Robin Amer: Chicago is built on a prairie. The skyscrapers downtown tower over a completely flat landscape. Which made it all the more remarkable when John Christopher’s giant illegal dumps began to rise up out of nowhere, casting their long shadows over North Lawndale, and the homes of Gladys Woodson and Jacquelyn Rodney.
Gladys Woodson: It was about two stories high.
Jaquelyn Rodney: At least two stories, right?
Robin Amer: So the dump was as tall as all of these houses around us? That's so big.
Jaquelyn Rodney: And he didn’t water it down. The dust was all over the neighborhood. Everywhere.
Gladys Woodson: I don't care how much you clean. I still can write my name on my—cause I have glass tables. I still can write my name in the table.
Where we left off, a guy named John Christopher had established a pair of illegal dumps on two vacant lots in North Lawndale, on Chicago’s West Side. One down the street from Ms. Woodson and Ms. Rodney, and an even bigger one, just a few blocks away, across the street from an elementary school.
And not only was John Christopher dumping truckload after truckload of gravel and bricks and rusted bits of metal, he was also operating a rock crusher: a giant piece of machinery that pulverizes concrete into gravel.
Jaquelyn Rodney: Whenever he operated the crusher, we all knew because our buildings would be shaking, and you can hear the mortar falling. You'd hear the mortar falling through the walls. It sounded like the houses were about to cave in.
Robin Amer: So you can hear the rock crusher two blocks away?
Jaquelyn Rodney: Oh, because it was shaking the ground. Not only could we hear it, but it was shaking our houses. Our mortar was falling out of the buildings to the point where we could see outside from inside the house.
Ms. Rodney and Ms. Woodson and their neighbors in North Lawndale had confronted John Christopher, the dumper, and were determined to take him to court. They got the city of Chicago on their side, and sued John Christopher. That was in June of 1990.
Jacquelyn Rodney: He said, "I'll do what I want, when I want"—
Gladys Woodson: "When I want."
Jacquelyn Rodney: "And how I want, and I'll stay there as long as I want to."
Gladys Woodson: And we said, "No, you won't. You're definitely not going to stay here."
Except he would. For longer than anyone could have predicted.
I’m Robin Amer. From USA TODAY, this is The City.
Robin Amer: As kid growing up in Granite City, Illinois, Henry Henderson would spend summer nights walking the mile or so from his home to the steel mills, and watch them light up the sky.
Henry Henderson: We'd go out in the night when it was really dark and watch them pour the slag. And it would turn the sky into bright, bright, bright, brightness because of the intensity of the heat involved in that.
Henry grew up around steel; generations of his family had worked in, and around the mills.
Henry Henderson: My great-grandfather came from South Wales, from a huge mining district. He was at the blast furnace. He was a worker. He'd come out every day to see if a flag was flying at the mill to see if they're hiring. But moving from mining to steel was in some ways moving from life that was almost indistinguishable from a Roman serf into part of the modern economy.
Henry saw how vital the mills were to his family, but also the pollution they spewed into his town: the toxic metals dumped in nearby waterways, the deep black smoke pouring out of the smoke stacks.
And he wasn’t alone in thinking this was a problem. This was the 1970s, when the environmental movement was taking root, and Henderson got swept up in it.
Henry Henderson: It's fundamentally a question of justice. One of the really key areas where you can see significant issues of the justice in the community is within the environment: where burdens fall and where benefits are are not going.
Henry went to law school, moved to Chicago, and went to work for the Illinois Attorney General on a task force dealing with hazardous waste.
Henry Henderson: We had a huge number of issues that went directly to questions of equity, justice, quality of life, health, and safety. And this was an opportunity get into actually solving problems and using the law as a way to solve problems.
Henry Henderson was beginning to make a name for himself as someone who used the full weight of the law to defend people from hazardous waste. In his two or so years at the attorney general’s office, he worked on about ten cases prosecuting dangerous polluters.
And often, the best weapon in Henry’s arsenal was an injunction—a legal order that forces someone to stop what they’re doing under threat of arrest. So, like, in one of his cases, he was able to get a court order to stop a bunch of waste transfer stations from leaking into surrounding farmland.
Henry Henderson got good at cases like these—going a judge, getting an injunction, and forcing polluters to immediately stop whatever they were doing.
And so when the North Lawndale dumping cases landed on his desk in June of 1990, he thought it would be an open and shut case. By this point, Henderson had moved to a new job as an environmental lawyer for the city of Chicago. And he thought it would be pretty easy to do in North Lawndale what he’d done so many times before: go to a judge and get an injunction.
Henry Henderson: Because this was clearly beginning of the gigantic problem, and it needed to be stopped.
Robin Amer: Did you have full faith at this point that the courts would deliver justice? That the courts would produce some meaningful results in this situation?
Henry Henderson: Yes. Actually, I did.
* * *
Robin Amer: We don’t have audio of the legal proceedings against John Christopher. So we hired some actors to dramatize scenes from a day city lawyers questioned him under oath.
Our cast includes John Christopher.
John Christopher: C-H-R-I-S-T-O-P-H-E-R
His lawyer, a guy named James Graney.
James Graney: For the purposes of the question, she will be specific when she identifies what she is speaking about...
And one of Henry Henderson’s colleagues—another city lawyer named Susan Herdina.
Susan Herdina: When I’m talking about waste, I am talking about the materials that your company ordinarily receives and sells, OK?
Everything you’re about to hear is taken verbatim from transcripts of that deposition.
Susan Herdina: Please state your full name for the record.
John Christopher: John Christopher
Susan Herdina: Spell the last name
John Christopher: C-h-r-i-s-t-o-p-h-e-r.
Susan Herdina: Mr. Christopher, we have met before. Let me formally introduce myself. My name is Susan Herdina and I represent the city of Chicago in connection with the lawsuit that has been brought against you, your company KrisJon, and various other defendants.
Robin Amer: Yes, John Christopher named his company KrisJon.
Susan Herdina: Are you aware of any complaints that waste material from the Kildare site has been disposed of on the public sidewalks surrounding the Kildare site?
John Christopher: What do you mean by waste?
City lawyer: Well, I’m using that term to describe items that your company deals with, either concrete, debris, dirt, clay, asphalt, any of those materials?
James Graney: We will object to the use of the term waste when referring to those items.
Robin Amer: “We will object to the use of the term waste...” Let’s just pause on this for a moment.
Henry Henderson had previously won cases dealing with hazardous waste. According to federal law, “hazardous” has a very specific definition. For waste to be considered “hazardous,” it has to be highly flammable, or reactive, or toxic—stuff like that.
Henderson knew this case would be different, because a pile of crushed up rocks is not the same thing as some glow-in-the-dark sludge. In the strictest legal sense, this waste was not “hazardous.”
But he never expected his team to have to debate whether, in the eyes of the law, these dumps were, in fact, waste.
John Christopher: What do you mean by waste?
In a kind of shrewd and tactical move, John Christopher and his lawyer argued that this stuff wasn’t “waste” at all.
James Graney: We will object to the use of the term waste when referring to those items.
Susan Herdina: For the purposes of this deposition, when I am talking about waste, I am talking about the materials that your company ordinarily receives and sells, okay? So we are talking about concrete, rebar, asphalt, clay...stone, things of that nature.
John Christopher: Not for something, that is not waste.
Christopher’s lawyer: OK…
John Christopher: I don't want to get into—
Christopher’s lawyer: Just relax, John. For the purposes of the question, she will be specific when she identifies what she is speaking about. You are just not to answer questions when she uses the term “waste” unless she specifies.
John Christopher: I don’t handle waste, OK? And I know I am getting brought into a suit because of waste, because of the city defining dirt, asphalt, and broken concrete as waste. I know that. But that is not waste, and that is not an issue to go over at this point. You know, I don't handle waste.
Susan Herdina: It is your contention that you handle “material,” is that correct?
John Christopher: Material.
Robin Amer: Material. John Christopher argued that he wasn’t dumping waste, but recycling material.
Under city law, anything that could be recycled was not considered waste. And in a legal brief, John Christopher’s lawyer argued that the materials at the site were not waste because they were being recycled.
Remember, John Christopher said he was was operating a rock crusher to pulverize all of that waste...material...whatever it was...and “recycle” it back into gravel.
Of course, the problem with this argument was that only a very small percentage of the stuff he was bringing to the lots was being recycled. Much of it was just left there.
The main judge in this case, Lester Foreman, died in 2003, so we weren’t able to ask him what he thought about these arguments. But Henry Henderson says that the judges—both Judge Foreman and the judge who initially presided over the case—took the arguments seriously enough to consider that John Christopher could be in the right.
Henry Henderson: This was clearly the case here where you could say, look there is a value to this concrete. There's embedded value in all kinds of things that can be treated as waste. That's actually the genius of the recycling movement, is looking at embedded value and things that are treated as waste but actually have a reuse possibility.
Henderson believes the judges were also swayed by the fact that, in a strict technical sense, nothing being trucked to the lots was “hazardous.” This wasn’t cyanide or arsenic—nothing obviously threatening to catch fire or poison people.
He thinks it would have been easier to get the injunction if it had been.
Just two days after the city sued, the court denied the request for an injunction. The city tried again, and their second request was also denied. The case would keep working its way through the legal system—but while it did, John Christopher would be free to continue dumping.
Robin Amer: How did you feel during this time? I mean, I can imagine—
Henry Henderson: Immensely frustrated. And you know, going to a lot of community meetings with people being very, very upset, and outraged about the fact that this activity was continuing to occur in their community. This was uh, this is a big deal.
Jacquelyn Rodney: We were fighting in court and he was still operating.
Robin Amer: Again, here’s Jacquelyn Rodney, who lived near one of the dumps.
Jacquelyn Rodney: He put as much as he could on the site while we were in court.
Robin Amer: Ten months after John Christopher first showed up in North Lawndale, the dumps had almost doubled in height. And the neighborhood was about to find out just how destructive this non-hazardous material could be.
That’s after the break.
Undeterred by the lawsuit, John Christopher kept dumping. And every day, the prairie wind would blow through the piles of debris, and cover North Lawndale in layer of thick, gray dust.
Michelle Ashford: When the dust would fly, if you had a lip gloss on it, your lip gloss would be full of dirt. I mean, you could taste it on your lips, in your mouth.
Robin Amer: This is Michelle Ashford. In 1990, she was 19 years old, and she lived just a few houses south of the larger dump.
Michelle Ashford: And it was, I mean, it would be just a big goosh of wind. You would have to close your eyes, cover your mouth or whatever. Because once we experienced it, we knew, "Oh, here come the wind." And we would cover up so it wouldn't go in our mouths.
Rita Ashford: And I'll tell you something else that it did: It shielded the prostitutes too, ‘cause Roosevelt used to really have a problem with prostitution.
Robin Amer: That’s Michelle’s mother, Rita Ashford. She’s talking about Roosevelt Road, the street south of the larger of the two dumps.
Rita Ashford: The guys, they could come and pull up on the side of the dump, you know, all of that stuff is there. And that's where they did their business at.
Robin Amer: Just to be clear: The dump had gotten so big, that it cast the side street next to it into darkness!
Michelle Ashford: And with the prostitutes being able to go there and like hide, you couldn't actually see them unless you would go down Kildare. You could actually see that they would be down there. And they would be down there turning dates and everything right there on the street.
Robin Amer: The dumps had become a magnet. That’s actually a term of art in environmental circles. They were a magnet in that they attracted other illegal and unsavory stuff.
Rita Ashford: The rats. I didn't know that rats actually took to cement like that.
Robin Amer: What do you mean?
Rita Ashford: They lived on it. Girl, if it wasn't a hundred rats, it wasn't one.
Michelle Ashford: And people were fighting those rats. They were getting in their homes. Everybody was talking about, Miss House was talking about how they were digging and tunneling under her house. Everybody was dealing with the rats.
Rita Ashford: You could sit on Millie's porch and look at the rats running on the rocks.
Michelle Ashford: Running back and forth across Roosevelt.
Rita Ashford: Sure. How many got hit by cars in the middle of that street?
Robin Amer: The Ashfords can laugh about a lot of this now, despite how serious it all was. But the dumps also began to affect their family in ways they couldn’t laugh off.
* * *
Rita Ashford: Our homes were caked with that dust. That dust was horrible. We didn't have air conditioning. So we put those fans in the windows, and the fan would draw in the dust as well. So it's sucking in the dust. That dust was something, I'm gonna tell you.
Robin Amer: Ms. Ashford’s daughter Sherina had just given birth to a baby girl, Katrina. And when she was just a month old, she started to get sick. Here’s Sherina.
Sherina Ashford: First, she was coughing. She had a real bad cough, and her nose was running. Then her skin was really dark.
Robin Amer: Sherina took her daughter to a clinic, but she didn’t get better. Then, to the hospital in North Lawndale.
Sherina Ashford: And it still didn't get better.
Rita Ashford: Right. She still had the shortness of the breath, the erratic breathing. So, I told Sherina, I say, “Something is not right with that.” And you could tell too because when you hold her up and listen to her back, you could hear the wheezing.
Sherina Ashford: Like a whistle.
Rita Ashford: And so she (mimics labored breathing) she was panting like that. You could actually hear it.
Sherina Ashford: (Mimics a whistle sound) Something like that—almost like a whistle.
Robin Amer: Finally, they took baby Katrina to the big county hospital.
Sherina Ashford: They took her right on and then that's when they gave her the first treatment and he told me that her lungs was congested and stuff. they told me she had asthma, she had bronchial asthma. That's what they called it.
The Ashfords now faced a horrible kind of new normal.
Sherina Ashford: Back and forth in the hospital. Almost every day.
Robin Amer: Almost every day?
Sherina Ashford: Yeah. In a month's time, we probably was in the hospital 25 days out of the month.
Robin Amer: Doctors prescribed the baby a drug called prednisone. And kept her on it for years. It’s a powerful steroid with potentially powerful side-effects.
Michelle Ashford: Her face was just like so huge. My dad used to call her Two-Ton, because she was so huge from the prednisone, taking it trying to treat the asthma.
Sherina Ashford: Oh my God, we couldn't carry her. We had to move her around in the stroller, she was so heavy. She had grown so, you know, big and stuff.
Robin Amer: The Ashfords are convinced that the dust caused the baby’s asthma.
But proving cause-and-effect between a specific environmental hazard and a specific person’s illness is often really difficult. Ms. Ashford and others actually tried in vain to get government agencies to come in and do some kind of survey or study that would provide data on the overall impact of the dumps.
Rita Ashford: What I really wish is that they had a sent in a medical team to come in and to check to see if and how that dust had affected them after living around that and breathing in that stuff.
Robin Amer: So I cannot tell you for certain, yes, these dumps gave this baby asthma. But I can tell you that the Environmental Protection Agency classifies construction debris dust as particulate matter—tiny particles that can be harmful to breathe. Especially if you’re very young, or very old, or have other kinds of breathing problems already.
And other public health studies done at the time found rates of asthma in Chicago were twice the national average. Those rates were even higher in some black neighborhoods —including North Lawndale.
And as we were all sitting around talking, Ms. Ashford and her daughters started running through all the other people in their family who had asthma, which seemed to get worse as the dumps got bigger.
There was Sherina’s other kid—her son, Reginald.
Sherina Ashford: He had to been about five or six. He got a cold, too. And he had that real hard cough.
Robin Amer: Then there was their nephew, Trayvon.
Michelle Ashford: When he was a arm baby, he ended up with asthma. Yeah, she had her own personal machine at home because he had it so much, and running back and forth to the hospital so much.
Robin Amer: There were their neighbors, the Dickersons.
Rita Ashford: Millie's son Daniel? Daniel has asthma real bad. They've lived right up on that dump.
Robin Amer: And the Wardlows.
Rita Ashford: Debbie was another one that was dealing with that asthma.
Michelle Ashford: Two of them had it.
Rita Ashford: Right. Because they lived right up on it. How could they not?
Robin Amer: To this family, the dumps were clearly a hazard.
And the court could have stopped John Christopher two days after the city filed suit—if the judge had agreed.
After Henry Henderson, the city lawyer, failed to get an injunction, he realized that if he was going to sway the judge, he’d have to change his tactics.
So rather than argue that John Christopher was breaking the law on technical grounds—like, not having the right permits—or debating what even is “waste”— Henderson and his team would hammer home the actual harm being done to the community.
But John Christopher pivoted, too. Instead of just antagonizing people, he also began waging a hearts and minds campaign, to try to sway people from North Lawndale to his side.
He hired someone from the neighborhood to act as a “community liaison.” And paradoxically, he offered to help clean up other vacant lots in the area by giving people dirt he screened at the dumps.
And some people took John Christopher at his word. I found this petition, signed by 30 North Lawndale residents. It reads:
“The following persons welcome KrisJon”—that’s his company, KrisJon—“into the community, and are grateful that the company is involved in a beautification project that will benefit the community and its residents.”
John Christopher took this petition and submitted it into evidence during the court case, to try convince the judge of his good works in North Lawndale.
He also started handing out money. Small amounts—$15 here, $10 there—ostensibly to pay for cleaning supplies.
Ms. Ashford brought this up when started talking about her neighbors, the Dickersons.
Rita Ashford: I'ma tell y'all something, Michelle. Let's be straight about the deal.
Michelle Ashford: I’m serious!
Rita Ashford: Millie got money from John.
Robin Amer: Millie is Millie Dickerson, whose apartment was right on the same lot as the larger of the two dumps, and whose son had asthma.
As we were talking, Ms. Ashford’s daughter called Millie Dickerson to see if she was around that day.
And later in the conversation, Ms. Dickerson actually walked into the interview and told us she had taken money from John Christopher.
Millie Dickerson: He came over there and he talked to me. And he saw me washing and hanging clothes on the back porch. And then he told me, he said that, "You don't mind about that we over here dumping in this here dump?” And then, “I give you some money to buy you some detergent and for the washing stuff." I told him, when he said money, I said, “Yeah. (laughter) You gonna give me my money for to wash my clothes,” because that mess was getting all in my house. I had a son who had asthma and all of that. My house was terrible.
Robin Amer: Ms. Dickerson and others living near the dumps wanted John Christopher to compensate them for all the damage he’d already done.
But back at the trial, John Christopher turned around and used this against them. He claimed that they weren’t really worried about the dumps—they were just trying to shake him down.
Here’s how he described an interaction he supposedly had with one North Lawndale resident to the city’s lawyer.
Let’s go back to our re-enactment.
Susan Herdina: Can you give me an idea how many people complained?
John Christopher: Five, seven, eight. Not all at once.
Susan Herdina: And can you give me a general idea of the nature of your conversation with these people?
John Christopher: You really don’t want to know.
Susan Herdina: No, I do want to know.
John Christopher: “Give me $10.”
“I ain’t giving you $10.”
“You ain’t going to make it off Roosevelt Road.”
Susan Herdina: And what was your response to that?
John Christopher: “We’ll see.” I’m here.
Susan Herdina: Did you get the names of these people?
John Christopher: No, I didn’t need to. I took care of it myself.
Susan Herdina: How did you take care of it?
John Christopher: I just told him, “It ain’t nice to ask Mother Nature for $10.”
Robin Amer: John Christopher was painting himself as the victim, and to some, it seemed as if rather than compensating them, he was trying to buy their silence.
Here’s Jacquelyn Rodney, who we heard from earlier talking about living next to the rock crusher.
Jacquelyn Rodney: When I went into court and they asked me to testify. He asked me did I want money?
Robin Amer: John Christopher did?
Jacquelyn Rodney: The lawyer, when I was sitting in the deposition. He asked me, "Well, what is it that you do you want? Do you want money? What is it that you want from this operation?"
And I said, "I want you to move. I want you to leave my neighborhood, because you're destroying it."
And he told me, "I wish we had you on our team." And I didn't know what that meant. I said, (laughter) "What does that mean?" And, you know, they thanked me for being there. I didn't know what that meant…
Robin Amer: John Christopher had previously cast doubt on the city’s legal arguments, and now he’d cast doubt on the residents’ motives. So one full year after he first showed up in North Lawndale, the city’s lawsuit was still grinding its way through court. And the dump across the street from the elementary school had grown into a mountain, almost six stories tall. So tall that the piles of concrete slabs towered over the houses next door.
And ultimately this mountain took on a nickname: Mt. Henry.
Jenny Casas: How did your dad feel about it being called Mount Henry?
Conrad Henry: He was quite subdued, quite sad about it. It was like he couldn't get nothing done about it. Or like, he's been duped, like he had been used to dump that there.
That’s next time on The City.
The City is a production of USA TODAY and is distributed in partnership with Wondery.
You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening right now. If you like the show, please rate and review us, and be sure to tell your friends about us.
Our show was reported and produced by Wilson Sayre, Jenny Casas, and me, Robin Amer.
Our editor is Sam Greenspan. Ben Austen is our story consultant. Original music and mixing is by Hannis Brown.
Jennifer Mudge, Chris Henry Coffey, and David Deblinger starred in our re-enactments.
Additional production by Taylor Maycan, Isobel Cockerell, and Bianca Medious.
Chris Davis is our VP for investigations. Scott Stein is our VP of product. Our executive producer is Liz Nelson. Maribel Wadsworth is the USA TODAY NETWORK’s president and publisher.
Special thanks to Misha Euceph and Danielle Svetcov.
Additional support comes from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Social Justice News Nexus at Northwestern University.
If you like this show, another you might enjoy is WBEZ’s “On Background,” which takes you inside the smoke-filled back rooms of Chicago and Illinois government to better understand the people, places, and forces shaping today’s politics.
I’m Robin Amer. You can find The City on Facebook and Twitter @thecitypod, and visit our website, where you’ll find photos of our characters, the transcript of John Christopher’s deposition, and more. That’s thecitypodcast.com