HAMMOND — A federal judge has sentenced former Sheriff John Buncich to 188 months, or a little more than 15 years, in prison for public corruption.
U.S. District Court Judge James Moody imposed the prison term Tuesday on the county's former top cop for soliciting and receiving bribes from towing firms competing for county police business.
Buncich appeared stunned by the judge's decision that he would be taken into custody immediately. He had said earlier that this was the darkest day of his life.
Buncich's voice was reduced to a whisper as he was asked routine questions after the sentence was read in court. One woman was sobbing in the courtroom.
The government prosecutors said Buncich received illegal payments from William Szarmach, a Lake Station towing firm owner and longtime Buncich associate, and undercover government informant Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson's Towing of Merrillville, between 2014 and 2016.
A jury last August found Buncich guilty of bribery counts on evidence the payments from Szarmach and Jurgensen amounted to bribes because they were made on condition Buncich provide them the choicest towing districts, and that Buncich delivered.
Prosecutors said the bribery took place under the cover of campaign fundraising. Buncich was elected sheriff in 1994, 1998, 2010 and 2014, and named chairman of the Lake County's Democratic Party in 2014.
U.S. Attorney Thomas Kirsch II states Jurgensen met with the FBI in 2012 to discuss ongoing corrupt practices "in numerous Lake County municipalities."
The FBI investigation later moved to the Lake County Sheriff's Department, where Jurgensen got a towing contract through his friendship with Timothy Downs, Buncich's second-in-command. A federal grand jury indicted Buncich, Downs and Szarmach in November 2016.
The government equipped Jurgensen with audio and video equipment that recorded payments. The evidence was used by the government to win its conviction of Buncich, who was forced from office by the guilty verdict.