By Don Babwin
CHICAGO — Sick of kicking innocent renters out of foreclosed homes, Tom Dart announced he was through carrying out evictions until lenders cleaned up their act. The Cook County sheriff then went after Craigslist for running what he said was little more than an online brothel.
The former state legislator and prosecutor, who looks like he'd be more comfortable taking roll in a classroom than taking on criminals, is now the public face of an investigation into ugly allegations that workers at a historic black cemetery dug up hundreds of bodies in order to resell their grave plots.
It's an attention grabbing case that's further solidified the unimposing Dart - one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people - as one of the most prominent lawmen in the United States.
"My job is to make people's lives better," said Dart, who runs one of the country's largest sheriff's departments and the biggest jail in the United States. "If that means I have to expand the duties (of sheriff), then I expand them."
Elected in 2006, the 47-year-old Dart favors casual shirt sleeves and a ballcap over a uniform and sheriff's hat. Standing before cameras, he sounds more like the father of five he is than the grizzled cop he's never been, voicing his outrage about the plight of the poor and those who victimize children.
"He shows emotion that an old cop wouldn't show," said Dan Gallagher, an attorney who represented Dart's office when it sued the online classified advertising site Craigslist. His deputies had posed as minors seeking sex on the site in an attempt to demonstrate Craigslist doesn't look very hard for illegal activity.
In the last week at Chicago's Burr Oak Cemetery, Dart has acted as a grief counselor of sorts to some of the thousands of people whose loved ones are buried there. He has spent hours consoling people, some of whom didn't know he was the sheriff when they approached to ask a question.
"I couldn't tell people, 'Sorry, I just deal with the criminal part, you people are on your own,'" Dart said.
Prosecutors have charged four workers in the scheme. Dart's office has the task of trying to sort through disintegrated, moldy records to account for the buried and identify those remains dumped in a mass grave or double-stacked in plots.
"We thought he was being very calming, showed a lot of compassion and gave us information that helped us sort out things and understand the investigation," said Ralph Thompson Jr., whose sister, mother and son are among those buried at Burr Oak.
A former Cook County prosecutor, Dart was tapped to fill a legislative vacancy in 1991 and elected a Democratic state representative the next year. He served until 2003, leaving office to become chief of staff to Sheriff Michael Sheahan. Dart overwhelmingly won a bid for the job when Sheahan left in 2006.
Dart is hands-on during his office's investigations, joining deputies on evictions and driving a cart around Burr Oak to help search for clues. But longtime cops in the Chicago area haven't always looked favorably on the methods of a relative newcomer to law enforcement, including his decision to halt foreclosure evictions last year.
"A court order is just that, it is an order by a judge," Sheriff Keith Nygren, in nearby McHenry County, said at the time. "It doesn't say if you want to follow it or if you think you should."
Last summer, federal authorities also issued a scathing report about what they called "a culture of abuse" at the Cook County jail. They found a host of problems, including unsanitary conditions and instances of guards beating inmates, including old and mentally disabled inmates struck for dressing too slowly.
Dart said the report ignored changes he's made that have made the jail safer. He points out that the jail is no longer overcrowded, as it had been for decades and was at the time of the report. He restarted the foreclosures after banks took steps to ensure tenants had plenty of warning their landlords had defaulted on their loans.
If Dart makes some longtime cops roll their eyes - and he does - others like his approach.
"He takes on new tasks and asks new questions," said Abner Mikva, a former federal judge and congressman who wrote about Dart for Time magazine's "100 most influential people" issue. "It's his job to find out what's going on and worry about jurisdiction later."
Dart's name has been thrown about as a possible candidate next year for a number of statewide offices, but he won't say if he's thinking of running for anything. He had one failed statewide bid, for treasurer, in 2002. For now, he says he likes being sheriff and notes the monumental task his department faces at Burr Oak Cemetery.
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"These people deserve answers," he said. "They deserve someone who's truly committed to them."