Two Chicago police officers uncovered a massive criminal enterprise within the department. Then they were hung out to dry.
On February 22, 2011, Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor of Chicago, bringing to an end the 22-year reign of Mayor Daley the Second. His election drew national attention and insistent speculation that he saw the role of mayor as a stepping stone to the White House, something he repeatedly denied. Being mayor of Chicago, he insisted, was his dream job.
No Emanuel appointment was more closely watched than his choice of a new superintendent for the Chicago Police Department. While the integrity of Mayor Daley’s Superintendent Jody Weis was never questioned, he had often seemed politically tone deaf and had proved unable to translate his outsider status into effective power within the department.
Emanuel’s choice — Garry McCarthy, the police director of Newark, New Jersey — was also an outsider, but he was described as “a cop’s cop.” McCarthy had earlier served under William Bratton in New York, where he built his reputation managing CompStat, the data-driven management tool the NYPD had developed for holding commanders accountable for crime in their districts.
For high-ranking police officials, transitions in department leadership are “times of upheaval,” as one put it to me. This is especially true when the new superintendent comes from outside and is an unknown quantity. Among the things known about McCarthy that might have been expected to stir anxieties were his strong identification with CompStat and his intention to move swiftly to make good on Emanuel’s campaign pledge to put an additional 1,000 officers on the street.
Operating largely on their own without meaningful support from either the FBI or CPD’s internal affairs division, Chicago police officers Shannon Spalding and Danny Echeverria carried on as best they could with their investigation into the far-flung criminal enterprise allegedly run by Sgt. Ronald Watts and his gang tactical team. According to Spalding and Echeverria, the character of their jobs — the very air through which they moved — had fundamentally changed after they were outed by the head of internal affairs, Chief Juan Rivera. Exposed and isolated, now known as “IAD rats,” they knew better than anyone what Watts and Co. were capable of. Yet they continued — “two officers, one car, one radio” — to work the case. Their efforts paid off.
One day, as they drove past the apartment where Monk Fears and his girlfriend lived, they noticed his car was smashed up. The girlfriend told them the following story: She and their baby were in the car with Monk, who was in the process of re-upping, distributing packages, and collecting money — so there was lots of dope and cash in the car. Watts and his team came after them. Watts and his partner Mohammed were in an unmarked car with city plates, and Brian Bolton and Bobby Gonzales, two other members of the team, were in a CPD Tahoe. A wild car chase ensued on the Dan Ryan Expressway, Lake Shore Drive, and ultimately into the Hyde Park neighborhood, where Monk lost control of the car and crashed in a park. He fled on foot. Watts and his team seized the dope and cash. They didn’t even check on the condition of the woman and infant who remained in the car.
Monk’s girlfriend noticed that a man she recognized, who worked the Obama dope line, was handcuffed in the backseat of the Tahoe. Spalding and Echeverria were familiar with this individual. They tracked him down. He described how he had banged around in the backseat of the Tahoe because he was handcuffed and couldn’t brace himself. On 35th Street near U.S. Cellular Field, he said, the officers had taken the cuffs off and released him.
“You didn’t see nothing,” they told him.
Monk was shaken by the car chase. “They’re out of control,” he told Spalding and Echeverria. “I don’t know where it’s going to end.” Referring to the fate of his brother, Kamane Fears, he said he was worried he was in line for “the Watts Special.”
The accelerating pace of public-housing demolitions, it appeared, was destabilizing things not only for the gangs but also for corrupt police who fed on the drug trade. As the buildings came down, the “careful and calculating” Watts, as Spalding once described him, and his team were becoming increasingly reckless.
Several weeks later, Monk’s girlfriend let Spalding and Echeverria know that he had been locked up. They arranged to talk with him via her cellphone. When Monk called, Spalding and Echeverria spelled out the offer the feds were prepared to make in exchange for his cooperation in the Watts investigation. Monk agreed to proffer and to wear a wire in his dealings with Watts. This was, said Spalding, “a huge break in the case.” They made plans to pick up Monk at the facility where he was incarcerated at 8 a.m. on May 4 and bring him to the FBI. (Monk Fears and his girlfriend could not be reached for comment.)
On the afternoon of May 3, Spalding and Echeverria received a call from Tom Chester, the IAD liaison to the FBI. He told them there had been a meeting at which it was decided to take them off the investigation. They rushed to CPD headquarters to talk with Tina Skahill, the former chief of internal affairs. They told her Monk was prepared to proffer, but they were being taken off the investigation. Skahill was aghast. “This cannot happen,” she said. “The superintendent is involved in this investigation.”
Spalding told Skahill that there was about to be a meeting of senior officials, including Rivera and Cmdr. James O’Grady, regarding their fate. Skahill went down to the meeting. She apparently was unable to gain access, because she soon returned and said, “I’ll talk with Juan.”
Later that afternoon, Spalding and Echeverria received voicemail messages from Deputy Superintendent James Jackson, informing them that they were no longer assigned to the FBI and were being reassigned to the CPD. He instructed them to report in uniform to the detached services unit on May 4 at the beginning of their shift.
Juan Rivera was their principal source of information about what had happened. Here is what they say he told them:
A supervisor in the detached services unit had asked Echeverria what he and Spalding were working on. As instructed by Rivera, he referred her to Deputy Superintendent Debra Kirby. Deputy Superintendent Beatrice Cuello called Kirby to confirm that Spalding and Echeverria were working on an undercover investigation and the paperwork was in place. Kirby denied knowing who Spalding and Echeverria were, much less knowing they were involved in an undercover investigation.
“I’m supposed to be over this investigation. I’m not going to clear this up now. Too many bosses look bad.”
On the basis of Kirby’s denials, Cuello and Jackson concluded Spalding and Echeverria were lying when they said they were engaged in an internal investigation. According to Rivera, Kirby admitted to him she had screwed up by not clarifying the situation. He quoted her as saying, “I’m supposed to be over this investigation. I’m not going to clear this up now. Too many bosses look bad. How could we not know what’s going on for 2 1/2 years?”
However implausible this account — Why couldn’t Rivera, as chief of internal affairs, definitively resolve the matter? — there was no doubt about the outcome. On May 4, Spalding and Echeverria did not go to pick up Monk to take him to the FBI but headed to the detached services unit. En route, they were instructed to go instead to the police academy for a one-day training.
When they arrived, a sergeant addressed them sharply, “You’re not here for a one-day class,” he said. To Spalding, he said, “You’re going to the 3rd District on midnights.” And to Echeverria, “You’re going to 15 on midnights. And don’t act like you don’t know what’s going on.”
They were taken aback by his punitive tone. Echeverria had been talking on his cellphone as they entered the building. The sergeant reprimanded him for doing so. Echeverria handed him the phone. Rivera was on the other end of the line.
“Yes, Chief,” they overheard him say. “Sorry, Chief. … Yes, Chief.”
The sergeant told Rivera, among other things, that he had received an email from Jackson about Spalding and Echeverria. After his conversation with Rivera, the sergeant handed the phone back to Echeverria.
“I apologize,” he said. “It seems you two really don’t know what’s going on. And neither does the chief.”
Spalding later asked Rivera whether he had seen Jackson’s email. He said he had, but he didn’t share its content. “It would just upset you,” he said. During their lunch hour, they rushed from the academy to headquarters and told Skahill that they were going to be put on the street.
“What? They can’t do that,” Skahill said. “That could get you killed.”
Skahill sent a directive to the academy that the two officers were not, under any circumstances, to be assigned to patrol. They spent the day in a small room at the academy without phones, computers, or radios. They would remain there for most of the next three weeks. At the moment they were poised to bring the Watts investigation to a successful conclusion, they were, as Spalding put it, “placed under house arrest.”
They were given no meaningful work to do at the academy. It was suggested they sit in on classes for the new recruits. And at one point, they were directed to act as “in-car camera instructors,” despite never having used an in-car camera.
On May 16, 2011, while they were at the academy, Rahm Emanuel was sworn in as mayor of Chicago, and Garry McCarthy became police superintendent. Within 10 days, McCarthy acted on Emanuel’s campaign pledge and reassigned the first 500 officers of the promised 1,000 to beats in the districts.
Spalding and Echeverria were not among them. Skahill had them reassigned to the inspections division, Unit 126, under her command, where once again they sat idle at empty desks. “I have nothing for you to do,” Skahill said apologetically.
Their supervisor, Lt. Deborah Pascua, was openly hostile toward them. Echeverria in his deposition testified that she called them “rat motherfuckers” and spread the word within the unit that they should be shunned. “I’m a lawyer and know how to put a case together,” he quoted her as saying. “I’m gonna work on getting them fucking launched.”
“They’re trying to build a false file on you.”
As dispiriting for Spalding and Echeverria as the abuse was the denial of work. When they weren’t sitting at their desks with nothing to do, they were reduced to chauffeuring Pascua around, often on her personal errands. They started getting written up “for this and that” — even, in one instance, Spalding said, on her day off. “They’re trying,” Rivera told them, “to build a false file on you.”
On September 13, 2011, Spalding and Echeverria met with Cmdr. Adrienne Stanley, their commanding officer, and told her of the retaliation and hostile work environment. “I don’t want to hear this,” Stanley said. “I don’t want to know.”
She refused their request that she initiate a “complaint register” investigation, or CR. The commanding officer having refused to intervene, Pascua’s campaign against them continued and was joined by others, according to Spalding.
Increasingly concerned about Spalding and Echeverria, Skahill ordered them to discuss the retaliation with Rivera. (Skahill’s memory of these events, as reflected in her deposition, is hazy. In response to questions, she repeatedly replied that she could not recall.)
When Spalding and Echeverria asked Rivera to initiate a CR investigation, he refused. Echeverria challenged him. “Since no one at CPD will do anything, we need to take this to an outside agency,” he said, referring to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The normally easygoing Rivera responded angrily.
“Look, Dan, right now the entire department is against you and Shannon,” he said. “I’m the only one on your side. If you file a complaint, you will piss me off, and believe me, the last thing you two want to do is piss me off. Then you’ll have no one helping you. Leave it alone.”
Frustrated by Rivera’s refusal to initiate a CR investigation, Spalding and Echeverria sought the advice of Pete Koconis, a former internal affairs officer who had recently retired after 38 years in the department, 17 of them in IAD. Koconis talked with them repeatedly and at length in an effort to assess their credibility.
“If you file a complaint, you will piss me off, and believe me, the last thing you two want to do is piss me off. Then you’ll have no one helping you. Leave it alone.”
“The reason being,” he said of his conversations with Spalding in his deposition in her case, “I wanted to hear her tell me this story more than once and as many times as I could because as a policeman and an investigator, if somebody is lying, they’re going to get tripped up. And I found she was straight on line or on point every time I talked to her.”
Having served on the team that managed the 1999 transition in public housing from the Chicago Housing Authority police to the CPD, Koconis had independent knowledge of Watts and his team. It was during this assignment that he first became aware of criminal activity by police working in public housing. The information gathered by the transition team was turned over to the FBI. Although he was not directly involved, Koconis was aware of the ongoing investigation of Watts and his team — an investigation that Juan Rivera assumed responsibility for when he joined the confidential section of IAD in 2005. Watts and Mohammed “were not … the only targets” of the investigation, Koconis stated in an affidavit in another case. “There were multiple members of Watts’s tactical team that were also targets.”
Koconis testified in his deposition that he reached out to Beatrice Cuello to get her assessment of Spalding and Echeverria: “Yeah, I know them,” she replied. “And I find them to be good officers. I don’t know why everybody is messing with them.” She reported that there had been a meeting at which “Roti and O’Grady said that they were IAD rats and that they were not welcome back in narcotics section.”
Having concluded Spalding was telling the truth, Koconis agreed to help. Among other things, he told me, he arranged to meet with the new superintendent. He warned McCarthy of several undetonated scandals within the department, including the Watts case, and urged him to get out ahead of them. He also told him of the retaliation against the two officers who had developed the case against Watts. McCarthy listened, he said, and thanked him for the information.
Koconis confirmed for Spalding and Echeverria that CPD regulations require a supervisor who is informed of misconduct to initiate a CR investigation and forward it to internal affairs. According to Spalding and Echeverria, they repeatedly asked Rivera to initiate CR investigations for various acts of retaliation. Yet he refused. They ultimately named him as a defendant in their lawsuit not for retaliating against them but for failing to protect them from retaliation.
Rivera in his deposition denied that Spalding and Echeverria ever formally requested that he initiate a CR investigation. Such a request would normally take the form of a “to/from” memo, he testified, and he received no such document from either officer. (The sworn statements and depositions of Rivera and the other defendants, in which they contest Spalding and Echeverria’s version of events, are available here.)
I asked Spalding why, in her view, Rivera had not initiated the CR investigations they requested. He had, she said, “made too many deals,” thereby neutralizing his ability to act. Attributing her understanding of this dynamic largely to conversations with Rivera himself — conversations he denies ever occurred — she described him as ensnared in a web of mutual blackmail in which “bosses” have leverage over one another by virtue of their shared knowledge of the “deals” they have made. She gave an example: I’ll make this CR against your guy go away if you’ll promote my guy within your unit. The code of silence and “clout” are thus entwined. Rivera, she recalled, once remarked to her that the bosses “trade CRs for favors like baseball cards.”
“None of this was necessary,” Echeverria said. “We had Monk.”
“The department couldn’t take that risk,” Boehmer told him. “We couldn’t risk having Monk go on the stand and talk about Watts killing his brother.”
Echeverria was stunned. Five months after their removal from Operation Brass Tax, had Boehmer just told him what had really happened? Had the investigation been derailed not because of crossed lines of communication among the bosses but because of where it was leading?
Boehmer’s remark was the first in a series of shocks. Spalding and Echeverria learned from Chewbacca, as the three of them drove to the FBI, that in their absence Special Agent Patrick Smith — Spalding and Echeverria’s primary FBI contact — had been deploying him on questionable assignments such as buying prescription drugs and Viagra on the street. He also said Smith had not paid him for his work.
When they arrived at the FBI, they reported what Chewbacca had told them. Agents talked with Chewbacca for several hours. Spalding and Echeverria were not in the room. Chewbacca was directed not to talk with them about Smith, and they didn’t probe. They didn’t want to put him in an awkward position.
Several days later, they spoke with Rivera at CPD headquarters. The conversation took place in the hallway at internal affairs. Rivera informed them that the FBI had initiated an investigation and “Washington” was coming to interview them.
“We’re going to have to sit down and figure out what we’re going to say,” he told them. “We have to be on the same page.”
Spalding replied that she did not see any need for a meeting: “I’m going to tell the truth.”
“You can’t ever tell the truth,” said Rivera heatedly. “You’ll get all of us fired. I just went through a federal trial with all the SOS shit. I can’t withstand another trial.”
Spalding understood this to be a reference to the fact that Rivera, as head of IAD, had failed to root out the criminal activities of the special operations section — not only robbing drug dealers but also ordinary citizens, and attempted murder for hire. How could he explain leaving Watts and his team on the street for a decade?
“You can’t ever tell the truth,” said Rivera heatedly. “You’ll get all of us fired.”
“The chief of internal affairs is the most powerful person in the Chicago Police Department,” Spalding observed. “They report only to the superintendent.” Yet because of Rivera’s failure to exercise that power, “it shifted to the corrupt officers.” Watts understood this, she said. She heard him on more than one occasion say in the presence of other officers at the station house, “You think the feds are ever going to come against me? If they come after me, I’m going to sing a song so loud it’ll crumble the department and bring all the bosses down with me.” This was not idle talk, she said. He was sending a message.
In the end, they weren’t interviewed. Smith resigned. Because the investigation was still an administrative matter, his resignation effectively ended it. That, at any rate, is what Rivera told them.
They were now “back on the case,” as Spalding put it, “but at a distance.” They didn’t work out of the FBI and were on “a need-to-know basis.” The FBI seemed less concerned with resuscitating the investigation than with damage control. Spalding and Echeverria were told that because of Smith’s shoddy work, the bureau couldn’t use any of the intelligence they developed over the years they worked on the case. The concern, as they understood it, was not that all the evidence was tainted as a legal matter, but rather that if it came out that Smith was a rogue agent, every other case he had worked on would be open to challenge.
The plan was to start over and build a new case. It would be a very different sort of case from the one they had spent years developing. The broad investigation of police corruption involving Watts’s entire team and implicating various bosses now contracted down to two targets: Watts and Mohammed.
On November 21, 2011, they conducted a sting. It was a reprise of the earlier scenario. Chewbacca tipped off Watts that he would be transporting drug proceeds in his knapsack. He told him he was to pick up a bag from a car at a McDonald’s at 26th and King and walk it to another car on 29th Street.
At the appointed time, an undercover officer drove into the McDonald’s parking lot and handed a black bag to Chewbacca. The bag contained $5,200 and a tracking device. The plan, according to Spalding, was that Chewbacca would deposit the bag in the car at 29th and leave the door open. When he arrived at the spot, he couldn’t gain access to the car. The FBI hadn’t unlocked it. As he was trying to get into the car, Mohammed drove up and took the bag from him.
“Get the fuck out of here,” Mohammed said.
“I don’t get no money?” protested Chewbacca.
Mohammed told him to meet him later at 30th and King.
Chewbacca then called Watts.
“C’mon now,” he said, “I did everything right, man.”
Watts revised the plan: They would meet at 22nd and Canal. When Watts showed up some 40 minutes later, Chewbacca expressed relief.
“No, never doubt, brother,” Watts said. “Who always takes care of you?”
“You do, Watts.”
“There’s five large, brother.” Watts handed Chewbacca some money, then drove away.
A few minutes later, Chewbacca gave agents $400. They searched him but found no other money on him. Perhaps the habit of skimming went so deep that Watts couldn’t help himself from shorting Chewbacca.
“You’re absolutely the most dangerous person to the department right now,” Rivera told Spalding, “because you know too much, and you talk too much.”
But, she thought to herself, I’m the only one around here who doesn’t talk.
Their situation, as described by Rivera, was Kafkaesque. They had been outed as working undercover on an internal affairs investigation, but no one knew whether that was the only investigation they were engaged in. So it was all too easy for the bosses to worry that they too were targets.
It was also becoming apparent that there was a particular ferocity to the abuse directed at Spalding. The ongoing attacks were distinguished by their pettiness and ugliness. When she mentioned to Chester, the FBI liaison, that she had purchased tickets to the narcotics division Christmas party, she told me, he urged her not to attend. Roti and O’Grady had both expressed such hostility toward her, Chester said, that “I wouldn’t be surprised if the chief didn’t have you kicked out. It’s in your best interest not to go.”
On another occasion, O’Grady gave instructions that Spalding was to be barred from entering the organized crime facility at Homan Square, where she was assigned a locker. A supervisor who was present later told her that O’Grady said: “She can piss outside with the rest of the rats.”
The abuse followed her home. One day she reached into her mailbox and found it full of excrement. There was a note: “Since you like shit so much, thought you’d enjoy this.”
On February 12, 2012, Mohammed was arrested at home, and Watts, returning from Houston, was escorted from the terminal by FBI agents. Both were charged with theft of government funds.
The arrest was widely reported in Chicago media. The most substantial story was by Phil Rogers, a veteran correspondent for Channel 5 NBC News. Superintendent McCarthy stated, “At this point, there’s nobody involved other than the two officers who were arrested.” Rogers, however, quoted “sources close to the investigation” as saying that the allegations against Watts and his team “go back more than 10 years,” that “other officers are under investigation,” and that “troubling allegations have rumbled through investigative circles for years” that Watts had a hand in two homicides. The unnamed source “close to the investigation” was Shannon Spalding.
Why had the FBI and CPD decided to reel in Watts and Mohammed rather than continue the investigation and engage the other targets? Why had they left other members of Watts’s crew on the street? Why had they decided to conclude a decadelong investigation into allegations of massive wrongdoing reaching high and wide within the department with the arrest of two individuals on a single charge of stealing government property?
Rivera’s answer, according to Spalding, was that “the powers that be” had determined “the city can’t afford another scandal.” Were a Watts scandal to erupt, he said, it “would make SOS look like the Boy Scouts.” It was, in effect, too big to expose. The arrest and prosecution of Watts and Mohammed were thus designed to contain the scandal rather than expose it.
“You don’t learn,” he said to her. “You want to tell all. That’s not how it works. It’s not what you uncover. It’s not what you find out. It’s what the department says. Your job is to report to them. It’s their job to say what happened.”
Spalding was taken aback. Barz continued to berate her.
“All those promises they made to you? They lied to you. You want to be a hero? Catch a cop killer. Shut your mouth. That’s how you get along. This shit will get you nowhere.”
Barz offered her a final piece of advice. “You know all that work you claim that you did? If you don’t have police reports with your name on them, you never worked on it. It didn’t happen. You don’t exist.”
“But,” Spalding replied, “that was for our protection.”
“Think about it,” said Barz. “For your protection?”
Two Chicago police officers uncovered a massive criminal enterprise within the department. Then they were hung out to dry.