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Investigation: Chicago police tortured scores of black suspects
By Mike Robinson
CHICAGO — For 15 years, former Chicago homicide supervisor Jon Burge lived quietly in Florida, free from prosecution despite a growing chorus of claims that he had shocked, beaten and suffocated suspects to get confessions in the 1970s and 1980s.
Civil rights groups and alleged victims demanded Burge's arrest. But prosecutors said their hands were tied; it was too late to pursue criminal charges.
That changed Tuesday.
The tough 60-year-old Burge was arrested at his Florida home and charged -- not with torturing victims, but with lying in a civil case when he said he didn't five years ago.
U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald compared the pursuit of Burge to another infamous Chicago case where the feds finally got their man.
"If Al Capone went down for taxes, it's better than him going down for nothing," Fitzgerald said. Capone ran the mob and much else in Chicago in the Prohibition Era, but the most prosecutors could ever prove in court was that he cheated on his taxes.
Burge is the former commander of the violent crimes unit at Area 2 detective headquarters on Chicago's South Side. He was fired by the police department in 1993.
Special prosecutors, appointed to study the case after years of scandal, found two years ago that scores of black suspects were tortured under Burge at Area 2.
But they said the statute of limitations had long since run out on torture charges and thus no criminal indictment was warranted.
Burge was arrested before dawn Tuesday at his home in Apollo Beach, Fla., outside Tampa. He was charged with one count of perjury and two counts of obstruction of justice in a lawsuit filed against him on behalf of a former death row inmate, Madison Hobley.
Based on a confession he claims was bogus, Hobley was convicted of a setting a January 1987 fire that killed his wife, infant son and five others. He says he was tortured by Burge with a typewriter cover over his head to keep him from breathing. He claims he never confessed to the crime and police falsified his confession.
Hobley was among four former Death Row inmates freed by Gov. George Ryan in January 2003 as he was leaving office. He said there was no evidence the men were guilty. Ryan also commuted the sentences of every other Death Row inmate to life.
Burge was asked in written questionnaires in the Hobley suit if he were familiar with "bagging" -- suffocating suspects with typewriter covers -- or other techniques of torture allegedly used by detectives under his command.
"I have not observed nor do I have knowledge of any other examples of physical abuse and/or torture on the part of Chicago police officers," Burge replied.
Burge made similar replies to other written questions he was asked.
The indictment does not say Hobley was tortured. Fitzgerald acknowledged that there are few specifics in the indictment about exactly what Burge knew or did in regard to torture. The indictment did say he participated in some form of torture and knew about "bagging" as a means of forcing confessions out of suspects.
Burge appeared Tuesday afternoon before federal Magistrate Judge Thomas B. McCoun III, who set bond at $250,000 and released him. Burge is expected to be arraigned in federal court in Chicago on Monday.
When asked by reporters outside the Florida courthouse whether he intended to plead not guilty, Burge answered, "Yes."
He also was asked if the indictment came as a surprise.
"I'm not at liberty to say anything, but yes it did," he said before getting into a pickup truck.
Burge attorney James Sotos, reached by telephone, declined to comment.
The case against Burge immediately raised questions about who else may be charged. Fitzgerald made it plain that the government still is investigating. He also said that if police were involved in torture, they should not pin their hopes on police refusing to talk about their colleagues.
"If their lifeline is to hang onto a perceived wall of silence they may be hanging on air," Fitzgerald told reporters.
Among those who have long been tangled in the case is Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who was Cook County's state's attorney when some of the Burge cases were under investigation and in court. Daley spoke under oath with the special prosecutors, according to city law department spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyle. He has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
Daley told reporters Tuesday: "I was very proud of my role as prosecutor."
"I was not the mayor, I was not the police chief," Daley said. "I did not promote this man in the '80s, so let's put everything into perspective."
Civil rights lawyer G. Flint Taylor, who has long pursued lawsuits against Burge and the city on behalf of former death row inmates, expressed some satisfaction but noted the city was still defending Burge in the lawsuits and paying his pension.
"Now the city has to get on the right side of torture cases," Taylor said.
But Hoyle said the city was paying for Burge's defense in the lawsuits only because ordered to do so by a federal appeals court. She said the city would not be paying Burge's legal expenses in the perjury and obstruction of justice cases.
The mother of one of the four former Death Row inmates released by Ryan just as he was leaving office said she saw justice with Burge's arrest.
"He can feel what it's like to be arrested and handcuffed and put in jail," said Jo Ann Patterson. "He was laughing, but I don't think he's laughing anymore."
Her son, Aaron Patterson, became a prominent critic of the police after his release. He was later convicted on federal gun and drug charges and is now serving a 30-year prison sentence.
A former police officer who lives near Burge, Thomas Brady, told reporters after the hearing in Tampa that he couldn't understand the charges against his friend.
"He was the best cop I ever met," Brady said.
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