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A former Chicago police sergeant was sentenced to a year in federal prison Friday for the on-duty sexual assault of a transgender woman inside his squad car, a crime the judge called an egregious betrayal of the oath to serve and protect for nothing more than his own sexual gratification.

James Sajdak, 65, pleaded guilty last year to a misdemeanor count of violating the victim’s civil rights during the encounter on the West Side on March 5, 2019. He had originally faced up to life behind bars after being indicted on several felony counts, but under his plea agreement with prosecutors, the sentence was capped at 12 months.

In handing down the maximum term, U.S. District Judge John Tharp said Sajdak not only harmed the victim he assaulted that night, but further denigrated the public’s perception of all police officers at a time where distrust of law enforcement has metastasized and threatens to tear the fabric of society.

“If the public can’t depend on sworn officers to uphold the rule of law, then no one is going to have faith in the rule of law, and that’s when we’re all in trouble,” Tharp said. “Because what stands in when the rule of law has been eroded and degraded is chaos.”

Tharp also said the sentence had to send a message “to other police officers who might be cruising late at night in a high-prostitution area that it’s not worth it.”

“All police officers need to reminded of their oath and the sanctity of that oath,” Tharp said. “New police officers need to understand this isn’t how business is done. … It won’t be tolerated.”

Before the sentence was handed down, Sajdak, who retired from the force four years ago, read a tearful statement to the court, apologizing to his family and bemoaning how he ruined his reputation built in his 29-year career over “a moment of weakness and bad judgment on my part.”

Sajdak offered no direct apology to the victim, but said he knew he “made a huge mistake” and understands “the perceptions” he left with her.

“I always looked out for people in her situation. I always helped them with encouraging words, a cup of coffee, just asking if they were OK,” Sajdak said through sobs, as his wife and children and other relatives wiped away tears in the courtroom gallery. “I have no one to blame but myself. … It pains me to think that my legacy will be tarnished over this.”

According to Sajdak’s plea agreement with prosecutors, he was on duty, in uniform, and driving a marked squad car on the night of the incident when he spotted the victim walking near West Fifth and Kolmar avenues “and briefly activated his sirens.”

Sajdak demanded that the victim get into his car, and after the victim initially refused, he threatened her with arrest, saying words to the effect of, “You can get in the front or you can get in the back,” according to the plea agreement.

The victim got in the front passenger side of the squad car and Sajdak drove to an abandoned lot in a secluded area, where he “locked the car doors, closed his police laptop and turned off his police radio,” the plea stated.

He held the victim in the car “for the purposes of his own sexual gratification,” at one point biting the victim and causing an injury. “After the sexual assault, Sajdak attempted to give cash to Victim A,” the plea stated.

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 nearly 30 years on the force.

The lawsuit filed by the victim was later settled, with Sajdak agreeing to pay $50,000 in punitive damages from his own pocket, according to his attorney, Tim Grace.

In asking for probation, Grace argued Friday that Sajdak had a decorated career and had led a “pretty noble life” until he “placed his own personal gratifications and impulses over his duty.”

“Ten minutes of selfishness has cost him everything,” Grace said. “He’s a laughingstock of the Chicago Police Department right now, your honor. He certainly isn’t getting invited to any retirement parties or reunion parties.”

Grace also noted that the victim in the case was with her boyfriend in an area known for prostitution on the night of the incident and entered Sajdak’s squad car voluntarily. He said there was “money exchanged,” hinting to the judge that the sex act was not coerced.

But Tharp clearly took issue with the characterization, interrupting Grace’s argument to say: “My understanding is not that there was money exchanged. There was an offer after the fact to compensate the victim for acts he compelled her to commit.”

“That’s what she said, yes,” Grace said.

“Are you contesting that?” the judge shot back.

Grace said he was not disputing those findings.

In asking for the maximum term, Assistant U.S. Attorney Erika Csicsila said noted that after the assault, the victim reported to both law enforcement and hospital staff members that “she was fearful of law enforcement.”

“And for good reason,” Csicsila said. “Because the defendant committed this defense while on duty and in uniform and in a marked car. … There needs to be a message sent that there are consequences for stepping over the line, and here the (Sajdak) was so far over the line.”

The incident was not the first time Sajdak had been accused of wrongdoing. 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 a 30-day suspension.

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.

Grace noted that he also had nearly 150 awards and commendations during his career, including the superintendent’s Medal of Valor, which was given to him following a shootout with an attempted murder suspect.

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com

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