Jon Burge was a Vietnam hero who became one of Chicago's most successful policemen. Then his lifelong struggle with evil seems to have taken a wrong turn. According to his critics, for more than a decade he presided over a scarcely imaginable reign of police terror. Sasha Abramsky reports
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SITTING IN an interview room deep within the walls of Unit Nine, the prisoner Darrell Cannon hunches over suddenly and begins to cry. He is a big man, 6ft 3in and 48 years old, and a senior figure in El Rukn, one of Chicago's most notorious gangs. But he now resembles a terrified child. His huge hands clench and unclench, and his jaw works wildly. "I hate them just that bad," he says softly, through his tears.

It's an hour and a half into our interview, and either Cannon has just demonstrated an improbable acting talent - responding exactly as torture victims do when reliving their torment - or he has just finished recounting a chilling true story of police torture.

Unit Nine is one of three maximum security wings in Chicago's sprawling Cook County Jail, and Cannon has been brought here to attend court hearings on a motion to suppress the 1983 confession that landed him a sentence of life imprisonment for murder. He has never denied that he was driving the car in which a young man was shot and killed. But he has long argued that he didn't commit the murder and didn't know that it was going to happen; that he only confessed to it after a prolonged encounter with the fists, boots, shotguns and cattle-prods of the police who arrested him; and that the violence meted out against him was severe enough to qualify as bona fide torture. His denial of the murder charge may or may not wash, but the torture claims could, conceivably, land him a new trial. They could also land Chicago up to its neck in one of the biggest scandals in judicial history, involving allegations not only of police brutality but of extreme torture that was carried out routinely for more than a decade.

Darrell Cannon is no saint. Initiated into Chicago's Black Stone Rangers gang (which later became known as El Rukn) in the mid-Sixties, when he was 14, he was placed in juvenile detention the following year for shooting two rival gang members. He served two years. Three years later, he and an acquaintance got into a fight, and the acquaintance ended up dead.

Cannon served 13 years for murder. He was released in early 1983, and went straight back into the arms of El Rukn. Less than a year later, he was involved in another murder. A small-timer named Darrin Ross owed some drug money to a gangster colleague of Cannon's called "AD". Cannon and AD took Ross for a ride. Ross's body was later found in a remote tract of low-lying public housing.

The two men had left clues, along with witnesses who had seen them with Ross, and it wasn't too long before police from Area Two's Violent Crimes Squad, a unit commanded by a Vietnam veteran named Jon Burge, caught up with Cannon. Members of the unit arrested him in his apartment early in the morning of 2 November and took their prisoner for a little ride of his own. Several hours later, they had a confession.

What happened on that ride is for the Chicago court to decide. Cannon claims that, after dragging him, handcuffed, into their squad car, the officers then drove to a deserted wasteground sandwiched between the industrial strip of Torrance Avenue and one of the small inland waterways just west of Lake Michigan. And there, he claims, they tortured him.

"It was normal," Cannon says, for the police "to beat you up a little bit, put a few bruises on your head. But what the characters here were doing was very out of character. One of the officers told me that morning they had a scientific way of interrogating suspects."

The alleged torture site, which Cannon later described in detail to investigators of the civilian Office of Professional Standards, is indeed in the middle of nowhere, impossible to see from the street, a gravelly industrial deadzone littered with garbage, split tyres and the remains of gas pipelines. Cannon alleges that first the officers suspended him by his arms, which were handcuffed behind his back, a torture technique used by the Israeli security forces and known in the trade as "Palestinian hanging". Then, he says, the officer opened the boot of the car, took out a shotgun, showed Cannon the shell and said "Look at this, nigger." The officers forced the gun into his mouth, one of them said "Blow that nigger's head off," and the officer pulled the trigger. Through a sleight of hand, the shotgun shell, which Cannon had thought was loaded into the gun, was not in the barrel, the trigger clicked, Cannon's hair stood on end, and the officers started laughing. "I've had a gun pulled on me before," Cannon recalls, "but I knew the guy wasn't going to pull the trigger. In my lifetime, I'd never experienced anything remotely close to this."

Three times, Cannon was mock-executed and still he wouldn't confess. And so, Cannon says, the officers took his handcuffs off, recuffed him with his hands stretched out above his head, laid him down on the backseat of the car, pulled his trousers and underwear down, and stuck a cattle prod on to his testicles. "It was a burning sensation that seemed to go all through your body. A stinging, a burning that just wouldn't go away. After about the fourth time, I lost count. They said, `He's a strong nigger,' or something, and they turned it up. The pain got to the point where I certainly couldn't handle it any more and I told them that I'd say whatever they wanted me to say. I was humiliated and hurt so bad. They liked their work, they enjoyed what they were doing, they had a ball." Cannon's face twists as he remembers the pain.

Cannon mentioned the torture charges during his trial in 1984, but the judge, a renowned conservative named Maloney, refused to hear him out. Judge Maloney - who is now doing time himself in a Federal Prison for taking bribes to fix murder trials - argued that such acts simply did not occur in Chicago, and he sentenced Cannon to life imprisonment.

In fact, there is a growing weight of evidence to suggest that such acts occurred with horrific regularity. Stories similar to Cannon's have been told by numerous black men in Chicago over a period of two decades. In the Eighties, Chicago judges routinely dismissed these claims as fantastic fabrications, concocted by desperate prisoners who were facing the death penalty or a life behind bars in maximum security prisons. But the fabrications had an alarming consistency to them - not least in their repeated mention of the Violent Crimes Unit of South Chicago's precinct Areas Two and Three, and in their references to Area Two's commander, Jon Burge.

Eventually, in the mid-Eighties, the city of Chicago began to pay out a number of cash settlements to such prisoners, though without ever admitting the truth of their allegations. Cannon himself received a small civil settlement, of $3,000, in 1987; but the police never admitted to torturing him, and the settlement was not held to have any bearing on the safety of his conviction. Over the next few years, fresh allegations came to light as several dozen other prisoners claimed to have suffered torture at the hands of the Violent Crimes Unit - usually in the dingy brick basement of Area Two's precinct headquarters, a grim old building next to two storefront churches, just up the street from a depressing old Camelot motor lodge. Several more cons and ex-cons - such as Phillip Adkins, whose front teeth were knocked out by flashlight-wielding cops in 1984 - also won small civil settlements.

Getting convictions overturned proved altogether harder. But gradually - thanks largely to detective work by the attorneys Flint Taylor and Tim Lohraff of the People's Law Office, which represents Cannon and a number of others who claim to have been tortured - the judiciary could no longer ignore the situation. Over nearly 20 years, dozens of men, all African- American, mostly unconnected, had told the same story to numerous different attorneys: that white police officers, under the command of Jon Burge, had been torturing them into making confessions. On Illinois's Death Row alone, 10 people claim they were tortured by Burge's squad into admitting guilt.

JON BURGE grew up in the working-class Irish communities of southern Chicago in the Forties and Fifties. Red-haired, with a pugilist's frame, he hung out as a young man in the drinking-holes of Beverly - then a conservative white ethnic enclave, and, like Los Angeles's Simi Valley (infamous from the Rodney King affair), home to many of the city's police officers. A career in the police force was always a likely option for him.

Burge had served as a military policeman during the Vietnam war, where he was decorated for distinguished service. That may be where he first came into contact with tools of the trade such as the electric shock-producing "Tucker Telephone", and psychological torture methods such as mock executions. Here he may also have observed the "science" of escalating the level of pain and fear until a suspect will say whatever his accusers want him to say.

Burge completed his service with honour, returned to the US and, in the early Seventies, joined the Chicago police force, where he rapidly rose up the ranks as an investigator. By the early Eighties, he headed the Violent Crimes Squad in the drug-and-gang-infested Southside streets patrolled by the Chicago PD's Area Two. In the late Eighties, he moved over to Area Three.

In both areas, Burge was a popular commander, a hands-on leader who inspired the trust of his underlings. In summer, when the weather was mild, Burge would live on his boat, The Vigilante, on Lake Michigan, hosting parties at which cops would gather and exchange their war stories. Sources have told Darrell Cannon's lawyers that, at these gatherings, Burge would boast of his ability to "make Satan crawl".

If Burge wanted something done, the detectives under his command were only too happy to oblige. With murders, rape and robbery a dime a dozen, Burge's unit got results: they solved bloody homicides and got numerous dubious characters off the streets and into Illinois's tough maximum security prisons, prisons such as Pontiac, Menard, Joliet and Tamms, in the small communities to the south of Chicago.

But gradually stories about the unit began to leak out. Scores of the African-American men who had confessed their misdeeds to Burge's unit would then tell their state-appointed defence lawyers, and often the judges hearing their cases, that they had been viciously brutalised by Burge or his underlings. Several reported that, just before the violence began, Burge would tell his subordinates "It's fun time!" They claimed that they had had alligator clips attached to their ears, nose, mouth, penis and testicles, and electric shocks administered. They alleged they had been suspended from heights, with their hands cuffed behind their backs. They claimed that they had been burned on radiators, or that they had had plastic bags put over their heads for minutes at a time, a technique known as the "Dry Submarino". Some, like Cannon, stated that shotguns - unloaded, as it turned out - had been put into their mouths and the trigger pulled. Several drew detailed diagrams of the instruments used to torment them. Others gave investigators from the Office of Professional Standards precise directions to the locations where the violence had allegedly occurred.

IN FEBRUARY 1982, Burge's unit slipped up badly, leaving visible torture marks on a prisoner, which forced the courts to take action.

Earlier that month, a Chicago police officer had been shot dead. Thousands of uniformed cops turned up for his funeral in the suburbs outside the city. Driving back to the South Side afterwards, two of the cops stopped a car with two young African-American men dressed as hospital orderlies in it on a traffic charge. It later emerged that they were gang-peers of the man accused of killing the first policeman, and - police hypothesised - were on their way to the hospital, where the killer was under guard, to try to effect his rescue. The driver and passenger opened fire, and both the cops fell dead. With three police officers now murdered in the space of a week, Chicago's law enforcement community felt under siege. Rumours circulated that Chicago's gangs had declared war on the boys in blue. Not surprisingly, the force launched one of the biggest manhunts in their history. Thousands of officers combed the streets, arresting young black men, frisking people at random, saturating the ghetto in their search for the killers.

The following Sunday, amid a welter of publicity, the Wilson brothers were picked up and taken to Area Two's HQ, an old two-storey brick building on Cottage Avenue. When the elder brother, Andrew, was later taken to the county gaol, he had severe facial bruising and cuts suggestive of a prolonged pistol-whipping; strange alligator-clip marks on his ears, nose, penis and testicles, indicative of wires having been attached to his extremities; and extensive burns on his body. The gaol were so concerned that his lawyers would blame their staff for the injuries that they refused to admit him without a doctor examining him first.

Chicago's police chief, Richard Brzeczek, was contacted, and, in his words, gave the local commanders "one of the great chewing-outs of a lifetime". He wanted both suspects to be given a quick ticket to death row, and was irate that defence lawyers might now have grounds to challenge such a sentence.

Brzeczek claims that he then ordered a special internal investigation - although its conclusions have never been made public - and that he sent a letter to the office of the prosecutor, Richard Daley Jr (whose father, Mayor Richard Daley Sr, notoriously presided over the bloody police operations against anti-Vietnam war demonstrators during the Democratic Party convention of 1968). The letter outlined the specific charges against Burge and his team, detailed Brzeczek's belief that top officers in the precinct must have known what was going on in their holding cells, and called for an investigation. Daley's office never replied. "This was not a legal decision," Brzeczek asserts today, "but a political decision. They chose to ignore it."

Andrew Wilson was sentenced to death, but, three years later, his confession was thrown out by the Supreme Court, which found ample evidence of extremely excessive police force. In 1987, at a new trial, Wilson's original death sentence was changed to life without parole. Wilson then sued the city and eventually won a $1.1m settlement.

It is thought by many that when the scandal came to light, Burge rode out on his boat and threw his electric shock machine into the dark waters of the Great Lake. But the scandal continued to unravel through the late Eighties and early Nineties, and Chicago's political establishment began to abandon him. Decorated war hero and police commander though he was, the redheaded Burge, with his heavy jowls and cocky sneer, was slated to take the blame for all of the violence and brutality and disregard for due process that had permeated Areas Two and Three for a quarter of a century under the purposely blind eye of Chicago's political machine.

In December 1991, after two years of demonstrations by supporters of the victims and a scathing Amnesty International report, the city's leadership suspended Burge. More than 2,000 police officers counter-demonstrated in support of him, and black-tie fundraisers were held in his honour. But there was now a mountain of evidence to support accusations of brutality by Area Two's force, and Burge was fired in 1993.

Yet despite dropping Burge, the police department and prosecution services never admitted a systematic pattern of abuse, settling civil suits without ever acknowledging criminal wrong-doing. Rather than throw in the towel and admit that Area Two had gone rotten, the state attorney's office still refuses to recognise all the other claims of torture. Official policy prevents their lawyers from talking about any pending case, and so none would comment on the allegations made by Darrell Cannon or the other prisoners against Burge. The current police department administration also refuses to comment. No other Area Two officers have been disciplined for their actions, and, six years after being fired, Burge himself has never been brought up on any criminal charges.

MORE THAN 1,5,00 miles from the rough streets of inner-city Chicago is the genteel little town of Apollo Beach, Florida, perched just north of Cockroach Bay on an inlet feeding into the Gulf of Mexico.

The weather in Florida ranges from the subtropical to the full-blown tropical, and when hurricanes aren't blowing the trailer parks to kingdom come, the mangrove swamps, the trees dripping with Spanish Moss, the golf courses and pastel-coloured strip malls make for a pretty comfortable retirement home for a good portion of America's over-fifties. The houses in Apollo Beach are almost all bungalows, painted pretty pinks and yellows and sky-blues, with grass lawns and carefully trimmed squat sabal palm trees. Yet, despite the suburban facade, this is also a place where people come to escape the gaze of a world that doesn't understand them.

The area surrounding the burgeoning city of Tampa, of which Apollo Beach is a part, is one of America's weirder parcels of real estate. The major roads of the region are dotted with trailer parks, as well as an astonishing number of pornographic book and video shops. In the small town of Dover, the Ku Klux Klan regularly hold their gatherings. Nazis, dressed in full Third Reich regalia, re-enact Second World War battles in the backwoods. And in the rawhide community of Gibsonton, two miles up Route 41 from Apollo Beach, dozens of retired carnival freaks - from the half-lady, so named because she was born with her feet protruding from her mid-section, to her husband, the world's tallest man; from the lobster family to the man with two penises; from the monkey woman to the man who hammers nails through his nose - live, or used to live, in run-down trailer-park communities. This is a part of the world where anything and anyone goes.

So it seems somehow appropriate that Jon Burge - now in his mid-fifties, and looking a bit like the violent, corrupt, gammy-legged police chief played by Orson Welles in the film Touch Of Evil - should have chosen to retire down here after his career in Chicago went up in flames.

Burge lives near the Apollo Beach golf course, in a large bungalow with pink wooden shutters, a red-tile roof and an swimming pool inside a glass solarium at the rear of the building. His back garden faces on to one of the town's numerous small canals, and his blue and white motor boat is berthed on a wooden pier behind the house. On the kind of private, white, suburban American street that reeks of conformity and suspicion of strangers, the ex-commander's house stands out for its excessive sterility: the walls and the driveway look as if they have never been touched, never been smudged or even breathed upon; his car is hidden behind the locked door of his garage; the garden has no flowery touches; and drawn blinds shut out the world.

The ex-commander's phone number is unlisted. A Vietnam veteran, he is not a member of any of the myriad American Legion and Veteran of Foreign Wars posts in the vicinity. A boat-owner, he is not a member of either of the town's marinas. Neither is he a member of the golf course which is a stone's throw from his property, nor of the nearby racquet club and gym. His is the existence of a man who does not want the world to know where he is.

Burge does not reply to letters that I send him. When I knock on his door he tells me he doesn't like my "ethics or manners", orders me off his land and threatens to call the sheriff. When I phone him he shouts down the line, "You're causing me great personal angst and anxiety. I have nothing to say. My friend, I don't need to defend myself. I've done nothing wrong and I don't need to talk to you or anyone else." He proceeds to insult me a few times, and then hangs up.

But the alleged victims of Burge's methods are only too keen to talk about them. Ronald Kitchen, for example, who spoke to me by phone from Pontiac's Death Row while I was at his lawyer's office. (Journalists are not allowed into these murky regions of the US prison system.) Kitchen, who has always denied his guilt in the quintuple murder for which he was sentenced, describes being "walloped real good", repeatedly beaten with a telephone book and nightstick, and kicked in the groin by Burge and others for close to 18 hours, until he agreed to sign a confession. A drug dealer at that time, he says: "My groin was messed up bad. I was bleeding from the groin. My testicles were swollen like balloons or something. The city doctor had my groin in a sling [for 40 days] so my testicles wouldn't rub against my thighs. I was walking bent over, gap-legged. I was messed up bad."

And then there is Aaron Patterson: a self-confessed bad guy (like many of Burge's alleged victims) who none the less burns with righteous indignation. Patterson grew up near the old steel mills of South Side Chicago and had been in and out of trouble with the police for years before his arrest in 1986, at the age of 22. When the officers tried to get him into the squad car, Patterson bolted. As he did so, a gun went off. Patterson would later tell his mother that the gun fell out of his pocket and went off accidentally. The police believed he was trying to kill them. Either way, Patterson went into hiding. When the police caught up with him, at a friend's house, they charged him with the particularly vicious stabbing murders of an old Hispanic couple, named Sanchez, who had served as fences for stolen goods. It was a random killing, completely out of character with Patterson's way of doing things - "his MO [modus operandi] was guns. He'd shoot or beat you. He didn't carry knives," his mother JoAnn says, matter- of-factly - and for a long while Patterson denied all knowledge of the crime.

"Maybe they thought he did it but they pretty much went for him," says Flint Taylor. "It was like he was known on the streets as a real gang- leader. They thought he was a good candidate for it. So everybody they went to, they said, `We want Patterson... Give us Patterson.'" When he was being interviewed, alleges Taylor, "Burge walks in. He's more of a supervisory role on this case. But when things weren't going the way they wanted them to, he came in with the State's Attorney, and put a gun on the table. This is after two baggings and they hadn't got what they wanted; they wanted him to sign a statement. Burge puts his gun on the table, which is one of his MOs, and says `You're going to get treated worse than you've already been treated if you don't confess.'"

It took a while, but eventually Patterson confessed. But the young man, whose father was a policeman at the time - "You've got a big mouth, just like your father," Aaron remembers one of the white officers telling him - waited until his interrogators were out of the room, and then used a paperclip to etch into a bench that he had only admitted to the crime after being suffocated with a typewriter bag, beaten and told by Burge that he would be shot dead unless he owned up. "I passively agreed to what they said," he writes, "by repeating these words, `Whatever you say,' every time they kept saying things in reference to the case. Burge pulled a gun on me because I wouldn't tell the State's Attorney what the detectives wanted me to say."

As soon as he got to court, Patterson told the judge that he had only confessed after being tortured. The judge wanted none of it, and Patterson wound up on Death Row. Since 1990, he has been kept in virtual isolation in what is known as a Secure Housing Unit. He is still hoping that newly uncovered evidence suggesting another's guilt - a man who knew the Sanchezes and who has now been incarcerated for a similar crime - will free him. And he's still hoping that the courts will recognise that he was tortured in time to prevent him from being executed by lethal injection.

CHICAGO HAS a long history of violence, both gangster- and police-related. Not far from where Cannon says he was tortured is a reputed mob dumping- ground for victims of hits. The People's Law Office, now representing Cannon and many others putative torture victims, first made a name for themselves investigating the FBI and Chicago police force's role in the shooting deaths of Chicago's Black Panther leadership in the late Sixties. Last summer, arresting officers managed to shoot dead three unarmed suspects in the space of only a couple of weeks. In the autumn, a jury awarded over $25m to a man who was shot and paralysed by police. And just a few weeks ago a man in an interrogation room apparently killed himself by relieving himself of his handcuffs, lunging at an officer, grabbing his gun and shooting himself in the mouth. Many community activists believe he was, in fact, shot by the police.

But the Burge affair is of a different order, and sooner or later Chicago will have to face up to it. Some time in the next few months, the judge hearing Cannon's case will have to make his rulings on torture charges based on evidence laid out before him by doctors who specialise in treating torture victims, by an investigator from the Office of Professional Standards and set out in several prisoners' personal witness statements. But there are also at least five other prisoners who claim that Burge or his underlings tortured them, and who are having arguments heard in the state and federal courts this winter. Several other death-row inmates are pushing for new trials, and the validity of the confessions of a whole clutch of prisoners is now being questioned. If the courts start overturning enough of the Burge-induced confessions, this could turn into a truly spectacular American scandal, exposing a pattern of police violence as terroristic as many of the crimes against which the police were supposed to be fighting.

The Chicago PD would not be the first police department to take the view that - in the words of Richard Brzeczek - "Yeah, we know he did it, but we have to circumvent these goofy rules of due process, either by lying or fabricating evidence, whatever it takes to convict this person... It's OK, because he's going to do the time for all the crimes he didn't get caught for." But fitting people up is one thing, systematic torture another; and Burge's detractors claim to find echoes of Kurtz - in Conrad's Heart of Darkness - in his apparent transformation from champion of law and order to lawless bully who seemed to revel in his power to inflict injury on those he had within his clutches. At the very least, his fall from grace reads like an unusually disturbing cautionary tale.

In the end, this story is not a story about innocent men framed for crimes they did not commit, although that is certainly a part of it. Rather, it is about how a democratic society, which claims to imbue all its citizens with "inalienable rights", deals with those people - almost always poor and often non-white - who have chosen, or fallen into, lives of crime, or who have otherwise fallen outside the margins of the acceptable.

The story of Cannon and Burge is, ultimately, a story about power. Says Brzeczek, "In this town, anything's possible. If you're part of the in- group, you're in, and if you're not part of the in-group, you're not." For the better part of two decades, Burge was in. Now he seems to be out. But not until the judges start ruling will Chicago discover whether he really has fallen out of favour, or whether he's just lying low, enjoying the Florida sun.


Above: Darrell Cannon in Cook County gaol with his attorney, Tim Lohraff of the People's Law Office. Cannon is one of dozens of Chicago prisoners who claim to have been tortured into making confessions by Jon Burge's Area Two Violent Crimes Unit

Clockwise from near left: Jon Burge, alleged instigator of Area Two's reign of terror; the old police HQ - now a community centre - where many of the tortures are said to have been carried out; Phillip Adkins, one of those who claim to have been tortured

Above: Darrell Cannon demonstrates some of the tortures he claims to have suffered at the hands of Burge's unit.

Right: one of a number of drawings he has produced to illustrate how he was treated

Clockwise from top: Jon Burge's Florida retreat; demonstrators protest against police brutality in Chicago; and JoAnn Patterson with a picture of her son, Aaron, who claims to have been tortured by Burge's unit