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.
In May, high above the streets of the city he patrolled for years, often with honor and distinction, the alleged leader of the torture ring, Jon Burge—a burly, first-through-the-door, decorated Vietnam veteran—went on trial in federal district court in Chicago. Burge’s path to the Dearborn Street courthouse was blazed by the more than 100,000 words Conroy wrote over the years about the case.
But Burge, who is sixty-two, lives in Florida on a police pension, and is reportedly battling cancer, is not facing charges of torture. The statute of limitations on that charge ran out long ago. Instead, he is facing perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly lying in 2003 during a civil suit about his role in the torture ring. Burge has always maintained his innocence. One of his lawyers, Richard Beuke, refused to comment on the case or Conroy. Beuke said Burge would not comment either.