Police Cmdr. Jon Burge, whose name became synonymous with torture, a web of tainted court convictions and more than $100 million in settlements with wrongfully convicted defendants who lost decades of their lives in jail, has died in Florida at 70, according to the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police.
Burge, who had battled cancer, was a commander at Area 2 on the South Side. He headed a “midnight crew” of officers accused of systemic abuse of more than 100 African-American suspects. The cases stretched from the 1970s to 1991, and drew the attention of the London-based human rights organization Amnesty International, which called for an inquiry.
In the words of victim Darrell Cannon — whose 1983 murder conviction would later be thrown out — he was tortured by “a New Wave Klan” that “wore badges, instead of sheets.”
In 2011, Burge was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for lying under oath in civil lawsuits connected to the torture. After being released early for good behavior, he went to a halfway house near his Florida home, followed by home confinement.
Former Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo said Burge was treated unfairly.
“Jon Burge put a lot of bad guys in prison,” Angelo said at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse Wednesday, where reporters gathered to cover the murder trial of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke.
“You know, people picked a career apart that was considered for a long time to be an honorable career and a very effective career,” Angelo added. “And I don’t know that Jon Burge got a fair shake based on the years and 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, I guess.”
But Mark Clements, who said he was a victim of his brutal detectives, called Burge “a sore in the ribs of many still left in prison.” Clements, now a free man, said: “His death should send a message to the city and the state’s attorney’s office to finally make a decision about dropping the cases of those still incarcerated because of the torture under Burge and his men.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson, also at the courthouse for the Van Dyke trial, said Burge “did a lot of harm to a lot of people,” adding: “We pray for his family, because that’s the appropriate thing to do.”
In 2016, Chicago paid $5.5 million in reparations to 57 Burge torture victims; those claims were awarded through a process overseen by the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials organization.
“Reparations is not a necessity. But it is a moral compunction and a moral reckoning to right a wrong. There is no statute of limitations on that,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said at the time.
The cases became part of the curriculum at Chicago Public Schools. As those lessons were rolled out, Chicago Board of Education President Frank M. Clark said they covered “a very dark time in Chicago’s history, dealing with Jon Burge and the atrocities.”
One of the most infamous cases involved Andrew and Jackie Wilson, convicted of the 1982 slayings of two Chicago police officers, William Fahey and Richard O’Brien. Andrew Wilson said his interrogation included being suffocated with a plastic bag and subjected to a mock execution when a pistol was placed in his mouth. Jackie Wilson said Burge administered shocks from electrodes attached to a “black box” and that he was beaten with phone books.
Andrew Wilson’s case was the first to be overturned based on allegations of torture by Burge’s detectives. His case would eventually lead to Burge’s firing — and, in ensuing decades, to the payouts of an estimated $100 million to defendants who said they were victims, and also to the creation of the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission. Andrew Wilson won a new trial; he was convicted again and died in prison in 2007.
In June, a judge threw out Jackie Wilson’s confession and ordered him released from prison.
Burge and his crew also were accused of coercing suspects with beatings, mock games of Russian roulette and threats of being thrown out windows.
The beefy Burge, a bachelor, eventually retired, collecting a pension and moving to the area of Apollo Beach, Florida.
He grew up on the Southeast Side. His father Floyd worked for the phone company, and his mother Ethel wrote about fashion for the Chicago Daily News. He went to Luella Elementary School and was in the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Bowen High School. He attended the University of Missouri but said “he was enjoying too much to study and so was asked to leave,” said author John Conroy, who profiled Burge in his 2001 book, “Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People.” Conroy’s stories for the Chicago Reader, beginning in 1990 with “House of Screams,” linked Burge to police torture.
In 1966, Burge joined the Army Reserves. He became a staff sergeant and volunteered to serve in Vietnam. Conroy said he acknowledged receiving some lessons in interrogation during training as a military police officer. Burge twice earned commendations for leaving a bunker to drag wounded comrades away from enemy fire. He also was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
Later, he won accolades for heroism as a police officer. In 1972, he stopped a woman who was threatening to shoot herself by jamming his thumb into the firing mechanism of her gun. In 1980, he witnessed a camera store robbery and caught up to the men at a red light. Despite being off-duty and armed with a small gun, he ordered them out of the car and held them until a patrol car arrived.
At one time, he kept a boat in Burnham Harbor named “Vigilante.”
In a 2015 interview with writer and Chicago Police Officer Martin Preib, now vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Burge condemned the decision to pay reparations.
“I find it hard to believe that the city’s political leadership could even contemplate giving `reparations’ to human vermin” like Cannon, Burge was quoted as saying.
Burge argued that Flint Taylor, an attorney for many of the torture plaintiffs, and others with a “radical political agenda” had been “working to free guilty, vicious criminals” for years by filing “specious lawsuits” against Chicago police officers.
“These private attorneys grow rich because the city of Chicago is afraid to defend the lawsuits filed by these human vultures,” Burge was quoted as saying on Preib’s blog. He later confirmed the interview to the Sun-Times.
Taylor at the time said he was outraged by the suggestion he and other lawyers were merely going after money.
“We have been committed to this for over 2 1/2 decades — not to make money, but because we are firmly committed to exposing racist crimes against humanity. And the people who have joined with us include Amnesty International and a wide range of other organizations who … see his crimes for what they are,” Taylor told the Sun-Times then.
“He says the truth will come out. The truth has come out. That’s why the city has acted as it has. No matter what kind of cowardly statements Burge may make under cover of darkness, it is not going to change the public record of his and his fellow officers’ crimes.”
In 2008, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald indicted Burge on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. He was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to 4 ½ years in prison.
Burge never served time on a torture conviction. A special prosecutor investigated the allegations between 2002 and 2006 and determined that, while it was likely torture had occurred, the crimes were committed outside the Illinois statute of limitations and could not be prosecuted.
Burge was suspended from the police department in November 1991.
Three months later, the Sun-Times reported that a fundraiser was held at a local Teamsters union hall to help cover legal fees for Burge and two other officers suspected of torture.
About 3,000 supporters, including some employees of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, attended the $20-per-person fundraiser. Burge was quoted as saying, “I didn’t expect something like this. … It’s not over ’til it’s over, and we’re not going to give up.”
This story was written by Maureen O’Donnell with reporting from Sam Charles, Stefano Esposito, Frank Main, Fran Spielman, Jon Seidel, Kathy Chaney and Lauren FitzPatrick.