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Talking to the Journalist Who Uncovered Police Torture in Chicago

"House of Screams" by John Conroy kicked off a decades-long effort to unravel the web of a Chicago cop's torturous ways. We asked him how it all went down and whether police in the Windy City have changed.

by Justin Glawe
15 May 2015, 2:45pm

Photo via Flickr user vxla

Last week, the Chicago City Council announced it will pay over $5 million in reparations to scores of African-American men tortured with electrocutions, beatings, and other brutal acts by the Chicago Police Department in the 1970s and 1980s. The majority of those men were the victims of Jon Burge, a disgraced former Chicago police commander who was spared from being convicted of human rights crimes by statutes of limitations and a friendly prosecutor's office that rarely found wrongdoing by cops.

Burge and his officers solicited confessions from at least ten men who were sent to death row based on their words of admission. Eventually, Former Illinois Governor George Ryan pardoned some of them, or handed down reduced sentences based on the revelations that their confessions may have come as a result of torture. Similarly harsh methods of eliciting confessions and cooperation may still be in use. As the Guardian reported Thursday, a man named Angel Perez claims two Chicago police officers sexually assaulted him with an unknown object inside Homan Square, a so-called "black site" where off-the-books interrogations allegedly take place.

Chicago's reparations package represents the end of a decades-long saga that began on a cold, gray day in early February 1982. Back then, two brothers who had designs on breaking a cop killer out of jail robbed a house in a search for guns. The brothers, Andrew and Jackie Wilson, didn't find any weapons in their burglary—just some bullets, a bit of cash, and a fifth of whiskey. They eventually crossed paths with two Chicago police officers, whom the brothers shot and killed during a traffic stop. Soon after, Andrew Wilson was subjected to electric shocks carried out by cops under the direction of Burge, and possibly Burge himself.

John Conroy, the former Chicago Reader reporter largely responsible for breaking the story of Burge and his gang of torturers, wrote in 1990 that the Wilson brothers should have been "...little more than a tragic footnote in Chicago's history, of consequence mainly to the children left without a father, the wife left without a husband, the mothers and fathers left without sons, and the policemen left without comrades." Conroy, a reporter's reporter who toiled for years in the hard-boiled Chicago journalistic spirit of Upton Sinclair and Studs Terkel, saw in Wilson's civil trial what few others did at the time: a man from a marginalized portion of society making unthinkable but authentic claims of police brutality. Still, convicted cop killers like Wilson don't exactly garner much sympathy in the Windy City, or elsewhere. So, in "House of Screams," Conroy's first story on Wilson and the allegations of torture he made in his civil trial, the reporter speculated on whether there would even be an investigation into Burge and the police officers who engaged in torture, not to mention society's position toward victims of such acts.

"House of Screams" kicked off a decades-long effort by Conroy and other reporters, lawyers, politicians, activists, and academics to unravel the web of Burge's torturous ways. The deal reached last week also includes an educational caveat: The city's public schools will have a new curriculum to educate students on Burge, the blind eye turned by others in the Chicago Police Department, the impact on victims, and why the whole situation was so damn wrong.

I reached out to John Conroy for perspective on how his journalism changed the course of Chicago history.

VICE: The Columbia Journalism Review once credited you with being largely responsible for exposing the torture ring that was overseen by Jon Burge. The Review lamented journalism's loss when you left the Chicago Reader, where many of your stories exposing Burge's practices ran, and said if not for your efforts the Chicago Tribune and others may not have become involved in the story. For those who may not be aware of the case of Andrew Wilson and his scarred ears, how did you first come upon Burge's misdeeds and the officers who utilized his torturous tactics?
John Conroy: You might say it was an accident. An editor at Alfred A. Knopf, horrified by the practice of torture, wanted to do a book on it and asked if I would be interested. I wanted to work with her and Knopf, so I said yes, though I feared I might end up with a noble book that no one would read. While I was looking for some case studies to provide the plot drive, a friend called and told me that a cop killer named Andrew Wilson alleged he'd been tortured in a Chicago police station seven years earlier, and that he had a civil suit pending. I walked in the courtroom on the first day of trial, not expecting much. Wilson was an inarticulate witness, he had a history of gun crimes, and he was clearly guilty of the murders of Officers Richard Fahey and William O'Brien. Furthermore, he was up against some likeable, seemingly honorable policemen who were very good on the witness stand. But the medical evidence—the burns on his chest, the scabs from alligator clips placed on his ears to administer electric shock—was impossible to discount.

"I didn't feel threatened because there was no response."

What started as an apparently minor civil case involving Wilson eventually evolved into the discovery of a widespread, decades-long program of torture in Chicago. Why the lack of interest in Wilson's case?
He'd killed two cops. Nobody had any sympathy for him. Furthermore, there was a trial of a sports agent going on at the same time and various celebrities were flying in to testify. The daily reporters had to cover the whole building, not just the Wilson case, so they were understandably distracted and missed the significance of some of the testimony and argument. As it turned out, Wilson had the most compelling medical evidence of any of the other victims—torture, properly administered, leaves no physical marks. So the case against the police department, even when a more sympathetic victim could be portrayed, always came back to the African American who'd killed two Irish American cops. To stand up for somebody you thought might be innocent meant you had to stand up for somebody who was certainly guilty of a heinous crime.

It was a test: Are we against torture? Or do we object only to the torture of people we like?

When you started digging into the practices of Burge and others, what was the response from the Chicago Police Department? City politicians? Did you feel threatened when exposing what became a major story about the unthinkable abuse of police power?
I didn't feel threatened because there was no response. The Reader received four letters concerning my first article. Two were in favor of the torture and two were opposed. None of them were from any city or county official. Nobody who wrote mentioned that he or she was a police officer. The story, which I thought could rock the city, came and went without a whimper from the CPD, from politicians, from prosecutors, and nearly everyone else.

What has your relationship been with the Department, and officers you know, been since then? I'm thinking specifically of 2008, when you were mugged on the West Side. Was there anyone with the Department who held a grudge against you at that time for your work on the Burge story?
During that incident I never felt there was any grudge on the part of the officers I came in contact with. Some were more helpful than I ever could have expected. There was a lot of response to the article I did about the mugging (far, far more than the response to anything I'd written about the torture of African Americans in Chicago), but no officer or state's attorney wrote in and said, "Delighted that he got whacked. Wish I'd been there to see it," or anything even vaguely of that nature.

Were there officers who held a grudge? I can't help but think so. I'd have held a grudge if I were working for CPD at the time. I was, in essence, standing up for the rights of a guy who'd killed two cops as well as other men who were guilty of murder and other crimes. But aside from an email that said, "You are scum," which could have come from anyone, and an anonymous letter from someone who blamed me for the suicide of a detective I'd never written about in connection with the torture, I've never received anything that resembled a threat.

As for officers I knew, most of them weren't the type to support that kind of egregious misconduct, so my reporting probably improved our relationships.

"For a teacher, it will be tempting to keep it simple: A few bad apples in the police department ran amuck for decades. It will be much more difficult to get across that it wasn't just the individual officers who sinned. Every system failed here."

One of the things that blew the case against Burge open—and helped to support the work of his attorney Flint Taylor and others—were the anonymous letters sent in Chicago Police Department envelopes about other incarcerated men with their own torture stories. Did you ever make any headway as to who was penning those letters?
No. It remains one of the great mysteries of the long saga. They clearly came from someone who knew the ins and outs of Area 2 [the police station where the torture took place]. He or she provided a list of those who went along with the torture ("Burge's Asskickers") and those who were opposed ("Weak Links"). The letters contained some misspellings that seem to suggest the sender went to a bad public school. Figuring that an African American officer was more likely to fall into that category, I once thought the letters might have come from one of the black detectives who worked under Burge. (Various African American detectives at Area 2 had complained about Burge over the years.) But I once showed the letters to a former high ranking CPD officer and he suggested that the writer was white, pretending to be someone who might be African American, because he spelled some difficult names and words correctly but failed on some easier ones.

There are many interesting things about the letters, among them that they provided a road map for a prosecutor to investigate the torture and the perjury used to cover it up. An interested prosecutor could start with the "Weak Links" and then move on to the "Asskickers." But nobody was interested.

The Chicago City Council announced last week that Burge's torture program and the blind eye turned to it by the Chicago Police Department (and some members of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office) will be taught to eighth- and tenth-graders. In addition to knowing about Burge and his officers, and the practices that led to wrongful convictions that were eventually overturned, what else should be taught as part of this curriculum?
Ideally there would be some visceral experience that could be imposed without harming the students, which would suggest what they might face if they end up in an interrogation room with officers who work for a department that has failed to discipline abusive cops for decades.

I'd also suggest that students study the inactive bystander phenomenon—why good people fail to act during emergencies. And at the very least teachers should drill home the lesson that "Sign here and you can go home," really means, "Sign here and you won't see home for maybe the next 20 years."

How can students be made aware of the full breadth of the wrongdoing?
It will be a challenge because responsibility for what happened must be shared by so many different actors and agencies. For a teacher, it will be tempting to keep it simple: A few bad apples in the police department ran amuck for decades. It will be much more difficult to get across that it wasn't just the individual officers who sinned. Every system failed here. Police supervisors failed. The Office of Professional Standards [the agency formerly responsible for investigating claims of police misconduct], largely failed. Certainly the Cook County State's Attorney's Office bears immense responsibility. That office knew that the torture had occurred as early as 1982, and as evidence mounted over the years, prosecutors did nothing, though innocent men on death row might have died as a result.

The judiciary failed often, from the County level through the Appellate Court and up to the Illinois Supreme Court. The US Attorney's Office failed until Patrick Fitzgerald came along, and the Department of Justice has failed since. (Though other officers were investigated, no one was indicted. Even if the statute of limitations on their offenses had passed, a DOJ report would go a long way toward helping those who are still incarcerated.) The City Council, the mayor, religious leaders, bar associations, the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, the media, and the universities failed. Probably there are others I am leaving out.

In a previous VICE story, Art Lurigio, a criminal justice professor at Loyola University in Chicago, said that teaching students about the Burge torture program could have harmful effects, that it may even create a larger rift between police and the Chicago communities they patrol. What's your take on Lurigio's stance?
He might be right. But what would you rather have, innocent people going to prison while the guilty remain on the street, free to commit more crimes, or a community, uninformed and complacent, happy to be relieved of perceived miscreants no matter how it is done?

Why are students just now being taught about this?
If you're suggesting this should have been done years ago, you'll get no argument from me. I have long thought that there should be a theater troupe that tours high schools in underprivileged areas re-enacting interrogations, portraying the methods that have been used to extract confessions here. If it could be done with students playing the suspects being interrogated without causing them harm, that would be even better. The program could cease when the police department convinces the community that it has disciplined bad officers.

"On the day of publication, impact on society was really not on my mind. What I was thinking, I suspect, was more on the nature of, 'Should I get out of town for a while?'"

Do you think that perhaps thanks to things like video footage and pressure from social media, like that in the case of the death of Walter Scott in South Carolina, we're being presented with facts about policing in America that were previously easy for authorities to deny?
I really hesitate to generalize from a few videotaped incidents in a few communities spread across a vast nation. And if social media is such a powerful tool, why are people who were tortured, abused and coerced by the Chicago Police still imprisoned? Those men are not asking for new trials. All they are asking for is a hearing. Of course the reason why that's not an easy thing to grant is that the State's Attorney's Office fears that officers called to testify will take the Fifth rather than risk prosecution for perjury. Burge, after all, went to prison not for torture but for perjury and obstruction committed in some broad denials he'd made in a civil suit.

It's the dream of every journalist, I think, to have an impact on society—a change in policy, a righting of wrongs, or educating the public of things hidden by those in power. Your stories about Jon Burge seem to have accomplished all of this. When you began working on the story, did any of that seem like a remote possibility?
I started on this story 26 years ago, and I worked on the first article for almost a year (the first Wilson v. Burge civil trial ended in a mistrial, so a second followed). I think dreams of impact were pretty submerged given how nervous I felt about what I was writing. You have to remember that the wrongful conviction movement was almost nonexistent—the first DNA exoneration in the United States occurred in August, 1989, while Wilson's trial was ongoing, and it involved a false rape accusation, not police misconduct. Back then, if the police said something, the overwhelming majority of people believed it to be true.

So in my first piece I was about to say that torture associated with repressive pariah governments had occurred in a Chicago Police station, that a cop-killer was more believable than the cops. None of the daily or radio or television reporters who had covered the case had come to the same conclusion, and they were far more experienced than I with federal cases. On the day of publication, impact on society was really not on my mind. What I was thinking, I suspect, was more on the nature of, "Should I get out of town for a while?"

"I think the vast majority of officers are straight arrows trying to do a difficult job. But I think the department still tolerates abuse and still supports abusive officers."

You and Burge met in 1989. Can you tell us about the context of that meeting, how it came about, where it occurred, and what was discussed?
We met during the trial. There was a lot of sitting around outside the courtroom, and after a while the accused officers knew who I was and were somewhat comfortable in my presence. I hadn't written anything, as I intended to file when the proceedings ended. When they were over, I asked Burge's attorney if I could interview him. The ground rules were that I wouldn't ask about the trial, as Wilson's attorneys were appealing the verdict. When I got to the station, Burge had invited a lieutenant to sit in, fearing I would put words in his mouth that he hadn't said. I offered instead to tape the interview and give him the cassette at the end of the interview, suggesting he could copy it and return it to me. He called his attorney, who said that was an even better solution, and so the interview proceeded with just the two of us in the room.

I asked him about his background, his parents, his schooling, his stint as an MP in Vietnam, where he'd been wounded and decorated for valor, and his police career. I knew of a couple of incidents in which he had acted very heroically—he'd once saved the life of an African American woman who was about to shoot herself—and I asked about those incidents. He was quite modest and self-effacing. Talking about his Purple Heart, for example, he said [the injury] laid him up "for about 15 minutes." At the end of the interview, I offered him the cassette. Instead he told me to keep it and drop off a copy.

We got along pretty well, and I liked him. He struck me as someone who would fit in at the extended family picnics I remember as a kid, and I could imagine that if one of my elderly aunts found that her car wouldn't start, he'd have been the first guy out there to help her.

Since then, has Burge ever reached out to you or have you spoken to him?
We exchanged words—just a sentence or two—about his health during his criminal trial in 2010. Back in the 1990s, at a court hearing probably a couple of years after my first story came out, Burge asked me if I knew a certain woman who had been in the audience. I told him her name (she was the mother of one of the men who had alleged that he'd been tortured). He said something on the order of, "I thought so," and then told me that she had almost been indicted herself for trying to cover up the murder that her son had committed. He claimed she'd poured lime on the corpse.

If I were to talk to him now, I'd probably ask about his health. Then I'd ask if we could do an interview. I'd be happy with any conditions he wanted to impose, including the release of what he had to say after his death. And if he didn't want to do that, I'd ask him what he thought about my journalism and what I've said about him in interviews.

When you look at the Chicago Police Department now, do you have a sixth sense about how they operate, what their practices are and what they do behind closed doors? Are they as foul as they were back then?
I don't claim to have a sixth sense about anything. I think the vast majority of officers are straight arrows trying to do a difficult job. But I think the department still tolerates abuse and still supports abusive officers. And the Cook County State's Attorney is still happy to turn a blind eye to the abuse. That makes it tough for the straight arrows as well as the community.

Last year, police Commander Glenn Evans, an African American, was actually indicted after a man named Rickey Williams claimed that the commander had shoved a gun deep down his throat while holding a TASER to his groin. It's highly likely that no charges would have been filed had Evans cleaned his gun properly, but it turned out that the Independent Police Review Authority, which has replaced the Office of Professional Standards, found Williams's DNA on Evans's gun.

Commander Evans has a history of abuse charges, including a 2006 allegation that he choked and beat a city water worker who served a shut-off notice on Evans's house and a 2007 allegation that he put a TASER up Cordell Simmons's rectum. The Cordell Simmons case allegedly took place in the 6th District station, and other officers allegedly helped by pulling down Simmons's pants.

So has the department changed?

John Conroy now works as the director of investigations at the DePaul University School of Law's legal clinic. He is the author of a book on The Troubles, Belfast Diary, and another on torture, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture. Conroy also authored a play about Burge and his torture program in Chicago called My Kind of Town.

Justin Glawe is a freelance journalist based in Chicago who writes regularly for VICE and The Daily Beast. Follow him on Twitter.