Our Fragile Legacies, Pt 1

The young cop was a fast rising star of unlimited potential. The old man reminds us even the brightest stars can implode.


How far is too far?

At what point does the pursuit of justice itself pervert justice?

Is any crime so heinous to justify casting aside the rules of criminal procedure designed to protect the rights of the accused and ensure the Constitutional integrity of an investigation?

Keep these questions in mind as you read this article. The events and people described are real and, despite the fact the horrific murder of two police officers that lit the fuse occurred 28 years ago, remain very current. So, keep the above questions in mind but realize they are not the main point of this article, or the series it is a part of, but serve only as rhetorical touchstones.

This is a series about our LEGACY as law enforcers; about its enduring impact on the individuals and communities we come into contact with everyday; and about realizing legacy is fragile and needs to be safeguarded from the lapses and miscues, large or small, which can define it in ways you never envisioned and never wanted.

Surely the old commander had no idea it would end this way when he was sworn in 40 years before. Had anyone else the prescience to know his legacy come 2010, surely someone would have intervened. In March 1970, no one could possibly know the young police officer, fresh from a distinguished and decorated tour as an Army MP in Vietnam - where he earned a Purple Heart, a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, a Bronze Star, and commendation medals for valor - would see his police career end in infamy.

If he was a good soldier, he was potentially an even better cop. He made detective in just over two years, and sergeant in five more. By 1981 he had been elevated, briefly, to a field lieutenant slot in Chicago's 12th District before assuming command of the Area 2 Violent Crimes Unit. Although Jon Burge would eventually serve stints as commander of the CPD Bomb & Arson Unit and Area 3 Detectives before being relieved of duty - and ultimately fired - the genesis of his notoriety were in those five years in Area 2.

In February 1982, two Chicago police officers - gang crimes officers Richard O'Brien and William Fahey, who had curbed a vehicle occupied by a pair of burglary suspects - were shot and killed when Fahey was disarmed by one of the suspects, a recent parolee named Andrew Wilson. They were the fourth and fifth law enforcement officers shot on Chicago's South Side in little over one month into a very violent New Year. The killings occurred in Area 2 and responsibility for their investigation fell upon Burge and his detectives; a task they, along with an influx of detectives assisting from other sections of Area 2 (and other Areas) Investigations, embraced with passion.

While the zeal to find and capture the shooter and his accomplice was justifiable, some of the methods allegedly used sparked outrage among the community, Operation Push, some local media, and even other officers. Allegations of detectives holding guns to the heads of minor children while demanding information, shooting pets, arresting and detaining people for hours without cause in order to question them, and generally laying siege to the area were reported. One detective who worked the case recalled, years later and anonymously, in a Chicago Reader interview, "It was a reign of terror. I don't know what kristallnacht was like, but this was probably close."

Early in the morning of Valentine’s Day, five days after the shooting, Burge led an arrest team in the apprehension of Andrew Wilson. His younger brother, Jackie Wilson, was arrested a few hours later. Information on the Wilson brothers' involvement and where they could be found originated with tips from the community that tied the Wilson brothers to the crime and let police know their whereabouts. By the end of the day the crime had been solved, the cop killer and his accomplice were in custody, and Andrew Wilson had provided the confession that confirmed what investigators already knew from the evidence and tips. Andrew Wilson had gunned down O'Brien and Fahey in cold blood.

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