For more than a decade, Robert Smith talked about the night Chicago Police smashed their way into his home and arrested his teenage nephew, then forced him to pose in a series of degrading, racially charged photos.
But when he told friends and neighbors the wild story of how he was watching inside a West Side police station as his nephew, Michael Spann, was forced to wear deer antlers with his tongue hanging out while a pair of white, rifle- toting cops stood over him, “Nobody believed me,” Smith said Thursday. “They said I was crazy — I thought the pictures would never come out.”
Now, the whole world has seen the infamous Polaroid photo of former officers Tim McDermott and Jerome Finnigan standing over a prone black male as if he were a hunting trophy.
First published last month in the Sun-Times, the picture, which is 12 to 15 years old, cost McDermott his job and further disgraced Finnigan, already in prison for leading a crew of dirty cops who kidnapped drug dealers and plotted the murder of a fellow cop.
While the police department says it has neither been able to identify the black man in the photo, nor who took it, Smith and his brother, Michael Smith — Spann’s father — say they are in no doubt it depicts Spann.
When Michael Smith saw the photo on TV, he immediately recognized him, he said.
“I didn’t want anything to do with this, but when they said he was unidentified, I had to do something,” he said, “I mean, that’s my son!”
Determining whether it is, in fact, Spann, may prove difficult: he was killed in a 2007 drive-by shooting when he was 22. But Michael Smith, a hardware store worker, plans to file a lawsuit against the city to prove his case.
He says his son — a student at Orr High School at the time — talked to him about the experience before he died. He said his son was wearing his favorite jogging suit in the photo, which Michael Smith recognized.
The black male in the photo appears to bear a strong resemblance to photos that the family provided of Spann.
And Spann’s uncle, Robert Smith, says he was there when the photo was taken.
Late one night sometime in 2003, Robert Smith says, Finnigan and seven other plainclothes officers raided his Humboldt Park home, cuffing him and Spann and taking them to the Harrison District police station. Finnigan was known to take advantage of people he believed were dealing drugs.
After Finnigan and his crew roughed him up, Finnigan grabbed Spann, dragged him to a filing cabinet where the antlers were kept and had the antlers taped to Spann’s head, Robert Smith said.
“They were all laughing, telling him to crawl around, stick his tongue out,” Robert Smith added. “He wouldn’t have done it if he wasn’t terrified.”
“There’s more photos — there’s photos where they are pointing the gun at his head, and photos with a guy in blue [uniform] and one where the guy who took the photos came out from behind the camera and posed with Michael.”
Robert Smith says he and Spann were charged with trumped-up misdemeanor marijuana charges and released in the early hours of the following morning. The charges were dropped when the officers failed to show up in court, he added.
Cook County court records show that both men were charged with misdemeanors that were later dropped — though they appeared in court on different dates.
Both men were terrified of Finnigan and — without the photograph as evidence — did not know where they could safely go to complain about his wild conduct, Robert Smith said.
If the FBI hadn’t obtained the photo during the federal investigation of Finnigan then passed it to the Chicago Police in 2013, paving the way for its eventual release, “We’d still be where we was, and still nobody would believe me,” Robert Smith said. “Thank God for the FBI!”
McDermott’s attorney did not return a phone message for comment Thursday evening concerning Smith’s account of what happened. Chicago Police offered no comment other than that its investigation of the photo is “ongoing.”
Supt. Garry McCarthy previously limited the scandal’s potential for damage last year by quickly moving to fire McDermott, long before the picture became public.
But if it is shown that Spann is the man depicted in the photo, Robert Smith’s account could prove awkward for the Police Department. Citing Finnigans’ claim to the FBI that the black man in the photo was freed without charge, lawyers for the City of Chicago last year told the Police Board that there were no records of any arrests involving McDermott and Finnigan that could be used to identify the victim in the photo.
Robert Smith says that if authorities had used the arrest records to contact Spann’s family, “I could pick out the officer that took the photo in a second — I’d still recognize him.”
“There’s more photos out there,” he added. “What happened to them?”
And while Spann’s father is satisfied that Finnigan is in prison and that a judge on Wednesday upheld McDermott’s dismissal, he said, “Who takes a photo like that, and why? What is it — a souvenir of how you mistreat African-Americans?”
Spann’s family is expected to hold a news conference Friday to press their questions publicly.