Former sergeant led shakedowns at Wells housing site
By: Annie Sweeney & Jason Meisner, Chicago Tribune: January 15th, 2016
By Thursday afternoon, Ben Baker’s legal team had known for nearly 24 hours that his efforts to beat charges put on him more than a decade ago by a now-convicted Chicago police officer had paid off and he was going home.
But reaching an inmate in the state prison is not that easy. So as Baker made one of his daily routine passes through Robinson Correctional Center at 3:15 p.m. Thursday, he still had no idea what awaited him three hours later.
Until a prison guard stopped him.
”I was coming from the gym, from a fitness class they provide there. I was standing, waiting,” Baker said. “The officer told me to pack my stuff. I was going home. I told him, ‘Stop playing.'”
He walked out of the southeastern Illinois prison Thursday evening.
Baker’s release was granted earlier Thursday during a two-minute hearing at which Cook County prosecutors moved to drop all charges against Baker.
Baker’s sister, Gale Anderson, turned to walk out and pumped a fist in the air.
“This is the greatest day ever,” Anderson later said. “Years (have) just been taken away. Now he’s been put back with our family. It means everything to us.”
Anderson said she had talked to her brother by phone Wednesday night — neither knew at that point of his imminent release — and that she agreed to buy a ticket for him in the record $1.5 billion Powerball jackpot.
“He didn’t win the Powerball, but he did better,” she said with a smile.
Baker has served about 10 years of his 14-year prison sentence, said his lawyer, Joshua Tepfer of the Exoneration Project.
The decision comes less than a month after Tepfer sought a new trial. Those efforts were highlighted in a front-page story in the Tribune.
The court filing was based on 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 Sgt. Ronald Watts and his team of tactical officers, yet did nothing about it.
Years later, Watts and an officer who worked under his command were convicted on federal corruption charges after being snared in an FBI sting. Watts was sentenced in January 2014 to 22 months in prison.
Tepfer credited the state’s attorney’s office for moving so quickly after he filed for a new trial. But he was quick to note how long Baker had been imprisoned and that other allegedly corrupt officers connected to Watts still remained on the force.
“Releasing Ben is a wonderful first step,” he said. “But justice? Justice needs to go forward on all things related to this case.”
Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, said the decision to drop the charges against Baker came after a thorough review of the case by the Conviction Integrity Unit.
“Based upon the fact that this now-convicted officer provided key testimony against Mr. Baker, this conviction can no longer stand,” Daly said.
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 public housing complex in the Wentworth police district, court records show.
Officer Douglas Nichols testified at trial that 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 in his pocket.
Baker testified that Watts and his crew ran the Ida B. Wells complex like their own criminal fiefdom, stealing narcotics proceeds, shaking down dealers for protection money and pinning cases on those who refused to play ball.
Baker said 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. 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. Cook County Judge Michael 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 asking for a new trial, 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 an informant had told federal agents that Watts and another officer were routinely shaking down drug dealers for thousands of dollars in exchange for police protection at the housing complex.
“Watts receives weekly payments from drug dealers,” the agent wrote in the report. “These payments are typically in the amount of $5,000.”