Ex-Chicago police sergeant hit with federal civil rights charges stemming from alleged on-duty sex assault

A former Chicago police sergeant was hit with federal civil rights charges Wednesday stemming from the alleged on-duty sexual assault of a transgender woman on the West Side more than three years ago.

James Sajdak, 64, was charged in an indictment returned by a federal grand jury with one count of violating the victim’s civil rights on March 5, 2019, through kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault. He pleaded not guilty during a telephone arraignment Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Cox.

If convicted, Sajdak could face up to life in prison. His attorney, Tim Grace, said Sajdak, a recipient of the Police Department Medal of Valor, “represented the people of Chicago for more than 30 years” and looks forward to challenging the case in court.

The one-page indictment does not name the victim or describe the incident, but the date and other circumstances match those reported by the Tribune in June 2019, shortly after Sajdak had been stripped of his police powers and retired amid an ongoing internal investigation.

Many of the same allegations also were contained in a federal lawsuit filed by the alleged victim in 2019. That suit, which named the city and Sajdak, was quickly settled for $100,000, records show.

According to police reports reviewed by the Tribune at the time, the victim reported the sexual assault at Rush University Medical Center shortly after the alleged incident and also handed over what she said was DNA evidence implicating Sajdak.

But police weren’t able to talk to her until several weeks later. She told detectives that she had been sexually assaulted by a “white shirt” — a common reference to Chicago police supervisors because of their uniform.

The department stripped Sajdak of his police powers on April 6, 2019, based on the findings of an internal investigation. A little more than a week later, the sergeant retired after 30 years on the force.

Meanwhile, documents obtained by the Tribune through a public records request showed Sajdak had been recommended for firing more than 20 years ago after an investigation by the department’s internal affairs division. That investigation found Sajdak and a partner had threatened to throw a convicted felon back into prison on bogus drug charges unless he handed over an illegal gun.

Sajdak was ultimately given just a 30-day suspension.

The incident leading to Sajdak’s indictment allegedly occurred while he was on duty. The victim, identified only as Victim A, told investigators at the hospital she’d been sexually assaulted about an hour earlier at Fifth and Cicero avenues, according to police reports. But she left Rush without talking to police or being tested with a rape kit, telling staffers that the presence of officers at the hospital made her fearful of retaliation, the reports said.

Detectives were able to learn the woman’s name from the hospital and obtain the alleged DNA evidence but had trouble reaching her for an interview. In the meantime, detectives canvassed the area near Fifth and Cicero and reviewed surveillance video, but neither produced useful evidence, the reports show.

On March 29, 2019, more than three weeks after the alleged sexual assault, detectives learned that the transgender woman was in police custody after being arrested on a shoplifting charge at a South Side grocery store.

She provided the following account to detectives of the alleged sexual assault:

On the night of the alleged attack, she was out on Fifth Avenue near a viaduct a couple of blocks east of Cicero Avenue, an area of the Lawndale neighborhood she called the “Stroll” that is known by police for prostitution. The woman did not admit she was working as a prostitute that night. But at the time, she said, she was with a man — whom she referred to as her boyfriend — who was “watching out for her” and “acting as her security” when a marked Chicago police vehicle pulled up.

The transgender woman gave a detailed description of the white officer who wore a sergeant’s uniform. She said she had never spoken with him before but had seen him in the past and believed he patrolled the area.

“What are you doing out here?” she quoted the sergeant as asking her.

She told him she was going home.

If she didn’t want to go to jail, the sergeant told her, she would perform a sex act on him because “that’s what you do,” the alleged victim told detectives.

At some point, the sergeant closed the cover on a computer mounted between the driver and passenger seats, the alleged victim told detectives.

On the night of the alleged assault, the woman later told detectives, she had given staffers at Rush four numbers that had been written on the computer with what appeared to be magic marker.

The transgender woman told detectives that the sergeant exposed himself and ordered her to perform a sex act. She said she complied out of fear.

Without the sergeant’s apparent knowledge, the alleged victim told detectives, she was able to preserve some DNA evidence that she turned over to staffers at Rush later that night, according to the police reports.

In the interview with detectives, the alleged victim said she told the hospital she’d return but that she didn’t, out of fear of retaliation from the police.

In a separate lawsuit filed a few months later, another woman accused Sajdak of stalking and harassing her when he was on duty, in uniform, and driving a Chicago police vehicle. The city also agreed to settle that case for $100,000, records show.

Sajdak had previously been named in a 2013 federal lawsuit alleging that he and several other officers arranged for a woman to be strip-searched without justification. That suit was settled for $200,000, records show.

Chicago Tribune’s Jeremy Gorner contributed.