Four years ago five Chicago police staged a narcotics raid at an apartment building near the University of Chicago. Seventeen minutes after the raid began, two officers were wounded and the tenant of one of the apartments was dead.
In the hours immediately after the incident, news reports naturally focused on the two wounded officers, one of whom was barely clinging to life. The tenant–a small-time drug dealer–merited not a single line of inquiry. The police department, however, had an obligation: a person’s occupation does not alter the rules, and the rules demand that when officers shoot a civilian, the police investigate themselves.
In this case, the central question could be posed succinctly: how was the man killed? But the answer was not as straightforward.
Three detectives, a captain, a deputy chief, and investigators from the Office of Professional Standards were dispatched to examine the evidence. Within 24 hours, long before autopsy and firearms reports were available, the department had reached a conclusion and was presenting it to the public: this was heroism, pure and simple, a raid that was flawless in execution. Eventually three of the raiding officers were decorated as “Top Cops” and sent to Washington, where they shook the hand of President Clinton. The department cloaked itself in glory.
Honor, however, may be another matter.
In the aftermath of the raid, the participating officers provided a variety of reports, accounts that differ in large and small details. What’s disturbing is how little attention was paid to those differences by the investigators.
While the police certainly showed courage under fire, the history of the leader of the raid called for a thorough look at the events. Sergeant Peter Dignan had been one of several notorious members of the Area Two Violent Crimes unit who, under the leadership of Commander Jon Burge, had been accused of torturing suspects with electric shock, suffocation, and other techniques. Burge had been dismissed from the force the previous year. The Office of Professional Standards knew Sergeant Dignan well, and presumably the superintendent’s office did too. An OPS investigation of the Area Two Violent Crimes unit, released to the public by U.S. district court judge Milton Shadur in 1992 over the objections of city attorneys, singled out seven key “players” at Area Two, including Peter Dignan.
The Reader obtained some of the reports about the raid through the Freedom of Information Act. What follows is the most plausible sequence of events, based on police documents, correspondence, and interviews. Peter Dignan read an early draft of this story and his responses have been included here.
Police documents indicate that on the day of the raid, Wednesday, October 5, 1994, Sergeant Dignan’s crew, officially known as Unit 189, Team D, consisted of Narcotics officers Richard Peck, Steven Tyler, Fred Woullard, and Sharon Wise. Acting on a tip from an informant, they obtained a search warrant for the apartment of 28-year-old Allen Nicholas Richard (commonly known as Nick). Richard was one of many tenants of the Grove Parc Plaza, a complex of low-rise buildings directly south of the University of Chicago along Cottage Grove. While most multiple-unit buildings in the city have a single front door, or a front door serving several apartments, the 12-flat that Richard lived in has 12 front doors, each leading directly outside. The tenants’ back doors lead to one of two common hallways, which lead in turn to rear exit doors about 15 yards apart, both of which are locked from the inside.
At about 2:15 PM, Dignan, Peck, Tyler, and Woullard proceeded directly to Richard’s front door while Officer Wise approached the rear. All five officers carried radios, but only Dignan’s could communicate outside the team. Dignan knocked and announced his office. When there was no answer, he turned to Tyler, who attacked the door with a sledgehammer. Ordinary doors don’t stand a chance against such force, but this door seemed to have been fortified. Tyler pounded until he tired, then Woullard took over. Five minutes passed before part of the door, probably the upper right corner, gave way.
Woullard lowered the hammer, and Peck squeezed through the gap in the doorway. Suddenly the three officers left on the doorstep heard shots and Peck yelled that he had been hit. Inside, Peck scrambled into the kitchen and hid next to a refrigerator behind a garbage can. He had been wounded in the left shoulder.
If Dignan, Tyler, or Woullard–all stockily built–were to try to climb through the gap in the door, they might get stuck, and in the process of climbing would certainly present a large and steady target to the shooter or shooters inside. Dignan could have pulled back and waited for help, but with Peck inside, he had no option but to stay put if he wanted to save his fellow officer.
When the shooting began, Woullard ran for cover in the parking lot adjacent to the building, a position that would have allowed him to see the front door but not the back. As Dignan began pounding on the door, Tyler started toward the rear of the building, figuring to help Wise catch the perpetrator on his way out. As Tyler ran he heard more shots from the front. He reversed course and charged the front door. By that point, the shooter had moved to the window overlooking the front stoop, and he fired through the glass. A bullet slammed into Tyler’s face, hitting his jawbone and exiting through his cheek. The gunman fired again. Tyler’s radio flew out of his left hand as a bullet smashed into his forearm. His momentum carried him to the door, where he crashed into Dignan, and the two policemen ended up on the ground, with Tyler on top. The shooting didn’t stop. A third bullet hit Tyler just under his vest, piercing his right kidney, his colon, his liver, his diaphragm, and one of his lungs before exiting from his shoulder, just missing the heads of both officers.
Remarkably, Tyler did not lose consciousness. He stumbled toward the street while Dignan covered him by firing at the window. At about this time, Dignan called in a “10-1” on his radio, reporting that two officers had been shot. He had tried to call about a minute earlier, but the citywide channel he accessed was already occupied.
By now, passersby had begun calling 911. The dispatchers became confused; their initial broadcast contained the correct address–6038 S. Cottage Grove–but a few seconds later they reported the incident was taking place at 6038 S. Calumet. Six different addresses were broadcast over the course of a few minutes. Four were in the immediate vicinity of the shooting, but two were on Calumet, nine blocks west.
Officer Wise left her post at the rear door, came to the front, and saw Tyler lying on the ground about ten feet from the building. He had managed to walk or crawl across the public sidewalk before he fell to the grass.
Wise stopped by Tyler’s side, and according to witnesses later quoted on television and in the Tribune, she removed Tyler’s bulletproof vest, put it on, and then ran back to the rear of the building. The police department’s general orders require the wearing of body armor when executing a search warrant and also require that a search team supervisor–in this case Dignan–make sure that all participants wear their vests. An exception to the body armor requirement is allowed under special circumstances–for example if an officer must be disguised to achieve entry–but such exceptions must be approved in writing by the unit’s commanding officer or watch commander. Dignan had made no such claim on this particular raid.
The paperwork generated by participants and investigators does not spell out a precise sequence of the events that followed, but it seems safe to say that around the time Wise left Tyler’s side, the front door gave way and Dignan prepared to enter. Inside the apartment, Peck was peeking from behind the refrigerator. Suddenly Nick Richard came into view, clad only in a T-shirt, boxer shorts, and socks. Peck raised his gun and fired twice. Richard fell and did not get up, and Peck crawled from his hiding place to get Richard’s gun. At some point, Dignan also fired, and each officer later claimed that he had felled the gunman. What is certain is that when paramedics arrived, Richard was dead on the floor of the apartment, having sustained multiple gunshot wounds–four in the back, three in the left arm, and one in the chest.
The news of the shooting of Peck and Tyler brought police in good number to the scene. Deputy superintendents, a chief, a deputy chief, and three commanders arrived, among them Commander Michael Hoke, head of the department’s Narcotics Section, and First Deputy Superintendent John Townsend, who spoke to the press. The search team found 21.9 grams of cocaine in the apartment, an amount in the range typically found on a street-corner dealer. Toxicology tests would later show that Richard had no drugs or alcohol in his system.
Separate ambulances carried Tyler and Peck to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Peck’s wound was not life threatening, and he was able to give his account of the incident to Detective Joseph Danzl at 3:15 that afternoon, less than an hour after the shooting started. Peck was released from the hospital five days later.
The police chaplain gave Tyler the last rites of the Catholic Church as he was wheeled into surgery, but Tyler survived the attack, the surgery, and a severe postoperative infection that required more surgery. He was released from the hospital 15 days after the raid.
Five days after the raid, Dignan reported that he too had been shot. He said that on Monday, October 10, he took the cover off his bulletproof vest to wash it and discovered two holes, just below the neck, where a bullet had passed through. The discovery would later qualify him for the police department’s Blue Star award, an honor given to officers seriously wounded or injured in the line of duty and to officers whose body armor prevented them from sustaining serious injury.
When a policeman fires his weapon, the police department conducts a meeting, known as a roundtable, attended by command personnel, OPS investigators and supervisors, and assistant state’s attorneys. The meeting is designed to put fresh information into everyone’s hands and to suggest avenues still to be explored, and to that end witnesses are called on to testify and various documents are collected and distributed. Peck and Tyler were still in the hospital, but Dignan and Woullard testified. Strangely Wise did not. None of the reports written after the roundtable mentions Wise’s absence.
One of the documents usually available at such meetings is the weapons discharge report, paperwork required of officers who fire their guns on duty. In Sergeant Dignan’s weapons discharge report, he says that he “pushed PO [police officer] Tyler to safety.” In that document, the sergeant goes on to say that after that push, he reentered the building under fire, and that upon reentering, he “saw the offender advance toward PO Peck with a semi-automatic weapon in his hand. In fear of my life and to stop the offender from advancing on PO Peck, who lay wounded, I fired in the direction of the offender who then fell to the ground. I then reached PO Peck and assisted him to safety.”
At the time the roundtable was in session, Tyler was in surgery and unable to confirm or dispute Dignan’s account of his heroics. Peck, however, had already been interviewed at Northwestern by Detective Danzl. Danzl presented Peck’s version of events at the roundtable, and that version differed sharply from Dignan’s. Peck said that while hiding behind the refrigerator, he saw a man with a gun leave the front bedroom. Peck said he fired two shots and that the man fell in the doorway. (The autopsy would later reveal that one of Peck’s shots went through Richard’s heart.) As a precaution, Peck left his cover, went to the prone shooter, picked up the man’s gun, and returned to the kitchen. (The police would later discover that by that time the gun contained no bullets.) Peck told Danzl that after returning to his hiding place, he heard more shots and the sound of a weapon being reloaded.
If only three people fired weapons at the scene–Richard, Peck, and Dignan–and if Richard was lying on the ground weaponless, then the only person who could have fired the shots that Peck heard is Dignan. And that raises the question: What was there to fire at but a man lying motionless and bleeding? This last detail in Peck’s story screams for attention, yet no one at the roundtable seems to have noticed.
One of the four reports filed after the roundtable was written by Office of Professional Standards investigator Grace Wilson. When a civilian is shot by a police officer, OPS assigns one investigator to conduct a “preliminary investigation.” This involves immediately visiting the scene, interviewing police and witnesses, and handing in a report the day after the incident. That report is later passed to another investigator, who carries out a more lengthy investigation. Wilson had drawn the preliminary assignment and had arrived at the scene before the corpse was removed. In her report, she described the apartment, the body, and some blood spatters on the wall opposite the front door. She also summarized the testimony at the roundtable. She did not reach any conclusions, nor was she expected to.
A second report was filed by Deputy Chief Eddie King, the highest-ranking officer to attend the roundtable. King filed a memo, addressed to First Deputy Superintendent John Townsend, which has Dignan providing contradictory versions of his rescue of Tyler. King reported that the sergeant told him that Tyler had saved himself, but that Dignan subsequently told the roundtable he had dragged Tyler to safety behind a van. King set down the two stories, calling no attention to the contradiction. (Those two scenarios both conflict with the version Dignan set down in his weapons discharge report, where he claimed to have “pushed” Tyler to safety.) If Peck’s account of hearing shots after disarming Richard provoked any dark thoughts, King did not put them to paper. He concluded that the “use of deadly force was justified.”
Police captain Harry Bingham also took notes at the roundtable. He subsequently filed a memo addressed to police superintendent Matt Rodriguez and to Gayle Shines, the chief administrator of the Office of Professional Standards, in which he too had Dignan claiming to have taken Tyler to safety behind a van. Bingham clearly saw a conflict in the accounts provided by Peck and Dignan of the shooting of Richard, and he attempted to reconcile it by implying that the two officers had fired simultaneously, leading each to believe that he had felled Richard. The captain made no mention of the shots Peck heard after Richard was disarmed and concluded that “no improper actions” were committed by the officers involved in the shooting.
Bingham ended his report with a cautionary note for investigators: “A gun was found lying on the floor next to the deceased….This gun was first believed to be that of the offender. In fact it is Officer Tyler’s weapon.” Tyler apparently lost his gun when he was shot in the doorway. Bingham apparently believed that Tyler’s gun had traveled through a half-open door, had settled at the precise spot where one of Richard’s hands would later come to rest, and had remained unseen by Peck when he crawled out to disarm the fallen shooter. A person with a more suspicious nature might have wondered if the gun made the trip with the aid of someone who noticed that the prone gunman had no weapon.
The fourth report submitted in the wake of the roundtable was the product of the field investigation of the incident, which was conducted by detectives George Karl, Angelo Pesavento, and Thomas Kinsella, all from Area Two Violent Crimes, the same unit Dignan served in from 1973 to 1986. The field investigation report relates Dignan’s version of Richard’s death and gives Peck’s account of retrieving Richard’s weapon, but makes no mention of the shots Peck heard after Richard went down. The Area Two detectives submitted their report the day after the incident. Without waiting for the autopsy or the firearms report they called the homicide justifiable and recommended that the case be closed.
What was their hurry?
If the detectives had waited another week for that paperwork, they would have learned more about what went on inside Richard’s apartment.
The autopsy report, written by Dr. Eupil Choi, lists eight entry wounds, probably caused by seven bullets (one of the wounds appeared to be a reentry that might have been caused by a bullet passing through Richard’s arm and then entering his back). Of those seven bullets, five lodged in the body, one fell off the corpse when it was moved at the morgue, and one was not present for Dr. Choi to examine (it had passed through Richard’s forearm and kept going). Choi noted that the six bullets he found were of two different kinds. Four had copper jackets and two were lead.
Had the Area Two detectives compared the autopsy with the firearms report, they would have learned that the lead bullets corresponded to Peck’s ammunition, the copper jackets to Dignan’s. Peck’s bullets can be traced to one wound in Richard’s left lower back and one in his left chest. The locations of those two wounds seem consistent with Peck’s account of what happened in the apartment: one would expect that a man walking down the hall toward the front door, shot from the kitchen, would be wounded on the left side. The bullet that entered Richard’s chest traveled through the right ventricle of his heart and his aorta before lodging in his left lung. According to Dr. Choi, someone shot through the heart this way would be likely to lapse into unconsciousness in a matter of a few seconds, as the injury to the aorta would rapidly deprive the brain of oxygen. Choi says death would occur in a few minutes at most.
When Peck crawled out of the kitchen and disarmed Richard he would have met no resistance. And the gunman would have been quite still when, after returning to his hiding place in the kitchen, Peck heard those additional shots.
Dignan’s copper-jacket bullets can be traced to two wounds in Richard’s back and a third in his shoulder. The bullet that fell off the corpse when it was moved at the morgue also came from Dignan’s gun and probably accounted for one of the two through-and-through wounds in Richard’s forearm and perhaps the relatively superficial reentry wound in his back.
Had the Area Two detectives studied the autopsy and firearms reports, they might have wondered how Dignan could possibly have shot Richard in the back.
The detectives also appear to have overlooked the blood spattered on the wall next to the corpse, a distinctive stain that OPS investigator Wilson noted in her report. Those spatters would no doubt have been of interest to any of the 450 members of the International Association of Blood Pattern Analysts, men and women who look at bloodstains, draw scientific conclusions about how they were generated, and testify accordingly in courts all over the country. These analysts can often tell the difference between spatters caused by expirated blood, by splashed blood, and by blood from gunshot wounds. If a bloodstain is the result of gunshot, an analyst can sometimes pinpoint where the victim was when he or she was shot.
Nick Richard’s mother asked a friend to photograph the apartment after the police had left the scene. Three of the friend’s pictures show a pool of blood on the floor and a wall marked by a bloodstain at low height. The Reader asked two blood-pattern analysts to examine the photos–Terry Laber, Forensic Science Supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Bureau of Criminal Apprehension; and Norman Reeves, an Arizona resident who served as a police officer for 25 years and who is one of three people in the world honored by the international association with the rank of distinguished member.
In analyzing the photos from Richard’s apartment, both men were working with limited data. The pictures had been taken by an amateur who had never photographed a crime scene before, and none of the photos showed the corpse in place.
Reeves looked at the photos and concluded that a portion of the blood spattered on the wall was expirated. He was certain that another portion of the stain had been produced by high-velocity gunfire. He judged that the bullet or bullets that caused the pattern had struck Richard no higher than 12 inches off the ground. In other words, Richard was lying down when he was shot.
Laber was more conservative in his conclusions. “Most of the bloodstains on the wall are consistent with having originated from near or at floor level,” he wrote. He was unable to draw a definitive conclusion, however, as to what had caused them. The stain could have been produced by gunshot, he said, but he seemed to favor expiration. Laber asked for better photos, and the Reader filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the police department asking for the crime scene photographs. Accompanying the Reader’s request was a letter from Nick Richard’s mother saying that she and her family would not regard the release of the photos as an invasion of her son’s privacy.
In a letter dated June 11, 1998, John Matula, commanding officer of the police department’s Office of Legal Affairs, declined to release the photographs, ruling that to do so would violate Richard’s privacy.
If the investigators had pressed anyone on the contradictions in the various reports on the raid, they might have heard yet another story. When Dignan was shown a draft of this article earlier this year, he provided the following explanations. (When reached by phone at work, Tyler and Peck declined to be interviewed. Wise did not respond to a fax or to four phone messages. Woullard said he might agree to an interview but then did not respond to messages.)
Dignan said that Officers Tyler and Woullard used a battering ram, not a sledgehammer, to pound on Richard’s door. (Channel Seven’s news reports from the scene, however, clearly show police removing a sledgehammer and identify it as having been used in the raid.) The sergeant claimed that the door opened wider at the bottom than at the top, and that he followed Peck through an opening that was about 30 inches wide. Dignan emphasized that it was a tight squeeze for him to fit through the space. Once inside, Dignan said, he saw Peck take a couple of steps, get shot, and fall to his right into the kitchen. Dignan recalled firing down the hall at the gunman, who retreated into a room.
“I crawled back to the doorway,” Dignan said. “I was in a sitting position. My right leg was on one side of the door, my left leg was on the other. There was barely enough room for me just sitting there. I called in a 10-1 that I had a police officer shot. I gave the location. At about this time, I don’t know where Officer Tyler came from, but Officer Tyler ran up to me. I heard shots, and he fell on top of me.”
Dignan recalled Tyler saying that he was going to die, and he said he encouraged Tyler to get up and flee, gave him a push, and fired in the direction of the offender while Tyler crawled away. The sergeant said he then realized he was low on bullets, so he made a quick exit, taking cover behind a cement stairway a few yards away.
Dignan said that while this was going on he could not see Richard, as a drape covered the window where the shots were coming from. He said he reloaded his gun, ran back to the front stoop, firing at the window all the while, hit the front door with his body, causing it to open a little more, and crawled back in. Once inside, he would have reached the hallway corridor in two or three steps. There, Dignan said, he saw Richard about two feet away, just at the doorway of the kitchen.
“I fired one quick shot. The man began to stumble, his eyes rolled up in his head, his legs buckled, and he fell right down in front of me. And at that point I called out to [Peck], ‘The offender is down, the offender is down.’ Richie said, ‘Pete, I think there is two of them in here.’…I ran back to the door, and just outside the door, maybe a foot or two, I called out to Officer Woullard, ‘There’s two of ’em, watch the windows. Don’t let anybody out.’ I then returned. I grabbed Officer Peck, who was on the floor, by his vest. I pulled him up and we ran out the door and I ran to the south parking lot where there was a van.” Dignan said he left Peck behind the van with another officer, someone from a responding unit whom Dignan did not know.
Dignan said he went back into the apartment alone, searched it, found no one, and then cautiously emerged, identifying himself so he wouldn’t be shot by officers arriving on the scene.
Dignan’s theory about the wounds in Richard’s back was that the gunman must have sustained them when he was firing from behind the drape in the front bedroom. Perhaps, Dignan suggested, the gunman turned his back to the window at some point, or perhaps he was shot in the arm and the force of the shot caused him to turn and expose his rear to the window and the sergeant’s fire. However, there is no mention of any blood in that bedroom, or of any trail of blood leading from the room, in any of the police documents obtained by the Reader, nor do photographs of the crime scene obtained from Richard’s family depict any bloodstains in that room.
Dignan vigorously denied that he had stood over the fallen Richard and pumped him full of bullets. He pointed to Dr. Choi’s autopsy report, which indicates that the shots traced to Dignan’s bullets were all “distant” wounds. Dignan argued that this categorization absolved him, that someone standing over the body and firing would have left residue deposits on the body and no such marks were reported by Choi.
Dignan, however, is mistaken in his belief that a “distant” wound precludes a close-range shot. According to Choi, a wound qualifies as “distant” when the weapon is 20 inches or more away from the body. A pathologist employed by the medical examiner indicates there is nothing in the autopsy to contradict a theory of someone standing over or near Richard and shooting him when he was prone.
What of the shots Peck heard after he disarmed Richard? Dignan insisted there weren’t any, that Peck never said there had been, that Detective Danzl got it wrong when he quoted Peck saying he had heard both shots and reloading. In a recent interview, however, Danzl stood by his account.
To prove that Danzl was mistaken, Dignan argued that Peck could not possibly have heard him reloading his gun, because he reloaded his gun outside the apartment. Indeed his discarded clip was found behind the outside stairwell, almost certainly too far away for Peck to have heard the process. But that doesn’t mean Peck didn’t hear a different noise that sounded like reloading. He might have heard an officer checking his clip, or perhaps checking the supply of bullets in Tyler’s weapon, which the reader may recall was found next to Richard’s corpse.
In addressing the flight path of Tyler’s gun, Dignan said that he did not see the weapon in the dark apartment after Tyler fell on him. The sergreant said that if he had known the gun was nearby while the shooting was going on, he would have picked it up and used it rather than exiting and reloading. Dignan’s description of his gyrations as he went through the door, however, makes the trajectory of Tyler’s gun seem even more peculiar. In his interview, Dignan said that the door was open wider at the bottom than at the top, that he had “a hard time” squeezing through the opening. At the instant Tyler fell on top of him, Dignan said, he was seated, with one leg on each side of the door. In this scenario Tyler’s gun flew through the space already tightly occupied by Dignan and the door, then landed where Richard’s body later came to rest, directly next to where Richard’s hand ended up.
The doorway scenario described by Dignan conflicts with police documents. Woullard and Tyler both place Dignan outside the apartment when the shooting started, not inside. Tyler, who obviously was in no position to give a statement in the immediate aftermath of the incident, later described the raid in a letter to the National Association of Police Organizations. Tyler stated: “Sgt. Dignan yelled into the residence for him [Peck] to seek cover. It was impossible for us to enter the residence at this time because the opening was too small.”
Officer Woullard’s account describes Peck climbing, not crawling, into the apartment. This also tallies with Dignan’s first account of the raid, recorded in his weapon’s discharge report, in which he states, “I climbed through the door.” This would seem to suggest that the initial opening was at the top of the door, not at the bottom.
Dignan’s and Woullard’s accounts agree that the sergeant yelled something on the order of “Don’t let anybody out” to Woullard. Dignan said he gave this instruction after Richard had been shot and had fallen to the floor, a point when–according to Dignan–the shooting had stopped but there was still some doubt as to whether a second offender was inside. In a statement recorded in OPS investigator Wilson’s report on the incident, Woullard says that Dignan said, “Don’t let him out,” and that the sergeant then went into the apartment.
Then, Woullard says, he heard more shots.
In our interview, Dignan provided some explanations for the various contradictory accounts of his heroics.
Dignan said that Deputy Chief King and Captain Bingham got it wrong when they reported the sergeant saying that he had taken Tyler to safety behind a van. Dignan said it was Peck, not Tyler, he took to safety behind a van, that he left him there with an officer he did not know, and that he went back into the apartment alone to search for a second offender. This version conflicts with accounts presented by other officers. Woullard said Dignan helped Peck out and left him with Officer Wise. Sergeant Joaquin Wilindez, then with the Third District and one of the first responding officers to arrive at the scene, filed a witness report on the day of the shooting in which he states that he and Officer Howard Medici of the Second District “completed the forced entry to the apartment and removed Officer Peck…who was adamant that a second offender was in the apartment.”
As for the claim made in the sergeant’s weapons discharge report that he “pushed Tyler to safety,” Dignan said, “I pushed Steve, I got him going. He was down. I hope I at least encouraged him to save his own life. He was calling out that he was dying, he wasn’t moving, he was immobile, we were being fired on, and I at least hope I encouraged him or inspired him to save his own life….I know that on that day, I saved two policemen’s lives.”
In the publicity that followed the shooting, Dignan claimed credit for the shot that entered Richard’s chest, sometimes even failing to mention that Peck had also fired. In our interview, Dignan said he truly believed that he had fired that bullet and that it was only after reading the Reader’s account of the raid and getting a copy of the autopsy report that he realized his error.
A year and a half ago, on June 29, 1997, the Tribune Sunday magazine ran a story about body armor for which reporter Linette Myers interviewed Peter Dignan–because of the role his bulletproof vest supposedly played in saving his life during this raid. In the story Dignan says he shot Richard nine times, a total that not only eliminates all shots fired by Peck but also exceeds the number of wounds found in the body. In our interview, Dignan said that when he made that claim he had not seen the autopsy and he had based his statement on the word of a friend who told him, “Pete, you hit that guy about nine times.”
While the police department was unconcerned about inconsistencies in the reports about the raid, it certainly seemed concerned about its image. In the glare of media attention that followed the raid, the department tried to make sure its officers appeared in the best possible light. This was complicated early on by news reports from the scene that suggested one of the officers had not been wearing her bulletproof vest. Just a few hours after the shooting, a witness named Charlie Phillips was shown on Channel Seven saying he had seen a woman officer remove her wounded comrade’s vest and put it on. A second witness, Daniel Smith, was shown on three other newscasts (Channel Two, Channel Five, and CLTV) saying the same thing, and he was quoted telling the story in the Tribune the following day, mentioning that he had also seen the wounded policeman crawling on the front lawn. “The woman officer’s identity was not immediately released,” Tribune reporters Peter Baniak and Dan Wetzel reported, “and police officials would not confirm the sequence of events described by the witnesses.” Officer Sharon Wise’s name was never released, and chief of patrol Anthony Chiesa was shown on Channel Seven saying, “It is my understanding that every officer was vested on this search warrant, as is our policy.” If Wise wasn’t wearing a vest, it was a grievous error. When asked about this apparent lapse in procedure, Dignan said he ordered all of the officers on his team to wear their vests, and it was only in a conversation with Tyler a few weeks or months afterward that he learned of the allegation that Wise was not properly equipped.
The police department held a press conference the day after the raid, with Dignan the featured attraction, and the television reports that evening carried Dignan’s photo, captioned “Hero Cop” on Channel Seven and “Police Hero” on Channel Five. On both channels Dignan was credited with saving the lives of Tyler and Peck and with shooting Richard dead. In the footage shown on Channel Seven, Dignan said he had killed the offender, with no mention of the shots Peck fired. Channel Two had Dignan saying that he had merely covered the window while Tyler crawled away, a significant change from the version recorded by Deputy Chief King and Captain Bingham at the roundtable the previous day, a time when Tyler seemed an unlikely candidate for survival. The same news report featured Narcotics Section commander Michael Hoke saying, “I believe it was the most heroic act that I have encountered in my 28 years on the police department.” Channel Seven also had Lieutenant Mike Cushing, Dignan’s more immediate supervisor in Narcotics, saying, “They would be dead today if it wasn’t for Pete Dignan. He is a tremendous policeman.” Cushing was followed by Mayor Daley, who said, “Sergeant Dignan going back in, taking him back out, going back in–I mean, that is a real hero in our society.”
Raymond Coffey’s column in the Sun-Times the following day was given over to the Fraternal Order of Police’s point of view, which was that Dignan deserved “the highest award the city can give” and that police feel “hamstrung” by baseless complaints to OPS. Coffey also reiterated the story that Dignan had pulled Tyler away from the building.
The Tribune covered the press conference as well, and reporter John O’Brien filed a story that ran on Friday, October 7, 1994, in which he quoted Dignan at the press conference saying, “I don’t see how we could have done it any better.” O’Brien, unlike the TV reporters who simply took the stories they were handed, decided to investigate whether the raid had indeed followed department policy. “By all accounts, Wednesday’s attempt to search for narcotics was conducted in accordance with police procedures,” O’Brien concluded. “Five seasoned officers wearing identifying police jackets and hats took part, with two uniformed officers rounding out the team….They were attempting to serve a warrant obtained hours earlier after a two-day surveillance.”
O’Brien appears to have been misled. Police documents clearly show there were five officers present, not seven. Two uniformed officers would indeed have been helpful, as they would have carried radios capable of reaching a dispatcher and they could have guarded the perimeter. Department policy calls for someone on such a raid to be in uniform (the policy is meant to assure those being raided and their neighbors that it is the police who are breaking down the door, not a gang of thieves), but in our interview, Dignan admitted that all of his officers were in plain clothes. (One neighbor interviewed by CLTV reporter Kim Morris immediately after the raid speculated that Nick Richard started shooting because he thought he was being robbed.)
The police department’s claim that the apartment had been under surveillance for two days is not supported even by Dignan, who told us that Peck and Wise carried out a two-hour surveillance on the morning of the raid. If that two-hour surveillance did indeed occur, the surveyors seem to have failed to note the peculiarities of the building’s layout, or, if they did, they did not report them to Dignan. Someone who looked at the entrance to 6038 S. Cottage Grove would have realized that while pounding on the door, the officers would be sitting ducks to a gunman in the bedroom window. A walk around the building would have revealed that in order to secure the premises, the officer stationed in the rear would have to be inside the building, as the back door to each apartment opens onto a completely enclosed stairwell, not visible to someone standing outside. A fugitive from one apartment could walk out his back door, walk back in through a neighbor’s back door, exit that apartment’s front door, and not be seen by a raiding party covering only two sides of the building. A walk around the building would also have shown that there are two rear doors, separated by a corner and a distance of about 15 yards, each door serving six different apartments. In an interview last year, building resident Gail Stewart said that after the raid was well under way, she informed Officer Wise that she was standing at the wrong door.
A Chicago police officer who carried out dozens of search warrants with tactical units says that they never proceeded without a backup car of uniformed officers and without knowledge of all the exits. Dignan admitted that he hadn’t given his team this information. Hiding in the kitchen, Peck might have found it useful to know that the rear exit was only a couple of steps away.
As the days passed, the department continued to polish its image. Within a week of the raid, Narcotics Section commander Hoke had nominated the participants for departmental awards. Hoke’s recommendation form reports that Dignan pushed Tyler out of the doorway, where Dignan’s “security officers”–ostensibly meaning Woullard and Wise–pulled Tyler “out of harm’s way, administering first aid and protecting the back door to ensure that the offender did not escape from a second exit.” Hoke’s account has Peck merely returning fire; Dignan shoots the offender and drags Peck out the door to safety. No mention is made of Peck disarming Richard, nor is there a word about the shots Peck heard after Richard was down.
Hoke recommended Wise and Woullard for departmental commendations and nominated Dignan, Peck, and Tyler for the Police Blue Star Award and the Superintendent’s Award of Valor (presented for outstanding acts of heroism, personal courage, and devotion to duty). Those awards were given, and others followed. In his deposition in an unrelated case, Dignan said that for this raid he received the State of Illinois Medal of Honor, the Illinois Police Association Award of Valor, the Narcotic Officers Association Award of Valor, and the Cook County Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Award of Valor. He was also named policeman of the year by the Emerald Society of Illinois, an organization of law enforcement officers of Irish descent.
Dignan told us that Peck also received the State of Illinois Medal but that Tyler did not. Dignan claimed that he felt badly about Tyler’s exclusion and made inquiries on his behalf to no avail.
But Tyler, Peck, and Dignan did share the most impressive award. The three were named Top Cops of 1994, a prize given by the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO). The Top Cop award is given sparingly: only 11 other policemen across the nation won it that year. The awards ceremony was no small affair. It was held in Washington, D.C., with celebrity presenters from NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street, and the gathering was addressed by Vice President Al Gore. The winners had their pictures taken with President Clinton in the Oval Office.
Tyler might also have been left out of that award, as the letter from Deputy Superintendent Charles Ramsey nominating the three gave Dignan and Peck equal credit for dropping Richard but cast Tyler only as a victim pulled to safety by Dignan. In official documents Tyler’s version of the raid is somewhat abbreviated. He was unconscious at the time of the roundtable, he was not interviewed by OPS, and the police department’s field investigation report on the incident contains almost nothing from his perspective.
There is, however, a letter he sent to NAPO before receiving his Top Cop award. The Reader obtained a copy of the letter from NAPO’s press officer. After expressing gratitude for the award, Tyler said he had attended several award ceremonies and their focus seemed to be that Dignan had dragged him to safety. He wanted to set the record straight. He credited Dignan with providing him an avenue of escape by firing at the window as he crawled beneath it, but he pointed out that he had not been dragged to safety and that he had not received first aid from anyone but arriving paramedics. He said he had taken his third bullet while lying on top of Dignan, “possibly saving his life,” and that he had taken three bullets not as someone who had been passively standing in the wrong place at the wrong time but as someone who had jeopardized his own life trying to save a fellow officer. It’s unclear whether that letter had any effect on the awards ceremony.
While the police department’s nominations for awards were being filed, Office of Professional Standards investigator Anthony Tellis completed the agency’s report on the Cottage Grove incident. This would be one more opportunity for the department’s internal investigators to search for the truth. This time, however, department policy got in the way.
Tellis, who is now dead, would have collected Investigator Wilson’s preliminary report and the documents handed out at the roundtable. Had Tellis been a detective investigating a homicide committed by a civilian claiming self-defense, he would no doubt have quickly checked to see if the civilian had a police file. If that civilian had previously been charged with violence, Tellis would certainly have viewed the man’s claim differently than if the man had no arrest record at all, and he would no doubt have let the civilian know that he was not regarded as someone whose story could be taken at face value. A detective might have talked to colleagues who had collared the man for other crimes and would certainly have been careful to dig up witnesses to the incident and to question as many as he could.
Police officers, however, are not subject to the same scrutiny as civilians. An officer might have dozens of brutality complaints filed against him, but according to a 1997 deposition by the OPS’s Leonard Benefico, OPS investigators are forbidden from consulting those files. In OPS, every case is a new case. So Tellis could not walk to a file drawer and pull Dignan’s extensive history with OPS.
Tellis also lacked a citizen complaint form. The case had been opened because the department’s rules require that all such shootings be investigated, not because someone had come in with a list of allegations an investigator could substantiate or reject. Two of Tellis’s supervisors, Benefico and Barbara Harris, who should have known Dignan’s record well, had attended the roundtable and apparently retired for the night without any suspicions.
Tellis’s assignment must have seemed relatively easy. The department claimed that Richard’s attack had been unprovoked, and clearly the officers had been fired upon. Why bother visiting the apartment, talking to neighbors, or looking at photos of the crime scene? Tellis read the autopsy and firearms reports, but seems not to have been bothered by the number of times Richard was shot in the back, nor does his curiosity seem to have been piqued by the conflicting versions of the sequence of events. He finished his investigation on November 28, 1994, 54 days after the shooting, concluding that the shots fired by Dignan and Peck had been justified under both state law and the police department’s general orders. He sent his report on to his immediate supervisor, who sent it on to OPS chief Gayle Shines.
If anyone should have known that the case deserved yet another look, it was Shines. She had known Peter Dignan’s name since at least September 1990, when OPS investigator Michael Goldston completed a review of excessive-force complaints filed against Commander Jon Burge and his detectives in the Area Two Violent Crimes unit. Goldston concluded that abuse had been “systematic,” that it had included “planned torture,” that it had taken place for more than a decade, and that it had been aided and abetted by command personnel. Goldston named Dignan as one of seven “players”–detectives whose names had come up repeatedly in the course of the investigation. Shines had praised the document as “masterful” when she passed it on to Superintendent LeRoy Martin.
In late 1992, Superintendent Rodriguez ordered Shines to review the cases in the Goldston Report. Shortly before the Police Board dismissed Commander Burge in February 1993, Shines ordered her investigators to reopen 5 of the 50 cases Goldston had mentioned in his report. Two of those reopened cases involved Dignan. A third case alleging Dignan’s participation in torture came into OPS in May 1993, and a fourth had been around since November 1991. By the time Shines was notified of the shooting of Richard, Peck, and Tyler on Cottage Grove, reports on all four torture cases had been reexamined by OPS investigators and were awaiting her review. The Reader obtained copies of those OPS files in May 1997 after filing a motion in federal court.
One of those files was devoted to the complaint of Phillip Adkins, a man who had been arrested for his part in a gas station robbery. Adkins later claimed that he had been beaten so badly by Area Two detectives that he involuntarily urinated and defecated on himself. Adkins named detectives Ronald Boffo and James Lotito as the beaters and said that Dignan had watched. A police report on Adkins’s arrest indicated that he was apprehended in jeans, but those jeans disappeared between the time he was arrested and the time he showed up at the station house. Later that day, he was taken to the emergency room at Roseland Hospital, and six hours later he was transported to Cook County Hospital, where he was diagnosed as suffering from multiple blunt trauma. He was discharged to Cermak Health Services at Cook County Jail two days later. Adkins later filed a civil suit naming Dignan, Lotito, Boffo, and other Area Two officers, and the city of Chicago paid $25,000 to settle out of court.
After the Goldston Report, OPS investigator Leutie Lawrence was assigned to conduct the reinvestigation of Adkins’s case, and she ultimately sustained charges against Boffo for maltreatment, against Lotito for maltreatment and making a false statement, and against Dignan for making a false report to cover up the abuse. After finishing her report on December 16, 1993, Lawrence passed it to Shines for her review. Without her approval the charges would not be upheld. At the time of Dignan’s raid on Cottage Grove, Shines had been sitting on that report for ten months.
Lawrence filed another report on Dignan two months after the first. In the second report, Lawrence concluded that on January 28, 1984, Dignan had removed the shoes of suspect Thomas Craft and had then “ground the heel of his thick soled shoes into the top of Mr. Craft’s feet.” Lawrence sustained a charge of maltreatment against Dignan and sent that report on to Shines as well.
At the time Shines heard of Dignan’s raid on Cottage Grove, she was also sitting on OPS investigator Robert Cosey’s report on the case of Gregory Banks. Banks was arrested in October 1983, and in testimony and various court documents he recounted brutal treatment allegedly administered by Dignan and two of his Area Two colleagues, Detective Charles Grunhard and Sergeant John Byrne. In a brief filed before the Illinois Appellate Court, defense lawyers contended that Sergeant Byrne put a gun in Banks’s mouth, threatened to blow his head off, and beat him on the chest and stomach with a flashlight. The young African-American also alleged that Dignan said, “We have something for niggers,” just before putting a plastic bag over Banks’s head and pulling it tight around his neck.
When asked at a pretrial hearing in the Banks case, Dignan and Byrne said they could not recall anyone accusing them of such methods before. Banks’s attorneys countered by introducing evidence that a man named Lee Holmes, arrested 13 months before Banks, had made almost precisely the same allegations against the two officers. At trial, Dignan and Byrne testified that Banks had sustained his injuries during an escape attempt, that Dignan had tackled the suspect and the two had rolled down some stairs together. Dignan said the incident occurred on the second floor. Byrne said it occurred at ground level. When questioned by prosecutors, Dignan said he had never struck the defendant. When questioned by the defense, Dignan told a different story, recalling that he had a fistfight with Banks in an attempt to subdue him when he allegedly tried to escape. The only medical testimony at the trial was from the doctor who treated Banks after his arrival at Cook County Jail, and that doctor said the injuries he saw were not consistent with a fall down a flight of stairs. Banks was convicted. His attorneys appealed, making note in their brief of the discrepancies in Dignan’s testimony, showing what they called Dignan’s “propensity to fabricate.” In overturning Banks’s conviction, the appellate court judges excoriated the trial judge for discounting Banks’s claims of torture. Banks was released after having served seven years in jail.
OPS investigator Cosey completed his investigation of Banks’s case in June 1993, sustaining charges against Byrne of maltreatment and charges against Dignan of lying and failing to report the use of excessive force. In August 1993, the city settled Banks’s civil suit against Dignan and his comrades for $92,000. By the time Dignan entered the apartment on Cottage Grove, Cosey’s report had been awaiting review from his OPS supervisors for 16 months.
At the time of the raid, Shines was also overseeing the reinvestigation of the case of Darrell Cannon. Cannon was arrested for murder on November 2, 1983. At a hearing on a motion to suppress his confession, Cannon named the same three officers who had allegedly abused Gregory Banks only five days earlier. Cannon claimed that Byrne tortured him with a cattle prod, applying it to his penis and testicles while Dignan and Grunhard held him in place. Dignan was also alleged to have stuck a shotgun into Cannon’s mouth while asking about another suspect. According to Cannon, Dignan said, “Nigger, are you going to tell us where A.D. is?” Cannon claimed that when he didn’t answer, Grunhard said, “Shoot that nigger’s head off,” whereupon Dignan pulled the trigger. The gun did not go off. Cannon claimed the mock execution was repeated twice more.
At that suppression hearing, Dignan denied under oath that he had had a shotgun in his possession, but four years later, in a deposition taken for Cannon’s civil suit, Dignan said that he had indeed possessed a shotgun and he described in some detail how he had used it to arrest Cannon. Cannon’s claim of having been called a nigger, a claim also made by Banks, would ordinarily be impossible to verify. In 1996, however, 13 years after Cannon and Banks were arrested, Dignan himself lent the charge some credence. In a deposition in another case (Marcus Wiggins v. Jon Burge et al), Dignan admitted that he uses the word “nigger” in day-to-day conversation, in jokes, and in addressing people he is trying to arrest. He denied using the word, however, during interrogations.
(Dignan declined to comment for this story on any of these OPS investigations.)
The handling of Cannon’s case has been peculiar. Today, almost six years after it was reopened and almost five years after OPS investigator Veronica Tillman completed her report, there has been no decision in the case. At this point, Detective Grunhard is dead and Sergeant Byrne has retired, so Dignan is the only participant left to investigate–because OPS drops a case when the accused leaves the force.
In a deposition taken on September 29, 1997, OPS coordinator of operations Carmen Cristia, who oversaw the reinvestigation of the Goldston cases, said that Investigator Tillman did sustain charges in her report on the Cannon case. After an inquiry last fall from the Reader, Shines said she had filed her opinion and had passed the file on to the office of the police superintendent. Neither Shines nor Police News Affairs would say when the file reached the superintendent’s office.
The other three cases in which OPS investigators sustained charges against Dignan–Adkins, Craft, and Banks–never made it to the superintendent’s office. On December 21, 1994, Shines overturned her investigators’ findings in the cases of Adkins and Craft, and three months later she approved supervisor Benefico’s rejection of the investigator’s charges in the Banks case. In all three cases her decision meant no action would be taken against Dignan.
Clearly Shines knew Dignan’s history, even if OPS investigator Tellis didn’t. Nevertheless, when Tellis’s report on the Cottage Grove raid landed on her desk, she approved it. This case, too, was closed.
A few months after the raid, former superintendent Rodriguez tried to promote Dignan to the rank of lieutenant. Rodriguez had compiled a racially diverse list of 13 sergeants whom he, with Mayor Daley’s blessing, wanted to promote “on merit,” that is, without regard to scores on a promotion exam, and Dignan was one of five white males on the list. The promotions, which were designed in part to increase minority representation in the lieutenants’ ranks, were challenged in circuit court by other police officers, ruled illegal, and Dignan was subsequently assigned as a sergeant to the Intelligence Unit of the Organized Crime Division. Last month, however, U.S. district court judge Robert Gettleman, ruling in a separate civil rights suit, ordered the city to proceed with those merit promotions. As a result, on November 6 Dignan will be promoted to the rank of lieutenant.
The Cottage Grove raid offers a sharp portrait of the police department, touching it at various levels. At best, OPS and the department’s investigative machinery seem miserably inadequate. At worst, the department appears to be mainly serving and protecting its own. The Area Two Violent Crimes unit, already well tarnished before the raid, certainly did nothing to enhance its reputation. The Area Two detectives investigating the raid concluded the homicide was justifiable before seeing the autopsy report or the results of the ballistics tests, and their field investigation report fails to mention Peck’s statement that he heard shots after he grabbed Richard’s weapon. Area Two detectives also seem to have paid no attention to the troubling evidence offered by the blood patterns on the wall of the apartment.
Commander Michael Hoke, former head of Narcotics, former detective with Area Two Violent Crimes, until recently head of Internal Affairs, and now assistant deputy superintendent, praised Dignan effusively after the raid. Hoke denies he was at either the scene of the raid or the roundtable, but Captain Bingham’s report of the roundtable puts him in both places.
And what of the superintendent’s office? John Townsend, who was first deputy superintendent at the time of the raid and who gave interviews at the scene, declined to respond to a list of questions we submitted to him. Townsend received Deputy Chief King’s memo indicating that Dignan had told two different stories about the raid–one in which he rescued Tyler, one in which he didn’t. As the superintendent’s office has long been sitting on Darrell Cannon’s case, a case in which Dignan has been accused of excessive force and telling contradictory stories, shouldn’t alarm bells have gone off when King’s memo arrived? Can Superintendent Rodriguez and Townsend not have known the names of the seven “players” cited in the Goldston Report on torture at Area Two? Shouldn’t warning flags have unfurled when one of those players was involved in the shooting of a civilian, particularly one shot so many times in the back?
Now the problem belongs to a new superintendent, Terry Hillard, who was one of Dignan’s supervisors in Narcotics. Hillard has already said that he considers the training of OPS investigators inadequate. He has replaced Gayle Shines, also a move that pleases local human rights activists. But nothing has yet emerged from his office on the five-year-old case of Darrell Cannon. Perhaps the case report is so deeply buried that Hillard will never see it. Perhaps Goldston’s conclusions and the names of the players are also well tucked away. Perhaps it won’t bother Hillard to have a lieutenant who addresses suspects as “nigger.”
Or perhaps Hillard will surprise us.
John Conroy’s E-mail address is
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sergeant Peter Dignan on Channel Five, October 5, 1994; Richard Peck (with President Clinton); Steven Tyler (with President Clinton); uncredited police photo;.