By Joe Stella
Franoi – May 2002
Paul Ciolino is right, and you’re wrong. If you’re debating him, that’s what the 46-year old private investigator will have you thinking by the time you and he part company. But it will have been a pleasant encounter because Ciolino’s disposition is pleasant – most of the time.
It’s when Ciolino talks about the injustices being heaped upon on of his clients that a transformation takes place. His visage darkens, his hand cuts the air, his voice rises, and he may use colorful words to describe the way local authorities investigated the crime and handled the evidence. He’ll assert his position aggressively and passionately because it’s what he believes in. And what he believes in is the truth.
“I’m after the truth, pure and simple,” says Ciolino, who has offices in Palatine and Chicago . “And sometimes that may reveal that my client is a scumbag and that he’s committed crimes, but not the crime he was accused of and that and that he may die for.”
Take John Carroccia, for instance. A 51-year-old carpenter from Rockford , Ill. , Carroccia was acquitted in March for the murder of his friend Gregory Sears. The highly publicized case appeared to open-and-shut until Ciolino appeared on the scene to debunk eyewitness testimony and the lack of physical evidence tying Carroccia to the crime scene. Ciolino also uncovered facts that point the finger of blame at Sears’ wife of three weeks, Norma Jean. The case is now officially closed until further evidence materializes.
Then there’s Anthony Porter. In September of 1998, the death row inmate was 48 hours from receiving a lethal injection for a double murder on the South Side of Chicago in 1982. After a temporary stay of execution was granted by the Illinois Supreme Court, an investigative defense team of undergraduate students from Northwestern University ‘s Medill School of Journalism headed by Ciolino and Professor David Protess uncovered holes to lead the team to the real killer, who confessed to Ciolino during an interrogation. Porter was exonerated and released, the case received international media coverage, and there’s even talk of a movie deal.
“That was an incredible turn of events by anyone’s standards,” says Ciolino. “Think about it. A man served 18 years in prison and was about to die at the hands of our justice system and he was innocent.”
Ciolino is against the death penalty, even thought, he says, “some people may really deserve it, but it’s hard to trust the system to make that call.” And so he was happy when, in 1999, Illinois Gov. George Ryan issued a moratorium on the death penalty, a decision influenced by the events surrounding the Porter case.
“I have the greatest job in the world because I know that I can truly make a difference,” says Ciolino. “Not just in the lives of my clients, but their families and other people who may be adversely affected by flaws in the system.”
Ciolino grew up on Chicago’s South Side and south suburban Burbank. The only child of a car salesman and a homemaker, he credits his father, Sam, for his pursuit of justice and his penchant for helping people in need.
“My father is a huge influence in my life because he taught me to help people and he taught me what is right in life,” says Ciolino, who received the JCCIA’s Dante Award in 1999. “I keep coming back to those core values and that’s what sustains me.”
After high school, Ciolino enlisted in the Army to fight in Vietnam . Though he never saw battle in the field, he saw plenty of battles within the organization as an investigator in the narcotics unit. Throughout his seven years in the military, Ciolino took several law enforcement courses and strengthened his investigative skills.
Tired of moving his family from base to base, Ciolino decided to become a civilian and returned to Chicago in 1981, where he began working for a detective agency and taking undergraduate courses in law enforcement.
In 1983, he started as a senior investigator at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. There, he created and headed the Child Homicide Investigation Unit.
“That was a tough job because all of the cases involved children and you had to have thick skin to deal with most of it,” says Ciolino. “But while I was there I learned a lot about how to conduct homicide investigations and about forensics, which is important for what I do today.”
He fell unexpectedly into his own practice in 1986 while working on a case involving a Palos Hills day car operator who was accused of child molestation. She was acquitted in 1989, but the civil case is still pending. After that, business took off.
A media-savvy professional, Ciolino has garnered a fair amount of air time. He is a consultant for CNN’s weekly news show, “Burden of Proof”; WMAQ’s Unit 5 Investigation Unit; CBS’s “48 Hours”; and NBC’s “Dateline.”
He has also been featured in the Italian weekly Oggi for his role in the much publicized case involving Derek Rocco Barnabei, and Italian American who was convicted and put to death in Virginia for a 1993 murder. “I don’t take on cases that I think are pure losers. If there’s not a chance in the world, I’m honest with the family and I tell them to save their money,” says Ciolino. “In the case of Barnabei, I think we were brought in too late to make a difference.”
Today, Paul J. Ciolino and Associates has handled thousands of cases, and may have 40 to 50 cases open on any given day, which keeps Ciolino busy. That doesn’t include his two other business ventures: Dearborn Process Service, a company that conducts legal research and serves legal papers, and Case Closed Productions, a company that produces seminars, textbooks and shows based on investigative issues.
Beyond that, Ciolino also serves as a adjunct lecturer for Northwestern University , Yale School of Law and Columbian University.
“I’ve been very lucky to enjoy the success I have had in my career,” says Ciolino. “The stakes are always high because you are dealing with people’s lives. But the rewards are also great.”