Fighting for release, convict says he was framed by corrupt cop protected by pals.
By: Jason Meisner & Annie Sweeney, Chicago Tribune: December 17th, 2015
At his trial on drug charges nearly a decade ago, Ben Baker told a seemingly far-fetched tale about a corrupt band of Chicago police officers who ran a South Side public housing development like their own criminal fiefdom, stealing narcotics proceeds, shaking down dealers for protection money and pinning cases on those who refused to play ball.
A Cook County judge at the time said he believed the testimony of veteran Sgt. Ronald Watts and officers under his command, not Baker’s accusations that Watts and his crew had framed him.
But two years ago Watts was convicted on federal corruption charges after being snared in an FBI sting. Now, Baker is seeking to overturn his own conviction and 14-year sentence in a case that casts a spotlight on the police code of silence — a red-hot issue amid fallout from the 2014 dashboard camera video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting.
In a court filing this week, his lawyers revealed dozens of pages of court and law enforcement records showing the Chicago police internal affairs division had been aware as far back as the late 1990s of corruption allegations involving Watts’ team of tactical officers — yet did nothing about it.
The filing also cites a whistleblower lawsuit filed by two Chicago police officers who allege they faced repeated retaliation after going to supervisors about their discovery of the police corruption in the Ida B. Wells public housing development. When their complaints fell on deaf ears, they worked undercover for the feds, helping nab Watts.
“The fact that every effort has been made not only to cover it up but to blame the police officers who uncovered it is beyond troubling,” Baker’s lawyer Joshua Tepfer of the Exoneration Project, told the Tribune.
Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, said Wednesday that her office had already spoken to Tepfer about the case and “will be reviewing the matter and moving forward accordingly.”
The issue of a code of silence has long been raised in civil lawsuits alleging police wrongdoing. In a landmark decision in 2012, a federal jury found that such a code protected Chicago police Officer Anthony Abbate after he was caught on video beating a female bartender.
Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel acknowledged in a speech to the City Council that the code of silence was indeed a problem that the Police Department needed to face.
Still, some police leaders deny its existence. In remarks at City Hall this week, Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo called it “ridiculous” to think officers would risk their jobs and families to cover up for bad apples. And two months ago, a police captain responsible for officer training took issue with repeated questions about the code during a sworn deposition.
“You’re asking me to provide evidence for something that I don’t believe exists.” Michael Pigott said in October testimony in the whistleblower lawsuit.
Policing experts and civil rights attorneys say such denials are out of touch. Christopher Smith, who represents two whistleblower officers, told the Tribune the department seems to have “a code of silence about the code of silence.”
For Baker’s family, meanwhile, having the truth about Watts and his crew finally being exposed has been a relief. Since he has gone to prison, Baker has had two grandchildren born whom he has never seen, said his sister, Gale Anderson. While he made some bad choices in life, sitting in prison for something he didn’t do has “eaten him up,” she said.
“Nobody believed him,” Anderson told the Tribune. “It’s a whole lot to take from someone — their freedom, their family.”
‘Win some, lose some’
Baker, 43, was arrested in March 2005 after Watts and his crew nabbed him for allegedly dealing drugs out of a building in the now shuttered Ida B. Wells complex in the Wentworth police district, court records show.
At trial, Officer Douglas Nichols testified he saw Baker with bags of drugs packaged for distribution and tried to detain him, but Baker fled down a stairwell. Another member of Watts’ team, Officer Robert Gonzalez, testified he arrested Baker in the lobby and that during a search they found heroin, crack cocaine and about $800 cash in his pocket.
Baker allegedly told the officers, “Them blows (the heroin) are mine but those rocks (the cocaine) ain’t,” according to court records.
Baker testified in a bench trial before Judge Michael Toomin that Watts and his crew had planted the drugs on him. Watts had already tried to pin a drug case on him a year earlier after Baker had refused to pay a $1,000 bribe to the officers in exchange for their protection, he alleged.
After he beat those charges, Baker said, he complained to one of Watts’ underlings, Officer Alvin Jones, who told him it was “part of the game.”
“You win some, you lose some,” Baker said Jones told him. “Next time we get you, it will stick.”
Watts, Jones and Gonzalez all denied wrongdoing at Baker’s trial and testified that Baker was lying, according to court records. Toomin found Baker guilty on both counts and initially sentenced him to 18 years in prison but later reduced the term to 14 years. At the resentencing hearing, the judge said the accusations that Watts and officers under his command had framed him “fell on their face.”
“They held no water at all,” Toomin said. “If there had been some corroboration, there might have been a different story.”
In his filing this week, Tepfer provided FBI reports showing that at the time of Baker’s trial. Watts was already the target of an ongoing joint investigation by the FBI and Chicago police internal affairs investigators into allegations of corruption nearly identical to those made by Baker.
One FBI report from September 2004 showed that an informant had told federal agents that Watts and another officer were routinely shaking down drug dealers for thousands of dollars in cash in exchange for police protection at the housing complex.
“Watts receives weekly payments from drug dealers,” the agents wrote in the report. “These payments are typically in the amount of $5,000.”
No charges were ever substantiated, however, and that initial investigation was closed, the records show. In January 2007, an agent wrote a memo requesting permission to reopen the probe into similar allegations against Watts, the records show.
It wasn’t until five years later that FBI agents were able to build a criminal case against Watts, based in part on the undercover work by the two whistleblower officers, Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria.
Using an informant who had a long-standing relationship with the sergeant and agreed to wear a wire, agents were able to finally lure Watts into a sting involving the purported delivery of $5,200 in drug money in November 2011, according to federal court records.
Agents watched as an officer working under Watts, Kallatt Mohammed picked up the bag from the informant and then met with Watts in the 5700 block of South Princeton Avenue. About 20 minutes later, agents recovered the bag with the tracking device about a half-mile from that location, according to court records.
When the informant later met up with him at a South Side Walgreens, Watts asked him, “Who always takes care of you?” according to court records.
“You do, Watts,” the informant responded. Watts then handed the informant a kickback of $400 in cash.
Watts and Mohammed were charged in February 2012 with theft of government funds. Mohammed pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. A year later, on the eve of his trial, Watts also pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to 22 months in prison in January 2014.
Watts was released earlier this year and has since moved to Las Vegas with his new wife, whom he married days before reporting to prison, court records show.
Emotionally, financially drained
Shortly after Watts was charged in 2012, Spalding and Echeverria filed their lawsuit naming the city and a dozen high-ranking officers as defendants. The two officers alleged they had gone to the FBI and begun cooperating in the investigation into Watts after their complaints to supervisors went ignored.
The two alleged that when supervisors learned of their role in the undercover investigation, they called them “rats” and passed along that sensitive information to others in the Police Department. They were removed from their unit assignment and shuttled around the department to lesser jobs far from their homes and at bad hours, according to the lawsuit, which is scheduled for trial in May.
When they complained to supervisors about the alleged retaliation, one told them, “Look, everyone is against you, so you don’t want to piss me off,” they alleged.
In an interview Wednesday, Spalding said she often feared for her safety or that corrupt officers would plant drugs on her. She said she believed that supervisors set the tone for the harassment and said lower-ranking officers had little choice but to follow the directions laid out by their superiors or they would have faced retaliation themselves.
The experience has left Spalding emotionally and financially drained as she battles the city in court.
The threats alleged by Spalding and Echeverria are backed by testimony from other officers who have signed affidavits as part of the suit. One officer said he was threatened by supervisors, not to mention Watts, when he asked about money that was apparently left off inventory logs.
“The projects are dangerous, be careful,” Watts allegedly said to Officer Michael Spaargaren, according to his affidavit. “You won’t make it out alive.”
Smith, who is representing Spalding and Echeverria, said an expert who has been deposed in the suit testified that the code of silence is endemic to law enforcement. There are familiar patterns of retaliation, including peers refusing to provide backup, Smith said.
In his deposition, Pigott, a former training academy commanding officer who denied the existence of the code of silence, said the issue is not discussed with recruits. The training instead emphasizes that officers are duty-bound to report misconduct by fellow officers.
In light of Emanuel’s apology, Smith recently filed a motion adding the mayor to a list of potential witnesses in the case. City attorneys have not responded, but forcing a sitting mayor to give testimony in any case has been an uphill battle in the past.
Still, the problem needs to be corrected, said Flint Taylor, a civil rights attorney who has deposed officers about the code of silence for four decades.
“To break the code of silence, there has to be a very strong countervailing approach from the top down that officially acknowledges there is such a thing, acknowledges it has to be stamped out and (that) anyone who follows it is going to be harshly dealt with,” he said.