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.
In 1996, the Reader published his second long article on the case, “Town Without Pity, Police Torture: The courts know about it, the media know about it, and chances are you know about it. So why aren’t we doing anything about it?’’ Michael Miner, a Reader editor who writes a popular media column for the paper, edited most of the seventeen stories Conroy wrote about police torture. They often worked at Conroy’s kitchen table in suburban Chicago, poring over documents and eating homemade scones.
The men knew they were treading in sensitive political territory. Every fact or assertion was double- and triple-checked. “John’s a fastidious guy,’’ Miner says. “He holds himself to a higher standard than anyone I know. He was extremely cautious in what he reported.’’ They also knew they had “a terrific’’ story on their hands. “It seemed to be our franchise,’’ Miner says. “One story suggested another. It was just a bottomless well of material.’’
One day in early December 2007, Miner was in the Reader office just north of the Loop when Alison True, the editor, said she wanted to talk to him. True has been the Reader’s editor since 1994. She proudly had given Conroy the time and the space to tell his incredible stories. Some of them ran close to 12,000 words. What True wanted to talk to Miner about was layoffs. It broke her heart, she told Miner, but Conroy and three other feature writers had to be let go. The paper, its editorial budget cut nearly in half, could no longer afford what Conroy did best. “The investigative reporters who remain on staff,’’ she says, “are the ones who are in the paper every week.’’