03/20/2007

Chicago cop poses as drunk to catch robbers

By Frank Main
The Chicago Sun-Times

CHICAGO — You could have lit a fire with the booze wafting from Sgt. Bill Barron.

The 57-year-old Chicago Police veteran was primed for a night on the town in a blue Polo button-down, khakis and loafers.

He wasn't drinking, though. He had dabbed his shirt with Jack Daniels to smell like the "square" he was going to portray.

"I pretend I'm intoxicated. I've had a lot of practice," he cracked.

Barron was the decoy in an initiative police Supt. Phil Cline launched three months ago to catch beggars who rob vulnerable people, such as drunks and the elderly, in downtown Chicago.

Through March 8 this year, officers have busted 216 people for aggressive panhandling and 10 for strong-arm robbery in the area bordered by Division, Wells, the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.

The department recognizes begging is constitutionally protected speech, said Steve Georgas, commander of the Near North District. But when the begging becomes aggressive — following citizens, using foul language or touching them — panhandlers can be arrested for an ordinance violation that carries a fine, he said.

To keep the most aggressive panhandlers behind bars, they are being charged with felonies such as robbery, theft, assault and criminal trespassing, said Georgas, Near North commander since December.

'DRUNK' MORE THAN 300 TIMES

Perhaps the worst offender, Georgas said, was Dimitrius Dixon, 48, who was arrested Jan. 17 after robbing Barron. Dixon's criminal record includes 102 arrests and 12 convictions. His latest case is pending.

Victor Scott, 45, and Charles A. Wade, 48, already are serving prison terms for felony theft after they were nabbed in stings by Near North officers.

No homeless people were among those arrested in the stings, Georgas said. Most were robbing to pay for drug habits, he said.

Police have met with the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association, the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago and other groups to seek cooperation, Georgas said.

"When you own a restaurant, you have a legal obligation as a city licensee to shovel the snow," he said. "You also have an obligation to call 911 if a crime is happening in front of your business."

Last Monday night, Near North tactical officers fanned out to spot shady characters loitering on downtown streets and hitting up citizens for cash.

Barron reeled like a conventioneer out too late, leaning on walls of restaurants and convenience stores to keep his balance. Nearby, plainclothes officers kept an eye on him and the targets who approached.

Barron estimates he has played a drunk more than 300 times in his career. He has been beaten up twice. Once, a target pulled a knife on him.

Barron, who is retiring next month, said the regulars sometimes know he is a cop, shouting out, "Hello, sergeant!"

BACKPACK MAN GETS 3 BUCKS

"But sometimes they know you are the police and rob you anyway," he said. "I used to wear a bulletproof vest under my shirt. I had people feel the vest and rob me anyways. One guy said, 'I knew he was the police, but I figured he was drunk, so I robbed him.' "

The robberies usually do not involve weapons, Barron said.

As Barron roamed, a few panhandlers approached him but seemed wary because so many pedestrians were walking on the unusually balmy evening.

Barron struck out at Hubbard and State — and at Wells and Huron.

Then, at 9 p.m., the surveillance team radioed the leader, Lt. Luke Kelly, that a man with a red backpack was eyeing Barron at Superior and Clark.

"They're next to Blue Chicago. Backpack Man is looking around, thinking about it," Officer Brenna Scanlan said on the radio.

At 9:05 p.m., Backpack Man followed Barron south along Clark as he crossed Superior.

A "square" — a man walking his dog — stopped to talk to the sergeant to see if he needed help, Scanlan warned.

"Are you going to be OK?" the good samaritan asked.

Barron shooed away the man and walked past a 7-Eleven.

"People are looking out the window of the 7-Eleven, spooking him," Scanlan said of Backpack Man.

In front of Garrett Ripley's pub, though, Backpack Man sprung into action.

He allegedly asked Barron if he wanted to drink with him. He said Barron was too drunk to go home and that he would help Barron.

Suddenly, Backpack Man clutched one of Barron's arms and plunged his other hand into one of Barron's pockets, grabbing three $1 bills marked on the back in red ink with the initials W.B. for William Barron. He has used the same marked bills for the last 10 years.

After Barron was robbed, he raised his hand, the signal for the team to make the arrest.

"Move in!" Kelly ordered, and cop cars sped to Barron's aid.

SERGEANT IS 'BEST IN THE BIZ'

At 9:13 p.m., Backpack Man — whose real name is Reginald Morrow — was in handcuffs, arrested by tactical Officers Roy Evans and Demetrios Xentaras.

Morrow, 38, has 41 arrests, with two convictions for drug and gun possession. He was still holding the three bills when he was nabbed, police said.

"I've worked for Billy a long time," Xentaras said of Barron. "He's the best in the biz."

Copyright 2007 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

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