As I have said previously I do not want to be involved in this affair. That is why I asked for the reassurance that these letters would be kept private. I do not wish to be shunned like Officer Laverty has been….Almost all of the detectives and police officers involved know the Wilson’s did the murders but they do not approve of the beatings and torture….I advise you to immediately interview a Melvin Jones who is in the Cook County Jail on a murder charge….When you speak with him…you will see why it is important. –anonymous letter to People’s Law Office attorney Flint Taylor, March 1989
Former homicide detective Frank Laverty, who died of cancer on December 5, will be remembered for turning the Chicago Police Department on its head. Perhaps that’s too mild a statement. In standing up for an African-American teenager the state wanted to put to death, a young man he’d never met, he wasn’t just turning the department on its head but bouncing it a few times for good measure.
Laverty shook loose a secret of police record keeping. Twenty-five years ago, in violation of the law, detectives maintained “street files”–documents that weren’t turned over to defense lawyers because they contained inconvenient truths that could hamper the prosecution of the men or women the police had decided were perpetrators. Thanks to Laverty, that widely accepted practice came to an end.
Little in Laverty’s background separates him from colleagues who marched in lockstep in the opposite direction, officers who took part in, or at least kept their mouths shut about, police torture as innocent men were sent to death row. Many are silent even now, as innocent men sit in prison serving long sentences. In interviews with me this fall, as he faced his own death, and in a statement he gave in November as an expert witness in a civil suit, Laverty admitted that he’d looked the other way when fellow officers took money on traffic stops. He said that he’d once hit a man in an interrogation room, that he’d done more than that as a patrolman trying to keep order on the streets, and that he’d used the word nigger. “I’m not taking myself out of it,” he said in the statement, “saying that I was an angel or saint or something like that on the police department. You know, I had a bad attitude about [race] sometimes, too.”
Laverty paid for speaking up, but he also inspired at least one other person to do the same. The letter quoted above, one of a series mailed to the People’s Law Office in police department envelopes by a still-unidentified person, broke open the Jon Burge scandal. It led Flint Taylor and his colleagues to one victim who led them to others, until finally the highest levels of city and state government admitted that for nearly two decades police had used torture to extract confessions.
As Laverty grew up his family moved, like many other Irish families, into and out of south-side neighborhoods as they changed from white to black. He wasn’t a stellar student. At 16 he went to work in the Rock Island Railroad payroll department, where he soon learned that he could make much more money as a railroad policeman, a job he applied for and eventually got. As a railroad cop, young and unmarried, he was moved around the country and lived in rented rooms. When he tired of the moving he put in an application with the Chicago police. His first post was the Ninth District, a station just down the street from Mayor Richard J. Daley’s family home in Bridgeport.
He was hired in March 1968. In
June April Martin Luther King was assassinated. August brought the Democratic convention. Laverty spent a lot of time on riot duty, which was fine with him–he liked the action. But by the following February he was on more mundane duty, guarding the mayor’s house. There’d been threats against the mayor, he recalled, so there was a two-man car in front, another in back, and one on each corner.
“It was pretty boring, especially for a new guy wanting to get out and save the world. The old guys always wanted it, kept it. Then they wanted the newest guys, the youngest guys, to be down there too, in case something really did happen. It made me crazy, and the other young guys too, but we had to take our turn.”
In 1957 Life magazine called the Chicago police the most corrupt in the nation. Reforms were made after a police burglary ring was exposed in 1960, but petty corruption was still prevalent when Laverty joined the force. He says he didn’t take money himself, but he did “look the other way.”
After five years as a patrolman he went to Area One homicide, commanded by lieutenant Walter Bosco. Shortly after he got there a brutality complaint was filed against him, the result of an incident from his days as a patrolman. Although the Office of Professional Standards dismissed it as unfounded, its mere existence bothered Bosco, who called Laverty into his office. “He said, ‘Detectives don’t get brutality complaints, I don’t tolerate it, so straighten out your act.'”
In 1979 Laverty moved to Area Two homicide, where he’d heard the detectives enjoyed a longer leash. “When you’re working for somebody that’s by the book, it’s kind of a pain in the ass,” he said. “But in retrospect, Bosco was one of the better bosses by far. Area One was actually a much safer, better place to work. Area Two was more freewheeling. Area Two you could do anything, nobody would say anything….If somebody would make a brutality complaint it wouldn’t go anyplace. Of course I had a couple and they didn’t go anyplace…
“There is a certain amount of brutality that just goes with the territory. I mean, you have to keep control of the interrogation room. You are dealing with all hardened criminals usually. They gotta understand that you’re in charge of the interrogation room. If that involves smacking them in the head sometimes, then it does.”
But for Laverty, hitting someone once order was established meant the end of the interrogation. “If I hit ’em, I’m done. Interrogation’s over. Frank loses, he wins.” He recalled losing his patience just once, with a man who’d been arrested for molesting and murdering a child. “He did the reverend route on me. ‘God told me to talk to you.’ ‘OK. What’d God tell you? To tell me what you did?’ He’d sit. He’d laugh. ‘No, God didn’t tell me to tell you what I did. Ha ha ha. God told me not to tell you.’
“This tactic goes on and on and on and on. He’s probably the guy, but I don’t know. So finally he threw that at me and I gave him a smack. Then I left. I’m done. He won. I interrogated him wrong. Now I can’t answer the cross without perjury. If I can’t do it without perjury then I’m not going to have the confidence. You know what I mean? It’s just like a vicious [circle], ‘Oh, now I gotta lie. Oh, shit. Now I’m lying, they’ll be able to tell. Oh, shit.’ So that would be about it for brutality. It made me sick to my stomach.”
One summer morning in 1978 Laverty was ordered to notify the family of Hamp Burks, a janitor, that Burks had committed suicide the night before in a tavern on 103rd Street. The paperwork, written by an Area Two detective, said Burks had grabbed the gun of Chicago police sergeant Henry Cooper, who was also in the bar, and shot himself in the head. “I don’t know why the midnight crew can’t make their own damn notifications,” Laverty told me, “but I went over to make the notifications by myself.”
Laverty, however, also dropped by the tavern. He found witnesses who said that the sergeant, a 25-year veteran whose brother owned the place, had executed the janitor. At first Laverty thought the suicide report must have been a mistake made by a detective who didn’t know better, but he later concluded that the detective had given the sergeant a pass. “I locked [Cooper] up,” he said. “It was hard to make it stick.”
Cooper was convicted in January 1980 and sentenced to 20 years. Not long after, Laverty was looking at a homicide victim in a hospital when a sergeant told him he wished it was Laverty on the slab, “because I locked up Henry Cooper and he was their favorite. He was the corruption king of the Fifth District.” Laverty realized he’d made enemies he didn’t even know.
He soon made more. On May 4, 1981, 12-year-old Sheila Pointer was sexually assaulted and bludgeoned to death with a pipe. (For a more complete account of the Pointer case, read Steve Bogira’s book, Courtroom 302, to which I’m indebted here.) Sheila’s ten-year-old brother Purvy was also brutally beaten but survived with skull fractures. When he was finally able to be questioned, a week later, Area Two detectives James Houtsma and Victor Tosello asked him who’d attacked them. They thought they heard him say the name George. Because it was hard for Purvy to talk, Houtsma set up a hand-squeeze system–once for yes and twice for no–and thereby determined that “George” was a gang member, lighter skinned than Purvy, and lived nearby. Houtsma and Tosello soon settled on 18-year-old George Jones Jr., who lived around the corner, though he was neither a gangbanger nor lighter skinned than Purvy.
In fact, George Jones was a junior deacon at his church, a hurdler on the Fenger High School track team, and an above-average student–his nickname was “Bookworm.” He’d never been arrested for any crime whatsoever. His father, George Jones Sr., was a Chicago police officer, working as a 911 dispatcher, who willingly provided a photo of his son (“just to clear him,” the now-retired officer recalls). Detectives got Purvy to tell them that he knew the boy in the picture–though not that he was the perpetrator. In a memo they noted that Purvy kept trying to say a last name that sounded like “Anderson-Henderson-Harrison.” The next day, however, Houtsma and Tosello showed Purvy the photo again. They reported that the boy cried and said the man in the picture was the killer.
Jones was arrested at Fenger. The following day he was presented at the hospital to Purvy, who according to the detectives’ report initially said no, but then, when the overhead lights were turned on and Jones removed his glasses, said, “That’s him.” Others present heard other things.
Purvy’s Jones’s attorney, Peter Schmiedel, heard “yes, no, yes, no, yes, no.” A nurse heard “no,” and later “yes, yes, yes.” Another nurse, who later testified that Purvy “appeared not to know what was going on,” heard “yes, yes, no, no.” A prosecutor heard an unambiguous identification of the suspect. A federal appeals court would later conclude that whatever was said had been uttered in suggestive circumstances by a child afflicted with a head injury and was “worthless.”
On May 12 Jones was charged with murder, aggravated battery, and rape. No physical evidence was ever produced to link him to the crime.
The trial took place the following April. The state asked for the death penalty. Purvy took the stand and upon being shown his sister’s bloodstained clothing screamed and wailed so fiercely that the Tribune described him as hysterical. Judge William Cousins Jr. called a recess, and Purvy was escorted from the courtroom.
The outburst made headlines the next day, and Laverty read them. He was on furlough, preparing to fly to Colorado to visit family, but he picked up the phone, called the judge’s courtroom, and asked to speak to anyone connected to the Jones trial. The call came in during the noon recess, but Schmiedel and cocounsel Jeff Haas, both from the People’s Law Office, happened to be there.
“Whenever I address law students about my career or this case,” says Haas, “I always say that the moral of the story is ‘Work during lunch hour.’ We are sitting in the courtroom, the phone rings, and a clerk says, ‘Is anybody here from the Jones case?’ Well we were there, the judge wasn’t there, the prosecutor wasn’t there, so I said, ‘Yeah, I am.’ So I go in the back to take the phone call, and this voice on the phone I’ve never heard says, ‘Are you working on the Jones case?’ And I said ‘Yeah,’ and he said something like, ‘How’s it going?’ And I don’t know why I said, ‘Well, I think it’s going pretty good, but you can’t ever tell with a sympathetic witness.’ He says, ‘Well, I think they got the wrong guy.’ And I said, ‘I do too, who are you?’ At which point he says, ‘I am detective Frank Laverty, I worked on this case, they had assured me it wasn’t going to trial, I developed a substantial amount of evidence that someone else did it, I interviewed him, and I have notes and reports of the interview and the investigation that indicates someone else did it.’ And I said, ‘Well, are you willing to come forward?’ And he said yes.”
Laverty was on the stand that afternoon. With the jury absent, he testified that he’d gotten involved in the case five days after Jones’s arrest, when the dead girl’s mother called Area Two and asked to have a detective sent to the hospital to talk to Purvy. Because detectives Houtsma and Tosello weren’t available, Laverty and another detective went. Purvy told them two men in stocking masks carried out the attacks, one of them armed with a gun, the other a man named George who took his mask off. Purvy referred to this man as George Anderson, described his cap, and said he was the leader of a gang that hung around the local public school. An aunt kept correcting Purvy, telling him he meant George Jones, and Purvy would change his story to suit his aunt, then go back to calling the man Anderson. Purvy’s mom arrived and said she’d found two pairs of panty hose in Sheila’s bedroom.
To Laverty, all this made Houtsma and Tosello’s case against Jones look extremely weak. In September, Laverty told me that after retrieving the stockings he’d met with commander Milton Deas, who supervised the violent crimes and property crimes units at Area Two. Deas, according to his own subsequent testimony, told Laverty his hands were tied because the state’s attorney’s office had already indicted Jones.
Laverty then went to assistant state’s attorney Larry Hyman, supervisor of the felony review unit. (For an account of Hyman’s controversial involvement in the Jon Burge torture cases, see “Deaf to the Screams,” “What Does John Doe Know?” and “Doe in the Headlights” in the Reader’s police torture archive, at chicagoreader.com/policetorture.) Hyman would later testify that he passed Laverty’s information up his own chain of command.
Laverty later put his thoughts into a memo to Deas, telling him, among other things, that he suspected a connection between the Pointer murder and a man he’d questioned who’d confessed to a sexual assault and murder three blocks from the Pointers’ house. Laverty then turned his attention back to his own caseload. He’d later testify that at some point Houtsma told him there was no way the prosecution of Jones could go forward.
The day after Laverty testified in Judge Cousins’s courtroom, the court heard from Commander Deas. He confirmed that he’d kept Laverty’s memo in his office, a clear violation of the state’s obligation to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense. But then came the real bombshell. Deas testified that it was standard procedure for detectives to maintain a secret file–the street file–that included reports and documents that might damage the case against their chosen suspect. Besides Laverty’s memo, the Pointer case’s street file also included mention of a relative of the victims as a possible suspect and the victims’ father’s suspicions about an older neighbor named George. It revealed that Purvy had at first identified the killer as a gangbanger with lighter skin than his own, someone possibly named Anderson, Henderson, or Harrison, and that he’d failed to identify Jones as the killer the first time he was shown his photo. A police crime lab report on the panty hose found at the scene that would’ve helped Jones’s defense had not been turned over, nor had a doctors’ warning that Purvy might not remember anything about the attack when he came out of his coma.
Judge Cousins threw out the case against Jones “with prejudice”–which meant Jones could not be tried again. The judge said he firmly believed the state had arrested the wrong man. But the police did not resume their search for the right one.
Jones filed a civil suit. The city’s lawyers, both of whom are now judges, responded by trying to persuade a jury that Houtsma and Tosello had the right man in Jones and that Laverty was out to free him simply because Jones’s father was a fellow cop. Two detectives, one who was present for Laverty’s interview of Jones and another who saw him interview the man who confessed to the other local sexual assault and murder, testified that Laverty’s leading questions had produced the answers Laverty wanted to hear.
The jury gave Jones $801,000 plus attorneys fees, which exceeded $600,000. A separate class-action suit brought an end to the practice of keeping street files. The U.S. Court of Appeals would affirm the verdict and praise Laverty for going “above and beyond the call of duty” and upholding “the highest ethical standards of the United States justice system.”
Detective Houtsma retired in 1986, Tosello in 1999. Attempts to get them to comment for this story were unsuccessful.
Laverty’s intervention, so highly praised by the judiciary, was not appreciated in some quarters of the police department. Internal Affairs began an investigation–not of Houtsma, Tosello, and Deas for concealing evidence, but of Laverty for failing to notify his superiors before testifying. (Laverty said he had. He ultimately prevailed.) By this time Jon Burge was supervising the Area Two violent crimes unit. In a sworn statement in 2004, retired sergeant Doris Byrd recalled being in a meeting when Laverty walked in to retrieve a file: “When he left, Burge took out his gun, pointed it at the back of Laverty, and said, ‘Bang.'”
With the Henry Cooper and George Jones cases occurring relatively close to each other, Laverty told me, “I couldn’t tell where my enemies were coming from. Imade so many all at once. My partner said, ‘They’re meeting at the amphitheater just to get you. Every morning, there you are again pissing someone off.'”
That partner was Larry Nitsche, now director of investigations in the corporation counsel’s office and no fan of the man he used to ride with. He remembers the remark and says he made it facetiously, because he thought Laverty was paranoid. “When all this stuff happened, Isaid, ‘Frank, I really think you’re like having a nervous breakdown.’
“The guy smoked Carlton Light cigarettes, and we go out to Indiana, right across the border, he’d buy ten cartons every couple days. I don’t smoke. I’d come home at night and my wife said I should take my clothes off and hang them outside. This is how nervous he got–he’d light a cigarette, I swear to God he would drive about 30 feet, he would put it in the ashtray. He’d drive another half a block, and all of a sudden he is reaching in his pocket pulling out a cigarette. ‘Whoa, Frank, hey, we got one going here.'”
Laverty was moved from the day shift to afternoons and evenings, assigned to clerical work. Burge, he recalled, told him he would soon be fired. He was later moved to midnights and put in a one-man car. His car was serviced at Area Two, and one day he pulled onto the Dan Ryan and the brakes failed. He believed they’d been tampered with by a mechanic whose brother was an Area Two detective.
Attorney Flint Taylor remembers Laverty dropping by with a package and an odd request. “He said to me, ‘Here, hold on to this for me, will you?’ I said, ‘What’s this?’ ‘It’s a urine sample. I’m afraid they’re going to drop a dirty one on me.'” Taylor says he kept the sample in his refrigerator for years.
In a sworn statement given to Taylor a month before his death, Laverty recalled one time on the midnight shift when he noticed a brown Buick following him. “This is about two-thirty, three o’clock in the morning….It looked awful suspicious to me….People don’t follow the police. What are they going to follow the police for?…I made a turn and the car made a turn. I made another turn, I went down Cottage [Grove].”
Laverty said that as he cruised at 30 miles an hour a call came over the radio–“dark brown car, robbery in progress.” “So I whipped a U-turn and I got behind this dark brown car and pulled him over for looking like the robbery offender. I drew my revolver and I went up to his car door and he got real scared. I pulled him by the shoulder and he fell on the ground. So I put the gun next to his head because I couldn’t tell whether he had a gun or not. I patted him down, didn’t find anything, didn’t find any ID, didn’t find a gun, so I let him go. But then I was later told that it was sergeant so-and-so from Internal Affairs. I almost gave him a heart attack.”
Laverty also believed the state’s attorney’s office was making him pay. He told me that one time he made a routine call for a felony review assistant to come to the station to approve charges and no one showed up, and that another time a prosecutor in a murder case failed to “rehabilitate him on redirect.” At a criminal trial, the defense routinely cross-examines the detectives to raise doubts about their investigation; the prosecution just as routinely uses redirect to clear up those doubts.
After some months, Laverty put in for a transfer. Police superintendent Richard Brzeczek, now a defense lawyer, says he respected what Laverty had done and arranged for him to work in personnel at police headquarters. Other journalists and I have reported that part of his job there involved watching recruits give urine samples and have portrayed that as punishment duty. But this fall Laverty told me he liked the job in personnel: he got to work days, the city paid his way through law school, and he thought he was doing something important in helping to supervise the hiring of new officers. He insisted, contrary to the impression he’d given me in the past, that the urine-sample duty was necessary–everyone took a turn, and he wouldn’t have refused because he was no prima donna.
Laverty retired in 1997. He practiced some law, though not with the enthusiasm he’d given to police work, in part because he’d been diagnosed with cancer in 1994. He fought the disease and recovered, only to have his wife, Janice, die of cancer in 1999. Laverty married Linnea Weaver in 2004, and she and his three sons survive him.
In retirement Laverty became an expert witness in police misconduct cases. He testified against former Area Two colleagues in civil suits filed by Michael Evans and Paul Terry, who spent 27 years in prison for a 1976 rape and murder and were freed after DNA tests proved they weren’t the culprits. Even as he was dying, weak from cancer treatments, he continued to submit himself to hostile questioning by lawyers representing the arresting detectives. The depositions were lengthy and had to be taken on multiple dates scheduled around Laverty’s medical care. Two of the defendants began sitting in on them–permissible but highly unusual. Unintimidated, Laverty plowed forward. After a few sessions the two detectives stopped coming.
After he was arrested in 1981, George Jones Jr. spent five weeks in jail. Finally his lawyers got his bond lowered and his family was able to post it. In that time, he says, he was incarcerated with other men accused of the most violent crimes, “the worst of the worst,” but in some ways it was tougher to come home and face relatives, neighbors, nad strangers who believed he might be a killer and a rapist. By the time the case was dismissed, Jones, who had been the editor of his school newspaper, had lost his desire to become a journalist, in part because of what had been written about him, and he thinks his arrest in the Pointer case was a factor in his rejection by the army in 1982. In his civil suit a psychiatrist testified that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s held a variety of jobs since graduating from Fenger–steelworker, investigator, waiter, custodian, bodyguard–and lived in Michigan, Iowa, and Washington. “I graduated from college,”he says, “but it took me eight and a half years to do it,” he says.
Jones now lives in a Chicago suburb, where he works in public relations. He avoids the city, he says, because he fears policemen with long memories. “I have a habit now of constantly looking at my watch so that I know what I am doing, where I am doing it, and where I was at what particular time.”
Because his lawyers thought it best to keep Laverty and Jones apart, the two met face-to-face for the first and only time at a gathering in March 1987, after Jones won his civil suit. The last time he remembers speaking with Laverty was on the phone a few years later. Despite the lack of contact, he says Laverty has been in his thoughts ever since. “That took more guts than anything–to come forward and say, ‘Hey this isn’t right,’ to go against the entire department, and to go through the hell that he went through afterward….I know his life was never the same again. How do you say ‘Thank you’ enough?”
So why did Laverty do it? Jeff Haas, who took the call in Judge Cousins’s courtroom, says that in his 35 years as a lawyer he’s never seen or heard of another officer doing what Laverty did. He thinks the bottom line is that Laverty had a certain integrity, but that there were other factors as well. Laverty’s wife, for instance, may have pulled him toward a more liberal view of social justice. Haas also believes that investigators of all kinds categorize the people they’re investigating and that for Laverty, Jones wasn’t a black kid but a cop’s son.
“And then he had his own hunch about another person committing the murder,” Haas says. He speculates that Deas and Hyman’s unresponsiveness to Laverty’s information affronted his sense of how good he was as a homicide detective. Haas also thinks Laverty knew testifying could end his career in homicide, which he loved.
“It seems to me he had that something that a lot of people don’t have,” says Flint Taylor, who spoke at Laverty’s memorial service. “He didn’t feel under pressure to conform to the group….Laverty says ‘I’m no angel, but I don’t think the shit we did was right.’ Sure, maybe for a while he went along with stuff. He saw guys take money, you tell me he even hit a guy in an interrogation room. But it was the exception for him. It wasn’t the rule.”
Today retired police commander Milton Deas, who was a defendant in Jones’s civil suit and had $25,000 in damages charged to him personally, praises Laverty as “energetic, thorough, conscientious, and dedicated.”What bothers him isn’t what Laverty did, he says, but how he did it. He says Laverty didn’t like Houtsma and Tosello and they didn’t like him, and that Laverty saw the Jones case as a way to embarrass them. “He didn’t care how he accomplished it. If he embarrassed them, OK. If he embarrassed me in doing that, it didn’t matter to him. If he embarrassed the superintendent, it didn’t make him any difference.”
But why Laverty spoke up might not be the best question here. A better question might be why nobody else did. Why not Deas, for instance? The African-American commander of all Area Two detectives, a policeman since 1947, he was told by Laverty two weeks after the murder that Houtsma and Tosello’s case was a wreck. And as he’d admit when he testified in the civil suit, at that point he knew that two stocking masks had been found and that one of the dead girl’s relatives had been labeled uncooperative and deceptive by a polygraph examiner. By then he’d already met with George Jones Sr., black cop to black cop, and been told there was another George in the neighborhood who might be a better suspect.
Why not Larry Hyman, the felony review supervisor, someone else Laverty informed? Hyman was in a far better position to put the brakes on the Jones prosecution than a detective.
And why were other Area Two detectives so resistant to Laverty’s argument that the case against Jones smelled rotten?
“I don’t bear them any animosity because I’m way ahead of that game,” Laverty said inSeptember. “I would never trust them, or not look over my shoulder, but I don’t have any grudges against them. Look how good it worked out for me.” Laverty was talking about the job in personnel and his law degree. “And what would have happened if I’d kept going down the road that they traveled? I’d be up there taking the Fifth Amendment because I’d looked the other way one too many times.
“In retrospect, I’d rather be me than any of them.”
John Conroy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.