John Conroy, Chicago Reader: Criminal Damage?
It was the worst crime scene many detectives had ever seen. A building had caught fire on the south side of Chicago in January of 1987. Seven people trapped inside died, including a mother and her child on the third floor. More than a dozen other people were seriously injured, some with burns and some with broken bones from jumping out of windows to escape the flames.
There were several ambulances, fire engines everywhere. Neighbors came out with blankets and shoes. Police arrived. Eventually, many of them relocated to the hospitals and the morgue to begin collecting evidence and statements.
In short time, investigators determined the fire was an arson. An unknown offender had poured accelerant outside apartment 301, the dwelling where the woman and her child died. The seven people who died really didn’t have a chance. They died cornered by the flames fast approaching them.
Eventually, police visited the man who was the father/husband of the woman and child who had died together in apartment 301. His name was Madison Hobley. Somehow Hobley had escaped the flames, though his wife and child didn’t. Originally contacted as a potential witness, Hobley’s conflicting statements drew the suspicion of the detectives, who read Hobley his rights and asked him to take a lie detector test, which he failed. Hobley then admitted to the crimes twice, saying he set the fire because his wife would not let Hobley’s mistress live with them in the same household.
Throughout their interactions with Hobley, the detectives were impressed with how little emotion he demonstrated after just losing his own wife and son.
Hobley would be sent to death row, joining a group of men later known as the Death Row 10. These men would claim they were tortured into confessing to their various crimes. Some would get out of prison, including Hobley.
Eventually, Hobley would settle for $6 million with the City of Chicago.
Of all the wrongful conviction cases, Hobley’s was in many ways the most incredible. One day he is convicted of seven murders and is sent to death row, the next he is a multi-millionaire.
The main journalist who took up Hobley’s claims of innocence—the journalist whose influence helped spring Hobley and make him rich—was a reporter from the Chicago Reader, John Conroy. In many ways, Conroy’s articles about Hobley marked the climax of his career.
Before taking up the Hobley case, Conroy had written articles throughout the 1980s and 1990s at the Reader claiming a group of detectives, led by Jon Burge, were a collection of racist thugs. These detectives had, according to Conroy, beaten confessions out of guilty and innocent men alike, even electrocuted them. According to Conroy’s articles, Burge and his men really didn’t care if the man they identified as the perpetrator was guilty or innocent.
Conroy enjoyed a long relationship with wrongful conviction law firms, his articles filled with their quotes and claims about cases. Despite these regular articles at the Reader, Conroy’s articles never resulted in any conviction of Burge or his men. In fact, none of Burge’s men had ever been convicted in a criminal case or lost a civil trial in connection with abuse allegations against them.
That is not to say Conroy’s articles didn’t have a huge impact. His relentless drum beats against Burge and his men eventually pushed the claims against Burge to a hearing in front of the Police Board, a collection of civilians who have the power to hire and fire police officers. At the end of these police board hearings where Conroy’s theories of police torture were given full expression, Burge was fired and two of his men were suspended for 15 months. The two underlings eventually returned to work, but Burge never did.
Burge’s firing provided a legitimacy to the claims of torture against him. It was huge achievement for Conroy and the Chicago Reader.
There was another crucial body of evidence generated against Burge and his men. After Burge’s firing, a special prosecutor was convened. This special prosecutor ultimately published a report on their findings. The report concluded systemic abuse had taken place among Burge’s men, but stated the statute of limitations had run out. Burge and his men could not be indicted, it said.
With Burge’s firing, the special prosecutor’s report, and the claims of dozens of gangbangers and killers, Conroy became an icon in the Chicago journalism community, in particular at the Chicago Reader. He wrote books, gave speeches about police torture.
But what truly gave wings to Conroy’s claims against the police was an event that took place in 1999. That was when Northwestern University’s Innocence Project convinced prosecutors to release convicted killer and death row resident Anthony Porter for a 1982 double murder and indict another man, Alstory Simon, for the same killings. Northwestern Professor David Protess and his Private Investigator, Paul Ciolino, had obtained a bizarre confession from Simon to the two murders originally attributed to Porter. This confession compelled prosecutors to release Porter and convict Simon.
It was a story that garnered international attention, the image of death row inmate Anthony Porter walking free from prison into the embracing arms of David Protess played over and over all over the world.
It also gave greater legitimacy to Conroy’s theory that the Chicago Police were racist thugs, for, though Burge and his men were not involved in the case, Porter’s exoneration was built on the claim that other detectives framed Porter and ignored evidence that Simon was guilty, just as Conroy had argued that Burge and his men in Area 2 framed innocent men.
When Northwestern investigators got Alstory Simon to confess in open court that he committed the murders, and not Anthony Porter, well, Conroy’s myths about the Chicago Police seemed unassailable.
Here, at last, was confirmation in a courtroom of the what Conroy had been arguing all along: that Chicago Police framed innocent men. They were racist. They were willing to torture men. Then they would lie about it. And all the detectives involved in a dirty case, often a dozen of them on one case, would all stick to their lies, no matter what.
The Porter case transformed the Illinois justice system. Former Governor George Ryan stated he was so overwhelmed by the exoneration of Porter that he ordered a moratorium on the death penalty. Then, in the wake of the Porter exoneration, Ryan pardoned several more men.
After the Porter exoneration, the claims of police abuse exploded. Every inmate who watched Anthony Porter walk off death row realized if Porter could get out, so could they. How many other cases were there where police had coerced confessions, gotten the wrong men? Conroy and the other journalists in town were happy to jump in with the answers. It was limitless. Claim after claim of police abuse came forward, claims that cops were beating and framing people as investigations against Burge and his men were taking shape.
In the wake of Porter exoneration, attorneys for other inmates claimed their clients were innocent.
One, incredibly, was Madison Hobley. Hobley’s attorneys, Andrea Lyon, a law professor at DePaul University, and Kurt Feuer from Loevy and Loevy, claimed detectives beat a confession from Hobley. They also maintained detectives planted false evidence at the crime scene and that prosecutors withheld evidence.
Conroy began “investigating” these claims by Hobley and his attorneys.
It was around the time Conroy began investigating the Hobley case that Alstory Simon, the man who “confessed” to the Porter murders, now came forward with a strange tale of his own. He said he was coerced into confessing to the 1982 murders by Northwestern investigator Paul Ciolino and Professor David Protess. He said the men promised him money from movie and book deals for confessing. If he refused, Simon claimed the men said he could get the death penalty for the murders. Simon said he caved in and went along with the plan.
Not one wrongful conviction journalist in the city gave Simon the time of day about his allegations. In fact, not one journalist ever even contacted him.
Fast forward to more than a decade later. Simon finally found some people willing to listen to his story. It was two former ATF agents, now private detectives, John Mizzola and Jim Delorto. Later, retired journalist Bill Crawford would also join them, and then the Conviction Project. These men began to break down the claims of Northwestern about the Porter case. It was a chilling body of evidence they discovered. Clearly, they all concluded, Porter was guilty of the murders and Simon was innocent.
And it was the nature of the evidence that proved Porter’s guilt and Simon’s innocence that was most troubling. The evidence was obvious, right there in the public record of the case and in the facts of the police investigation.
This evidence revealed that the media had never really investigated the Porter murders at all. Instead, the journalists had just echoed the claims of wrongful conviction lawyers without checking the facts. In fact, with just the simplest review, the claims by Northwestern fell completely apart.
One example in particular illuminates this fact.
The detectives in the original Porter murders obtained six witnesses who fingered Porter as the killer. Two of the witnesses were obtained at the crime scene right after the murders. One of them described in detail how Porter raised a pistol and shot the two victims, down to the fact that Porter fired from his left hand.
A second group of witnesses was discovered the following day by the detectives and a prosecutor during a walk through at the crime scene. The statements of this second group matched the first exactly, including the claim that Porter fired from his left hand. The narratives were so identical that it would be impossible for both groups to have accidentally articulated the same story in such detail.
It was instant confirmation to the detectives and the prosecutor that both groups of witnesses were telling the truth and that Porter was the killer. The two groups of witnesses also undermined any ludicrous claims of coercion by the detectives, for the corroborating statements of the witnesses rejected the claim that Porter was innocent or that any witness had been coerced by the detectives.
These two sets of independent witnesses, obtained hours apart, completely obliterated the Northwestern theories about the case. And yet the evidence was right there in the police reports and court transcripts. It was obvious. Nevertheless, the significance of these matching witness statements was never revealed by Northwestern, nor was it mentioned by any of the journalists they had in their back pocket.
To this day, Northwestern investigators have never explained the significance of these independent witnesses in the Porter case.
Clearly, either the journalists never bothered to review the case in the wake of Northwestern allegations, or they were covering up the evidence. Most likely, some journalists never bothered to look, and some covered it up.
All of this brings us back to John Conroy and his Madison Hobley investigation at the Chicago Reader, which was unfolding just after the media completely failed to investigate the Porter exoneration.
One has to ask: Was Conroy’s investigation into the Hobley case crooked in the same manner as the Porter case? Was Conroy willing to overlook key evidence in his coverage of the Hobley case? In other words, is the journalism malfeasance in the Porter exoneration part of a larger pattern of evidence?
Conroy investigated the Hobley case. He wrote the definitive “Hobley is Innocent” article that appeared in the Chicago Reader on May 25, 2000, entitled “This is a Magic Can.” At the time the Chicago Reader published this article, Alstory Simon was serving the first year of his 37-year sentence.
The centerpiece of the Conroy article are the claims of Hobley’s attorneys that a gas can found by detectives at the crime scene the day after the murders vindicated Hobley. This gas can was evidence of a police frame-up, according to the attorneys. The controversy over the gas can eventually led to a long evidentiary review. A judge eventually ruled that there was nothing about the gas can sufficient to overturn Hobley’s conviction.
The long and short of the gas can was this. Detectives returned to the crime scene the day afterward and canvassed the building. They found the can on the second floor of the building in an apartment. They took it, inventoried it and sent it out for fingerprints to see if it was the can Hobley used. The fingerprints came back negative. It may or may not have been the gas can used by Hobley. But it is hardly a crucial factor in the case.
Conroy’s article goes into fine details about the Hobley case, about the gas can, about his arrest, the police investigation, and Hobley’s trial. But just as Northwestern and the media ignored the central, crucial facts of detectives obtaining independent witness statements in the Porter case, Conroy ignores a central event that undermines Hobley’s claims of innocence.
Conroy’s intentional leaving out of this central event is one of the most chilling examples of corruption in the history of Chicago’s media machine.
Here is what happened.
In the course of their investigation, detectives learned that Hobley’s motive to set the fire arose from a love triangle. He had begun an affair with another woman. His wife found out about it and left him. Hobley hatched a bizarre plan in which he tried to convince both his wife and his mistress that they could all live together under one roof. Needless to say, neither his wife nor his mistress took to the idea.
Hobley’s wife moved out, to an apartment of a friend, taking their son with her. Hobley began making threatening phone calls to the apartment, demanding that his wife and child return home. He came to the apartment, banging on the door. Then he threw a brick through the window of the apartment.
The police were called. Two officers completed a case report for criminal damage to property. While the police were on scene, the phone rang. The woman who rented the apartment told police it was probably Hobley making threats. She asked the police to listen to the call on another phone. The police did so.
The two officers heard Hobley tell the woman that if his wife and child didn’t return home, he would set the apartment on fire.
There it was. Hobley threatened an arson against his wife and child weeks before an actual arson murdered his wife and child, an arson he confessed to twice. When the detectives investigating the Hobley arson became aware of this case report and his threats, they were certain that they had the right man. What would be the chances that these threats by Hobley weeks earlier were just a coincidence, particularly given all the other evidence against him?
Of course, any legitimate work of journalism on the case would include a review of this crucial event, right? It would take a lot of explaining in an article to cast doubt on the significance of Hobley threatening to set his wife and son on fire weeks before an actual arson took their lives.
Well, Conroy didn’t attempt to explain it. In his definitive article for the Reader, Conroy never even mentioned this central fact of arson threats by Hobley. Conroy just ignored it, spinning a long narrative of how crooked the detectives were because of some gas can.
It’s hard to overestimate the magnitude of this clearly intentional omission, as crooked and depraved as Northwestern investigators David Protess and Paul Ciolino, along with their media sycophants, never mentioning the significance of two independent groups of witnesses providing identical statements in the Porter case.
It’s a clear sign that when crucial evidence arises vindicating the detectives’ investigations, the activist journalists in Chicago just ignore it.
It is also a sign of just how deep, corrupt and sickening is the relationship between reporters in Chicago and wrongful conviction law firms.
How could any journalist write an article claiming Hobley was innocent and ignore the central, overwhelming event of Hobley revealing that arson was, in fact, in the forefront of his mind in the weeks preceding the inferno that murdered so many people?
One reason Conroy was forced to ignore this evidence was that he couldn’t undermine it. He couldn’t throw much suspicion on it. The officers, after all, who responded to the apartment where Hobley had thrown the brick through the window had no connection to the detectives investigating the arson. Besides, it was the friend of Hobley’s wife who called the police and then asked them to listen to the phone call on another line, so it would be hard to claim that these cops were lying about the threats or that they manufactured them.
The officers were so impressed by Hobley’s threats that they listed the arson threat in the narrative of the case report for the criminal damage. The officer who heard Hobley make the threats perceived the significance of them. He wrote another separate report to his supervisors, letting them know he thought Hobley was a serious danger. And, or course, this officer was right.
Remember how the Anthony Porter case paved the way for Hobley’s exoneration? Remember how Governor Ryan pardoned Porter and then used the Porter case to justify his moratorium on the death penalty and his claims that error and abuse plagued so many wrongful convictions?
Here is Ryan’s own statement:
"How do you prevent another Anthony Porter -- another innocent man or woman from paying the ultimate penalty for a crime he or she did not commit? Today, I cannot answer that question."
Well, a funny thing happened in the last few years. The pressure applied by Delorto, Mizzola, Bill Crawford and the Conviction Project that the Porter case was a fraud eventually compelled Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to review the case. Last year Alvarez released Alstory Simon from prison, the man Northwestern said was the real killer. In releasing Simon, Alvarez assailed Northwestern investigators, former professor David Protess, his sidekick private investigator Paul Ciolino and an attorney Protess and Ciolino obtained for Simon, Jack Rimland.
Alvarez admitted that the conduct of these three men may very well have been criminal.
From the Tribune:
“The bottom line is the investigation conducted by Protess and private investigator Ciolino as well as the subsequent legal representation of Mr. Simon were so flawed that it's clear the constitutional rights of Mr. Simon were not scrupulously protected as our law requires," said Alvarez, who indicated she would have considered obstruction of justice or witness intimidation charges if the statute of limitations hadn't run out.
Turns out Alstory Simon’s claims of being railroaded by Northwestern and the Chicago media were true.
In the wake of this bombshell announcement by Alvarez, one would think that the journalists who wrote so many stories about the wrongful conviction movement might take a second look at the Porter case. They might see if other cases were similarly corrupted.
Not Conroy. Even though the Conviction Project tried repeatedly to get him and his colleagues to address the fact that Alstory Simon was a wrongful conviction, Conroy would not touch the case. He has not written one word about the Porter fiasco, nor drawn any lines from it to the Hobley case, lines that clearly exist, for likely Hobley would never had been pardoned by Governor Ryan had not Porter been pardoned first, had not the Porter exoneration set a precedent.
It gets worse. Why does it always get worse in Chicago?
Conroy now won’t even talk about his coverage of the Hobley case.
In the wake of the Porter case falling apart and the now growing signs that the Hobley case is also a fraudulent exoneration, Conroy has refused to answer any questions from the Conviction Project, even though he currently teaches investigative reporting at DePaul University.
He will not take any calls, nor respond to any email queries.
One wonders: Why? If Conroy truly believes Hobley is innocent and Conroy can argue it with evidence, wouldn’t he relish the opportunity to refute any criticism? This is, after all, one of the crowning achievements of his career.
Conroy’s not the only one. Hobley’s main attorney, former DePaul law professor, Andrea Lyon, also refuses to speak to the Conviction Project.
The Conviction Project, however, was able to interview the other attorney who worked on the Hobley case, Kurt Feuer.
But Feuer doesn’t clear up any confusion about the Hobley exoneration. Feuer’s comments only add to the absurdity of Hobley’s innocence claims.
When asked, for example, about the arson threats Hobley made weeks before the actual arson, Feuer dismissed them, alleging—what else—the detectives were lying.
“The detectives could have made that up,” Feuer said.
What? The detectives manufactured a false police report about Hobley threatening an arson?
Wrongful conviction theories often move into the absurd, but every now and then their theories even defy the basic laws of physics, the elemental rules of space and time.
It happened in the Porter case. Porter’s attorneys expected the city to settle his case after he was exonerated, but an attorney for the detectives decided to go to trial. All of a sudden, as this trial approached, Porter and his attorneys began to see their million dollar payday slipping away. Porter began panicking. Porter suddenly alleged sixteen years after the murders, right before the civil trial was to begin, that detectives attempted to torture him into confessing. There was one problem, though. The detectives never met Porter in the course of their investigation. They only had a warrant put out for his arrest.
So how did detectives torture a man they did not encounter? This seminal, obvious question was never raised by Chicago journalists, who nevertheless claimed they had thoroughly “investigated” the Porter saga. This clearly false allegation of torture never even attracted their attention.
Feuer’s claim that the detectives made up the case report about Hobley’s arson threats is just as absurd. They are a telling insight into the depraved bias that guides the wrongful conviction imagination, their willingness to make any claim to get offenders out of prison, even offenders who kill seven people.
Think about it for just a moment.
What evil genius of a detective, mired in a vast crime scene of seven dead and 17 wounded, all scattered about at area hospitals or at the morgue, would come up with a plan to create a false case report from several weeks earlier alleging the arson threats and naming Hobley as the author of those threats?
That would mean that in the earliest moments of the arson investigation, the detectives had decided to pin the crime on Hobley, before they even knew who he was. It would mean they somehow got Hobley’s name at the crime scene, somehow contacted one another (this was the era before cell phones), all decided to frame this guy Hobley and agree on a narrative about his involvement when they hadn’t even processed the crime scene evidence yet. How could they be sure the evidence wouldn’t point to another offender and their conspiracy would be exposed?
How did the detectives at the arson crime scene know that Hobley and his wife had split weeks earlier? How did they know she was, in fact, staying at a friend’s apartment? How did they know the whole history of his affair and betrayal of his wife so that they could put it all in their manufactured case report?
But it gets even weirder. A police case report instantly generates a report number from the 911 center. The detectives can’t make one up. The report is then distributed to various departments, depending on the nature of the alleged crime. One copy stays in the district, one goes to headquarters.
If the detectives made up this case report to justify their arrest of Hobley, how did the detectives know the right number to put on it, as the numbers are chronologically derived, and how did they get copies of it distributed throughout the department? All this within one day of the actual arson?
If detectives had manufactured a false case report, it would have been simple to discover and Hobley would have had a legitimate appeal, which he would have likely won.
The manufactured, false case report is totally impossible, a completely ludicrous claim by Feuer. How did the detectives get two patrolmen to go along with the forged case report? How did they know they were working the night Hobley made the threats? How did they know they weren’t on another call? How did they know they would go along with the detectives’ ruse? How did they know Hobley’s wife and the woman who rented the apartment would go along with it? How did the detectives even know this apartment existed?
It’s bad enough that Feuer will still maintain some absurd claim about a key piece of evidence, but it is even more incredible that John Conroy could publish an article about the arson and ignore this central event of Hobley’s arson threats weeks before the actual arson.
It gives one pause.
Conroy’s willingness to ignore this central fact of the Hobley narrative brings to life so many other absurdities in the Hobley innocence claims. Let’s consider one.
Hobley admitted that after the arson he went back to his mother’s apartment and there took a bath. Prosecutors alleged that the purpose of this bath was to wash away any evidence of the arson, including gasoline on Hobley’s body.
Hobley denied this.
But who can imagine that a man who just lost his wife and child in a horrific fire would go and take a bath?
“Man oh man, that’s terrible news about my wife and child dying in that fire. It must have been terrible to slowly burn to death. If any one wants me, Mom, I’ll be in the tub.”
An innocent person would be so overcome with grief that a bath would be the last thing they would ever think of.
A guilty person, on the other hand…
No, Feuer’s dismissal of the Hobley threats being part of a detective conspiracy are ridiculous.
The truth is that the police did file a case report wherein Hobley threatened an arson. The truth is that, weeks later, Hobley did commit that arson that killed so many people. The truth is that Hobley did confess to the detectives. The truth is that the criminal justice system worked when it convicted Hobley and sentenced him to death row, just as it had worked in convicting Porter. Hobley and Porter both did it.
Hobley murdered seven people, including his own child. That’s why every legal proceeding that looked at Hobley’s case determined he was guilty.
Remember the Porter case? Remember how that case led to the exoneration of so many other offenders, including Hobley?
Remember how Alstory Simon was let out of prison at the behest of Cook County Prosecutor Anita Alvarez, who said the actions of Northwestern Professor David Protess and his private investigator Paul Ciolino were likely criminal?
Well, Alstory Simon’s attorneys have filed a $40 million lawsuit against Northwestern, Protess, and Ciolino. In it, they allege a vast pattern of corruption in the wrongful conviction movement, corruption going back decades over several cases, including the Hobley case.
For some reason, none of these instances of alleged corruption in the lawsuit ever found its way into any of Conroy’s articles.
One has to wonder why.
Why isn’t this new evidence forcing a reconsideration of the wrongful conviction narrative?
The reasons are ominous.
In the long history of Conroy’s reporting on the wrongful conviction movement, Jon Burge and his men were never convicted. It was a true thorn in the side of the wrongful conviction journalists, who insisted that Burge should be wasting away in prison.
Hobley eventually provided the basis of that conviction. In two two interrogatories by Burge in a civil lawsuit by Hobley’s lawyers, Burge denied ever abusing anyone. Those statements were ultimately used to obtain an indictment against Burge for perjury and obstruction of justice. Burge was convicted and sent to prison.
It was the conviction Conroy and his wrongful conviction allies always sought. It was the conviction that gave legitimacy to all of Conroy’s career.
But now, with the growing evidence of corruption in the media and the wrongful conviction movement, one has to reconsider the legitimacy of all the so-called evidence against Chicago Police over the last few decades.
Consider, for example, the special prosecutor’s report that concluded there was systemic abuse by Burge and his men.
One wonders if the special prosecutors had known about the corruption in the wrongful conviction movement, the bribed testimony, the obstruction of justice, the violation of constitutional rights, the lying witnesses, the journalistic conspiracy of reporters like Conroy, who refused to address crucial evidence, one wonders in the wake of all this if the special prosecutors would now make the same findings about the Chicago Police that they did so many years ago.
Or would they have called for an indictment not against Burge, but against the wrongful conviction activists?
We’ll never know.
Journalists and activists don’t want to explore the corruption in the movement because the evidence in the Anthony Porter and Madison Hobley exonerations threatens not simply to undermine a few cases, but rather the entire mythology of the movement.
And at the bottom of it is one question they don’t want to face.
Did Chicago journalists, in order to finally convict Jon Burge, do so by liberating a man who incinerated his own family?
Is this journalism in the Crooked City?