|Joseph Kopacz disappeared as a jury began deliberations in his home invasion and criminal sexual abuse case at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on Nov. 8th. | CPD|
A repeatedly-convicted sex offender and burglar is on the loose after he fled from the Leighton Criminal Courthouse this month while a jury prepared to convict him of home invasion and aggravated criminal sexual abuse, according to court records and multiple officials who spoke with CWBChicago.
Joseph Kopacz, 54, had been free on $500,000 bail since shortly after he was accused of entering a Lakeview man’s home, crawling into the victim’s bed, and sexually abusing him in October 2016. But on Nov. 8th, as the jury deliberated for a little over an hour, Kopacz walked out of the courthouse. He did not return for the reading of the verdict that afternoon and he has not been seen since, according to a juror on the case and law enforcement officials.
|Kopacz’s profile photo from Meetup.com|
“When the jury walked out to deliver our final verdict of guilty on all charges, we saw an empty chair where Joseph Kopacz had previously sat,” the juror said.
Perhaps as troubling as Kopacz’s disappearance is this: None of the authorities in the courtroom that day informed the Cook County Sheriff’s Office of the “heater case” that was coming their way—not the judge, not the clerk, not the prosecutors, not even the bailiffs thought to flag the matter for special attention. Instead, a standard bond forfeiture warrant was sent to the sheriff along with dozens of other routine warrants for the day, a source said.
CWBChicago contacted the sheriff’s office this week after the juror sent an email expressing concern about Kopacz’s whereabouts to an editor. The sheriff immediately launched a priority search for the fugitive.
“Our fugitive apprehension unit has an active and ongoing investigation into the whereabouts of Kopacz with the goal of apprehending him as soon as possible,” a sheriff’s spokesperson said Thursday.
Kopacz won his freedom to await trial after a 69-year-old Uptown man posted a $50,000 deposit bond. That man, identified as a “friend” of Kopacz in court paperwork, is now personally responsible for paying another $450,000 to the court due to Kopacz’s disappearance. The man did not return phone calls seeking comment on Thursday.
Wisconsin and Illinois records show that Kopacz has been repeatedly arrested and charged with cases similar to the Lakeview home invasion since 1990. Young men—usually in their 20’s—have told police in multiple jurisdictions that they awakened in their own beds to find Kopacz, a stranger, standing over them or sexually abusing them.
After the jury delivered their verdict to Kopacz’s empty chair this month, Judge Thaddeus Wilson revoked Kopacz’s bail in absentia, ordered him held without bail and barred him from electronic monitoring. Wilson then met with jurors in the deliberation room.
“He told us that Kopacz was ‘in the wind,’ that he’d somehow slipped his friends and lawyers during deliberation, saying he needed a snack or something. After that, no one knew where he was.”
The juror said Wilson explained that Kopacz’s lawyers and friends who were watching his trial lost track of him during deliberation, “like the lawyers thought he was with his friends and his friends thought he was with the lawyer or something.”
When the jurors pressed Wilson for information, the judge said that from his own experience, Kopacz was “either long gone or still in the building, hanging from the rafters,” the juror said.
Kopacz’s disappearance is only the latest twist in a trial that was full of unusual turns. When prosecutors this spring received permission to tell jurors about similar allegations in Kopacz’s past, Kopacz produced a zinger: His attorney handed over a disc full of images showing the Lakeview victim in various states of undress, apparently sleeping in his home on different nights. The photos, Kopacz claimed, were proof of an on-going and consensual relationship with the 23-year-old victim. Prosecutors said the photos were proof that Kopacz had been in the home repeatedly without the victim’s knowledge.
Kopacz is listed as the president of JAKBuilt, a kitchen and bath remodeling company. Police sources who spoke with CWBChicago expressed their belief that Kopacz’ job may have given him access to house keys which he could have used to surreptitiously enter homes, though that suspicion was never proven.
If Kopacz had been planning his escape throughout the trial, he didn’t give away any clues. “He kept a pretty blank demeanor throughout,” the juror said. “he was not emoting at all….I’ll admit I did find it harder to look at him the more the trial went on though, mostly from hearing the things he did and seeing the pictures he thought would prove he was in a relationship with his victim. They were unsettling.”
With permission of the court, Kopacz twice traveled out of state while free on bond—once to Wisconsin and then to California for an unspecified medical treatment. Officials said he was consistently compliant with the terms of his bail bond, reporting once a month to a pre-trial counselor.
But how did he manage to slip away at the last minute?
None of the officials we spoke with about Kopacz could recall another instance of a defendant going AWOL during deliberations. Persons on bail are free to come and go—that’s the whole purpose of posting bond in the first place, so defendants like Kopacz are not monitored or tracked during trial.
Sheriff’s deputies and court workers told us that fear of forfeiting a large bail, the uncertainty of living life on the run, and knowing that even more prison time is a certainty when they are caught all factor in. But Kopacz’s $50,000 bond was put up by a “friend,” and Kopacz had nothing to lose financially. It appears that he has decided to risk it.
“I used to stay up at night worrying about work, money, or ghosts in my more imaginative moments,” the Kopacz juror told us this week. “Lately, I’ve just laid awake in bed wondering who else Joseph Kopacz could be hurting at that very moment.”
The Cook County State’s Attorney and Kopacz’s defense attorney, Daniel Radakovich, declined to comment on this story because it involves pending litigation. JAK Built and Kopacz did not respond to emails.
Our exclusive reporting is 100% reader-funded. Please make a contribution to our operating fund or purchase a subscription today.