No journalist knows more about Burge, or the band of alleged torturers in blue he is supposed to have led, than Conroy. Yet, on the first day of jury selection in early May, Conroy didn’t have an assignment to cover the trial. He showed up in the twenty-fifth-floor courtroom anyway. Faith and stubbornness made him go. “I’ll probably cover it for somebody, hopefully not full of resentment for what I’m being paid,’’ he says. “Part of me is wondering why I’m doing this. I guess there’s this sense of seeing something through. And I actually think I could cover this case pretty well.’’
Conroy sat about twenty-five feet behind Burge. From behind, Conroy says, Burge looked much the same as he did when they first met in 1989. When Burge slowly got out of his chair and said, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,’’ to the prospective jurors, Conroy says he recognized “the same gravelly voice.’’
When the proceedings finished for the day, Conroy lingered, hoping to have a word with Burge. But Burge and his lawyers left too quickly. “I would have said hello,’’ Conroy says. “I don’t know how he feels about what I have done. There are a lot of people out there screaming that Jon Burge is a monster, but I have not portrayed Jon Burge as a monster.’’ In a 2005 piece, for example, Conroy dug into Burge’s army record from the 1960s that described how the eighteen-year-old recruit went on to become a military policeman in Korea, “gathering five letters of appreciation from superiors that praised his loyalty, devotion to duty, outstanding performance, military bearing, appearance, attention to detail, tact, and extra effort.”
In 1968, Burge volunteered for Vietnam. He returned home in 1969 and soon joined the Chicago Police Department. In 1972, Conroy wrote, Burge prevented a twenty-two-year-old woman on the South Side from committing suicide by jamming his thumb into the firing mechanism an instant before she squeezed the trigger.
“I think if you were to look at the press coverage of Jon Burge and look who has written about the heroic things that he did on the job and in Vietnam, I’m pretty much solo,’’ Conroy adds. “If someone else did it too, they took it from my coverage.’’
As a young reporter in the mid-1970s, Conroy was about to leave his job at Chicago Magazine. Both man and magazine were young and raw, and he planned to move to South America to make his mark as a foreign correspondent. But a colleague convinced him to move instead to South Chicago, the land of steel mills and the tough people who worked them—Serbs, Croatians, Latinos, and African Americans. The colleague told him there were great stories to be told about urban politics, union conflicts, race, and the fading American dream. It was the gritty stuff of Upton Sinclair and Nelson Algren. Conroy agreed.
For decades, South Chicago had been one of America’s entry points, a portal through which waves of migrants from Eastern Europe, Mexico, and the American South had come to find their footing. By the time Conroy arrived, the earth had shifted. The mills were on the edge of a steep and swift decline. A way of life was coming to an end. “I didn’t quite understand it on an emotional level at the time,’’ he says. “I wish I had made that connection because I’m now part of a dying industry. I didn’t understand what it means that something that seemed rock solid when you were growing up would become a relic, something people talked about referring to the old days.’’
He wrote a five-part series about what he saw and learned in South Chicago, including the rise of a young politician nicknamed Fast Eddie and a bitter union election. “There was a lot of racism in South Chicago,’’ he says. “And it’s a cliché to call the politics bare-knuckled, but that’s what it was. There were fist fights and people got hurt.’’
When his worthless ’63 Chevy was stolen and one of the people he was writing about threatened to throw him down the stairs, Conroy decided it was finally time to see the world. In 1977, he went to Northern Ireland and freelanced for the Chicago Daily News, which had recently shut down its foreign bureaus as that great paper slid toward its grave.
Conroy spent a few weeks there and quickly realized how “bad the press coverage of Northern Ireland was,’’ he says. “Reporters would fly over when there was a major incident. It was covered like you’d cover a fire. There wasn’t any context to it. People back here couldn’t understand why these two people who had the same color skin and worshiped the same God were fighting each other.’’