He started writing for the Reader in 1978. But he couldn’t get the troubles out of his mind. Both his parents traced their roots to Ireland. His family had visited when he was a teenager. He still had relatives there. In 1980 he returned to Northern Ireland for ten months on an Alicia Patterson Fellowship to work on what became his first book, Belfast Diary. He got more than a book out of it. He also met his wife, Colette Davison, a psychologist.
Belfast Diary was published in 1987. By then, Conroy was back at the Reader. In 1988 Ann Close, an editor at Knopf, contacted him and told him she had read and admired the book. She proposed he write another, this time specifically on torture, which was a way of life and war in Northern Ireland. Conroy had started researching torture around the world when a friend at the Chicago Lawyer newspaper told him about Andrew Wilson, a convicted cop killer, who claimed he had been tortured by police and was now suing in federal court.
Wilson’s suit sounded interesting but preposterous. Wilson and his brother, Jackie, had been convicted of killing not one officer, but two—William Fahey and Richard O’Brien—during a traffic stop in the winter of 1982. Now Wilson was saying he had been tortured by some of Chicago’s finest. Conroy walked into the courtroom, thinking Wilson did not have a chance. “He killed two cops—a career criminal, going up against decorated detectives—no way,’’ Conroy says.
As the six-week trial dragged on, Conroy slowly began changing his mind after listening to the medical testimony and hearing both Wilson and Jon Burge, who at the time was the head of Area 2’s detectives, testify. Maybe Wilson’s charges of being burned by police and receiving electric shocks to his genitals, nose, ears, and fingers were not that preposterous. Maybe they were true. “I can’t say there was a moment when I said, ‘Oh, my God, this is true,’’ he says. “It was a gradual dawning.’’
Something else dawned on him. “I began to realize how important this was,” he says. “And nobody seemed to care.’’
Conroy was often one of the few, if not the only, reporters in the courtroom. The proceedings ended in a mistrial, followed a short time later by a second weeks-long trial, in which Wilson won a mixed verdict. The jury found that his constitutional rights had been violated and that the city had a de facto policy of allowing police to abuse people suspected of killing police officers. But the jury also found that Wilson had not been subjected to excessive force as a result of that policy. (Wilson appealed and won a third civil suit in 1996. The city was ordered to pay $100,000 to the family of Officer Fahey, which had filed a wrongful death suit against Wilson, and another $900,000 to Wilson’s attorneys. Wilson did not receive a dime and died in prison of natural causes in 2007, about three weeks before Conroy was laid off.)
Conroy sat through the first two trials but did not publish a single word until the final verdict was in. His story in the Reader hit the street on January 25, 1990. The headline was, “House of Screams, Torture by Electroshock: Could it happen in a Chicago police station? Did it happen at Area 2?’’ He thought his work was done. Now the downtown dailies would jump all over the story and the house of screams would come tumbling down. “John really was kind of waiting around for the lid to blow off and nothing happened,’’ says Mike Lenehan, his former editor and still a close friend. “He was disillusioned. John has this strong streak of Irish Catholic to him. He’s just as upright as a guy can be.’’
If the press didn’t immediately see the import of Conroy’s story, the inmate population in Illinois certainly did. Soon, Burge and his detectives were facing dozens of accusations of torture. In 1993, after an internal police department investigation and as the accusations against him continued to pour in, the city’s Police Board fired Burge. He was never charged with a crime, though, and a number of men remained in prison, some on death row, as a result of the confessions they gave inside the interrogation room at Area 2. Conroy stayed on the story.