He was born in prison — and killed in a drive-by.
In between, he was victimized by one of the dirtiest police units in Chicago history.
You could say that Michael Spann didn’t have much chance in life.
Outside a close circle of friends and family, almost nobody had heard of the West Sider until 10 days ago. That’s when the Chicago Police Department acknowledged that Spann is the black high school student who more than a decade ago was forced to pose wearing deer antlers in a humiliating “hunting photo” with two white cops standing over him with rifles.
Now — as a reopened internal investigation attempts to identify other cops who may have been involved in the racially charged photo — Spann’s family has made fresh allegations about how and where police got the rifles shown in the photo.
They’ve also suggested a possible motive for why the disgraced and now disbanded Special Operations Section of the police department targeted a relatively small-time player like Spann: his relationship to his older brother, Labar Spann, one of the city’s most notorious gang leaders.
Though they had different fathers, Michael and Labar “Bro Man” Spann were both born to Annie Miller Spann, a West Side matriarch who died at the age of 48 in 2000 and was honored in City Council resolution sponsored by Ald. Emma Mitts (37th).
Of the two, Michael, six years younger than Labar, got the harder start. He was born in 1984 in custody, at the downstate Dwight Correctional Center, where his mother was serving time for retail theft.
“I’ll never forget that call from the penitentiary, telling me I was the father,” said his dad, Michael Smith. “His grandmother hired a Yellow cab for $200 to drive her down to Dwight to pick him up and bring him back.”
Smith raised his son in Chicago. Though records show that Michael Spann later shared an address with Labar, few people knew that they and five other siblings on his mother’s side were related, his cousin Patty Ann Smith said.
By the time Michael Spann was a student at Orr High School, Labar was already a reputed leader of the Four Corner Hustlers street gang.
Currently locked up and awaiting a trial in federal court, serial felon Labar Spann, now 36, recently hit the headlines for allegedly posting on Instagram a photo of himself firing a handgun at a suburban range: possession of a handgun by a felon is a federal crime.
He had by then been on law enforcement’s radar for nearly two decades. Though he uses a wheelchair because of a wound he suffered in a shooting and has to be carried to and from crime scenes, authorities say, he was charged in 2003 with the murder of Latin Kings leader Rudy Rangel Jr.
Rangel’s high-profile fatal shooting was memorialized in a song by New York rapper DMX called “A ‘Yo Kato.” An aspiring rapper himself, Rangel was wearing $300,000 in jewelry when he was killed, police said.
But detectives at the time said they suspected the murder was a gang hit, not a robbery attempt. And at a trial in 2008, Labar Spann beat the case.
He reappeared in the news in 2010 when then-Police Supt. Jody Weis held the department’s first “gang call-in.” During the summit, held in the Garfield Park Conservatory, police warned West Side gang members that any killings in their neighborhoods would prompt swift law-enforcement action against their entire group.
Later, Labar Spann criticized the summit as a “gimmick,” telling the Chicago Sun-Times that “they want to lock us up for something we didn’t do.”
He insisted he was not a gang chief and said his parole officer suggested he attend the summit. At the time, Spann was on parole for armed robbery, communicating with a witness and bringing drugs into a penal institution, records show.
Still, police were determined to bring down Labar Spann — especially around the time of the “hunting photo” — and that may help explain why the SOS cops who arrested his brother in 2002 felt they could take such liberties, Michael Spann’s father said.
“It could have been a sign to show his brother that they weren’t playing,” Michael Smith said of the abusive treatment of his son. “We called those cops the ‘beat-down boys’ — they did whatever they wanted.”
Michael Smith said his son was terrified of police and often ran from them before he was killed in a 2007 drive-by shooting. The father speculated that the photo also may have been the cops’ idea of a sick inside joke “to show that they’d finally bagged him.”
Michael Smith’s niece — and Michael Spann’s cousin — Patty Ann Smith, offered another theory. She turned in the rifles police are holding in the photo after the SOS officers put the squeeze on her mother, she said.
Though a police report detailing Michael Spann’s arrest states that the officers saw him drop bags of marijuana as they approached him outside the home of his uncle, Robert Smith, in the 600 block of North Avers, Patty Ann Smith said the drugs were actually recovered from her Chevrolet Monte Carlo, which was registered in her mother’s name and parked nearby.
After Michael Spann and Robert Smith were arrested and taken to the Harrison District police station, a cop made a threatening phone call to her, she said.
The cop “said he’d let them go if I gave them something,” Patty Ann Smith said. “But if I didn’t, he said they’d arrest my momma, because the car was in her name.”
To keep her family out of trouble, Patty Ann Smith said, she found two rifles — she declined to say where — and left them by a trash can in the alley behind her uncle’s home, then told the cops where they could find them.
“But they got upset because they weren’t the type of guns they wanted,” she said. “They were real angry.”
Later, following his release, Robert Smith told her that he had seen SOS officer Jerome Finnigan tape the antlers to Michael Spann’s head, then force him to pose in the photo with Finnigan and Officer Tim McDermott, she said.
“Until I saw the photo [in the newspaper] last month, I thought it wasn’t true,” Patty Ann Smith said.
Finnigan — like Labar Spann — is in federal prison, serving time for leading a crew of SOS officers in home invasions and for plotting the murder of a fellow cop. Prosecutors said he was one of the dirtiest cops in Chicago history.
McDermott’s dismissal from the CPD for his role in the photo was earlier this month upheld by a Cook County judge.
But not everybody that Robert Smith says was involved in the photo has been held accountable.
The police department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs is now trying to identify the person who took the photo. Robert Smith says a plainclothes cop took the picture. He also says a uniformed cop appeared in another humiliating but as yet unpublished photo taken of Michael Spann that night.
Michael Spann’s father says he’s glad that the truth about the abuse of his son is finally coming out — two years after the FBI passed the “hunting photo” to Chicago Police. He wants everyone responsible held accountable, he said.
But the emotional stress of seeing his deceased son’s photo and dredging up his sad history has taken a toll, he added.
“I’ll be so glad when it’s over with,” he said.