The longtime Waukegan police officer named the department's chief last month wrote on his job application to the agency in 1987 that he had trained to be a Navy SEAL, linking himself to an elite, celebrated combat force.
But Chief Robert Kerkorian never trained as a SEAL, according to military records obtained by the Tribune. He was in the Navy for six months and never entered the rigorous training required of the special operations force, records show.
Asked about his military career, Kerkorian repeatedly declined to discuss the issue.
"Anything that preceded my employment here as a police officer has no bearing on my 26 years as a law enforcement officer here," he said.
Appointed in May by new Mayor Wayne Motley — a former Waukegan police officer who served on the SWAT team with the new chief and called him a "very great friend" — Kerkorian leads an agency troubled by scandal and tragedy. Three officers have committed suicide since May 2011, and the prior chief was removed partly because of his response to the deaths.
By adding SEAL training to his application, the new chief essentially credited himself with undertaking "the toughest military training in the world," said Don Shipley, a former SEAL who exposes military fakers online. People who misstate their service on applications, Shipley said, mislead employers and disrespect veterans' sacrifices.
"When you're putting that crap on a job resume, you're definitely trying to profit from it," he said.
Multiple former Waukegan police officers reported hearing that Kerkorian had trained as a Navy SEAL. One former city officer said Kerkorian told him early in his career that he had been through specialized SEAL training before leaving the Navy. The former officer asked not to be named because he believes Kerkorian is a good officer.
Questioned about his new chief's military record, Motley said he had not looked at Kerkorian's personnel file and the two had never discussed his service. His military credentials are "not relevant to his employment as chief," Motley said, describing himself as "very pro-Kerkorian."
"I think he's doing an excellent job. He's very well-respected," he said.
When applying for the department in May 1987, Kerkorian wrote on his application that he had been a "SEAL trainee" from August 1986 to February 1987, according to city records. Military documents showed he was in the Navy during those dates before being discharged.
But his name was not in a database of SEALs or people who have "participated in U.S. Navy SEAL training," according to a letter from Capt. J.M. Ryan of the Navy's Judge Advocate General's Corps. The database extends to before Kerkorian's service and would contain his name if he trained as a SEAL, said Eric Erdmann, a Naval Special Warfare Command open records coordinator.
Aspiring SEALs undergo grueling physical tests and training that go well beyond that of other Navy enlistees.
The core of training for a Navy SEAL — which stands for sea, air and land — is Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, called BUD/S, said Lt. Cmdr. David McKinney, a spokesman for the Naval Special Warfare Command. Along with intense conditioning, SEALs learn combat diving, demolition and marksmanship, among other skills, according to Navy promotional materials.
Roughly 25 percent of men able to pass preliminary screening and make it to BUD/S actually become SEALs, McKinney said.
Navy enlistees who become SEALs are "the toughest of the tough," Shipley said.
After Kerkorian was hired by Waukegan in October 1987, he received strong performance reviews and drew commendations from his superiors and local officials as he stepped up the ranks, according to city records. His file contains letters complimenting him on his physical fitness and thanking him for acts ranging from ridding a city park of drugs and drinking to helping bust an alleged drug kingpin. He made commander in 2003, and his salary was $105,867 in 2012, city records show.
Kerkorian took the chief's job last month amid tragedy and internal discord.
Three officers committed suicide between May 2011 and January of this year. After the third death, former Chief Daniel Greathouse said he was combating an "epidemic" by pressing officers to seek help. But the Tribune obtained an internal email Greathouse sent to the department Jan. 19 in which he wrote, "These suicides were about personal choices, selfishness and weakness."
Motley said after he was elected in April that he would demote Greathouse to lieutenant after taking office, in part because of his comments on the suicides.
After Motley was sworn in at a City Council meeting May 6, he appointed Kerkorian, saying the new chief had covered his back when they were on the SWAT team.
"This man is a friend of mine," the mayor said.
Motley said this week he had no reservations about promoting his friend and that the city's officers trust him.
"I'm not concerned about what people think. There's absolutely no question in my mind as to whether he's qualified," Motley said.
Kerkorian said he would be fair to police and maintain an "open-door policy." Among his priorities, he said in a brief interview, was improving the department's technology.
Though Kerkorian's personnel records paint him as a skilled and well-regarded officer, his rise was not without stumbles.
In 2004 he resigned his rank as commander and moved back down to lieutenant, according to city records. He did that after crack cocaine, powder cocaine and marijuana were found in the desks of officers he supervised on the Neighborhood Enforcement Team, an anti-drug and anti-gang squad, according to Tribune archives.
The officers were displaying the seized drugs in presentations to local groups. The narcotics should have been stored as evidence, then-Chief William Biang told the Tribune at the time.
Rather than face a City Council hearing, Kerkorian resigned his rank, Biang said.
Asked last week about the incident, Kerkorian said he was the unit's commander and he took responsibility for the group's conduct. He declined to further explain the decision to resign his rank.
Kerkorian also was named in two federal civil rights lawsuits between 2006 and 2010. In the first, he was the commander of a drug and gang enforcement team sued by a man who accused police of falsely arresting him, court records show. The city paid $21,713 to litigate and settle the case, according to city records.
In the second, Kerkorian was commanding an operation in which a man who had barricaded himself in a pantry with a knife died after being shocked by a Taser, according to court records. The city settled that case as well, but Kerkorian had already been dismissed from the case after a judge determined there was no valid claim against him.
Kerkorian declined to comment on legal matters. An attorney for the city, Chuck Smith, said Kerkorian was included in the first suit only because he commanded the drug and gang enforcement team, and noted that Kerkorian was dismissed from the second suit.
Revelations about Kerkorian's military credentials arrive at the same time as a new federal law designed to punish those who claim unearned military honors for profit.
President Barack Obama signed the Stolen Valor Act of 2013 on Monday. The bill replaced a similar law passed in 2005 that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as infringing on the First Amendment. Lawmakers narrowed the new bill to make it a crime to fraudulently claim military medals for profit.
As false claims of service have moved from the bar stool to the Internet, an informal network including veterans has sprung up to investigate and shame false heroes.
The SEALs are a popular target for frauds, two of those researchers said, because of the force's respected place in the public imagination. SEALs are renowned for dangerous, clandestine operations such as the nighttime raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Vietnam veteran Doug Sterner, of Virginia, said he sees more misleading claims about military service in law enforcement than in any other field. Along with being "a brazen falsehood that's used to take advantage of people," he said, a false claim to military achievement can mislead a department about a potential officer's skills and experience.
People mislead others about military credentials for reasons ranging from wanting to appear tough to trying to impress girlfriends, said Loren Pankratz, a retired forensic psychologist from Oregon who has studied the issue.
But Pankratz cited a common trait among those who falsely claim military credentials or other achievements — they often aim high, going beyond routine accomplishments and claiming membership in an elite group.