CHICAGO (CN) – Chicago was slapped with two police misconduct lawsuits Monday alleging a city-wide conspiracy of high-ranking police officials turning a blind eye to dirty cops planting evidence and framing innocent people for crimes.
Armando Serrano spent 23 years in prison after cops in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood framed him and two other Latino men for the shooting death of Rodrigo Vargas in 1993, a crime that went unsolved for four months until now-retired police detective Reynaldo Guevara and his team took over the investigation, according to the lawsuit Serrano filed in Chicago federal court.
Vargas was shot to death while sitting in his van in front of his home. When police arrived they found $190 in his pocket and a radio in his hand, and it appeared as if nothing had been stolen.
According to Serrano’s complaint, Guevara aka “the Hook-up Artist” and his team of officers used a heroin-addicted gang member with a rap sheet as a phony witness to help them set up Serrano and others.
Guevara and his partner Ernest Halvorsen allegedly convinced Francisco Vincente to work for them by offering him food and candy during heroin withdrawal and help with his own criminal cases, and “smacked him around” until he agreed to cooperate.
Serrano claims former Assistant Cook County State’s Attorneys Matthew Coghlan and John Dillon conspired with Guevara, Halvorsen and violent crimes unit supervisor Edward Mingey to use the “snitch” witness to secure indictments against five men, “knowing full well that the men were innocent of the crimes for which they were accused.”
During the murder investigation, Vargas’ widow Wilda reportedly told Guevara that three men in a light brown car may have seen her husband at a gas station carrying a large amount of cash.
“Consistent with a pattern of framing Latino men from the Humbolt Park area, detectives Guevara and Halvorsen decided to frame three Latino men who had previously been convicted of or accused of committing armed robberies,” Serrano’s complaint states.
The detectives allegedly ran criminal histories on Serrano, Jose Montanez and Jorge Pacheco to determine who would be framed. They showed photos of the men to Vargas’ widow in an attempt to convince her that they were the men she saw at the gas station.
“Detective Guevara then told Wilda that the ‘bullet hole’ on the passenger side of Montanez’s car had been ‘matched’ to ballistics evidence found at the scene of her husband’s shooting. That statement was a lie. No ballistics evidence connected Montanez’s car to the crime scene,” the lawsuit alleges.
Back at the states attorney’s office, and in the presence of Halvorsen, Coghlan and Dillon, Guevara allegedly coached Vincente to use crime scene photos and a fabricated narrative that Montanez admitted his involvement in the murder and implicated Serrano and Pacheco.
Serrano claims Guevara prepared a police report based on the bogus information and arrested him. Serrano says he refused to confess to the murder despite being physical abused and “tag-teamed” by Guevara and Halvorsen for 24 hours.
In exchange for his testimony before a grand jury, according to the lawsuit, Vincente received cash, access to drugs, three years of protection in witness quarters and pre-trial custody credit toward his own jail sentence.
Vincente allegedly told the jury that the three men pulled up to his “dope spot” in a light brown sedan with a bullet hole and confessed to shoving a 9mm semi-automatic pistol in the air duct of Vargas’ van and shooting him in a “robbery gone bad.”
He testified that Montanez, Serrano and Pacheco confessed to targeting a “Mexican guy” with a wad of cash in his hand at a gas station, and that Serrano “fucked up” and shot “the stud,” according to the lawsuit.
Serrano, who says he was “solely convicted on snitch testimony,” received a sentence of 55 years in prison for murder.
In 2005, the Northwestern Center for Wrongful Convictions filed a post-conviction petition on behalf of Serrano.
During an evidentiary hearing on the petition, Guevara, now retired and receiving full benefits, reportedly asserted his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. Vincente, on the other hand, admitted his testimony was entirely false.
A circuit court judge’s denial of Serrano’s release was reversed by an appeals court in 2016. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office vacated his sentence and issued him a certificate of innocence. He was released from custody after serving 23 years for a crime he did not commit.
According to Serrano’s lawsuit, Guevara and Halverson were able to carry on their criminal acts of beating confessions out of suspects, shaking down drug dealers and framing innocent people because of the Chicago Police Department’s “code of silence” policy.
“Tragically, plaintiff’s wrongful conviction at the hands of Detective Guevara and his accomplices, including defendant Halvorsen, is not an isolated miscarriage of justice. Over the course of two decades, Guevara and Halvorsen framed literally dozens of other innocent men who have all lodged independent accusations of similar misconduct against him,” the complaint states.
The complaint alleges officers have no fear of being disciplined for police misconduct because high-ranking department officials look the other way and punish officers that report misconduct.
“Since 1986, no fewer than 70 documented cases have come to light in which Chicago Police Detectives amassed ‘evidence’ against an innocent person for a serious crime that he did not commit. There are undoubtedly many more such cases that have not yet been discovered,” Serrano’s lawsuit states.
Serrano seeks compensatory and punitive damages, and is represented by Jennifer Bonjean in Brooklyn, N.Y.
In another complaint filed Monday in Chicago federal court, Lionel White claims a group of Chicago police officers manning the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood ran a criminal enterprise inside the Ida B. Wells Homes housing project.
White alleges former Chicago police officer and convicted felon Ronald Watts ran the “Watts Gang,” a group of tactical officers that engaged in robbery, extortion, excessive force, fabricating evidence and manufacturing false charges.
White claims the Watts Gang forcefully entered his girlfriend’s apartment inside the housing project in 2006, beat him up and later arrested him on drug charges after they planted 100 small bags of heroin.
The lawsuit accuses Watts of conspiring with his team to secure a narcotics possession conviction against White.
White told the judge he pleaded guilty to the charges because he was terrified of the Watts Gang. He served two years in prison before the Cook County Circuit Court vacated his sentence in 2016 and granted him a certificate of innocence a year later.
White alleges high-ranking officials within the CPD and internal affairs were aware that Watts and his cronies ran a criminal enterprise inside the housing complex as early as 2004, but refused to discipline him even though 10 complaints of police misconduct were filed against him by civilians.
“The Chicago Police Department’s official policies or customs of failing to discipline, supervise, and control its officers and a ‘code of silence’ were a proximate cause of the Watts Gang’s criminal enterprise,” White’s complaint states.
Watts was finally arrested in 2012 for shaking down a federal informant posing as a drug dealer, according to the lawsuit.
White claims police officers are trained to uphold the code of silence at the Chicago Police Academy, allegedly being instructed that “blue is blue” and to “go with the flow” if they witness potential police misconduct.
White seeks also seeks compensatory and punitive damages. He is represented by Joel Flaxman of Kenneth Flaxman PC in Chicago, and by attorneys with Loevy & Loevy in Chicago and Boulder, Colo.
Chicago’s law department told local news outlets that it doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
In December 2015, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel acknowledged CPD’s code of silence and stated that it “leads to a culture where extreme acts of abuse are tolerated.”
The U.S. Department of Justice said in its scathing report on the CPD released in January that “a code of silence exists, and officers and community members know about it.”