Judge clears 7 wrong­fully con­victed on drug charges be­tween 2002-2008

50 cleared so far in grow­ing scan­dal in­volv­ing cor­rupt ex-Chicago cop

Daily Southtown (Sunday) - - NEWS - By Megan Cre­peau mcre­peau@chicagotri­bune.com Twit­ter @cre­peau

More than a decade ago, Chicago po­lice Sgt. Ron­ald Watts and his crew “bum­rushed” Ken­nethHick­sand de­manded to know, “Where the drugs at?”

“They tried to fig­ure out how much money I got on me,” Hicks told re­porters Fri­day. “But I had noth­ing for them.”

Hicks al­leges Watt’s crew then pinned a phony drug charge on him in 2007. He was con­victed and sen­tenced to 18 months in prison.

Long re­leased from prison, Hicks watched Fri­day as a mea­sure of jus­tice took place at the Leighton Crim­i­nal Court Build­ing.

With Watts’ cred­i­bil­ity shot be­cause of a cor­rup­tion con­vic­tion, Cook County prose­cu­tors moved to throw out Hicks’ con­vic­tion as well as those of six oth­ers.

That brings the to­tal of those cleared of wrong­do­ing be­cause of the al­leged mis­con­duct of Watts and of­fi­cers who worked un­der him to a stag­ger­ing 50. And that num­ber is likely to con­tinue to rise, said at­tor­ney Joshua Tepfer, who rep­re­sents many of the ex­onorees.

“It’s an enor­mous, enor­mous num­ber,” Tepfer said of the Ex­on­er­a­tion Project at the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago. “It is due to the fact that (Watts) was al­lowed to run roughshod over this com­mu­nity for a decade.”

All seven peo­ple ex­on­er­ated Fri­day have com­pleted their sen­tences. Their drug charges had been brought be­tween 2002 and 2008. One of those cleared was a woman.

The claims of Watts’ ac­cusers fol­low a fa­mil­iar pat­tern — that Watts or of­fi­cers un­der his com­mand typ­i­cally pinned bo­gus charges on them when they re­fused to pay him pro­tec­tion money.

In case af­ter case, when Watts’ tar­gets com­plained — to the Po­lice Depart­ment or in court— judges, prose­cu­tors and in­ter­nal af­fairs in­ves­ti­ga­tors all be­lieved the tes­ti­mony ofWatts and other of­fi­cers over their ac­cusers, records show.

“(Watts) just came out of nowhere,” re­called Deon Wil­lis, who had two drug con­vic­tions re­versed Fri­day. “If you don’t do what he tells you to do, if you don’t give him what he wants, I mean there’s no way out.”

The crew had the area around the now-razed Ida B. Wells pub­lic hous­ing com­plex on the South Side on pins and nee­dles, Wil­lis told re­porters.

“We had to come out of our hall­ways, out of our apart­ments, peekingout­the doors, mak­ing sure they’re not rid­ing up the street,” he said. “It was hard. It was hard, but nowit’s over.”

Last year, the Po­lice Depart­ment re­as­signed 15 of­fi­cers who worked with Watts over the years to paid desk duty pend­ing an in­ter- nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion that is still un­der­way.

State’s At­tor­ney Kim Foxx’s of­fice — whose re­view led to the dis­missal of the con­vic­tions Fri­day — said it stopped call­ing as wit­nesses 10 of the of­fi­cers, cit­ing con­cerns about their cred­i­bil­ity.

“Where’s the ac­count­abil­ity? What’s next? We’ve got 50 (peo­ple ex­on­er­ated) now,” Tepfer told re­porters af­ter Fri­day’s hear­ing.

The cases high­lighted a bro­ken sys­tem of po­lice dis­ci­pline that al­legedly pro­tected cor­rupt of­fi­cers and pun­ished those who tried to ex­pose the cor­rup­tion.

Two Chicago po­lice of­fi­cers who al­leged they were black­balled for try­ing to ex­pose Watts’ cor­rup­tion years ago won a $2 mil­lion set­tle­ment in their whistle­blower law­suit.

De­spite mount­ing al­le­ga­tions, Watts con­tin­ued to op­er­ate for years amid a lengthy po­lice in­ter­nal af­fairs probe as well as in­ves­ti­ga­tionsby the state’s at­tor­ney’s of­fice and the FBI, ac­cord­ing to court records.

Watts’ nearly decade­long run of cor­rup­tion ended in 2012 when he and an­other mem­berof his team, Of­fi­cer Kal­latt Mo­hammed, were con­victed for shak­ing down a drug courier who turned out to be an FBI in­for­mant.

Watts wound up be­ing sen­tenced to 22 months in prison.

Af­ter his re­lease, Watts moved to Las Ve­gas, records show. He has made no pub­lic com­ment about the al­le­ga­tions against him. In a re­cent re­sponse in one of the pend­ing law­suits in­volv­ing him, Watts in­voked his Fifth Amend­ment right against self-in­crim­i­na­tion more than 40 times, court records show.

The scan­dal— one of the big­gest to hit the Chicago Po­lice Depart­ment in decades— has­cometo sym­bol­ize the break­down of trust be­tween po­lice and the com­mu­ni­ties they are sup­posed to serve, par­tic­u­larly high-crime ar­eas pop­u­lated by African-Amer­i­can and His­panic res­i­dents.

AN­TO­NIO PEREZ/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

At­tor­ney Joshua Tepfer, left, and Deon Wil­lis, who served prison time on drug charges, speak Fri­day af­ter con­vic­tions against seven peo­ple were thrown out.

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