Chicago police officers Shannon Spalding and Danny Echeverria began investigating an elaborate criminal enterprise within the department that included extortion and possibly murder.
In the spring of 2007, converging police scandals in Chicago threatened to engulf the Daley administration. Against the background of the long-running Jon Burge torture saga, stories of police criminality dominated the media. A major scandal involving the department’s special operations section had erupted. The charges included not only robbing drug dealers but also stealing from ordinary citizens and attempted murder for hire. This was a particular embarrassment to Mayor Daley, for SOS had been strongly identified with his campaign against, as he often put it, “gangs, guns, and drugs.”
On February 19, 2007, Anthony Abbate, an off-duty officer, had been drinking heavily at a tavern on the Northwest Side. When the bartender, Karolina Obrycka, refused to serve him more alcohol, he came behind the bar and punched and kicked her. Other customers intervened, and Abbate left. Obrycka called 911. She told the officers who responded that she had been attacked by a police officer and the incident had been recorded by the bar’s security camera. Neither of these statements was included in the police report. In the days that followed, other officers put pressure on Obrycka and the bar owner not to file charges.
When it became apparent that the Chicago Police Department was not going to take meaningful action against Abbate, Obrycka’s attorney released the video recorded by the bar’s security camera. The footage of the lumbering Abbate flailing away at the petite bartender went viral. Felony charges quickly followed and he was found guilty. Superintendent Phillip Cline was forced to retire. (He didn’t help himself when he said, in an effort to convey the depths of his disapproval of Abbate, “If I could hit him with a baseball bat, I would.”) Mayor Daley began the search for a new superintendent and an antidote to growing public concerns that his police department was out of control.
That was the moment, in the spring of 2007, that Chicago police officers Shannon Spalding and Danny Echeverria went to the FBI to pass on evidence of a scandal more extensive and damaging than those dominating the headlines: A CPD sergeant named Ronald Watts was running an elaborate criminal enterprise within the department, extorting a “tax” from drug dealers and targeting their rivals.
Spalding and Echeverria went on their day off and took precautions to ensure that no one saw them enter the building. They were acutely aware that it was a cardinal sin to go outside the department to another agency, because, as Spalding put it, “that means the bosses can’t control the cover-up.”
They had hoped to meet with Ken Samuels, the FBI agent who had contacted Spalding years earlier at the suggestion of Mickey Spaargaren, an officer who had previously been on Watts’s team, but Samuels was not available. Instead, they met with Special Agent Patrick Smith.
Contrary to their expectation that they would have no further involvement with the FBI once they passed on their information, Spalding and Echeverria found themselves in regular contact with Smith. He called frequently. And they occasionally met with him after work or on their days off.
During this period, Mayor Daley made two concurrent moves in response to demands for police reform. First, he appointed Jody Weis superintendent. Not only was Weis an outsider to the department, he had been a high-ranking official within the FBI, prompting speculation that his appointment was designed to head off federal intervention. Second, the CPD’s Office of Professional Standards, which had long been criticized for failing to vigorously investigate citizen complaints, was rebranded the Independent Police Review Authority, and Daley installed a well-regarded police monitor from Los Angeles to run it. Whatever else might be said about these moves, they served to deflate the public debate about police accountability. The attention of the press soon moved elsewhere.
As Weis was entering into what would prove a difficult tenure as superintendent, Spalding and Echeverria were becoming increasingly uneasy about their interactions with the FBI. Smith had begun to ask them to break away to do work for him on the clock, which they refused to do. After more than a year of intermittent contact with Smith, they felt the need to make sure they were working within department guidelines. In August 2008, they met with Tina Skahill, the chief of the CPD’s internal affairs division. Also present were Smith, Sgt. Tom Chester of the confidential section of internal affairs, who served as a liaison to the FBI, and Lt. Barbara West, commanding officer within internal affairs.
“This is an important investigation,” Spalding recalled her telling them. “It’s been on our radar for a long time, but we haven’t been able to accomplish anything. You two have the means to get results.”
Skahill told Spalding and Echeverria they would be detailed to the FBI to work undercover on the investigation of Watts and his team. Spalding expressed concerns about possible damage to their careers were their identities revealed. Skahill assured them their identities would remain confidential. “You will be protected,” she said.
Skahill emphasized the need for secrecy. “Don’t tell anybody. This goes higher than the blue shirts. They have access to your files, your home information. You’re working with people who are criminals with badges.”
(In her deposition in Spalding and Echeverria’s lawsuit, Skahill confirms that this meeting took place, but her account is considerably less detailed and she repeatedly responds to questions by saying that she does not recall.)
According to Spalding, the formal mechanism for assigning them to the FBI was to transfer them from the organized crime bureau to Unit 543 — “detached services” — a miscellaneous detail that would provide cover for their work on the Watts investigation. They were to report to Tom Chester. Only a handful of people within the department were to know of their assignment; among them, Debra Kirby, general counsel for the superintendent. Skahill would report directly to Superintendent Weis on the progress of the investigation.
The joint FBI-IAD investigation was christened “Operation Brass Tax.” When Spalding and Echeverria were transferred to 543 and began reporting to the FBI, no explanation was given to the organized crime bureau. Officers are often detailed to “narcotic task forces” at the FBI, Spalding explained. So, if someone asked what they were working on, that was a sufficient response.
Soon after they came to the FBI, Spalding ran into Ken Samuels, the agent who had called her years earlier to inquire about Watts. She asked him what had become of the case he was working on then and was surprised to learn it was still open. She said Samuels expressed frustration. “The case never went anywhere,” he said. “Whenever it started to go somewhere, it was like Watts was getting a heads-up. We haven’t been able to get inside.”
From the start, Spalding and Echeverria encountered a good deal of interagency distrust. On the first day they reported to the FBI, Spalding recalled, Special Agent Julie Anderson expressed surprise that Watts had become a sergeant. “They promoted him?” she said. “What the fuck is wrong with CPD?”
Anderson was also openly suspicious of internal affairs. “Your department will sabotage this investigation,” she remarked. “As soon as it gets to white shirts, they’ll shut it down.”
For their part, the two street-smart narcotics cops quickly grew skeptical about the FBI’s way of doing things. Among the first tasks they undertook was re-transcribing dozens of CDs of wiretaps in the Watts case, having found transcripts marked “not pertinent” that contained highly relevant material. In one instance, “lu” for “lieutenant” was mistaken for a first name.
In another, “Obama” was mistaken for the president of the United States, when in fact it was a reference to the dope line at the Ida B. Wells Homes operated by a drug dealer named Kamane “Insane” Fears. His crew wore Obama T-shirts (“Yes We Can!”) as a form of marketing rather than an expression of political allegiance. When challenged by the police — “What’s with the shirts?” — they would respond that they were supporting the black presidential candidate from the South Side of Chicago.
On December 12, 2008, a few months after Spalding and Echeverria were formally assigned to the FBI, Fears was shot down at 37th and Calumet. The shooter or shooters pumped 17 rounds into his body. As in the case of Big Shorty, the word on the street was that the murder was the work of Watts.
“The boys call him Thirsty Bird. You have to pay taxes to sell dope. Watts ain’t nothing nice. You come up missing if you go up against Watts.”
Spalding and Echeverria expected to be at the FBI for six months, but the investigation moved painfully slowly. Sometimes this was due to circumstances beyond their control. In one instance, Watts had an accident and went on medical leave, but mostly the slow pace of the investigation was dictated by the FBI.
For example, Bernard Brown, then in prison, had been prepared to give a statement for more than a year before Smith told them to bring him in. When Smith finally interviewed him on August 7, 2009, Brown described in detail the structure of Watts’s extortion operation. Smith showed him a photo array. He recognized several officers in Watts’s crew, including one whom he said once proposed giving someone a pass on 60 bags of dope in exchange for an AK-47.
While the FBI had resources not readily available to the CPD — high-tech surveillance tools, funds to pay informants and use as bait in stings — Operation Brass Tax was built, according to Spalding, on the foundation of the street informants she and Echeverria had developed over the years.
Before they were detailed to the FBI, while they were in the narcotics division, they had gone looking for Chewbacca to see what he knew about Watts and his team. Although they had worked with him for years, they had never had occasion to talk with him about Watts. They had always been focused on the particular case they were developing at the time. They couldn’t find Chewbacca at any of his usual haunts. It turned out he was in prison.
He later told them that Watts had put a case on him. At one of the Wells buildings, Watts had approached him and pressed him for information about where some drugs were stashed. In the past, Chewbacca had cooperated with Watts, but this time he simply didn’t know where the drugs were. When he wasn’t forthcoming, Watts put someone else’s package on him. Knowing he wouldn’t be believed over Watts, he pleaded guilty. Chewbacca was often in and out of jail on relatively lightweight charges such as drinking in public, but the drug conviction resulted in a two-year sentence.
After they began working with the FBI, Spalding and Echeverria finally spotted Chewbacca looking for food in a dumpster outside a White Castle at 35th and King. He had recently been released. He climbed into the backseat of their car. After they exchanged greetings and Chewbacca filled them in on his incarceration, they asked, “What’s all this shit we’ve been hearing about Watts?” Chewbacca started talking and it was a long time before he stopped. He was an avalanche of information, confirming the scope of the protection racket Watts was running. They asked him how many times he had seen Watts paid off by drug dealers.
“Hundreds of times,” Chewbacca replied. “For years. The boys call him Thirsty Bird. You have to pay taxes to sell dope. Watts ain’t nothing nice. You come up missing if you go up against Watts. Look at Shorty. Look at Kamane.”
Chewbacca said he had witnessed a confrontation that Big Shorty had with Watts in front of one of the Wells buildings in the days before he was murdered. Watts was pressing Big Shorty for more money. “We don’t eat like that anymore,” Shorty told Watts. “I’m done. I’m going to the feds on your ass.”
A few days later, he was shot down. “Nobody lives to tell, when they get into it with Watts,” said Chewbacca. “Watts leaves no witnesses.”
On many occasions over the years, Chewbacca said, he had seen Watts take drugs off one person and put them on another. He imitated Watts passing drugs from hand to hand, saying, “Hmm, who’s going to ride the train today?” Growing up on South State Street, Chewbacca had known Watts before he joined the department. Watts was not, he said, a cop who went bad. He was a dope dealer who got the badge to further his criminal vocation.
Angry about being falsely arrested, Chewbacca was prepared to work with Spalding and Echeverria, including wearing a wire, to bring Watts down.
Another one of their informants, a drug dealer at the Harold Ickes Homes on South State Street, had traveled a similar path. Like Chewbacca, he had his own reasons for working to bring Watts down.
“He was really good,” said Spalding. “We could never get him.” They had built a relationship with the man. “He said, ‘You’re never gonna get me.’ But he helped us get everybody else.”
Watts came to the Ickes dealer to get paid off, Spalding recounted. There were drugs and guns on the table between them. “You’ve got to give me more than you’ve got on the table,” said Watts. The drug dealer misunderstood him. He thought Watts meant he wanted more drugs and guns when he wanted more money than the value of what was on the table. If he had understood, according to Spalding, he would have gone along. She quoted him as saying, “If that motherfucker told me I needed to give him another $5,000, I would’ve given it to him.”
As a result of this communications glitch, Watts put someone else’s package on him and arrested him. He did two years and was particularly upset to have missed the birth of his son. When he came out of prison in the fall of 2009, he had a beef with Watts and was prepared to work with Spalding and Echeverria as a CI — a confidential informant. They developed a sting in which both he and Chewbacca played roles.
Watts was not, he said, a cop who went bad. He was a dope dealer who got the badge to further his criminal vocation.
In February 2010, Chewbacca ran into Watts and described his role as a drug courier. “Nobody suspects me,” he told Watts. “I walk dope and money up and down State Street all the time. I’m invisible.”
The plan, according to Spalding, was for Chewbacca, outfitted with a pen and baseball cap rigged with audio and visual surveillance devices, to go from 22nd and Michigan to a parking lot at 26th and State, where he would deliver a bag to their CI from Ickes, who would be parked in a covert FBI vehicle.
“Watts isn’t going to take the bait,” Spalding told the FBI agents. She predicted he would observe Chewbacca’s courier routine first. “I know him,” she said. “He’s careful and calculating. That’s why he’s still on the street.”
The scenario played out as she predicted. Watts and his partner, Kallatt Mohammed, observed the operation but didn’t pounce. “Hey, buddy, that was smooth,” Watts told Chewbacca later. “That was so smooth.”
Having hooked Watts, they orchestrated a sting on March 31, 2010, to reel him in. An agent gave Chewbacca the bag containing the money. Another agent was to follow Chewbacca to witness the transaction, so he wouldn’t have to testify in court.
“Do you have eyes on the CI?” Spalding asked over the phone.
“I’m not going to be daisy-chained to his ass,” the agent replied. “I’m going to lunch.”
In the end, the agent didn’t see the transaction. Nor did Smith, who was observing from a nearby hotel room. He explained to Spalding that he had to go to the bathroom.
Watts, who was off duty, showed up in his police uniform driving an official vehicle. Mohammed was with him. Chewbacca also observed another member of the team — Al Jones — in the course of the sting. Watts intercepted Chewbacca and took the bag. When he looked inside, he became agitated. “It’s empty. … Oh, here it is.” Under clothes and other stuff, he found $5,000. “I’m going to tell you what we’re going to do,” Watts told Chewbacca. “We’re going to have to arrest you for your own good. I’ll send in my guys to bail you out.”
In all likelihood, Spalding speculated, he would have dispatched other off-duty members of the team to bail out Chewbacca with some of the money they had just ripped off.
Chewbacca was holding a 7-Eleven coffee mug that was wired. While being handcuffed, he managed to hold on to the mug. He protested fiercely that he didn’t want to go to jail. He ultimately prevailed. Watts gave Chewbacca $770 and released him. The two officers then drove to Mohammed’s house where they presumably divided up the spoils.
Spalding and Echeverria were unnerved. FBI agents had repeatedly expressed suspicions that the CPD was subverting the investigation. Now, in light of the botched sting in which one FBI agent broke contact with the CI and the other took a bathroom break at a critical moment, they wondered: Was the FBI really this inept or was something else going on?
Fears had been shot outside her home on the 3700 block of Calumet. She was a nursing student at Kennedy-King College. Spalding described her as “well-spoken, no attitude, she had made good choices.” Then she met Kamane Fears. “By the time she realized who he was, she was in love and pregnant.” The young woman, who could not be reached for comment, became a major source for Spalding and Echeverria. She gave them valuable information about the drug trade. She told them where the Obama dope line stash houses were and described the internal workings of the operation.
“She had been with Kamane dozens of times when he paid off Watts,” said Spalding. One day she was walking a few steps behind Fears and Watts, when Watts patted Fears’s pockets. “Easter’s coming up,” he said. “Where’s my money? My kids need Easter baskets.”
As the demolitions progressed at Ida B. Wells, Fears moved his operation to 37th and Indiana. Watts came around, seeking to tax him as he had at Wells and Ickes. Fears refused now that the high-rises were down and threatened to give Watts up to the feds. A few days later, he was killed.
Early that morning, Fears and his girlfriend were lying in bed together. He got a call on his phone. “I’ve got to go handle this,” he told her. He went outside. She heard gunfire. She looked out the window and saw a hooded figure leaving the scene. The man turned and looked up at the window. She was afraid he saw her.
Knowing how Fears operated, she said, no one could get close to him unless he knew them. The shooter or shooters took two cellphones off his body, so it couldn’t be determined who had made the call that set him up, and retrieved all the shell casings.
Having built their relationship with Fears’s girlfriend on the pretext they were working the homicide, Spalding and Echeverria had, in fact, with her help developed significant new information about the murder. So they took her to the cold case unit, in the hope detectives there would pursue the leads they had generated. The sergeant they dealt with was not welcoming.
Spalding and Echeverria were not in the room when the sergeant interviewed Fears’s girlfriend. After they emerged, the sergeant asked the woman, gesturing toward Spalding and Echeverria, “What did those two do that my guys couldn’t do in two years?”
“It’s very simple,” she replied. “They did something none of your officers did. They knocked on my door and asked me.”
During this period, Spalding and Echeverria also talked with Kamane’s mother and his brother Jerome, aka Monk, who had assumed leadership of the Obama drug operation. The relationships they developed were such that when the mother died, the family invited them to the wake.
One day, as they drove past 37th and Indiana, Monk flagged them down. He leaned in Echeverria’s window, and the three talked for about 45 minutes. Moments after they parted, Spalding received a call from a DEA agent she knew. They set up a meeting in a nearby alley.
“How do you know Monk?” the agent asked. “We’re trying to get a wire up on him. We just saw him flag you down and talk with you.” With a touch of undisguised pride (at least in the retelling), she asked, “Do you want his cellphone number?” She made a phone call.
“Hey, Monk,” she said, “I just wanted to make sure this is still your number. … Thanks.”
When Watts’s name came up in the course of the conversation, she recalled, the DEA agent was outraged to learn he was still on the force and had been promoted to sergeant. “Watts is still around, as corrupt as he is? We were looking into him 10 years ago. I can’t believe your fucking department. I can’t believe they didn’t do anything about it.”
By the summer of 2010, Spalding and Echeverria had, in effect, been orphaned by both agencies involved in the joint investigation. On the FBI side, the behavior of Special Agent Patrick Smith had become increasingly erratic. It turned out he had never done the paperwork necessary to properly establish them at the FBI, and they lost access to the office and car they had been using.
On the CPD side, Tina Skahill, the chief of internal affairs who had assigned them to Operation Brass Tax, had been moved to another command position. They lost their key protector. “Fast forward,” said Spalding. “I believe if Skahill had stayed in place, none of what happened would have happened. She would have protected us.”
Skahill was replaced by Chief Juan Rivera. Well-liked within the department — as one high-ranking official put it to me, the rank and file “know he cares about cops” — Rivera had a longstanding relationship to the Watts investigation. He had been a sergeant in internal affairs when it was initiated. Now, years later, he was back as chief, and the case, still open, was once again his responsibility.
Looking back, Spalding now believes the investigation was designed to fail. Watts was known to be at the center of a far-flung criminal enterprise with multiple co-conspirators. Yet the investigation was reduced to “two cops, one car, one radio … and good luck.” Nonetheless, the two undercover officers continued to work the case as best they could.
“You guys are in grave danger,” Rivera said, “and I can’t protect you. So for now you have to be extremely careful. Fly completely under the radar.”
Then the bottom fell out. The first sign that something was wrong came in August 2010 when they submitted paperwork to Cmdr. James O’Grady of the narcotics division, seeking approval of their Ickes informant as a CI. Word came back from a sergeant they dealt with in narcotics that O’Grady had refused to approve the application and had instructed him, “You are not to work with those IAD rats.”
Realizing their cover had been blown, Spalding and Echeverria immediately sought out Rivera. He told them he had informed Deputy Superintendent Ernie Brown that they were working on the Watts investigation. “Brown,” said Rivera, “must have told everyone.”
Today Spalding recalls this as the instant when everything changed. She immediately grasped the implications. “I knew I was doomed.” She remembers every detail. The smell of coffee brewing in the IAD office. The perspiration soaking her shirt. The sensation of free fall.
“What the fuck did you do that for?” she challenged Rivera.
“I thought it would be helpful for you,” he said.
“I think I might have fucked up,” said Rivera.
My life is in this man’s hands, she recalls thinking, and he is telling me he fucked up. They were, she knew, utterly exposed.
“You guys are in grave danger,” Rivera said, “and I can’t protect you. So for now you have to be extremely careful. Fly completely under the radar.”
Rivera described a meeting of bosses at which O’Grady referred to them as “rats” and Nick Roti, the chief of the organized crime bureau, said he wouldn’t allow them to work in any unit under him. Although O’Grady was their commander, they had never met him. “He wouldn’t know us if he saw us on the street,” Spalding said. Yet he was, according to Rivera, ordering officers under his command to retaliate against them. “God help them if they ever need help on the street,” Rivera quoted their commander as saying. “It ain’t coming.”
O’Grady and Roti deny making the utterances Spalding alleges. Their denials are sweeping and categorical. In statements in the whistleblower case, each made the same sworn declaration: “I never made any statements to or about Plaintiffs or took any action against or relating to Plaintiffs based on any reports they may have made to the FBI of alleged criminal misconduct or corruption by Watts, Mohammed, or any other Chicago police officer.” The Chicago Police Department and the FBI both declined to comment. All the law enforcement officers who are named in this article either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.
Rivera in his deposition denied talking with Ernie Brown about the involvement of Spalding and Echeverria in Operation Brass Tax. He denied ever talking with O’Grady about the two officers. He denied playing any role in outing them. And he denied that the conversation Spalding describes with great emotion as a pivotal traumatic experience — the moment she realized how exposed they were — ever took place.
At the same time, Rivera acknowledged that he had “numerous” conversations with Spalding and Echeverria and they talked “almost every other day.” Despite his sensitive position, he was, according to Spalding, an expansive talker. It seemed to give him pleasure to instruct her and Echeverria about how things really worked within the department.
“Rivera,” Spalding said, “told us stories about everybody.”
Two Chicago police officers uncovered a massive criminal enterprise within the department. Then they were hung out to dry.