Exonerated After 19 Years, Man Says Cops Framed Him for Murder to Save a Snitch
CHICAGO (CN) - Exonerated after 19 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, a man claims in court that Chicago Heights' "infamously corrupt" police bribed witnesses to frame him, to protect their guilty snitch.
Rodell Sanders sued Chicago Heights, its police Officers Jeffrey Bohlen, Sam Mangialardi, Robert Pinnow, Charles Nardoni, Anthony Murphy and Joseph Rubestelli, FBI Agent Maureen Teed, and other employees of Chicago Heights.
In 1993, a group of men found Stacy Armstrong and Phillip Atkins sleeping in a parked car, and took them to an abandoned garage, which was "so dark that the offenders used a lighter to carry out the robbery and shooting that followed.
"Mr. Atkins was killed, while Armstrong was shot multiple times and left for dead," according to the complaint.
Sanders was arrested and charged, though he claims he was "nowhere nearby. Rather, Mr. Sanders was at his friend Vicky Ross's apartment. According to Ms. Ross and many others, Mr. Sanders was playing cards and hanging out with them at all relevant times on the night of December 14, 1993. The alibi witnesses recall that Mr. Sanders stayed at the apartment into the early morning hours of the following day."
The complaint adds: "There was no physical evidence linking Sanders to the crime. Rather, the only purported evidence against Mr. Sanders were two purchased and patently false witness identifications. These wrongful misidentifications were procured through manipulation and bribes by members of the City of Chicago Heights's infamously corrupt police department."
When police interviewed Armstrong, she named Germaine Haslett as the man who ordered the shooting, Sanders says. He says Haslett was working for the police as a "snitch" in another prosecution.
"Because the defendants were focused on protecting Mr. Haslett, the defendants withheld Ms. Armstrong's identification of Mr. Haslett by name," the complaint states. "Accordingly, the defendants never memorialized in any police report or otherwise communicated to Mr. Sanders that Ms. Armstrong initially identified Mr. Haslett by name.
"Thereafter, the defendants sought to minimize Mr. Haslett's complicity in the crime by finding someone else to take his place as Offender Number Three, namely Mr. Sanders.
"At the time of the shooting, Mr. Sanders stood five feet eight inches tall, weighed close to 200 pounds, and was 30 years old. He did not match the description of Offender Number Three (a tall skinny guy) or that of the shooter (a sixteen year-old teenager). Nor did Mr. Sanders have anything whatsoever to do with this crime.
"Because Mr. Sanders did not match Ms. Armstrong's description, the Defendants had to manipulate Ms. Armstrong into changing her identification of Offender Number Three from Mr. Haslett to Mr. Sanders.
"To accomplish the task of having Ms. Armstrong misidentify Mr. Sanders and not Mr. Haslett, the defendants concocted a flawed photographic line-up designed to improperly implicate Mr. Sanders. To begin, although Ms. Armstrong had described Offender Number Three as tall and skinny, the defendants inserted the short and stocky plaintiff into the photo line-up shown to Ms. Armstrong. Furthermore, the defendants inexplicably did not include tall and skinny Germaine Haslett's photograph in the photo line-up, despite Ms. Armstrong having previously identified Haslett."
In fact, Sanders claims, Haslett repeatedly confessed to ordering the murder: "Unlike Mr. Sanders, Mr. Haslett confessed his involvement as Offender Number Three to the defendants. Indeed, since the morning of the shooting, Mr. Haslett has repeatedly confessed to having ordered the shooting of Mr. Atkins and Ms. Armstrong to family and friends.
"Although the defendants knew that Mr. Haslett was guilty and Mr. Sanders was innocent of this crime, the defendants endeavored to protect Mr. Haslett, their snitch whose testimony they needed for the other case. They offered Mr. Haslett a deal - if he would falsely implicate Mr. Sanders as Offender Number Three, they would allow Mr. Haslett to paint himself as just one of the lookouts and give him a generous plea deal and a host of undisclosed benefits."
Here are those undisclosed benefits, the complaint continues: "Mr. Haslett agreed to participate in the illicit scheme. In exchange for his false statement inculpating Mr. Sanders, Mr. Haslett received a deal on the Atkins and Armstrong case, allowing him to plead guilty to armed robbery instead of facing charges for murder and attempt murder.
"That, however, was not the only benefit that Mr. Haslett received. Unbeknownst to Mr. Sanders, during the pendency of Mr. Sanders' case, defendant Bohlen arranged for Mr. Haslett to continue his career as an FBI and Chicago Heights police informant, including by giving testimony against Mr. Sanders. In doing so, Mr. Haslett was able to curry multiple additional, undisclosed favors for himself.
"First, in exchange for Haslett's testimony against Mr. Sanders, the defendants agreed to terminate Mr. Haslett's probation in an unrelated drug case. That consideration was never disclosed to Mr. Sanders or his defense.
"Second, the defendants arranged for Mr. Haslett to receive a two-year reduction on the 12-year sentence he was given as part of his plea in the Atkins and Armstrong case. As a result, Mr. Haslett served less than five years in prison. In addition, the defendants ensured that Mr. Haslett was housed during those five years in the witness quarters in the State's Attorney's Office, protective custody at the Cook County Jail or in the federal system. The reduction in Mr. Haslett's sentence and his preferred housing while incarcerated were both withheld from Mr. Sanders and his defense.
"Third, the defendants (including Maureen Teed) helped arrange for thousands of dollars to be paid to Mr. Haslett and his-then girlfriend and the mother of his children in exchange for Mr. Haslett's testimony against Sanders.
"None of the payments to Mr. Haslett or his girlfriend were ever disclosed to Mr. Sanders or his defense attorney."
Sanders says he was wrongfully convicted of murder: "At trial, the only evidence introduced against Mr. Sanders were the false identifications by Ms. Armstrong and Mr. Haslett. All other evidence, including the physical evidence collected by the defendants, exculpated Mr. Sanders.
"Nevertheless, on the basis of the false identifications procured by defendants, the jury convicted Mr. Sanders of attempt murder, armed robbery and murder.
"Mr. Sanders was then sentenced to 55 years of incarceration for the murder and 25 years of incarceration for the attempt murder to run consecutively. In addition, Mr. Sanders was sentenced to a concurrent 20 years of imprisonment on the armed robbery charge."
Sanders served 19 years of his 80-year sentence before he was exonerated in 2011.
He says his wrongful conviction was not an isolated incident. He cites Officer Mangialardi's 1993 conviction for racketeering, witness tampering, and extortion.
"Yet, the corruption did not stop with defendant Mangialardi's conviction," Sanders adds. "Rather, the misconduct in Chicago Heights was so widespread that a total of six police officers, and 15 public officials, including the former mayor, Charles Pinici, were convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences and large fines.
"The corruption was so widespread among the City of Chicago Heights police department that the mayor enlisted a retired Illinois Supreme Court Justice to investigate the entire police department.
"For instance, around the same time as Mr. Sanders was facing false charges for murder, Bernard Ellis was facing trial for murder. Ellis was eventually found guilty, but his conviction was reversed when the appellate court found that the very Defendants involved in Mr. Sanders' case had not disclosed benefits that were provided to two of the eyewitnesses to the shooting. Even more, the appellate court also found that the various defendants coached, threatened, and bribed witnesses in exchange for false identifications of Ellis."
Sanders seeks punitive damages for violations of due process, conspiracy, and failure to intervene. Defendants include six unknown agents of the FBI.
Sanders is represented by Gayle Horn with Loevy & Loevy.