The facts of the Ford Heights case are compelling enough, but they don’t compare to the myth. David Protess thinks the myth was born on June 15, when the New York Times ran a page-one story under the headline “3 Innocent of Killing Go Free, Thanks to Students and DNA.”

DNA yes, students no, says Protess, who happens to have been the three students’ professor at Medill. “It was a story by Don Terry. Don’s a very solid reporter. If you look at the story, the students’ role was appropriately played after the jump. But some weekend headline writer saw ‘students’ and said ‘This is cute’ and put ‘students’ in the headline. I could tell [the reaction] from my voice mail. Every couple of hours it would fill up from Hollywood producers. There were literally several hundred calls that came in.”

A member of the legal team assembled in large part by Protess places the myth’s genesis four days earlier, in the form of an Eric Zorn column that began “Credit the kids.” Zorn went on, “They were a storybook team. Stephanie Goldstein, a future law student…was the brains….Stacey Delo, an aspiring documentary filmmaker…was the heart….And Laura Sullivan…was the guts; the tough-talking cynic who wouldn’t be intimidated by the underclass milieu in which this story was still hidden.”

And private detective Rene Brown holds Protess as responsible as anyone for the myth making. For my benefit Brown turned on his VCR. Here was Protess on Dateline, July 2: “What this story says to me is if me and three of my students could solve this crime in six months, the authorities could have done it in a lot less time, and 65 years of wrongful incarceration for four men would not have had to happen.”

And here was Protess on Chicago Tonight, July 18: “I would hate to think that a journalism professor and three of his students are the last safeguard of liberty on behalf of the wrongfully incarcerated.” And in People magazine on July 29, in an article that saluted Brown in passing: “To me it’s frightening that a college professor and three of his students could have solved this crime when it was there to be solved all the time.”

Protess told me he was being rhetorical: he wanted to shame the authorities. Brown thinks Protess was being immodest and self-serving: after all, the myth was the only version of the facts that interested Hollywood. It was Brown who led Goldstein, Delo, and Sullivan into that underclass milieu–“There’s no way we could have gone down to Ford Heights without him,” says Sullivan. Yet Brown expects to be at best a bit part when Disney makes the movie. He certainly won’t be played by Denzel Washington.

In August myth ran riot in the National Enquirer, which ran a full-page story under the headline “COEDS SOLVE 18-YEAR-OLD MURDER. They free four innocent men & track down real killers.”

And in September on Oprah myth ruled. “We’re talking now with three college students–Stephanie, Stacey, and Laura–who took on a class assignment that ended up freeing four innocent men from jail,” said Oprah Winfrey. “And I’m thinking now, all over Hollywood they’re looking at you, and they’re thinking of the series they can start. You’ll have, like, The Mod Squad of the 90s, Charlie’s Angels–Stephanie, Stacey, Laura. You’ll be the series–a weekly series. You’ll be breaking men out of jail every week. Can you see it in your own head?”

Goldstein offered a modicum of proportion. “We really don’t see ourselves as heroines….I, I think the thing that sticks out for me–and I’m hoping to go on to law school–is really seeing a bunch of attorneys volunteering their time. Paralegals, attorneys, law firms coming together to help these men.”

Goldstein’s modesty didn’t persuade her old professor. “They lapped it up,” Protess says, recalling Winfrey’s fawning. Oprah had also invited Protess and the four freed men onto the show. Protess says, “We all decided to boycott.”

The prelude to this tale of rancor is a judicial travesty of the highest order. In 1982 Chicago Lawyer, then owned and edited by Rob Warden, carried a long, detailed article–“Will We Execute an Innocent Man? The Dennis Williams Case.” Cowritten by Warden, the article discredited the prosecution, defense counsel, and even the judge in the 1978 trial of Dennis Williams, William Rainge, and Kenneth Adams for the kidnap-murders earlier that year of Lawrence Lionberg and Carol Schmal. (A fourth suspect, Verneal Jimerson, would be tried and convicted in 1985 and, like Williams, sentenced to death.)

Rene Brown had investigated the double murder for Warden. He’d found a local man named Dennis Johnson who admitted to being at the Clark gas station where the victims were abducted and he’d put Johnson in touch with Warden. Johnson’s story contradicted the state’s. But the massive injustice of Williams’s conviction survived Warden’s assault on it, and the case nagged at Brown. When Protess asked him to go back to Ford Heights he jumped at the chance. Brown told me, “He said, ‘I have some students, three girls about to graduate. Could you have them involved as part of a learning project?’ I said, ‘Sure, no problem.’ See, nobody would call the girls to set up interviews–they’d call me. I had genuine contacts there.”

The students became celebrities in June, but they’d been working on the Ford Heights case since January. Paula Gray, the illiterate teenager who’d been bullied by prosecutors into perjuring herself at the original trial, recanted her story in front of the students. After confessing to Brown, Arthur “Red” Robinson gave a self-incriminating statement taken down by the students. Ira Johnson, locked up in Menard prison for another murder, admitted during a series of visits to a role in the Ford Heights killings–and further rewarded Delo and Sullivan with grossly explicit love letters. Robinson, Johnson, and his late brother Dennis were three of the four men named 18 years earlier in the street files, informal police notes that revealed an informant named Marvin Simpson had told the police a few days after the murders that he knew who the real killers were. The police had never acted on Simpson’s tip.

Brown takes credit for tracking down Simpson, for persuading Robinson to talk, and for generally unraveling the ancient crime. Brown says that when Protess began to talk of a movie, he invited Brown to see the two of them at the center of the action. “He and I would be in the car driving along the expressway. He’d say, ‘This would make a great damn movie, wouldn’t it? The Dowaliby case was a miniseries. But this is big-screen action. It’s powerful stuff! You were there at the beginning and at the end. There’s such powerful symmetry.’

“He was talking about us–he and I, a professor and an investigator–getting together. Now his whole thing is, ‘I was just trying to give my students some credit, so they could get some nice job offers. I didn’t think it would get to this.’ I don’t know who he’s talking to. I know that’s just not so. The things that happened all seemed planned. The press conference–having me excluded–seemed planned. Saying ‘Me and my students solved the crime’–that seemed planned. Hollywood’s not even looking at me. If it’s a team effort, you take it collectively. That’s what should have happened to me.”

The press conference Brown felt excluded from followed the June court hearing at which Williams, Adams, and Rainge were released from prison on home monitors. “We came out of the courtroom, and I’m seeing a bunch of mikes and cameras.” He watched the students moving up to the microphones, then Protess. “And there’s David walking right by me. ‘Rene, could you take my briefcase for me?’ Like I was his caddy.”

Brown’s mother had come along to share in the triumph. “My mom says, ‘Why aren’t you up there with them?’ I said, ‘Mom, they probably want to introduce the students, and they’ll have me up there later on to take them through the case. Because no one can do it quite like I can.’ David knew that.”

Brown was never invited forward. Protess says he singled out Brown by name in his remarks, and he insists the slight involving the briefcase never happened. “Talk to my mother,” Brown responds. “I couldn’t make up something like that.”

With Brown it’s about giving credit where it’s due. A Sun-Times profile by Susy Schultz last summer was some consolation. “The media created this myth….The real story is much more complicated, and Rene played a crucial role,” Protess told Schultz. A serious place in whatever movie is eventually made of this saga would matter more to Brown. Brown told me that Disney offered him a job as “consultant,” sending him a five-page contract he deemed “basically a gag order.” He didn’t sign it.

When Protess and the Ford Heights Four were asked to appear on Oprah, Protess responded with an ultimatum: either the three students sign the movie deal that’s on the table, he told Oprah’s executive producer, or they don’t go on.

Protess, to give him the considerable credit he’s due, accomplished something extraordinary this year. He didn’t simply dream of justice, as the least of us do, or quest for it in the solitary fashion of the common journalist. Protess packaged justice. He sold it to the courts, and at the same time he sold it to Hollywood. “David brought people together,” admits Brown. “It was a power move that worked.” Protess isn’t reluctant to agree.

Verneal Jimerson, represented by attorney Mark Ter Molen of Mayer, Brown & Platt since 1991, had gone free on bond in January, eight months after the state supreme court overturned his death sentence and ordered a new trial. But it was Protess who assembled the team of attorneys who argued in court for the DNA testing that in June would also set Williams, Rainge, and Adams free on bond. It was Protess who sent Brown and his students to Ford Heights to look for the actual killers. (“State’s attorneys don’t like to admit mistakes, and they’ll never admit a mistake if it leads to an unsolved crime,” Protess says.) It was Protess who courted journalists such as Zorn and Channel Five’s senior producer Doug Longhini to create “the right media climate.” Meanwhile, Rob Warden, now an adviser to State’s Attorney Jack O’Malley, “was lobbying from the inside.”

O’Malley, who apologized to the Ford Heights Four after the charges against them were dropped, is likely to emerge as a public servant above reproach in the book on the case that Protess and Warden are now writing. Whether O’Malley and his office are entirely deserving is another matter.

Attorney Lawrence Redmond Jr. doesn’t think so. Redmond was one of Dennis Williams’s two attorneys until early this year. “In our petition we had pleaded for DNA testing of the vaginal swab from the female victim,” Redmond recalls. “Our allegation was the vaginal swab would prove none of these individuals had committed the crime. The state’s attorney argued the vaginal swab wasn’t used at trial and therefore was irrelevant. We argued that didn’t matter. The judge didn’t buy it and threw it out.

“The reason the swab eventually got tested was that Verneal Jimerson’s case got reversed….The state needs new evidence [to try him again], and the only evidence available is the vaginal swab. So they consent to having the vaginal swab tested in order to convict Verneal Jimerson. They test it, and to the state’s chagrin it does free everybody. The rest is history.”

Redmond was so upset by the behavior of the state’s attorney’s office that he ran against O’Malley this fall as an independent. They both lost.

The book by Protess and Warden may portray Protess’s former students less gallantly than it does O’Malley. Months ago Protess put them on notice. “I said, if you’re worried about your image, think how it’s going to look if there’s a cynical twist in the book because at the end of the day, instead of helping the guys, you go out and screw them.”

Protess has been waiting since spring for Goldstein, Delo, and Sullivan to sign on to the package deal he and Warden set up with Disney. Once the three former students sign over their “life rights”–that is, the rights to the chapter of their lives that interests the studio–the movie project can get rolling. And the four former prisoners can come into some of the money that they inarguably deserve. But Goldstein, Delo, and Sullivan aren’t signing.

That their signatures matter so much is a fact of life Protess doesn’t seem to appreciate. “If this were a just world, the girls would get nothing and the guys would get everything,” he told me. “But this isn’t a just world, or the guys wouldn’t be in prison 65 years. As Hollywood defines art, the girls are important to the story. As Rob and I see the story, my former students are not important. They played a small but noble role in the case.”

Disney and Protess both insist that the three former students lack the leverage to shut down the movie altogether if they don’t participate. Protess reminded me that when a TV miniseries was made of Gone in the Night, the book he and Warden wrote about the Dowaliby case, the original trial lawyers didn’t sign on; so names were changed and personalities adjusted, and the series was made anyway. Disney could be just as cavalier about Goldstein, Delo, and Sullivan.

But if they don’t get involved, leaving them free to take their story to another studio or to television, the Ford Heights story becomes much less attractive to Disney. Protess says that because he and Warden are taking nothing for their life rights, the deal looks like this: $105,000 in up-front money divided five ways, with each former prisoner getting one share and the three women dividing the fifth (they have agreed orally to that split). And if the movie’s actually made, another $300,000 will be divided along the same lines. Without the students’ signatures the $105,000 drops to $68,000 divided four ways, and the $300,000 a corresponding amount.

Then there’s the $50,000 Protess says he and Warden will each be paid by Hyperion Books, Disney’s publishing arm, for the book they’re writing. That’s salary, says Protess, and he intends to keep it. Then there would be the purchase of this book by Disney to serve as the basis of the movie. “What I’ve decided to do is give 100 percent of that money to the guys,” says Protess. “In my view, that’s profit”–and he doesn’t want to profit from their suffering.

“But because of the girls, the whole contract to some extent is up in the air,” Protess went on. “Brian Ross is the screenwriter, and Rob and my contract is based on Brian Ross’s contract being consummated. And it’s based on the girls signing. So at this time the guys have nothing.”

When I asked Protess for evidence of his former students’ avarice he faxed me a July 25 article from the Summer Northwestern. It reported that Delo, Goldstein, and Sullivan “had more than 30 calls from people interested in buying their story, offering up to $500,000 to the three women to sell their story independently.”

Sullivan told the paper, “We could have retired to an island in Barbados, but it was more important to help these guys. Because we wanted to stick with the four guys to help them out, we decided to take very little.”

At this point, Protess observes, the three former students haven’t taken a penny and haven’t helped out the four men in the slightest. True enough. But this irony is weak proof of unbridled greed. Sullivan insists that their hesitation in signing–hesitation is all it is, she says–isn’t about money but trust. The three women don’t trust Protess to be as selfless with his book rights as he says he’ll be, and they don’t trust him to portray them positively when he writes it.

Something their professor said just before graduation sticks in Sullivan’s memory and in her craw. “Your Nancy Drew story’s over,” Protess told them. Protess explains that he said it because the flood of movie offers had turned his students’ heads. “They were talking about it as a Nancy Drew story or a Charlie’s Angels story.” He wanted to set their heads back on straight.

Sullivan does trust Disney. She trusts it to bring to the Ford Heights saga the same lofty aesthetic that marked every frame of The Rock and D3: The Mighty Ducks. She doesn’t want that aesthetic applied at her expense. She can imagine an enterprising script doctor inspired by those love letters from Ira Johnson concocting a riveting cell-block scene unlike anything that ever happened. The former students are now represented in negotiations with Disney by the William Morris agency’s Aaron Kaplan, someone who knows his way around a movie contract. Presumably that’s progress.

By several accounts, those of both associates and students, Protess can be infuriating. Larry Redmond, who wound up on the outside looking in, gives him credit; he says Protess rolled the dice and won. When he was Dennis Williams’s lawyer, Redmond’s plan for freeing him was the usual one–filing a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. “When these guys came in and said, no, we’re going to do it in the state court, we were terrified,” says Redmond. “We thought it was cavalier. We thought it was dangerous in the extreme. Illinois is notorious for failing to give death-row inmates a full and fair hearing on postconviction motions.

“We knew about Red Robinson. We knew where to find Red Robinson. But what we were afraid of was if we went to Red Robinson and tried to get some kind of statement out of him he’d turn us down cold. Paula Gray had turned us down cold. He’d have said no, it wasn’t me. And after we leave all he had to do was call Jack O’Malley’s office and say, ‘Let’s make a deal. These attorneys are trying to get a statement out of me. I’m prepared to give a statement to you that I had nothing to do with it.’ And we’d be dead in the water.”

But that’s not what happened. “The involvement Protess had with this case cannot be underplayed,” says Redmond. “He was able to use these three students to get close to Paula Gray and get her to recant on film. That was a major step, and something I would never have been able to do. After that it was downhill. To get Marvin Simpson, who we could not find. And Arthur “Red” Robinson and get him to confess. I guarantee he would not have confessed to me. These were giant steps. Without question Dennis Williams is a free man sooner than he would have been. Without question they were able to cut years off his jail stay. And for that I applaud them.”

The Chicago ACLU thought seriously of applauding Protess and his students last Saturday night at its Bill of Rights celebration. Among the honors given out at this annual dinner is the James P. McGuire Award for distinguished civil rights journalism, and the investigation by the Medill professor and students was the strong preference. “This would have been a natural if everything was as the press first gave it out,” executive director Jay Miller told me. But the ACLU eventually decided not to give the prize to anyone. “It became unclear who did what. There was some acrimony. So we decided, let’s not get in the middle of the mess. We don’t want a fight between Protess and the kids up there.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rene Brown photo by Nathan Mandell/ Stacey Delo, Stephanie Goldstein, Laura Sullivan, David Protess photo courtesy Chicago Sun-Times.