By Tori Marlan
On the afternoon of March 13, Daryl Olson encountered two strange men in the hallway outside his apartment. They were cruising the floor, checking the numbers on doors. Normally he might have nodded, said hello, and gone about his business without giving them a second thought. But his life had been anything but normal lately. He had reason to be wary of strange men in his hallway.
The trouble had begun a few months earlier, in December, after Olson made a late-night phone call to his friend Suzanne in New York. Suzanne had a new boyfriend, and Olson figured from the way she abruptly got off the phone that the boyfriend was there when he called. A couple of days later, he got a threatening call from a man who claimed to know him from Snowmass, the ski resort town where he'd met Suzanne. Though Olson hung up on him, the caller kept calling back. He knew Olson's name, that he lived at 5550 N. Kenmore, that he worked as a massage therapist, and that he'd recently broken up with a girlfriend. He warned Olson to "watch his back" and said, "I'm going to kill you, motherfucker" and "You're dead." At one point the caller said he'd send someone else to do the dirty work.
Olson reported the calls to the police, and Ameritech put a tracer on his phone. He never heard back from the guy directly, but he suddenly started receiving scores of hang-up calls. When he got the results from the trace at the end of January, he learned that some of the calls had originated from the New York area, bolstering his suspicion that the man on the other end of them--and behind the initial threat--was Suzanne's boyfriend.
Later, as he and Suzanne were planning overlapping ski trips to Colorado, the hang-ups increased in frequency. "I was always watching over my shoulder," he says. "I was like, there are some really creepy people in Chicago that would for a hundred bucks take someone's life."
So on that March afternoon, when Olson noticed the two strangers in his hallway, he got a little nervous. One was white, the other black. Both had muscular builds, and the white guy wore a ponytail and a skull earring. He says neither of them looked too friendly.
Olson felt that something wasn't quite right as he got into the elevator and pushed the button that would take him to the laundry room. When he returned about five minutes later, the men were still there. They stepped toward him, asking if his name was Daryl.
Olson took off. He says one of the men shouted "Don't you fucking run from us," and that at that point "there was no way I was turning around for anything they said. I was getting my ass out of there."
Olson bolted down seven flights of stairs. He didn't stop any of the three times he twisted his ankle. And he didn't stop when the men in pursuit called out that they were police officers.
At the bottom of the stairwell, Olson raced through an open door. It led him into the kitchen of the restaurant on the ground floor, Francesca's on Bryn Mawr, and from there he made his way into the dining room. The two men burst in after him with guns drawn, terrifying customers and staff. A server named Aubree Weiley says, "I did not know what was going on. I saw two men with guns and I ran into the coatroom."
The men with guns again identified themselves as police officers, but Olson still didn't buy it. Weiley says Olson pleaded with the rattled diners and waitstaff to come to his aid, saying, "Somebody help me, they're not the police."
Olson eventually got cornered: "They told me to get on the floor, they put their knees down into my arms. They put the handcuffs on so tight that I still have nerve damage in my thumb. And I wasn't resisting. All I was doing was telling someone to call the cops. I'm thinking they're going to take me out to the car and I'm never going to be seen again."
The man with the skull earring produced a badge, but it did little to soothe Olson. "I was out of my mind," he says. "I was scared to death."
Only when uniformed officers arrived on the scene and his pursuers didn't flee did Olson finally accept that they were in fact police.
Officers Landon Wade and Joshua Weitzman had gone to Olson's building that afternoon in response to an anonymous tip that Olson was selling a variety of controlled substances. They had planned what's known as a "knock and talk" investigation to determine whether the tip had any credibility. They found their man in the hallway, a long-haired 41-year-old at home on a Tuesday afternoon doing laundry. Something about him didn't seem quite right. He was skittish, and when they approached him he fled.
"Nervous, evasive behavior," according to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, is a "pertinent factor" in determining reasonable suspicion that a suspect is involved in criminal activity. And "headlong flight," the court found, "is the consummate act of evasion." Wade and Weitzman gave chase.
Faced with the task of apprehending a man who clearly didn't want to be caught, they drew their guns, a standard defensive measure. They didn't know what to expect from Olson, and they needed to be prepared for the worst. Luckily, once they cornered him, he didn't put up a fight.
Police say they placed him under arrest after someone from Francesca's signed a trespassing complaint against him for tearing into the kitchen, and the uniformed officers transported him to the station at Foster and Winchester.
Wade and Weitzman searched Olson's apartment. Behind a paperweight on his desk, they found a small quantity of marijuana.
Olson says the marijuana--about a gram--was strictly for personal use. He also says the search was illegal. He admits he signed a consent form--believing it would expedite his release--but says by then the officers had already been through his apartment. He went to court on April 26 for possession of cannabis and criminal trespassing, and a judge swiftly dismissed the charges.
Nothing had been as it seemed on March 13. Wade and Weitzman were not thugs ready to make good on a jealous boyfriend's threat. Olson had no stash of drugs to sell. Yet everyone had good reason to believe he might be in danger. Filtered through the suspicions on both sides, everything that transpired reinforced this fear.
Olson says he feels lucky, considering recent incidents involving accidental shootings of unarmed suspects by police. "I could have died because of this," he says. "There's no question in my mind." But he's also outraged. The way he sees it, he was subjected to a whole lot of unnecessary "trauma and turmoil." He says that in addition to nerve damage in his thumb and a twisted ankle, he suffered the indignity of being arrested in public and the mental anguish that's induced by having guns pointed at you. Furthermore, he says, he spent several hours in lockup, returned to a ransacked apartment, and had to miss a day of work to appear in court. All because of a bogus anonymous tip and what he calls the "overexuberance" of the police officers investigating it.
The police department operates or takes information from at least six anonymous-tip hot lines, including ones for gang activity, property crimes, and gun trafficking. And soon the department will launch a public-education campaign about anonymous reporting through 911. Though 911 is equipped with an extensive caller-ID system, anonymity can be requested, and, according to the department, it will be protected. To get the word out, flyers will be distributed at CAPS meetings and police stations, as well as through local businesses.
The cover of anonymity provides comfort to those who otherwise would be reluctant to report crime, which, says department spokesperson Sergeant Robert Cargie, is often the case "in neighborhoods where retaliation is part of life."
But Olson says his ordeal illustrates the flip side of anonymous-tip hot lines: that they're conducive to false reporting. "I can see the anonymous tip and what it's good for," Olson admits. "But I believe--and I'm going to work for this to try to get it changed--that if someone accuses somebody of something this serious they should at least have to have their name kept on file with the police department in case something like this happens."
False reporting wastes precious police time and resources. It's also a form of harassment. There's a state law against it--it's a Class Four felony--but anonymous-tip hot lines make the law easy to circumvent. Filing a report that someone is selling controlled substances without reasonable grounds for suspicion is a crime; the 1-800-CRACK-44 hot line provides a consequence-free way to commit that crime.
The distinction between filing a report and phoning a hot line, according to Cargie, is that the department considers anonymous tips merely investigative leads. No one is arrested on the basis of an anonymous report alone. Police need substantive corroborating evidence or a signed complaint to initiate an arrest.
The Illinois statute prohibiting false reporting, however, doesn't distinguish between phoned-in and signed complaints. It says a person commits disorderly conduct by transmitting a false report "in any manner." By operating anonymous-tip hot lines, is the police department making a decision to tolerate one crime--false reporting--for the opportunity to investigate other, perhaps more serious, crimes? And is the trade-off worth it? After all, it's exceedingly difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone intentionally gave false information.
Keeping tipsters' names on file as Olson proposes would negate the very reason for operating anonymous-tip hot lines in the first place and wouldn't necessarily prevent jealous boyfriends or others intent on harassing their enemies from abusing the system. All they would have to do to protect themselves from prosecution, says Cargie, is preface their tips with the disclaimer "I suspect."
It might be tempting to think of what happened to Olson as an unfortunate by-product of a valuable crime-fighting tool. But anonymous tips barely make a dent. Only 85 calls came in to the police department's drug-tip hot line last year, and just 13 of them led to arrests. In any case, it's impossible to weigh the benefits of hot lines against the harm that comes from them when the harm goes largely unperceived.
When harm is perceptible, the police department's enthusiasm for anonymous reporting wanes. Consider its policy regarding anonymous complaints about its own officers. The department is forbidden by contract from investigating anonymous tips about police brutality. Why? Because they can be "used maliciously or for harassing," says Cargie. And when it comes to police brutality, that "happens all the time," says Bill Nolan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. Nolan says, "Nobody wants to be arrested," and that suspects often vent their frustration by filing frivolous complaints against the arresting officers. Requiring people to sign complaints is an effort to deter harassment.
The department does investigate some anonymous complaints about its officers--but only those that are considered "of a criminal nature," according to Nolan. Strangely, police brutality falls outside that scope.
Olson realizes that but for a bizarre confluence of circumstances, the situation in his hallway probably wouldn't have escalated to the point that it did. But he wonders whether the police could have handled the situation differently. Why, for example, if they intended to conduct a simple "knock and talk" investigation, did they gain access to his building without his knowledge? Why not buzz him from outside? And why didn't the department send uniformed officers? "If they had been in uniform at my door," he says, "I would have never run. Never."
A few days after his arrest, Olson received a message on his answering machine that he thought sounded like a jail cell clanging shut. "After all this," he says, "after going to court, after being put in lockup, after being chased down the stairs, after having a gun pointed at my head, my life could still be in danger."
He might not feel safer if the tipster were held accountable for the false report, he says, but he'd feel a whole lot better, that at least "justice would be served." As it stands, his hands are tied. There's not much he can do to sic police on the tipster. Unless, of course, he phones in an anonymous complaint.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.