Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Grand Jury Finds Criminal Conduct In Chicago Jail Prisoner Abuse Scandal

As previously reported in PLN, the Cook County Jail has been the scene of controversy involving the wanton beating of prisoners by an elite squad of guards known as the SORT team. [PLN Feb. 2004, May 2005, p. 39]. An investigatory Grand Jury in Chicago has found felony criminal conduct related to the beatings of prisoners by Cook County jail personnel in 1999.

Two Beatings

The two main incidents involving the SORT team beating prisoners occurred on February 24, 1999 and July 29, 2000. In early 2003, media attention, spurred by the filing of several lawsuits by prisoners who were beaten, focused on the beatings and coverup of the 1999 beating. The March 2003 Grand Jury was extended to investigate the beatings. On August 30, 2004, the Grand Jury released a 149-page report of the beatings and subsequent coverup by Sheriff’s Office personnel.

Grand Jury Findings On 1999 Beatings

The Grand Jury found that, on February 24, 1999, at 6:25 a.m., the SORT team, led by Superintendent Richard Remus, entered Wings 3E and 3F of Division 9 at the maximum security facility. At that time, the wings were locked down and quiet. They had been quiet throughout the shift, according to the wing officer.

Remus entered the wing first and ordered the wing officer to wait outside after opening all the cell doors. The SORT team, which was accompanied by unmuzzled attack dogs, brought compliant prisoners into the dayroom and beat them with batons, open hands and fists. Any prisoner who attempted to look at a SORT officer’s face was beaten even harder. Sergeant James Tylka attempted to cover up the unprovoked mass beating by writing a false report stating that the SORT team had been called in to handle a hostile situation and had discovered weapons in the form of wooden sticks with bed sheet handles. The prisoners complained of having been beaten by the SORT team immediately upon the return of the wing officer.

At 8:30 p.m., the SORT team again entered Division 9 and conducted a shakedown of the twelve wings in the south tower. Remus had the wing officers leave, leaving their keys behind. The wing officers testified that the wings had been quiet and locked down.

The second SORT sortie was similar to the first and many prisoners complained of having been beaten by SORT. Known gang members and prisoners with tattoos were forced to walk a gauntlet of SORT guards who beat them mercilessly. Prisoners were also forced to lie on the floor while SORT officers stomped on their backs and legs. One testified to being choked with his rosary by SORT Lt. Tyronne Everhart.

Only a few of the prisoners were allowed medical treatment. Apparently the denial of medical treatment was done in collusion with the paramedic supersvisor, Steve Fullilove. The Grand Jury concluded that much of Fullilove’s testimony was incredible (for instance, he claimed to have never been told by a prisoner or guard that a prisoner had been beaten by a guard).

In April 1999, Internal Affairs Division Investigator Charles Holman was assigned to investigate the 1999 incident. By all accounts he did a good job. So good, that the investigation was taken from him and buried for years.

Holman described having made photographs of prisoner Bert Berrios on March 3, 1999, pursuant to a court order obtained by Berrios’s family. The photos showed Berrios still had two black eyes and a burn around his neck (from having been choked with his rosary) eight or nine days after the beating. However, the photos and Holman’s memorandum of his interview with Berrios disappeared from the file before Holman was formally assigned to the case.

Holman’s investigation was proceeding well and it had become apparent to him that criminal charges against the SORT team might be appropriate when he reported his preliminary findings to Chief Henry Barsch on June 20, 1999. Barsch’s reaction was to tell Holman to make a preliminary report based upon his preliminary findings and forward them to the Inspector General’s office for further investigation per the Sheriff’s Legal Advisor James Ryan. On June 23, 1999, Holman gave Barsch the report which Barsch claims to have forwarded to Inspector General (IG) Joseph Shaughnessy.

What really happened was that the report was buried until May 2001; when Barsch, who had by then been appointed Deputy IG, contacted Holman and reassigned him the case. The file contained a memo from Barsch to Shaughnessy indicating that Ryan had ordered the investigation halted. Ryan denied having ordered the investigation transferred to the IG or halted.

Holman completed his investigation believing that the statute of limitations had run on all possible criminal charges. Nonetheless, he issued numerous sustained findings against Remus and other SORT members for the beatings, making false reports and failing to turn in contraband they allegedly seized. Sustained finds were also made against the K-9 unit for bringing unmuzzled dogs into the jail’s living areas and against Superintendent James Edwards for making a false report of Berrios’s physical condition after he was beaten and for failing to report the misconduct of the SORT team. There were sustained findings against Fullilove for denying prisoners medical treatment. Except Remus, most of the people against whom sustained findings were made were promoted.

The Holman report was approved by Deputy Chief Samuel Mosley and IG Investigator Frank Podolsky. However IAD Chief Investigator Saul Weinstein delayed signing off on the report until late 2002, when it could not be immediately reviewed by Command Channel, which gives out disciplinary sanctions. Reacting to a mid-February 2003 Chicago Tribune article on the 1999 beating, Sheriff Sheahan ordered IG Shaughnessy to review the Holman report and make a supplemental report. Shaughnessy assigned IG Investigators James Cleary and Rodney Pavilionis to the case. They produced a supplemental report dated February 26, 2003, that eviscerated the Holman report, altering or vacating all of the serious sustained findings of misconduct without justification or explanation.

The Sheriff’s Department retaliated against Holman, removing him from IAD. He was even disciplined, by one of the former SORT officers (by then promoted to Chief of IAD) that he made a sustained finding of misconduct against, and given a three-day suspension for allegedly leaking information to the Tribune (a charge he denies).

The Grand jury concluded that the SORT team engaged in gross, if not criminal misconduct in the 1999 beatings, the altered findings were made in the face of substantial and persuasive evidence, the SORT incident reports were falsified, and there was a conspiracy to derail the investigation. These involve both misdemeanor and felony crimes. Although the statute of limitations has run on many of the individual crimes, when taken as individual actions in a conspiracy, the statute of limitations has not yet run.

State Criminal Laws Violated

The Grand Jury noted the following criminal laws were implicated: obstruction of justice, a Class 4 felony carrying up to three years in prison and a $25,000 fine; official misconduct, a Class 3 felony carrying up to five years in prison and a $25,000 fine; conspiracy to obstruct justice and commit official misconduct; and perjury, a Class 3 felony. The statute of limitations for official misconduct and obstruction of justice may be extended so as not to have run out. The statute of limitations for conspiracy allows prosecution up to three years after the last act in furtherance of the conspiracy (the filing of the supplemental report on March 4, 2003). Thus, the state statute of limitations problem for prosecution can be surmounted providing the district attorney acts promptly.

Federal Criminal Laws Violated

The Grand Jury also found that the following federal laws were implicated: obstruction of justice under 18 U.S.C. § 1512(b), a felony which carries up to ten years in prison and a fine; criminal civil rights violations under 18 U.S.C. § 242; and conspiracy under 18 U.S.C. § 371, a felony that carries up to five years in prison and a fine. The federal charges have a five-year statute of limitations that begins with the last act furthering the crime or conspiracy.

The July 19, 2000 SORTie

The Grand Jury found much conflicting testimony regarding the beating of prisoners by the SORT team on July 19, 2000. Specifically, some prisoners testified that other prisoners conspired to provoke the SORT team and fake a beating in the pump room while some ex-guards testified that they witnessed unprovoked beatings in the pump room. Because of the large quantity of conflicting testimony, the Grand Jury was unable to find probable cause of criminal wrongdoing in the 2000 beatings.


The Grand Jury found that “the record keeping of the Sheriff’s Office concerning grievances and complaint investigations were abominable” at the time of the beatings. It also found that the “extraordinary proof required for a finding sustaining a claim of excessive force provided a convenient way to ignore the truth and protect unfit individuals, allowing them further interaction with detainees.” The extraordinary level of proof disregarded witnesses who heard the beating and later saw the beaten prisoner and labeled as “inconclusive” any alleged beatings that the officer denied or in which the prisoner could not positively identify his assailant, or in which the prisoner was beaten by more than one guard, even if medical reports supported the prisoner’s claim.

The Grand Jury blamed the multimillion-dollar prisoner-beating lawsuits lost by the County on “poor training, poor administration, and poor handling of investigations of excessive force claims.” It also noted a chronic understaffing problem with the ratio of prisoners to guards at 11 to 1 (compared with 4 to one at New York’s Rikers Island). This, coupled with “an acute overcrowding situation” cause great difficulty in efficient jail administration. Also causing problems is the practice of appointing personnel without corrections experience into Sheriff’s Department executive positions overseeing jail operations. Remus, for instance, had been a plumber before being appointed a superintendent at the jail. He never received the training required for his Illinois State Law Enforcement Certification, but had it waived at the request of Sheahan. Likewise, the Undersheriff over the jail, Zelda Whittler, had no corrections experience, having had a background in court advocacy for battered women before becoming undersheriff.

The Grand Jury noted that cooperation, by the Sheriff was excellent until he was asked to give sworn testimony before the Grand Jury. Then he attempted to block a subpoena for his testimony and, after having been forced to testify, ceased all cooperation with the Grand Jury. Barsch, Shaughnessy, Weinstein, and Remus all refused to testify.

Because the Grand Jury was an investigative grand jury, it could not indict even though it found criminal wrongdoing. Instead, it forwarded its findings to the appropriate prosecuting authorities and made recommendations for the improvement of the Cook County Jail. Among the recommendations were the following: that the Cook County Board of Corrections be beefed up legislatively to include a monitoring function over the grievance and investigative processes of the Sheriff’s Department; that the extraordinary proof required for a finding sustaining a claim by a prisoner of excessive force be replaced with fairer and more objective criteria; that the grievance system be investigated and reformed. It left to the electorate to make final comment on the conduct of the Sheriff and many of his staff regarding their reactions to the investigation of the 1999 incident---conduct some would say was and still is “HEAR NO EVIL, SEE NO EVIL, SPEAK NO EVIL.”

Source: Report of the Extended March, 2003 Cook County, Illinois Grand Jury dated August 30, 2004.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login