SPRINGFIELD — In a tearful day of testimony, former prosecutor Jeff Terronez admitted to supplying two teens with alcohol a half-dozen times and said he was sexually attracted to one of the girls, but it wasn’t the victim in a sex-assault case he prosecuted.
The former Rock Island County state’s attorney pleaded guilty a year ago to supplying the minor sex-assault victim in the Jason Van Houtte case with alcohol on one occasion. In a hearing to determine whether Terronez will be allowed to keep his law license, the 40-year-old sobbed as he acknowledged he was attracted to the victim’s 19-year-old friend.
The Van Houtte victim, who was 16 years old when Terronez prosecuted the case, was identified in Tuesday’s hearing in Springfield as J.W. Her friend was identified as B.Y.
Terronez admitted he took both girls with him to a work-related conference in Champaign, Ill., for a two-night trip and bought them alcohol both nights. He also admitted he lied to investigators about the trip and about buying liquor for the pair.
“I knew the story would break publicly,” he said, explaining why he lied to police. “I knew my career as state’s attorney was over. I didn’t give the false statements to avoid prosecution. My No. 1 concern at that time ... I was not prepared to own up to my wife ... the despicable conduct.”
Peter Rotskoff, the attorney representing the Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission, which is asking that Terronez be disbarred, countered that Terronez’s lies continued for several days.
“It’s not as if he didn’t have time to make certain disclosures to his family,” he said.
Asked whether he wished to make a statement, Terronez again began to cry, telling the three-member panel that will recommend possible sanctions to the Illinois Supreme Court: “I don’t believe my regret can be measured. What I’ve done has affected my licensure, my career, yes. But it’s devastated my family. It will forever be my everlasting shame.”
He categorized some of the highly adult language he used in text messages with the sex-assault victim as inappropriate and regrettable sexual references.
He said he told both teens he was divorced and involved with another woman he dubbed CHB, which he said was a fictitious character he created, and the initials stood for Crazy Hot Blonde. He made up the story, he said, “to come across as seeming younger.”
He insisted he never was physically attracted to the younger girl, despite text messages that included a photo of the teen in her cheerleading uniform, followed by a text from Terronez that included the phrase, “... now I can’t think straight.”
He also advised the girl to perform specific, explicit sex acts on her boyfriend. When asked whether such advice was appropriate for a minor sex-assault victim, he replied, “I absolutely see your point on that.”
His attorney, Warren Lupel of Chicago, also acknowledged Terronez made grievous misjudgments but said the request by the commission that he be barred from practicing law is equal to “professional capital punishment,” adding that Terronez is “not a person who belongs in the trash heap.”
To portray Terronez’s more redeeming qualities, Lupel called six character witnesses to the stand, including Rock Island County Circuit Judge Walter Braud.
“The people of Rock Island County were well-served, having Jeff Terronez as state’s attorney,” Braud testified. “I’m here because ... everybody can fall down. When you fall down from higher places, everybody sees it.
“Mr. Terronez fell from a high place.”
Asked to categorize Terronez’s reputation in the county today, the judge replied, “Poor.”
Also testifying on his behalf was Joann Reynolds, the stepmother of slain teenager Adrianne Reynolds. She said she frequently would “just show up” at Terronez’s office, distraught by the slaying and by the drawn-out trials.
“I would sit there and cry,” she said. “I feel Jeff’s a good man. You learn from your mistakes, and I believe Jeff has learned.”
Rotskoff argued the damage has been done.
He compared Terronez to Van Houtte, saying both men abused their positions of authority for their own personal interests and gratification. He pointed out that Terronez not only lied repeatedly to police but instructed at least one of the minors to “deny everything.”
He said the number of text messages between Terronez and the sex-assault victim was in the thousands. He suggested he did not believe Terronez was interested in the older girl, saying, “I think it’s clear he was using alcohol to continue a relationship with J.W.”
Throughout the entire day of testimony, one panelist asked only one question: Why Terronez, who said he was “counseling” the victim through her many “issues,” didn’t get professional help for the girl.
Terronez replied she was “too stubborn.”
The panel is expected to make a recommendation to the Supreme Court in 60 to 90 days, Rotskoff said. It could range from a verbal reprimand to the disbarment sought by the commission.
Terronez, meanwhile, said he has started working as a financial analyst for small- to medium-sized businesses. He said he started just a couple of weeks ago, adding that he and his wife and 13-year-old daughter are living on his wife’s salary. She is an administrative assistant at a college, he said.