Eight months after Lake County authorities learned of allegations that one of their own officers had sex with an underage boy he met online, their investigation has been stymied amid questionable decisions, the Tribune has learned.

Investigators acknowledged they have not taken steps that experts said would be fundamental to such a case — including seeking a warrant to search the officer's personal computers. Prosecutors also have not acted on evidence they have that allegedly shows the former officer misused a state- and federally funded crime database to search for information about the boy.

State's Attorney Mike Nerheim said he doesn't believe he has the evidence needed to get a search warrant for the computers or to file sexual abuse charges against Rick White, a former lieutenant with the sheriff's office.

White specialized in netting online sexual predators in the years before a young man alleged to investigators that he was 15 or 16 when he met the officer on a gay dating site and had multiple sexual encounters, Nerheim and his assistants said.

When asked last week about the alleged misuse of the Law Enforcement Agencies Data System, Nerheim said he was still considering charges.

Prosecutors say they believe they have no evidence of a sex crime involving a minor because the youth told investigators that he informed White he was of age. The officer also told authorities he thought the teen, who attended the same high school as White's daughters, was of age, Nerheim said.

For years, the Lake County state's attorney's office has attracted scrutiny by repeatedly prosecuting the wrong men in major cases, including sex crimes against children. The office has been haunted by accusations of overzealous and inept prosecution in cases that crumbled under the weight of DNA evidence that was disregarded by former State's Attorney Michael Waller. In this case, experts say actions, overseen first by Waller and now by Nerheim, raise questions about authorities' willingness to vigorously investigate one of their own.

Along with not seeking a search warrant, prosecutors chose to handle the investigation themselves rather than seek help from an outside agency. That decision meant prosecutors were investigating a high-ranking officer who had been key to their own efforts to stop sex offenders.

Prosecutors also initially rebuffed information that would have led them to White. During the 2012 prosecution of two pedophiles, one suspect's lawyer approached an assistant state's attorney with information about an unnamed officer in hopes of making a deal for leniency, Nerheim said. The prosecutor spurned the offer and did not get the information. After he was convicted, the man gave investigators the tip anyway and it led to White and the underage teen, prosecutors said.

White, 52, was placed on paid leave in October and retired in December, writing in a letter to the sheriff's office that he wanted to spend more time at his part-time home in Florida. He has not been charged with a crime. The Tribune has sought to discuss the investigation with him, but he has not responded to inquiries from the newspaper. His attorney, Doug Roberts, would not discuss details of the investigation but said White is well-regarded in Lake County's legal and law enforcement community.

"I think everyone who's worked with him wishes him well," Roberts said. "He's a great person."

Legal and investigative experts familiar with online sexual predator cases said they don't understand why authorities would not even try to get the warrant. George Becker, a Chicago lawyer who has defended clients in online sexual predator cases, said that in such a case he would expect authorities to go after the computers.

"It's a little surprising … because probable cause is such a low standard," Becker said. Given the combination of information from a convicted pedophile and a youth who alleged he had sex with the officer after meeting him online, "any number of judges would say that is enough to get a warrant to look at a person's computer, whether he's a police officer or any other individual."

A senior prosecutor who has extensive experience supervising cases in the Chicago area said any doubts about probable cause for a warrant based on a tip from a pedophile should have faded with the statement from the teenage boy. Also, if there is evidence of misuse of the Law Enforcement Agencies database, that would be clear-cut official misconduct, said the prosecutor, who spoke on condition of not being identified.

Overcoming obstacles

Waller said that when he left office Dec. 3, he believed the potential victim's lies about his age were an obstacle the office could not overcome in order to approve charges. However, Waller said he did not know that investigators had not attempted to look at the officer's computers. He said he did not remember his staff raising the issue of a search warrant with him. Investigators would not have needed his input before seeking such a warrant, he said. If they had asked, Waller said, he would have told them to go for it.

But without evidence to prove that White knew — or should have known — that the boy was underage, they could not charge him with a sex crime, Waller said. "That really creates a roadblock to a successful prosecution," he said.

Nerheim stressed that the investigation remains open and defended some decisions in the case, though he noted that the choice not to refer the inquiry to an outside agency was made before he took office.

Nerheim said the initial tip was rejected because the source wanted a deal without giving any information first. Nerheim said he hadn't sought a search warrant for the personal computers because he doubts investigators have met the burden for probable cause.

Assistant State's Attorney Fred Day said investigators believe they have no clear evidence of a criminal act, given that the youth said he led the officer to believe he was of age. And prosecutors have no proof that he used the personal computers to commit a crime, Day said.