For more than a year, Chicago Police said they couldn’t find any records documenting the arrest of a young black man whom white officers posed in a shocking photo as a hunting trophy — with deer antlers on his head.
But less than a month after the photo went viral, the Chicago Sun-Times has discovered the arrest report of the unidentified West Side teenager who appeared in the racially charged Polaroid picture.
And now, the Chicago Police Department has acknowledged that18-year-old Orr High School studentMichael Spann is the man wearing the antlers in the 2002 photo, just as his family claimed.
Stored in Cook County court archives, the arrest report describes the 2002 arrests of Spann, who was later murdered in a 2007 drive-by shooting, and his uncle, Robert Smith, then 37. A mugshot taken at the time of the arrest shows Spann wearing the same, distinctive red-and-white striped blue jogging suit he is wearing in the “hunting” photo, leaving no doubt that he is the man police had until last week been unable to identify.
Already, the photo has led to the firing of one of the officers who was in it.
But the arrest report could help resolve other unanswered mysteries at the heart of the photo scandal, such as who took the picture? And, were there additional degrading photos taken that night, involving other police officers who have yet to be punished, as the uncle says?
Though police had repeatedly said that they were unable to identify the black man in the photo — and both of the cops in the photo say they do not remember who he was — Spann’s family came forward after the photo was first published by the Sun-Times on May 27 and said they were certain it was him.
On Friday, after the Sun-Times asked the Chicago Police Department about the 2002 arrest report, the department provided the newspaper with Spann’s 2002 booking mugshot.
Michael Spann in a 2002 mugshot. | Chicago Police Department
It acknowledged that Spann is the man in the hunting photo and released a statement saying: “Prior to the family of Michael Spann coming forward with this information, we did not even know what year the picture was taken. Once this information came to light, IAD started a new internal investigation, which is still ongoing.
“The Chicago Police Department has been doing everything possible to hold anyone and everyone who has any responsibility for this unacceptable incident accountable.”
The report shows that Spann and Smith were arrested by Officers Timothy McDermott and his partner at about 10:45 p.m. on Dec. 23 in the 600 block of North Avers.
McDermott and Officer Jerome Finnigan later posed with Spann in a photo showing him on his belly with antlers taped to his head and his tongue sticking out of his mouth — while the officers knelt next to him holding rifles.
The photo was taken in the Harrison District police station on the West Side.
Finnigan was fired in 2006 after he was charged in a corruption case involving the Special Operations Section, a now-disbanded citywide unit that he and McDermott were part of.Finnigan is serving a 12-year federal prison sentence.
The FBI obtained the “hunting photo” during its criminal investigation of Finnigan and the Special Operations Section. The U.S. attorney’s office turned the photo over to the Chicago Police Department in late 2013, and when police Supt. Garry McCarthy saw it, he moved to fire McDermott.
He has called it “disgusting.”
In an interview last year, McDermott apologized to an Internal Affairs investigator, Sgt. Michael Barz, for appearing in the photo. But McDermott said he could not remember when or where the picture was taken or the name of the man wearing the antlers.
At a disciplinary hearing for McDermott before the Chicago Police Board in August, Barz testified that he searched records to identify the man in the photo but was unsuccessful.
Barz testified he searched inventories of firearms that had been seized by McDermott and Finnigan.
“Out of that search there was only three firearms with both McDermott and Finnigan on those inventories,” he said, according to a transcript of the hearing. “And of those three, they were male Hispanics — they were not African-American.”
Barz’s decision to search firearm inventories was based on information provided to the FBI by Finnigan, by then a federally convicted felon, who said that the black man in the photohad provided the rifles used in the photo to police after being busted for “20 bags of weed.”
Though Barz never testified about looking for arrest reports, city attorney Patrick Polk told the police board “there were no specific records found by Barz when he was searching for arrest records.”
Even without an identified victim, the board voted 5-4 in October to fire McDermott. He appealed to get his job back, but a Cook County judge upheld his firing earlier this month.
The Sun-Times obtained the “hunting photo” in the court file after the judge, Thomas Allen, refused a request by the city to keep it sealed from public view.
Smith said Friday he was thrilled that the report proves he was with Spann inside the police station the night the photo was taken, and that at least part of his story was now being accepted by the police. “It’s finally come out,” he said.
But he said the 2002 arrest report gives a false account of how he and his nephew, Michael Spann, were picked up.
McDermott, who is listed as the author of the report, said officers saw Spann on the street shouting “weed.” They approached him and saw him drop a knotted plastic bag containing 10 smaller bags containing marijuana, the report said.
But Smith said the officers raided his home without a warrant.
“They ran up in my house,” he said.
Finnigan’s name does not appear in McDermott’s arrest report, which refers to other Special Operations Section officers involved in the bust only by the beat number of their unmarked squad cars.
Asked for the names of those plainclothes officers, a police spokesman said the department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs is searching through old records to determine their identities.
If those records do exist, they could help identify who took the photo. Smith says the officer who took the picture volunteered that he shared the same birthday with Smith.
McDermott’s partner on the night of Spann’s 2002 arrest was Officer John Burzinski. Burzinski, who retired in 2007, declined to comment.
The 2002 arrest report also names two uniformed officers who booked and searched Spann.
Smith said one “blue shirt” officer — and not a plainclothes cop like the Special Operations Section officers — had appeared in a degrading photo of Spann that has not been made public.
According to a police spokeswoman, though, the two uniformed officers named in the arrest report “have nothing to do with this arrest or the SOS unit, and they are still employed by CPD.”
Spann’s father, Michael Smith, said the Sun-Times’ discovery of the 2002 arrest report gives him hope that other officers will be identified in connection with the demeaning photo of his late son and be held accountable.
“The police who were involved know who they are,” he said.