Lyon says everyone involved in Chicago’s criminal justice system knew something was amiss at the Area 2 police headquarters on the city’s Far South Side, where most of the alleged torture took place. Prosecutors knew it. Judges knew. Reporters knew, too. But no one, she says, said or wrote anything about it until Conroy and maybe one or two others came along. “The groundwork came from John Conroy rolling that big stone up that steep hill,’’ she says. “He’s utterly trustworthy and honest. You don’t hand over your files to him if you think your guy is guilty. He’ll find a witness that maybe the prosecution couldn’t find. He’s patient, easy to talk to. He’s smart but not arrogant. He’s part of a dying breed, a real-life investigative reporter who cares. He’s an unsung hero.’’
Where has Conroy gone? Wherever he can find work. Conroy—the author of two well-received nonfiction books, Belfast Diary: War As A Way of Life, on the troubles in Northern Ireland, and Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, an examination of the practice of torture in three democracies: Belfast, Israel, and Chicago—has transformed from journalist to juggler, trying to keep several freelance jobs in the air at once. One of his gigs is writing scripts for online health videos about domestic violence, STDs, and childhood obesity. He’s written a few magazine pieces, including a first-person account of getting mugged in 2008. He has done some radio reporting. He has also worked as an investigator for a lawyer pal with whom he plays hockey in a no-slap-shot, no-check league. He started playing at age fifty-four. So far, he’s worked on two narcotics cases for his friend and now is investigating a murder case—the stabbing of a barber on Thanksgiving eve, 2008. “I have to do other things to support the journalism,’’ he says. “It’s very stressful. The pay is low and getting lower. It’s become demeaning. I have two kids. I’m not a spring chicken. Sometimes I am given to despair.’’
Tall and lanky, with the lived-in face of a character actor, Conroy is the kind of reporter your mother dreamed you would grow up to be: dogged, driven, caring, righteous, cranky, smoldering, and moral. Don’t take your mother’s word for it, though. Check it out. Conroy would.
Stretching back nearly two decades, Conroy’s nuanced, morally complicated stories about what was allegedly happening inside “the house of screams’’ set the agenda for much of the coverage by Chicago’s two daily newspapers and its television newsrooms. Conroy’s articles, such as a piece he wrote in 2006 called, “The Police Torture Scandals: A Who’s Who,’’ were a vital road map for any reporter—or prosecutor, defense lawyer, or civilian police department investigator—coming fresh to the story. “The scale of criminality,’’ he wrote,
is immense: hundreds of assaults (most victims were subjected to more than one attack), hundreds of acts of misconduct qualifying as felonies. Some detectives, called to testify in various proceedings, may have committed perjury on five or more occasions in a single case.
And knowledge of the abuse traveled up the ranks: Police superintendents were informed of the torture and knew the identities of some of the torturers. State’s attorneys were informed of the torture, and no one was ever prosecuted. Now that the statute of limitations has run on many if not all of these crimes, state prosecution is unlikely, though victims’ attorneys hold out hope that federal charges are possible.
All of the known victims are black. Some were sent to death row on the basis of tortured confessions and perjured testimony by police, and many are still serving long sentences. All of their confessions are suspect.
Most of the accused police officers are white. Many have been promoted or have retired with pensions. Some of the prosecutors informed of the torture are now judges. One serves on the Illinois Appellate Court. And one is the mayor.
The tools of torture included burning suspects on radiators, beatings, mock executions, games of Russian roulette, near suffocation with typewriter covers, and electric shock to the genitals. No one has been tried for the alleged torture that went on inside the house of screams. Until now.