For five days in late April and early May 2003 prosecutors tried to persuade a judge that six years earlier Bill White, along with two other black men from the west side, shot a young white couple to death in their Wrigleyville apartment. At the end of the trial Judge Vincent Gaughan acquitted White, saying the testimony of the state’s main witness, an informant, was “worthless.”
White, who’d been locked up in Cook County Jail for five and a half years, sat calmly in his seat as his defense attorney jumped up and down, looking, White remembers, like someone who’d won the lottery. White recently told me he felt relieved by the verdict but not overjoyed. “I was like, oh well, not guilty. I still felt like that don’t repay. Who’s gonna come and say, I’m sorry? Who’s gonna give me back the time I missed with my children? I can’t get that life back.”
If White had been hoping for an apology from the informant–his cousin Eugene Hawes, who’d told police White boasted about committing the double murder–he wasn’t about to get one. After the acquittal Hawes repeated on Fox News just about the only part of his story that hadn’t changed over the years. “He did do the murders,” Hawes said. Then he added, “I have never told a lie about something as serious as murder.”
An informant can do a lot of damage, but he can’t do it alone. He needs help from people inside the system. Perhaps police and prosecutors, eager to make an arrest or get a conviction, don’t adequately scrutinize his story or background. Perhaps his story matches the evidence–or matches it just enough.
Jailhouse snitches are widely considered the most unreliable kind of witness because they cut deals with prosecutors for their testimony. Under the death-penalty-reform laws the state legislature passed last November, they’re no longer permitted to testify in capital cases without a pretrial “reliability” hearing, at which a judge considers factors that might affect their credibility, such as whether they’ve testified before and benefited from doing so.
But what about non-death-penalty cases? And what about informants who aren’t in jail, who aren’t angling to get time shaved off their sentences or charges dropped? How closely do police and prosecutors examine their motives? Shouldn’t informants like Hawes, informants with an ax to grind or reward money to collect, be subject to reliability hearings too?
According to a 2002 study by Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, when innocent people are convicted of capital crimes the second most common reason, after faulty eyewitness testimony, is false testimony from people who have an incentive to lie. Warden found that witnesses with ulterior motives had been partly or wholly responsible for the wrongful conviction of 38 of the 97 death-row inmates across the country who’d been exonerated since states started reinstating capital punishment in 1976. Most of those witnesses weren’t jailhouse snitches.
Why was Hawes’s testimony against White considered worthy by police and prosecutors? Did he fool them? And had he fooled them before, in an earlier murder case?
By the time his accusation led to Bill White’s arrest, Hawes had had plenty of contact with police and lawyers. Court records show he’d been an informant, a witness, a criminal defendant, and a plaintiff. The system was always good to him. No criminal charges against him ever stuck, and he won two monetary settlements in civil court.
His mother, Rosalie, says that she raised him on the south side near 32nd and Indiana and that she stayed home to care for him and his younger sister while their father, David, worked in a factory. Hawes’s parents separated around 1960, when he was seven or eight. His father moved to Delaware a few years later, and Hawes didn’t see much of him after that.
Lena White, Bill White’s mother and Hawes’s aunt, says Hawes took after his father. She remembers David holding court on street corners, telling “fantastic stories” that drew crowds. “People would stand there in amazement,” she says. “He’d make up stories as he’d go along, and you’d believe them.” After a while “you didn’t know where the truth was.” Rosalie considered her son’s tales harmless. “He never lied about anything that would cause any trouble.”
Rosalie says Hawes quit school after eighth grade, but Bill White’s father, Bill Haney, remembers Hawes attending high school for a few years. However long he went–in sworn statements he’s said both that he graduated and that he dropped out after 11th grade–he gave the impression that he was educated. Haney says Hawes used “as many big words as he could.”
Hawes has never held a steady job. He’s gotten by doing day labor, sketching people in front of the Daley Center, renting out rooms in his home, and collecting money from lawsuits.
Haney says Hawes “portrayed himself as a black belt” in karate. He had no formal training, but family members recall that he worked briefly as a karate instructor at Kennedy-King College. (College officials wouldn’t comment.) Hawes once told a public defender who was questioning him about his aliases that “Zahn” was the nickname he went by “for the experience that I had in martial arts.”
Court records show that Hawes was arrested several times in the 80s and 90s for such offenses as domestic battery, theft, and peddling jewelry at O’Hare without “written permission.” After one arrest during a domestic dispute in 1982, Hawes sued the city and two police officers, claiming the officers had been too rough with him and caused permanent injuries to his left arm and hand. In a 1985 settlement he was awarded $37,500.
“He bought two cars,” says Lena. “The money didn’t last.”
Not long after winning the settlement, Hawes met a lawyer named Gregory Sun, who occasionally hired him to deliver subpoenas and other legal documents and to track down witnesses in neighborhoods where Sun thought he could “fit in with the locals.” Haney remembers Hawes dressing in suits even though the job didn’t require it and using lots of legal jargon.
“Eugene’s quite a character,” says Sun. “Larger than life. He gets it in his head that certain things are the way they are and maybe jumps to conclusions a little too soon.” But, he adds, “Eugene’s not a liar.” He says Hawes “honestly believes” his own stories.
The story Hawes told in the fall of 1997 had dire consequences for Bill White, Otis English, and Roland Gray. Back then White was a 29-year-old father of four who worked at a recycling plant sorting paper. He had a felony conviction for possession of a stolen motor vehicle, and he says he was addicted to heroin. He and his girlfriend had a tumultuous relationship, and after one fight he moved out and rented a room from Hawes, who was living with his family in a CHA town house on the 1400 block of North Talman. White paid him $50 every two weeks.
Hawes was 14 years older than White. Though their mothers were sisters and they’d spent time together at their grandmother’s house and on the occasional holiday, the two men weren’t close. After a couple of months White moved back in with his girlfriend. He says Hawes wasn’t pleased, and when White returned to collect his things Hawes’s girlfriend, Julie Hawkins, refused to let him in.
White kicked the door off its hinges, got his belongings, and stormed off with Hawes’s stereo, telling Hawkins he’d return the stereo as soon as Hawes returned the $50 he’d just paid him for the following two weeks’ rent. “‘Stead of him calling me,” White says, “he calls the police.”
Hawes was “very angry,” according to the police report. He complained about the theft. Then he added that White and two friends had murdered some white people near Wrigley Field.
The murders had occurred six months earlier, late on May 5 or early on May 6. The victims, 22-year-old Kelly Fitzgerald and 24-year-old Che Messner, had moved to Chicago from the northwest suburbs a year earlier. Fitzgerald was a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Messner worked at a neighborhood sandwich shop owned by his aunt and uncle. Fitzgerald was shot three times in the head. Messner was handcuffed and shot once in the back and twice in the head. There was no sign of forced entry to their apartment and no sign that property had been removed.
Double murders in Wrigleyville are rare, and this one made headlines. Messner was said to have loved “snowboards, motorcycles and muskets.” Fitzgerald was described as “magnetic and beautiful.” Police said the murders were “execution style” and that two guns had been used.
The first solid lead came within 24 hours. On May 6 a man named Michael Fields told police he’d stopped by the couple’s apartment the night before and seen a black man sitting on the couch with Fitzgerald. Messner was in the kitchen, kneeling on the floor with his hands on the kitchen counter. Behind him stood a young white man, his hands in his pockets. Fields said Messner didn’t seem nervous or afraid. He simply suggested that Fields come back another time or talk to him the following day.
All signs pointed to a drug hit. Messner supplemented his sandwich-shop income by selling large quantities of marijuana–$10,000 worth of pot was found in the couple’s apartment after their deaths. Within a week of the murders, according to a police report, detectives learned that Messner “was to meet a member of the Latin Kings for the purpose of doing a marijuana deal.”
Fields helped police create a composite sketch of the man who’d been sitting on the couch with Fitzgerald, and on the basis of his description, police questioned DeAndre Jackson, a known Latin King who sold marijuana. Jackson, who had no alibi, denied any knowledge of the murders, but according to police reports, a polygraph test indicated he wasn’t being truthful. Fields identified Jackson in a lineup as the person he’d seen on the couch with Fitzgerald. Jackson had an extensive criminal record, and he knew his rights. He called his lawyer, and police, concluding they didn’t have enough evidence to charge him with the murders, let him go.
The state crime lab provided another reason for police to focus their investigation on the Latin Kings. A bullet removed from Messner’s head had been fired from the same .45 used the previous fall in an unsolved shooting police suspected was the work of the gang.
Summer passed. The case was growing cold. Then on October 27 Eugene Hawes called.
Area Three detectives Edward Louis and Nick Rossi met with Hawes that night and talked to him several times over the next couple of days. According to police reports, Hawes told them that White had boasted about the murders to another cousin at a birthday party Hawes had thrown for White’s mother, Lena. He claimed that White, in a room full of family members, talked about doing “head shots on a white man and white woman” with his “homey O” and a Puerto Rican guy at an apartment near Wrigley Field. Hawes said “O” had shot the woman and White had shot the man, then escaped with money and drugs.
According to a November 6 police report, Hawes said the party had been in January, though the murders didn’t happen until May. When he gave his official statement to a prosecutor 11 days later, he said he’d thrown the party in the middle of May–four months after Lena’s birthday and about a week after the murders. He also said “O” had shot the man and White had shot the woman, rather than the other way around.
“Eugene was in constant communication, calling almost every night,” says one detective who worked on the case and doesn’t want to be named. He was almost “too cooperative,” the detective adds. “You have to keep Eugene on a real tight leash. He tends to run all over the place. It’s hard to keep him focused.”
The detective says police did consider Hawes’s motives. “We don’t just get tips and lock people up,” he says. “We’re suspicious of everyone. We took a hard run at Eugene. We pressed him about why he wanted to put Bill in jail.” He says that police often use information provided by jilted girlfriends and people who are having disputes with relatives and friends, but only after corroborating it. “We spent weeks trying to collect more and more information” on the Wrigleyville case, he says, explaining that they didn’t interview other people who supposedly heard White boasting at the party because they were worried he would skip town. “We were counting on Eugene to find someone he thought would be cooperative.”
But then Hawes accused White and “O” of threatening him with guns for talking to the police. “We were not in a hurry to make an arrest,” says the detective. “They forced our hand by threatening Eugene.”
Hawes took detectives to a pink building on the west side and said “O” lived inside. Three days later the detectives went back to the building and arrested a man named Otis English. After Hawes picked him out of a lineup, police charged him with aggravated assault for intimidating a witness. For the next several days they interrogated him about the Wrigleyville murders. They also had the state relocate Hawes and his family and pay for their food, clothing, housing, and emergency living expenses.
Two days after arresting English, detectives arrested White as he was driving to a liquor store. They also arrested his passenger, Roland Gray.
Like White, English and Gray had criminal records. English, who was 27, had drug convictions. Gray, who was 44, had been convicted of armed robbery ten years earlier and had been arrested on a murder charge in the early 80s that was eventually dropped. The detective says police picked up Gray to press him for information about White but became suspicious after learning about his criminal background and after English implicated him in a “home invasion.”
Police questioned White on and off for 30 hours, Gray for 74 hours, and English for 89 hours, holding them in separate rooms, much of the time handcuffed to a hook on a wall. All three men said they couldn’t remember where they’d been six months earlier, at the time of the Wrigleyville murders, but they repeatedly denied committing the crime. Each of them says that police promised they could go home if they gave statements implicating the others in the crime. “I was slapped, beat, kneed,” says Gray. “They were standing on my feet. ‘Tell us something. Are you going to tell us something?’ This would go on for hours.”
Gray and White both say detectives didn’t feed them when they were hungry, kept them awake when they were tired, and wouldn’t always let them use the restroom when they needed to, forcing them to relieve themselves in their pants.
English says he didn’t have his asthma medicine and worried about having an attack. He says detectives told him to tell Gray and White that he’d confessed to the murders and that they should too. “I did what they said. I just wanted to go home.”
White says that after English talked to him Eugene Hawes came into the room. “Eugene pulled a chair up and said in my face, ‘Man, you know you killed that lady. Go on and tell them. They got you, man. It’s over with.'” Finally, White says, “I bust out crying. I knew that deep down inside this was something he really didn’t want to do, but by opening the door to this he had to carry on with it. They probably told him, ‘Man, if you lying, we going to charge you.'”
The detective says an innocent man would react with anger at being falsely accused, and so White’s response deepened suspicion: “He said, ‘Eugene, don’t do this,’ instead of ‘What are you, fucking nuts?'”
White says that finally he was willing to say whatever he had to so he could leave. “You gain a picture of what happened,” he says, “so eventually you start giving them the story they told you.”
Gray says police told him that if he cooperated he could go home, otherwise they’d have to charge him. “I just wanted the beatings to stop,” he says. “I was getting scared too. I had been in jail before, and I had swore I was never going back. And I didn’t want them to put no murder on me. I knew nine out of ten it might even stick, me being poor and black.”
When an assistant state’s attorney from the felony review division arrived to take the suspects’ statements, each said he hadn’t been coerced into making a confession and had been treated well, though later in court filings each said he’d been abused. Each claimed in his statement to have acted as the lookout while the other two men did the killing. In English’s version, he and White had snorted heroin supplied by Gray, then the three of them had driven to the couple’s apartment, where White and Gray simultaneously shot Messner in the head and White shot Fitzgerald in the face. Gray claimed the three had smoked crack before knocking on the couple’s door, that White shot Fitzgerald in the head, and that he heard two gunshots coming from where English was confronting Messner. Gray also said he saw smoke rising from English’s gun. In White’s version, English shot Fitzgerald, and he then heard two shots as English and Gray confronted Messner.
White says he began to have second thoughts about his statement and told the assistant state’s attorney it was a lie. “He was like, ‘No, no, you’re doing the right thing.'” White says he figured that since he didn’t confess to shooting anyone, he’d be able to go home. He also thought, “Once I get out of the station, then maybe I can help these guys.” But when an intake guard at Cook County Jail scrawled “MAX” on his hand, “I knew I’d made a big mistake.”
White’s attorney, Jeffrey Granich, questioned detectives Louis, Rossi, and Timothy Thompson on July 10, 1998, at a hearing on whether White’s statement could be admitted as evidence in a trial. They denied mistreating him. They said White hadn’t asked to use the phone until after he made his statement, that he hadn’t asked for an attorney, and that they’d never said he could go home if he signed a statement. Rossi allowed that he didn’t know how much sleep White had gotten during the interrogation, admitting he sometimes had to “wake him up to talk to him.”
The detectives’ testimony suggested that White had voluntarily implicated himself. “We push the right buttons,” says the detective who asked to remain anonymous, “but it’s not coercion, and it’s not browbeating.” Psychological pressure, he says, won’t elicit a false confession. “You cannot make an innocent man confess to murder–not by today’s questioning standards.”
Yet it happens. In July 2000 Corethian Bell confessed to murdering his mother and spent 17 months in jail before DNA evidence exonerated him. According to a 2001 investigation of false confessions by the Chicago Tribune, 70 confessions were thrown out on appeal between 1991 and 2001 for a variety of reasons, including that they were the result of police coercion. In 1992 police got a murder confession from a man who was later determined to have been in jail at the time of the crime.
Detective Louis and another detective on the Wrigleyville case, John Turney, had obtained a false confession at least once before. Seven months before testifying at White’s hearing, they questioned a 15-year-old boy, Eddie Huggins, about a murder in Rogers Park, and he admitted to stabbing the victim, though the victim had no stab wounds. (After his acquittal Huggins filed a $50 million lawsuit against the police officers and the city. The trial started on September 13.)
Certainly the statements White, English, and Gray had given didn’t match the evidence. All three said Fitzgerald was shot once and Messner twice, but both victims had been shot three times. English described Fitzgerald as having long black hair, though her hair had been dyed red. He said both victims’ bodies were moved after they were shot, though neither had been.
Defense lawyers use such inconsistencies to support the contention that their clients weren’t at the scene of the crime. Police explain them by saying the perpetrators may have been high or simply didn’t count the number of times they shot or stabbed the victim.
At White’s hearing, one of the prosecutors urged the judge to find the detectives more credible than White. “If they are going to sit there and beat this guy up,” he said, “don’t you think there would be a little showing of some damage?”
“We’re long past the day, judge, where cops go to town on people,” Granich replied in his closing argument. “They are a little more sophisticated than that nowadays.”
Actually, English did have some visible injuries, according to his lawyer, Brian Dosch. “Not real bad injuries,” says Dosch. “The usual big fat lip, marks on wrists, swollen cheek.” He presented photos of the injuries during a hearing on his motion to keep English’s statement from being used as evidence.
Hearings on the motion dragged on for four years. Dosch says that was partly because he’d launched his own investigation into the case after mistakenly being given a report police apparently hadn’t meant him to see–the one from the day Hawes claimed he’d overheard White talking about the murders four months before they happened. One of the detectives later acknowledged in court that after supervisors realized this was impossible, the detectives reinterviewed Hawes and issued a “corrected” report that said Hawes had learned of the crime in May. Giving him the original report, says Dosch, “was a big oops. It became very clear that something was really kinky here, and [Judge] Gaughan gave me all the time I needed.”
By this time it was becoming clear that the way Illinois prosecuted defendants for murder was seriously flawed. In the 1990s 23 inmates convicted of murder, including ten on death row, were freed after recanted witness testimony and advances in DNA technology, among other things, cleared them of the crimes that had landed them in prison. When the number of exonerated death-row inmates reached 13 in January 2000–more people than the state had executed since it reinstated capital punishment in 1977–Governor Ryan declared a moratorium on executions and appointed a commission to study the death penalty system.
In 1999, after a man who’d come within 50 hours of dying by lethal injection was exonerated, the state’s attorney’s office began a major reinvestigation of the Wrigleyville murders. Attempts to find corroborating witnesses for Hawes’s initial story were futile. Of the people he’d said attended the birthday party for Lena White at his town house, only one who was interviewed by state’s attorney investigators–Hawes’s girlfriend–said she’d been there. Hawes’s mother and sister denied attending any such party, and Rufus Wims, the cousin White supposedly boasted to, said he hadn’t seen Hawes in ten years.
But Hawes produced two new witnesses for prosecutors–people he hadn’t mentioned to police. One claimed he’d attended a get-together at Hawes’s town house at which White talked about killing someone, but he said he hadn’t paid attention to the details. The other said he’d attended a birthday party for Hawes’s mother, Rosalie, at which White mentioned participating in a double murder; he also said the victims’ apartment had been broken into.
Prosecutors also followed up on the original police investigation targeting the Latin Kings. Messner’s father, who was in prison when his son was killed, told investigators that shortly before the murders he’d set his son up with a new drug connection–a man named “Ronnie,” the nephew of a fellow inmate who was a “chief” in the Latin Kings. The new connection had frightened Fitzgerald, a friend told investigators, and she’d confided that she was “frantic” and that Messner planned to meet with a couple of gang members his father or uncle had set him up with. In another conversation she’d said she was “furious” that Messner had brought the gang members to their apartment.
Michael Fields, who’d picked Latin Kings member DeAndre Jackson out of a lineup, told a state’s attorney’s investigator that he was now 75 percent sure that Jackson was the man on the couch with Fitzgerald not long before the couple was found dead. He now described the man he’d seen in the kitchen with Messner as Hispanic, not white.
Investigators also talked to a friend of the couple who’d stopped by their apartment to buy marijuana a week before the murders. According to their report, he said that when a Latino man arrived, Messner told the friend and another visitor to leave the room and not look at the man. Another friend of Messner’s told investigators that two weeks before the murders Messner said that he “was going to start working with gangbangers” and that he’d met with a Latino man named Ronnie, “a relative of an inmate incarcerated with his father,” and a black man called DJ or BJ, who was carrying a gun.
Meanwhile the state’s attorney’s office pressed on with its case against the defendants it had in custody, successfully fighting efforts to invalidate their arrests and get their statements thrown out.
In November 2002, while preparing for trial, the defense attorneys interviewed Hawes at the state’s attorney’s office. “Eugene Hawes all of a sudden started up with more stuff,” says Dosch. “It was new, amazing stuff. He would contradict himself. He was just very brazen about it.”
According to notes from that meeting, Hawes now said that back in November 1997 White had not only kicked in his door and stolen his stereo but hit Hawes’s girlfriend and one of his sons. He also said that English had tortured the murder victims by sticking them with a knife–though the autopsies revealed no knife wounds–and that White had committed three or four other murders.
White was scheduled to go on trial first. As the date approached, something highly unusual happened–high-ranking members of the state’s attorney’s office personally began reinvestigating the case. The office “was losing confidence” in it and debating whether to drop it, according to the anonymous police detective, who considered the turn of events “a bit of an insult.”
Granich says that in early 2003 Robert Milan, chief deputy to State’s Attorney Richard Devine, told him the office had a new suspect–someone in FBI custody with no connection to any of the defendants. The suspect, a Latin King named Richard Carman, had just been indicted, along with eight of his cohorts, for kidnapping and torturing–and in one case murdering–drug dealers between 1997 and 2001.
Carman’s indictment embarrassed the state’s attorney’s office, which had gotten four convictions for the murder now being attributed to Carman and his crew. Prosecutors had built a case against the four the same way they were building their case against White, English, and Gray: an informant told police he’d overheard the defendants talking about the crime, and then police and prosecutors worked the defendants against one another. They got a confession and two guilty pleas, and reduced one defendant’s life sentence to 25 years in exchange for his testimony against another defendant. (Authorities released two of the wrongfully convicted men after Carman was indicted; the other two remained in prison on unrelated charges.)
According to a police report, Area Three detectives had taken an interest in Carman during the early days of the Wrigleyville murders, before Hawes appeared, and someone from the state’s attorney’s office had interviewed him in 2000. Carman acknowledged that he associated with DeAndre Jackson, but at some point in early 2003 the FBI ruled Carman out as a suspect.
While federal authorities investigated Carman, John Murphy, chief of felony review for the state’s attorney’s office, worked with the police department’s cold-case squad reinterviewing witnesses, including Hawes, for the case against White, English, and Gray. According to their reports, Hawes now said he couldn’t remember when he’d thrown the party for Lena, but that it must have been cold outside because people wore coats. Murphy also talked to the new witnesses Hawes had produced in 1999, two former boarders. Neither could identify White from a photo as the person they’d heard talking about murders. One told investigators Hawes had a “habit,” and the other said Hawes owed dope dealers money.
Murphy also found someone police had looked for but hadn’t found: Messner’s new drug connection, the Ronnie his father had set him up with from prison, who turned out to be Ronny, a Latin King whose real name was Rodney Garcia. According to the investigators’ report, Garcia told Murphy he’d made deals for about 20 pounds of “high-grade weed” with Messner over the course of a month and that they’d met four to six times. He denied ever going to Messner’s apartment.
Murphy, along with Robert Milan, also interviewed White, English, and Gray. Under normal circumstances no defense attorney would allow a client to answer prosecutors’ questions before trial. But Granich says he believed White was innocent and that prosecutors wanted to “do the right thing,” so he thought there was nothing to lose. After all, Milan had spoken recently at a training session for 100 prosecutors on how to recognize false confessions, telling them, “Innocent people do confess to horrible crimes they didn’t commit.”
The interview with White took place in the jury room in Judge Gaughan’s courtroom. Milan and Murphy questioned White, who was handcuffed to a chair, for 25 minutes. “I was pleading for my life,” says White. “Finally I cried. I said, man, you all know I didn’t do this.”
One of the prosecutors then asked the three defendants to take polygraph exams. They didn’t want the police department testing them, so about a week later they were escorted from the jail to the Secret Service office downtown. White passed his exam. English and Gray had mixed results.
Then Richard Devine himself got involved. On April 8 he met with the defense attorneys in his office and listened as they laid out the reasons they thought the charges should be dropped: No physical evidence linked any of the defendants to the crime, the informant clearly had a grudge against White, a Latin King with no connection to any of the defendants was identified as having been in the victims’ apartment shortly before they were killed, ballistic evidence linked the murders to the Latin Kings, and parts of the defendants’ statements were inconsistent with the physical facts of the crime. Furthermore, each defendant had pinned the killings on the other two, which meant the state’s attorney’s office would be offering some statements in court that clearly contained lies.
Dosch remembers Devine listening intently and asking questions. “He was well briefed. He knew the facts.”
Granich says, “He thanked us for our kind attention and consideration. And a decision was then made to prosecute Bill White.”
On April 30, 2003, Eugene Hawes, 49 years old and suffering from diabetes, showed up at White’s trial in a wheelchair. Testifying from a spot beneath the judge’s bench, he dodged questions, contradicted himself, surprised the prosecutor, and got combative with the defense lawyer. At times he turned his chair away from the lawyer questioning him. “I thought he was going to wheel himself out of the courtroom,” says Granich. When Hawes refused to answer one of Granich’s questions, saying “that’s got nothing to do with nothing,” the judge threatened to charge him with contempt.
One of the prosecutors asked Hawes whether he’d called police after hearing White’s confession. Hawes said he had.
“In the month of May?” she asked.
“I think I might have,” he said. “Yes. No. I don’t think it was in the month of May.”
For the first time Hawes said he’d heard White say the victims had been “duct taped.” Later he said he hadn’t mentioned the duct tape in any of his conversations with detectives because they hadn’t asked him specifically about duct tape. He also said at first he hadn’t mentioned one of his former boarders as a corroborating witness because police hadn’t specifically asked him about the boarder. And he now said three men, not just White and English, had come to his home and threatened him with guns after he’d gone to the police.
Granich asked Hawes about being an informant on an earlier murder case.
“That’s an old case, man,” Hawes said. “Why you bringing that up?”
“Mr. Hawes,” the judge said, “answer the question.”
“That’s really nobody’s business,” Hawes said. “It’s my personal business.”
Hawes’s “personal business” had put one person in prison for life and another in prison for 60 years. The story he told Area Three detectives about Bill White in October 1997 was similar to one he’d told Area Three detectives a couple of years earlier, when he said he’d heard Andre Griggs talk about killing someone.
Detectives Edward Louis and Nick Rossi knew from the beginning that Hawes had been involved in the earlier case–Louis had done some work on it. But neither seemed to think it strange that Hawes was back in 1997 to help solve another crime or that six months earlier he’d collected a hefty reward for his help on the first one. They apparently saw his first story as all the more reason to believe his second. As the state’s attorney’s office would later contend in a court filing, detectives were “duty-bound” to act as they did because “Hawes had proven to be reliable in the past.”
That past case was a murder that occurred on Halloween night in 1994, when 29-year-old Renee Rondeau was strangled in her Lakeview apartment after returning from an exercise class. A neighbor told police he’d seen keys in her front door at 11:30 PM and that the door was open.
The crash of a commuter plane en route to Chicago initially eclipsed news of the murder, but by December the media had taken note. No arrests had been made, and Rondeau’s family and friends were demonstrating in front of her building, having learned that a woman had been mugged in the foyer earlier in the year and the building’s tenants hadn’t been told.
A new round of media publicity about the unsolved murder in February revealed that Rondeau’s ATM card had been used to withdraw $300 the night she was killed and that her family was offering a $15,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of whoever was responsible for her death.
The following month Eugene Hawes walked into Area Three headquarters. According to police reports, he told detectives he’d been at a friend’s Rockwell Gardens apartment five days earlier when a man he knew as Dre–later determined to be Andre Griggs–stopped by and asked the friend for help with a big “score.” Hawes said Griggs started talking about a “broad at the cash station up north on Halloween.” According to Hawes, Griggs said that he and a woman named Benita had followed Rondeau from the cash station and that he hadn’t wanted to kill her but at Benita’s suggestion he did. Then Hawes told police Griggs had casually mentioned committing several other murders, the same thing he would later say about Bill White.
Hawes’s story became more elaborate a couple of weeks later when he gave his official statement to a prosecutor. Now he said that Griggs had asked for some bleach when he stopped by the Rockwell Gardens apartment “because he just shot someone and had gunpowder on his hands” and implied that he’d sexually assaulted Rondeau, saying, “Let’s just say I got my nuts off.” (There was no evidence of a sexual assault.) Hawes also told the prosecutor that Griggs said the victim was yelling and making a lot of noise. Yet none of Rondeau’s neighbors who were home that night had heard anything unusual, and two people told police they’d been able to hear arguing in the apartment before she was killed. (She had a boyfriend, who moved out shortly before the murder.)
On the basis of Hawes’s information, police took Griggs, an unemployed 31-year-old, into custody. Griggs says a detective showed him a photo of Rondeau: “He threw it on the table, and he pulled the table closer and he pulled my head down and he said, ‘Do you know her? This is the person you killed.’ As God is my witness, I ain’t never seen this woman.”
According to Griggs, Hawes eventually came into the room and told detectives, “This is the guy who told me he did the murders.”
Griggs says he’d seen Hawes around the Rockwell Gardens project. In the fall of 1994 Griggs and a new friend, Benita Johnson, spent some time on the fourth floor, visiting Johnson’s friends. At the time, Hawes lived on the same floor. “He used to come over to the house when we’d be playing cards,” says Griggs. “Or I’d see him when we had to walk past his apartment and he’d step out and speak. And that was it.”
Griggs says he was snorting heroin back then “at an alarming rate.” In the past he’d been convicted of several nonviolent charges, including selling drugs and larceny, and had served time in prisons in Illinois and Michigan. “I was young and stupid,” he says.
After turning in Griggs, Hawes told police he feared for his life. He later described under oath a dramatic getaway from Rockwell Gardens as about 30 of what he called Griggs’s fellow gang members congregated outside his building. “Police had to draw their guns to get me and my family out of the building,” he testified. “We left all our furniture, toys, everything in the apartment. And we had to get out in an emergency, and the police had to throw their car into reverse and back up down the street real fast. All we had a chance to get was like two or three suitcases and a bag. My children were crying.”
The state moved Hawes around the city, putting him up in a hotel and paying his expenses, before relocating him to the scattered-site town house on North Talman. “Eugene played the system to the hilt,” says Rondeau’s father, Gordon, who lives in Georgia but spent a lot of time talking to prosecutors. “They took him out of a public housing project, and he was agitating for high-class accommodations.”
As in the Wrigleyville case, the suspects Hawes turned in eventually gave incriminating statements. “I can’t tell you they beat on me,” says Griggs. “It was more of a mental thing. I was wore down, really. One officer came in and told me they had my codefendant and she was crying and hollering.” He says he eventually told police he’d corroborate whatever Benita Johnson told them. But according to police reports, he was the first to confess, giving his statement after 29 hours in custody.
Gordon Rondeau says he and his wife put “a lot of heat” on the police department in the months following their daughter’s murder, even getting their congressman, speaker of the house Newt Gingrich, to write to Mayor Daley asking for status reports. Rondeau’s family and friends also wrote Daley and the police superintendent and gave interviews to television and newspaper reporters. Because the arrests came so soon after the start of the family’s publicity and letter-writing campaigns, Gordon Rondeau wondered if there was a connection. When a Chicago police officer called him with news of the arrests, he says, “The first question I asked was ‘How in the hell did you manage to get them to confess when you didn’t have evidence?’ He expressed dismay that I seemed skeptical. He said, ‘Good detective work. We worked them against each other.'”
According to the confessions, Griggs and Johnson were driving on Clark between 7:30 and 8 PM when they spotted Rondeau walking north. Johnson parked the car, and they followed Rondeau for several blocks, until she reached a building on the 400 block of West Barry. Griggs ambushed her as she was unlocking the front door, forced her inside, and after she screamed hit her in the face. He then made her unlock the lobby door and take them to her apartment on the second floor. Griggs rifled through Rondeau’s purse, stealing $30 and an ATM card. When Griggs demanded Rondeau’s PIN number, she complied, and Griggs wrote it on his hand. He then scoured Rondeau’s apartment for valuables while Johnson guarded her in the living room with a gun. After Rondeau made a break for the front door and wound up in a struggle with Johnson, Griggs returned to the living room and strangled her, first with his arm and hands, then later with a belt.
Griggs had been acquitted of murder once before, back in 1980, and he says he figured he’d be cleared this time too, despite the confession. “That’s how I looked at it,” he says. “‘Cause I knew that they didn’t have nothing.”
It turned out that prosecutors did have something. The victims’ friends said a green sweater found in Johnson’s home had belonged to Rondeau, though there was no evidence that the sweater was unusual. And two months after the murder police located someone who’d used a drive-through ATM on the south side two minutes after Rondeau’s card was used there on the night she died. That person, Rickey Clayborne, identified Griggs in a lineup as the man who’d been in line in front of him. At Griggs’s trial Clayborne testified that he was standing near the ATM, five feet to the left of Griggs. He said it was dark and rainy and Griggs was inside a car, but he could make out a three- or four-inch scar on Griggs’s cheek. Griggs has no such scar, but a judge still found Clayborne to be a credible witness.
Hawes wasn’t called to testify. “We didn’t need him at trial,” says Marcy Jensen, a spokesperson for the state’s attorney’s office. “We had other, stronger evidence.”
Gordon Rondeau remembers it this way: “He was considered too much of a loose cannon. Two years’ worth of interaction with this guy was enough to convince prosecutors he was a little bit of a risk.”
Hawes did end up taking the stand at Griggs’s sentencing hearing, saying he’d heard Griggs brag about the killing. He also described his terrifying escape from Griggs’s fellow gang members. When asked about the reward the family had offered, Hawes said he’d learned about it only after turning in Griggs.
On February 21, 1997, Griggs was sentenced to life for Rondeau’s murder. Later that day Gordon Rondeau returned to Georgia to find a fax from Hawes’s lawyer waiting for him. Hawes was demanding the reward money–now claiming it was what had “induced him to provide information.” The family had planned to split the reward between Hawes and the ATM witness, and to pay it they needed to sell some property. “Eugene wanted it all,” says Gordon, “and he wanted it then and there.”
Gordon says Hawes was persistent. “He called me at the house one day and threatened me through my wife. He said he wanted to talk about the reward. My wife said, ‘You have to talk to my husband. He’s handling it.’ He said, ‘You tell your husband he’s about to become history.'” The Rondeaus ended up splitting the $15,000 between Hawes and the ATM witness, just as they’d intended.
Griggs is now locked up at Menard Correctional Center. “My past don’t paint no perfect picture,” he says. “But I didn’t do this.”
Johnson, who’s serving a 60-year sentence at Dwight Correctional Center, didn’t respond to written questions about her case. In a 1998 postconviction petition she maintained that detectives had coerced her into making a false confession by threatening to take away her children if she didn’t give a statement. She also wrote that her attorney was ineffective because he hadn’t interviewed Eugene Hawes. “I have four children and I love them very much, and wish to be with them again,” she wrote. “I am not the one who committed this crime and I feel that whomever did commit it should be here in my place.”
One detail about the crime has troubled Griggs’s sister, Debbie Bolden, ever since the trial. She sat behind attorneys in the courtroom and looked over their shoulders at photos of Rondeau and the crime scene. “She didn’t have any socks or shoes on,” she says.
Johnson’s lawyer made the same point in his closing argument. “To believe [Johnson’s confession] beyond a reasonable doubt is to believe Miss Rondeau walked down the street with no coat and no shoes.” He offered the jury his own theory. “She wasn’t followed from that dance class,” he said. When she got home that night she was in a hurry. “Maybe she had to go to the bathroom, maybe she was real hungry,” he said. “She made a mistake, and she left her keys in the door.” He then suggested that Griggs came along and committed the crime alone.
Gordon Rondeau says he believes the right people are in prison, but he admits he’s always had a “lagging bit of concern about the convictions.” And he’s wondered if dangling reward money or putting pressure on the city and police department to solve the crime led to an injustice.
Both Griggs and Johnson have lost their appeals and had their postconviction petitions denied. Unless they can present a court with new compelling evidence that they’re innocent–an extremely difficult standard to meet, according to legal experts–they’re likely to die behind bars.
Prosecutors usually consider several factors when determining whether informants are credible, according to state’s attorney’s spokesperson Marcy Jensen. They look at whether the informants’ details are consistent and corroborated, whether they’ve previously provided reliable information, and whether they have any motive for lying.
In light of such standards, it’s hard to understand why prosecutors in the White case put Hawes on the stand. I requested interviews with the prosecutors who worked on the case, as well as with State’s Attorney Devine, but Jensen insisted that my questions go through the press office and said that Devine was “unavailable.” As to why prosecutors found Hawes credible, she said only, “He had information related to the crime,” information “prosecutors wanted to use.”
In the end the case against White fell apart. The two new corroborating witnesses Hawes had offered prosecutors didn’t do anything to bolster his story. One said he hadn’t heard any specifics about the murder, and some of the things he claimed to have overheard White say–including that he’d had to force his way into the victims’ apartment–contradicted the evidence.
White was acquitted on May 12, 2003. Afterward the cases against Gray and English began to collapse. “The court doesn’t live in a vacuum,” Judge Gaughan said, alluding to White’s acquittal. He ruled that Gray’s statement couldn’t be used and that there’d been no probable cause to arrest him, adding, “It’s just one of the most horrific cases I have seen in my life.”
The state’s attorney’s office abandoned its efforts to prosecute Gray and English and dropped the outstanding intimidation charges against White and English. “When someone is acquitted, it becomes an open police investigation again,” says Jensen. But according to police spokesman Sergeant Robert Cargie, the case is now closed. He says the police already got the killers. “We believe the people that were prosecuted for the deaths of Kelly Fitzgerald and Che Messner were appropriately prosecuted.”
Questions about Hawes’s credibility in the Wrigleyville case led the state’s attorney’s office to reexamine the integrity of the case against Griggs and Johnson. In May 2003 the state’s attorney’s office released a statement saying, “Our review of it so far shows it was a solid case without him, but we are continuing the review with some new DNA testing.” The office is still awaiting the results.
If not for Hawes, would police have caught the murderer or murderers in the Wrigleyville case? “They were running down every lead they had,” says Granich, “and good leads could lead to the proper suspects. But they latched on to an obvious lie.”
According to police reports, DeAndre Jackson, the Latin King who was identified as being in the couple’s apartment shortly before they were killed, shot and killed himself during a police chase in Peoria in February 2000. Granich wanted the state’s attorney’s office to show photos of Rodney Garcia, the Latin King who’d done marijuana deals with Messner, to Michael Fields and other friends of the couple to see if they recognized him. Jensen says that hasn’t happened because Garcia doesn’t fit the description Fields gave.
After five and a half years in jail, White, English, and Gray are still trying to piece their lives back together. White, now 36, has found full-time work delivering portable toilets to construction sites. In jail he participated in a black-history study group, worked in the barbershop, and preached in the chapel. He maintained close ties with his family–his four children visited him regularly–and his 18-year-old son now lives with him. “I’m going through a healing process,” he says, “but I’m getting on with my life.”
English, now 33, lives in Roseland with his mother. He works the overnight shift at a homeless shelter, but since the paychecks don’t come regularly he’s looking for another job. He says he and his daughter, who just graduated from junior high, haven’t been able to reconnect in the way he’d hoped. He wants to take her to dinners and shows but can’t afford to. “I feel I’ve been cheated,” he says.
Gray, now 51 and unemployed, lives in the southwest suburb of Harvey in an apartment he pays for with disability checks. After his release he became “leery” of being in the city. “I didn’t want the police trying to give me another case,” he says. He hasn’t been able to find work. He says he recently applied for catering and telemarketing jobs, but that the employers lost interest when they found out he’d been in jail. He’s been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and paranoia. Jail was “a roller-coaster ride,” he says. “You never knew what was going to happen–fights, killings, riots, abuse from officers.” No one brought his young son to visit him, and he lost contact with his adult children too. “So much was taken from me,” he says.
Granich is now representing the three men in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the city, police detectives, John Murphy, and Richard Devine. “It was criminally stupid to arrest any of these individuals on what Eugene Hawes said,” says Granich. The suit names Murphy and Devine because they allegedly “procured, induced, and encouraged Eugene Hawes to testify falsely” and failed to act on information that could have cleared his clients.
Numerous attempts to reach Hawes by phone over the past few months were unsuccessful–his phone was constantly being “checked for trouble”–so I stopped by his apartment unannounced. He now lives on the second floor of a boxy two-story brick building on a run-down street in Pullman. When I rang the doorbell a man inside shouted “What?” I looked in the direction of the voice and saw a boy staring down at me through an open window. The man was nowhere in sight. I shouted back that I was looking for Hawes, then said who I was and explained why I wanted to talk to him. Hawes’s girlfriend then poked her head out of another window. “He died,” she said. “Two days ago.” She was vague on the details, so I sent him a registered letter.
Two days later he called. “What I’m involved in,” he said cryptically, “I wouldn’t want to involve you in.” He went on to say that he’s been gathering information for investigative and government agencies since he was 15 and that he’s made “lots and lots” of money doing so. “I like to keep a low profile,” he said. If he told me all he knew, he’d have to “be on the run.”
Still, he was willing to risk everything and give me “the unadulterated truth”–for a price. He offered a teaser. Renee Rondeau was “no ordinary white girl,” he said. “She was involved with Newt Gingrich.” He then suggested that her death was a “murder for hire” and said he’d give me the rest of the story for a “nominal fee”–anything from $350 to $1,000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Getty Images, Paul L. Merideth, AP/Wide World Photos; Tori Marlan.