88 people with convictions tied to a corrupt Chicago cop are hoping for a mass exoneration

Josh Tepfer
Attorney Joshua Tepfer talks to reporters Nov. 16, 2017, at Cook County’s Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago, after a judge threw out the convictions of 15 of his clients who say corrupt former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts manufactured evidence that sent them to prison. Teresa Crawford / AP
Josh Tepfer
Attorney Joshua Tepfer talks to reporters Nov. 16, 2017, at Cook County’s Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago, after a judge threw out the convictions of 15 of his clients who say corrupt former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts manufactured evidence that sent them to prison. Teresa Crawford / AP

88 people with convictions tied to a corrupt Chicago cop are hoping for a mass exoneration

She stuck by him when he pleaded guilty to a heroin possession charge — a move that led to a one-year prison sentence and made it impossible for him to help with their first son, who was still in diapers.

That’s why Sonny Hendricks, 40, is planning to tell his former long-time partner before anyone else if a judge throws out that 2008 conviction, which could happen as soon as Thursday in what might be Cook County’s largest mass exoneration.

“I’m going to let my kids’ mother know because she was there for me during the time I was locked up,” Hendricks said.

Hendricks, who works as a janitor in apartment buildings, is among 88 people asking a judge to throw out their felony drug convictions because the cases are all tied to corrupt former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts.

In court last week, a prosecutor said State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office would go along with vacating “some” of the convictions at a hearing this Thursday morning.

Judges have already vacated 110 Watts-related convictions of 87 people. All but one were drug felonies.

Watts and the tactical team he led were the subject of allegations and investigations spanning more than a decade. Authorities say the sergeant and his underlings planted drugs and false charges on people who refused to pay extortion fees at Ida B. Wells, a housing complex in Bronzeville.

The sergeant and an officer he supervised, Kallatt Mohammed, were arrested in 2012 and sent to federal prison for stealing what they thought was drug money from an FBI informant.

The first exoneree was Wells resident Ben Baker, who had two drug convictions thrown out in 2016 after he spent nearly a decade in prison.

The largest exoneration took place on a 2018 day when a judge vacated 23 convictions against 18 men. Since then, there have been six more mass exonerations, most recently a February ruling that threw out nine convictions.

Hendricks said he had been hearing for a long time about crooked police in the Wells complex, but his own arrest by the Watts crew still caught him by surprise.

After visiting a friend there in 2007, Hendricks said he tried to leave the building, but Watts and Mohammed stopped him and demanded information about someone from the nearby Robert Taylor Homes, where Hendricks had grown up.

“Watts said, ‘Do you know this guy named 187?’ ” Hendricks said.

Hendricks responded he had no idea who Watts was talking about, he said.

The sergeant, according to Hendricks, then threatened to manufacture a narcotics case: “That’s when he pulled drugs out of his police vest.”

Hendricks said he was framed and blamed Watts. But the sergeant was not identified in the police paperwork as the arresting officer.

Hendricks’ attorney, Joshua Tepfer, says that was how the sergeant operated.

“Watts was leading this corruption,” Tepfer said. “But his tactical team was routinely putting their names on police reports and signing onto police reports based on untrue allegations.”

Hendricks said he had no recollection of Watts team member Alvin Jones, one of two cops that the police paperwork identified as the arresting officers.

After the arrests of Watts and Mohammed, police officials left more than a dozen former members of their unit on duty — including Jones, who was promoted to sergeant.

In 2017, however, Foxx’s office notified CPD that prosecutors would no longer call Jones and nine other former members of the unit to testify in criminal cases due to “concerns about their credibility.”

The city’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability spent more than three years investigating Watts team members until finally delivering findings and recommendations to Police Superintendent David Brown this past March. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has not released the COPA report.

WBEZ first reported that CPD stripped Jones of police powers in June and assigned him to the Alternate Response Section, which handles nonemergency calls.

The city’s Law Department this summer said the Jones case “will arrive at the Police Board upon the completion of the preparation of charges.” The board makes final decisions about the most serious officer discipline.

On Tuesday, a CPD spokesman wrote that Jones remains stripped of powers “pending separation.”

Jones, whose attorney did not return messages seeking comment, would be the first CPD member to face discipline in the scandal since the Watts and Mohammed arrests.

As the sergeant’s case plays out, Hendricks is hoping to clear his name. The janitor says he got the idea a couple years ago when he was watching a TV newscast and recognized acquaintances from the Wells apartments who had their drug convictions thrown out.

“I was happy because there were some bad officers and they [arrested] all the wrong people, who didn’t do nothing,” Hendricks said.

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing. Follow him @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.