St. Petersburg Times

Torture allegations dog ex-police officer
When Jon Burge was fired and left Chicago for Florida 10 years ago, he left turmoil in his wake.

By Leonora LaPeter, St. Petersburg Times
August 29, 2004


Jon Burge
Jon Burge
TAMPA - The burly man strode confidently from a Tampa courthouse last week, his lawyer placing a protective hand on his back as he passed the news cameras lying in wait.

Curious passers-by stopped and wondered about the guy with the shock of pure white hair smoothed perfectly back.
"Who's that?" someone asked.

Few know him here, and that's how he likes it. But back in Chicago, Jon Burge is big news. He's known as the police commander who, for 20 years, tortured suspects to make them confess.

The accusations are like something out of a wartime prison: electric shock and cattle prods; near suffocation with a typewriter bag; mock executions with a pistol.

Four people who confessed to him were released from death row last year; they're suing him. A special prosecutor has been on his tail for two years.

Fired from the Chicago Police Department, he settled into a waterfront community of brick and stucco houses on Tampa Bay 10 years ago, his police pension intact, a boat out back. He has never been charged with a crime.

Now people in Chicago are trying to bring him back, back to where he made a name for himself, as hero, then villain. People back home say Jon Burge needs to be called to account.

The book Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People delves into how and why torture takes place among ordinary people. Written by Chicago author John Conroy, the book explores torture in Israel, Northern Ireland and Chicago. Burge gets four chapters.

The son of a blue-collar phone company worker and a fashion columnist for the Chicago Daily News, Burge flunked out of college and volunteered to go to Vietnam twice, according to Conroy's book.

He earned a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and two army commendations for valor, for pulling wounded men to safety while under fire.

Back home, Burge joined the Chicago Police Department at 22, working the poor neighborhoods of the south side. He had a knack for defusing volatile situations; once he plucked a gun from the hands of a woman about to shoot herself in the neck.

Twenty years later, as commander of the detective division, he "outranked 99 percent of the policemen in his city," Conroy's book says, and had picked up 13 commendations and a letter of praise from the Department of Justice.

His fall from grace can be traced to Feb. 9, 1982, when two police officers, 34-year-old William Fahey and 33-year-old Richard O'Brien, pulled over a Chevrolet Impala for a traffic stop.

One of the two men in the car stripped Fahey of his weapon and shot him in the head and O'Brien in the chest. The shootings brought to four the number of officers fatally shot in Chicago that month. Emotions ran hot.

Five days after the shootings, police brought Andrew Wilson in for questioning.

Thirteen hours later, he confessed. He emerged from the interrogation with severe bruising and cuts on his head, a torn retina, burns on his chest and thighs and U-shaped marks on his body. Officers at the jail refused to accept him for fear they would be blamed.

He was convicted and sentenced to death, but the Illinois Supreme Court threw out his confession and ordered a new trial, ruling: "The evidence here shows clearly that when the defendant was arrested at 5:15 a.m. on Feb. 14, he may have received a cut above his right eye but that he had no other injuries.

"It is equally clear that when the defendant was taken by police officers to Mercy Hospital sometime after ten o'clock that night he had about fifteen separate injuries on his head, chest and leg. The inescapable conclusion is that the defendant suffered his injuries while in police custody that day."

Convicted at retrial, Wilson was sentenced to life without parole.

He sued the city of Chicago, Burge and other detectives. He testified that Burge and another officer used two electroshock devices on his ears, nose, fingers and groin area. Throughout the torture, he said, he was handcuffed to rings on a wall in front of a radiator that burned him.

"It's black and it's round and it had a wire sticking out of it and it had a cord on it," Wilson testified, describing one of the shocking devices. Burge "took it and he ran it up between my legs, my groin area, just ran it up there very gently ... up and down, up and down, you know, right between my legs, up and down like this, real gentle with it, but you can feel it, still feel it.

"Then he jabbed me with the thing and it slammed me ... into the grille on the window. Then I fell back down, and I think that's when I started spitting up the blood and stuff. Then he stopped."

Police denied using torture. Other prisoners came forward, saying they had suffered similar treatment. A judge ultimately awarded Wilson $1-million.

The attention spawned more cases.

"It has been for many years an open secret that at the police headquarters where Burge worked, a large number of African-American citizens were detained and subjected to horrific forms of abuse," said Locke Bowman, legal director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Chicago and a lawyer for a man who says Burge's detectives abused him.

Amnesty International asked for an independent investigation, calling the treatment "a clear violation of international law."

An investigator for the police department's professional standards office reviewed 50 complaints of abuse against Burge and his officers - electric shock, beatings, jabs with a cattle prod, pistols jammed in mouths in a mock execution, suffocations - and declared that the abuse was "systematic."

As many as 108 men have accused Burge and his detectives of torturing confessions from them.

With fundraisers and benefits, thousands of officers supported Burge and his men.

In 1993, Burge and his officers, who had been suspended without pay for more than a year, met different fates. The officers were reinstated. Burge was fired.

He took his pension and moved south to Florida. He left behind people angry not only with him but with the system that took his job but otherwise let him walk away unpunished.

"They protected him. They got him out of town and tried to sweep this issue under the rug and they got away with it," said the Rev. Calvin Morris, executive director of the Community Renewal Society in Chicago, which fought to get the city to look into the charges against Burge.

"We're left here with people who may be languishing in jail unfairly plus this is a slap on the wrist, and he's in sunny Florida."

Chicago police spokesman David Bayless responded: "I speak for the Chicago Police Department but I can't speak for every single opinion here, but I can say that the city of Chicago Police Department fired him. And that speaks for itself."

Why didn't the department pursue charges? Bayless said he would get back with the answer, but he never did.

Burge was gone, but the investigations continued. City investigators found evidence of torture. They shelved the cases in 1998, figuring the statute of limitations had run out, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Lawsuits were filed. Inmates who called themselves the "Death Row 10" said Burge or his detectives tortured confessions out of them. Their number grew to 13.

Illinois began finding fault with its death penalty system. A Northwestern University journalism professor and his students dug up evidence that exonerated some death row inmates, including one who said Burge and his detectives tortured him.

In 2000, then-Gov. George Ryan halted executions in Illinois after courts found 13 of the men on the state's death row had been wrongfully convicted. Last year, Ryan pardoned four of the Death Row 10, saying the evidence against them rested solely on confessions generated by torture from Burge and his officers.

"The four men did not know each other," Ryan said, "all getting beaten and tortured and convicted on the same basis of the confessions that they allegedly provided. They are perfect examples of what is so terribly broken about our system."

One of the pardoned men was Leroy Orange, then a 33-year-old self-employed maintenance man and scrap collector who was married with two children. His only prior arrest had come 14 years earlier at age 18, for criminal property damage. He was picked up for the murder of two women, a man and a 10-year-old in a Chicago apartment. The four had been bound and stabbed, the apartment set on fire.

Orange confessed after 12 hours of questioning during which he said he was shocked with wires attached to his buttocks, testicles and arms and suffocated with a plastic bag over his head.

He spent 19 years in prison before Ryan pardoned him. This year he was arrested on drug charges.

"What I see with Leroy is that his life was devastated by the conviction and the amount of time he spent in prison," said Thomas F. Geraghty, Orange's lawyer and a professor at Northwestern University School of Law. "He made this claim since day one and no one listened to us. It's more like he is a victim of the system's failure to acknowledge and curtail the antics of these police officers."

Burge's Chicago lawyer, Richard Levy, pointed out that although Ryan pardoned four of the Death Row 10, the Supreme Court of Illinois had upheld their convictions. Levy is paid by the city of Chicago, which must represent Burge in lawsuits. He offered this explanation for why so many have made similar claims:

"We believe that these allegations of coercion are false and that these individuals were guilty of their underlying crimes. And there can be many reasons why shared allegations of torture are seen. Obviously, they're represented by the same law firm and many of these people were incarcerated together."

For the past decade, Burge has lived on the eastern edge of Tampa Bay in Apollo Beach, the winter spot for manatees attracted to the warm water outflow of Tampa Electric's power plant.

Burge's white wood-frame home, which he bought for $154,000 in 1994, has coral shutters, a well-manicured yard and a 22-foot motorboat on a canal.

His next-door neighbor, 55-year-old retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jack Stevens, said Burge has watched Stevens' home when he's been on vacation and helped him install a door, fix a pool pump and put a timer in his pool.

He never talks about what happened in Chicago, and Stevens doesn't ask. "I don't know what it is about him being a cop in Chicago, but he's been an excellent neighbor."

What happened in Chicago is what everyone up there wants to hear. Burge was in court in Tampa twice this month fighting a subpoena to give a deposition in Chicago. He walked into County Judge Walter R. Heinrich's tiny courtroom and immediately struck up a conversation with the bailiff in the corner.

Burge, who is 56, says he is retired except for some security consultant work. He was jovial and amiable but shook his head when a reporter approached.

"I can't, my dear," he said. "I would love to, but I can't. They'll tell you why. I just can't."

In one of the suits, Burge's lawyers have said he will invoke the Fifth Amendment against incriminating himself.

That's because a special prosecutor is investigating. He was appointed in 2002, after the Cook County Bar Association, the Justice Coalition of Chicago and others filed a petition asking for a special prosecutor to review the allegations.

Edward Egan, a former judge from the Illinois Appellate Court and semiretired lawyer, was at his retirement home in Venice, Fla., when he got the call from Illinois asking if he would investigate.

Egan and an assistant put together an entire law office to handle the investigation. They hired more lawyers and a company of retired FBI officers to do legwork on allegations dating to 1973.

Now 81, Egan said he told his wife the case would take a year. It's taken two years and four months, and he's not done. He comes home to Venice for holidays and their anniversary.

"I've stopped prognosticating," he said. "It's slower than we anticipated. There were a lot of big problems about getting records and finding people. And many died and many people moved out of state."

Burge has been subpoenaed to give depositions Wednesday in two suits filed by former death row inmates.

"I know there's a strong sense that justice has not been done," said Jane Bohman, executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "That's why the civil suits were filed. Because the truth was never acknowledged by our government.

"He's got a pension. He moved to Florida. He probably wanted to go softly into the night, as they say."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which includes information from the Chicago Tribune and "Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People" by John Conroy.



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