Ex-Chicago Police Commander Tied to Torture Cases Dies at 70
By Rosemary Sobol, Jeremy Gorner and David Heinzmann
Jon Burge, the disgraced Chicago police commander and felon whose sordid legacy of torture and other misconduct exacted an agonizing price from the city, has died in Florida at age 70, according to police union officials and a Florida funeral home.
Details about his death were scarce as the union and family members declined to speak with members of the news media, which spent years reporting on the numerous cases in which Burge was accused of torturing suspects in order to obtain confessions.
Representatives of Zipperer Funeral Home in Ruskin, Fla., confirmed receiving Burge's body but declined to share any further information, citing the family's wishes. Burge, who had previously been treated for cancer, lived in nearby Apollo Beach.
"They (family members) let us know they're not doing anything in any newspapers," said Sarah Zipperer.
Stories of the violence committed under Burge -- including beatings, electric shock, suffocation with typewriter covers and games of Russian roulette -- proved to have a long reach. Although most of Burge's alleged misconduct took place in the 1970s and '80s, his accusers played a fundamental role in former Gov. George Ryan's decision to vacate Illinois' death row in 2000 and declare a moratorium on capital punishment in the state.
Lawsuits from Burge's victims, meanwhile, have cost taxpayers many millions in settlements and judgments, much of it paid out of city coffers in the past decade.
Burge himself never was charged directly in any of the torture allegations, though he was fired from the Chicago Police Department in 1993. Years later, in 2010, he was convicted of lying to federal authorities about his conduct and sentenced to prison. He was released in 2014 and returned to his waterfront home south of Tampa.
News of Burge's death began to surface publicly Wednesday at the trial of Officer Jason Van Dyke, charged with murder after he shot a Chicago teenager 16 times.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was in the courthouse to observe the trial, said Burge left a stain on the city.
"As a person, may his soul rest in peace," Jackson said. "As a policeman, he did a lot of harm to a lot of people and left on this city a mark. It stains us for a long time. His legacy, unfortunately, is tied in with forced confessions and wrongful convictions."
Current police and city officials were silent on the passing of Burge, but police union officials, past and present, offered support.
Dean Angelo, former head of the Fraternal Order of Police in Chicago, told reporters during a break in the Van Dyke trial that he had gotten word of Burge's death and "it came as kind of a shock." The police union posted condolences on social media along with a message asserting that the "full story" about Burge has never been told.
"Jon Burge put a lot of bad guys in prison that belonged ... in prison," Angelo said in the lobby of the Leighton Criminal Court Building. "People picked a career apart that was considered for a long time to be an honorable career and a very effective career. I don't know that Jon Burge got a fair shake based on the years and years of service that he gave the city. But we'll have to wait and see how that eventually plays out in history."
Diverging assessments of Burge's legacy have been a lightning rod that further polarized the long-tense relationship between the mostly white Chicago Police Department and the black and brown communities it patrols. Burge's conduct and the subsequent department cover-ups are a seminal scandal in that history.
By tolerating and supporting Burge's behavior for years, the department affirmed a police culture in which the mistreatment of black men was acceptable, critics say. That issue has never been more prominent than at the trial of Van Dyke, whose 2014 shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald might have gone unexamined if a judge had not ordered the release of video showing that police had misrepresented the facts of how his killing took place.
Among the first journalists to pay serious attention to the Burge allegations, former Chicago Reader reporter John Conroy, said Wednesday that Burge "couldn't have done what he did without supervisors looking the other way."
Burge was a talented investigator whose worse instincts were allowed to run amok in a corrupt system, said Conroy, now senior investigator at the MacArthur Justice Center.
"What's overlooked in all of this is that Burge was ambitious and a leader of men, and if the first time he'd gone astray and beaten somebody up, if somebody had pulled him aside ... Jon Burge wouldn't have become the abhorrent figure he did," Conroy said. "It comes back to a lack of supervision."
The widespread impact of the allegations against Burge included questions about the conduct of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, who was Cook County state's attorney in the 1980s when much of the alleged torture took place, and former State's Attorney Richard Devine, whose office opposed inmates' allegations of torture.
A Vietnam War veteran, Burge joined the Police Department in 1970. He worked as a detective and in supervisory jobs at Calumet Area headquarters through the mid-1980s, but allegations of torture surfaced early. In 1973, Anthony Holmes alleged that he was electric-shocked and "bagged" after his arrest for murder, according to G. Flint Taylor, a civil rights lawyer who represented several Burge victims. Holmes, who was paroled after spending 33 years in prison, has maintained his innocence.
Much of the scandal surrounding Burge grew out of brutal crimes. Andrew Wilson alleged he was tortured after his arrest -- with his brother Jackie Wilson -- for the murder of two Chicago police officers in 1982. Madison Hobley made similar allegations after he was charged in a 1987 arson that killed his wife, young child and five others. Hobley was sentenced to death row before being pardoned and freed by Ryan.
In all, Burge and detectives under his command were alleged to have tortured and abused more than 100 suspects in the 1970s and '80s.
Burge was suspended in 1991 and fired in 1993 by the Chicago Police Board for the torture of Andrew Wilson. Thirteen years later, special Cook County prosecutors found evidence of widespread abuse by Burge and detectives under his command but concluded that the statute of limitations on criminal charges had passed.
In 2008 he was arrested in Florida after being indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for denying involvement in torture in his written answers in a 2003 lawsuit.
In one example, Burge was asked to "state whether you have ever used methods, procedures or techniques involving any form of verbal or physical coercion of suspects while in detention or during interrogation, such as deprivation of sleep, quiet, food, drink, bathroom facilities, or contact with legal counsel and/or family members; the use of verbal and/or physical threats or intimidation, physical beatings, or hangings; the use of racial slurs or profanity; the use of physical restraints, such as handcuffs; the use of photographs or polygraph testing; and the use of physical objects to inflict pain, suffering or fear, such as firearms, telephone books, typewriter covers, radiators, or machines that deliver an electric shock."
He answered: "... I have never used any techniques set forth above as a means of improper coercion of suspects while in detention or during interrogation."
At his 2010 trial, a number of former convicts testified that Burge had used cattle prods on their genitals, suffocated them with plastic and beaten them with phone books.
Burge testified in his defense, denying in court that he ever tortured suspects or condoned torture. He said he had never witnessed a cop abusing a suspect in his 30 years with the department. He was convicted and served time in a North Carolina prison.
Despite costing the city tens of millions of dollars in legal expenses because of lawsuits related to the torture and abuse, Burge continued collecting a $4,000-a-month police pension. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed suit to challenge the decision, but the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that she did not have standing to take up the matter.
At last count, the city and Cook County have spent nearly $100 million combined on Burge-related settlements and legal fees.
In 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued an unexpected public apology for the damage Burge did to the city, calling the era a "dark chapter" that needed to be put in the past. In 2015, a reparations settlement with some Burge victims mandated that Chicago Public Schools teach eighth-graders and high school sophomores about Burge's crimes. The curriculum went into effect in 2017.
Burge's cases were most recently in the news when a Cook County judge in June ordered the release of Jackie Wilson after deciding that his confession in the 1982 murder of the two police officers had been physically coerced by detectives under Burge's command. It was Wilson's brother, Andrew Wilson, whose allegations of torture first drew attention to Burge in the late 1980s. Andrew Wilson died in prison in 2007.
Chicago Tribune's Jason Meisner and Christy Gutowski contributed.
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