a wake at Schmaedeke Funeral Home for the father of an Oak Lawn village employee when the accident occurred. After being questioned, Deetjen was released without charges, pending results of the investigation.
This is the second incident in recent years in which Deetjen did not remain on the scene following a traffic accident. During the winter of 2013, his village-owned vehicle went off the road on Southwest Highway and ended up in a ditch. No one was injured that time,
but he left the scene before police arrived and called Oak Lawn Public Works personnel to have the car towed.
“I think he should be fired. It makes the whole village look bad. By his actions, he opened the whole village to a lawsuit,” said an Oak Lawn woman who attended the meeting on Monday. The 37-year resident did not want to give her name.
Oak Lawn village attorney Paul O’Grady acknowledged on Monday that village officials are expecting to hear from legal representation of the victim, but they hadn’t yet.
“We talked about our options. But we don’t have any more information that what has been reported in the media,” said Trustee Tim Desmond (1st) after the meeting.
He said that he had spoken to the village manager, but noted that his family was in town over the weekend for a ceremony to scatter the ashes of his wife, Lynn, who died Aug. 23.
“Our hearts are distraught about this accident,” said Bury.
“This is a continuing investigation. Police in Chicago Ridge are still interviewing witnesses. As a village, it will be business as usual. We have appointed an interim village manager and we anticipate he will move the village business forward,” said O’Grady.