The top prosecutor in Illinois is trying to turn the page from a dark period in Chicago police history. It’s believed that one bad cop preyed on innocent residents of a housing project, rounding up dozens of people on bogus charges. So far, 42 wrongly convicted people have been exonerated.
An empty lot is now all that’s left of the Ida B. Wells housing project where a group of corrupt Chicago cops preyed almost risk-free on residents for most of a decade. Sergeant Ronald Watts was their ringleader. Residents have accused him and his tactical squad of extortion, filing false police reports, planting evidence and assault.
Willie Martin and Cleon Glover are two of those exonerated so far by Cook County state attorney Kim Foxx.
“If you didn’t cooperate with him, you was going down. You was against him. You was against his operation and his way of getting money,” Cleon Glover said of Watts.
“I was terrified. I was trying to get away, get out of that neighborhood. I had nowhere to go,” Willie Martin said.
Lawyers from Foxx’s conviction integrity unit are reviewing 30 to 40 additional cases connected to Watts.
Ida B. Wells housing resident Landon Allen said a lot of people spoke up about Watts. “Everybody spoke up,” he said. But it didn’t matter. As Clarissa Baker, another former resident, pointed out, it was their word against a sergeant with a badge.
“He has his own gang. So who would believe us?” Baker said.
Joshua Tepfer of the University of Chicago’s exoneration project says the answer until recently was no one.
“They let it go on because they viewed these people as disposable and they didn’t care because they’re black people in the housing projects who in their minds were guilty of something anyway,” Tepfer said.
Sgt. Watts went to prison in 2013 and served 22 months for trying to steal from an FBI informant. Martez Wise went to prison too – because of Watts.
“During that time I had just had my son. I was away from him for four years. He barely even know who I was because he was just born, so I had to re-bond with him,” Wise said.
Four years taken away for nothing.