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May 25, 2019

The City – revealed

Co-produced with PRX Logo

This episode originally aired Dec. 22, 2018.

This episode tells the story of a mysterious illegal dump in a Chicago neighborhood that grew to be six stories high and spanned an area equal to 13 football fields. It took years for the dump to be cleaned up. Even then, neighborhood residents were angry and felt used when it was revealed that the dump was cover for a federal investigation into political corruption in the city.   

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Credits

This episode is a collaboration with USA Today.

Produced by Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and edited by Deborah George. Reported by Robin Amer, Wilson Sayre and Jenny Casas of USA Today. The City’s executive producer is Liz Nelson.  

Sound design by Hannis Brown, Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Kaitlin Benz.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey. It's Al Letson and if you love our show and our brand of high impact journalism and if you want to hear more of it, support us by becoming a member. You see, monthly donations help provide steady support. Support that lets us pursue stories wherever they may lead. When you become a member, you invest in our future, ensuring that we can keep bringing you stories that matter. The kind of information that rights wrongs and changes lives. And now is the best time to become a Reveal member because through the rest of this month, new members who sign up and give at least eight dollars a month will get one of our Facts t-shirt and man does it look good. No logo, no advertising, just the word “facts” in big bold letters.

 

Al Letson: So this is our third week of the membership drive, only one more left, and I'm telling you that we need to finish strong. Just text the word reveal to four seven four seven four seven. Becoming a member is that easy. Just text the word reveal to four seven four seven four seven. Thank you, and uh, let's do some good together. Because there is always more to the story. But it can't be told without you.

 

Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: When Deyki Nichols was a kid growing up in Chicago in the early nineties, he knew that lurking near his home was an evil rabbit.

 

Deyki Nichols: It was a evil rabbit up there. It was a grown rabbit. Used to chase kids, with red eyes, like... I still remember that. We went looking for it one day, but we never seen that evil rabbit.

 

Al Letson: This evil rabbit roamed the hills where Deyki and his friends liked to play.

 

Deyki Nichols: We played up there, everything. Played hide go see, and when it snowed we'd get sleds and slide down them. In the summer time, you'd ride your bikes up and down the hill, because they were that big of a hill. That was fun.

 

Al Letson: They could look down on to the roof of their elementary school and see all the basketballs that had gotten stuck up there over the years. And they could look east towards the horizon and see all the skyscrapers downtown.

 

Al Letson: Now, Chicago's built on prairie land. It's pretty flat. So you might be wondering about those hills, and how they came to be just six miles from downtown in the west side neighborhood of North Lawndale. There's an explanation. Deyki remembers one time in the fourth or fifth grade, he was running up the side of the tallest hills. A mountain, almost. And his foot dislodged something. Something big. A boulder, or a piece of concrete. It rolled down the mountain towards his brother.

 

Deyki Nichols: Yeah, I mean, it rolled over his finger, and it was hanging off, so I had to hold it together, and I had to walk him holding his finger until we got to the hospital. They had to reattach it. He had to spend about two or three days in the hospital.

 

Al Letson: The mountain was actually a giant illegal landfill. In a vacant lot, besides grass and wildflowers and even trees, there were six stories of concrete and rebar, plus rusted-out cars and old mattresses that the kids used for trampolines. Today we're going to tell you how that landfill came to be in North Lawndale and grew to be six stories tall, two whole city blocks wide, and five city blocks long. Now imagine living right next door to that. This is a story about the strange, complicated and crooked ways that power flows in American cities. USA Today investigated this gigantic landfill in their podcast, the series called The City. They first ran it in December of 2018 and Robin Amer, host and creator of The City, told us the story.

 

Robin Amer: Hi all.

 

Al Letson: All right, so, we're talking about a dump that is six stories high in Chicago.

 

Robin Amer: Yeah, that's right. Six stories tall, and it was on this huge lot. 21 acres, the size of 13 football fields. The story of how this huge dump came to be in the middle of a residential neighborhood is one of the most striking stories of corruption and institutional indifference that I've ever come across. It stunned me when I first found out about it. About how ruthless the city can be. About how stark the divisions are between black and white, rich and poor, between the people who hoard power, and the people who have to fight for their fair share.

 

Robin Amer: There's one man at the center of this story who sets everything into motion. Here he is.

 

John C.: Okay listen. We're no altar boys at this (beep) table. Let's put it on the table there.

 

Speaker 5: [crosstalk 00:04:59]. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

John C.: I was the first one basically that started all the dumps. The first... Well, I made a lot of money over there. Yeah, you got no balls about saying that you made a lot of money, and you want to know something? I started a can of worms in the city. That could haunt you for years to come.

 

Al Letson: This guy sounds like a character straight out of Goodfellas.

 

Robin Amer: Yeah, he's pretty unapologetic. The can of worms he opened unleashed this chain of events that went way beyond Chicago. Eventually the FBI would be giving him cover as he built the dump.

 

Al Letson: He's not at the very beginning of the story. We're definitely going to get back to him later, but why don't we rewind a little bit and take it from the very beginning.

 

Speaker 6: You're listening to Richard M. Daley deliver his inaugural address live on WWBBMAM from Orchestra Hall.

 

Richard M. D.: In the months to come, I hope to bring new ideas and approaches, and a healthy dose of common sense, to each and every function of city government. It won’t be easy. The inertia in any large government is a powerful force. And we’re facing serious financial problems that will require some difficult steps. These challenges demand cooperation, [crosstalk 00:05:53].

 

Robin Amer: Richard M. Daley was the son of the beloved and feared Mayor Richard J. Daley. He presided over Chicago's political machine from the 1950s through the 70s. His son was sworn into office in 1989.

 

Richard M. D.: It's time to leave behind old setbacks, disappointments and battles because in the campaign for a better Chicago, we're all allies.

 

Robin Amer: Since the 1960s, steel mills and other factories had been shutting down all over the Midwest. In Chicago, the city lost hundreds of thousands of jobs and nearly a million residents. And the new mayor Daley wanted Chicago to, you know, wake up from this post-industrial slumber and thrive.

 

Richard M. D.: We either rise up as one city, or we sit back and watch Chicago decline.

 

Robin Amer: So Daley began a major push to revamp Chicago's aging downtown. And he paid special attention to tourist-friendly destinations in The Loop and along the lakefront. He set about rebuilding crucial parts of the city's infrastructure, including its roads and highways. By the spring of 1990, the year after he took office, the city was full of workers in hardhats and orange vests breaking down concrete, jackhammering asphalt, loading it into dump trucks, and hauling it away.

 

Robin Amer: Law-abiding trucking companies carted this debris to a distant landfill. But some trucks headed west out of The Loop, over the Chicago river, into the city's neighborhoods, until they came to a vacant lot in North Lawndale. When I visited there, I met a woman named Gladys Woodson. She'd lived in the neighborhood since moving to Chicago from Mississippi in the 1960s. And she told me how one day, in the spring of 1990, a neighbor knocked on her front door.

 

Gladys Woodson: My first memory was a president of the 4100 block came down and asked for Miss Woodson and I told him, “What do you want with her?”

 

Robin Amer: Miss Woodson was the president of the 4300 block. Together, these block clubs kept an eye on the street and made sure the community was safe.

 

Gladys Woodson: He said, “Did you not know that's a dump, illegal dump over across the street?” And I say, “No.” He said, “Come on. Let's walk down there.”

 

Gladys Woodson: First of all I saw a lot of trucks lining up blocking the view. And behind the trucks there was a pile of stuff that was accumulating.

 

Robin Amer: And so when you saw this line of trucks and this pile of rubble, what did you think?

 

Gladys Woodson: I think oh no, we can't have this over here. This is bad for our health, bad for our children, bad for our houses. It's just going to take our neighborhood down.

 

Robin Amer: They couldn't figure out who was responsible for all the trucks coming and unloading rubble in their neighborhood. So they held stakeouts and saw that the trucks kept coming by day but also in the dead of night.

 

Gladys Woodson: We have come out here like one, two o'clock at night to watch the trucks go in and take down license plates number.

 

Robin Amer: One and two o'clock in the morning?

 

Gladys Woodson: Three, four o'clock in the morning. And we used to meet them up here, because we figured if we can get the license plate number, we can turn them over to the police. So what we did, we would start getting the license plate number and what we found, he had one set of plate on the front, and a different set of plate on the back.

 

Robin Amer: It seemed really suspicious. And that was before they saw the man in charge.

 

Gladys Woodson: And any time you see anybody drive over in a vacant lot in a limo, you know it's no good.

 

Robin Amer: Oh my gosh. What did you think was happening back there, when you saw him drive up in a limo?

 

Gladys Woodson: I just thought he was a, I don't know, gang-banger. Or something or other. You know. You know I didn't know what to think.

 

Robin Amer: The man in the limo was a heavyset white guy with a gruff voice and a receding hairline. Eventually Miss Woodson and her neighbors would learn the man's name. John Christopher. And that he was connected to the mob. What in Chicago, we call the Outfit.

 

Robin Amer: But that was later. In the meantime, over the next days and weeks, the piles of rubble kept getting taller and taller. And the dust blowing off them got worse and worse. So Miss Woodson and her fellow block club captains organized a letter-writing campaign.

 

Gladys Woodson: We the Southwest Lawndale United Block Club councils are requesting that you intercede for us in protesting the installation of [crosstalk]

 

Robin Amer: They sent the letter to the zoning board and the water department and the department of streets and sanitation. They sent it to the mayor and a member of Congress.

 

Gladys Woodson: We wrote to everybody from who's who to who's that. I thought once we contact all of these peoples and they found out what was going on that somebody would stop it.

 

Robin Amer: Miss Woodson was right. At least at first. In June of 1990, about a month after receiving her letters, the city finally sent an inspector to check out the dump. By then, it was already taller than you or I, as the inspector put it, more than six feet tall.

 

Robin Amer: Henry Henderson was a lawyer for the city who specialized in environmental issues.

 

Henry Henderson: People who were working as inspectors in the city called me up and said, “We've got this huge amount of material building up in this particular site.” So we got in our cars and went out to visit it and [inaudible] gigantic issue.

 

Robin Amer: Henry Henderson had learned that John Christopher, the guy Miss Woodson saw in the limo, was actually running the dumps. So he called Christopher into his office for a meeting.

 

Robin Amer: Was that the first time that you had met with them?

 

Henry Henderson: Yes.

 

Robin Amer: What did he look like, how did he speak, what impression did he leave on you?

 

Henry Henderson: He's a very very large person. He had one of these incredibly colorful sweaters on. You know?

 

Robin Amer: What, like a dad sweater?

 

Henry Henderson: Kind of like that, yeah. And I was struck by the fact that it looked like he had his nails done.

 

Robin Amer: Going into this meeting, Henderson thought that he could demand that John Christopher stop, and that he would. But John Christopher had permits that he'd gotten from the city to operate a rock crusher. A giant machine that pulverizes concrete into gravel which can then be sold back to construction companies to use in their building projects.

 

Henry Henderson: So that was his story about what he was doing. He's particularly aiming at this is construction debris that can be recycled and I'm going to crush it and the material has value, so I'm a recycler and I'm a beautifier. That was his claim as to what his activities were about.

 

Robin Amer: John Christopher was not going to stop dumping in North Lawndale and every day the prairie wind would blow through the piles of debris and cover North Lawndale in a layer of thick gray dust.

 

Michelle A.: When the dust would fly, if you had lip gloss on then, your lip gloss would be full of dirt. I mean you could taste it on your lips, in your mouth.

 

Robin Amer: This is Michelle Ashford. In 1990, she was 19 years old.

 

Michelle A.: It would be just a big gush of wind. You would have to close your eyes, cover your mouth, or whatever because once we experienced it, we knew, oh, here come the wind, and we would cover up so it wouldn't go in our mouths.

 

Rita Ashford: And I'll tell you something else that it did.

 

Robin Amer: Michelle's mother, Rita Ashford, says the dump made the neighborhood's prostitution problems worse.

 

Rita Ashford: The guys, they could come and pull up on the side of the dump, and that's where they did their business at.

 

Robin Amer: Just to be clear, the dump had gotten so big that it cast the side street next to it into darkness.

 

Michelle A.: With the prostitutes being able to go back there and really, like, hide. And they would be down there turning dates and everything right there on the street.

 

Robin Amer: The dump had become a magnet. That's actually a term in environmental circles. It was a magnet in that it had attracted other illegal and unsavory stuff.

 

Rita Ashford: And the rats! Girl, if it wasn't a hundred rats it wasn't one.

 

Michelle A.: [crosstalk00:14:32] people were fighting those rats. They would get in their homes. I mean some of the finer houses on our block. Everybody was dealing with the rats.

 

Robin Amer: But worse than the rats, the dump was affecting people's health. Several of Miss Ashford's grandchildren had severe asthma, and some of Miss Woodson's elderly neighbors relied on oxygen tanks. The dust from the dumps was making it harder for them to breathe, so Miss Woodson and her neighbors decided to confront the dumper.

 

Gladys Woodson: So a group of us, we walked over there to talk to John Christopher, and we ask him, you know, could he stop whatever he was doing over there. He told us he could do whatever he pleased. And we told him, "Well, okay, we'll go to court." And he said, "If you do go to court, when I leave, I'm going to leave everything just like it is now." He was very arrogant.

 

Robin Amer: So how did you feel after that confrontation?

 

Gladys Woodson: Let's get him. Let's go to court.

 

Robin Amer: And so they did. With Henry Henderson's help, the city sued John Christopher in June of 1990.

 

Al Letson: The story of a mountain in a Chicago neighborhood converges with a federal probe.

 

Scott Lassar: This was a secret undercover investigation and so we weren't going to end it.

 

Al Letson: End is a takedown.

 

Jim Davis: We had teams that were out doing search warrants.

 

Percy Giles: Then I remember asking them, "Do I need a lawyer?", and they told me, "You might." I remember my knees just fell from under me. I almost fell to the floor.

 

Al Letson: Coming up next, Operation Silver Shovel. This is Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today we've been talking about a mountain of trouble in a Chicago neighborhood. A mountain made up of construction debris, greed, and deception that's six stories high and five blocks long. Robin Amer of USA Today's podcast called The City has been telling us the story.

 

Al Letson: So, Robin, catch us up a little bit. We've got a neighborhood that's getting tons of construction debris from all over Chicago dumped on them, and they're having trouble getting their voices heard downtown. Now, from what I know about Chicago politics, when you can't get your trash picked up or your potholes filled, the person you call is your alderman, your neighborhood representative on the city council. Was he able to help them?

 

Robin Amer: So Bill Henry was the alderman of the 24th ward, which included North Lawndale, and Gladys Woodson's block club wrote to him when they were trying to get rid of the dump.

 

Gladys Woodson: I liked that Bill Henry because he was a street person. You know? He was raised up on the street. He would let us all know, "You know, you can't have everything you want. And if you want something really bad you figure out how bad you want that. And you going to have to give up something to get something."

 

Robin Amer: Bill Henry was first elected alderman in 1983 and he did what alderman often do to build support. They handed out favors, like city jobs and contracts. But he was also known as a deal-maker. In fact, he was reportedly the one who introduced John Christopher to the owner of the vacant lot where the dump was. And later, people would learn that he had also taken bribes from John Christopher. Like, $5000 a month. To insure that the city didn't interfere with the dumping operation. So the dump took on a nickname. This is Bill Henry's son, Conrad.

 

Conrad Henry: We was in the car and we was driving past and he said, “They call that Mount Henry.” He was not smiling, he was quite subdued about it, quite sad about it in a lot of ways. And he was like, “Man, there's nothing I can do about it.” Like he had been duped, like he had been used to dump that there.

 

Robin Amer: After the dumping started, Bill Henry was indicted on unrelated federal corruption charges. He lost his bid for re-election. He developed lung cancer and died the following year. His case never went to trial.

 

Robin Amer: By 1992, John Christopher had dumped more than 31,000 truckloads of stuff in North Lawndale. The city had taken him to court and the judge didn't buy his claim that he was some kind of recycler. So John Christopher lost the case. The judge gave him 30 months to clean up the site, but that meant that North Lawndale residents would have to keep living next to the dump for at least two and half more years.

 

Robin Amer: But rather than clean up the site, John Christopher disappeared. So the city appealed to the state and federal environmental protection agencies. Finally in 1994, four years after the dumping started, they came out to North Lawndale. But they only removed about 150 truckloads of stuff they determined were hazardous, like barrels of chemicals. They left the 31,000 truckloads of construction debris behind. The six story mountain was still there.

 

Al Letson: So that's it then. I mean, end of story, they're just stuck with this mountain.

 

Robin Amer: Well, no, not exactly. This is where the story takes a really crazy turn.

 

Al Letson: What happened to John Christopher?

 

Robin Amer: After John Christopher disappeared, Henry Henderson, who was now the city's environmental commissioner, reached out to one other federal agency that he thought could help in this situation. See, because he had a personal connection at the U.S. Justice Department.

 

Henry Henderson: Scott's an old friend and he was a First Assistant, at the time.

 

Robin Amer: Henderson called on Scott Lassar, First Assistant U.S. Attorney in the northern district of Illinois. In other words, Lassar was one of the federal government's top criminal prosecutors in Chicago. So Henry Henderson talks to Scott Lassar.

 

Henry Henderson: Saying, you know, “We're having a real hard time, and we think that this is a larger criminal endeavor here, and we really need some help.”

 

Robin Amer: But Henderson says his old friend dismissed him, telling him this was a municipal waste problem. I asked Scott Lassar about this conversation.

 

Scott Lassar: We knew about it the illegal dumping going on, very well. But we couldn't tell Henry that Christopher was working undercover at that time. This was a secret undercover investigation, and so we weren't going to end it, so I had to rebuff him.

 

Al Letson: Wait, hold on, Robin. Do you mean...?

 

Robin Amer: Yeah. John Christopher was working undercover for the FBI.

 

Al Letson: Wait a second, so John Christopher, who started this illegal dump, is actually working for the United State government?

 

Robin Amer: Yeah, that's right.

 

Al Letson: That... How did that happen?

 

Robin Amer: All right, so it all started with this investigation into a bank failure. This local bank in Chicago went belly-up in 1991 and an FBI special agent named Tony D'Angelo started looking at the bad loans the bank had made. He was an expert in white-collar crime and organized crime, and he discovered that the biggest bad loan this bank had made had gone to one man. John Christopher.

 

Tony D'Angelo: Mr. Christopher had a couple of trucking companies, some other businesses. And he had borrowed, I can't remember the exact amount, but I believe the total deficit to the bank was in the millions.

 

Robin Amer: 2.5 million. That's what John Christopher would later say in court.

 

Tony D'Angelo: Through these companies, he borrowed money and was not paying the loans back on time and they had to be ultimately be written off.

 

Robin Amer: Tony D'Angelo looked up John Christopher in the FBI's database and learned that he had a prison record. And mob ties. So D'Angelo calls John Christopher, thinking he can help the FBI bust the higher-ups at the bank.

 

Tony D'Angelo: So I told him who I was. You know, I looked at your dealings with Cosmopolitan Bank. I've got you dead to right on financial fraud with your loan application and I've found in my career that people are very curious, they want to know what information you have about them, what evidence. I also mentioned to him, you know, I know you just got out of jail. You got a couple kids. Maybe we can help each other.

 

Robin Amer: They arranged to meet at a Pizza Hut.

 

Tony D'Angelo: I mean, if you want to know a [mobbed up 00:23:15] guy, take a picture of John Christopher. Built like a bull, about five ten, stocky, wearing members only jacket. Talks in [dems] and [dose] and... Just a funny guy. I laid out my case against him. I'm a fellow Italian. You can just listen to me talk.

 

Robin Amer: They start meeting regularly.

 

Tony D'Angelo: And one day during one of these meetings he goes, “Oh. Are you interested in politicians?” I said, “Absolutely. What do you have on politicians?” Well, little did I know at the time that John Christopher had been bribing and paying off and doing whatever he needed to do with all aldermen and various city officials.

 

Robin Amer: John Christopher turned out to be a bribing machine. He told the FBI about bribing Bill Henry, the North Lawndale alderman, and other Chicago alderman, and city inspectors. He had been bribing public officials his whole adult life.

 

Robin Amer: The FBI knew about John Christopher's mob connections and criminal past. Plus he's what the mob would call a stand-up guy. He went to prison once, and didn't give anyone up. And a guy like him actually talking to the FBI and telling them about his illegal activity was incredibly rare. So it occurred to the FBI that he would be the perfect mole. John Christopher was the kind of guy you would never suspect of working with the FBI. But he'd also come out of prison feeling like the mob hadn't taken good care of his family while he was away. And so John Christopher agreed to wear a wire, to cooperate with FBI, to strap a tape recorder to his body, and go looking for dirty politicians to bribe.

 

Robin Amer: The FBI called it Operation Silver Shovel. Like the thirty pieces of silver Judas got for betraying Jesus. Like the bulldozes at John Christopher's dump.

 

Percy Giles: [inaudible]

 

Robin Amer: What you're hearing are secret recordings John Christopher made while working for the FBI.

 

Percy Giles: [inaudible]

 

John C.:
Robin Amer: I had to sue the FBI to get them. In this one, it's January 1995, and John Christopher is sitting down to lunch with a Chicago alderman. They're at a west side soul food restaurant called Edna's.

 

Percy Giles: [inaudible] I had the short ribs, [inaudible]

 

Robin Amer: That's alderman Percy Giles ordering the short ribs. He's really hard to hear in this tape because the tape recorder is across the table from him, hidden somewhere on John Christopher's body.

 

Percy Giles: [inaudible]

 

John C.: Okay. You know what I seen, I seen a hot dog that was burnt. What was that, [inaudible] sausage?

 

Speaker 19: No no, that's the hot link.

 

John C.: Give me a hot link, burnt.

 

Speaker 19: [inaudible]

 

John C.: [inaudible]

 

Robin Amer: John Christopher tells the alderman that he has a construction firm.

 

John C.: Do small work. Couple million here. Low-key, real small. [crosstalk]

 

Robin Amer: And John Christopher explains that he wants a contract for a shopping center being built in Percy Giles's ward.

 

John C.: Okay I want de-excavating work at a competitive number. Okay?

 

Percy Giles: Okay. [crosstalk]

 

Robin Amer: And he offers Percy Giles $10,000 to guarantee that he gets it.

 

John C.: For that ten thousand you're going to... What's going to happen here is basically an effort to be given, okay, a commitment of some workers, is that what we're saying here?

 

Percy Giles: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

John C.: Okay [inaudible 00:26:40]. You know what I'm saying?

 

Percy Giles: Yep.

 

Robin Amer: John Christopher needs to get the payment on tape. So a few days after that first lunch, John Christopher and Percy Giles meet at Edna's again. And this time, John Christopher brings the money with him. The first of two payments of $5,000 each.

 

John C.: Here's your 5,000. It's all there. You don't want to count it? It's there.

 

Percy Giles: [inaudible]

 

Robin Amer: He says to Percy Giles, "Here's the 5000. It's all there." And Giles takes the money.

 

Percy Giles: [inaudible]

 

John C.: Would you please hurry up and put that in your pocket.

 

Percy Giles: [inaudible]

 

John C.: Jesus.

 

Robin Amer: The FBI had recruited John Christopher to catch the kind of crooked politicians who let him dump in North Lawndale. John Christopher found many of them willing, but others less so. Here's a tape he made of a conversation with an Illinois lawmaker named Ray Frias.

 

Ray Frias: I'm a little...

 

John C.: What? Spit it out.

 

Ray Frias: I'm a little tentative right now also I mean this is [crosstalk]

 

John C.: What are you tentative about?

 

Ray Frias: I've never made any kind of arrangement like this before.

 

John C.: Okay.

 

Ray Frias: As a legislator.

 

Robin Amer: John Christopher tries to put him at ease. He basically says all politicians take money.

 

John C.: [crosstalk]

 

Ray Frias: [crosstalk]

 

John C.: [crosstalk] What do you think you're in legislature for?

 

Ray Frias: Making money.

 

John C.: [inaudible 00:27:56]. Thank you.

 

Ray Frias: [ crosstalk 00:27:58] life's about. Making money.

 

John C.: Okay, I mean, what do you think... yeah, life's is about, that's right, making money.

 

Ray Frias: If you can't make money, then...

 

John C.: You think the politicians, what do you think, they get elected and they don't take money?

 

Ray Frias: Um, huh?

 

John C.: You just got to find the right group.

 

Ray Frias: Right.

 

Robin Amer: Operation Silver Shovel lasted for three and half years. Although it started with public corruption, it eventually broadened to include things that had nothing to do with politicians, let alone the North Lawndale dumps. John Christopher helped the FBI catch people laundering old mob cash. They even folded in a drug bust along the way. And so, in January 1996, it was finally time for the feds to stage what they called the takedown.

 

Jim Davis: We set up kind of a command post.

 

Robin Amer: Special agent Jim Davis was in charge.

 

Jim Davis: And from that command post, we issued an execute order. We told them all to go at the same time. And then we just waited for results.

 

Robin Amer: More than a hundred federal agents fanned out across the city. The command post was in the federal building downtown. Jim Davis was stationed there with four or five other agents to help him man the phones and manage the teams in the field.

 

Jim Davis: We had teams that were out doing search warrants, but the most focus was on the actual interview teams, the guys that were going out and interviewing subjects.

 

Robin Amer: The agents interrogated more than forty targets, including seven Chicago alderman, three officials from the water treatment agency, and two city inspectors. They questioned everyone at the exact same time. That way, no one target could warn any other target to hush up or destroy evidence or get a lawyer. Percy Giles was in his west side office when the FBI showed up. He's the alderman who met John Christopher at Edna's soul food restaurant.

 

Percy Giles: And they asked me did I know John Christopher. At first I might have told them no, because it didn't dawn on me. Then later, I said, "Yeah, I do know him."

 

Jim Davis: By then, lying about their relationship with John Christopher would show that they know that there's some reason for them to lie about that relationship. It shows that they have some understanding that it is a corrupt relationship.

 

Percy Giles: I remember asking them, “Do I need a lawyer?”, and they told me, “You might.” Well I went home that night, and I remember I was nervous, so nervous, when I was telling my wife about it, I remember my knees just fell from under me. I almost fell to the floor.

 

Robin Amer: Percy Giles was afraid, but he didn't think he'd done anything wrong. But other alderman came clean.

 

Jim Davis: We had multiple confessions that came, that were being reported back to us in the command post, which was really surprising. We didn't expect it. And I think that these guys were so stunned to learn that John was working with us that they just figured they had nowhere to go.

 

Robin Amer: An alderman named Ambrosio Medrano had taken $31,000 in bribes from John Christopher in exchange for helping him with his dumping operations. In interviews after the takedown, Medrano had trouble explaining to the press why he had succumbed to John Christopher's charms.

 

Ambrosio M.: You know, I don't think that whenever anybody does anything wrong, they really know why. I don't know, to be honest with you.

 

Speaker 23: This guy was a smooth operator, wasn't he?

 

Ambrosio M.: Yes, he was. I can tell you that from the initial meeting that I had with him, and the first time that I actually met with him and accepted the money had been several months. I mean, he had called me and badgered me and called me and asked me to meet with him, and I refused. Why I finally gave in, I don't know. That was the mistake I made. I accept total responsibility for what I did.

 

Robin Amer: Alderman Medrano plead guilty and went to prison for 30 months. When he got it, he ran for office again, but ended up going back to prison a second time on new corruption charges.

 

Robin Amer: Over three years, federal prosecutors indicted a dozen Chicago officials caught up in Operation Silver Shovel. Almost all plead guilty or were convicted of corruption. The only politician who was acquitted of all charges was Ray Frias, the reluctant-sounding state legislator who had never made an arrangement like that before. Alderman Percy Giles says he's still bewildered as to why the FBI chose him as a target. He argues that the FBI turned an otherwise loyal public servant into a figure of corruption.

 

Percy Giles: I'm just minding my business, running my ward. They send somebody to me and give me some phony money just to manufacture a crime. Then they said, “Oh, we got him. He committed a crime.” To me they can do that with anybody they want. I think that was totally unfair.

 

Al Letson: With Operation Silver Shovel over and done with, what happened to John Christopher's vacant lot?

 

Jim Davis: I don't think that we had any obligation to clean up Mount Henry because first of all, that's not what we do, and we didn't create it.

 

Al Letson: That's next on Reveal.

 

Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. We've been hearing about a major FBI investigation in Chicago in the mid-90s. Caused a stir nationwide.

 

Speaker 24: In Chicago today, federal officials announced charges in what they call Operation Silver Shovel, a wide-ranging probe of public corruption. [crosstalk]

 

Al Letson: Operation Silver Shovel lasted three and a half years, and at the heart of it all was John Christopher, a man with an extensive criminal record. A man who, while working as an FBI informant, dumped six stories of construction debris in the west side neighborhood of North Lawndale.

 

Speaker 25: Residents there call the large and unsightly dump site the mountain, and they accuse the federal government of allowing Christopher to continue to dumping on poor and minority neighborhoods while using him to target public officials. US Attorney [Burns] denies the charge.

 

Al Letson: Robin Amer has been our guide in telling this story. She's the host of a podcast from USA Today called The City, and it looks at how power is wielded in American cities. Hey, Robin.

 

Robin Amer: Hey, Al.

 

Al Letson: So I guess the feds were happy with how Operation Silver Shovel went down?

 

Robin Amer: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, by the time this wrapped up, the feds would refer to Operation Silver Shovel as one of the biggest and most successful corruption probes in Chicago history. They had investigated more than forty targets, indicted a dozen politicians on corruption charges, most of whom went to prison, and they had also used John Christopher to launder millions of dollars in old mob cash, really hitting the Outfit, the Chicago mafia, where it hurt. And they'd even folded in a drug bust along the way. So this investigation was, by their account, very successful.

 

Al Letson: What about the people of Chicago? Were they happy to see all these corrupt politicians get jail time?

 

Robin Amer: Yes and no. The investigation did not play out in Chicago's neighborhoods the way it played out on the nightly news. First, almost all the targets of this investigation were black or latino. There was a lot of criticism of this. And the government justified their results by saying, "Well, look, this is just how the operation unfolded. One alderman would introduce us to another, to another, to another. It was all about their personal connections." And a lot of other people felt betrayed, not just by their elected officials, who had taken bribes, but by the investigation itself.

 

Al Letson: How so?

 

Robin Amer: Well, in North Lawndale, John Christopher's mountain was still standing. I mean, by the time the takedown actually happened, this giant illegal construction debris dump had loomed over the neighborhood for almost six years. And the FBI and the US Attorney's Office had no intention of removing it. It wasn't part of the investigation or part of the takedown. This is what Jim Davis, who was the agent in charge of the investigation, told me about this.

 

Jim Davis: I don't think that we had any obligation to clean up Mount Henry because first of all, that's not what we do, and we didn't create it. I mean, there are agencies that are responsible for cleaning up stuff like that. That's not our business.

 

Al Letson: What about that? I mean, couldn't the EPA be brought in to help clean up the dump?

 

Robin Amer: Well, in theory, but the EPA looked at the situation and said, you know, “There's no hazardous waste here. This is a municipal waste problem. It's not our job to clean this up.” And so, really the city was left holding the bill here. Of course the city had already sued John Christopher and won, but instead of forcing him to clean it up, he had just declared bankruptcy and had effectively disappeared. And the FBI, in giving John Christopher cover while he was an informant for them, made this problem worse for all the people who had been fighting him.

 

Rita Ashford: When they said about him being a mole, that's something that we never even anticipated.

 

Robin Amer: On one of my visits to North Lawndale, Rita and Michelle Ashford told me that they were shocked to suddenly learn that the man that they'd been fighting for six years was working for the FBI.

 

Michelle A.: What did we say? Oh, this is why we couldn't get any help.

 

Rita Ashford: That's right!

 

Michelle A.: This is why we couldn't get any help with it.

 

Michelle A.: They knew all this was going on all along, before we even began to fight for it. And the reason why we couldn't get any justice for anything, because it was all the government. And they knew it from the very beginning.

 

Rita Ashford: We just figured that John Christopher had that concrete [pal] there, he was making money off of it, and that's the purpose of it.

 

Rita Ashford: What's silver shovel? That was my first thing. What is silver shovel? And they said, "Oh, the dump site." I said, "Chris John? John Christopher?"

 

Robin Amer: Gladys Woodson, the block club president in North Lawndale, told me that she and her neighbors were collateral damage. They had been used. They were never able to get traction fighting John Christopher, and now they could see why.

 

Gladys Woodson: He had to have [banking 00:38:09]. You know, because people that we were contacting seemed to, you know, was pushing it under the rug, or not answering.

 

Robin Amer: For everyone in North Lawndale whose children had been hurt, whose property had been damaged, whose neighborhood had been disrespected, this was a huge breach of trust.

 

Gladys Woodson: There's people that done had asthma attacks, there's people that own oxygen machines that... I mean, we have a few peoples that moved out of the neighborhood. Just moved. Because they could no longer stand the dust and stuff.

 

Robin Amer: The news about Operation Silver Shovel seemed to confirm what they'd been saying for years about the government's neglect of their neighborhood.

 

Gladys Woodson: Because let's face the fact. They wouldn't have put that dump in the white community. Not at all.

 

Gladys Woodson: John didn't have to be allowed to still have that dump. Because you had ammunition to use against him.

 

Al Letson: What about John Christopher? I mean, what happened to him when the whole thing broke, when Operation Silver Shovel was revealed?

 

Robin Amer: Well, even though John Christopher had agreed to wear a wire for the FBI and had become the centerpiece of this major undercover investigation, his participation was not actually, like, a get out of jail free card. He did not have a deal with the FBI for full immunity. So FBI agent Jim Davis told me that at the beginning of the investigation, he had warned John Christopher not to do anything illegal that wasn't part of the investigation.

 

Jim Davis: And I would just try and reassure him and say, “Look, if you're straight with us, you know, if you continue to do what we're asking you to do, you know, if you stay out of trouble, you're going to be okay.”

 

Robin Amer: But John Christopher did not hold up his end of the bargain. While the investigation was going on, while he was cooperating with the FBI, he was still committing other crimes. And he went behind the Bureau's back in other ways. So for example, at the same time Operation Silver Shovel was going on, the FBI was also looking into this illegal gambling operation run by an alleged mob boss named Tony Centracchio.

 

Jim Davis: You know, John referred to him as his uncle Tony. And that was a problem for me, because we had a wire on uncle Tony.

 

Robin Amer: The wire was video camera hidden in the ceiling of Tony Centracchio's office.

 

Jim Davis: And every time John went in to see him, we were recording John in primarily criminal conversations, which was adding to the mounting evidence that we were going to have to present against him at the end of this case.

 

Robin Amer: It's not totally clear what John Christopher was doing there, because he was never charged in this illegal gambling case. But him showing up on another investigation's wire made things really complicated for Jim Davis and his fellow agents.

 

Jim Davis: I would have liked to have said, “John, stay away from uncle Tony's office.” But I can't tell John that we have a wire in uncle Tony's office.

 

Robin Amer: John Christopher also neglected to file his federal income tax returns in 1992 and 93. I know it seems so mundane, but ultimately, this is why he went to prison. John Christopher was sentenced to 39 months in prison, but he was never forced to clean up the dumps or provide restitution to anyone in North Lawndale. And then, after he got out of prison, he disappeared again. Maybe for good this time.

 

Al Letson: You mean he's been gone for like 20 years, and nobody knows where he is? Did you try and track him down?

 

Robin Amer: Yeah. I've been looking for John Christopher for almost three years, trying to figure out what happened to him after he got out of prison. Because he cooperated with the FBI, he could not safely return to his old life, or even be in Chicago without FBI protection. So I looked for him everywhere I could think of, and Al, I found nothing. Eventually I learned the FBI had set him up with a new name and a new social security number and a new life. And that there was this FBI agent in St. Louis who might have all that information. So, I asked if he would talk to me, and if not, if he would pass John Christopher a message for me. and this was the response I got from the FBI's public information officer.

 

Rebecca Wu: Hi, Robin, it's Rebecca Wu at the FBI in St. Louis. I spoke with the agent and he says that he appreciates your sympathy for the source, but not surprisingly, he declines to participate. Again, he says that it is his responsibility to protect his source, and that he hopes that you understand that. So, thank you very much, and let me know if you have any other questions. Bye now.

 

Al Letson: Even after all this time, it appears that the FBI is still protecting John Christopher. What about all the trash he left behind? I mean, the dump itself. What happened to it?

 

Robin Amer: Well, when the feds washed their hands of this problem and said, "Bye-bye, Chicago.", and with all the intense public scrutiny and the national media coverage that Operation Silver Shovel had garnered, the city finally stepped in and started awarding contracts to companies who could haul all this rubble away. Remember the lot where Mount Henry once stood spanned 21 acres, and the mountain itself was six stories tall. So these clean-up contracts were going to be really big and really lucrative. The clean-up had just started in January 1996 when the Reverend Jesse Jackson stepped in.

 

Rev. Jesse J.: We should have the right to remove the debris in our own community, because it's obviously going to be a good lucrative job, for someone to have the job.

 

Robin Amer: So Reverend Jackson, the civil rights activist and two-time candidate for President, had first come to Chicago in the 1960s. His Rainbow/PUSH coalition is headquartered here, and the way Jackson tells it, when he first learned about Operation Silver Shovel, he realized that this clean-up presented a unique opportunity. John Christopher had dumped in a black neighborhood, and he had helped take down black politicians, but someone was going to get paid to clean up the dumps. And Jackson wanted the city to hire black-owned trucking firms to do it.

 

Rev. Jesse J.: At first I think there was resistance, because the insiders who usually get these kinds of jobs were demanding [their] right to get them, and we demanded the right to circumvent that system.

 

Robin Amer: So Reverend Jackson mounted a major protest to back up his demands.

 

Rev. Jesse J.: We organized the trucks and the land removers.

 

Robin Amer: On this frigid Saturday in early February 1996, dozens of diesel trucks and bulldozers, plastered with signs that said things like, “We want our fair share”, and “Hire us to clean up the dumps”, all these trucks lined up in a convoy and headed for North Lawndale.

 

Rev. Jesse J.: And we did a full mile trip across the city, driving about ten miles an hour, with just trucks and tractors and trailers and dumpsters. And we lined up and drove across the city. It stopped traffic for two or three hours.

 

Robin Amer: When the convoy arrived in North Lawndale, the company that had started the clean-up blocked the entrance to the site. But Jackson and the truckers eventually got into the site and he gave a speech from on top of a tractor. He threatened to continue the protest into the summer, when the Democratic National Convention was going to be in Chicago in advance of the 96 election. The Chicago Tribune characterized his threats this way. “Give us what we want, or watch as we wreak havoc on your big important party this summer.” It was only then that the mayor agreed to hire black-owned firms to clean up the dump.

 

Rev. Jesse J.: That was our nonviolent protest, and it worked.

 

Robin Amer: But the residents of North Lawndale were not impressed. When the dumping had first started in their neighborhood, Reverend Jackson was one of the people they had written to, asking for help. And Miss Woodson says they never heard back from him. At least, not until Operation Silver Shovel was finished and the camera crews arrived.

 

Gladys Woodson: The Silver Shovel story broke and then the next thing I saw was Jesse Jackson standing on top of the pile, saying, “Yeah, we did this.” And we were saying, “No you didn't.” Yeah, he just stood there and took credit for a lot of the stuff that had been done. But that was way after the fight.

 

Robin Amer: The clean-up continued through the spring of 1996. One by one, dump trucks filed on to the lot and backed up to the mountain. Bulldozers began slowly chipping away at the tightly-packed mass of concrete and dirt, filling up truck after truck after truck. Residents like Gladys Woodson who had watched in those early days as John Christopher set up shop now watched the process slowly rewind.

 

Gladys Woodson: Felt sort of good. Because I'm saying wow, now we... and [doubt] is gone. It's going to be gone.

 

Robin Amer: Can you tell us what that was like?

 

Gladys Woodson: Dusty. [More dusts 00:47:32], with the trucks coming in to get the stuff. But at least they sprayed the street down, which Chris John never did. Never did.

 

Robin Amer: Eight years after John Christopher first showed up in North Lawndale, the clean-up was over.

 

Gladys Woodson: And it was all like a puff of smoke. And everything changed. That's right.

 

Robin Amer: Here are Rita Ashford's daughters, Sherina and Michelle.

 

Sherina Ashford: Disappeared. It just was there one day, gone the next.

 

Michelle A.: That's because they were rolling all night long. They would be rolling all night long, getting it out of there, once it broke. And when you looked up, the pile went from where, you know, the kids used to run up and then stand on the top? It went from being up there to it, just, like, oh, it's gone.

 

Al Letson: So Robin, what happened to this vacant lot in the end? 21 acres, located right there in the city. It must have been a pretty coveted piece of real estate.

 

Robin Amer: Oh, yeah. It was basically like a blank canvas just waiting for the right kind of development. You know, the kind that could build community ties, or bring jobs and money back into the neighborhood. And especially after the embarrassment of Operation Silver Shovel, this lot offered a chance for then-mayor Richard M. Daley's so-called renaissance to finally touch down in North Lawndale. Not to offload unwanted trash, but to build something new. But like so many opportunities in this story, this one was also squandered. There have been several attempts to build on this lot over the past 20 years, but so far none have been successful, and the lot is still empty today. And for many of the North Lawndale residents I spoke to, a prime piece of real estate this big, that has sat empty for this long, indicates a larger problem. A kind of neglect and abandonment that began long before John Christopher brought the first truckloads of debris to the lot, and has continued long after.

 

Al Letson: What I want to say is, like, I can't believe that this happened in an American city. But the truth is, I can. What an incredible and frustrating story. Robin, thank you so much for bringing it to us.

 

Robin Amer: Thanks for having me, all.

 

Deyki Nichols: Oh, boy, look at this. I ain't been over here in forever. 20, 26 years. A lot memories.

 

Al Letson: One day, not too long ago, Deyki Nichols took a walk in the lot where the mountain used to loom. The home to the evil rabbit that terrorized neighborhood kids. Deyki was in high school when the clean-up started.

 

Deyki Nichols: We was protective of it. Don't tear our hills down. That was our go to, that's what we did.

 

Al Letson: Deyki left to go away to college out of state, and when he came back, the hills and the mountain had disappeared.

 

Deyki Nichols: Like, man, our hill's gone. And so I'm going back to me being a kid. They took our hills away. But, me growing into the man I am now, really appreciate where it's at now. It's gorgeous, far as what is used to look like beforehand.

 

Al Letson: But it's still a vacant lot. And the big picture problems, greed and indifference, that created the mountain, are keeping the lot empty today.

 

Al Letson: Thanks to Robin Amer for bringing us today's story and the rest of the crew USA Today's The City. Wilson Sayre, Jenny Casas, Sam Greenspan, Ben Austen, Matt Doig, and my friend, [Amy Pahl 00:51:14]. The City's executive producer is Liz Nelson. Hannis Brown composed original music for The City. You can find The City on Facebook and Twitter at thecitypod and visit their website, thecitypodcat.com. Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 29: From PRX.