Two Chicago police officers uncovered a massive criminal enterprise within the department. Then they were hung out to dry.
On May 31, the city of Chicago agreed to settle a whistleblower lawsuit brought by two police officers who allege they suffered retaliation for reporting and investigating criminal activity by fellow officers. The settlement, for $2 million, was announced moments before the trial was to begin.
As the trial date approached, city lawyers had made a motion to exclude the words “code of silence” from the proceedings. Not only was the motion denied, but the judge ruled that Mayor Rahm Emanuel could be called to testify about what he meant when he used the term in a speech he delivered to the City Council last December, at the height of the political firestorm provoked by the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
In that speech, Emanuel broke with the city’s long history of denying the existence of the code of silence. He spoke of “problems at the very heart of the policing profession,” and said: “This problem is sometimes referred to as the Thin Blue Line. Other times it’s referred to as the code of silence. It is the tendency to ignore, deny, or in some cases cover up the bad actions of a colleague or colleagues.”
The prevailing narrative in the press was that the city settled in order to avoid the possibility that Mayor Emanuel would be compelled to testify. But the mayor’s testimony, had it come to pass, would have been unlikely to provide much illumination. By contrast, that of the plaintiffs, Shannon Spalding and Danny Echeverria, promised to be revelatory. In the words of Judge Gary Feinerman, they have a story to tell that “purports to show extraordinarily serious retaliatory misconduct by officers at nearly all levels of the CPD hierarchy.”
When I first met Shannon Spalding in 2013, she was in despair. She had risked everything to bring to light corruption within the Chicago Police Department, she said, yet no one believed her.
In brief, Spalding recounted that she and her partner, Danny Echeverria, spent over five years working undercover on a joint FBI-CPD internal affairs investigation that uncovered a massive criminal enterprise within the department. A gang tactical team led by a sergeant named Ronald Watts operated a protection racket in public housing developments on Chicago’s South Side. In exchange for “a tax,” Watts and his team shielded drug dealers from interference by law enforcement and targeted their competition. Their operation went far beyond shaking down the occasional drug dealer. They were major players in the drug trade on the South Side.
The investigation had multiple targets. Beyond Watts, it was focused on members of his team and senior officials suspected of conspiring with him. It was also rumored both on the street and in the department that Watts was involved in the murders of two drug dealers who defied him.
When Spalding and Echeverria were on the verge of breaking the case open, the investigation was sabotaged by a high-ranking official who outed them as “rats.” Other CPD brass ordered officers under their command to retaliate against Spalding and Echeverria for violating the code of silence. Reprisals were especially harsh against Spalding, leaving her financially devastated, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and stripped of the job she loves.
When we first spoke three years ago, Spalding’s despair arose not from self-doubt — her conviction about the substance of her story was unshakeable — but from her awareness of the forces arrayed against her. She was oppressed by the knowledge that CPD brass had the power to impose upon the world their own version of reality and in the process portray her as delusional.
“I call it Operation Smoke and Mirrors,” she said at the time. “If four bosses in the department say it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen.”
While the term “code of silence” evokes something essential — the coerced silence of police officers who observe but do not report abuses by their fellow officers — it is, in some respects, a misnomer, a euphemism. The practices to which it refers are less a matter of silence than of tightly orchestrated lying and various means used to maintain narrative control.
This article tells her story. It is based on extensive interviews with Spalding conducted over the last three years. It also draws on interviews with Echeverria and several others who figure in the case, and on the record generated in the course of pretrial discovery. Aided by notes she kept on a daily basis over the years, Spalding gives a richly detailed account of the code of silence not as a vague “culture” among the rank and file but as a set of institutional mechanisms central to the operation of the CPD.
To be clear at the outset: The police officials named as defendants in the whistleblower lawsuit — Chief Juan Rivera, Cmdr. James O’Grady, Chief Nick Roti, Sgt. Maurice Barnes, Lt. Robert Cesario, Sgt. Thomas Mills, and Cmdr. Joseph Salemme — deny the plaintiffs’ allegations. In addition to citing their denials in the public record, efforts have been made to contact each of the defendants, as well as the other law enforcement officials who figure in the story. Each either did not respond, could not be located, or declined to comment. The Chicago Police Department and the city’s Department of Law both said they do not comment on active investigations or litigation. The defendants’ depositions, affidavits, and sworn statements, in which they contest Spalding and Echeverria’s version of events, are available here.
The counternarrative that emerges from the defendants’ legal arguments is that Spalding and Echeverria played at best a marginal role in the Watts investigation, serving as little more than handlers for a confidential informant, and that they — particularly Spalding — were problem officers others did not want to work with. In a February 2015 press release about the case, the city stated that “Superintendent [Garry] McCarthy and the CPD have zero tolerance for retaliation against whistleblowers,” but “the city believes the claims of these particular plaintiffs are without merit.”
According to Spalding, the united front of the defendants against charges of retaliation under the code of silence is the ultimate expression of the code. If she is telling the truth, a group of high-ranking police officials are lying in concert and under oath.
While both are native South Siders, they grew up in different worlds, on opposite sides of one of the starkest racial boundaries in the city: the bridge over the railroad tracks (and later the Dan Ryan Expressway) that separates the neighborhood of Bridgeport, long the stronghold of the Daley political dynasty, from the heart of the black South Side.
Roughly 2 square miles, the 2nd District encompasses the heart of the old Black Belt, the African-American city within the city under segregation, which absorbed wave after wave of migrants from the South, then with the end of legal segregation, like a great swollen river, overflowed its banks and spilled into other South Side neighborhoods. Once the most densely populated part of the city, it was by the 1990s riddled with abandoned buildings and vacant lots. And it contained an extraordinary amount of public housing.
While some of that housing was built before World War II as segregated housing for blacks — notably the Ida B. Wells Homes, a sprawling row-house development — most was constructed after the United States Supreme Court struck down racially restrictive covenants. Yet it conformed to traditional patterns of segregation. Confronted with opposition from white aldermen who didn’t want public housing in their wards, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) in the 1950s and 1960s had built developments in traditionally black areas of the South and West Sides.
The most extraordinary manifestation of this segregation was the so-called South State Street corridor, more than 2 continuous miles of public housing high-rises — the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens — and several smaller mid-rise developments a few blocks farther north. By the 1990s, the corridor was said to be the single largest concentration of poverty in the nation.
That was the world Shannon Spalding entered when she came to the 2nd District as a rookie and was assigned to ride with Ronald Watts.
As they drove through the streets and alleys of the district, Watts shared his knowledge of gangs and drugs with her. Because the drug trade takes such distinctive forms in high-rise public housing, said Spalding, “housing police are a breed apart.” Watts, in her view, was one of the best.
The world they moved through was dominated by two gangs, the Gangster Disciples and the Black Disciples. Between them they controlled the drug trade in public housing. Each operated out of particular high-rises, often at the same development, which were identified accordingly as “GD” and “BD” buildings.
Night and day, an endless parade of customers was served by the young men in the open-air lobbies of the high-rises. At various locations around the perimeters of the buildings, solitary figures stood watch for 12-hour shifts “doing security.” Most were older men and women. Almost all were drug users who supported their habits by doing this work. Like street criers, they sang out the names of the drugs sold in the particular building — “Dog Face!” “Titanic!” “USDA!” — and acted as lookouts. If a police car approached, they called out a warning — “Blue and white northbound on Federal” — and the message was relayed from voice to voice into the interior shadows of the drug bazaar.
An unintended byproduct of the design of the high-rise developments — they had been conceived, in the architectural idiom of the day, as “towers in the park” — was that you could see the police coming from a long way off. As a countermeasure, gang tactical officers, “the jump out boys,” often drove up on the buildings at high speeds, careening across the grounds and sidewalks, in an effort to grab the young men before they had a chance to flee up the stairs and disappear into an apartment or vacant unit. There were frequent arrests. Then, as the police drove away, the drug market would reopen for business.
Tellingly, both drug dealers and police refer to the cat-and-mouse maneuvers of the drug trade as “the game.” For one side, the object is to intercept, for the other, to evade. In the era before public housing on the South Side was demolished, the setting for this contest was derelict high-rises, housing impoverished families, through which wealth constantly circulated. In order to meet the never-ending demand, new “packages” of drugs were regularly delivered and stashed in secret locations, such as vacant units, utility closets, mailboxes, or garbage chutes. Money was harvested and hauled away. (The younger brother of a major drug dealer once described to me a vacant unit filled with grocery bags of cash — like tobacco curing in a shed.)
As they drove through the developments, Spalding recalled, Watts would point things out to her.
Spalding eagerly absorbed Watts’s instruction — “I learned something every day” — and enjoyed his company. “He was a likeable person, easy to be around,” she said. “He sometimes joked with me — ‘OK, Susie Homemaker, you can leave your apron at home today’ — but he was always friendly and respectful.”
There was one incident during this period, however, that gave her pause. They were on the grounds of Stateway Gardens. Watts identified a stolen car, and they took off in pursuit. The driver ditched the car and ran toward one of the buildings. Spalding began to run after him. Watts called her back. “He really went off on me. It didn’t seem to fit with the situation.”
When they searched the car, they found a “trap” — a hidden compartment — full of money. She had no role in inventorying the money. Shaken, she tried to understand what had just happened. Watts explained that he was trying to protect her, that he didn’t want her running into the high-rise alone. She was unpersuaded. There was no doubt in her mind she could have caught the suspect before he reached the building. The incident stayed with her and troubled her. “It didn’t seem right.”
On balance, though, she came away with high regard for Watts as “a good cop who got solid information and good results.” And she was impressed by the respect he seemed to command on the street. Major gang leaders, who wouldn’t engage with other officers, would talk to him.
She developed an easy rapport with the residents, including gang members and drug dealers. Her nickname on the street, inevitably, was “Blondie.”
“You’re only as good as your word,” she observed. “Trust isn’t given. It’s earned. The boys would say, ‘Blondie was always fair.’ I never took their money. I never put drugs on them. They were locked up all the time for things they didn’t do. I earned their respect. So they would tell me things.”
She used to say to them, “I’ve got two rules. Don’t lie and don’t run. If you do, all bets are off.” She laughed. “I was running like a Kenyan back then. I could run 10 miles a day. I had the world’s best Stairmaster — CHA high-rises.”
“Everyone who has ever helped me in an investigation is an invisible person. They’re prostitutes, drug dealers, the homeless, children. The people most cops don’t see. Think about it. Who sees more of what’s going on than the homeless and hookers?”
When the opportunity arose in 1997, Spalding joined the public housing south unit and began to work full time in the public housing developments on the South Side. It’s hard to evoke how utterly abandoned these communities were at this point in their history. One measure is that in 1995 the federal government had seized control of the CHA from the city. The Department of Housing and Urban Development official installed as director of the CHA, Joseph Shuldiner, had previously run the New York and Los Angeles housing authorities. In a recent interview, he observed that in addition to the degree of concentration and abandonment, Chicago’s public housing differed from New York’s in two critical respects. The tenant population was much poorer. And while the NYPD had continued to do vertical patrols, the CPD had long ago ceded any real control of public housing high-rises.
Despite the shadow play of enforcement, the developments were de facto vice zones where the sale of drugs was tolerated. Policing largely took the form of containment. The policy was to keep it in this box. Only when crime spilled out of the box did intervention become necessary.
Frustrated by the CPD’s lack of responsiveness to the needs of its residents, the CHA had created its own police force in 1989. Spalding and other officers from CPD’s public housing unit would regularly work on joint operations with the CHA police.
After several years of federal management, Richard M. Daley’s administration regained control of the CHA in 1999 and launched the Plan for Transformation, its strategy for replacing concentrations of high-rise public housing with “mixed-income communities.” The administration’s rhetoric sang of inclusion, community renewal, and individual advancement. Mayor Daley was fond of saying, with characteristic fervor, “We’re not only rebuilding neighborhoods, we’re rebuilding souls.” But the reality on the ground was land clearance: The objective was to demolish every public housing high-rise in the city and do so as rapidly as possible.
By 2000, as the plan began to gather momentum, Chicago’s archipelago of public housing high-rises had taken on the aspect of a vast armada of ships loaded with boat people, just offshore, destined to be sunk one by one.
Among the first things the city did after regaining control of the CHA from the federal government was disband the 270-member CHA police force and replace it with CPD officers. This required rapid expansion of the public housing unit. The city had a $30 million federal grant for the purpose and ultimately hired 375 additional officers. Cmdr. Ernie Brown was appointed to head the unit, which was comprised of public housing south and public housing north, both under Brown’s command.
When public housing south expanded, Ronald Watts, now a sergeant, joined the unit as a supervisor. He and Ernie Brown, according to Spalding, were said to be friends. Watts brought with him the core of the tactical team he had worked with in the 2nd District and would work with throughout his career: his partner, Kallatt Mohammed, along with Alvin Jones, Brian Bolton, and Bobby Gonzalez.
The expanded public housing unit brought together a large number of officers who had never worked together before, as well as some who had. “Cops are gossips,” observed Spalding, and the unit was awash in rumors. There was talk about shakedowns of drug dealers and about big players paying off the police for protection. Some of the rumors focused on former CHA officers who made the cut and joined the unit. Others focused on Watts and his team. Spalding gave them little weight. Having worked with Watts, she was inclined to attribute the rumors to “professional envy.”
Knowing what she knows now, she wonders, how did she not see then the corruption she would later help uncover?
“I truly didn’t think it was going on.” And to the extent it was going on, she assumed “the bosses” were actively investigating. Looking back now, she realizes she wasn’t included in the big busts involving large amounts of drugs and money. “I may have had great numbers, but I wasn’t with the program.”
It wasn’t hard to shut Spalding out of the action. With only a year and a half on the job, she had landed on a gang tactical team. She was still learning how things were done. And she was a woman. So she wasn’t involved in searches of male suspects and wasn’t in the locker room where, she said, “the real planning and scheming goes on.”
Mickey Spaargaren, a friend from Bridgeport who joined the department when Spalding did and went to public housing south with her, had a different experience. Soon after coming to the unit, he observed patterns of corruption involving, among others, a former CHA police officer named Joe Seinitz, who had made the cut to join the CPD. Eventually, Spaargaren made contact with an FBI special agent named Ken Samuels to report on the corruption he was observing within the public housing unit.
“I can call anyone and make your life miserable. You better keep your mouth shut.”
Spaargaren was placed on Watts’s team. In an affidavit he provided in Spalding and Echeverria’s whistleblower case, he stated that on multiple occasions the team made large seizures of drugs and money that were never entered into the inventory log. Watts would tell other members of the team that they could leave, that he and Mohammed would do the inventories.
After one major seizure, Spaargaren checked the inventory log the following day and found it was empty “as if there had been no bust at all.”
He challenged Watts about this. Watts responded that he was “trading up” for information that would lead to bigger busts and major arrests. Spaargaren was not persuaded.
“Are you accusing me of stealing, Mickey?” Watts yelled at him. “Well, fuck you. I’ll put papers on you and make a case on you. The projects are dangerous. Be careful. You won’t make it out alive.”
Sometime later, Watts told Spaargaren that his commanding officer, Lt. Jimmy Spratte, wanted to talk with him. When Spaargaren informed Spratte about the missing inventory, the lieutenant asked him whether he had gone to the internal affairs division. Spaargaren said he had not, that it was just a suspicion.
“You’re accusing my sergeant and a fellow officer of stealing?” Spratte said. “Well, I don’t believe you.” He told Spaargaren he should have immediately gone to a supervisor.
“You know what?” Spratte said, “I think you’re the corrupt one, and that’s why you didn’t go to a supervisor.”
Spaargaren denied the accusation. Spratte became agitated.
“Pack your fucking bags, you need to get out of this unit. I’m moving you to another team tomorrow. And don’t even think about going to IAD now,” he said. “I can call anyone and make your life miserable. You better keep your mouth shut. You don’t want to lose your life over this. If you report a sergeant to IAD, how long do you think you will last?”
“Mickey was distraught,” recalled Spalding. He decided to take a leave of absence from the department and went to headquarters to execute the necessary paperwork. When Spratte heard Spaargaren had been down at headquarters, he assumed he had gone to internal affairs. They had a fierce exchange, which Spalding overheard.
“Spratte,” she said, “lost his mind.”
Before Spaargaren went to the FBI, Spalding had tried to dissuade him — she thought he was overreacting — but to no avail. Some months later, she was contacted by Special Agent Ken Samuels. They spoke on the phone several times. The main topic of conversation was Joe Seinitz. Samuels also mentioned in passing several other officers, Watts among them. She told him she hadn’t witnessed any criminal activity within the unit.
“I just didn’t see it then.”
Neither did I. Not at first.
During those years, I was a daily presence on South State Street. I had several roles. I was adviser to the Stateway Gardens resident council. I developed a program of “grassroots public works” designed to create alternatives for gang members. (Full disclosure: I was the source of the railroad ties for landscaping projects, repurposed by drug dealers, that Watts warned Spalding about.) And as a writer I documented conditions on the ground.
It took several years of immersion for me to begin to see the ways police were present — and absent — at Stateway. The residents educated me. Coming and going to and from their homes, they constantly navigated the open-air drug marketplaces “up under the buildings.” Day after day, they saw the same dealers in the same positions conducting their business. They didn’t have the moral luxury of demonizing them, for they knew many of them in other roles besides “gangbanger”: as son or nephew, as boyfriend or teammate, as neighbor, as friend. Francine Washington, president of the Stateway resident council, used to invoke this knowledge by speaking of “our in-laws and our outlaws.”
The nature of law enforcement at Stateway was mystifying. The police more often seemed a disruptive presence than a source of order. They didn’t patrol the development in a conventional sense. Nor did they respond with any consistency to calls for service from residents. They mostly interacted with those in and around the drug markets. They would “hit the buildings” and make arrests. Yet somehow nothing ever changed.
The picture was further complicated by conscientious, hard-working officers one encountered, who were civil toward residents and seemed to be trying, however ambiguous their assignments, to do their jobs. It was puzzling why they were not more effective.
Residents used to joke about the lobbies as “the policeman’s ATM machine.” Short on cash, officers could pop in, take money, drugs, or guns off the young men, and go on their way.
In every available forum, residents asked: Why can’t the police shut the drug trade down? Why can’t this community have the same sort of law enforcement other neighborhoods have? Are the bored young men loitering in the lobbies such master criminals? Is the security system of drug addicts shouting out warnings so effective the police are unable to penetrate it?
An African-American officer in the public housing south unit once turned the question around and put it to me this way: “Think of the police as the working poor. Create a situation in which there’s lots of money and drugs on the street in neighborhoods no one gives a fuck about. What do you think is going to happen?”
From my perspective on the ground, the larger forms of alleged corruption — the shakedowns and protection rackets, the drugs and money seized but never inventoried — were not visible. What was apparent were daily street-level abuses. Excessive force was more the norm than the exception. For some officers, it was sport. They would grade one another on the blows they inflicted. The language of racial invective — “nigger,” “monkey,” “hoodrat” — was routine; on occasion, over the loudspeakers of police vehicles. There were officers who found it amusing to toy with those under their power — arranging a foot race of heroin addicts to determine who would go to jail, for example, or forcing a woman they had searched on the street to walk home naked from the waist down. And then there was the corruption. Residents used to joke about the lobbies as “the policeman’s ATM machine.” Short on cash, officers could pop in, take money, drugs, or guns off the young men, and go on their way.
Some of the most revealing stories I heard alleged that the police preyed not only on drug dealers, but also on some of the most vulnerable members of the community. While the public housing unit was staffing up, the special operations section was deployed to South State Street. An elite unit that wasn’t tied to districts, SOS would later implode during a scandal involving shakedowns of drug dealers, robberies, and kidnappings. It was disbanded in 2007. In 1999, I interviewed a group of older women after an SOS team did a sweep of their building. They reported money and valued household objects missing. “They don’t just steal big money,” said one woman. “They steal little money.”
Similarly, residents told of certain officers who could be counted on to show up at the development on the first and 15th of the month — on check day — to take money out of the pockets of residents after they left the currency exchange.
During more than a decade of immersion in public housing, I was never in a position to observe police extort payoffs from drug dealers in exchange for protection. Yet I frequently witnessed or heard about police conduct that made manifest just how much space there was for abuse: A place where police officers can steal grocery money from the poorest of the poor and indulge in casual cruelty without fear of consequences is a place where anything is possible.
In 2001, the public housing south unit was hit by a major scandal. Two of its members — Sgt. William Patterson and Officer Daryl Smith — were caught in an FBI sting, ripping off what they believed to be a drug stash house. Their M.O. was to come in on their days off and generate phony search warrants. They would then hit a drug house, present the bogus warrant, and take everything they could lay their hands on. Having bought into the ruse, their victims would anxiously await the filing of charges that never came.
The arrest of Patterson and Smith served to fortify Spalding’s trust in the institution rather than undermining it. She saw it as proof that if officers engaged in serious misconduct, they would be disciplined. She also read it as confirmation that FBI investigations of Seinitz and Watts had yielded nothing.
In 2004, the public housing south unit was abruptly disbanded. Police officials explained that because a number of the CHA high-rises had been demolished by that time, a specialized unit was no longer necessary. The public housing that remained would be policed by the districts and a new roaming “targeted response” unit.
Spalding went to the 1st District, where she became partners with Danny Echeverria. He and Spalding had known each other in passing before they became partners. Riding together, they became close. Known on the street as Blondie and Danny Boy, they worked well together and enjoyed each other’s company.
Today their mutual affection and loyalty are evident. They have been through a lot together. Like combat veterans or a long-married couple, each knows things about the other no one else does, and they have amassed narrative wealth to which they hold joint title. Listening to them recount, amid crossfire banter, their adventures and misadventures in public housing, it’s clear they loved their jobs.
The 1st District was just north of the 2nd District and included the Harold Ickes Homes, a mid-rise public housing development that was one of the last to be emptied of residents and demolished. As other public housing communities were razed, its open-air drug markets became ever more active and congested.
After an SOS team did a sweep of their building, a group of older women reported money and valued household objects missing. “They don’t just steal big money,” said one woman. “They steal little money.”
Spalding and Echeverria attribute a large part of their effectiveness in working Ickes to the quality of their confidential informants, particularly a homeless man whom drug dealers sometimes used as a courier. He would ferry drugs and cash from place to place in a funky knapsack no one was disposed to search. They speak of him almost as a third partner.
Spalding christened him “Chewbacca” after observing him jump out of a dumpster in which he had been foraging, “looking crazy” with long anarchic hair and a mouth containing braces but few teeth.
“Somebody,” Echeverria observed of the braces, “must’ve loved him.”
Chewbacca didn’t want to be formally registered as a confidential informant with the city. He worked with Spalding and Echeverria on the strength of their personal relationships. “Chewbacca trusted us,” said Spalding. Their relationship was one of reciprocity. They helped him out with his needs; he gave them information. They didn’t pay him in the conventional sense. Rather, they cared for him, providing him with food and clothing, a sleeping bag and blankets, soap and towels (to shower at the Park District), mouthwash and toilet paper, a bus pass, and so on.
Chewbacca calls Echeverria by his street name, Danny Boy, but he has his own name for Spalding.
“I’m not going to call you Blondie like the rest of them,” he told her early in their relationship. “I’m going to call you Smarty, because you’re the brains of the operation.”
After intelligence that Spalding and Echeverria gathered at Ickes provided the basis for a major drug bust, their “pat on the back,” as Echeverria put it, was to be assigned to the narcotics division within the organized crime bureau.
Spalding worked undercover, making buys. Because she was known on the streets of the South Side, she worked the West Side. Echeverria did enforcement — surveillance, intelligence gathering, and debriefing of those arrested — working out of a satellite office maintained by the organized crime bureau in the 2nd District, which he shared with his immediate superior, Sgt. Roderick Watson. The point of such operations is to work up the food chain. If those at low levels cooperate and provide good information, prosecutors may agree to a reduced charge.
Watts had returned to the 2nd District after public housing south was disbanded, and his office was just down the hall from the organized crime office. According to Echeverria, Watts was on friendly terms with Watson. He would regularly stick his head in the office and inquire casually about what they were working on.
Prior to landing at the 2nd District, Echeverria hadn’t known Watts personally, but he was aware of the rumors and had heard his name on the street. Drug dealers he nabbed in public housing would say things like “Can we buy you lunch?” or “Can we bond out here?” Echeverria was initially confused. “Shut up! They’re not the crew,” he recalled one of the young men saying. “They ain’t like Watts.”
As he did debriefings, Echeverria heard more and more references to Watts. This was particularly true of those arrested at the Ida B. Wells development. They would say things like “Why are you messing with me, when your man Watts is out there running his game?”
Initially, Echeverria told me, he didn’t give much credence to these statements. Guys facing time can be inventive, he said, and they weren’t providing him with much in the way of specifics. It was after he encountered Bernard Brown, a drug dealer whose picture was posted in the office as one of the top targets in the district, that he began to take the stories about Watts more seriously. Several members of Brown’s crew had been arrested. Echeverria had been debriefing them, when he caught sight of Brown on the street and picked him up.
“He had this Afro with two pony tails,” recalled Echeverria. “He looked like a big black Mickey Mouse.”
Brown was sharp. He immediately recognized Echeverria and Spalding were not officers from the 2nd District because they had different radios.
“You’re the indictment police, aren’t you?” said Brown. Looking for some leverage to cut a deal for himself, he asked, “Do you guys know Watts?”
“That name rings out,” replied Echeverria. “What can you tell me?”
“He’s the motherfucker that be running the dope in the projects,” replied Brown. “Are you sure you’re the indictment police? Instead of fucking with us niggers, that’s who you should go indict.”
Brown provided enough concrete information that Echeverria could verify some of what he said with arrest reports and other police documents. He described a criminal enterprise in which Watts and several members of his team were systematically extorting money from drug dealers in public housing. The payoffs were known on the street as the “Watts tax.” If a dealer paid the tax, his operation was protected from police interference. Watts, according to Brown, was protecting dealers allied with him, while targeting the competition and redirecting seized drugs to his own dope lines.
“For me,” Echeverria recalled, “it was like Big Foot. I’ve always heard about the guy, but is he real? Then I go to the 2nd District, and there’s Big Foot standing in front of me. So I’m thinking, maybe there’s something to what I’ve been hearing.”
The suspect also described an operation in which Watts was extorting money from drug dealers and running his own dope lines.
Among the things he was hearing were rumors that Watts had been involved in the murder of Wilbert Moore — aka Big Shorty — a drug dealer who operated out of the Ida B. Wells development. On January 19, 2006, Moore had been shot down outside a barber shop at 43rd and Cottage Grove.
For Echeverria, “pieces of the puzzle were beginning to come together.” A turning point came when they brought in another “player” who started talking about Watts. “You’re going to lock me up for four bags, when your guy Watts is moving the dope. They run that shit.”
“This guy put it together for me,” Echeverria recalled. The suspect also described an operation in which Watts was extorting money from drug dealers and running his own dope lines. “This was no pizza fund,” said Echeverria. For a popular drug line sold at multiple sites, according to the arrestee, the Watts tax could be as high as $50,000 a week.
He also told essentially the same story about the fate of Big Shorty that Echeverria was hearing from other sources. In the course of interrogating him, Echeverria threw out various different names, including some phony ones, then asked him about Big Shorty.
“Why you asking me about a dead man?”
“What can you tell me?”
“Do you want the street version or the paper version? The street version is you all did it. Watts did it. The paper version is a beef inside the GDs.”
Echeverria was impressed. “You hear a lot of stuff,” he recalled, “guys just lying to live. Not this guy.”
He confronted a dilemma. How could he report what he was hearing without having the code of silence enforced against him for ratting on another officer? “If I put pen to paper on this, my career will be over, not Watts’s.”
He called Spalding. “What the fuck do I do with this?” he asked.
“Go get a supervisor and make him do his job,” she replied.
The plan was to create a situation in which the supervisor would have to file a report. Procedure would be followed, the allegations would be reported, but it wouldn’t come back to Echeverria.
He requested that Sgt. Watson come to the room where the suspect was being held. He used a pretext. “He’s asking for a white shirt,” he told Watson. “He’s got something to say.”
Watson entered the room and went to undo the man’s handcuffs. While his back was turned, Echeverria made hand gestures to prompt him to talk about Watts. The man launched into a riff about Watts, reiterating to Watson what he had told Echeverria.
“We’re not trying to hear that shit,” said Watson.
Afterward, Echeverria asked Watson, “Hey, Sarge, how do you want me to handle that information he gave us in the report?”
“Make that shit a negative,” said Watson.
Echeverria entertained the possibility that Watson would follow procedure and open a confidential complaint register, or CR. Had he done so, Echeverria would have been contacted by investigators, but the call never came.
One day, while he was typing up a report, Echeverria recalled, he heard the name “Watts” and tuned into a conversation several detectives were having about Watts’s possible involvement in the killing of Big Shorty. He was struck by the tenor of the conversation. The detectives seemed resigned that the department would not pursue the matter.
Spalding didn’t know whether the stories about Watts were true — “I didn’t want them to be” — but she was losing her confidence that serious allegations of misconduct were being investigated by the department. “I’m getting more and more confused,” Spalding recalled feeling at the time. “How could these high officials not be doing their jobs? Did I take a different oath?”
While Spalding and Echeverria didn’t have definitive proof that Watts and members of his team had committed crimes, they were convinced there was sufficient evidence to warrant an investigation. And they felt obligated to do something.
They decided to go to the FBI. Once they provided their information, they assumed that would be the end of their involvement. Contacting the FBI, however, would prove to be less an end than a beginning. It would alter the trajectory of their lives and set in motion a sequence of events now moving inexorably toward a full public reckoning in Chicago with the nature and consequences of the code of silence within the CPD.
Two Chicago police officers uncovered a massive criminal enterprise within the department. Then they were hung out to dry.