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Ronald Watts

Former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts leaves the Dirksen Federal Building in 2013 after receiving a 22 month sentence for his role in an FBI undercover sting. Last week Watts spoke publicly for the first time since his conviction.

Kevin Tanaka

As exonerees seek damages, a disgraced ex-police sergeant breaks his decadelong silence

After his 2015 release from federal custody, former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts moved to Las Vegas and kept a low profile.

He said nothing to the media as Cook County judges, starting the next year, threw out more than 200 felony convictions stemming from arrests by the CPD unit he led. He did not publicly criticize State’s Attorney Kim Foxx when she sidelined 10 former members of the unit from testifying in criminal cases — due to what her office described as “concerns about their credibility” in light of his corruption.

Now the exonerees are seeking punitive damages from Watts and compelling him to sit for depositions — five so far — in which their attorneys grill him under oath for hours.

And Watts, 59, is speaking publicly for the first time since his 22-month imprisonment for stealing what he thought was drug money from an FBI informant.

Watts, who now lives in Arizona, gave an hour-long interview last week to BlazeTV, a conservative web streaming service, saying an “anti-police atmosphere” explains his arrest, his 2013 guilty plea, Foxx’s benching of his former underlings, and all the exonerations tied to him.

In the interview, Watts told BlazeTV host Jason Whitlock that federal investigators, Foxx, journalists and liberal universities are all bent on attacking aggressive cops at the expense of communities like the one he policed on the South Side.

“Their agenda is to undermine law enforcement to change the whole system,” Watts said. “They’ve been just hammering me with falsehoods, untruths and lies over the past 10 years.”

“I’ve never done anything outside being hardworking and taking care of my family,” Watts added. “I have to defend myself.”

FBI sting

Allegations that Watts and his team were extorting money from drug dealers in the former Ida B. Wells public housing complex — and falsely arresting people who would not cooperate — led to investigations spanning more than eight years, according to a report by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, a city agency that investigates officer misconduct.

Those probes involved federal agencies including the FBI, the U.S. attorney’s office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well as local entities including CPD and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. The FBI closed an investigation into Watts in 2006, according to the COPA report, but reopened it the following year “after obtaining information about the team’s corruption from other Chicago police officers.”

Watts and an officer he supervised, Kallatt Mohammed, in November 2011 stole $5,200 from a homeless person who had convinced Watts he would be transporting cash for drug traffickers that day.

But the drug courier was actually a federal informant. Watts and Mohammed were arrested in February 2012.

In his BlazeTV interview, Watts blamed his conviction on Mohammed, who pleaded guilty first and received an 18-month prison sentence.

“He had got into some things outside of — things that I was not aware of,” Watts told Whitlock, “and that’s for him to deal with.”

Watts claimed the feds “had no evidence” tying him to Mohammed’s crime apart from that officer’s willingness to testify that he “shared the proceeds with me.”

But the FBI complaint against Watts described surveillance video, cell phone records and recorded phone conversations showing Watts planning and overseeing the theft.

About 45 minutes after Mohammed took the $5,200, Watts met up with the informant — who was still posing as a drug courier — to pay hundreds of dollars for the cooperation, a transaction the complaint said was recorded through a wire on the informant.

“Never doubt, brother,” Watts told the informant, according to the complaint. “Who always takes care of you?”

“You do, Watts,” the informant responded.

In his interview last week, nevertheless, the disgraced former sergeant spoke as if his conviction were wrongful and claimed to have pleaded guilty “in the interests of my family.”

Mohammed’s attorneys did not return messages seeking comment.

Exonerations

The imprisonment of Watts and Mohammed has led Cook County judges to vacate 226 convictions, according to a WBEZ tally based on court records and proceedings. Judges have ordered certificates of innocence for all but a handful of the 183 exonerees, their attorneys say.

In the interview, Watts accused Foxx’s office of failing to vet those cases.

“They’re exonerating people without even speaking with the officer who was involved in the arrest,” Watts said, pointing out that many of the exonerees pleaded guilty to the charges.

Watts also blasted Foxx for her decision to quit calling 10 former members of his unit to testify in criminal cases. He called those cops “really good police officers — well-trained, aggressive — [who] know the communities.”

Foxx’s office responded with a statement that called Watts “a convicted felon who violated his oath to protect and serve.”

Her office said prosecutors have “worked diligently to review and evaluate claims of wrongful convictions tied to Watts’s corruption” and will continue to “review all credible allegations involving [him] and those who aided him.”

“His actions undermined the trust that communities have in law enforcement as well as the work of law enforcement officers who serve with bravery and integrity,” the statement said.

Joshua Tepfer, an attorney representing most of the exonerees, said Watts lied throughout the BlazeTV interview.

“The truth is those officers repeatedly lied in court and in their police reports about observing criminal conduct that they did not [see],” Tepfer said. “Civilian Office of Police Accountability reports — not just the words of our clients — have demonstrated by the laws of physics and various investigative tactics that the police officers were lying.”

Tepfer pointed to a report by COPA, the city agency, that recommended dismissal of Sgt. Alvin Jones, known among the exonerees as the unit’s enforcer. Jones, who retired last year upon the report’s public release, was on record observing crimes in separate locations at the same time.

“He claimed in sworn testimony to be in two different places at once,” Tepfer said.

Speaking to Whitlock, Watts did not explain such contradictions.

“We all know that prosecutors — whether local, state or federal — they feel it’s a feather in their cap if they can prosecute and convict a police officer,” Watts said. “They don’t look for the truth. That’s what I wanted them to do in [my] case and they didn’t do it.”

Watts insisted that the real victims are not the exonerees but the community members he sought to protect from them.

“These guys took over buildings where kids couldn’t go to school in the morning because of narcotic sales,” he said. “That led me to be as aggressive as I was and to be down there in their face.”

“I affected their bottom line,” he said. “They’re making frivolous charges now … in these lawsuits that are pending against me.”

Tepfer said the lawsuits are anything but frivolous. Watts has “done untold damage to the community that can never be rectified,” he said.

This story was updated with the statement from Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office.

Chip Mitchell reports on policing, public safety and public health. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.

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