For years, residents of the Ida B. Wells housing project on Chicago’s South Side complained they were being shaken down, in some cases even framed, by a group of corrupt police officers led by Sgt. Ronald Watts.
One of them, a man named Ben Baker, went to prison for 10 years, insisting he had been set up by Watts and his crew.
The law eventually caught up with Watts. He and a fellow officer, Kallat Mohammed, were convicted of the very behavior Baker said had ensnared him. Baker was set free. And now, a new effort is being made to determine if others are serving time after likewise being set up by the same group of officers.
“There’s massive evidence now that’s accumulated over years, that this rogue crew of officers had a massive criminal enterprise,” says journalist Jamie Kalven, who filed the petition Tuesday in Cook County Circuit Court. “Protecting drug dealers that paid them off, targeting others, providing drugs that they seized to their own drug lines.”
Indeed, two Chicago Police officers, Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria said they uncovered the corruption at Ida B. Wells and tried to expose it. The two officers said they faced retaliation within the department, and won a $2 million whistleblower lawsuit against the City of Chicago earlier this year.
“Part of their MO was to coerce cooperation by threatening false arrest, threatening to frame people, and they often did that,” Kalven said. “Some of these officers are still on the force, so there are so many open questions.”
To answer some of those questions, Kalven’s attorney Joshua Tepfer filed a petition requesting the appointment of a Special Master, to investigate the possibility of other tainted convictions obtained through arrests by Watts and officers working under his command.
“Let’s find out the cases Watts touched,” Tepfer said, “and the people who were working for him, cases that we know, for a decade, he was engaging in corrupt practices.”
The appointment of so-called Special Masters is rare. The most notable example was two years ago, when Loyola Law School Dean David Yellen was appointed to investigate claims of coerced confessions at the hands of disgraced Chicago Police commander John Burge.
“Our sense, suggests that there is a large scandal within the Department, as yet undetonated,” Kalven said. “If we are going to have meaningful reform in this city, this sort of information has to come out and be made fully public.”
In making the request, Tepfer included repeated references from the FBI’s own internal files, referencing Watts’ alleged illegal activity.
“Watts gets IBW drug dealers to pay him to work in the housing project,” one report quoted an informant in September of 2004. “If the payments are made to Watts, he will in turn allow the drug dealers to continue to sell drugs.”
Another FBI report, from January of 2007 stated, “Watts, along with other members of his team, routinely used their positions as police officers to extort individuals at Ida B. Wells.”
“Everything we say, practically, in the petition, are quotes from law enforcement documents,” Tepfer said.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office and City of Chicago declined comment.