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Families of the Victims Tortured by Chicago Detectives Rejoice at First Arrest

A 25-year fight to bring Jon Burge and police who systematically tortured black men to justice makes a critical breakthrough.
 
 
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It began as a dirty open secret and is now Chicago lore: From the 1970s into the 1990s, African American men in the city of Chicago were routinely arrested, taken into police custody, and tortured, during interrogations lasting hours on end. An estimated 150 black men endured abuse that included savage beatings, suffocation with bags and typewriter covers, and in many instances, electrical shocks applied to their genitals. The goal was to secure confessions, and more often than not, it worked, whether the suspect was guilty or not.

At the head of Chicago's police torture ring was Jon Burge, a decorated Vietnam veteran who once made his name for himself as a young cop on the beat on the South Side of Chicago. As Police Commander, first at Area Three on Chicago's North side and then at Area Two on the South, Burge is said to have instituted some of the same techniques he saw deployed in Vietnam, to brutal effect. Forced into early retirement over the torture of a man named Andrew Wilson in 1993, Jon Burge has long been virtually synonymous with racism and police brutality in Chicago. Yet his name remains mostly unfamiliar to the rest of the country, in no small part because neither he nor his subordinates have ever been held accountable for their alleged crimes. Until now.

On Tuesday, October 21, Federal agents arrested Burge, now 60 years old, at his home in Tampa, Florida, where he has been living off a taxpayers' paid pension. This Monday, he will be arraigned at a Chicago courtroom, where he will not only face charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, he will come face to face with activists, family members and loved ones of men who, decades ago, were tortured under his command.

"They should apologize for what they did to him."

Carolyn Johnson was at her home in Chicago the morning Jon Burge was arrested. "I was doing my hair and a news flash came on -- and when the news flash came on, it showed Burge being arrested outside his house in Tampa, Florida!" Excitement creeps into her voice as she tells the story over the phone two days later -- "I called a million people," she says. After all, it was news she's been waiting to hear for more than 15 years.

Carolyn Johnson's son, Marcus Wiggins, was only 13 years old when he was arrested following a gang-related shooting and taken to an Area Three police station on the city's North side. The year was 1991. Jon Burge was the presiding detective commander at the station. According to Carolyn, Marcus was brought into the interrogation room without a lawyer or other adult present. "They told him to put his 'black ass' in the corner." There, he was beaten with a 15-inch rod and then, and then, the police officers brought out a black box. The box had electrical wires with alligator clips on the ends and some sort of switch that unleashed an electrical current.

In 1993, Marcus filed a lawsuit against the City of Chicago. In his deposition, he described what happened next:

Examination: What happened after he turned the switch?

Wiggins: He told me to put my hands on the table.

Q: And did you do that?

A: Yes.

Q: And then what happened?

A: And then he put the things on my hand.

Q: Was the box making a humming noise before he put the things on your hand?

A: Yes.

…

Q: What happened when he put the things on your hands?

A: They started -- my hands started burning, feeling like it was being burned. I was -- I was shaking and my -- and my jaws got tight and my eyes felt they went blank … It felt like I was spinning … It felt like my jaws was like -- they was -- I can't say the word. It felt like my jaws was sucking in … I felt like I was going to die.

According to Carolyn, it was Jon Burge himself who provided the officers with the box. "He let them do it," she says. "He was there."

Marcus's conviction was thrown out by a juvenile court when it was determined that he had been coerced into confessing, and in August of 1996, his lawsuit was settled for $95,000, paid for by the City of Chicago. But a few years later, he was arrested again, by the same officers, for another gang-related crime. He is still behind bars.

For years, Carolyn Johnson has kept a record of each of the officers involved in her son's case: Jon Burge, John Byrne Anthony Maslanka, John Paladino, and James O'Brien. "I have the names," she says. "I have the names in my sleep. I dream about them." As far as she's concerned, even with Burge now in custody, "It's not over yet. Not while those [other] detectives are out there on the streets and my son is in jail … They should apologize for what they did to him."

The case of Andrew Wilson

Jon Burge might have gotten away with torture altogether if it weren't for the case of Andrew Wilson. Wilson was arrested on Valentines Day, 1982, for the killing of two police officers, William Fahey and Richard O'Brien. That night, after spending hours being interrogated at Area Two, where he ultimately confessed to the crime, he was admitted to Chicago's Mercy Hospital with multiple injuries, including lacerations to his face, bruises to his chest, and second degree burns to one thigh. The next year, Wilson was convicted for the murders and sentenced to death, but the Illinois Supreme Court overturned the conviction, based on the fact that he had been apparently abused by police. The court's opinion cited Wilson's testimony at a pretrial hearing, where he described being "punched, kicked, smothered with a plastic bag, electrically shocked and forced against a hot radiator throughout the day until he confessed." Wilson was convicted a second time for the same crime, in 1988, and given a life sentence. In 1989 he filed a civil suit against Jon Burge and four other police officers.

In just one of an exhaustive number of articles on Chicago's police torture scandal published by the alternative weekly the Chicago Reader , reporter John Conroy described the way evidence of Wilson's torture played out in during the civil suit. "More telling than the Mercy Hospital records … were photographs of strange U-shaped scabs on Wilson's ears, as if a miniature crocodile had dined there," Conroy wrote. "Wilson contended that the scabs had been made by alligator clips attached by wires to a black box, a device that generated electricity and seemed to resemble a modified army field telephone. He also said that the series of parallel scars on his chest and the large scar on his right thigh were the result of having been held against a radiator while he was being shocked."

During the course of two civil rights trials, lawyers for Commander Burge, Detective John Yucaitis, and Detective Patrick O'Hara offered various explanations for the wounds. The marks on the convict's ears, they said, were indeed inflicted by alligator clips. They tried to convince two juries that Wilson had found a roach clip in the police lockup or in the jail and had inflicted the marks himself in order to support his fantastic tale … [T]he officers offered contradictory explanations for the wounds on Wilson's chest and thigh. At the first trial, Area Two detectives claimed that Wilson could not have been burned because he had been interrogated in interview room two, where the radiator didn't work, and they produced an eminent physician as expert witness who said the marks were abrasions, not burns

...

At the second civil rights trial the detectives ditched their burn expert and argued that Wilson had been interrogated in interview room one where the radiator did work, that the marks were indeed burns, and that the convict had inflicted them on himself. To back up that story they produced jailhouse informant William Coleman, an Englishman with nine aliases who had served time in England, Ireland, Germany, Holland, Monaco, Hong Kong, and the United States for charges including perjury, fraud, theft, manslaughter, blackmail, and possession of cocaine with intent to deliver.

After the first civil trial ended in a hung jury, Wilson's attorneys began receiving anonymous letters, "seemingly written by someone who worked at Area Two, that indicated that Burge's electrical devices were by no means a product of Wilson's imagination. The anonymous writer directed the lawyers to a man named Melvin Jones, then incarcerated at Cook County Jail." Jones, it would turn out, claimed to have been electroshocked by Burge less than two weeks before Wilson's interrogation. In fact, he had described the treatment at a hearing seven years earlier. "At that hearing," Conroy wrote, "Jones had said that Burge tried to intimidate him by naming two other men who had writhed on the floor in pain when they were shocked." The two men were in turn tracked down, "and they led to others, and soon word went around various prisons that someone was interested in torture victims from Area Two and from Area Three."

Although the detectives were eventually cleared of any charges, mounting pressure led to an internal investigation by the Chicago Police Department's Office of Professional Standards. In 1990, it issued a report that found that torture had indeed been carried out under Burge against at least 50 suspects -- torture that "was not limited to the usual beatings, but went into such esoteric areas as psychological techniques and planned torture." Three years later, Burge was forced to leave the Chicago Police Department.

The Death Row Ten

Stanley Howard was in his early 20s when he was arrested for the murder of a man named Oliver Ridgell on the South Side of Chicago. No physical evidence linked him to the crime, only eyewitness testimony. On November 2, 1984, he was brought to the Area Two police station, where Jon Burge was stationed at the time. There, he says he was brutally beaten by police officers James Lotito, Ronald Boffo, and Robert Dwyer and Sergeant John Byrne. As he would later describe:

"While they were beating me, they were spoon-feeding me information about the case and asking me was I ready to confess. When I kept explaining to them that I didn't commit the crime, Boffo left the room and came back with a plastic bag. After placing the bag over my head, Lotito began to choke me with it -- trying to suffocate me with it -- as the other two began to punch and kick me again."

After hours of interrogation and torture, Stanley Howard signed a confession. According to Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, "the next day, Howard told a paramedic who examined him at the Cook County jail that the confession had been beaten out of him. The paramedic, Wayne Kinzie, noted bruises and abrasions on Howard's left leg and chest but could not say what had caused them."

Stuck with a "dumb attorney and a very smart overzealous prosecutor," Howard was nonetheless convicted, almost wholly on the basis of his confession, in a trial presided over by a judge who was himself a former Area Two police officer. In 1987, Stanley Howard was sentenced to death.

Years later, while on death row, Stanley Howard came into contact with other prisoners who told him that they, too, had been brutalized at the hands of Burge's police detectives. Among the abuse some of the men shared in common were suffocation, electrocution, Russian roulette, and being beaten over the heads with telephone books. The men decided to call themselves the Death Row Ten, and in the summer of 1998, they contacted activists from the Campaign to End the Death Penalty in Chicago to ask them to start advocating for them on the outside. (A few months later, Frank Bounds, one of the founding members of the Death Row 10, died in prison from untreated cancer.)

At the same time, that September, a death row prisoner named Anthony Porter with an IQ of 51 was scheduled to die in Illinois's execution chamber, when he was granted a last-minute stay of execution. In a story that would become famous, journalism students from Northwestern University began looking into his case, and shortly after the inauguration of Republican Governor George Ryan, exposed damning evidence that Porter was an innocent man. "I was caught completely off-guard," Governor Ryan later told The Nation . " … That mentally retarded man came within two days of execution, and but for those students Anthony Porter would have been dead and buried. I felt jolted into re-examining everything I believed in." George Ryan declared a moratorium on all executions and on January 10, 2003, he shut down Illinois's death row completely, commuting the sentences of all its prisoners to life, and pardoning Madison Hobley, Leroy Orange, Aaron Patterson, and Stanley Howard, all members of the Death Row 10, on account of actual innocence. Despite his pardon, Stanley Howard was never freed, remaining in prison, on separate charges.

Stanley Howard's fiancee, Michelle Martin had just woken up on Tuesday morning when she heard the news about Burge's arrest. "I was laying in bed and when I heard about it I jumped up and started screaming," she laughs. "I was so happy because it's about time -- all those men he beat and tortured." Martin lives on the South Side of Chicago and has known Stanley "forever." "He was my childhood crush." She was just 15 when he was arrested.

Like others in the neighborhood, Martin says she heard about the torture in Stanley's case early on, and although she would hear about other cases of people being tortured by Chicago cops, the scale of it remained a mystery. "We knew it was true [that people had been tortured], but we didn't know to what what extent." As years passed, Jeanette Johnson, Stanley's mother, worked alongside local activists to get the truth out about his case. She, too, was jubilant at the news on Tuesday. "I called Stanley's mom," Michelle said, "And she was like, 'We finally got him!"

Hundreds of family members waiting for justice

Virginia Clements woke up early on Tuesday morning to take her insulin. "And I hear them say over the radio, 'Attention: we're in the process of arresting Jon Burge!'" Then, she laughs, "at about 9:00 my daughter called and she said, 'Did you hear -- Burge?' and I said, yeah, Burge!'"

Virginia's son, Mark, was one of the earliest documented victims of Chicago police torture. Arrested in 1981 for supposedly setting fire to an apartment building, he was only 16 when he was tried (as an adult) and sentenced to multiple life sentences. His conviction rested on a confession signed after more than ten hours of questioning, during which he was reportedly beaten and tortured by one police officer -- Detective John McCann -- and interrogated by Detective Daniel McWeeny. Both detectives have been implicated in the Burge torture scandal.

Like Carolyn Johnson, Virginia Clements has been waiting to see Burge behind bars for years. "Everybody's been called," she says, including his daughter, who, she says, "is as old as he has been in there." She had not yet reached her first birthday when Mark was arrested. Now she's in her late 20s.

Mark Clements will turn 44 this year. After being bounced from prison to prison -- "he was sent to Pontiac, then to Joliet, then to Statesville" -- he eventually ended up at Menard Correctional Center, in Chester, Illinois, which used to house death row prisoners. "I hit the top of the roof when I found out he went to Menard," Virginia says. "Menard is like a mental institute." But now she is optimistic, and not just because of Burge's arrest. After years of frustration, Mark just got a new lawyer, about six months ago. "They're gonna have to give him a new trial," she says. "because they don't have any evidence."

No automatic justice for those behind bars

When Jon Burge enters the courtroom Monday morning, activists and family members who have spent years fighting for justice for Chicago's police torture victims will be waiting to greet him. "We're encouraging people to come to court and pack the room," says Julien Ball, an organizer with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "Hopefully we will send the message that we want to see this guy in jail." Burge is being charged with two counts of obstruction of justice (which carry up to 20 years apiece) and one count of perjury (five years) over false statements he made in response to a lawsuit brought forth by pardoned death row prisoner and torture victim Madison Hobley in 2003. If he is convicted, he could spend the rest of his life behind bars.

As recently as two years ago, it seemed hard to imagine that Burge could ever be brought to justice. When special prosecutors were assigned to investigate Chicago's police torture scandal in 2002, it took until June of 2006 for them to release a report, nearly 300 pages long, that concluded that a statute of limitations barred any prosecutions. The report, which cost taxpayers millions of dollars, was labeled by activists "a $7 million whitewash."

"It was clearly an attempt to close the book on this scandal," says Ball. "But now it is also clear that the attempt failed. The facts repudiated all of their conclusions. The special prosecutor said that they couldn't bring charges because of this statute of limitations … but obviously [U.S. Attorney] Patrick Fitzgerald did not feel there was any obstruction." Indeed, Fitzgerald, who not only brought corruption charges against Gov. Ryan shortly after he left office, but who also is famous for his investigation of the Valerie Plame scandal, is now leading the charge to hold Burge accountable for his crimes. "Jon Burge shamed his uniform and shamed his badge," Fitzgerald said at a press conference on Tuesday. Although Burge does not face charges for the torture itself, he said, "if people commit multiple crimes and you can't prosecute them for one, there's nothing wrong with prosecuting him for another. If Al Capone went down for taxes, that was better than him going down for nothing."

Of course, there are dozens of police officers who have yet to be held accountable for their roles in torturing suspects -- and between their legal fees and victims' lawsuits, taxpayers have paid almost $30 million. But a number of Burge's men have been subpoenaed in the past several months in advance of his arrest, and the case promises to lead to other prosecutions. "More investigation and more indictments must follow because it wasn't just Jon Burge," Flint Taylor, an attorney with the People's Law Office in Chicago, who represents a number of Burge torture victims. told reporters. "There was a series of detectives and sergeants under his command who also tortured in a serial manner and who have also lied under oath as Burge has."

In the meantime, family members and activists will continue to fight for those who remain imprisoned, an untold number of who are innocent. (Lawyers with the People's Law Center in Chicago have identified at least 25 prisoners who were tortured into giving confessions to crimes they didn't commit, but the number is probably much higher, says Ball.) As Jean Tillman, another mother of a Burge torture victim puts it, "there's no automatic justice for those guys behind bars." Nevertheless, as first steps go, this one, however long overdue, is huge. "It's incredibly significant," says Ball. "This is something that activists have been fighting for for 25 years."