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The Persistence of Andrew Wilson

A cop killer who fought to expose torture in the Chicago Police Department has died, but his testimony from beyond the grave could still help bring down its perpetrators.



Andrew Wilson, the notorious killer of Chicago police officers William Fahey and Richard O'Brien, is dead. Wilson, who was serving a life sentence at Menard Correctional Center, died of natural causes November 19 in a hospital in Belleville, Illinois. He will long be remembered not only for his crime but for his pivotal role in what followed—the exposure of torture within the police department. And he may yet have a role to play from beyond the grave.

Wilson was interrogated, as were most other police suspects who alleged torture, back in the 80s; he shot Fahey and O'Brien in 1982. The officers who harmed him were protected from punishment, first by the willing blindness of state and federal prosecutors and then by the statute of limitations. In September, however, U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald indicated that he might still prosecute the perpetrators—not for the torture but for denying it under oath in civil suits filed more recently by five alleged victims. In order to mount such a prosecution, Fitzgerald would have to prove that torture took place, and no case offers better medical evidence than Andrew Wilson's. He was tortured without finesse. Marks were left all over his body.

The Federal Rules of Evidence prohibit the use of testimony from someone who cannot be cross-examined by a lawyer representing the accused, but there's an exception. According to rule 804(b)(1), testimony given at another proceeding at which the accused had a similar opportunity and motive to question the witness is admissible if the witness is "unavailable by death."

Wilson was the third of nine children born to Robert Wilson from Mississippi and Margie Wilson from Tennessee. According to a 1988 presentencing report by social worker Jill Miller, Robert was a machine operator at a soap factory, a job he held for 40 years, and Margie worked as a waitress. In 1963, when Wilson was 11, the family moved from an apartment into a split-level three-bedroom home in Morgan Park that Miller described as "neat, clean, and nicely furnished," with a small library and an electric organ that all the kids could play by ear. Miller reported that the family regularly attended church and that neither parent spared the rod, the father favoring an extension cord. Wilson described the "whuppings" as "standard," not as abusive.

According to Miller, Wilson had trouble early on in school. In first grade he was bounced back to kindergarten after scoring 73 on a full-scale IQ test, and the following October he was placed in a program for the educable mentally handicapped. Four years later, Board of Education testing gave him an IQ of 78. In sixth grade, achievement tests showed him functioning at first- and second-grade levels, and he remained functionally illiterate all his life. Chances are he was more intelligent than his scores indicated. Joseph Prendergast, a remedial reading teacher with decades of experience, tutored Wilson for a time in prison and concluded that he had a learning disability that had never been diagnosed.

Miller portrayed Wilson as frustrated and embarrassed in school. She wrote that he became a truant who hung out with what his parents considered "the wrong crowd," stayed out late, ran away, and no longer responded to his parents' beatings. Yet Miller also cited sources who said he was polite to neighbors and liked by the elderly.

At 14 Wilson got a job washing dishes in the restaurant where his mother worked, but he was soon referred to juvenile court for truancy and committed to the Chicago Parental School, a residential Board of Education program. He ran away after six weeks. In 1967 he was sent to the Joliet Youth Facility for burglarizing a neighbor's home. While in custody he underwent neurological testing, was diagnosed as having seizure disorders, and was prescribed anticonvulsive medication. He was also given tranquilizers for emotional disturbance and hyperactivity. Two years later a Department of Corrections doctor noted how well he'd adjusted and took him off the drugs. According to Miller, Wilson was never again given a neurological exam or assessed for medications.

He was 16 when he was released in 1969, and although he got jobs as a busboy and on a construction crew, he was arrested that November for burglary. Miller reported that Wilson's mother left the family some months later, reportedly with another man, and that Wilson's father raised the children alone after that. The youngest were four-year-old twins.

In the early 1970s Andrew fathered two daughters with a woman he didn't marry. In 1975 he committed armed robbery—his targets a suburban policeman and a Sambo's restaurant—for which he was sentenced to 8 to 16 years. He was paroled on October 23, 1981, and quickly returned to crime, assisted by his younger brother Jackie, who was 21. They robbed a clothing store in November, a camera store in December. In February Andrew dressed as a postal carrier and they robbed a middle-aged woman in her home.

Five days later Andrew and Jackie entered a house and came out with clothing, a TV, a fifth of whiskey, some bullets, and a jar of pennies. They were driving south on Morgan in their brown Chevy Impala when gang crimes officers Fahey, 34, and O'Brien, 33, pulled them over. Both brothers had outstanding warrants for bail violations.

Andrew stripped Fahey of his gun, shot him in the head, and then shot O'Brien five times. The brothers sped off. O'Brien was dead on arrival at Little Company of Mary Hospital. Fahey died the next day.

The investigation was led by Lieutenant Jon Burge, commander of the Area Two violent crimes unit. He didn't have much to go on, beyond a description of the perpetrators and their car, which had a damaged front grille. A now retired Area Two detective who took part in the dragnet told the Reader years later, "There were a million volunteers.... Normally you'd have 15 to 20 violent crimes guys on duty. Now you've got not only them, you've got the property crimes guys, the gang crimes guys. Detectives from Area One were there. The brass was there because it was such a heater case.... My partner and I worked 36 hours straight. Burge had to send someone to his house to get clean socks and a shirt. He didn't go home."

Jesse Jackson compared the effort to a "military occupation." The detective remembered, "It was a reign of terror. I don't know what Kristallnacht was like, but this was probably close." He blamed much of the abuse on the gang crimes unit: "Their idea is you go out and pick up 2,000 pounds of nigger and eventually you'll get the right one."

Ultimately it was citizen cooperation that broke the case. One tip came from a body-and-fender man named Solomon Morgan. Jackie Wilson had called Morgan and asked him to paint his car and repair the grille. Morgan realized the Impala matched the description of the killers' car and called the police.

Burge and his detectives closed in on the brothers, who were moving separately from apartment to apartment on the south and west sides. At 5:15 AM on Sunday, February 14, five days after Fahey and O'Brien were gunned down, Burge and his men surrounded a building at 5301 W. Jackson. Burge, the first man through the door, arrested Andrew without firing a shot. Second District police arrested Jackie about three hours later, thanks to a south-side minister who passed on a tip from someone in his congregation.

What occurred over the next 15 hours haunts the city to this day. After confessing, Andrew emerged from Area Two in such bad shape that a lockup keeper insisted he be given medical treatment. He was taken to Mercy Hospital, where a doctor documented 15 separate injuries before one of the patrol wagon officers pulled his gun and refused to put it away. The doctor refused to continue, leaving the prisoner and the officer alone in the examining room. When the doctor returned, Wilson declined further treatment.

The next day he told public defender Dale Coventry that he'd been shocked, burned by a radiator, suffocated with a plastic bag, and kicked in the eye and beaten. Coventry had photos of a huge burn on his client's thigh, parallel burns on his chest, and strange U-shaped puncture marks on his nose and ears. Wilson said the marks came from alligator clips attached to wires leading to a hand-cranked electrical device. He said Burge shocked him on his genitals and his back with a second device that resembled a curling iron.

Another prisoner in Wilson's position might not have raised his voice. He was a cop killer—most people wouldn't believe he'd been tortured, and many who did wouldn't care. But Wilson testified under oath six times about what had happened to him.

He identified Burge and detective John Yucaitis (who has since died) as the primary perpetrators but said as many as 10 or 11 officers had been involved in beating and kicking him, and that a female detective took part in the handcuffing that preceded his electrical torture. Wilson claimed that he told assistant state's attorney Larry Hyman, chief of the felony review section, that he'd just been tortured; later in the day, when he took Wilson's confession with a court reporter present, Hyman failed to ask a prescribed question about whether the statement was being given voluntarily. That extraordinary omission might have aroused the curiosity of state's attorney Richard Daley and his first assistant, Dick Devine, but apparently it didn't. And there was no indication that they cared to get to the bottom of Wilson's treatment when the Illinois Supreme Court threw out his conviction (and death sentence) in 1987. At his second trial Wilson was convicted without the confession, and the jury sentenced him to natural life.

Aside from the Illinois Supreme Court, no one paid much attention to Wilson's torture claims, but he kept making them. In 1986, without a lawyer, he filed a civil suit in federal court. Several lawyers assigned by the court to work on the case found reasons not to, and finally Wilson contacted the People's Law Office. Flint Taylor recalls fielding the phone call, hearing Wilson out, and then discussing the case with the other lawyers in the firm. "We didn't think we'd ever make any money on the case," Taylor says, "but it seemed like such an important issue. You shouldn't be able to torture a guy."

The civil trial in federal court began in February 1989, with Wilson represented by Taylor, John Stainthorp, and Jeffrey Haas. It seemed a doomed effort from day one—Wilson, a cop killer, armed robber, and home invader, facing off against Burge, who'd been decorated for valor in Vietnam, and three other officers, all of them accustomed to the witness stand. Wilson cowered, looking like he expected to be hit at any moment. But there was a certain credibility in his telling of the story, in his attempt not to cry in front of the jury, and in the medical evidence. Despite a brutal cross-examination by William Kunkle, representing the officers, Wilson scored points with at least some of the jurors. They couldn't reach a verdict on the primary charges, and judge Brian Duff declared a mistrial.

The defense offered by the officers in the second trial contradicted aspects of their defense in the first. An interrogation room radiator that was broken in the first trial worked in the second, and the expert who testified that Wilson hadn't been burned was jettisoned in favor of a jailhouse informant, a British con man who'd served time in seven countries and who testified that Wilson had confided in him that he'd burned himself. The jury came back with a confused verdict. It decided that Wilson's constitutional rights had been violated and that the city had a de facto policy of allowing police officers to abuse people suspected of shooting policemen, but also that Wilson hadn't been subjected to excessive force as a result of this policy.

Wilson appealed, won a third civil trial, and finally prevailed in 1996. He'd persisted in his suit even after it became clear he'd never see a penny in damages. Fahey's widow and two children had filed a wrongful death suit against him, and in the end the city was ordered to pay $100,000 to the Faheys and another $900,000 in fees to Wilson's attorneys.

Wilson's case was pivotal, not simply because he won it in the end but because of what it led to—the exposure of a torture ring. In February 1989, during the first civil trial, one of Burge's colleagues began sending anonymous letters to the People's Law Office in police department envelopes. He or she listed the names of "Burge's Asskickers" at Area Two and said Wilson wasn't the only torture victim. One letter advised the attorneys to contact a Melvin Jones, an inmate at Cook County Jail.

The tip led to Burge's eventual undoing. Jones also said he'd been given electric shock—as it turned out, nine days before Wilson's arrest. Even better, Jones had described the experience in a court hearing seven years earlier. According to the transcript of that hearing, Jones said Burge had asked him if he knew two men with the street names Satan and Cochise.

A: I told him I have heard of them. I didn't know them personally.

Q: What if anything did he say to you at that time?

A: He said, they both had the same treatment, you know. He was telling me what kind of guys they was as far as supposed to be being, you know, kind of tough or something, you know. They crawled all over the floor.

The lawyers located Satan and Cochise, then serving long terms in prison, and they named other victims. The list has since grown to 107 names.

Judge Duff wouldn't allow Jones's story into evidence, so it had no immediate effect on Wilson's civil trial. Yet without Wilson's suit, it's possible the Burge torture gang never would have been uncovered. Flint Taylor points out that even though PLO attorneys had already represented Phillip Adkins, one of the victims on the list, they'd had no reason to link the two cases because there were no abusing officers in common. Not until the Melvin Jones tip and the list of "Burge's Asskickers" arrived, Taylor says, did anyone begin cross-referencing abuse cases at Area Two.

As a result of the Wilson revelations, some made public for the first time in the Reader ("House of Screams," January 26, 1990), the Office of Professional Standards reopened its investigation of his treatment in police custody. The two reports that resulted were groundbreaking. Michael Goldston, asked to examine abuse complaints in general at Area Two, concluded that abuse was systematic, included "planned torture," and was sanctioned by command level officers. Francine Sanders, assigned to examine the Wilson case in particular, concluded that, yes, the killer had been tortured using electric shock.

Sanders's report provided the foundation for 1992 Police Board hearings that resulted in Burge being fired. Testimony at those hearings provided the basis for the city's acknowledgment in 1994 that torture had occurred at Area Two. If it weren't for Wilson's suit, it's possible that in 2003 Governor Ryan wouldn't have pardoned four Area Two victims who'd been sentenced to death.

Burge and the other detectives who tortured prisoners appear to have deployed three electrical devices: a cattle prod, a device resembling the army field phone that some members of Burge's military police unit used to torture suspects in Vietnam ("Tools of Torture," February 4, 2005), and the instrument that Wilson said resembled a curling iron, a device identified by the Reader as a violet ray machine, also known as a shock wand ("The Mysterious Third Device," February 4, 2005). The wand typically leaves no marks. Burge, who's 59, might be a senior police commander today if Wilson's torturers hadn't left a damning pattern of scabs on his ears and nose and radiator burns on his chest and thigh.

Since losing his job, Burge has been living in Florida, where he continues to collect his police pension. Attempts to reach him through his attorney, James Sotos, were unsuccessful. William Kunkle, who successfully prosecuted Wilson for the murders of Fahey and O'Brien and who later defended Burge in Wilson's civil suit and before the Police Board, is now a Cook County felony court judge. He declined to comment on Wilson's death.

A lawyer who spent more than 20 years as a federal prosecutor says he believes Wilson's past testimony would be admissible if the U.S. attorney succeeds in bringing anyone to trial. "If the issues are pretty much the same—'Did I torture him? Did I violate his rights? Did I commit a crime in doing that?'—And I said, 'No, I didn't,' and I was crossing him and saying, 'Andrew, you're a liar, you're a cheat, you're a thief, you're a murderer,' and my lawyer and I had the same opportunity to develop my cross as I would in this upcoming trial, if the government ever gets there, then the testimony could come in under that hearsay exception because Wilson is dead and unavailable to testify."

Attorneys for Burge vigorously questioned Wilson in a deposition, at both civil trials, and at the Police Board hearings. Asked how he'd fight to keep that testimony from being admitted, the former prosecutor said he'd argue that "I didn't have the same or similar motive to fully develop that examination, that lines of cross-examination that I would have engaged in were precluded by the trial judge, that I had a constitutional right to confront the witnesses against me, and this is a violation of the confrontation clause.

"And I would probably lose all those rulings."

John Stainthorp, one of the lawyers who represented Wilson in his civil proceedings, says his client never showed any remorse for shooting the two officers. Life in prison has a certain order to it, and Stainthorp thinks Wilson was almost comfortable in such a restricted environment. "He was a small guy, but he never had a problem.... I think people knew that to some extent Andrew definitely had psychopathic tendencies and he didn't give a shit. And if someone went after him, he wouldn't care in some ways what happened to him. He wasn't someone who attacked people or anything like that. People would just leave him alone."

Stainthorp says Wilson periodically took classes in reading and writing but remained illiterate to the end. "So when talking about his torture, I was always amazed that every time he told it he would have the details absolutely correct," Stainthorp says. "And sometimes I would get something a little wrong and he would correct me, and this is without reading anything. I mean he had no way of refreshing his recollection. And he would have all the details correct and it would always be the same account.

"The other thing about Andrew—whenever he talked about being tortured it would really upset him and it would make him cry," Stainthorp says. "He would be absolutely furious with himself that it affected him that way. He would hate it, hate it, hate it."

Asked if there is a single image of Wilson that stands out, Stainthorp recalls a visit about a year ago, almost a quarter century after Wilson was tortured. "He still cried when he talked about it," Stainthorp says, "and it still made him furious that he cried. Obviously for Andrew it was important to be strong. One thing about torture is that it makes you weak and it makes you know that you are weak."


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