May 24, 2010 Former Chicago Police commander Jon Burge departs the federal building in Chicago after the first day of jury selection in his obstruction of justice and perjury trial. (Photo added 2018) Credit: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Since the first reports of Chicago police torture
surfaced a quarter
century ago the
list has swelled to
nearly 200 cases
involving dozens of
public employees—and still no one has
been prosecuted.
Now, with the
results of a four-year,
dollar investigation
due any day, here’s
a guide by staff reporter John Conroy to the key
figures in the
Some of them
may look familiar.

Jon Burge

Bill St. James


Burge, a south-side native, may have learned to
torture in Vietnam, where he served in 1968 and ’69.
Veterans of his company have reported that they
participated in the electrical torture of Vietcong
suspects, shocking them using hand-cranked field
telephones. A similar device was used to shock
suspects at Area Two. Both places, the torturers
often targeted the genitals. (For more detail, see the
Reader’s “Tools of Torture,” February 4, 2005.) Burge
became a police officer in March 1970. Promoted to
detective at age 24 in 1972, he was assigned to Area
Two, his old neighborhood and an area experiencing
rapid racial change: whites were fleeing as
African-Americans moved in. The first publicly
known complaint of electric shock interrogation
at Area Two dates from 1973. In the years that
followed Burge was promoted and served in other
locations, then returned to Area Two in 1981 as
commanding officer of the Violent Crimes unit.

Burge’s slow undoing can be traced to the 1982
arrest of Andrew Wilson for the shooting deaths of
two police officers. Wilson’s account of electric shock,
some of it aimed at his genitals, didn’t provoke a
response from the Cook County state’s attorney,
Richard M. Daley (“Deaf to the Screams,” August 1,
2003), but in 1987 the Illinois Supreme Court,
suspicious of Wilson’s many injuries, granted him
a new trial. He was convicted a second time
without the use of his confession and sentenced to
natural life. (See “House of Screams,” January 26,
1990, and “The Shocking Truth,” January 10, 1997.)

In 1989, during Wilson’s federal civil rights suit
against Burge and the city, anonymous letters
addressed to Wilson’s attorneys at the People’s Law
Office said that he wasn’t the first person to be
shocked at Area Two. Eventually the PLO
compiled a list of 105 African-American men who
told not only of being shocked but of suffocation
with plastic bags and typewriter covers and other
forms of torture and abuse inflicted by Burge and
detectives under him at Areas Two and Three.
Instruments they described included a handcranked
electrical device, a cattle prod, and a violet
ray machine (also known as a shock wand), a
medical instrument now sold as a sex toy. (See
Tools of Torture” and “The Mysterious Third Device,” February 4, 2005.)

Dismissed from the police force in 1993 but
never charged with any crime, Burge lives in
Florida, collecting a police pension.

An archive of John Conroy’s reporting on the police torture scandal is available at