Ben Baker (left) and Jamar Lewis | File photos

2 men framed by Ronald Watts now facing federal drug charges

Two men who were framed on drug charges trumped up by a corrupt Chicago cop have been arrested in a federal narcotics sting operation.

Ben Baker, 45, was freed from prison in 2016 after prosecutors dropped charges against him, finding that he was likely framed by former CPD Sgt. Ronald Watts, who himself was convicted of federal corruption charges for stealing cash from an FBI informant. Jamar Lewis, 33, was one of 15 men who were part of the first “mass exoneration” in Cook County history, when prosecutors dropped charges in 18 cases built on evidence tainted by the involvement of Watts and officers under his command.

According to a complaint unsealed this week, a little over a year after he was freed from prison, Baker sold heroin on multiple occasions to a DEA informant between March and May of 2017. Two months before his conviction for a 2004 drug arrest by Watts’ crew was thrown out, federal prosecutors say Lewis sold more than a kilogram of heroin to a co-defendant, according to a separate federal complaint.

Baker is due in court for a detention hearing at noon Thursday, and Lewis will appear in federal court Friday. Four other defendants, including Lewis’ girlfriend, also were charged in other cases tied to the sting operation.

Baker had been working for a trucking company since his release in 2016, and was a model employee, according to Josh Tepfer, a lawyer for the Exoneration Project at University of Chicago law school, who represented both Baker and Lewis in their bids to overturn their convictions. Baker and his wife claimed that Watts planted drugs on them after Baker refused to pay Watts a $1,000 bribe. The pair pleaded guilty to the charges, in part to allow Clarissa Glenn to receive a probation-only sentence that would allow her to care for the couple’s two children. Glenn was pardoned by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2015.

Molly Armour, Baker’s attorney in the federal case, declined to comment.

Watts and fellow officer Kallat Mohammed pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2013, after Watts was recorded shaking down an FBI informant for $5,000. Federal prosecutors, and dozens of defendants who claim they were framed by Watts, and officers who worked for him in the now-demolished Ida B. Wells housing complex, said Watts ran an extortion racket targeting residents in the projects and drug dealers.

In November, charges in 18 cases were dismissed by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office, with the head of Foxx’s Conviction Integrity Unit announcing the office could no longer stand behind the cases because of evidence Watts and the officers involved were “not truthful.” Shortly after the exonerations were announced, seven officers who had been involved in the cases were placed on desk duty.

All but five of the men were granted certificates of innocence, essentially a finding by judge of “factual innocence,” and which also allows them to receive counseling, educational assistance and payouts from a state fund for the wrongfully convicted. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Baker was awarded an $188,000 payment from the fund in 2016.

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