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Something's rotten in Ford Heights: drugs, murder, and charges of corruption in America's poorest suburb 

Ford Heights is a rough town. In 1989 the far south-side community of less than 6,000 won the title of poorest suburb in the country--for the second year in a row. The poverty level is nearly 40 percent; unemployment is more than 40 percent. Neighboring areas, such as Chicago Heights and Sauk Village are reviving, but in Ford Heights only a few operating stores stand at the main intersection. Beyond them, shuttered buildings quickly give way to small dilapidated houses on side streets that generally run a few blocks and then peter off into scrub grass.

Since winning office a little more than a year ago, Mayor Gloria Bryant has tried to use the village's distinction as the country's poorest community to attract economic assistance from the federal government though with little success so far. A businessmen's association has been founded, and a small strip of stores recently went up on the main highway. But the village government is still mired in debt, and public services remain chronically underfunded. And in the eyes of residents and outsiders alike Ford Heights is still the wild West.

In its neighborhoods one business is thriving: the cocaine trade. And it has generated a crime problem that has overwhelmed the financially strapped police force. Frustrated officers in the department--which until recently was reduced to a single squad car--have also had to deal with persistent allegations of corruption, the most recent of which is that some of them were involved with a local drug ring. A slew of authorities, from the county sheriff's police up the FBI, are said to be investigating members of the force as well as the former police chief Jack Davis, who happens to be the current mayor's husband.

The spate of embarrassing publicity about the problems in the police department began in early 1988, when the village ran out of money and had to issue IOUs instead of paychecks, causing a brief walkout by officers. Antagonism between police and the village board grew and in February of that year led to Davis's resignation from his position as police chief. He stayed on as a lieutenant but board members and then-mayor Saul Beck said they were still searching for evidence of wrongdoing in the department, including the possibility that officers were being put on the street without adequate training.

That February a younger man named Michael Clerk was found murdered near the house of Floyd Bryant, an alleged local drug dealer. Bryant, who found the body, said that Clerk had worked for him. He was a suspect in the case, but no charges were pressed.

Then in December 1988 Ulysses Jackson, a Chicago Heights resident, went to a Chicago police station to report that he had seen Bryant kill Clerk. According to a public defender, working on his case Jackson wanted to "get off the street" because he feared both Bryant and the Ford Heights police, whom he suspected were working together. Jackson was handed over to Cook County sheriff's department. Later he alleged that officers in that department, by threatening to turn him over the Ford Heights police, had coerced him into signing a statement that he, not Bryant, had killed Clerk. Jackson also alleged that the sheriff's police wanted to force him to take the rap for Clerk's murder to protect Bryant and the Ford Heights police.

The prosecutor in the case, Assistant State's Attorney Thomas Dart, dismisses Jackson's story as "a fishing expedition." He says, "It's a straight murder case, and that's how we're going to try it. There's no proof of any conspiracy." The case has yet to come to trial.

In the past year other events have raised new questions about the relationship between the Ford Heights police and Floyd Bryant. On July 30 Jack Davis was shot in the shoulder outside his Ford Heights home. Henry Lowery, also of ford Heights, was arrested three weeks later and charged with attempted murder. While in custody, Lowery signed a statement saying that Floyd Bryant had paid him to kill Davis. further questions were raised when the sheriff's police reported that Davis had waited half a day to go to the hospital after the shooting and had waited a couple of days to file a complaint against his assailant. (If, as Ulysses Jackson alleged, the sheriff's police were protecting Davis and Bryant, the deal had apparently ended,and it was every man for himself.)

Then on September 16 Floyd Bryant was shot to death by two men in a car. Louis Brooks and Ronald Turner were arrested and charged with first-degree murder. turner signed a statement saying that Davis had offered $10,000 to kill Bryant, but claimed Brooks was the one who accepted the contract and shot Davis.

Following Bryant's death, speculation has grown that Bryant and Davis were partners in a drug ring and that the relationship had deteriorated into a turf war, which resulted in the string of murders. Public defenders have been doing much of the speculating, in part, perhaps, because it is in the interest of Ulysses Jackson to demonstrate that the Ford Heights police could have been protecting Floyd Bryant in the murder of Michael Clerk. Henry Lowery's case would also be helped if it could be shown that Davis was working with Bryant, which would undercut Davis's credibility if he testified against Lowery.

Granting a motion by Jackson and Lowery's attorneys, the judge in the case has issued a subpoena to the Cook county Sheriff's Police, the state's attorney's office,and the FBI, demanding any information they have found about the Ford Heights Police Department of Jack Davis. Public defenders say the don't expect cooperation from the sheriff's office because of the allegations it is in the Jackson case.

The sheriff's police and the state's attorney's office deny they are investigating the Ford Heights police. "If there were an investigation going on, something would have come out by now." says Assistant State's Attorney Dart. Officials from both offices say they are only conducting routing investigations. The FBI,while not saying it has material on Ford Heights, has declined to release any information because of "pending investigations."

"We take that to mean that they probably have something but don't want to give it up" says a public defender on the Turner case, Frank Rago. "Given all that's gone in, there's got to be an investigation at the federal level"

The person most confident that an investigation is going on is Jack Davis. "I can't say anything around [the station]," he says. "I'm pretty sure they got the phones tapped, and you can even see them hanging around here." He complains that whoever's investigating him is interfering with his work, and he alleges that the assistant state's attorney's office has approached suspects arrested in Ford Heights and offered them sentence reductions if they could provide damaging information about village police. "They're wasting all this time and money investigating some poor black town, when there's nothing going on here," he says. "If I was a drug dealer, why don't I have a lot of money and a couple of big houses?" And, he adds, "Anyone arrested for drugs in this town, we try to send them to jail. There's no proof we haven't done our job here." The state's attorney's office and the sheriff's police deny that they are investigating Davis or making offers to suspects.

The village government suspended Davis following Bryant's death last September, but he returned to work a few months ago. village officials point out that no formal charges have been made against him,though they say they anticipate changes in the department. In May Mayor Bryant, who declines to elaborate on her husband's role in the department, swore in a new police chief, Selester Gilty. "We expect there will be some reorganization under our new chief," she says.

Another village official, who prefers to remain unidentified,is more blunt: "The whole department was corrupt, and there are going to have to be some firings. This town may be poor, but it doesn't have to be pitiful."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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