The City

Six stories of rubble. A million stories buried underneath.

An investigative podcast from USA TODAY.

S1: Episode 10

The Present, The Future

The uncertain fate of the lots in North Lawndale, and what that says about a city like Chicago.

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The Present, The Future

Robin Amer: In North Lawndale today, the 21-acre lot across the street from Sumner Elementary School looks, at first glance, like an open prairie.

In the winter, when the first snow sticks, it looks almost like an untouched nature preserve. In the summer months, tall, dry grass blows across the entire expanse of empty land.

White lace wildflowers dot the landscape, along with plastic wrappers and other household trash. Semi-truck tires and chunks of broken concrete are strewn about like rocky outcroppings. And even with all the plant life, in aerial photos of the lot, you can still see the concrete outlines of factory foundations.

Twenty years have passed since John Christopher’s illegal dumps were finally cleared from this land.

And back then, when the last loads of debris were trucked away, Deyki Nichols was in high school. You’ve heard from him before. He was a student at Sumner Elementary School when the dumps were at their peak. Today, he’s the school’s Dean of Students. He’s been working at Sumner since he graduated from college in 2006.

Our producer, Jenny Casas, met up with Nichols at the elementary school this past summer for a walking tour of the lot.

Jenny Casas: Walking up to the edge of the lot, we can see in the distance a line of trees that cuts across the middle of the land. Deyki and his friends used to call that cluster of trees “the forest,” because of the thick foliage around the elevated train tracks that run through the middle of the lot.

The train viaduct was the dividing line between what they called “the hills,” the piles of debris closest to the school, and what they called “the mountains,” the piles that reached up to six stories tall on the other side of the viaduct.

You could see the trees even when the hills and mountains were here. But they especially stand out now, against the emptiness of the lot.

There’s no fence around the lot—anyone can walk right into it. As we were about to take our first step in, Nichols turned back to grab something from his car.

Deyki Nichols: Get my bat out my trunk.

Jenny Casas: A baseball bat, “just in case.” He tells me there are coyotes hiding out in the lot.

Deyki Nichols: It used the shock me to see—we got uh, two students that's always late, and he walks through here. I told him, I’m like, “Man, there’s coyotes over there. You better from stay from over there.”

Jenny Casas: I couldn’t tell whether he was joking. Or, if was the modern-day version of the scare tactic he heard as a kid to keep him out of the lot—this time with coyotes instead of an evil rabbit.

Deyki Nichols: Oh, I ain't been over here forever. Yeah, I haven’t been 20, 26 years. You want to go through there?
Jenny Casas: Yeah?
Deyki Nichols: Yeah? All right, come on, let's go.
Deyki Nichols: You got make your own trail. Used to be a trail, though.
Jenny Casas: From you walking through here?
Deyki Nichols: From us walking through here, yeah. Oh, you get me, uh, wowee. We're in the middle of the forest. Uh, bunch of grass, a bunch of trees. And um, oh, a lot of memories.

Jenny Casas: We scrambled up to the top of the viaduct and walked along the train tracks. He tells me about how he and his friends built a secret clubhouse with discarded cardboard signs. About how they rode the slow-moving trains. About a friend who jumped off at the wrong time and caught his leg on a train switch.

We have a bird’s eye view of the street from up here—of all the houses and storefronts, a gas station and the remaining factory buildings. We can see the skyscrapers of downtown in the distance. We pause to look at the part of the lot on the other side of the train tracks—a vast tract of land you couldn’t see from up here in the mid-’90s, because of the wall of construction debris blocking the view.

Robin Amer: After the dumps were cleaned up, this empty lot presented an opportunity.

The lot is a straight shot six miles west from downtown, with easy access to public transit and the Eisenhower Expressway.

Especially after the embarrassment of Operation Silver Shovel, this newly available land offered a chance for Chicago’s so-called renaissance to touch down in North Lawndale—not to offload unwanted trash, but to build something new.

The lot was like a blank canvas. It could remain empty, or, with the right kind of project, it could bring jobs and money back into the neighborhood.

But 20 years later, the lot is still empty. And that emptiness represents a different kind of blight. Not the overwhelming presence of the Mountain, but abandonment.

The Mountain might be gone, but it turns out that it’s far easier to dismantle a six-story dump than to fix the system that created it.

I’m Robin Amer, and from USA TODAY, this is The City.


Robin Amer: As the 1990s turned into the early 2000s, Chicago’s so-called renaissance crept westward from downtown, bringing new development a little closer to West Side neighborhoods like North Lawndale.

Old West Loop factory buildings were converted into condos. The old stadium nicknamed “the Madhouse on Madison” was torn down and replaced by the United Center, a hulking arena home to the Bulls and Blackhawks. West Side elevated train lines were given a facelift.

And in 1999, the city came forward with a plan to redevelop the lot where John Christopher's dumps once stood—a plan to fold North Lawndale into the westward march of development.

Jenny’s going to take it from here.

Jenny Casas: Almost as soon as the lot was cleared, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley made a public commitment to build on the lot. The day before he announced his 1999 bid for re-election, he stood outside Sumner Elementary School to announce his support for a major development on the empty land across the street from the school.

The project Mayor Daley was there to announce was an entertainment studio—a $150 million entertainment studio. A place with indoor sets to film TV shows and movies. The proposal included six sound stages, a 30,000 square-foot production studio, and state of the art digital and satellite technology.

The head of the production company grew up on Chicago’s West Side. He said he wanted to use the studio to launch a new TV network that would make shows for and about black families. He believed the studio would employ more than 700 people, many of them from the West Side.

This was a major investment from private industry that North Lawndale hadn’t seen since companies like Sears & Roebuck, Zenith, and Western Electric had factories in the neighborhood.

The city threw its weight behind the project—in cash. Mayor Daley pledged $25 million in city funds to help make it a reality.

The city also used eminent domain to seize several properties on the lot. Residents that lived in those buildings were paid to leave, so the city could clear the land of all existing structures. Everything would be leveled a year later.

Think about the possible impact of a development like this: in addition to jobs, it could raise property values, draw in new residents, and spark additional investment.

It was also novel. Neighborhood residents were excited about the proposal. Michael Scott Jr. grew up in North Lawndale. He was in his early 20s and away at college when he first heard about the movie studio.

Michael Scott Jr.: My thought was, man, this is going to be really cool. Maybe I should change my major and go into film and broadcasting, because I can come home and have something in my community in which I can be employed and possibly make a lot of money.

Jenny Casas: Despite the excitement in the neighborhood and backing from the city, the project had trouble getting off the ground. Financial problems caused years of delays.

Even Mayor Daley eventually backtracked. He told the Chicago Tribune in 2002 that there was no guarantee the studio would ever be built.

Over the next few years, news articles would declare the project “back on again with a vengeance.” But then the scale of the project was reduced to a third of the original plan.

Other critical funding fell through, and the movie studio never broke ground.

Because the movie studio failed the land was still available for something else—something even more dramatic and high-profile.

Steve Inskeep: Now let's talk for a moment about presidential legacies. There are 13 presidential libraries run by the National Archives. When President Obama leaves office, the construction of the 14th will begin. A nonprofit foundation created to build the Obama Presidential Library is considering proposals from several contenders to host the library…

Jenny Casas: One of those contenders? The Silver Shovel lot. Yes, the land John Christopher dumped on was now in the running to be the new home of the Obama Presidential Library.

Organizers from North Lawndale teamed up with officials from the University of Illinois-Chicago, or UIC. Together, they laid out a pitch that would transform the lot into an ultramodern campus with futuristic buildings and manicured landscaping. It looked like it could have been the headquarters of a tech company in Silicon Valley.

The UIC plan also included an elevated greenway, like New York’s Highline. And it planned for a new bus route that would have connected North Lawndale to the university campus.

Obama’s former chief of staff and Mayor Daley’s successor, Rahm Emanuel, committed to donating the vacant land to the Obama Foundation. Emanuel also pledged to re-open a station along one of the city’s public train lines to better connect the library to other parts of the city.

This plan would have brought development to North Lawndale—and connected it to the city’s renaissance.

In September 2014, North Lawndale was announced as a finalist. Alongside it were sites in: Hawaii, where the president was born; New York, where the president went to college; and the South Side of Chicago, where the president got his start in politics.

UIC made a promotional video in support of the North Lawndale site. The video was shot at Sumner Elementary School and highlighted the people that would be across the street every day—the students. The video was called, “Obama Library, signed, sealed, delivered,” appealing directly to President Obama. It was named after the Stevie Wonder song the president had used on the campaign trail.

In the video, students from Sumner are gathered in the auditorium. Two boys in matching ties get up on stage to address a crowd of their peers. All the students are wearing white t-shirts with red lettering across the chest that reads: “Barack Obama Presidential Library...UIC...North Lawndale...A Shared Destiny of Transformation.”

Sumner student: Most of the time, the West Side gets overlooked and misses out on many opportunities, including educational ones. We would like to see the presidential library in the field across from our school, where we see trash every day. This would bring hope for a better community and uplift the next generation. In closing, we beseech you to consider the North Lawndale area in placement for the Barack Obama Presidential Library. Thank you for your consideration. [Applause]

Jenny Casas: Deyki Nichols, who was by then Sumner’s Dean of Students, was in the auditorium when the video was filmed. He wanted the changes the Obama Library could bring.

Deyki Nichols: We was fighting for it. We was fighting for it. I mean, because we knew them bringing that library here, everything, you know, the hanging out at the liquor stores, the abandoned buildings, all that got to get fixed. They can't hide that, because we got—it's gonna be world-renowned. With tourists and people from all over the world is coming now, and they coming to the West Side, so we're not gonna have an eyesore.

Jenny Casas: The Obamas did choose a site in Chicago—just not in North Lawndale.

Melba Lara: There are reports that Chicago’s Jackson Park has been chosen as the site for President Barack Obama’s Presidential Library...

Jenny Casas: Instead of North Lawndale, the Obamas chose Jackson Park, on the city’s South Side. This public park is right by the University of Chicago and the city’s greatest natural feature: Lake Michigan.

There’s a long history to the tensions between Chicago’s South and West Sides that has everything to do with power and privilege. Parts of the South Side have long been home to the city’s black elite. And it’s worth noting that the Obamas are Southsiders. Michelle Obama was born and raised on the South Side. The couple raised their children there and the president taught law at the University of Chicago.

Given all that, most North Lawndale residents we heard from weren’t surprised that the Obamas chose the South Side over the West Side. But they were still disappointed—Obama won the presidency with declarations of hope and change.

Deyki Nichols: If he was, uh, big on change, what more, what more area need change than this part of Chicago? The West Side.

Robin Amer: During the 1996 cleanup, Mayor Daley had stood on the lot and proclaimed, “We will work tirelessly until the site … can be an asset to the North Lawndale community instead of a liability.”

And if the site of John Christopher’s illegal dump had been transformed into a landmark devoted to the nation’s first black president, it would have meant that the promises made to the neighborhood in the wake of Silver Shovel weren’t empty after all.

But even after this plan fell through, a third plan emerged. It wasn’t as flashy as a movie studio or a presidential library, but it offered the potential for another kind of change.

That’s after the break.


Robin Amer: Over the past 20 years, with all the back and forth on potential development plans, some North Lawndale residents have become skeptical that a major development will ever come to the land where the Mountain once stood.

But they have always seen the lot’s potential to address the neighborhood’s needs.

Jenny Casas: What do you want on the lot? If you could snap your fingers and have something there?
Rita Ashford: I'd like for school to go there.
Sherina Ashford: Stores or something, that maybe we don't have to go so far to the stores.
Johnnie Baker: Being a senior, I'd like to see maybe senior housing there.
Margaret Milam: I would like to see something that will, is going to employ people.
Gladys Woodson: I would like a supermarket over here. You know, so you won't have to go out of the neighborhood in order to purchase food.
Debra Wardlow: Low-income houses for people that can't afford the high rent that's in Chicago.
Michelle Ashford: A community center—something to build our children up. I mean, anything instead of keep looking at all these lots.

Robin Amer:  But for all the attributes that make this lot a prime piece of real estate, there are also some very real practical hurdles to redeveloping that land.

We started looking into those hurdles after we heard about the space suits.

We heard about them from Gladys Woodson, the block club president who spent so many years fighting John Christopher.

When she moved to North Lawndale from her hometown of Vance, Mississippi, 43 years ago, she was considered the baby of the block. Now, she’s become the neighborhood matriarch and she still runs what’s left of her block club.

The first time I went to the site with Ms. Woodson, she told me something that would echo through the conversations I’d later have with other North Lawndale residents.

Gladys Woodson: And a lot of that stuff they dumped was hazardous, and you ask me, how do I know it was hazardous? Because when the people come to remove it, they was wearing masks and space suits.

Robin Amer:  When she says space suits, she’s talking about hazmat suits. Or at least the white suits and helmets EPA officials wore when they came to inspect the lot after Silver Shovel broke

Gladys Woodson: So that tells me, when I walked over there, I shouldn't have been over there.

Robin Amer: And ever since the cleanup, a question has lingered for Ms. Woodson and others: How contaminated are these lots today? The city has never told them.

The answer to this question is important, not just for their peace of mind, but because the answer has implications for what can be built on the lot today.

Soil samples from the lot show low levels of heavy metals in the dirt—metals like lead, arsenic and mercury. Those contaminants were likely there long before John Christopher turned the site into an illegal construction debris dump. They likely come from the factories that used to be on the lot, including a tobacco factory, a rubber factory and a door hinge factory.

So the site is contaminated but it’s not a superfund site—land that poses a serious danger to the general public.

These lots are called brownfields. The contamination levels here are on par with thousands of other empty, post-industrial lots around the city, most of which are also in majority black and brown neighborhoods.

But if a developer wants to build anything on a brownfield, they often have jump through hoops to meet safety standards that would be easier to achieve on a pristine piece of land.

There are many options for making a brownfield safe. The more expensive route involves digging down several feet, hauling out the contaminated soil and hauling in tons of clean soil as a replacement. But the larger lot in North Lawndale is 21 acres, and remediating a parcel that big gets very expensive very fast.

One cheaper option is to cap the land with something like concrete, to create a barrier between the contaminated soil and the people around it. That was the plan proposed for the movie studio.

So, there are additional hurdles to developing a brownfield site … hurdles that have come into play in the most recent attempts to redevelop this land.

Jenny is going to pick it back up from here.

Jenny Casas: Michael Scott Jr. never did change his major and go into the movie business. Instead, he went into politics. He’s the current alderman of the 24th Ward. He won the seat once held by Bill Henry—the former alderman who was in office when John Christopher started dumping in the ward.

Alderman Scott was elected a month before North Lawndale lost the bid for the presidential library. And once in office, he was in a position to actually make decisions about development on the land.

Michael Scott Jr.: And I went to the Department of Planning and I said, “Hey, we're not going to have any Obama Presidential Library. I really would love to figure out how to develop this land.”

Jenny Casas: Alderman Scott had wanted something that would rival the Obama Presidential Library—a basketball hall of fame or a similar destination site that could draw large crowds into North Lawndale.

That is until he met with representatives from Clarius Partners—a development group that was interested in building something very different on the land.

Michael Scott Jr.: So we're heading west on Roosevelt from my office, which is on the 4200 Block of Roosevelt. Headed down to the large parcel of land that used to be the Silver Shovel site.

Jenny Casas: This past summer, the alderman and I walked over to the lot where Clarius Partners hopes to build.

The plan includes several-hundred-thousand square feet of light industrial space—big warehouses for what are called “last-mile logistics.” That’s basically a building that can store a product after its been made and before it’s been delivered to consumers. They also want to build retail along Roosevelt Road.

Alderman Scott is a natural politician—a skill he probably learned from a lifetime surrounded by politicians. His father was the president of the Chicago Board of Education and an ally of Mayor Daley. As such, Alderman Scott is good at selling his vision for what the lot might look like if it were developed today.

Michael Scott Jr.: Where we stand now, I see a grocery store. I don't know if that, if my vision is gonna come to fruition, but I see a nice grocery store, very clean. And then, right in the middle, in between both of them—
Jenny Casas: Where those tires are?
Michael Scott Jr.: No, a little bit further, a little bit further than the tires. I see maybe six or seven businesses. So I see all that. I don't know if you see it, but I see it. It's right there. And then back here all industrial, nice landscaping—a far cry from what it is currently.

Jenny Casas: A few months ago, I found some old pictures from a school carnival held at Sumner Elementary School in 1995. You can see John Christopher’s dumps in the background. When the photo was taken, Silver Shovel hadn’t made the news yet. The youngest kids in the photos wouldn’t have known North Lawndale without the Mountain.

I mentioned the photo to Alderman Scott while we were out there because I wanted to know whether he was worried about the impact on students. If the picture were taken today, would there be a line of delivery trucks instead of the piles of debris?

Jenny Casas: [Sigh] Are you worried at all about—
Michael Scott Jr.: Traffic?
Jenny Casas: Traffic and trucks and the kids and—
Michael Scott Jr.: Nope, nope, nope, nope. So there's already been a traffic study done by Clarius. We will try to exit—have everything exit and enter on the main thoroughfare which is Kostner. Kostner, you can get on the expressway on 290…

Jenny Casas: The Clarius Partners proposal is considered “light industry,” but industry all the same. A far cry from a presidential library or a studio where blockbuster films are shot, but definitely in line with the industrial legacy of the lot.

Remember, from the 1960s to the early 2000s, North Lawndale had lost tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs. And Alderman Scott wasn’t enthusiastic about the development with Clarius Partners until he realized that a project like this one could bring back some of those jobs.

Michael Scott Jr.: When they first pitched it to me, I was like, bleh, no. I don't want that. I don't see this for my community. And in my mind, I was set on a destination. But as I did more research, and I did more research on industrial complexes in the city of Chicago, and how many jobs they bring to a community, and to a community that needs jobs and needs it desperately, I thought to myself, “This can be something that is more transformative than an Obama Presidential Library.”

Jenny Casas: Kevin Matzke, the managing principal and founder of Clarius Partners, says the company was drawn to the site by many of the things that had drawn others there—everyone from John Christopher to President Obama.

Kevin Matzke: Twenty acres of available land close into the city of Chicago, and that in its own right is a pretty rare commodity. That's the initial attraction to us—that it was a sizable, scalable-type land site, vacant, uh, easy for trucks, employees in cars, to get on and off the expressway, get in and out of the city of Chicago.

Jenny Casas: Matzke hopes that the project, if it’s built, might become an anchor for more development—the inverse of the what we saw with the illegal dumps, where waste just attracted more waste.

Kevin Matzke: Our hope is that by investing, we can improve property values. That we can add to employment. All these benefits. We happen to think that our project is net-net a huge win, a huge benefit.

Jenny Casas: A good portion of the people we talked to hadn’t heard about the proposal. For those who had, opinions are mixed.

On the one hand, they see its potential to create jobs, revitalize other businesses, raise property values and draw in more residents.

Others are wary of the downsides that could come from this or any other big development—higher rents or property taxes that could make it hard for long-term residents to stay. Or the diesel truck traffic that would likely come from having new industrial space there.

But reality has yet to catch up with Alderman Scott’s vision. Once again, money is the sticking point.

The Clarius Partners project has been in the works for three years, since 2015. The city owns the land, and has agreed to reduce the cost from $2.5 million to around $1 million.

But complying with brownfield remediation standards is expected to cost an additional $5 million dollars. That additional cost has left this deal in a financial stalemate—it’s not dead, but it’s not racing forward either.

Still, Alderman Scott says he wants to see something built there.

Michael Scott Jr.: If you give up, then you definitely won't get anything. And so, my thought process is, I'm not going anywhere. I've been here for 40 years. I'm not leaving anytime soon. And as long as I'm here, I'm going to throw stuff to the wall and see if it sticks.

Robin Amer: That’s after the break.


Robin Amer: Across the street from where the dumps once stood is one of the biggest churches in North Lawndale. United Baptist is a modern-looking brick building with a peaked roof and bright stained-glass windows. It stands apart from the other buildings on Roosevelt Road.

If you enter the church through the parking lot, take a right, and go down a switchback of stairs, you’ll find yourself in the church basement.

It’s a big room with linoleum floors and a few dozen circular tables dressed in yellow and white plastic tablecloths. On a Thursday this past March, about 75 people were seated facing the front of the room, where Alderman Scott stood behind a lectern.

Michael Scott Jr.: Good evening. In the interest of time, although we're missing a few guests, we're going to get started. I'd like to welcome all of you to the 24th Ward community meeting...

Robin Amer: These monthly meetings are often held in this basement. There’s usually a panel of speakers—elected officials, police officers, community organizers. And Alderman Scott is the emcee, adding his own commentary in between.

At this meeting, he brought up a complaint he frequently hears from the neighborhood.

Michael Scott Jr.: So, I get a lot of calls almost every day from residents in our neighborhood saying, "Hey, is the city going to get out and clean our block?" We have to be mindful that in North Lawndale, there are over 3,000 vacant lots.

Robin Amer: It’s hard to get a precise tally on the exact number of vacant lots in North Lawndale. But Alderman Scott cites anywhere between 2,500 and 3,000 abandoned lots spread across North Lawndale’s three square miles. Given the magnitude of the problem, he encourages the people at the meeting not to wait for the city, but to take action themselves.

Michael Scott Jr.: Just pick up the front of your house. If you pick up the front of your house and maybe grab something to the right or the left of you, our community will look a lot better than it does now.

Robin Amer: At another one of these monthly meetings, residents echo the concerns about garbage and vacant lots—one man has even made cleaning up the neighborhood his personal mission.

Sel Dunlap: Good evening. My name is Sel Dunlap. I have a campaign called a “war on filth and fear.” Living in a dirty, filthy community is a trauma. It's a trauma. To the point that if you live in it long enough, it can take up residency in you. To the point you don't have the self-respect you should have. Our children walk by garbage going to school. We step up in our churches. Stepping over garbage and trash. That's where I have defined my and our devil. Thank you. [Applause]

Robin Amer: Vacant lots can be an opportunity, or they can be a blight. But the sheer number of empty lots in North Lawndale illustrates the magnitude of the challenge of redevelopment here. The 21-acre Silver Shovel site is not alone.

Let’s go back to Jenny.

Jenny Casas: I want to be clear, it’s not that there hasn’t been any development in North Lawndale. Development has come west from the Loop to the eastern edge of North Lawndale—the edge closest to downtown.

Over the past ten years or so, a community health center has been built, a Lagunitas Brewery, a different production studio and a big charter school.

But there’s a widespread feeling among residents we spoke to on the west side of North Lawndale that the brewery or the health center are not developments for them. That the lot where the Mountain once stood will never be developed. At least, not as long as they are still living in the neighborhood.

A lot of people we spoke with shared this belief, but Rita Ashford was the most direct about it.

Rita Ashford: They not going to invest anything here. People, if you have something, you hold on to it. Because they want this land to develop it for people in the suburbs. So white people can move back here, because it's easily accessible to the Loop.

Jenny Casas: Ms. Ashford and others feel like the city will ignore problems in the neighborhood until the mostly black residents eventually all move out, leaving it open for a community that looks nothing like Ms. Ashford’s.

Rita Ashford: That is exactly what they're doing. They figure, well, they letting it go. It's bad people moving away, people moving away.

Jenny Casas: North Lawndale has suffered a dramatic population loss in the past 50 years. At its peak in 1960, the neighborhood was home to almost 125,000 people. More than 70 percent of those residents have since left. Including Ms. Ashford—though not by choice. She moved to the suburbs to help raise her grandchildren. But she's still deeply invested in North Lawndale. She still has family and friends there, and she can imagine a future in which she moves back.

Be that as it may, she is part of a larger exodus that has seen 250,000 black Chicagoans leave the city since the year 2000.

Since the economy has recovered post-Recession, you can find construction cranes all over the Loop and in well-off neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and Bucktown.

There’s a frustration among residents that comes from knowing other parts of the city are being built up while North Lawndale has continued to lose basic city support and services.

Rita Ashford: They’re just letting it deteriorate. Show me that you still have some interest in our community and not still, because I consider it a dying community.

Jenny Casas: To Ms. Ashford, the lack of development at the lot and all the other vacant lots are further evidence of the city's broader neglect of her neighborhood. A neglect she believes is firmly rooted in the same structural racism that allowed her neighborhood to become the dumping ground for the rest of the city.

She sees evidence of this everywhere, not just in the vacant lots.

Take, for example, the field house where we did our interview. It’s in a small public park a few blocks south of the big vacant lot. Ms. Ashford and her daughter Michelle say it looks like nothing has been planted there for years.

Rita Ashford: When I look at the front of this park, it looks so bad. During the time, we uh, we fought for this park. We used to be on the advisory council. It's no excuse for the front of that park to look like it is. It looks horrible.

Jenny Casas: The neglect the Ashfords see starts small—with the neglect of this public park.

From there the neglect gets bigger. The park isn’t being used as much these days because it doesn’t always feel safe.

Rita Ashford: We couldn't have stuff in the park. They shoot up the park. How many times we done sit and call the police about them gang fighting in this park?
Michelle Ashford: It will take them 10 to 15 minutes to get down here when you got a 9-1-1 call. Shooting, somebody shot. Somebody stabbed. These are priority calls.

Jenny Casas: Adequate policing is obviously something the city is supposed to provide to every community. But the Ashfords say they don’t see it in North Lawndale.

And when the police do come, Ms. Ashford says they don’t treat North Lawndale residents with respect. She has a troubling example on hand.

Rita Ashford: I remember when uh, what's that kid got killed right here? Chicken. They called him Chicken. He got shot and killed right here at the park, outside the gate. When the police came, and they roped it off, and I want to tell you how, when they put him in that body bag, how they bumped his head all against the end of the paddy wagon. It was so—it's just a sense of disrespect.

Jenny Casas: For Ms. Ashford, all of these things—the unkempt park, the shootings, the absence of the police, the disregard for black bodies— they’re all root causes of the emptiness in the neighborhood:  the vacant lots, the population loss, the lack of development. It also signals to her a deeper-rooted, intentional neglect.

Rita Ashford: You know, and the most important thing is, it's the racism. That's our main problem right here.

Jenny Casas: To her, it’s all proof that the city will only find time for North Lawndale if there’s scandal—another Silver Shovel. Or, of course, if residents just cleared out.

* * *

Robin Amer: When I first heard about the six-story Mountain of debris in the middle of a residential neighborhood, I was seized with a question: How could this happen? It was a question I kept asking again and again.

The answers—the overlapping layers of corruption and apathy, the failures of individuals and institutions, the deep-seated legacies of segregation and racism—made clear that while the Mountain was extraordinary, the forces that put it there are as commonplace as they are insidious.

Ultimately, it’s not just about the Mountain, or about the vacant lot left behind after the cleanup. It’s not even about what happens when a community is deemed the appropriate place for a city’s waste.

It’s about the way a city like Chicago treats a neighborhood like North Lawndale. It’s about what happens when a city sees a whole neighborhood is seen as disposable—as unworthy of urgent action in the face of a worsening crisis.

The Mountain was a tragedy, but it was also a symptom of a deep and frightening indifference to communities like North Lawndale.

Whether it’s North Lawndale on the West Side or Altgeld Gardens on the South Side or Northwood Manor in Houston, cities have the power to make some neighborhoods wither and others thrive.

If a city will allow a six-story mountain to exist across the street from homes and a church and an elementary school for nearly a decade, what else will it allow?


Stay tuned at the end of the credits for sneak peek of Season 2 of 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 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 this week was reported and produced by Wilson Sayre, Jenny Casas, Sam Greenspan me, Robin Amer.

This episode was edited by Matt Doig with additional editing from Amy Pyle.

Ben Austen is our story consultant. Original music and mixing is by Hannis Brown. Legal review by Tom Curley.

Additional production by Taylor Maycan, Fil Corbitt, Isobel Cockerell and Bianca Medious.

Our executive producer is Liz Nelson.

Chris Davis is our VP for investigations. Scott Stein is our VP of product. The USA TODAY Network’s president and publisher is Maribel Wadsworth.

Thank you to our sponsors for supporting the show. And special thanks this week to GEI Consultants, Misha Euceph and Danielle Svetcov.

Archival audio courtesy of WBEZ, NPR and the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Additional support comes from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Social Justice News Nexus at Northwestern University.

I’m Robin Amer. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter @thecitypod. Or visit our website, where you can see photos of the lot today.

Our live event in Chicago December 5th is sold out, but if you missed out on tickets, we're going to have a live stream of the event. For more information, go to our website.



Next season on The City: We head west—to Reno.

This scrappy city known for gambling and quick divorces has spent decades trying to prove it’s more than just a second-rate Las Vegas. Now some of Reno’s most powerful boosters are fighting to reinvent the city as an offshoot of Silicon Valley.

They’ve taken aim at a potent symbol of the image they’re trying to put to rest: strip clubs.

Ground zero in this battle is an aging but lucrative strip club that sits on the edge of some of Reno’s most valuable land.

The city wants to kick the club out. But the strip club is fighting back.

Mark Thierman: They wanted to see what war is, we’ll show em what war is.

The City, Season 2: Reno. Coming in 2019.

S1: Episode 9

The Cleanup

The illegal dump is finally eradicated—but at whose expense?

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The Cleanup

Robin Amer: Hi, everyone, Robin here. Before we start this week’s episode, I wanted to share some sad news with you.

Henry Henderson died last week.

If you’ve been following along with the show, you know that Henderson was the lawyer turned Chicago environment commissioner who was one of the few city officials to do anything about the North Lawndale Mountain. He spent years battling John Christopher’s illegal dumps, however imperfectly.

Henderson had lung cancer and he had recently entered hospice care. He was just 66 years old.

After Henderson left city government, he went to work for the Natural Resources Defense Council or NRDC—a kind of legal aid fund for the environment. As the group’s longtime Midwest director, he spearheaded a host of initiatives. They were all aimed at keeping our air, land, and water clean—and at protecting vulnerable communities from the hazards of pollution and industry.

Under Henderson, the NRDC sued the city of Flint and the state of Michigan, forcing them to replace the service lines that had caused so many Flint residents to develop lead poisoning. The group took on BP, forcing the oil giant to install air pollution controls at its massive refinery in Whiting, Indiana. And the NRDC went after a subsidiary of the Koch Brothers, after the company trucked black mountains of petroleum coke into a residential neighborhood on Chicago’s Southeast Side.

Richard M. Daley, the former Chicago mayor and Henderson’s former boss, said of Henry: “He has long been instrumental in the environmental movement here, long before cities cared to acknowledge the need for such initiatives.”

For us here at The City, Henry Henderson also was instrumental in helping us get to the bottom of this particular environmental story.

So perhaps there is no place better to begin this week’s episode. It’s called “The Cleanup.”

* * * 

Robin Amer: In January 1996, just a few days after Operation Silver Shovel became public, one of Chicago’s US Congressmen called a press conference at the site of the North Lawndale dumps. Dick Durbin was the highest-ranking politician to publicly acknowledge the dumps. Now he was there to demand a cleanup.

Dick Durbin: I’ll go ahead and say a few words. [Trucks beeping the background]

Robin Amer: Heavy snow is falling. Durbin wears a black wool overcoat with the lapels turned up—protection from the wind. Behind him, the Mountain looms. Covered in a thick dusting of white, it looks almost pastoral. But red dump trucks and yellow bulldozers crawl over the site—you can hear them beeping in the background.

Durbin turns to face the cameras.

Dick Durbin: This Operation Silver Shovel has called our attention to what is a blight on the city of Chicago and our state. These illegal dumps in a residential neighborhood are absolutely shameful.

Robin Amer: To North Lawndale residents, though, what was shameful was how long it had taken Dick Durbin and other high-level elected officials to pay close attention to the dumps. Durbin had shown up nearly six years after residents had first appealed to public officials for help.

Dick Durbin: I'm calling on the US Environmental Protection Agency to come forward to determine first whether there's any evidence of hazardous waste at any of these Operation Silver Shovel sites. The EPA has the authority to respond immediately if there is evidence. I might tell you that Mr. Christopher...

Robin Amer: Of course, the EPA had already been to North Lawndale. Two years earlier, the Illinois and US EPAs had removed roughly 150 truckloads of hazardous waste, including barrels of mystery chemicals. But they had left the six stories of debris behind.

The federal agencies behind Operation Silver Shovel had no intention of cleaning up the dumps either—they didn’t see it as their responsibility. But ultimately, the investigation was a catalyst for change.

For nearly six years, it was as if no one outside North Lawndale could even see this six-story mountain in the middle of the city.

But suddenly, almost magically, Operation Silver Shovel—and the association of these dumps with an undercover corruption probe—made the Mountain visible to everyone. Political figures who hadn’t so much has mentioned it in the past were now shaming others for ignoring it.

Silver Shovel set off a flurry of activity that residents welcomed but it came with the bitterness of knowing that it could have happened six years sooner.

The beeping trucks and bulldozers behind Dick Durbin were there to clean up the dump—to dismantle the Mountain piece by piece. The bulldozers scoop up bucket-full after bucket-full of concrete slabs, asphalt chunks, and dirt, and drop them into the backs of the dump trucks. And each full truck then drives out of the lot and takes its cargo away.

But even this cleanup repeated many of the same wrongs that put the Mountain there in the first place. Black neighborhoods would get dumped on. White neighborhoods would benefit. Companies would profit. And the people responsible would suffer few serious consequences.

It all happened again—only this time, in reverse.

I’m Robin Amer. From USA TODAY, this is The City.


Robin Amer: All through the winter of 1996, the cleanup continued. Removing the debris was as big an undertaking as building the Mountain had been.

Block club president Gladys Woodson had watched in those early days as John Christopher set up shop and allowed trucks to dump a block from her home. Now she watched the process slowly rewind.

Gladys Woodson: It felt sorta good, 'cause I'm saying, “Wow, now we, now it's gone. It's going to be gone.”
Robin Amer: Can you tell us what that was like?
Gladys Woodson: [Sighs] Dusty. More dust with the trucks coming in to get the stuff. But at least they sprayed the street down, which KrisJohn never did. Never did.

Robin Amer: North Lawndale residents had conflicting feelings about the cleanup and all this new attention being paid to their neighborhood. On one hand, they were glad to see the dumps go. On the other hand, they resented the public figures who had not seemed to care about their neighborhood before the corruption probe.

Here’s Rita Ashford, who had protested the dumps, and her daughters, Sherina and Michelle.

Rita Ashford: You know how long we were out there fighting that dump? Yeah. Silver Shovel broke and it was all like a puff of smoke. And everything changed.

Sherina Ashford: It just was there one day, gone the next.

Michelle Ashford: 'Cause they was rolling all night long. They would be rolling all night long, getting it out of there, once it broke. And when you looked up, the pile went from well, you know, the kids used to run up and then stand on the top. They went from being up there to just, oh, it's gone. If it hadn’t been for Silver Shovel, we still would have been dealing with that dump probably right now today.
Rita Ashford: Yes, if it hadn’t been for Silver Shovel, we still would have been fighting that dump.

Robin Amer: Others asked the obvious question: Where was all this attention and scrutiny when the problem was simply illegal dumping in a black neighborhood? Here’s Ms. Woodson again.

Gladys Woodson: We done lived through five years of this stuff, you know? There's people that done had asthma attack, the people that on oxygen machines, and we have a few people to move out of the neighborhood. Just moved. Because they could no longer stand the dust and stuff.

Robin Amer: In late February 1996, about five weeks into the clean-up, the environment-focused public radio show Living on Earth sent reporter Shirley Jahad to check on the clean-up.

She visited North Lawndale and talked to people who lived in the two apartment buildings that stood on the very same lot as the dump. One of the people she interviewed was Keith Wardlow, a father of two who worked as a custodian at a local university.

Shirley Jahad: The view from Keith Wardlow's back porch isn't pretty, but it is awesome. It is simply called the Mountain: 700,000 tons of debris.

Keith Wardlow: Now that's the Mountain. Now you're seeing the Mountain. You see how tall that is? You see how tall that is? How far it is? Now that's the Mountain.

Robin Amer: Keith Wardlow expressed many of the same sentiments as his neighbors: the feds should have cleaned up this dump years ago, rather than letting it continue to grow while using John Christopher as a mole to catch politicians taking bribes.

Keith Wardlow: One crook trying to prosecute another crook. [Laughs] To me, you know, if you're so concerned about what they had, why you ain't in the neighborhood trying to see who got infected from the dirt? You know? That's what you should have been doing first, you know, instead of trying to find out who took some money.

Robin Amer: The Wardlow family had suffered for years living next to the dump. Now, the damage to their home, and, they believed, their health, continued during the cleanup.

Shirley Jahad: Keith Wardlow's house shakes every time trucks roll in and out of the dump site. He always keeps his windows closed and covered with plastic in a vain effort to prevent dust blowing off the heap from settling in his apartment. He says his four-year-old son Keno has contracted severe asthma. The boy's mother, Debra Wardlow, says the child has to breathe through a machine, a nebulizer.

Debra Wardlow: He's on it twice a day and sometimes the machine doesn't work so I have to rush him to the emergency room.

Robin Amer: The company doing the cleanup was Lindahl Brothers, a well-connected firm that had been owned by the same family for three generations. It had dug the trenches for the Hancock Building and other downtown skyscrapers and had built the International Terminal at O’Hare Airport.

And Lindahl Brothers was there to do the clean up because they were also one of the companies that had dumped there in the first place.

Lindahl Brothers and eight other companies had allegedly saved millions of dollars by dumping in John Christopher’s lots rather than taking debris from their job sites to a legal, permitted landfill.

The city had dropped these companies from its lawsuit against John Christopher, hoping they would settle and participate in a cleanup. That had not worked. The companies denied dumping. So, in 1995, the city sued them again.

Lindahl Brothers agreed to settle with the city, but a judge only approved a settlement after “the takedown”—after the pressure and media scrutiny sparked by Silver Shovel.

Under the terms of the settlement, Lindahl Brothers did not admit to breaking the law. But the company agreed to remove the equivalent of more than 9,000 trucks full of debris.

The city later said that it settled with nine companies, including Lindahl, for a total of $900,000—but that was a fraction of the overall cleanup costs.

Reporter Shirley Jahad was able to talk to a construction foreman from Lindahl Brothers—a man named Rick Bore. Because Lindahl Brothers wouldn’t talk to us for this story, it’s the only tape we have of someone from the company talking about the cleanup.

Rick Bore: It's been here so damn long and it's so high that it's a problem.
Shirley Jahad: How many trucks do you have coming in and out a day? Truckloads off that mountain?
Rick Bore: About 120.
Shirley Jahad: How long will you be at it?
Rick Bore: Oh, three, four months. It’ll be a while.

Robin Amer: Lindahl Brothers agreed to pay for its share of the cleanup. They even agreed to pay the city $10 for every truck load dumped at designated disposal sites.

But the terms of the settlement also gave Lindahl Brothers permission to use any debris it removed for its own purposes—including re-selling it to other companies to use in their road repair projects. Which meant that technically, the company could make money off the cleanup.

And there would be no long-term consequences for the company’s very lucrative relationship with the city.

Lindahl Brothers was not barred from doing business with the city. Quite the opposite: Since the cleanup began more than 20 years ago, Lindahl Brothers and its joint ventures have scored hundreds of millions of dollars in city contracts.

But more importantly for North Lawndale, this portion of the cleanup was only one part of the solution, as reporter Shirley Jahad noted.

Shirley Jahad: Even after Lindahl Brothers cleans up its share of the mess, though, 600,000 tons of trash will remain.

Robin Amer: And at this point, in the winter of 1996, the city had not figured out who would clean up the rest.

Keith Wardlow: They should'a never put this stuff there.
Shirley Jahad: Yeah.
Keith Wardlow: People get sick. That's probably got all kinds of, it's a health hazard in the first place. Rats. Cats and dogs, you know. It's just a health hazard. You can look at it and tell.

Robin Amer: When John Christopher first started dumping in North Lawndale, Gladys Woodson and her fellow block club captains had written letters to every public official they could think of who might be able to help them. City agencies. Mayor Daley. At least one member of Congress.

Gladys Woodson: We wrote to everyone from who’s who to who’s that.

Ms. Woodson says they also wrote to civil rights groups like the NAACP. And to Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Civil Rights activist whose Rainbow/PUSH Coalition is based in Chicago.

Gladys Woodson: We told him what was happening with our neighborhood, and we asked him, could he come and help us?

Robin Amer: Ms. Woodson says they never heard back from Jesse Jackson. At least not until the camera crews arrived.

Gladys Woodson: The Silver Shovel story broke and then, the next thing I saw was Jesse Jackson standing on top on the pile saying, “Oh, yeah, we did this.” And we was saying, no, you didn’t. He stood there, and he took credit for a lot of the stuff that had been done. But that was way after the fight.

Robin Amer: Jesse Jackson, the iconic Civil Rights activist and Baptist minister, had first come to Chicago in the early 1960s, to attend seminary. He would later march with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and push for an end to Apartheid in South Africa. But over the decades, his critics have also accused him of jumping from media storm to media storm—of seeking the limelight as much as he sought justice.

To understand how Jesse Jackson helped ensure the cleanup of the North Lawndale dumps—but also alienated some North Lawndale residents—we have to go back to his work on a program called Operation Breadbasket.

The program organized boycotts against white-owned businesses—like soda pop bottling companies and grocery store chains—that made big profits in black neighborhoods but didn’t employ black workers. On the heels of his success in those campaigns, Jackson started hearing from small, black-owned trucking companies. Here’s Rev. Jackson.

Jesse Jackson: And so, for example, we found guys who maybe had two or three trucks, and they were just kind of hustling as best they could.

Robin Amer: These truckers complained that they were not getting as many waste-hauling contracts as their white counterparts. They weren’t getting them from white-owned businesses, like grocery store chains, that needed commercial trash pick-up. And that meant that they were missing out on a lot of money.

Jesse Jackson: If you get, say, a three-year contract with a chain store, you pick up six cans a day. You can take that letter of intent. Your letter of credit. You can get new trucks, and you're in real business.

Robin Amer: They were not getting as many contracts from the city either. Local news reports from the time said that black-owned firms got just 14 percent of city contracts, even though black people then made up about 37 percent of Chicago’s population. And city contracts were where some of the real money was.

A city contract for hauling waste, or sludge, as Jackson jokingly calls it, could be worth millions of dollars.

Jesse Jackson: And we didn't realize that “sludge is fudge” if you're on the trucks.
Robin Amer: I’m sorry, you said “sludge is fudge if you're on the trucks”?
Jesse Jackson: If you're on the trucks. [Laughs]
Robin Amer: What does that mean?
Jesse Jackson: I mean that it is considered dirty work. If you're on the trucks, it is a very lucrative business.

Robin Amer: The way Rev. Jackson tells it, when he learned about Operation Silver Shovel and the mountain of debris in a black, West Side neighborhood, he realized that the cleanup presented a unique opportunity—a possible silver lining to a really bad situation.

John Christopher had dumped in a black neighborhood and had helped take down black politicians. And, if you recall, he’d done it in part by scheming to get contracts intended for black-owned businesses—it was one of the scams he had used to bribe the aldermen.

Jackson did not fight for compensation for people North Lawndale whose homes had been damaged or whose children had been harmed. But someone was going to get paid to clean up that site. And Rev. Jackson believed that if anyone was going to make money off the site now, it should be black-owned businesses.

Jesse Jackson: We should have the right to remove the debris in our own community, because it is obviously going be a good, lucrative job for someone to have the job.

Robin Amer: Better them, he reasoned, than white-owned firms like Lindahl Brothers—firms that had been responsible for dumping in the first place.

Jesse Jackson: For those who put it there should make money from locating in a community then make money from removing it? We should at least have the right to get paid for moving it.

Robin Amer: So, in January 1996, as Lindahl Brothers was removing its portion of debris from the site, Rev. Jackson came forward with a proposal. He wanted the city to hire black-owned trucking firms to clean up the rest of the dumps.

But according to Jackson, Mayor Richard M. Daley was hesitant to sign on to this plan.

Jesse Jackson: At first, I think there was a resistance, because the insiders who used to get these kinds of jobs were demanding their right to get them. And we demanded the right to circumvent that system.  

Robin Amer: We reached out to former Mayor Daley for comment, but he didn’t respond.

So, Jackson turned to the same kinds of protest tactics that had worked for him time and time again—an impressive display of solidarity and power that North Lawndale residents could have used years before.

Jesse Jackson: We organized the trucks and the land removers.

Robin Amer: On a frigid Saturday in early February 1996, dozens of diesel trucks and bulldozers lined up along Drexel Boulevard, around the corner from Jesse Jackson’s South Side office. Black truckers had plastered their rigs with signs that read, “We want our fair share,” and “Hire us to clean up the dump.”

Then, in a slow, deliberate processional, the convoy headed for North Lawndale.

Jesse Jackson: And we did a four-mile trip across the city, driving at about 10 miles an hour, with trucks and tractors and trailers and dumpsters. And we lined up and moved across the city. Stopped traffic for two or three hours.

Robin Amer: This mobile protest of black truckers was meant to draw attention, and to prove they were capable of the cleanup.

Jesse Jackson: There was no reason to say we couldn't remove it, because we had dumpsters and trailers and trucks and drivers and everything that was required.

Robin Amer: Jackson led the caravan. As they drove, they were followed by a police escort. Onlookers raised their fists in a gesture of solidarity.

When the trucks arrived in North Lawndale, they encircled the dump and blasted their horns.

They were not given a warm welcome. Lindahl Brothers was still in the process of removing its portion of the debris, and, knowing the caravan was headed its way, the company had blocked the entrance to the site with a three-foot mound of dirt and a pair of bulldozers. According to the Chicago Defender, two police cars also blocked the entrance.

Jackson accused police of siding with Lindahl and told reporters, “This is not Lindahl’s dump.”

According to the Defender, Jackson then told two black truckers to squeeze through the two police cars and mow down the blockade.

But before that could happen, the police negotiated a kind of truce, and the convoy was able to enter the lot and rally. It was then that Jackson hopped up on a tractor to address the crowd.

Jackson threatened to continue the protests into the summer—when the Democratic National Convention was scheduled to come to Chicago. The Tribune characterized his threats this way: “Give us what we want, or watch as we wreak havoc on your big, important party this summer.”

It was only then that Daley agreed to hire black-owned truckers to clean up the dumps.

Jesse Jackson: That was our non-violent protest. And it worked.

Robin Amer: On a blustery Tuesday afternoon in May 1996, almost six years to the day from when John Christopher showed up and started dumping, Mayor Daley held his first press conference in front of the dumps.

He was there to announce a deal struck between the city and Jesse Jackson’s group of black-owned trucking firms. The city had agreed to pay them to remove another nine thousand or so trucks worth of debris from the North Lawndale dumps.

Daley stood behind a lectern emblazoned with the city seal. He wore a checkered tie and looked solemn as the wind whipped up dust from the dumps and blew through his hair. Jackson stood to the mayor’s right with his hands clasped in front of him.

In his remarks that day, Mayor Daley depicted the deal as a triumph for the city and the neighborhood, saying:

“It is an agreement that benefits everyone, especially the North Lawndale community that has lived with this monstrosity for years. It is a major victory. I thank them for their persistence and their help. ...We will work tirelessly to pursue every dumper who contributed to this mess until the site has been totally cleared and can be an asset to the North Lawndale community instead of a liability.”

But these were hollow words coming from a mayor who had basically ignored the North Lawndale dumps for almost six years. Yes, North Lawndale residents had been persistent, but their persistence seemed to fall on his deaf ears.

Daley had personally stepped in to shut down a dump in a white neighborhood, without speaking out against this one, in a black neighborhood. He had shown no interest in the unfolding corruption scandal when first briefed by the feds.

It was this discrepancy that made Ms. Woodson and other North Lawndale residents cynical about the city’s ultimate response and the role of political figures like Mayor Daley and Rev. Jackson.

Gladys Woodson: I believe a lot of them whooped in and took credit once they named this Silver Shovel. A lot of people whooped in and claim victory over Silver Shovel when we had been, ever since KrisJohn was a dump site.

Robin Amer: By the following spring, black-owned firms had sent in trucks to begin this second phase of the cleanup.

Our reporter, Wilson Sayre, got ahold of some of the trucking manifests and other documents related to this part of the cleanup.

So, Wilson, give us a sense of how the cleanup unfolded.

Wilson Sayre: So, there were a bunch of trucking companies involved, and most companies had several trucks. So, like, so here’s a manifest from Tuesday, May 27, 1997.

Honey B trucking company had truck #39, and that removed five loads of debris the day. Then there was a Hard Rock trucking company, and their truck #30 removed six loads of debris that day. Then there was A&W trucking company, and one of their trucks removed five loads that day. So, the total number of loads removed that day was 67 loads.

And that continued day after day for months.

Robin Amer: And how much did the cleanup eventually cost the city?
Wilson Sayre: Even though Mayor Daley said publicly that settlement money from the illegal dumpers would pay for the cleanup, that’s not exactly what happened. The cost was much higher than the $900,000 in settlement money they’d gotten from the companies.

In 2001, the city’s top lawyer sent the federal government a bill for the cleanup—a bill for nearly $7.4 million.

The letter was addressed to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and then-FBI Director Robert Mueller. It mentions two sites that John Christopher had dumped on during his time as an informant—one in North Lawndale and another one on the South Side.

It states that, “The property damage at these two sites was caused by ‘Operation Silver Shovel’ … and the use of John Christopher as a government informant.”

The city accuses the FBI and DOJ of allowing the illegal dumping to continue during the investigation because it furthered the purposes of Operation Silver Shovel.

Robin Amer: And did the feds ever pay the city back?
Wilson Sayre: No. At least, we couldn’t find any evidence that they did.

Robin Amer: It took almost two full years after Silver Shovel broke for the cleanup to be completed. That was eight years after John Christopher first showed up in North Lawndale.

But by 1998, John Christopher’s dumps were gone.

Deyki Nichols was in high school when the cleanup started. You’ve heard from him before—he used to attend Sumner Elementary School and played on the mountain of debris.

Deyki doesn’t recall the particulars of the cleanup, but he remembers the transformation it sparked. It was hard to miss. Where there had once been a six-story Mountain, there was now an empty lot.

Deyki Nichols: Like, man, our hills’ gone. So I, like again I’m going back to me being a kid, saying, “They took our hills away.” But like I said, me growing into the man I am now, really appreciate where it’s at now. It looks, it’s gorgeous far as what it used to look like.

Robin Amer: But once all that debris was removed, where did it go?

That’s after the break.


Robin Amer: Earlier this spring, I went to visit Altgeld Gardens, a sprawling public housing complex on Chicago’s far South Side. Altgeld Gardens is a hundred and thirty blocks south of the Loop—as far south as you can go and still be in Chicago.

The area feels isolated now, but its two-story row homes were originally built in 1944 to house black workers from the city’s nearby steel mills. There were once dozens of mills here that employed hundreds of thousands of workers.

The steel mills have long since closed, but the area still wrestles with the legacy of their departure: the vacant land, waste facilities and dirty industry that has come to take their place. And Altgeld Gardens is still home to nearly seven thousand residents, almost all of whom are black and low-income.

I came to Altgeld Gardens because it was the home of Hazel Johnson. Johnson, who died in 2011, is often called the mother of the environmental justice movement in Chicago. She was one of those activists who fought alongside Dr. Robert Bullard, the Houston sociologist we met in our last episode.

Here’s Hazel Johnson’s daughter, Cheryl.

Cheryl Johnson: My mother loved him. It wasn't just an admiration. She loved that man like he was her child.

Robin Amer: Cheryl Johnson still lives in Altgeld Gardens and now runs People for Community Recovery, the environmental action group her mother founded.

Like Dr. Bullard, Hazel Johnson spent her whole adult life trying to protect black and brown neighborhoods from being disproportionately affected by pollution—starting with Altgeld Gardens, which she dubbed “the toxic doughnut.”

Cheryl Johnson: She coined our neighborhood “the toxic doughnut,” you know, and she was trying to clean that doughnut up. That was her mission. That’s—and she said the people have a right to be educated, or at least knowledgeable, about urban environmental problems.

Robin Amer: Hazel Johnson called Altgeld Gardens the “toxic doughnut” because it was completely surrounded by so many different sources of dangerous pollution.

Robin Amer: Can you just describe, like if we went around the clock from 12 to 1 to 2 to 3 all around the neighborhood, around the doughnut, can you describe what surrounds your neighborhood?
Cheryl Johnson: Twelve o'clock used to be Sherwin Williams Paint Company and the Water Reclamation District. Then if you go to like between one and three, you're going to land up in the Lake Calumet Industrial Area, where, you know, you have Ford Motor Company, Paxton Lagoons, Paxton Landfill.

Robin Amer: And a hazardous waste incinerator that burned PCBs—a known carcinogen.

Cheryl Johnson: Then, when you get to, from three to six, lot of manufacturing. And lot of open space. Contaminated, but open. And landfills. This area used to carry 50 landfills.

Robin Amer: Fifty landfills. Just think about everything you know about landfills from our trip to Houston. The rotting trash. The stench and the impact on property values. Now factor in the impact of hazardous waste. Barrels of flammable chemicals. Or toxic waste known to make people sick. Now multiply those effects by 50. Fifty landfills, including a hazardous waste landfill that received dirt from John Christopher’s illegal dumps.

Thousands of tons of dirt were removed from John Christopher’s dumps. Some of it had been contaminated. And the city Department of Environment took charge of moving all that dirt to a hazardous waste landfill just a few blocks from Altgeld Gardens. In the process, this contaminated dirt was effectively moved from one black community to another. One that has been fighting environmental battles for decades.

The landfill near Altgeld Gardens was one of the few hazardous waste disposal sites in Chicago at the time. The city didn’t have many other options.

But it’s not an accident that this facility and others like it were all clustered in this formerly industrial area that’s also home to Altgeld Gardens. This is something we talked about with Dr. Bullard during our trip to Houston.

Robert Bullard: If you look at what happens in the real world, you generally don't find one facility, you usually have a clustering effect. You have two, you have three. And the way it works in the real world, if you have three facilities and a company wants to put the fourth facility there, it's easier to get the fourth facility.

Robin Amer: In 2007, Dr. Bullard was part of a study that looked at the demographics of people living within a two-mile radius of the nation’s hazardous waste sites. The results of that study revealed that 55 percent of people living near these sites were people of color, whereas people of color only made up about 25 percent of the country’s population.

Robert Bullard: So that shows you that people of color are more likely to face risks associated with hazardous waste facilities than white people.

Robin Amer: The environmental justice movement came up with a term for areas like Altgeld Gardens and other neighborhoods where dangerous pollution is clustered: sacrifice zones.

Robert Bullard: A sacrifice zone is nothing more than communities or a particular area that has basically been designated as compatible for saturation of industrial pollution and industries. And again, it’s almost like saying, for the good of all, this particular area we’ll have to sacrifice. We’ll have to sacrifice the land, the environment, and the people.

Robin Amer: I told Dr. Bullard about the efforts to remove the six stories of debris from North Lawndale and about how some of the dirt was contaminated.

Robin Amer: Do you want to guess where they took the contaminated dirt?
Robert Bullard: Not the South Side? Not the South Side. Shameful.
Robin Amer: Next door to Altgeld Gardens.
Robert Bullard: That's right, I've been there. That's where they took it. Again, environmental injustice—when you get justice one place, you still don't get justice. Because there's a limited number of places that people consider where you can put this stuff. And that's not justice. That's partial victory and partial justice.

Robin Amer: Cheryl Johnson did not know that the contaminated dirt from the North Lawndale dumps had ended up in the landfill in the toxic doughnut until I told her. But she didn’t seem shocked by it.

Although Cheryl has taken on her mother’s mantle and has now been fighting for years to protect and advocate for her neighborhood, she also seemed almost resigned to the fact that in Chicago, her neighborhood had already been designated as the destination for this kind of waste.

Cheryl Johnson: We carry the most, 50 documented landfills, than any other areas in the city of Chicago anyway. Would you want it to go somewhere else?

Robin Amer: At least, she said, the illegal dumps in North Lawndale had been dismantled, and the waste had not been sent to another illegal dump.


Cheryl Johnson: I'm just saying that if that's the sacrifice that we have to make, at least we know it's going to a place where it's being monitored and regulated.

Robin Amer: For the waste from the North Lawndale dumps that was not hazardous, there were other options—ones in which no neighborhood had to be sacrificed. And the city took this other approach in a white neighborhood with ties to Chicago’s most powerful family.

Although the contaminated dirt from John Christopher’s dumps was taken to the hazardous waste landfill near Altgeld Gardens, the bulk of the material—nearly all the concrete slabs and chunks of asphalt—ended up in Palmisano Park.

Palmisano Park is a 27-acre green space in Bridgeport, a neighborhood about three-and-a-half miles southwest of the Loop. When the weather's nice, it’s a great place to walk your dog, or have a picnic, or take a date. I’ve been on dates here. There’s a fishing pond and a terraced walkway and natural landscaping with native wildflowers.

The tip-off that this place was not always a beautiful public park comes from the massive, grassy, three-story hill in the center of the park. It’s like Dr. Bullard said in Houston: Chicago is completely flat, so if you see a mountain, be suspicious. Landfill!

Palmisano Park used to be a limestone mine called Stearn’s Quarry. It opened in the 1830s, around the same time Chicago became a city. At first, it was at the edge of town. But as the new city expanded and the population boomed, the densely populated neighborhood of Bridgeport grew up around the quarry.

We found this incredible black and white aerial photo of the quarry. It shows densely packed rows of three-story apartment buildings and bungalows and workman’s cottages built right up against the edge of a massive pit—380 feet deep. That’s so deep that you could fit the Statue of Liberty inside it.

The quarry closed in 1969, but the pit remained. You could drive through Bridgeport down Halsted Street and peer into the abyss. And by the mid-’90s, when city officials were casting around for a place to take the debris from the dumps in North Lawndale, they had another problem on their hands. We heard about it from environment commissioner Henry Henderson.

Henry Henderson: The old quarry, Stearns Quarry, it was falling in. And there was a good possibility if the quarry was not filled, that part of Halsted would go directly into the bottom of the, 200 feet into the bottom of the of the quarry.

Robin Amer: Filling Stearn’s Quarry with debris from John Christopher’s dumps solved two problems at once.

Henry Henderson: Hauling it to Stearn’s Quarry was a way of dealing with the Stearn’s Quarry problem and remove a lot of the stuff from the facility.

Robin Amer: The project may have also had special meaning for Mayor Daley because Bridgeport was his neighborhood. He grew up in a red-brick bungalow just a half-mile or so from the quarry. Although Bridgeport today is home to a large number of Chinese and Mexican families, the neighborhood had long been mostly white and Irish Catholic—and the seat of the Daley family’s political power.

In other words, the waste shipped to Bridgeport, a white neighborhood with ties to the Daleys, was transformed into a beautiful park. The waste shipped to Altgeld Gardens, a poor black neighborhood without access to the halls of power, was not.

The transformation from limestone quarry to public park was actually alluded to in Boss—a short-lived TV show that was basically a thinly-veiled dramatization of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s time in office.

Kelsey Grammer starred as Mayor Tom Kane. Midway through Season 1, Mayor Kane becomes embroiled in a political scandal that seems loosely based on the story of the North Lawndale dumps. Mayor Kane had given the greenlight to an illegal dump that then poisoned the water supply of a nearby suburb. And now the town’s residents are threatening to sue the city.

As the media pounces on the story, Mayor Kane ducks their questions. He goes back to his old neighborhood, to find solace in his favorite local watering hole. He’s known the bar’s owner since he was a political neophyte.

The two of them take a walk around Palmisano Park, where a trio of boys are standing by the water.

Mayor Kane: Those people are fishing down there.
Bar owner: Yeah, in the mornings, they come to watch for birds. From a chemical dump to a fuckin’ Garden of Eden.
Mayor Kane: It was a quarry before that. Someday someone will come along and convince the city to build condos next to the fishing pond and turn it into something else.

Robin Amer: In real life, after the debris was removed from North Lawndale, the lot that had been home to the Mountain became an empty 21-acre lot—one of the biggest undeveloped parcels on Chicago’s West Side. So, in 1998, the city moved to buy the land and redevelop it.

And in order to redevelop that land, the city began to try and convince the residents of North Lawndale to let them turn it into something else—as Mayor Kane put it.

And that meant forcing out some residents who had lived through the worst of the dumping.

Keith Wardlow: Well they claimed there was gonna be a big movie theater, I think. Ain’t that what they were talking about back then?
Debra Wardlow: They said a big movie theater, but every time we go to Chicago, ain't nothing, still ain't nothing there.
Keith Wardlow: Ain't never seen nothing but empty land. I mean, I tease my wife all the time. They made us move for nothing. They really made us move for nothing.

Robin Amer: 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 this week was reported and produced by Wilson Sayre, Jenny Casas, Sam Greenspan and me, Robin Amer.

This episode was edited by Amy Pyle with additional editing from Matt Doig.

Ben Austen is our story consultant. Original music and mixing is by Hannis Brown. Legal review by Tom Curley.

Additional production by Taylor Maycan, Fil Corbitt, Isobel Cockerell and Bianca Medious.

Our executive producer is Liz Nelson.

Chris Davis is our VP for investigations. Scott Stein is our VP of product. The USA TODAY Network’s president and publisher is Maribel Wadsworth.

Thank you to our sponsors for supporting the show. And special thanks this week to Ethan Michaeli, Misha Euceph and Danielle Svetcov.

Archival audio courtesy of WGN and Living on Earth.

Additional support comes from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Social Justice News Nexus at Northwestern University.

I’m Robin Amer. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter @thecitypod. Or visit our website, where you can see photos of the cleanup and more.

Our live event in Chicago on December 5th is sold out! Thank you to everyone who reserved tickets. For anyone who was not able to get tickets, we're going to have a live stream of the event. You can find more information about that on our website.


S1: Episode 8


An illegal dump in Chicago has seeds in a legal one in Houston. The numbers reveal an unsettling pattern. A movement takes root. The president gives an order.

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Robin Amer: Residents of Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood had spent the better part of six years fighting John Christopher’s pair of illegal dumps.

In talking with some of these residents, it was clear to them that this happened in their neighborhood because it was black neighborhood. It was not a coincidence. It was by design.

Michelle Ashford: So that just goes to show me what you think of black people, and poor black communities. We can put this here.
Conrad Henry: This ward? They didn't care. Twenty-fourth Ward was like a dumping ground for them.
Gladys Woodson: It just wouldn't happen in any other neighborhood, I don't think.
Jacquelyn Rodney: Anything can be done to black people. Anything.

Robin Amer: When a similar dump cropped up in a mostly white Chicago neighborhood, the one next to Lane Tech High School, city officials shut it down fast. And Operation Silver Shovel, the FBI’s carefully orchestrated investigation into public corruption, sprung from the North Lawndale dumps without factoring in a plan for a cleanup.

That’s our ongoing story in Chicago, a city notorious for public corruption and racial divisions.

But what we saw unfolding in North Lawndale is just a symptom of a much bigger problem—one that is not confined to Chicago.

Black and brown communities all over the country are disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards.

We know this, in part, because of a man named Robert Bullard.

Robert Bullard: My grandmother lived on the road where the city landfill was located. I remember this vividly. We would go there on Sundays. We’d go up there, and the landfill was a burning landfill. And we would go up there and play. We thought nothing about it.

Robin Amer: Bullard and his family are black. And even as a child growing up in Alabama in the 1950s and ‘60s, he noticed that dumps like the one near his grandmother’s house seemed to be located mostly in black neighborhoods.

Robert Bullard: I only later discovered that that was more than just a hunch.

Robin Amer: Bullard grew up to be a sociologist, and when he was teaching in Houston in the late 1970s, he got involved with a group of black homeowners fighting a landfill proposed for their neighborhood. And these Houston residents started saying the same kinds of thing you heard people in North Lawndale say in previous episodes: This is happening to us because we are black.

Only they were saying it roughly 20 years before the dumps sprang up in North Lawndale.

Bullard wondered: Could he find a way to prove this—and prove it beyond dispute?

Robert Bullard: It was very clear, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist or PhD to put the pieces together. But it did take a PhD and a lawsuit to connect the dots, unfortunately.

Robin Amer: Robert Bullard’s efforts to tie dumping to racial discrimination—first in black neighborhoods in Houston, and later in black and brown neighborhoods all across the country— started with magic markers, push pins, and paper maps.

From those humble beginnings, his work would help spark a movement. It gave this type of discrimination a name. And it would ultimately force officials at the highest levels of government to confront the kind of injustice that we’ve been telling you about in North Lawndale.

Robert Bullard: I never knew that we would stumble on something that nobody else had done.

Robin Amer: I’m Robin Amer, and from USA TODAY, this is The City.


Robin Amer: In our last episode, Operation Silver Shovel became front page news. Aldermen and other city officials went to prison. And the feds gave John Christopher a new life. But the six-story mountain of rubble in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood was still there—and there was no plan to get rid of it.

In this episode, we’re going to hit pause on the Chicago story, because we want to zoom out and look at the big picture—whether the dumping in North Lawndale is indicative of a larger national problem.

So, we’re going to take a side trip a thousand miles south of Chicago, to Houston. And we’re going to go back to the 1970s, roughly 20 years before the first trucks dumped their first loads of debris in North Lawndale.

Earlier this year I went to Houston with our reporter, Wilson Sayre. She’s going to pick up the story from here.

Wilson Sayre: In 1971, Margaret and Charles Bean were representative of an emerging, black middle class in America. Charles worked at the Goodyear tire plant making artificial rubber, and was active in the union, making sure black workers had the same opportunities as their white colleagues. Margaret worked at a factory where they made little fruit pies.

She had grown up most of her life in Houston. He had grown up in the country but had always wanted more of a social life than the country had to offer. And now they had kids and had outgrown the apartment they got together after getting married.

The couple wanted to buy a home—the type of place where they could grow their family and raise children. A place to have barbecues in the backyard and chat with neighbors on walks.

Charles Bean heard about a neighborhood—Northwood Manor—that was being marketed to young black families like theirs.

Charles Bean: My brother was living out there. So, we moved out there for that reason, along with the advertisement on the radio stations. They were advertising that area.

Wilson Sayre: Houston is a huge, sprawling metropolis, and Northwood Manor is out on the city’s northeastern edge, where the suburbs give way to more rural surroundings.

The pine forests there had been cleared to build neat, one-story brick ranch homes, with carports and perfectly manicured lawns.

Charles Bean: I was very impressed with the model home that I saw. And my daughter Tangela was with me at that time, and I asked her, what did she think? ‘Course she liked it. And so we went and looked at it and we said, yes, we're gonna take this one right here.

Wilson Sayre: The house the Beans bought had pomegranate, peach, and plum trees in the front yard—it was their dream home.

Here’s Margaret:

Margaret Lair: Well, I was able to start my family there, raised my family. I was able to meet my neighbors and we often will go outside and talk. And so that's what made me love my neighborhood.

Wilson Sayre: Then in 1978, seven years after making Northwood Manor their home, one of Margaret’s neighbors mentioned to her that a company was clearing trees just down the street, right next to their neighborhood … in order to make room for a new landfill.

Margaret Lair: I was very, very surprised. I didn't think they would put that type of landfill a next to our high school. Our high school, Smiley High School, was on the side of the landfill.

Wilson Sayre: The fruit trees, the manicured lawns—everything that residents loved about living in Northwood Manor—would now be next to dirty diapers, rotten food, and all the garbage that other Houston residents wanted out of their homes. It would be hauled away and left next to Charles and Margaret Bean's home.

A disturbing thought nagged at Charles Bean and his neighbors—the same thought that would be shared 20 years later by North Lawndale’s residents: This is happening because this is a black neighborhood.

Charles Bean: I felt insulted. Yeah, and like, you get the idea that all the undesirable things is geared toward us, you know, railroad tracks, the waste treatment plant, everything that’s undesirable. You get the idea that that's what's concentrated in your neighborhood

Wilson Sayre: Adding to the insult was that the company behind the landfill was marketing it to Northwood Manor’s residents as a “sanitary landfill” called “Whispering Pines”—a term and a name that evoked something lovely, sweet smelling, and hushed. The residents knew it would be anything but.

Charles Bean: If you think about the name “Whispering Pines,” see, that sounds pretty good. And if you're not mindful of what's actually going on there, then you probably would think that it was clean, like sanitary. It was everything but sanitary.

Wilson Sayre: Just like the families in North Lawndale who saw a dump rise up in their neighborhood across from Sumner Elementary School, the residents in Houston’s Northwood Manor worried about the smell, and the trucks, and the negative impact the dump would have on their property values.

That wasn’t what the Beans wanted for their neighborhood. So, they started to rally their neighbors to fight the dump.

Margaret Lair: We went from door to door knocking, to give out leaflets, to let our neighbors know what they're proposing to do.

Wilson Sayre: They organized meetings at the True Light Missionary Baptist Church and the Barbara Jordan Community Center to figure out how to fight the dump.

Pat Reaux: Margaret was going around, and they had a bullhorn, and they was telling residents and passing out flyers.

Wilson Sayre: This is Pat Reaux, one of Margaret and Charles Bean’s neighbors. They’re best friends now, and they met during this fight.

Pat Reaux: They said, “Do you know that we're having a meeting tonight? And they're putting a landfill next door.” I'm talking about, “Next door where?” That was unheard of, because all you had then was a wooded area. You could throw a rock and land it in the landfill from where we were. So that really got a lot of people riled up, because they're just buying homes and all this good stuff.

Wilson Sayre: The news that a landfill was coming to her neighborhood was incredibly distressing for Ms. Reaux. She knew exactly how awful living next to a landfill could be.

When she was a kid, she grew up on a street that dead-ended by another dump. This was in another predominantly black neighborhood in Houston.

Pat Reaux: And we used to have so much trash and stuff, and see these big mounds. But the worst thing was the rodents and the stray animals that it brought. The stench was unbearable.

Wilson Sayre: The dump attracted so many animals that ran through their yard, her dad had to set out raccoon traps. She said neighbors would sometimes come by to watch cats battle the dump’s rats.

Pat Reaux: I mean some of my neighbors would actually sit there and bet if the cats was gonna win the fight. And in some cases, baby, those rats were bigger than the cats. Bigger. That was a horrible life for a teenager. But you know, we lived it until he said, “No more.”

Wilson Sayre: Her family just walked away from that house. Abandoned it.

That was her childhood. And here she was, a new mother herself, in a new house, confronting the idea that her own children would also grow up next to a dump. She was not going to let that happen.

Pat Reaux: Yeah, we took over. We didn’t get involved, we took over.

Wilson Sayre: Pat Reaux joined the Beans and several other neighbors to form a neighborhood alliance.

The plan: To file a lawsuit against the private company building the landfill and convince a judge to issue an injunction. That would stop the dump before it could ever get started—before that first pile of rotting garbage could be trucked into their neighborhood.

Charles Bean: We wanted to stop it in its tracks, and they were trying to build it as fast as they could.

Wilson Sayre: So, the group hired an attorney named Linda Bullard, and she filed a lawsuit in county court in October of 1979. The crux of their legal argument was that putting the dump in a predominantly black community amounted to racial discrimination.

But how do you prove this kind of discrimination in a court of law? Where’s the concrete evidence that one dump in one black neighborhood is the sort of racial injustice that requires a judge to make things right?

Linda Bullard declined our invitation to talk about this case. But we spoke to her ex-husband, Dr. Robert Bullard.

And Dr. Bullard was the one who wound up wrestling with these questions about proof.

The way Dr. Bullard tells it, his wife walked in one day with an unexpected piece of news.

Robert Bullard: She came home and said, “Bob, I've filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas.” And I said, “You did what? You sued Texas?” I said, “You sued my employer.”

Wilson Sayre: Technically, that was true. Dr. Bullard was a professor and researcher at Houston’s Texas Southern University, a public college.

Linda Bullard had also filed the lawsuit against the city of Houston, Harris County, Southwestern Waste Management—the company trying to build the landfill—and Browning Ferris Industries, or BFI—the company that was supposed to operate the landfill. BFI was headquartered in Houston, and for a time it was the second-largest waste-management company in the world.

Northwood Manor residents were up against an assembly of deep-pocketed defendants. Meanwhile, they collected change door to door to help pay for legal fees.

Linda Bullard told her husband they were going to need help.

Robert Bullard: She said, “I sued them, and I need someone to assist and support—gather data for this lawsuit.”

Wilson Sayre: Ms. Bullard thought the residents of Northwood Manor were on to something bigger. She thought they had a chance to prove that this dump in this black neighborhood was not an isolated incident. It was part of a pattern.

But she needed help proving that.

Robert Bullard: And I said, “You need a sociologist.” She said, “That's what you are, right?”

Wilson Sayre: Right. Dr. Bullard would take on the challenge and try to figure out if there was a pattern.

Robin Amer: That’s after the break.


Robin Amer: In 1979, the same year Northwood Manor residents filed a lawsuit to fight the dump proposed for their neighborhood, Dr. Robert Bullard was still a relatively new sociology professor at Houston’s historically black Texas Southern University.

Let’s go back to Wilson.

Wilson Sayre: Robert Bullard split his time between research and teaching. One of his idols was W.E.B. DuBois, who—like Dr. Bullard—was a black sociologist. DuBois was the first black person to earn a doctorate from Harvard and one of the founders of the NAACP. Dr. Bullard admired what he calls DuBois’s brand of “kick ass” sociology, combining hard research with social activism.

And now, Dr. Bullard suddenly found himself confronted with the kind of issue that DuBois himself might have tackled: Was racial discrimination to blame for Northwood Manor’s landfill problem?

Getting testimony from black residents who believed this was true wasn’t going to sway a judge. He needed to come up with solid evidence, and he needed to produce it fast enough to help stop the landfill before it could open. The clock was ticking.

Robert Bullard: When I think about that period of time, it was frantic. It was emotionally draining, because you're embarking on something, in terms of trying to collect data, you're trying to put together a puzzle that you don't have a lot of time to think about. It's full steam ahead.

Wilson Sayre: Dr. Bullard wanted to know whether there was a link between the locations of waste facilities and the demographics of the surrounding neighborhoods.

He enlisted the students from his research methods class to gather data. Their first step was to find all of the garbage facilities that had been built in Houston dating back to the 1930s.

Keep in mind, this is happening in the late 1970s. You couldn’t just Google a list of all the dumps and incinerators. Even a phone book was of little use, because going back to the 1930s meant that some of the waste facilities had been closed for years.

So, Dr. Bullard had his students digging into dusty old filing cabinets in City Hall, pulling up newspaper clippings on microfiche, and interviewing old timers in the community to ask if they remembered where various dumps had been located.

Robert Bullard: I started giving my students the list. This student may have five on a list, and they go out and verify, and we come back and put it on the map.

Wilson Sayre: And when the other methods failed, Dr. Bullard told them to trust their eyes.

Robert Bullard: I would tell my students, “If you see a mountain in Houston—Houston is flat, parts of it below sea level—if you see a mountain in Houston, be suspicious. Landfill!”

Wilson Sayre: Once his students had cobbled together the list of dumps, they looked at the demographics of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Again, this is the ‘70s. Today, a sociologist would tackle this problem with all sorts of modern tools: GPS, digital maps and powerful computer programs.

Dr. Bullard had none of these tools. They weren’t widely available at the time. When he needed to run a computer analysis, he did it using one of those massive computers you might see in a movie. It took up more space than a row of refrigerators and had significantly less computing power than an iPhone.

Robert Bullard: And I reran the data on a mainframe computer, on punch cards, so this is how ancient it is. It's like having a chisel and a hammer and a rock.

Wilson Sayre: He laid out big paper maps of Houston on the floor and used magic markers to color in neighborhoods to reflect the demographics of the people who lived there.

Robert Bullard: Yellow is less than 10 percent minority. Orange was 10 to 39. And the other one's like 40 to 49. Red was 50 percent above minority.

Wilson Sayre: Dr. Bullard used push pins to mark locations of the dumps and incinerators.

Robert Bullard: And as those pins would come in, we started seeing a pattern. Most of the pins would come in in red.

Wilson Sayre: Pin after pin went into the sections of the map colored red—the majority-black neighborhoods.

It wasn’t just the proposed Whispering Pines Landfill.

Robert Bullard: And when the pins started to come into the red, is when I knew that this was not something that was a fluke or was by accident. This was willful. It was on purpose, systematic, that city council members, over that period of time, had decided that the pins were going in the red.

Wilson Sayre: Even though he had a hunch about what they might find, Dr. Bullard was astonished at how stark the discrepancies actually were as illustrated by this map.

From the 1930s through 1978, five out of five city-owned landfills were in predominantly black neighborhoods. Six out of the eight city-owned incinerators were in predominantly black neighborhoods. And four of the four privately owned landfills were in predominantly black neighborhoods.

Robert Bullard: For me, that was an ah-ha moment. Ah-ha, oh, light bulb moment. Oh, this is an issue of discrimination. Eighty-two percent of all the garbage—the waste, solid waste—dumped in Houston over that period of time, was dumped in predominantly black neighborhoods, even though blacks only made up 25 percent of the population.

Wilson Sayre: Remember, we heard the allegation from the residents in North Lawndale and Northwood Manor that they were the ones most often stuck dealing with their city’s waste. But it wasn’t until Dr. Bullard finished his map that there was—for the first time ever—actual empirical evidence.

Robert Bullard: These are decisions made, intentional decisions, made by white men. Put the garbage over there, put it over there, put it over there. And “there,” invariably, was in black communities, black neighborhoods in Houston.

Wilson Sayre: This is what Bullard and others would ultimately call “environmental discrimination” or “environmental racism.” A practice of disproportionately burdening black and brown communities with environmental hazards that wouldn’t be allowed in white communities.

Armed with this evidence, attorney Linda Bullard felt like she had what she needed. She could argue that this type of environmental discrimination was no different than housing discrimination, or employment discrimination, or voting discrimination. It violated the Civil Rights Act.

Robert Bullard: This was the first environmental racism lawsuit to use civil rights law. And this was not something that—we didn't know what we were setting out to do, other than this was a form of discrimination. It was a form of racism in the way that environmental policies are being implemented.

Wilson Sayre: The map seemed to be the smoking gun—the type of thing that anybody with a pair of eyes could look at and realize, hey, there’s a clear connection here.

But the two judges in the case disagreed.

The judge presiding over the initial hearings was swayed by a different set of maps provided by the waste companies. Their maps purported to show that there was not a connection between landfills and black communities in Houston.

The judge found these maps more credible and sided with the landfill companies.

So how could the judge have rejected Dr. Bullard’s work?

I’m going to get a bit in the weeds with how a data analysis like this is done, but bear with me.

When Dr. Bullard did his analysis, he was looking at the demographics of the neighborhood immediately surrounding the landfill—the communities most impacted by the smell, sight, noise, and vermin of a dump.

The companies, however, used the entire Census tract where the landfill was located. That’s a much bigger area, potentially involving thousands of residents instead of just a few hundred that make up a neighborhood.

Both methods are valid, but at the time, using Census tracts was the more common and established method. There wasn’t a single, agreed-upon way to define or measure a neighborhood.

That said, it’s hard to argue that Dr. Bullard’s method was not more relevant. Think about your own home. You’re probably more likely to get upset about a dump opening at the edge of your neighborhood than one opening up at the edge of your Census tract, which could be several miles away.

So, we asked Mark Nichols, one of our data journalists at USA TODAY, to use 2018 technology to tackle the same question Dr. Bullard faced.

Here’s Mark:

Mark Nichols: What we were really trying to figure out, I think, was whether the neighborhoods in which these waste sites were contained basically had a greater proportion of non-white residents.

Wilson Sayre: I’m not going to bore you with all the details behind the analysis. But essentially, we pulled a list of all landfills operating in Houston from the state of Texas’s website. Then using a computer program called ArcGIS, Mark drew circles around the dump sites. One circle with a one-mile radius another with a three-mile radius. Then, the program pulled in all the demographic data about the people living within those circles, so we could see who was living close to these landfills.

Bottom line: Mark’s analysis squared with Dr. Bullard’s. In Houston, garbage is far more likely to wind up in the city’s black and brown neighborhoods.

But because Dr. Bullard was not able to convince the judges that his methods were sound, the residents of Northwood Manor did not get an injunction to stop the dump.

The Whispering Pines Landfill opened in 1980.

A few years later, they lost the legal battle to shut down the dump.

In a pretty scathing opinion, a second judge rejected Dr. Bullard’s map and analysis, calling it “inaccurate” and “subjective.”

By then, the landfill was estimated to be taking in between 1,500 and 2,000 tons of garbage per day.

And according to Margaret Bean, who later remarried and now goes by Margaret Lair, the landfill was as bad as the residents feared it would be.

Margaret Lair: That is when we started to see the heavy trucks speeding up and down Little York Road. At night time we smell this horrible odor.

Wilson Sayre: If you’ve ever been to Texas in the summertime, you know the heat can be intense.

Temperatures in the 90s baked the mounds of garbage piling up at Whispering Pines. Garbage would fly off the trucks and collect along the sides of the roads. Margaret Lair said that you could smell the dump’s overpowering odor throughout the neighborhood, which may be why the developer stopped building new homes there.

She told us about small white birds—what she called “dump birds”—that would land on the garbage at Whispering Pines then fly over to the high school. She worried about what germs they might be spreading to her daughter and other kids at the school.

Last year, after living in Northwood Manor for more than 45 years, Margaret Lair, moved away.

Margaret Lair: I'm happy I don't live over here anymore, but I feel for the people that still have to stay and cannot move. I was able to afford to move. You got a lot of people out here can't afford to move.

Wilson Sayre: She feels that the neighborhood started to go downhill when the landfill arrived.

She showed me and Robin around during our visit. She brought us to what used to be Smiley High School, where you could see the landfill from the bleachers at the school’s stadium.

Margaret Lair: You can actually see the dump from here. You can see, it was so close. The landfill was so close. You can actually sit in the bleachers and see the dump. The trees wasn't here.

Robin Amer: So, really close.
Margaret Lair: Very close. In fact, you could just even walk to it, it’s so close.
Robin Amer: Would you come to football games here?
Margaret Lair: Yes.
Robin Amer: And would you be able to see and smell the dump while you're sitting in the stadium?
Margaret Lair: Yes. It was a rotten odor.

Wilson Sayre: Later, Mrs. Lair drove us across the street—right up to the landfill. And it’s massive. At 180 acres, it’s nearly a quarter of the size of Central Park and ten times the size of the bigger dump in North Lawndale. And at the entrance of the facility, Robin spotted some signs. They looked like they'd been there since the dump opened in the '80s.

Robin Amer: You know, one of them says, “No dead animals, please.” And one of them says, “All tires must be split, quartered, or shredded prior to disposal. Absolutely no whole tires can be accepted.” And then there's another sign that says, “No appliances,” small appliances.

So, I mean, this to me is just an indication of, like, all of the different kinds of things that people would try to dump there, including dead animals.

Margaret Lair: Sure, they did dump their dead animals or tires or refrigerators. How would they know?

Wilson Sayre: According to state records, the dump is still taking garbage, 40 years after it first opened.

Although Northwood Manor’s residents would ultimately lose their court battle, they didn’t go down quietly. They protested at the dumps and at city hall.

Houston didn’t and still doesn’t have zoning laws, the kind of rules that prohibit industrial facilities from being built in a residential neighborhood.

But the lawsuit and the publicity from protests resulted in new laws that restricted where future dumps could go. Houston officials also decided that they would not allow any city trucks to dump at Whispering Pines.

And in what could be viewed as an acknowledgement that Dr. Bullard’s research touched on a real problem, the state of Texas changed its criteria for deciding where to place landfills. For the first time, officials had to take demographics into account before approving a new dump site.

This didn’t help neighborhoods with existing dumps, like Northwood Manor. But these changes energized Dr. Bullard.

Now, he wanted to use the same methodology he’d used in the Whispering Pines case to see if placing waste in black and brown neighborhoods wasn’t just a Northwood Manor problem, or a Houston problem, or even a Texas problem. He thought it could be something even bigger.

And he was right.

Robert Bullard: We lost the case, but we won a whole movement.

Robin Amer: That’s after the break.


Robin Amer: Let’s go back to Wilson.

Wilson Sayre: Robert Bullard knew that it wasn’t just piles of construction debris or landfills teeming with garbage that people didn’t want in their residential neighborhoods. Factories. Chemical plants. Contaminated land. They were all potentially harmful to people living nearby.

He wanted to understand the full extent of the problem.

Robert Bullard: I decided to go on a tear, and that was the DuBois in me, is to start writing, start documenting.

Wilson Sayre: And he started to look outside of Houston.

Robert Bullard: I want to know: is this happening in other places? So, I wrote the grant, got it funded, and I said, “I want to look at the South, see if this is a Southern thing.”

Wilson Sayre: And when he looked, he found examples of other communities that had been subject to terrible pollution. Neighborhoods near lead smelting facilities in Dallas. Hazardous waste dumps in Sumter County, Alabama. A stretch of chemical plants and refineries between New Orleans and Baton Rouge so notorious for making people sick it was known as “Cancer Alley.”

In each case, Dr. Bullard noted it was the black and brown communities most impacted.

Robert Bullard: The pattern in Houston basically was replicated across the South, and that African-American communities were being singled out for locally unwanted land uses, where landfills, incinerators, garbage dumps, chemical plants, those dangerous facilities.

It was clear that Houston was no fluke.

Wilson Sayre: Houston was not alone. Environmental hazards were disproportionately in black and brown neighborhoods, all over the country.

These were things that no one would want to live near.

Robert Bullard: Well you know, the idea that NIMBY, “not in my backyard,” had really taken hold. And instead of NIMBY, what we found was PIBBY, “place in blacks' backyard.” P-I-B-B-Y.

Wilson Sayre: Dr. Bullard wrote up his findings, first in academic journals and then in a book he titled Dumping in Dixie.

But he had trouble finding a receptive audience. He was pitching ideas that nobody had previously defined or recognized.

Robert Bullard: I got nasty notes back, saying, “Well, you can't use ‘race’ and ‘environment’ in the same sentence. You know, the environment is neutral, and so it's—there's no disparity, in terms of environment.”

Wilson Sayre: He even had trouble convincing mainstream environmental groups and Civil Rights groups that racial injustice and the environment were topics they needed to rally around together.

Robert Bullard: It took almost two decades before our civil rights organizations and our green groups understood how these two things connected.

Wilson Sayre: But through his research, Dr. Bullard started hearing about other black and brown communities all over the country that were also banding together to fight toxic dumps, landfills, and other industrial facilities in their neighborhoods.

A group in rural North Carolina had fought the dumping of toxic oil along the roads in their community. A group in Dixon County, Tennessee, was trying to fight a landfill. Researchers were looking at the locations of hazardous waste facilities in Los Angeles. And there were more.

These were relatively small, grassroots groups. But a name for what they were seeing started to take hold. It pointed to a broader understanding that this growing national movement was about more than just stopping individual landfills from popping up in certain areas.

This was environmental racism. And the people involved in the movement against it were fighting for environmental justice.

This group of people from all over the country fighting for environmental justice started to meet and hold conferences throughout the early 1990s.

They were trying to change the system that had allowed a mountain of construction debris to pile up in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood with no repercussions—a situation that was unfolding around this very same time.

It had taken the Voting Rights Act to address voting discrimination, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to address workplace discrimination. So, this group of environmental justice advocates began to push for the same kinds of landmark legal protections to reckon with environmental discrimination.

They started writing letters to government officials.

Robert Bullard: We wrote letters to the EPA, we wrote letters to the President's Council on Environment Quality, we wrote letters to Health and Human Services, and we were requesting a meeting, a sit-down meeting.

Wilson Sayre: And they got one!

In 1991, they met with the head of President George H.W. Bush’s EPA.

Out of that meeting, the EPA created the Office of Environmental Equity—a division of the federal government tasked with studying the problem of environmental discrimination.

A year later, the EPA released a report called “Environmental Equity: Reducing Risk for All Communities.” It echoed what Bullard and his colleagues in the movement and some communities had been saying all along: black and brown neighborhoods were disproportionately burdened with environmental hazards.

But the big moment for this movement came in February 1994.

Dr. Bullard and his colleagues were at a conference just outside of Washington, D.C.

Robert Bullard: A few of us got a call from the White House to come over to witness something.

Wilson Sayre: They’d been invited into the Oval Office to witness President Bill Clinton sign a new executive order.

Robert Bullard: We went in and Vice President Al Gore was the first to greet us when we came through the door. And then President Clinton was in the background just in front of his desk.

Wilson Sayre: The Environmental Justice Executive Order of 1994 instructed every federal agency to ensure that no one group of people was unfairly burdened with the country’s waste.

While the president signed the executive order, Dr. Bullard and the other activists gathered behind the president's desk for a commemorative photo.

We showed the photo to Dr. Bullard.

Robert Bullard: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, that's Dr. Wright, Beverly Wright, there. And that's Sen. Wellstone. I was standing next to EPA Administrator Carol Browner. And John Lewis was there, and Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, the senator from Illinois. And the Attorney General, Janet Reno was there. John Lewis. And we were all smiling.

Wilson Sayre: These activists, the parents of the environmental justice movement, were here to watch their movement legitimized by the highest official in the country.

The measure acknowledged that environmental racism was real. It was also a pledge that the federal government would do something about it.

Robert Bullard: We were all just really—we never thought that this is something that would happen. Environmental justice had reached the White House.

Wilson Sayre: Later the same day, Carol Browner, then head of the EPA, walked into the White House press room, and declared that it was time for the federal government to ensure environmental justice for every community in America.

Carol Browner: The president, joined by representatives from community groups across this country, just signed an executive order. Nobody can question that for far too long, communities across this country—low-income, minority communities—have been asked to bear a disproportionate share of our modern industrial life. Today's executive order is designed and will seek to bring justice to these communities.

Wilson Sayre: Standing next to Browner during the speech was US Attorney Janet Reno. She committed her agency’s prosecutors to holding people and companies accountable for environmental discrimination.

But at the very moment that President Clinton was signing the environmental justice executive order at the White House, in Chicago, Operation Silver Shovel was underway. A mob-associate-turned-undercover-informant by the name of John Christopher was illegally dumping debris in Chicago’s black neighborhoods—and he was doing it while working for the FBI.

If you tried to draw a big enough org chart of the Justice Department at the time, John Christopher’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss or whatever, you get it, was US Attorney Janet Reno.

Recognizing a problem and doing something about it are two very different things.

After the signing ceremony in Washington, it would still be another two years before Operation Silver Shovel thrust John Christopher’s illegal dumps into the limelight. And even then, it wasn’t angry residents writing letters, or kids getting sick or injured, that shamed government officials into fixing the problem.

It wasn’t even a newfound commitment to environmental justice.

What ultimately got all that debris out of North Lawndale was the publicity that followed a major public corruption scandal featuring a mob-connected mole.

The kind of publicity that other communities across the United States will never get.

Robin Amer: The outrage and embarrassment that followed in Silver Shovel’s wake sparked a glimmer of hope, as political leaders rushed in to try and fix the problem in North Lawndale.

Gladys Woodson: The Silver Shovel story broke, and then, the next thing I saw was Jesse Jackson standing on top on the pile saying, “Oh, yeah, we did this.” And we was saying, “No you didn’t.”

Robin Amer: 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 this week was reported and produced by Wilson Sayre, Jenny Casas, Sam Greenspan, and me, Robin Amer. Additional reporting for this episode by Mark Nichols.

This episode was edited by Matt Doig with additional editing from John Kelly and Amy Pyle.

Ben Austen is our story consultant. Original music and mixing is by Hannis Brown. Legal review by Tom Curley.

Additional production by Taylor Maycan, Fil Corbitt, Isobel Cockerell, and Bianca Medious.

Our executive producer is Liz Nelson.

Chris Davis is our VP for investigations. Scott Stein is our VP of product. The USA TODAY NETWORK’s president and publisher is Maribel Wadsworth.

Thank you to our sponsors for supporting the show. And special thanks to Scout Blum, Misha Euceph, and Danielle Svetcov.

Additional support comes from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Social Justice News Nexus at Northwestern University.

You can find us on Facebook and Twitter @thecitypod. Or visit our website, where you can see the Oval Office photo of Bill Clinton and Robert Bullard and the other environmental justice activists.

Then, if you’re in Chicago, please join me and the rest of The City team on Wednesday December 5th for a live community conversation, co-sponsored by WBEZ. We’ll be at the Skyline Conference Center in North Lawndale. We’ll take you behind the scenes of the podcast and introduce you to some of the North Lawndale residents of who fought to get rid of the Mountain.

To reserve tickets, visit

S1: Episode 7

The Takedown

A reporter scoops the FBI. Politicians get taken down in “Mount Henry’s” shadow. The six-story debris pile remains.

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Episode | Transcript

The Takedown

Robin Amer: On January 10, 1996, people around the country turned on the radio and heard a story about a dozen public officials accused of taking bribes.

Robert Siegel, NPR anchor: In Chicago today, federal officials announced charges in what they call Operation Silver Shovel, a wide-ranging probe of public corruption.

Robin Amer: Reports noted that the three-and-a-half-year undercover investigation had first focused on illegal dumping but had expanded to include a lot of other things.

Cheryl Corley, NPR reporter: US Attorney Jim Burns says since that time the FBI’s inquiry has grown to include an investigation into cocaine trafficking, organized crime, and public corruption in Chicago’s surrounding suburbs.

Robin Amer: The story also introduced America to the informant at the center of this investigation: John Christopher. A man with an extensive criminal record, who had bribed a Chicago alderman and used his help to dump six stories of debris in the middle of a West Side neighborhood.

Cheryl Corley: Residents there call the large and unsightly dump site “the Mountain,” and they accuse the federal government of allowing Christopher to continue dumping in poor and minority neighborhoods while using him to target public officials. U.S. Attorney Burns denies the charge.

Robin Amer: By the time it wrapped, the FBI would call Operation Silver Shovel one of the most successful corruption probes in Chicago history.

With John Christopher’s help, the feds had gone after more than 40 people, and had convicted close to half. By using John Christopher to launder millions of dollars in old mob cash, they had hit the Outfit—the Chicago mafia—where it hurt. They’d even folded in a drug bust along the way.

But the investigation did not play out in Chicago’s neighborhoods the way it played out on the nightly news. In North Lawndale and places where aldermen had been targets, people felt betrayed—not just by their elected officials, but by the investigation itself.

Although Operation Silver Shovel took down corrupt politicians, it left “the Mountain” standing.

I’m Robin Amer. From USA TODAY, this is The City.


Robin Amer: Let’s rewind a bit, to January 5, 1996—before Operation Silver Shovel became a national story.

The covert part of the investigation was drawing to a close. For months, the FBI and the US Attorney’s office had been planning what they called “the takedown”—a highly orchestrated deployment of federal agents into the field.

They would interrogate more than 40 targets, including seven Chicago aldermen, three officials from the water treatment agency and two city inspectors. They would question every target at the exact same time.

This way, no one subject could warn any other subject to hush up, or destroy evidence, or get a lawyer.

Scott Lassar was second-in-command among Chicago’s federal prosecutors. The plan was to launch the takedown the following week—after Lassar's boss returned from vacation.

But then, Scott Lassar got an unexpected call.

Scott Lassar: She knew every detail about the investigation.

Robin Amer: The call came from a TV reporter named Carol Marin, who knew all about their targets and about their mole, John Christopher.

Scott Lassar: She wasn't calling to find out anything. She was just giving us notice.

Carol Marin: I called the US Attorney's office and said, “We’re about to break a story about an investigation that we know you have completed.”

Robin Amer: This is Carol Marin. She’s something of a legend in Chicago. She had previously covered operations Gambat and Greylord—the federal corruption probes that seemed to be almost an annual occurrence in Chicago. She’d been tipped off about this story by a reliable source.

Carol Marin: Somebody whispered in my ear, “You need to start looking at Jesse Evans, Ambrosio Medrano, and Larry Bloom...”

Robin Amer: All Chicago aldermen the FBI had been investigating...

Carol Marin: “...because there is this guy John Christopher who is fly dumping all over the city and paying people off.”

Robin Amer: John Christopher had been dumping in North Lawndale for almost six years. But now that it was tied to a city-wide corruption scandal, NBC couldn't wait to break the story.

Carol Marin knew Chicago was what the feds liked to call a “target-rich environment” full of corrupt officials. But she was surprised by who the feds had targeted. Aldermen like Jesse Evans and Ambrosio Medrano were not on her radar.

Carol Marin: There were people in City Council we knew were the ones we really wanted to watch, and those two weren’t.

And Larry Bloom, the white, South Side alderman who we met in the last episode. Well, this news did not square with his reputation.

Carol Marin: He was the pillar of rectitude. Sanctimonious, often. But he was the reformer.

Robin Amer: So, she knew this would a big story.

Carol Marin’s call set off a panic inside the US Attorney’s office.

Scott Lassar: She said that at that five o'clock news that night she was going to go with the story.

Robin Amer: Because the takedown was scheduled for the following week, airing the story that same day would have royally messed up their plans.

So, Scott Lassar asks if he and the head of the criminal division can come over to NBC and meet with Carol Marin and her produce like, now.

Carol Marin: Never before and not since has that kind of request ever come from a US Attorney's office to me as a reporter.

Robin Amer: So, what did you think when they made that request?
Carol Marin: It was further confirmation that we knew what we were talking about. They were over at NBC in record time. And they said, “Could you hold it until we raid Larry Bloom’s office and the other aldermen's offices?”

Scott Lassar: So we could have a chance to send the teams out to interview people.

Carol Marin: And we thought about that, because they were concerned about the destruction of materials.

Robin Amer: Carol Marin knew that one of her competitors at ABC had also been sniffing around this story. She was worried he would beat her to it.

But she took seriously the fear that aldermen might destroy evidence. She wanted to report on the investigation, but she did not want to get in its way.

Carol Marin: And so, we sort of carefully agreed.

Robin Amer: And the feds scrambled to do the takedown that same day.

* * *

Robin Amer: At this point, Scott Lassar passes the baton to FBI Special Agent Jim Davis. He’d been John Christopher’s day-to-day handler, and now he was effectively running the takedown.

Lassar’s office calls Jim Davis and tells him, "It’s go time. Forget next week. The takedown is on, now, today, pronto.”

So, Jim Davis springs into action.

Jim Davis: We set up, you know, kind of a command post.

Robin Amer: The command post is in a conference room in the federal building downtown. The room is full of telephones. The walls are lined with butcher block paper the agents will use to track their targets. Jim Davis is stationed there, at the center of things, because he knows the case better than anyone. Four or five other agents are there too, to help him man the phones and manage the teams in the field.

Jim Davis: And from that command post we were we issued an “execute” order. We told them all to go at the same time and then we just waited for results.

Robin Amer: More than 100 federal agents fan out across the city. One team goes to the Southwest Side, to Alderman Ray Frias. Another goes to the West Side, to Alderman Percy Giles, and so on.

Jim Davis: We had teams that were out doing search warrants. But the most focus was on the actual interview teams of guys that were going out and interviewing subjects.

Robin Amer: Each of these interview teams takes along a photograph of John Christopher. We got a copy of it from the US Attorney’s office.

The photo shows John Christopher standing inside a Dunkin’ Donuts. He’s holding a cup of coffee, and there’s a folder of papers tucked under his arm. The photo was taken from outside the coffee shop, because it’s supposed to look like a surveillance photo.

Jim Davis: I think that there was a Dunkin’ Donuts at Plymouth and Jackson or somewhere right there by the by the office, and I think—
Robin Amer: I knew it! I was like, I think that's the Dunkin’ Donuts right across from the Federal Building.
Jim Davis: Right. I think that’s right.

Robin Amer: But the photo was staged.

The FBI’s interview teams show this photo to their targets, and ask them, “Do you know this man?”

Of course, the FBI knew the answer was yes; they’d been investigating these guys for years and all of their targets definitely knew John Christopher. But even if their targets lied and said, “No, I don’t know this guy,” even that was helpful.

Jim Davis: By them lying about their relationship with John Christopher, for example, it would show that they know that there's some reason for them to lie about that relationship. It shows that that they have some understanding that it is a corrupt relationship.

Robin Amer: Each team also had a video player loaded with audio or video footage of John Christopher and the target.

So, if an alderman denied knowing John Christopher, the FBI agents would pull out the video player, play the footage, and ask, “If you don’t know John Christopher, then why are you on this video taking money from him?”

In the command center, Jim Davis started to hear back from the field teams. And it quickly became clear, that, from a law enforcement perspective, this takedown was going better than anyone had predicted.

Jim Davis: We had multiple confessions that came that were being reported back to us in the command post, which was really surprising. We didn't expect it.

Robin Amer: One of their targets was Tom Fuller, an official at the city’s water treatment agency. John Christopher had been bribing him for years, even before the investigation started.

The FBI agent responsible for questioning Fuller was Tony D'Angelo, who we heard from in Episode 5. Remember, he told us about his meetings with John Christopher at the Pizza Hut in Cicero.

Jim Davis says that he was surprised when Tony D'Angelo called in right away.

Jim Davis: He was clearly sitting with Tom Fuller when he made the conversation, and he says, “Hey Jim, I'm sitting here with Tom. You know, he'd like to come in and talk to you and work this thing out.” And he was, you know, a little cryptic in what he was saying. So, I said, “Tony, did he confess?” And he says, “Oh, yeah. Yeah.”

And I said, “Well, you know, bring them in.” So, Tom Fuller came in with Tony D'Angelo. And we took him into one of the interview rooms there in the FBI office and interviewed him about his contact with John Christopher and he confessed again.

And I think that these guys were so stunned to learn that John was working with us that they just figured they had nowhere to go.

Robin Amer: Percy Giles was at his West Side office when the FBI showed up. He’s the alderman we met in the last episode, having lunch at Edna’s and taking money from John Christopher.

Percy Giles: And they asked me, did I know John Christopher? And I think at first, I might have told him no, because it didn't dawn on me. Then later I said, “Yeah, I do know him.”

Robin Amer: He says it took him awhile to realize what was happening.

Percy Giles: I knew it wasn't good. And I remember asking them, “Do I need a lawyer?” And they told me, “You might.” When I went home that night, and I remember I was nervous—so nervous when I was telling my wife about it, I remember my knees just fell from under me. I almost fell to the floor.

Robin Amer: With the takedown underway, federal prosecutor Scott Lassar went over to City Hall. He was there to pay Mayor Richard M. Daley a courtesy call. He wanted to let the mayor know that, at this very moment, seven aldermen and a mess of other city officials were being questioned by the FBI. Lassar didn’t want the mayor to find out on the 10 o’clock news.

And according to Lassar, Mayor Daley was not interested.

Scott Lassar: He asked no questions, and then he started discussing the legislature had recently given him power over the Chicago Public Schools, and he told us about what his plans were for the Chicago Public Schools.

Robin Amer: Lassar could not understand how the city’s chief executive could be so uninterested in a massive corruption scandal that had happened on his watch.

If Mayor Daley was afraid of the potential fallout, he didn’t show it.

Scott Lassar: He certainly didn't fear federal law enforcement or have personal concerns about federal law enforcement. But I would have thought he would have asked some questions and he had no interest whatsoever.

Robin Amer: We reached out to former Mayor Daley for comment, but he never responded.

Meanwhile, about 15 miles south of City Hall, TV reporter Carol Marin was waiting for the go signal from the feds.

Carol Marin: I was on the phone with Scott Lassar, I think, every hour or every other hour, just to make sure that there wasn't a call coming to them from another competitor, because we were really were ready to go.

Robin Amer: Because Carol Marin knew that the takedown was happening that day, and because she’d agreed to hold her story, she could now get everything on tape.

Carol Marin: I and a camera crew stood outside Larry Bloom's office and waited for the FBI in sort of, “V” formation, to go in and do their raid.

Robin Amer: Larry Bloom had started his day at his South Shore law office when two FBI agents showed up and asked to talk to him.

They asked him if he knew John Christopher. He said yes. So, they asked him some more questions.

Larry Bloom: Eventually my tentacles rose up, and I said, wait a minute. There's something strange going on here. They seem to be wanting to accuse me of something. And so, I immediately went down the hall and talked to a lawyer in our suite who did criminal defense work. He came in, identified himself, and said that I was no longer answering any questions.

Robin Amer: Carol Marin’s crew caught on camera what happened next.

Carol Marin: Larry Bloom was running from his office, looking as though he was about to be sick, and saw me and wasn't pleased and ran into the bathroom.

Larry Bloom: I hate to admit this. I really had to go to the bathroom (laughs) because you know what happens when you're tense. And so, I was running out the front door and there's Carol Marin with her camera crew.

And I remember exactly what I said to her. I said, “Just be professional,” or something like, “I expect you to handle this professionally.”

Robin Amer: He suspected the feds had tipped her off to try to sway public opinion against him. And that made him furious.

Larry Bloom: Someone had told her that the FBI is going to be going to Bloom's office, and you might want to be there, which I think is an abuse of the federal prosecutor's power to try to sway the jury or the general public on a particular case where they're involved.


Uh, anyway, I made it to the bathroom. (laughs)

Robin Amer: Finally, with this footage in hand, Carol Marin has a huge scoop for that night’s news.

And the story explodes. Over the next few days, reporters swarm the lobby of City Hall, trying to figure out who else the FBI has been investigating and get them on tape.

Most won’t answer questions and deny having done anything wrong. Like Percy Giles, the alderman who had fallen to his knees when he realized he was under investigation.

Percy Giles: I haven't been charged with anything and I have done nothing wrong. And um and I will respond to any question at the proper time.

Robin Amer: And Ray Frias. He’s the one who said that being a politician was all about “making money.”

Reporter: Have you ever met with John Christopher?
Ray Frias: Again, John, I'm not going to answer any questions that pertaining to the investigation.

Robin Amer: Virgil Jones, who had accepted $4,000 wrapped in a newspaper, admits that yeah, he knows John Christopher.

Virgil Jones: He donated some ah, watermelons one time to one of my ah, picnics. But not with my knowledge. He drove up with a truck full of watermelons and uh, I was across the street and he started giving them out. They asked me if he'd given me any money. I told him they had to talk to my lawyer.
Reporter: Did he give you any money?
Virgil Jones: I make no comment about that at this time.

Robin Amer: But one alderman calls a press conference. Ambrosio Medrano had taken $31,000 in bribes from John Christopher and had introduced him to other aldermen. Medrano confesses and publicly apologizes and continues to apologize again and again.

Ambrosio Medrano: You know, I don't think that whenever anybody does anything wrong, they really know why. Um, I don't know, to be honest with you.
Reporter: This guy was a smooth operator, wasn't he?
Ambrosio Medrano: Yes, he was. I can tell you that from the initial meeting that I had with him, and the first time that I actually met with him and accepted the money, had been several months. I mean, he had called me and badgered me, and called me and asks me, asked me to meet with him, and I refused. Why I finally gave in, I don't know. And that was the mistake I made. I accept total responsibility for what I did.

Robin Amer: Jim Davis recalls leaving the office at midnight the night of the takedown, pleased with how smoothly everything had gone despite how rushed they had been.

Jim Davis: So, if you start out the day with us having to spring this early because it had been compromised somehow by a reporter. And then, you know, it ends up with us getting a bunch of confessions that we really didn't expect. It was just a, it was a good day. Was a really good day.

Robin Amer: Over the next three years, federal prosecutors indicted a dozen city officials.

Only Ray Frias was fully acquitted. Larry Bloom pled to a much less serious charge of tax evasion and was sentenced to just six months in prison. One of the water commissioners was also convicted on lesser charges.

Ambrosio Medrano—the one who apologized—would go to prison, get out, run for elected office again, and then go back to prison a second time on new corruption charges. The other officials either pled guilty to corruption charges or were convicted of the same.

Here’s prosecutor Scott Lassar in March of 2000.

Scott Lassar: Looking back on everything, I still think this is one of the the most successful political corruption investigations ever conducted in Chicago.

Robin Amer: And yet, the feds also took a lot of heat for this case.

Even with their explanation about the mechanics of the investigation, where one alderman had introduced them to another and another, the optics of having pursued almost only black and Latino politicians were very bad for them.

The feds were also criticized for using a guy like John Christopher as their informant—a guy who had defrauded the city and the federal government, who had been bribing elected officials his whole adult life, who was tied to the mob, and who prosecutors say wanted to murder a federal witness.

It did not endear the feds to the public—or to Milton Shadur, the federal judge who presided over Larry Bloom’s case.

During the sentencing hearing, Judge Shadur excoriated the feds, saying, “It is quite distressing to find in this case the United States having enlisted to its aid the villainous John Christopher. … Having somebody of this stripe as a weapon of law enforcement denigrates the system in a material way. … It is true of law enforcement agencies, as it is of anyone else, that if you lie down with dogs you are likely to get up with fleas.”

But there was one other gigantic problem with Operation Silver Shovel.

As the feds executed their takedown—as they busted elected officials and confronted them with their misdeeds, as they prepped for trial and talked to the press—they did nothing about the six stories of construction debris in North Lawndale.

By the day of the takedown, John Christopher’s illegal dumps had loomed over the neighborhood for nearly six years.

But the FBI and the US Attorney’s office had no intention of removing what the agency commonly referred to as “Mount Henry.”

Jim Davis: I don't think that we had any obligation to clean up “Mount Henry” or the other one that he had, because, first of all, that's not what we do, and we didn't create it. I mean, there are agencies that are responsible for cleaning up stuff like that.

Robin Amer: But giving John Christopher cover had made the problem worse for all the people who had been fighting him.

That’s after the break.


Robin Amer: The six years prior to the takedown were frustrating ones for Henry Henderson, head of Chicago’s Department of Environment. His many attempts to stop John Christopher from dumping in North Lawndale had failed, one after another. And his good friend, federal prosecutor Scott Lassar, had rejected his calls for help.

Henderson had asked Lassar and the US Department of Justice to look into what he believed was a criminal conspiracy to dump in Chicago neighborhoods. Lassar had dismissed this as a municipal waste problem.

On the day of the takedown, Henry Henderson was at work in his downtown office. He didn’t yet know about the federal probe.

As he walks down the hallway, he looks into a conference room and sees one of his field inspectors talking to an FBI agent.

And Henderson, seeing this federal law enforcement agent, flashes back to his conversation with Scott Lassar. He thinks, Finally! The Department of Justice must have sent the FBI to help.

Henry Henderson: And I said, “FBI agent, thank God you're here. We really need federal help on this thing.”

And he goes, “Do you know this person?” Shows me pictures.

“Yeah, that's John Christopher.”

“Have you talked to Mr. Christopher?”

“Yes, I've talked to Mr. Christopher.” And I said, “I'm so glad you're after him.”

So, I thought they were talking to the inspector in order to get a better fix on how to stop this problem.

Robin Amer: But the FBI agent in the conference room was not there to help Henderson's inspector. He was there to interrogate the inspector.

Henry Henderson: I had no idea what he was doing was showing tapes related to him taking money. They had a case of official corruption against somebody who was working in the department.

Robin Amer: This inspector was one of the targets of Operation Silver Shovel. Instead of issuing citations for illegal dumping—instead of fighting John Christopher—Henry Henderson’s inspector was taking bribes from John Christopher.

He was one of two environmental inspectors who would eventually be convicted on corruption charges.

Henry Henderson: Well, I was shocked. I was shocked.

Robin Amer: And as all this starts to sink in, Henry Henderson recalls all the conversations he’d had with his inspectors ever since the city’s civil lawsuit against John Christopher was resolved in their favor.

A judge had ordered John Christopher to clean up the Mountain in North Lawndale, but according to Henderson’s inspectors, he had instead “disappeared.”

Henry Henderson: And they said, “We haven't seen him.” But they, it turns out, they had seen him. And that was in the course of when they apparently took some money.
Robin Amer: So, was their failure to cite these dumps properly because they were being bribed one factor that allowed these dumps to get as bad as they did?
Henry Henderson: Obviously. I mean if you've got people out there who are in the business of enforcing the law and they are not enforcing the law, this is a big problem.

Robin Amer: Later that day, Henderson learns about the raid at Larry Bloom’s office. And he learns that John Christopher is an FBI mole.

Now he’s reeling. A conversation he’d had with Bloom the previous year suddenly makes sense.

Henry Henderson: I had an interesting and surprising visit from former Alderman Larry Bloom, who came to see me about getting permits for recycling concrete debris and doing a “rock-crushing activity.”

Robin Amer: Remember, Bloom was the alderman who had helped John Christopher find a lot for his phantom rock crusher. And Henderson had tried to warn Bloom: You do not want something like this in your ward.

Henry Henderson: And I said, you know, “Look at what has happened on West Side, particularly 24th Ward, with John Christopher's site. And what you're describing is remarkably similar to the way John Christopher describes things. And I think it's something you need to be very careful about and aware of.”
Robin Amer: And what did Larry Bloom say when you gave him this advice?
Henry Henderson: He said, “I would never deal with anybody like John Christopher.”

Robin Amer: Larry Bloom told us that he does not recall denying that he knew John Christopher.

But with the news of the takedown, Henry Henderson finally understood why he could not get the feds to help him. They were protecting their investigation and keeping their star informant in play.

* * *

Robin Amer: The next morning, news of Operation Silver Shovel was splashed across the papers and started to reach residents in North Lawndale.

Jenny Casas: Alright, so, where are we? We're on Kostner and 16th?
Cecil Reddit: We're on Kostner and 16th. This is where the newsstand was.

Robin Amer: Our producer Jenny Casas spoke with lifetime North Lawndale resident Cecil Reddit. His family owned and operated a newsstand just four blocks from the dumps. The newsstand is gone now, but that day was one of the busiest he can remember.

Cecil Reddit: I mean, we did a lot of sales on that. I mean, we get the papers dropped off at 4 o’clock in the morning. When that happened, about six, seven o'clock, we were out of papers. I'm talking about a thousand newspapers.
Jenny Casas: Six or seven o'clock in the morning?
Cecil Reddit: A thousand newspapers gone.

Robin Amer: Silver Shovel was the talk of the newsstand, as politician after politician got swept up in the probe.

Cecil Reddit: A lot of people was like, there's a lot of people going to jail, and they will talk about, “Hey, man,” you know, “Did you see who?” You know, because they knew some of the individuals that was involved. So they was like, “Man, this is, you know, this is such and such, did you see him? He was involved, man.” “He was involved?” You know, “I didn’t know he was involved in that.”

Robin Amer: The dumps less than a mile away had been the talk of the newsstand before—they had been there for years. But this time was different. For the first time, they were also front-page news.

Cecil Reddit: So, we really got deep in the conversation then. We became philosophers then. You know, how someone can just dump in our neighborhood and get away with it? You know, and honestly, we said to ourselves, there's no way that this would happen in the Caucasian neighborhood.

Robin Amer: Running the newsstand over the years, Cecil Reddit’s father had seen his share of Chicago’s corruption scandals.

Jenny Casas: So, what did your parents think about operation Silver Shovel when they heard about it?
Cecil Reddit: My dad just shook his head and said, “Man, you never know who.” And he said, “Money will change you in a way. Be careful, son. Don't never let that money change you.”

Robin Amer: North Lawndale residents who’d been fighting John Christopher for the past six years found it shocking and surreal to suddenly learn that he was working for the FBI.

Gladys Woodson: “What's Silver Shovel?” That was my first thing. “What is Silver Shovel?” And they said, “Oh you—the dump site.”

Robin Amer: This is Gladys Woodson, the block club president who had confronted John Christopher at the vacant lot. She realized that in this investigation, she and her neighbors were collateral. They had been used. They were never able to get traction fighting John Christopher, and now they could see why.

Gladys Woodson: He had to have backing, you know, 'cause the people that we was contacting and seemed to, you know, was pushing it under the rug or not answering.

Robin Amer: For everyone in North Lawndale whose children had been hurt, whose property had been damaged, whose neighborhood had been disrespected, this was a huge breach of trust.

As Ms. Woodson once put it:

Gladys Woodson: We wrote to everyone from who’s who to who’s that.

Robin Amer: And no level of government, not the city, not the state, not the feds, had ever fixed the problem.

Now the FBI was crowing over the results of its investigation. Chicago and the nation were captivated by the news of this mob-connected guy turned FBI mole. But in North Lawndale, the announcement just felt like a punch in the gut.

Last spring, we caught up with Rita and Michelle Ashford, the mother-daughter duo who had protested the dumps, marching in the streets with signs that read “Down with John” and “Dump the dumps.”

All these years later, they still remember where they were when they heard the news about Operation Silver Shovel. Here’s Michelle.

Michelle Ashford: We were at home and it broke on the news, and then we started calling everybody. “This is about the dump right here” and all this.

Robin Amer: Her mom, Rita Ashford, was also stunned. John Christopher had turned her block into a mountain of hazardous debris. Her grandchildren and her neighbor’s kids had suffered from severe asthma, made worse by the dust from the dumps.

And now it turned out that John Christopher had actually been working with the FBI?!

Rita Ashford: I never—when they said about him being a mole, I was shocked. Because that's something that we never even anticipated. We just figured that John Christopher had that cem—that concrete, pile there. He was making money off of it and that's the purpose of it. And that's what we thought. We knew it wasn't healthy. But at that point, that's that's all we ever thought.

Robin Amer: Like Ms. Woodson, they came to believe that this was why no one in government had ever effectively dealt with the dumps.

Michelle Ashford: Oh, that's why we couldn't get any help.
Rita Ashford: Right.
Michelle Ashford: That's why we couldn't get any help with it. Because everything was like, oh so they knew all this was going on all along before we even begin to fight for it. And and the reason why we couldn't get any justice for anything because it was all the government. And they knew it from the very beginning.

Robin Amer: The news seemed to confirm what they’d been saying for years about the government’s neglect of their neighborhood.

Rita Ashford: I’ma tell you something: I was angry as hell. Because once again, we the underdog. And the sad thing about it was, it was a serious thing where it affected people's health. John didn't have to be allowed to still do have that dump, because you had ammunition to use against him.

Robin Amer: There was also the question of what would happen to John Christopher now. Would he ever be held accountable for what he’d done in North Lawndale?

That’s after the break.


Robin Amer: Even though John Christopher had agreed to wear a wire and had become the centerpiece of a major undercover investigation, his participation in Operation Silver Shovel was not a get-out-of-jail-free card. He did not have a deal for full immunity.

So, FBI agent Jim Davis warned John Christopher not to do anything illegal that wasn’t part of the investigation.

Jim Davis: And I would just try and reassure him and say, “Look if you're straight with us, you know, if you continue to do what we're asking you to do, if, you know, if you stay out of trouble, you're going to be OK.”

Robin Amer: But John Christopher did not hold up his end of the bargain. Even while cooperating, he committed crimes and went behind the bureau’s back in other ways.

As Silver Shovel was underway, the FBI’s organized crime squad was also looking into an illegal gambling operation in Chicago’s western suburbs, run by an alleged mob boss named Tony Centracchio.

Jim Davis: You know, John referred to him as his “Uncle Tony,” and that was a problem for me, because we had a wire on Uncle Tony.

Robin Amer: The wire was a video camera hidden in the ceiling of Tony Centracchio’s office.

Jim Davis: And every time John went into see him, we were recording.


Robin Amer: It’s not totally clear what John Christopher was doing there. He was never charged in the illegal gambling case. But him showing up on another investigation’s wire made things complicated for Jim Davis and his fellow agents.

Jim Davis: I would have liked to have said, “John, stay away from Uncle Tony's office,” but I can't tell John that we have a wire on Uncle Tony's office.

Robin Amer: In addition to that, John Christopher also neglected to file his federal income tax returns in 1992 and 1993. I know. It seems so mundane.

But he also committed bankruptcy fraud through one of the sham construction companies he’d set up during Silver Shovel. And ultimately, bankruptcy fraud and tax evasion were what sent him back to prison.

Not illegal dumping or any of the other things he’d done before he started cooperating, like bribing Bill Henry. We got a copy of his plea deal, and the federal government chose not to charge him for any of that.

Ultimately, John Christopher is sentenced to 39 months in federal prison. At sentencing, he told the judge, “I’m sorry for the things I did in my past life.”

But he would never be forced to clean up the dumps or provide restitution to anyone in North Lawndale.

And then, after he got out of prison, he really would disappear—maybe for good this time.

* * *

Robin Amer: I’ve been looking for John Christopher for almost three years, trying to figure out what happened to him after he got out of prison.

In his plea deal, the feds explained that because he had cooperated with the FBI and worn a wire against the mob, he could not safely return to his old life—or even be in Chicago without FBI protection.

So, I looked for John Christopher everywhere I could think of: every public database, every government agency that might have a lead. I found nothing.

Then, in March, our reporter Wilson Sayre got a phone call.

Wilson Sayre: So, I was reading Illinois EPA remediation reports, and I get a call from a random number, which is not unusual. And I pick it up, and on the other line is somebody asking me why we're reporting on Silver Shovel again.

Robin Amer: The man on the phone was a lawyer calling on behalf of his client: Angelo Christopher. John Christopher’s older brother.

Wilson Sayre: I have contacted nobody within the John Christopher family, and so it takes me a while to figure out that someone has called Angelo, and said, “There are these reporters. They're doing something about Silver Shovel. You need to maybe call this person,” but gave Angelo my number and Angelo calls his lawyer. He essentially was like, “I sort of respect your desire to look into this story but know that there are consequences for the people who are involved. Like, this is garbage, and why are you digging up old garbage?” And John Christopher’s brother Angelo does not want to talk.
Robin Amer: And it sounded like he was pretty emphatic on that point. Can you—
Wilson Sayre: Yes, very emphatic. “Absolutely not,” is what he said.

Robin Amer: Eventually, I learn that when John Christopher got out of prison, the FBI set him up with a new name, a new social security number and a new life. And that there’s an FBI agent in St. Louis who might have that information.

I ask if he’ll talk to me, or if not, if he’ll pass a message to John Christopher. This was the response I got from the FBI’s public information officer:

Rebecca Wu: Hi Robin, it’s Rebecca Wu at the FBI in St. Louis. I spoke with the agent, and he says he appreciates your sympathy for the source, but not surprisingly he declines to participate. Again, he says that it’s his responsibility to protect his source, and he says that he hopes that you understand that. So, thank you very much and let me know if you have any other questions. (Sound of phone hanging up)

Robin Amer: Even after all this time, it seems the FBI is still protecting John Christopher.

Over the last seven episodes, we’ve told you a story about Chicago—a city infamous for corruption and racial divides. But this problem is not unique to this city.

Our story in Chicago is not over yet. But to understand what happened here, after John Christopher disappeared again, we have to take a side trip to Houston, a city where black neighborhoods have been fighting their own battles against their own mountains for a very long time.

Robert Bullard: And I would tell my students, I’d say, “If you see a mountain in Houston—Houston is flat, lots of it is below sea level—if you see a mountain in Houston, be suspicious. Landfill!


Robin Amer: 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 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. Additional editing this week by Amy Pyle and Matt Doig. Legal review by Tom Curley.

Additional production by Taylor Maycan, Fil Corbitt, 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. And the USA TODAY NETWORK’s president and publisher is Maribel Wadsworth.

Thank you to our sponsors for supporting the show. And special thanks this week to Kevin Blair, Don Mosley, Misha Euceph, and Danielle Svetcov.

Archival audio courtesy of NPR and WBBM Newsradio 780 and 105 point 9 FM.

Additional support comes from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Social Justice News Nexus at Northwestern University.

If you like this show, you may also like WBEZ’s new podcast 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 us on Facebook and Twitter @thecitypod. Or visit our website, where you can see the staged surveillance photo of John Christopher at the Dunkin’ Donuts and more.


S1: Episode 6

Operation Silver Shovel

A criminal flips and wears a wire. Aldermen accept small sums of large bills. The FBI’s investigation may be tainted. “Mount Henry” grows, but shrinks from memory.

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Episode | Transcript

Operation Silver Shovel

Corrections and clarifications: A Facebook post, tweet and previous version of Episode 6 of The City podcast misidentified the number of silver pieces Judas received for betraying Jesus. He received 30 pieces.

Robin Amer: On the evening of October 21, 1994, an Illinois State Representative named Ray Frias paid a visit to John Christopher’s South Side office. The low-slung, unassuming brick building on West 74th Street was on a block that dead-ended by some train tracks, making it an ideal location for a clandestine meeting.

The meeting was captured on video, and in it, you can see Ray Frias and John Christopher seated at a wooden table in the middle of a plain-looking office with dingy carpet and beige walls. The table is strewn with papers. There’s a mini fridge and a rotating fan.

Ray Frias wears a dark suit and patterned tie, and sits with his hands folded in his lap. John Christopher wears a blue polo shirt, and lights a cigarette.

John Christopher speaks first.

John Christopher: OK, what would you feel like, what would you, what would you need, Ray? Could I, you want me, what would you need?
Ray Frias: What, I don't know. To be honest with you, I mean...
John Christopher: This is on a, you want a lump sum or a weekly for next year?
Ray Frias: Uh, weekly'd be preferred.

Robin Amer: John Christopher has called this meeting because he wants Ray Frias’s help getting one of his construction companies certified by the state. And in exchange, Christopher is willing to pay Frias a “consulting fee.”

John Christopher: OK. What's fair with you? Spit it out. Don't—
Ray Frias: You tell me. I mean what's it worth to you? I don't know. I mean I can't come in here…
John Christopher: What could, what do you, here, what do you believe you could do for me? Do you believe you could help me?

Robin Amer: What you’re hearing is tape of John Christopher attempting to bribe a Chicago politician. Eventually they agree that $500 a week is a fair price for this exchange.

John Christopher: Would you feel 500 a week is OK to start? Till it proves out?
Ray Frias: Sure.
John Christopher: OK, and to give me a promise to act as an official capacity. That's as simple as that. Is that agreed?
Ray Frias: That's agreed.

Robin Amer: In previous episodes, we’ve had actors dramatize John Christopher’s time in court, because all we had were transcripts.

But this is actually John Christopher. This tape is real.

This recording is one of more than 1,000 audio and video tapes John Christopher made in secret while he was working undercover for the FBI. And it’s one of nine tapes we got by suing the FBI earlier this year.

It took us almost three years to get these tapes. And even though we only got nine, they provide a front row seat to how John Christopher operated as the FBI’s prize informant.

Back in John Christopher’s office, he and Ray Frias had settled on $500 a week for this “consulting fee.” But then Frias gets nervous.

Ray Frias: I'm a little, uh, tentative right now also. I mean this is…
John Christopher: What are you tentative about?
Ray Frias: I... I've never made any kind of arrangement like this before.
John Christopher: OK.
Ray Frias: As a legislator. So, uh…
John Christopher: Well, why do you think you're a legislator for?
Ray Frias: Mmm, making money.
John Christopher: Thank you.
Ray Frias: That's what, that's what life's about…. Exactly.
John Christopher: OK, well, I mean, what'd you think, yeah, life's...That's right. Makin' money.
Ray Frias: That's what life is about, makin' money. If you can't make money, then...
John Christopher: You think the politicians, what do you think, they get elected and they don't take money? … You just gotta find the right group.
Ray Frias: Right.

Robin Amer: As Frias starts to come around, John Christopher pushes harder to seal the deal.

John Christopher: I'm here to pay money. OK, and the only reason why you're sitting here is because you are a state legislator. OK? 'Cause I can't make money the other way.  … Is that fair enough? So if you feel—
Ray Frias: Sounds good to me.
John Christopher: —uncomfortable with everything I said, OK, then there's somethin' wrong with you. Because there's no politicians in this world that I know that don't do, “Give me this and I'll give you that.”

Robin Amer: “You give me this, and I’ll give you that.” It’s the transactional nature of Chicago politics—I give you a dollar, you vote for my candidate. You vote for my candidate, I give you a job. As we previously learned from the story of North Lawndale alderman Bill Henry, it’s the “Chicago Way.”

But in this case, it's not business as usual. It's what the FBI would call a “quid pro quo”—that's “this for that” in Latin, and it’s illegal. You help my company get certified, and I’ll give you $500 a week. Quid pro quo.

After the FBI had busted John Christopher for bank fraud—for falsifying his loan applications and walking away with millions of dollars he’d use to build up his businesses—the FBI flipped him, convinced him to wear a wire, and put him in the center of a new investigation.

So wearing a wire and acting on the FBI’s behalf, John Christopher went looking for dirty politicians. He found many who were willing to conspire, and some who were less so. Almost all of his targets were black or Latino, and came from segregated neighborhoods that industry had left.

The FBI called this new undercover investigation Operation Silver Shovel. “Silver” like the 30 pieces of silver Judas got for betraying Jesus. And “Shovel” like the bulldozers at John Christopher’s dumps.

The investigation was intended to tackle public corruption and would become one of the biggest corruption probes in Chicago history.

But as it unfolded, Operation Silver Shovel seemed to replicate the harm John Christopher had already caused in North Lawndale. And became a grab bag for anything the FBI thought John Christopher could help them do.

I’m Robin Amer. From USA TODAY, this is The City.


Robin Amer: In July 1992, FBI Special Agent Jim Davis was put in charge of Operation Silver Shovel, and assigned to be John Christopher’s handler.

Jim Davis: I had a sense that this was going to be a big case. We told headquarters about the people that he had been paying recently, who we thought he could pay in the near future. We worked on scenarios under which we could pay public officials.

Robin Amer: After John Christopher crossed over and started working with the FBI, he told the bureau about his bribes to former North Lawndale alderman Bill Henry. You’ll remember he was the wheeler-dealer who had reportedly given John Christopher permission to set up his rock crushing operation in exchange for $5,000 a month.

But the FBI couldn’t start with Bill Henry. Jim Davis is a kind of flippant about why.

Jim Davis: Yeah, I think he was dead before our case started. Otherwise, we'd have paid him. (laughs)

Robin Amer: Instead they started with other officials John Christopher claimed to be bribing:

There was an alderman named Virgil Jones, a former cop from the mostly black 15th Ward. Virgil Jones had also given John Christopher permission to dump in his ward in exchange for a bribe—$10 a load.

Then there were high-level officials from Chicago’s water treatment agency.

Jim Davis: John was in the middle of a relationship to pay those guys for some sub-contracting work on a construction project that was going on at that time.

Robin Amer: But Jim Davis and his fellow FBI agents suspected that with an informant like John Christopher, they could find even more city officials to bribe—ones John Christopher had yet to meet.

The FBI needed to catch them misusing the power of their office to help John Christopher in exchange for money. They needed to establish a quid pro quo. And they had to get it on tape.

John Christopher had a ton of credibility with other criminals, but Jim Davis knew that he would have zero credibility with a jury. John Christopher had an extensive criminal history—bank fraud, trying to murder a federal witness. The FBI didn't want to risk putting him on the stand, where the defense could play up his laundry list of past crimes.

So every time John Christopher went out, Jim Davis wired him up to record his conversations.

Jim Davis: The technology for recording conversations was changing very quickly at that time, so we started out with a thing called a Nagra, N-A-G-R-A, which was a pretty-good size. Like, scary big.

Robin Amer: Like a reel-to-reel tape machine?
Jim Davis: It was a reel-to-reel tape machine.
Robin Amer: Wow.
Jim Davis: And so hiding that was difficult.

Robin Amer: Though Jim Davis wouldn’t tell me exactly where he hid the device.

Jim Davis: Yeah, I don't want to go into that.
Robin Amer: (laughs) OK.
Jim Davis: And understand why, right? I'm not trying to be evasive or secretive or anything. And I just don’t want people really dialed in our techniques.
Robin Amer: You want to protect future investigations? By protecting that information?
Jim Davis: Right.

Robin Amer: As they started to select their new targets, they came up with a plan that was supposed to meet specific legal requirements.

Jim Davis: We couldn't just kind of throw out a net and gather up these guys. We had to make sure that we had some predication that they were involved in criminal activity.

Robin Amer: “Predication” means that there had to be some evidence that the person they were going after was already doing something illegal, and thus might be willing to do more illegal stuff. Often times they’d establish that through a politician’s own network.

Jim Davis: You know, one alderman would introduce us to another to another to another...

Robin Amer: John Christopher may have disappeared from North Lawndale, but you could find him dining with elected officials all over town.

You could find John Christopher at the iHop at 94th and Western. He’d be sitting across from Alderman Virgil Jones, who had given him permission to dump construction debris on the South Side. The FBI listened in as John Christopher gave Jones $4,000 wrapped in a newspaper.

You could find John Christopher at Theodore’s on 95th Street. There, he asked another South Side alderman to send a city street sweeper to clean up the mess he’d made at a job site. He offered that alderman more than $5,000 in cash.

And, you could find John Christopher at Jaxx, a fancy English restaurant overlooking the Magnificent Mile shopping corridor. There, he gave a water commissioner a cigarette pack filled with 40 rolled $100 bills.

To aid this growing investigation, the FBI brought in an undercover agent to act as John Christopher’s “business partner.” Mark Sofia was a veteran FBI agent from Chicago, who was also Italian. Although he was more clean cut and well-spoken than John Christopher, the bureau thought that he could play a convincing mobbed-up construction guy. He was often in the field with John Christopher when he bribed public officials.

During the investigation Mark Sofia went by an alias: “Mark Dahlonega.”

Jim Davis: We wanted him to be Italian. I mean, Mark Sofia is Italian, but I have him pick a name that basically ends in a vowel, and I didn't realize it until we had been in this for a while, and I said, "So, where did you get Dahlonega?"

Robin Amer: Dahlonega is not an Italian name.

Jim Davis: And Mark was a West Point grad and an Army Ranger, and the third phase of ranger training is based in Dahlonega, Georgia.

Robin Amer: And like his fake business partner, “Mark Dahlonega” was also all over town...

Meeting with a state rep at a diner near Midway Airport, where he handed over the $500 John Christopher had promised.

Or hunkering down in an undercover apartment in suburban Oakbrook Terrace, where he’d sometimes pay bribes in his bathrobe and count out money on the coffee table.

Mark Sofia: So, I saved about two grand based on the two weeks and so your share of that would be one grand? Is that fair?

Robin Amer: In this video recording, Mark Sofia as Mark Dahlonega is paying a South Side alderman for helping John Christopher clean up a parking lot repaving job.


Jesse Evans: Yeah.
Mark Sofia: OK. I don't want to short you. OK, sir.

Robin Amer: It’s a little hard to hear, but that’s Mark Sofia actually counting out money to give to the alderman.

The FBI cast a wide net. Between the two of them, John Christopher and Mark Sofia eventually tried to woo and then bribe at least 40 people.

There were so many targets, and each had his or her own story. But let’s drill down into one of these officials to better understand how this investigation played out in practice, and what it felt like to be caught in John Christopher’s web.

That’s after the break.


Robin Amer: Earlier this year, I visited Percy Giles, a former West Side alderman who got caught up in Operation Silver Shovel.

Giles lives in a tidy, split-level ranch house on a quiet, tree-lined street in Chicago’s south suburbs—very different from where he grew up in rural Arkansas.

He was one of 10 children and the son of a sharecropper. The family’s home didn’t have indoor plumbing until after he was 10 years old. Giles went on to study at the University of Arkansas, and then, like so many other black Chicagoans, he left the south as part of the Great Migration and made his way to the West Side.

Giles would become part of the wave of young black politicians who came up under the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington. In 1986, when he was in his mid-30s, Giles was elected to City Council.

Even today, if you ask Percy Giles what accomplishment he’s most proud of from his time in office, he’ll tell you it was getting garbage out of his ward.

Percy Giles: If you're familiar with the West Side Chicago, it always got the reputation of being not clean. And everybody looked down at the residents on the West Side. But what I determined right away is that the West Side wasn't treated fair.

Robin Amer: Percy Giles’s ward, the 37th, was and still is similar to North Lawndale: majority black, not a lot of clout with City Hall, and chronically underserved by the city—the same set of factors that had prompted North Lawndale alderman Bill Henry to buy his own street sweeper.

When Percy Giles was first elected, the city had insisted that ten West Side wards, including his, all send their household garbage to a local incinerator. So the alleyways in his ward became clogged with bulkier items, like couches or TVs, that couldn’t go in the incinerator.

Percy Giles: And they let this other stuff just, people put it out there, it just sit out there and just soak. The city claimed that they would send a bulk truck there to pick it up later. But they they didn't do that.

Robin Amer:  Eventually, Percy Giles convinced the city to let him send the ward’s trash to another site, and that got the garbage problem under control.

Percy Giles: If I have to say the one thing that I did as alderman that was the most significant thing, I would say that would be it. Because that changed the fiber of the West Side.

Robin Amer: And yet, Percy Giles was eventually taken down by an undercover investigation that started with a mountain of waste.

By January 1995, Percy Giles had already served two successful terms as alderman and was running for a third.

Percy Giles: And election time comes, we all ready to look for ways to raise funds.

Robin Amer: Giles got a call from a political consultant he’d hired. The consultant had scheduled a lunch with a possible donor named John Christopher.

Percy Giles: “I got this guy, John Christopher.” He said that, you know, “He'll help us raise some money.”

Robin Amer: A few days later, Percy Giles and John Christopher met for the first time at a West Side soul food restaurant called Edna’s. Edna’s advertised “the best biscuits on earth” and had a back room where VIPs could meet in private.

Percy Giles: Where do you see this short ribs of beef on here? Is it on here? Oh, it's not on here. Well, I have the short ribs of beef.

Robin Amer: That’s Percy Giles ordering the short ribs. He’s hard to hear in this tape because the tape recorder is across the table from him, hidden somewhere on John Christopher’s body. So in all of these recordings John Christopher is much easier to hear.

John Christopher: OK, um. You know, I seen, I see a hot dog that was burnt. What is that, a Polish sausage?
Server: No, that's a hot link.
John Christopher: Give me a hot link, burnt.
Server: OK, hot link well.
John Christopher: I'm in your guys’ neighborhood here, you know? (Laughter) I’m used to going to the Italian neighborhood.

Robin Amer: John Christopher and Percy Giles finish ordering and start making small talk. Giles asks how he's been in doing, and John Christopher lifts up his shirt.

John Christopher: You know what? I'm losing weight or gaining a little weight, but I'm doing alright, though. I been staying out of trouble. Well, you know, when I'm with my wife I gain weight when I'm away from her I lose weight.

Robin Amer: As he lifts up his shirt, he grabs his belly, and shakes it up and down. FBI agent Jim Davis would later tell me that when John Christopher did this—lift up his shirt—it was his way of signaling to Percy Giles or anyone else around that he was not wearing a wire. Though, of course, the only reason we’re hearing this, is because he was.

And as they’re making small talk … talking about the upcoming mayoral election and who’s ahead in the polls … that kind of thing … John Christopher brings up his dumps in North Lawndale.

John Christopher: So the good news is I’m out of the dumping business.
Percy Giles: Mmm hmm.
John Christopher: I don’t do that no more.
Percy Giles: Mmm hmm.

Robin Amer: Giles says to Christopher, “You’re known all over the city.” In other words, you’re infamous.

Percy Giles: You're known all over the City.
John Christopher: I'm known why?
Percy Giles: Well you're known, when I talkin' about the city I'm talkin' about, uh, from, from my meetings with, uh, Henderson.

Robin Amer: “My meetings with Henderson.”

John Christopher: Oh, my buddy.

Robin Amer: Percy Giles has heard about John Christopher and his construction debris dumps from Henry Henderson, commissioner of the city’s Department of Environment.

And now, for the first and maybe only time, here is John Christopher, on tape, defending his actions in North Lawndale.

John Christopher: OK, listen. We're no altar boys at this fuckin' table. Let’s put it on the table here.
Percy Giles: Right.
John Christopher: I made a lot of money over there.
Percy Giles: Mmm hmm.
John Christopher: And I got no bones about saying I had, made a lot of money, and you want to know somethin'?
Percy Giles: Hmm?
John Christopher: My intentions weren't to hurt nobody there. I created jobs there.

Robin Amer: Percy Giles seems sympathetic to John Christopher. Giles explains that he had been meeting with Henry Henderson because he’s now facing a similar situation to the one in North Lawndale. He had thrown his support behind a company called Niagra that had promised to bring 80 jobs to his ward. Niagra then set up a construction debris dump next to a beauty supply factory. The dirt and debris were now piled so high that run-off from the dump had flooded the factory’s parking lot.

Percy Giles was now taking heat from the factory’s owners and the city and the press, including a reporter from the Sun-Times.

Percy Giles: I just told her, I say well, “Look, I don't consider it to be no damn dump,” and I explained to her what it was, and she couldn't really say nothin'.

Robin Amer: His political challenger in the upcoming election had also started using the dumps against him, putting up flyers around the ward that said the dump was toxic.

Percy Giles: And plus, uhm, uhm, in light of my opponents and shit, they, they can't do a goddamn thing now, because ain't nothin' goin' on up there now number one. And plus they already done put shit all in the community, talkin' about a toxic, I mean he lyin', saying it's a toxic dump.

Robin Amer: So John Christopher offers Percy Giles some words of wisdom.

John Christopher: I just gonna give you a piece of advice: watch the heights of it.
Percy Giles: Mmm hmm.

Robin Amer: “Watch the heights of it.” In other words, be careful how big the dump gets, especially when you’re running for re-election.

John Christopher: I'm just giving you—I feel that if you're gonna be with somebody, give him all the information you could. To help him out later on, OK. And, uh, I was the first one basically that started all the dumps, you know?
Percy Giles: Mmm hmm.
John Christopher: The first. Right, so, listen, uh, Pere, uh, Mr. Percy Giles, let me say it this way to you. OK, you have a nice deal. You're the alderman. OK, you're runnin' for a long time. OK, I went through eight months of courtroom battles with city and federal.
Percy Giles: Mmm hmm.
John Christopher: You know I started a can of worms in the city.
Percy Giles: Mmm hmm.
John Christopher: That could haunt you for years to come. You know that's how Jesse won the election.
James Blassingame: Jesse?
John Christopher: Miller. Oh sure. And all you need is a couple people calling up and saying they got dust problems.

Robin Amer: Jesse Miller, who won Bill Henry’s seat, after the former alderman supported John Christopher and the North Lawndale dumps.

Again, this is a warning: Learn from what happened in North Lawndale.

John Christopher: Uh, take it from me. Would you take that from me?
Percy Giles: (Laughing) Sure.
John Christopher: OK?
Percy Giles: I hear ya.

Robin Amer: John Christopher’s advice may have been offered one businessman to another, but he’s here to do another kind of business. And all this small talk was probably just to establish trust. Because once they’ve built that rapport, John Christopher goes into deal-making mode.

First, he tells Percy Giles that he has a new construction company.

John Christopher: Do small work.
Percy Giles: Mm hm.
John Christopher: Couple million here. Low key, real small.

Robin Amer: John Christopher explains that on paper, his new construction company is run by a guy from North Lawndale—actually the same guy he’d hired to do “community relations” in the neighborhood back when he was fighting the city’s lawsuit. And because this guy is black—and fronting as the official head of the company—that makes them eligible for contracts set aside for minority-owned businesses.

John Christopher: I am not around anybody when he, when he goes in for the job. … And if my name is mentioned, he pulls that radical stuff and says, “What is this shit? He caused me enough problems.” And he calms it down, you know? I mean, he really fights for it.

Jim Davis: That's all very good tape. We want to dirty these guys up.

Robin Amer: That’s Jim Davis, John Christopher’s FBI handler. He was one of the first people to hear this tape after it was recorded.

Jim Davis: You've got this white, Italian guy talking to a black elected official and saying, "Hey, we're taking advantage of the MBE certification.”

Robin Amer: MBE stands for “minority business enterprise.”

Jim Davis: By saying that, “We are a minority-run business when, in fact, look at me.” And to have those conversations in front of the alderman and have the alderman not say, “Hey, you can't do that,” that paints the alderman in a certain light.

Robin Amer: After explaining that he’s basically set up a front company, John Christopher makes his pitch: He wants a contract for a shopping center being built in Percy Giles’s ward.

John Christopher: I want the excavating work at a competitive number.
Percy Giles: Mm Hm
John Christopher: OK?
Percy Giles: OK. You want to compete for the excavating work?
John Christopher: I want a piece of the excavating work
Percy Giles: Alright.

Robin Amer: In exchange for this help, John Christopher offers Percy Giles $10,000.

John Christopher: OK. For that $10,000 you're gonna, what's gonna happen here is basically an effort to be given. OK? A commitment of trying to get some work is that what we're saying here?
Percy Giles: Mmm hmm.
John Christopher: You, you know what I'm sayin'?
Percy Giles: Yeah...yeah 10 is all you need. What you get for 10 is that, you gonna have somebody like the shopping center, we'll do all we can, everything, I can't guarantee nothing hundred percent. We'll do all we can to lobby in your behalf for the excavation work, for, uh, if you apply for work in the city if you're, you're the low bidder. We'll be happy to make calls to our contact at the mayor's office to help with that. Uhm, anything, any way that we can be of assistance. You got somebody you can call that will do, do all they can to help.
John Christopher: That's all that's needed.

Robin Amer: “That’s all that’s needed.”

But John Christopher actually needed to get the payment on tape. So a few days after that first lunch, John Christopher and Percy Giles met at Edna’s again. And this time, John Christopher brings the money with him—the first of two payments of $5,000 each.

What follows is very hard to hear, because even John Christopher is speaking in a hushed voice. He says to Percy Giles, “Here’s the five thousand. It’s all there.” He asks Percy Giles if he wants to count it.

John Christopher: Here, let me, here's the $5,000, it's all there, you don't, you want to count it. It's there.
Percy Giles: No, no, uh-uh. Uh, what I got to lose.
John Christopher: Would you please hurry up and put that in your pocket?
Percy Giles: I will.

John Christopher: Jesus.

Jim Davis: By John saying, "Please hurry up and put that in your pocket," it dirties this up more. He's saying, "Let's not make a big spectacle out of this," even though he is kind of making a big spectacle out of it.

Robin Amer: Giles sounds giddy as he take the cash.

Percy Giles: That's really gonna help.
John Christopher: I'm not bullshittin'. This is serious shit. This is all.
Percy Giles: I know that's what I'm sayin'.
John Christopher: OK?
Percy Giles: That'll help, that'll make my campaign.
John Christopher: I don't want to hear nothin' about fuckin' campaigns. They're all full of shit.
Percy Giles: I’ll win the election. I’ll win the election. (laughs)

Robin Amer: To FBI agent Jim Davis, this is a slam dunk. They have a sitting alderman, on tape, taking money from their informant.

But that’s not how Percy Giles sees it. Giles admits taking the money, but swears he thought it was a campaign contribution. It’s why, when he takes the money, he says, “I’ll win the election.”

Percy Giles: In the African-American community, it's difficult for us to raise money for elections. And that was like the best fundraising that I had. And that really did help me buy materials and stuff for real.

Robin Amer: What did $10,000 mean to your campaign efforts at the time?

Percy Giles: It meant a lot. I mean it was about, it literally at that time, that was about a third of my campaign dollars. Yep.

Robin Amer:So this is a really big deal for you, because you're running for reelection. You have a meeting with this guy that you think is a local businessman, and he's effectively just given you in, like, two face-to-face meetings a third of the money that you've raised so far for your election campaign.

Percy Giles: I thought that it was a blessing for me, for my campaign.

Robin Amer: Percy Giles says he’s still bewildered as to why the FBI chose him as a target. He argues that the FBI turned an otherwise loyal public servant into a figure of corruption.

Percy Giles: They sent somebody to me to manufacture a crime that they say that pro quo, or whatever it is, quid quo. They manufactured that. Then they say, “Oh, we got him. He committed a crime.” I wasn't doing anything to anybody but taking care of my business in my ward.

I just don't think that's fair. I mean, to me you can do that with anybody. I mean, some people are smarter than me. They are more politically astute than me. They were born around families that, who has been having business. They know how people are. But I came from a background that nobody told me any of this. I came from Arkansas. I just, I'm not used to nobody. Arkansas is a hospitality state. And Arkansas people, they pretty much say what they mean, and they mean what they say. And that's where I come from. And so that was just a shock to me.

Robin Amer: Percy Giles was eventually indicted and convicted. Not just for taking $10,000 in bribes from John Christopher, but also for taking $81,000 in bribes from Niagra, the company that set up the dump in his ward. When he talks about it now, he says the money was for the ward, and Niagra told him it would bring jobs.

Percy Giles would not be the last person to critique Operation Silver Shovel. Or the last alderman to get caught up in the investigation—in ways that mirror John Christopher’s time in North Lawndale.

That’s after the break.


Robin Amer: Although the FBI was successfully going after elected officials by offering them bribes in exchange for contracts or help from the city...

Jim Davis: It was often very hard for us to find something that these guys could do for us that we could pay them for.

Robin Amer: Because, as Jim Davis points out, there were a lot of rules that limited what the FBI could do.

Jim Davis: So, we would have conversations where it was very clear that they wanted money from us, and that they would do whatever we asked them to do. We just couldn't figure out what it was that we could ask them to do that wouldn't create uncontrollable third party liability.

Robin Amer: “Third party liability” means harm to anyone who was not a target of the investigation.

For example, if they got a city contract, it meant that another, legitimate business, would not get that contract.

Jim Davis: In some of the rock crusher scenarios that we ran as part of this investigation, if we set up a rock crusher in a neighborhood, there was impact on the people around where the crusher was placed.

Robin Amer: “Some of the rock crusher scenarios.” The FBI sent John Christopher to other aldermen to ask if he could set up other rock crushers in other wards.

Almost always majority black or Latino wards.

But Jim Davis is careful to say that, because of concerns about third party liability, the bureau never actually set up any rock crushers anywhere.

Jim Davis: We never placed, actually placed, the rock crusher anywhere.

Robin Amer: Instead, Jim Davis says they would bring politicians to another rock crusher John Christopher had. This one also predated Operation Silver Shovel, and was out in Lamont, in the western suburbs. Jim Davis called it a “half-million dollar prop”—in other words, an expensive piece of equipment that was meant to be seen but not used.

Jim Davis: So the crusher operated out in Lamont, and we would take alderman out to Lamont to see the crusher, so they could go out and see the thing in operation.

Robin Amer: And then, once the alderman had seen the rock crusher…

Jim Davis: We'd identify a lot in their ward and say, "This is where we want to put it." We would get their support, pay them for their support, and then we'd never put the crusher there.

Robin Amer: In practice, this was extremely confusing for the aldermen.

Here’s what it looked like to Larry Bloom, who was then the alderman of the Fifth Ward.

Larry Bloom: He told me that he needed some overflow space because the space that, to which he was bringing the cement debris was, uh, he needed more space. And would I help him find such a space?

Robin Amer: Bloom was the only white politician caught up in the probe. He was known as an independent and a reformer. His South Side ward included the integrated Hyde Park neighborhood, home to the University of Chicago and the Obamas. The ward also included a majority-black neighborhood called Grand Crossing that had land zoned for industry.

Larry Bloom says he first met John Christopher a decade before, when John Christopher was a client of another lawyer in Bloom’s practice. They reconnected in the mid-90s when they ran into each other at the Standard Club, a fancy, downtown, members-only club where Bloom was meeting a potential campaign donor.

Larry Bloom: I think I was putting my coat down. And I see across the room this big smiley guy, his eyes get wide open, and he sees me and comes running over to me and says, "How you doing, Larry?"

Robin Amer: It was John Christopher. And later, in his usual pushy way, he asked Larry Bloom to find him a place to set up a rock crusher.

Larry Bloom: I actually did that. I actually drove around, and I found a location that was in the new portion of my ward hadn't known about earlier, which was separated by the rest of the neighborhood by going underneath a tunnel and then you went to this open area and it was basically a construction-related company that used it for storing its vehicles.

Robin Amer: John Christopher paid Larry Bloom $2,000 for his help. And after securing the site, and supposedly setting up shop there, he came back to Alderman Bloom.

Larry Bloom: And he said, “Larry, I think I'm messing up the alley when I'm bringing this debris over to the site. Can you have the ward superintendent go out there and clean it up?”

Robin Amer: And after the ward superintendent checked out the site, he told Bloom, there’s nothing there. No dirt, no debris, no rock crusher.

And yet, John Christopher calls again, and again asks Larry Bloom to clean up the site. And he is really pushy. So Larry Bloom goes and looks at it for himself.

Larry Bloom: There was nothing in the alley. And I think I looked into the yard and I didn't see any debris in the industrial yard itself. I didn't see any of the stuff that he said he was bringing in.

Robin Amer: This story basically confirms what Jim Davis told us—they never put a new rock crusher anywhere.

But from what we can tell from our reporting, that’s not quite true.

During his time as an FBI informant, John Christopher kept dumping at least two sites, including the ones in North Lawndale. He also set up at least one rock crusher in a place where there had not been one before.

John Christopher had been dumping in the 15th Ward before he was recruited by the FBI. He had help from the alderman we mentioned earlier—Virgil Jones, the former cop, who took $4,000 wrapped in a newspaper.

Photos of that dump show something similar to what existed in North Lawndale: An enormous pile of concrete slabs stacked what looks like two stories high.

According to court records, John Christopher kept dumping here after he became an FBI informant. And in August 1992, one month after Operation Silver Shovel officially began, he put a rock crusher at the site and operated it for at least a few months.

After we learned about this rock crusher, we went back to Jim Davis, to ask if he’d been mistaken when he said they’d never actually put any rock crushers anywhere. He reiterated that as far as he could remember, they never had.

But he did know about this one, at least at one point. During Virgil Jones’s trial, Jim Davis testified under oath that he had gone to visit the site in the fall of 1992, and saw the crusher in operation.

So it’s not completely clear, but it seems as if John Christopher initially set up this rock crusher behind the FBI’s back. In a previous interview, Jim Davis told me that John Christopher would often do this kind of thing behind his back.

Jim Davis: There were a couple of times where I went down to John's office, which was down in the … I think it was in the 76th and Western area, somewhere down there. And I'd walk around his yard, and I'd see some piles of dirt building up, and I would tell him, "Get rid of those." So, that's what he has a tendency to do. And we had to go out there, and every once in a while, tell him, "You can't do that. You need to get this dirt out of your lot."

Robin Amer: But that didn’t mean the FBI didn’t use this rock crusher to its advantage. The payments made to Virgil Jones for helping with this operation were part of the FBI’s case against him.

We reached out to Virgil Jones, but he never responded.

At this point, we should take stock of all the politicians Operation Silver Shovel targeted. There was Percy Giles, who is black. Virgil Jones, who is black. Ray Frias, Latino. Jesse Evans, black. Allan Streeter, black. In fact, every public official indicted in Operation Shovel was black or Latino, with the exception of Larry Bloom, who is white and Jewish.

Jim Davis says this disparity bothered him—even at the time.

Jim Davis: We were looking for opportunities to try and branch out racially, but the issue was that we could only go where the case took us. We could only go where our subjects were willing to introduce us. I remember at one point having conversations about, "Is there any way that we could get John to say to Allan Streeter, ‘Do you know any white politicians we can pay?’” We didn't do that just because it would have been ridiculous to do it. It would not have been a conversation that I think I would have worked in the undercover scenario, but—
Robin Amer: Why? Because then the question is, “Why would you ask me that? That's kind of a weird thing for you to ask me,” right? Is that your concern?
Jim Davis: Exactly, and so we went where the case took us.

Robin Amer: He says the path the investigation took is just evidence of the city’s longstanding racial divides.

Jim Davis: The reality of Chicago is that, I believe, that black politicians know black politicians, work with black politicians, and the white politicians work with the white politicians. I frankly think that Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country, and—
Robin Amer: Yeah, you're not alone there.
Jim Davis: And that's why this case seemed focused on black politicians.

Robin Amer: That segregation was a driving factor here makes sense. It’s the scaffolding on which you can hang almost every other fact about Chicago.

The neighborhoods where John Christopher set up his dumps and rock-crushers—neighborhoods like North Lawndale—were black neighborhoods, but they were also neighborhoods that had gradually seen industry leave. They had a lot of vacant land and the land was not redeveloped quickly, because it was not as valuable as land was in wealthier, white neighborhoods, where developers were more interested in building.

Which meant that when John Christopher was looking around for places he could convincingly put a dump or a rock crusher, even a fake one, he almost certainly would be looking in South and West Side wards, where land was cheap and plentiful and set up for industry. There just aren’t nearly as many undeveloped lots on the North Side.

It wasn’t just that there weren’t any white politicians—other than Larry Bloom—caught up in Silver Shovel. There weren’t any North Siders either.

There’s one other dimension to this story we have to talk about. As Operation Silver Shovel broadened, it got weirder.

Apart from bribes for city contracts and rock crushers, Silver Shovel became a kind of kitchen sink for everything the FBI thought John Christopher might be able to pull off.

That included fake legislation about cemeteries aimed to lure in lawmakers at the Illinois state capitol. And a scheme that involved a Green Card and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And a drug deal involving 2 pounds of cocaine. And a money laundering operation for the Chicago Outfit.

None of it had anything to do with North Lawndale. The only thing these parts of the investigation had in common was John Christopher.

Jim Davis: So, at this point, John is in a little bit of a state of denial, right? He wants for this investigation to go on forever, because he knows when it's over, he's going to have to leave. He's going to have to tell his family that he was cooperating with the government.

Robin Amer: Eventually, this case would go public. And John Christopher’s targets would have their day in court. And then, the FBI would have to contend with the reality of who John Christopher was, and all the things he’d done.

I asked Jim Davis how the bureau justified working with a man like John Christopher. And he told me something that he had he once heard a lawyer say in court. Something that stuck with him.

Jim Davis: “Sometimes if you're going to prosecute the devil, you got to go to hell to get your witnesses.”

Robin Amer: In January 1996, Operation Silver Shovel would break as front page news. Ray Frias, the politician we heard at the beginning of this episode, would be acquitted.

But Virgil Jones, and Percy Giles, and Alan Streeter, and Larry Bloom … a dozen other politicians …  were about to go down.

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.

Additional editing this week by Amy Pyle. Additional production by Taylor Maycan, Isobel Cockerell, Fil Corbitt, and Bianca Medious.

Chris Davis is our VP for investigations. Scott Stein is our VP of product. Our executive producer is Liz Nelson. The USA TODAY NETWORK’s president and publisher is Maribel Wadsworth.

Thank you to our sponsors for supporting the show. And special thanks to our attorneys Matt Topic and Tom Curley. And 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, you may like WBEZ’s new podcast, 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 us on Facebook and Twitter @thecitypod. Or visit our website, where you can read transcripts of John Christopher’s secret FBI tapes and more.


S1: Episode 5

The ‘Forrest Gump’ of Chicago Crime

A bank failure unearths a connection to the mysterious man in the limo—and suddenly, he’s everywhere. Bribery, fraud and violence are just ways of doing business. The FBI is on the case—but which one? And whose?

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Episode | Transcript

The ‘Forrest Gump’ of Chicago Crime

Robin Amer: Henry Henderson was at his wit’s end.

Henry Henderson: The city was like a vacuum sucking in illegal dumping activities. This is clearly wrong. This is clearly illegal and there clearly is the authority to make this stop.

Robin Amer: The commissioner of Chicago’s Department of the Environment had spent the last several years fighting John Christopher’s illegal dumps. And yet, the mountains of debris remained in North Lawndale.

Henderson had reasoned with John Christopher. He had threatened him with legal action and had eventually taken him to court. But even with a civil ruling against him, the courts had failed.

Henderson had even turned to the state Environmental Protection Agency. None of it had worked.

Henry Henderson: Well, John Christopher basically disappeared.

Robin Amer: Henry Henderson had not been able to bring John Christopher to justice—or get justice for the people of North Lawndale. But he had one more card to play.

Henry Henderson: Scott's an old friend and he was first assistant at the time.

Robin Amer: Henderson called on Scott Lassar—First Assistant US Attorney in the Northern District of Illinois. In other words, one of Chicago’s top federal prosecutors. Lassar’s office had the power bring federal criminal charges against John Christopher.

Henry Henderson: And saying, you know, we're having a real hard time. And we think that this is a larger criminal criminal endeavor here. And we really need some help.

Scott Lassar: Henry was like Inspector Javert going after Christopher.

Robin Amer: That’s Scott Lassar. And Inspector Javert is the police inspector from Les Misérables, who relentlessly hunts down the main character over the course of the story. It’s not a perfect comparison, but basically, Lassar knew Henderson was on a mission.

Scott Lassar: He knew about Christopher and he'd been pursuing him for a long time.

Robin Amer: And even though they were friends, Lassar gives Henderson the brush off.

Scott Lassar: I had to rebuff him.

Robin Amer: Lassar basically says, "Sorry, Henry, we can’t help you catch this John Christopher guy. The DOJ doesn’t work on municipal waste issues."

But that wasn’t the real reason.

Scott Lassar: We couldn't tell Henry Christopher was working undercover at that time.

Robin Amer: Not only did the federal government already know all about John Christopher, John Christopher was on its payroll. Even while he was dumping in North Lawndale.

Scott Lassar: This was a secret undercover investigation. It was one of the more successful undercover investigations that our office conducted and so we weren't going to end it.

Robin Amer: Chicago’s most notorious illegal dumper was also working for the FBI.

I’m Robin Amer, and from USA TODAY, this is The City.


Robin Amer: So who was this guy who showed up to a vacant lot on Chicago’s West Side in a limousine? Who was John Christopher really?

To answer that question, we need to go back to January 1979 and then-mayor Michael Bilandic.

Michael Bilandic: We had 24 million tons of snow—over 24 million that fell. The city of Chicago has been labeled an emergency area by the federal government.

Robin Amer: Even in the pantheon of Chicago winters, this was one for the ages. People still talk about the Blizzard of 1979. And not just because of all the snow. Bilandic had to defend his administration’s response to this record snowfall to an angry and skeptical City Council.

Michael Bilandic: We have enough snow here and enough streets, 4,000 miles of streets. That's the distance from Chicago to Los Angeles and back.

Robin Amer: Meteorologists had forecast just two to four inches of snow. And so Chicago was completely unprepared when the blizzard instead dumped more than 20 inches on the city. The storm collapsed roofs and trapped people in their homes paralyzing the city for weeks. And getting rid of all that snow would prove to be a monumental challenge for the city.

Michael Bilandic: When you're concerned about getting equipment and people out to the street, you're not doing an accounting at the same time. We'll have an opportunity to do that at a later point.

Robin Amer: The ensuing cleanup—and that lack of accounting—presented a perfect opportunity for then-28-year-old John Christopher. The city hired private contractors to help clear the streets. And Christopher had a guy inside city government who paid him for snow removal work he never did.

Jim Davis: I think that it is fair. I don’t recall the exact facts of that case, but I can say that he was alleged to have been submitting false invoices and getting paid for that by the city.

Robin Amer: This is Jim Davis. He was an FBI agent from 1985 to 2011. And this epic snowstorm would eventually cause his life to intersect with John Christopher’s in a very big way.

Jim Davis: I talked to John every day, multiple times every single day from July of 1992 until January of 1996. You know, I probably had a closer relationship with him during that time than anyone else, and it was a kind of a love/hate relationship.

Robin Amer: If you Google “Jim Davis FBI,” one of the first hits you get is a photo of very tall man in a black shirt, with dog tags around his neck. That’s Jim Davis. He’s standing in front of a white tiled wall and he’s looking straight at the camera.

In one hand, he’s holding a piece of paper that reads: “FBI—12 December 2003.”
And his other hand is resting on the shoulder of Saddam Hussein.

Jim Davis: I arrested Saddam Hussein, you know. I'm telling you, man, life is like a box of chocolates, man. I am the Forrest Gump of the FBI.

Robin Amer: Jim Davis calls himself the “Forest Gump of the FBI” because he has a tendency to show up in big moments in history—like Saddam Hussein’s arrest. He and John Christopher were well matched in that way—a federal prosecutor gave John Christopher almost the same nickname: Chicago’s “Forrest Gump of crime.”

Robin Amer: In the many hours they later spent together, Jim Davis learned a lot about John Christopher’s illegal schemes—including the one he pulled during the Blizzard of ‘79.

Jim Davis: He had gone to some corrupt folks at the driver's license bureau, the Secretary of State's office, that he had had a previous relationship with. He got a driver's license in the name of a Richard McCann.

Robin Amer: In the chaos after the blizzard, John Christopher was part of a group of people that conspired to defraud the city. They submitted fake invoices for snow removal work they never did. The company name they used was “McCann Construction,” so the city issued a check in the name of Richard McCann—the name on John Christopher’s fake ID.

The check was for $112,000—a decent haul for not clearing so much as a teaspoon of snow.

So, check in hand, John Christopher walked into a bank.

He tried to cash the check. But something about him raised a red flag with bank employees, who asked him for his ID.

Jim Davis: John provided a driver's license, and these guys looked at John, who is Italian, and said, "You don't look Irish."

Robin Amer: John Christopher responded by saying he was adopted. But McCann—the name on his fake ID—had blown his cover.

And so John Christopher handled these bank employees the way he normally handled people who got in his way. He tried to bribe them.

He offered to take the vice president of the bank out to lunch, and when that didn’t work, he offered him a Betamax—an expensive precursor to the VHS. But the bank manager didn’t budge.

Jim Davis: So he ended up calling the FBI.

Robin Amer: The city had paid John Christopher from a pool of money that came from federal disaster relief funds. Which meant that John Christopher hadn’t just defrauded the city. He had also defrauded the federal government.

The FBI arrested John Christopher, and he now faced up to 15 years in prison.

Without knowing it, he’d also helped alter the course of Chicago history.

More than 30 other companies were also investigated for defrauding Chicago’s snow disaster fund. At least one city official was indicted for helping them.

And Mayor Bilandic was blamed for letting it all happen on his watch.

In the next election, he’d lose to an upstart, anti-Machine candidate named Jane Byrne, who became the only woman ever to serve as Chicago’s mayor. This is why people still talk about the Blizzard of 1979. It wasn’t just all the snow. It was the political fallout.

Robin Amer: Maybe you can start to see where John Christopher got his nickname—the “Forest Gump” of Chicago crime. But his criminal activities started long before than this.

John Christopher grew up just a few miles from North Lawndale, in an Italian neighborhood full of families descended from the old Taylor Street crew—one of the original street crews of the Chicago Outfit. Which in Chicago, is what we call the mob.

Jim Davis: His great-uncle was a guy named Fiore Buccieri. They called him Fifi, and he was kind of a notorious mob guy in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Robin Amer: The press described Buccieri as a “West Side overlord” in charge of loan sharking and other rackets. He was also suspected of having been involved in multiple murders, one of which was incredibly gruesome.

I will spare you the details, but I can tell you that it involved a blow torch and a cattle prod. Buccieri was later caught on an FBI wire laughing and bragging about it.

He was never indicted for murder, but he was indicted late in life for, theft, soliciting others to commit theft and possession of $200,000 worth of stolen construction equipment.

John Christopher’s crimes, at least the ones he told the FBI about, started when he was a teenager.

Jim Davis: He was a tough street kid and, if you look at some of the transcripts, he often refers to himself as being on the corner or, "This is the way I operate on the corner. Some guys go to college, I came from the corner."

Robin Amer: When he was a teenager in the mid-to-late ’60s, John Christopher joined a neighborhood street gang called the Jokers. He’d later tell Jim Davis that the Jokers would “protect” their neighborhood from any “undesirable elements.”

That meant mostly black families who were moving to the West Side as it transitioned from white to black. John Christopher and the Jokers threatened and intimidated these newcomers and, in some cases, threw Molotov cocktails into their buildings.

Robin Amer: John Christopher was arrested at 19 for breaking into cars. He tried to bribe both the arresting officer and the judge. He was sent to the army instead of prison, but was honorably discharged soon after. He told the FBI he thought his Great Uncle Fifi had something to do with getting him out.

A few years later, his father got him a job with the Department of Streets and Sanitation. John Christopher and the other workers would often sit around the office, playing cards instead of working.

One day, someone from the inspector general’s office caught them slacking off. The inspector threatened to report them, so John Christopher and his colleagues beat up the inspector and told him to write a good report on the unit—which he did.

But ultimately, defrauding the federal government after the Blizzard of 1979 was what put him on the FBI’s radar.

John Christopher’s snow-fraud case went to trial in 1980, but ended in a mistrial. And while he was waiting for a new trial to begin…

Jim Davis: He was looking for a silencer to kill a witness against him.

Robin Amer: A silencer. Silencers are those devices you attach to the muzzle of a gun to muffle the sound of a shot. They were—and still are—illegal in Illinois.

The FBI had gotten word from an informant that John Christopher was in the market for a silencer, allegedly so he could murder a federal witness. So the FBI coordinated with an undercover agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms  in order to sell him one.

Jim Davis: I mean it was a buy-bust scenario, right? It all just happened at once.

Robin Amer: John Christopher was sentenced to four years in federal prison for possession of the silencer and another eight years for trying to cash the snow removal check.

But behind bars, he stayed true to his roots.

Jim Davis: John, he didn't rat.

Robin Amer: In the parlance of the Outfit, John was a “stand-up guy.” He didn’t snitch on anyone else who’d been involved in the snow fraud, even though he could have parlayed that information for a lighter sentence.

Jim Davis: You know, John's a—he's associated to the mafia in Chicago, and there were other people that were involved in that scheme that John didn’t give up. So, he went to prison for them, didn't take anybody down. And in return…

Robin Amer: In return, Jim Davis says John Christopher expected the mob to support his family since he would not be able to provide for them while he was locked up.

Jim Davis: And I think that he expected that. For that, they would do a better job at taking care of his family while he was in prison, and they hadn't done that.

Robin Amer: After roughly four years in federal prison, John Christopher was put on parole.

He returned to his old ways, but he also came back with doubts about his loyalty to the mob.

This is ultimately how Jim Davis would become John Christopher’s FBI handler. When the bureau exploited John Christopher’s doubts about the mob and he crossed over and started wearing a wire.

That’s after the break.


Robin Amer:  When John Christopher got out of prison in the late 1980s, he came back to Chicago, and started a construction company. One that did road repair and paved parking lots and crushed gravel. By June of 1990, he had set up his illegal dumps in North Lawndale.

And to help establish his new business, he turned to a familiar ruse: bank fraud.

John Christopher’s second run-in with the FBI starts with a bank failure.

Jim Davis: John had made some false statements related to loans that he had received from Cosmopolitan Bank to buy his trucks for his business.

Cosmopolitan National Bank goes belly up—it fails. And that attracts the attention of the FBI’s financial crimes squad.

Jim Davis: An agent there named Tony D'Angelo, he identified John Christopher as a subject in that investigation.  

Tony D’Angelo: Basically what I did was I looked at everything that was going on in the bank.

Robin Amer: This is Tony D’Angelo. Cosmopolitan Bank had seemed like it was thriving—with money in its vault and plenty of account holders.

Tony D’Angelo: And I'm wondering, how can a well-capitalized bank in the late 1980s all of a sudden going to receivership? That's highly unusual. So I looked at the bad loans.

And who turns out to be at the center of this bank failure?

Tony D’Angelo: Once I looked at the bad loans, probably the biggest bad loan at the bank was for an individual named John Christopher and his various entities.

Tony D’Angelo: Mr. Christopher had a couple of trucking companies, some other businesses, and he had borrowed, I can't remember the exact amount, but I believe the total deficit to the bank was in the millions.

Robin Amer: $2.5 million. That’s what John Christopher would later say in court.

Tony D’Angelo: And he also overstated the success of his companies, his trucking businesses. So he basically made up income that was not there.

Robin Amer: It looked like John Christopher had used these bad loans to build up his business.

Tony D’Angelo: And it's easy to build up your business, especially when you're not paying loans back.

Robin Amer: So Tony D’Angelo does a background check on John Christopher and finds he’s already in the FBI’s database.

Tony D’Angelo: I was amazed because found out he was a convicted felon, organized crime.

Robin Amer: Tony D’Angelo learns all about the snow fraud case and the silencer and the alleged plan to murder a federal witness. And about John Christopher’s ties to the Outfit.

Tony D’Angelo: I knew he was extremely bad news.

Robin Amer: With this criminal background, it was highly unlikely that John Christopher would actually qualify for millions of dollars in bank loans. So Tony D’Angelo begins to suspect that the bank president must be in on it.

D’Angelo wanted to use John Christopher to get to the bank president, but…

Tony D’Angelo: Everybody told me John Christopher will not talk to you. There's absolutely no reason to cooperate. He's not going to talk to you. It's a waste of time.

Robin Amer: He decides to try anyway. He finds John Christopher’s number and calls him.

Tony D’Angelo: And he actually picked up the phone. I introduce myself. I take a low key approach. So I told him who I was—“I looked at your your dealings with Cosmopolitan Bank and I've got you on financial fraud with your loan application.”

Robin Amer: You might think John Christopher would just hang up the phone at this point. But Tony D’Angelo says, "Just meet with me. All you have to do is listen."

Tony D’Angelo: And I found in my career that people are very curious. They want to know what information you have about them, what evidence. I also mentioned to him, “You know, I know you just got outta jail. You got a couple kids. Maybe we can help each other.”

So ultimately, he agreed to meet me. He wanted to meet me alone. I did meet him alone. We met at a Pizza Hut in Cicero, Ill.

Robin Amer: Cicero is a suburb just west of Chicago. It’s where Al Capone based a lot of his operations. And this Pizza Hut was less than a 10-minute drive from the North Lawndale dumps.

So when Henry Henderson, the environment commissioner, says...

Henry Henderson: Well, John Christopher basically disappeared.

John Christopher was just a mile or two away—eating pizza with the FBI.

Here’s how Tony D’Angelo describes that first meeting.

Tony D’Angelo: John Christopher was out of a central casting for The Sopranos. I mean if you want to know a mobbed-up guy, take a picture of John Christopher. Built like a bull. About 5'10”. Stocky. No neck. Wearing a Members Only jacket. Talking in “dems” and “dose,” and, uh, just—just a funny guy.

So, I laid out my case against him. “You know,” I said, “I'm a fellow Italian. Why don’t we meet a couple more times? You can just listen to me talk. You don't have to do anything.” So we established a comfort level.

Robin Amer: So they meet again, at the same Pizza Hut in Cicero.

Tony D’Angelo: I knew he had, I think it one of his sons was about eight or 10, and the during the first conversation, he mentioned that his son liked baseball. I brought him a box of baseball cards for son.

Robin Amer: They talk again. And again. And again. And pretty soon, they’re talking regularly.

But they’re not talking about the dumps, or the people living near them.

Tony D’Angelo: Uh, so with each meeting you uh, you establish more of a rapport, more of a trust factor get to know each other and um, I'm doing analysis of him what's making him tic.

Robin Amer: Tony D’Angelo learns that John Christopher is still angry about the way his family was treated while he was in prison.

Tony D’Angelo: That promises were made and they were broken. Usually, he wouldn't bring something like that up. So that was something that, you could tell he was harboring a deep-seated uneasiness or resentment over over his family not being taken care of. I think he was really scared about serving another long stretch in prison and not seeing his kids, knowing that they're going to be teenagers and not being there to have any influence over their lives.

Robin Amer: Slowly but surely, John Christopher starts to give the FBI information. First, about Cosmopolitan National Bank—the bank president would later be convicted for bribery, bank fraud, and tax evasion.

And pretty soon, John Christopher would give the bureau much much more.

That’s after the break.


Robin Amer: FBI Special Agent Tony D’Angelo had made himself a fixture in John Christopher’s life.

Tony D’Angelo: I would travel around with him and go to meetings with him and I had a cover. John introduced me as his pinheaded lawyer from down in Springfield.
Robin Amer: Wait, what kind of meetings would you go to with him?
Tony D’Angelo: We had a meeting at once in Greektown, and the owner of the restaurant came up, and John, you know, he'd get a cup of coffee, and rather than use a spoon, he’d stick his big fat finger in there and stir it up. And he looked at the owner of the restaurant, he goes, “If you don't pay your milk money, you're going to get a pineapple through the window.”

Robin Amer: In other words, he’s threatening to bomb the restaurant.

Tony D’Angelo: And I guess this guy may be had fallen behind on his payments. That's probably why John picked this restaurant for the meeting.

Robin Amer: The FBI was grooming John Christopher as an informant—and here he was making threats right in front of one of its agents.

Tony D’Angelo: I kicked him under the table and he looked over and forgot I was sitting there.

Robin Amer: In moments like these, John Christopher was inadvertently revealing that his crimes still went way beyond bank fraud. Crimes the FBI was willing to overlook, like that six-story dump in a certain West Side neighborhood.

Tony D’Angelo: One day during one of these meetings he goes, “Oh, are you interested in politicians?”

Robin Amer: John Christopher saying this to an FBI agent—this was a big deal. Remember, John Christopher was a “stand-up guy.” He never ratted on anyone, even when it could have meant less prison time.

And he knew the stories about his Great Uncle Fifi, about what the mob could do to anyone who crossed them.

But John Christopher had done the math. Given all the evidence Tony D’Angelo had amassed against him, he was almost certainly facing prison time for the Cosmopolitan Bank fraud. And based on what had happened before, he suspected that if he went back to prison, his family would not be taken care of.

So when John Christopher asks, “Are you interested in politicians?”

Tony D’Angelo: I said, absolutely. What do you have on politicians? Well, little did I know at the time that John Christopher have been bribing and paying off and doing whatever he needed to do with aldermen and various city officials.

Robin Amer: Tony D’Angelo had just landed a major informant. One so big he was now outside of his purview.

So the FBI calls on its public corruption squad and Special Agent Jim Davis.

And at first, Jim Davis is skeptical about this new informant.

Jim Davis: Hey, I'm an FBI agent. I'm skeptical of everybody. It just kind of sounded too good to be true from the perspective of a guy doing a corruption investigation. You know, this guy walks in the door and basically says, “I'm a bribing machine,” and I was trying to verify that. I wanted to make sure that he was telling me the truth.

Robin Amer: As they’re sitting down for one of their first interviews, Jim Davis decides to give John Christopher a little test—to see if he’s really equipped to bribe an elected official.

Across the interview table, Jim Davis asks John Christopher how much money he has on him. And in response, John Christopher stands up and empties his pockets, pulling out change and balls of lint and gum wrappers.

Jim Davis: So I said, “OK, John, if a public official came by today and said, ‘I need $500,’ what would you do?”

And he says, “Oh,” and he reached into his back pocket, and he pulled out five $100 bills that he kept in his back pocket specifically for paying bribes, and that's the way he walked around life.

Robin Amer: John Christopher tells Jim Davis that he’s been bribing 24th Ward Alderman Bill Henry to the tune of $5,000 a month. And not only Bill Henry.

Jim Davis: John said to us that he'd been paying public officials his entire life.

Robin Amer: There’s another alderman whose palm he greased in exchange for help setting up yet another rock crusher. There are city inspectors who showed up at the dumps. There are city workers. He’d bribe them even if he wasn’t totally sure what they could do to help him just as a way of “keeping [the] heat off.”

Jim Davis: He had grown up in Chicago, doing business in Chicago, committing kind of petty crimes when he was a younger kid that they resolved by bribing police officers or prosecutors.

Robin Amer: To John Christopher, this was just the cost of doing business.

Jim Davis: So his entire life had been kind of ingrained with this idea that you paid public officials to get through life.

Robin Amer: To people in North Lawndale, the illegal dumping was the only one of John Christopher’s crimes that mattered. But the FBI’s interest was elsewhere. To the bureau, the illegal dumps were just one chapter in John Christopher’s long criminal history.

Why take him down for dumping on the West Side when you could instead use him to catch corrupt city officials all over town?

Because if John Christopher really was this “bribing machine,” then he presented the FBI with a unique opportunity. If he could wear a wire—and record his meetings with city officials—record his bribes to city officials—there was no telling how many crooked politicians they could catch.

Because here’s this guy—a stand-up guy who never ratted—who’s engaged in all kinds of illegal activity. Who’s connected to the Outfit. He’s the great nephew of notorious Chicago mobster Fifi Buccieri! He’s the “Forest Gump” of Chicago crime!

He’s exactly the kind of guy who you’d never suspect of working for the FBI, which would make him the perfect FBI mole.

Jim Davis: I don't think that we've ever had anybody who had his level of credibility who was working with us. I had a sense that this was going to be a big case.

Robin Amer: And so, when Henry Henderson reaches out to his friend, Scott Lassar, the federal prosecutor, saying…

Henry Henderson: This John Christopher is much larger than what we can do. And we think that this is a larger criminal criminal endeavor here. And we really need some help.

Robin Amer: Scott Lassar had to give Henderson the brush off...

Scott Lassar: I had to rebuff him.

Robin Amer: ...because John Christopher had already been recruited by the FBI.

Scott Lassar: We couldn't tell Henry about it. Christopher was working undercover at that time.

Robin Amer: The feds could have sent John Christopher to prison in 1991. Federal prosecutors could have gone after him for illegal dumping. The mountain, the dust and the asthma, the cracked foundations—the feds could have ended it all. But letting it continue was useful.

Scott Lassar: This was a secret undercover investigation. It was one of the more successful undercover investigations that our office conducted and so we weren't going to end it. I mean, we knew about the illegal dumping going on very well, because that was at the heart of the the investigation.

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, NPR One, 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.

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. The USA TODAY NETWORK’s president and publisher is Maribel Wadsworth.

Thank you to our sponsors for supporting the show. And 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, you may like WBEZ’s new podcast, 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 us on Facebook and Twitter @thecitypod. Or visit our website, where you can find photos of the Blizzard of 1979 and more.


S1: Episode 4

A Tale of Two Cities

Four years in, “Mount Henry” has become a magnet for hazardous waste—both literal and figurative. A new illegal dump appears in a white neighborhood. A trusted advocate may not be who he seems.

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A Tale of Two Cities

Robin Amer: When Deyki Nichols was a kid growing up in North Lawndale in the early 1990s, he knew that lurking near his home...was an evil rabbit.

Deyki Nichols: It was (laughs) a myth that there was an evil rabbit up there. It was a grown rabbit. It used to chase kids, with red eyes. (laughs) I still remember that. It used to chase—we went looking for it one day, but never seen that evil rabbit. (laughs)

Robin Amer: This evil rabbit roamed the neighborhood’s hills and mountains—the ones made from construction debris. Older boys told this story to younger kids like Deyki to keep them away. It didn’t work.

Deyki Nichols: We played up there, everything—play hide and go seek. That was our go-to. That’s what we did. We played up there, everything. Lot of fun times. Lot of fun times. I mean, when it snowed, we’d get sleds and slide down there, and when it was summertime, you’d ride your bike up and down the hills, because it was that big a hill. That was fun.

Robin Amer: From up on the hills, Deyki and his friends could look down onto the roof of their elementary school, and see all the basketballs and footballs that neighborhood kids had gotten stuck up there over the years. And they could look east, towards the horizon, and see all the skyscrapers downtown.

Grass and plants and trees sprouted from the concrete hills. Old mattresses became trampolines. Junked out cars became jungle gyms.

Deyki Nichols: That's what we needed. That's what the neighborhood needed as a kid. Because it wasn't no park. I mean it wasn't no park in that area. But as an adult, it's an eyesore. It was. It brought the community down.

Robin Amer: These hills—this mountain—were John Christopher’s illegal landfill, of course. By now, six stories tall, two whole city blocks wide, and five city blocks long. The piles had been that way for two years—which, to a kid, was basically forever. At this point, the hills were just part of the neighborhood’s geography.

There was a doughnut factory on one side of the dump, where Deyki and his friends would dumpster dive for discarded treats. Instead of using the streets to get there, cutting through the hills was often safer or just more fun.

Deyki Nichols: We didn't know better. We just knew you gotta go through the forest to get to the the donut factory. Man, I remember a time we didn't even have food in the house, and that that probably got us through the week. Was the eating donuts and cakes and cookies.

Robin Amer: Spend enough time on a six-story mountain of rubble, and someone is bound to get hurt. Deyki remembers this one time, around fourth grade, when he and his brother were playing there. Deyki was rolling rocks and chunks of concrete down the side of the mountain. And one of them rolled towards his brother.

Deyki Nichols: I mean, it rolled over his finger, and it was hanging off. So I had to hold it together and I had to walk him all the way home holding his finger on until we got to the hospital. They had to reattach it. They had to—he had to spend about two or three days in the hospital because it was, it was off.

Robin Amer: At the beginning of our story, when the trucks full of construction debris first appeared in North Lawndale, Delores Robinson was a math teacher at Sumner Elementary School. Eventually, she became the principal—but she still struggled to keep her students out of the dumps.

Delores Robinson: Deyki was one of them. I'm like, "Stop it. I don't want you doing that.” I said, "I'm looking out the window at you." And so I know the boys who were, you know, playful and athletic.

Robin Amer: So Ms. Robinson installed a regular teachers’ patrol to keep eyes on the kids coming and going from school. It wasn’t just accidents like the kind Deyki Nichols’s brother had suffered that worried her—or evil rabbits.

Delores Robinson: It was reported a dead body was found.

Robin Amer: Ms. Robinson didn’t know whether it was true or not. But she repeated it to her students. Like the story of the evil rabbit, it was a way of scaring them away from the dumps.

As it turned out, she wasn’t the only Chicago educator trying to shield her students from a dump like this. Because across town, in a white neighborhood—where residents had the ear of the city’s powerbrokers—a new dump next to another school was also on the rise.

The steps that parents and kids would take to protect these two neighborhoods—one white and one black—got very different responses from the people in power.

I’m Robin Amer, and from USA TODAY, this is The City.


Robin Amer: Before we tell you about the dump in the white neighborhood across town, let’s recap what’s happened in North Lawndale since our story began.

After John Christopher showed up and started dumping, neighborhood residents organized.

They wrote letters to elected officials. They confronted John Christopher. They helped initiate a lawsuit against him and his companies.

But the lawsuit didn’t stop him from dumping and the mountain of rubble continued to grow—as did the threat it posed to the people of North Lawndale.

However, there was still a chance that the court could rule in the neighborhood’s favor.

Our reporter Wilson Sayre picks up the story from here.

Wilson Sayre: North Lawndale residents had now been fighting the illegal dumps for two years. Frustrated by how long the problem had dragged on, they started looking for new ways to fight John Christopher.

Michelle Ashford: A group of people, we started protesting. We would stand out there with signs.

Wilson Sayre: That’s Michelle Ashford. Remember, she was a teenager back then—when the dust from the dump would get caught in her lip gloss.

Michelle Ashford: And it was getting worse instead of getting better. We were just constantly protesting about this dump, and it was getting worse instead of getting better.

Wilson Sayre: The Ashfords protested as a family. Michelle’s mom, Rita Ashford, was on the front lines, because, if you recall, three of her grandkids, and many of her neighbors’ kids, were in and out of the hospital with severe asthma.

Rita Ashford: So the first time we went down there, you know, we just marched with signs and different stuff like that.

Wilson Sayre: They made signs that called out John Christopher by name: “Down with John” and “Dump the dumps.”

Rita Ashford: The trucks still rolled in and the trucks still rolled out. It didn't make a difference that we were out there.

Wilson Sayre: So they went bigger. One time, they borrowed a bus from First Corinthians Church, just down the road, and used it to block the entrance to the lot. Another time, a neighborhood elder named Rosie Lee Brown actually laid down in the street in front of the trucks.

Rita Ashford: And Rose laid down in the driveway. She was gonna stop the trucks from coming in and the trucks from going out, 'cause they was still hauling in the rocks and they were still hauling out the concrete. Baby, that old lady was a warrior, I’m gonna tell you. And she actually—that was how I got my feet wet.

Wilson Sayre: This protest attracted the attention of the police, who showed up at the lot—but not to stop the illegal dumping.

Michelle Ashford: They were saying it was private property and stuff like that. And they were really like, they were going to arrest her, because she wouldn't move.

Wilson Sayre: While residents were literally laying in the street, the lawsuit that was supposed to stop John Christopher was still dragging on. Remember, there had been a fight over the definition of waste, and twice a judge had decided not to halt the dumping.

But finally, in February 1992, the court ruled against John Christopher. All of his “material” was, in fact, waste, meaning his dumps were illegal and had to go.

But the victory would prove to be hollow. Because there was still the question of how to clean up the dump.

In March of that year, the court held a hearing to rule on the cleanup—who should do it, and how long it should take.

Judge Foreman: The order of this court will be as follows.

Wilson Sayre: We don’t have a recording of what happened at this hearing, but as we’ve done before, we had some actors dramatize scenes from court taken verbatim from transcripts. You’ll remember some of the players.

Susan Herdina: Your Honor, may it please the court.
Wilson Sayre: This is Susan Herdina, a lawyer for the city of Chicago.
James Graney: Sir, would you state your name for the record, please.
Wilson Sayre: James Graney, the lawyer for John Christopher, the man responsible for the dumps, and...
John Christopher: John Christopher

Wilson Sayre: The man himself.

And one new voice—who could not have made his disdain for this case—any more apparent. Judge Lester Forman.

Judge Foreman: If this case goes to the Appellate Court, this court will be ousted of jurisdiction. I don’t know that I have said my prayers enough to hope that that could happen to me.

Wilson Sayre: Judge Foreman wasn’t the only one tired of this case.

Susan Herdina: Your Honor, you and all of us have lived with this case for quite a few months. I know I don’t need to remind you about that. The primary question here today, Your Honor, is how long this cleanup should take.

Wilson Sayre: How long the residents of North Lawndale would have to continue living next to this dump.

John Christopher’s lawyer first tries to argue that his client can’t afford to clean up the site unless he’s allowed to keep dumping. If he’s not earning money off the dumps, then he won’t have money to pay for the cleanup.

Judge Foreman: Counsel?
James Graney: Thank you, Your Honor.

If this man is not there to continue to operate that site … to maintain the premises … all that would result in is putting the man out of business. It’s not going to result in the materials being moved, and if this man is not there to continue to operate that site, you’re going to have a worse situation now than what we’re trying to resolve.

The city of Chicago won’t clean it up. If we immediately put him out of business, no one’s going to clean that site up. I submit to the court that my client doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to clean up this site.

Wilson Sayre: Judge Foreman doesn’t buy this argument though. He’s already ruled that the dumps are illegal. The dumping must stop. So Judge Foreman rejects this request, and the case moves on to the cleanup.

And notice, in what follows, that the debate over how quickly the dumps should be cleaned up doesn’t take into account in the people with asthma, or damage to people's homes or danger posed to elementary school kids.

Instead, the city proposes a timeline for the cleanup that’s all about trucks and weights and money. They factor in how much the average dump truck can hold (22 tons) and how long it would take to fill up a truck (roughly seven minutes) and how many working days there are in a year (255) and how stuff there was on the site (approximately 31,425 truckloads).

The city wanted the judge to force John Christopher to clean up the dumps within 13 months.

But John Christopher argues that even that wasn’t enough time. He wanted at least to double that—a minimum of 26 months. When John Christopher gets up on the stand to testify, he says he doesn’t have the equipment on which the city based its timeline.

James Graney: Defense calls John Christopher to the stand. Sir, would you state your name for the record, please.
John Christopher: John Christopher
James Graney: All right, sir. And what’s your relationship with KrisJon Construction Company?
John Christopher: I’m the president of KrisJon Construction.
James Graney: How many 20-ton trucks does KrisJon Construction Company own at the present time?
John Christopher: Ten.
James Graney: And the capacity of those is 20 tons?
John Christopher: Yes, sir.
James Graney: All right. Now KrisJon Construction Company—
Judge Foreman: Does he have any 24-ton trucks?
James Graney: Do you have any 24-ton trucks, sir?
John Christopher: No.
Judge Foreman: Does he have any other trucks besides these?
James Graney: Do you have any other trucks besides these ten 20-ton trucks?
John Christopher: I only have pickup trucks besides that—three-quarter-ton pickup trucks.

Wilson Sayre: After hearing all this back and forth, the judge finally rules on how much time John Christopher will have to clean up the site.

Judge Foreman: The order of this court will be as follows: Unquestionably, these are matters where you must balance the public interests against the private interests of the business person, corporation, or entrepreneur who is operating a business. That is unquestionably a difficult balance.

I think it would be a very narrow process on the part of this court to take a very short-sighted and overly-aggressive attitude toward this cleanup, because I believe that the purpose of this court should be to accomplish a result, rather than to come up with a judgment that looks good and appears to be very strict at this moment, which would be nothing more than giving somebody a chocolate-covered aspirin. It will taste sweet, but be sour going down.

By the city’s own estimate at the Kildare site, we are talking about 31,425 truckloads. Stop and think of what a line would look like with 31,425 trucks lined up. That perhaps would be a line that would take a road from one end of the city to the other. We are talking about an accomplishment of what I consider to be a gigantic task.

The defendant will have 30 months within which to remove from this site. I believe that that is a reasonable length of time that takes into consideration the magnitude of the number of truckloads that we’re talking about.

Wilson Sayre: Thirty months.

John Christopher lost the case. But he would have 30 months—two and a half years—to clear out of North Lawndale. Longer than he had asked for, and longer than he’d been there in the first place.

And again, Judge Foreman’s decision was all about John Christopher and his business and his money. None of it was about what would happen to North Lawndale residents if the dumps were not cleaned up quickly.

Even with this very lengthy timeline—one that gave John Christopher more than what he’d asked for—he did the opposite of cleaning up the mountains. John Christopher did exactly as he had threatened to do when residents first confronted him at the lot.

Henry Henderson: Well, John Christopher basically disappeared.

Wilson Sayre: Henry Henderson, the city lawyer, helped initiate the suit against John Christopher. By the time the case wrapped up, he’d become commissioner of a brand new department within Chicago’s city government: the Department of Environment.

The department was created in part to tackle big, intractable problems like John Christopher’s dumps. But despite Henderson’s new role as the head of a city agency, he seemed unable to pin John Christopher down.

Henry Henderson: You know, he popped up in other locations with a different identity. He was John DeVito for a while. And you know, occasionally people would have, catch sight of him. Occasionally you’d get, one of our inspectors would say, "I saw John Christopher, and he drove off," you know. He was very good at being being scarce.

Wilson Sayre: Unable to find John Christopher, the city couldn’t force him to conduct the clean-up, or collect any fines him for failing to do so.

And now the city was stuck with more than 31,000 truckloads of debris that it couldn’t get rid of.

Henry Henderson: Now we have to figure out how to clean it up? How do we finance something like this?

Robin Amer: The city failed to hold John Christopher accountable.

1992 passed, then 1993, then 1994. Deyki Nichols moved from fourth grade to fifth to sixth. And John Christopher’s illegal dumps still marred the landscape.

And then, the city heard about another dump in another neighborhood. A mostly white, mostly well-off neighborhood.

And the story of that dump played out very differently than the one in North Lawndale.

That’s after the break.


Robin Amer: Last time on The City we talked to Conrad Henry—the son of former alderman Bill Henry.

And we asked him if the dumping that had happened in North Lawndale’s 24th Ward could have happened elsewhere else.

Conrad Henry: It definitely wouldn’t have been dropped in the First Ward. It wouldn’t have been in the 14th either. Forty-Seventh Ward it would have been gone.

Robin Amer: Each of these wards was either affluent or politically connected or both. And in the case of the 47th Ward, majority white.

Given Chicago’s racial divisions, at first, it seemed unlikely to me at least at first that a dump like the ones that popped up in North Lawndale would ever pop up in a wealthy white Chicago neighborhood.

But our reporter Wilson has been reporting on a dump that actually did show up in a white neighborhood in 1994.

So now we get to test out Conrad Henry’s theory that a dump in say, the 47th Ward, would be gone [snaps] like that.

Let’s go back to Wilson.

Wilson Sayre: There’s the sign: Lane Tech College Prep, “School of Champions.” Wow! It looks like Yale, like an Ivy League university. It has red brick and gothic architecture. You’d never know that there were piles that you couldn’t see over.

Wilson Sayre: The dump was right next to one of Chicago’s most prestigious public high schools: Lane Tech.

This school pulls in some of the highest performing students from around the city and boasts an impressive roster of alumni. Chicago artist Theaster Gates went to Lane Tech. President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff John Podesta went there. Also, a surprising number of pro-baseball and football players graduated from the school.

Vivian Rankin, whose youngest daughter was a junior at Lane Tech at the time, remembers when the dumping first began.

Vivian Rankin: All of a sudden there were 50 trucks an hour pulling in and out. Huge semis were coming in. They would come down one street and go out another. And just dump this stuff.

Wilson Sayre: I found a video online of what happened at Lane Tech in 1994. I watched it with Vivian Rankin and her husband, Bill Rankin, who used to teach at Lane Tech.

Bill Rankin: OK, we got Lane Tech there in the distance. The stadium and then the school.

I showed them both the video. It’s basically a home movie we found on YouTube, shot by a local resident. In the video, you can see a two-story mountain of debris next to this high school. Truck after truck turns onto the street beside Lane Tech. The trucks would drive into the lot next to the school, and dump their cargo.

The same kind of stuff that was dumped in North Lawndale—broken pieces of concrete, dirt, and other construction debris.

Bill Rankin: And you can see the pile of rock to be crushed with the bulldozer on top just west of that stadium.
Wilson Sayre: Is that how high it got, or did it get higher than that?
Vivian Rankin: I think it got higher than that.
Bill Rankin: It could have been, yeah

Wilson Sayre: The piles grew to be level with the top of the bleachers at the football stadium. They were so close it almost looks like you could have walked off the top of the grandstand, right onto the hills of debris.

At the time, Mr. Rankin was a member of the school council, which met twice a week in the mornings. And soon after the piles showed up, teachers and parents started to complain about the dust and the shaking and the trucks.

Bill Rankin: You know, because this was a time when the school was not air-conditioned. Windows were opened. And it was the dust and the noise and that the teachers were complaining about, and the kids, they were aware of it as well.
Vivian Rankin: For me, the major issue was health. It's health and safety of 5,000 kids. So even if they don't have asthma today, could a six-month exposure to that crippy crap create an issue? We don't know.

Wilson Sayre: These were the same health and safety concerns Delores Robinson—and Michelle and Rita Ashford and so many others—had over in North Lawndale.

And again, this was 1994, at which point North Lawndale had been dealing with all this for almost four years.

The operation next to Lane Tech was run by a company called Plote Construction.

In North Lawndale, John Christopher had gone to Alderman Bill Henry for permission to set up his rock crushing operation. And here, Plote had gone to the two aldermen whose wards bordered the school: Eugene Schulter and Dick Mell.

I reached out to both of them multiple times for an interview. Neither responded.

Plote was repaving the Kennedy Expressway, a major highway running from downtown to O’Hare Airport. The highway passed a mile and a half from Lane Tech. And so Plote was trucking in broken up pieces of the old highway to this lot next to the school. They were crushing it into gravel, and then carting it back out to the highway to repave the road surface.

Remember, repaving the Kennedy and other highways was part of then-mayor Richard M. Daley’s so-called Renaissance. Some of the debris from those projects ended up in North Lawndale. And now, beside Lane Tech.

Word of Plote’s dump/rock-crushing operation and “this crippy crap” next to a school made its way to the city’s Department of Environment, to the desk of Henry Henderson.

Henry Henderson: Yeah. Serious outcry from neighbors. Serious complaints from parents of people at Lane Tech. Kids were having real problems with breathing. The neighbors were not happy with the truck traffic and were outraged by what was happening there.

Wilson Sayre: Henderson knew Plote didn’t have a permit to dump there because he’d have been the person to issue one.

So Henderson grabbed a colleague. They hopped in a car and drove up to Lane Tech to see what was going on. They saw all these piles of debris and the trucks coming in and out, and the crusher crushing rocks into gravel.

Henry Henderson: And so I said, you know, “Look, I'm commissioner of environment, and I have the authority, duh duh duh.” And we said, “You've got to stop this.” They basically said, “You know, go pound crushed rock where the sun don't shine.”

Wilson Sayre: So Henry Henderson called the cops. Five squad cars showed up.

Henry Henderson: And the police came over and said, “Stop it. Immediately.”

Wilson Sayre: Remember, the police had also been called to North Lawndale. In that case, the police were there to protect the dumpers.

But when the police came to Lane Tech, they stopped the rock crushing.

Henderson did give Plote a temporary permit to keep dumping though—at least until they could figure out where else the stuff could go.

When asked why he’d give Plote a permit, even a temporary one, Henderson told the press, "I couldn't shut down the Kennedy. People would be outraged by the inconvenience."

But the Rankins, and other Lane Tech parents and students wanted the piles gone.

So they did exactly what parents and students had done in North Lawndale: they protested. Here’s Bill and Vivian Rankin again.

Bill Rankins: Some of the kids actually laid down in front of the trucks. Didn't take very many. I think they were mostly football players that I recall anyway.

Vivian Rankins: Enough to be pesty. It doesn't take a lot.

Wilson Sayre: WGN Channel 9, a local TV news station, was just two blocks away from Lane Tech. The Rankins remember students from the school’s video club filming the dump, and then giving the footage to the station. Pretty soon, the Lane Tech dump was all over the news—both TV and the papers—in a way that North Lawndale had never been.

Bill Rankin: Bad publicity is something that politicians just don't like. And so, if you can get that and if you can get a newspaper or a TV station, then usually you can stop it.

Wilson Sayre: Outcry from students and parents and the media resulted in a community meeting. Henry Henderson was there. Bill and Vivian Rankin were there.

Bill Rankins: Plote was there. The aldermen were there.

Vivian Rankin: The kids came out, parents came out, community groups, school groups, health groups. The American Lung Association was there. The American Cancer Society had representatives that came to meetings.

Wilson Sayre: These families were able to get national organizations, people with clout and power, to show up in support of their cause.

Inside Lane Tech’s fancy art deco auditorium, person after person got up and told Plote, and the aldermen, that they wanted the dumps gone yesterday.

At first, Plote pushed back.

Bill Rankin: Well, I think the the Plote company tried to say that what they were doing was not harmful in any way.

Wilson Sayre: But then, one of Bill Rankin’s friends who had shot a video of the dump played it for the audience.

Bill Rankin: It showed trucks dumping the stuff, showed the dust clouds coming up and the banging of the crusher. Showed all of that.

Wilson Sayre: We reached out to Plote to ask them about this incident, but the company declined to comment.

As for the aldermen who’d originally given Plote permission to be there, Dick Mell, dug in his heels and continued to support the operation. At the time, he was reported to have said that the Kennedy construction project was already dirty and noisy, so why worry about a few more trucks?

But the other alderman, Eugene Schulter, cracked under the pressure and switched sides, saying, “Under no circumstance will I find this an acceptable activity.”

And with the protests and the media coverage...

Bill Rankin: The jig was up.

Wilson Sayre: News of the Lane Tech dumps went all the way to the top—to Mayor Daley himself. A few weeks after that community meeting, at the recommendation of Henry Henderson, Daley announced that he would be cracking down on rock crushing sites that “come in and environmentally destroy the community.”

The mayor fancied himself an environmentalist. Daley would later put a green roof on top of City Hall. He was, after all, the one who created the Department of Environment in the first place—and the one who had hired Henry Henderson to run it.

Daley had never said a word publicly about the dumps in North Lawndale. But here he personally ordered a shutdown of the site next to Lane Tech.

And Plote didn’t even try to fight the mayor, at least not publicly.

Quietly, seemingly overnight, Plote loaded up truck after truck and carted the mountains of debris away from Lane Tech.

Robin Amer: To get rid of the dump next to their school and homes, Lane Tech parents and teachers wrote letters, made calls, organized protests.

In other words, they did exactly the same things people had done in North Lawndale with very different results.

The cries of Lane Tech’s parents did not fall on deaf ears. Their complaints were not bogged down by endless court proceedings. Apparently, when you’ve got the mayor of Chicago on your side, you don’t even need to go to court. The dumps in North Lawndale plagued the neighborhood for years the Lane Tech dump was gone in a matter of weeks.

In other words, the city listened to Lane Tech and took action in a way it had not in North Lawndale.

Why? That’s coming up after the break.


Robin Amer: The situation at Lane Tech and the situation in North Lawndale could not have played out more differently. If you ask why, activist dad Bill Rankin says it’s because he and his neighbors did something different. Something more effective than what residents in North Lawndale must have done.

Bill Rankin: If you're going to do something that makes people change, you have to do something that that they have to react to, and you know, you can write a letter and they'll ignore it. You can go stand by their desk, and as soon as you leave, they’ll ignore you.

Uh, you know, he can make telephone calls, but the big thing is that they have to react.

Robin Amer: We know that Mr. Rankin is wrong. North Lawndale residents did the same things that Lane Tech parents had done. But he’s also right in the sense that the powers that be did not react to North Lawndale the same way they did to Lane Tech.

Wilson looks at why.

Wilson Sayre: In segregated Chicago, "North Side" is often used as shorthand for the white side of town and "South and West Sides” for the black and brown neighborhoods. It’s an oversimplification, but it’s used all the time.

Reporter Ben Joravsky, who we heard from in our last episode, reported on the Lane Tech dump in 1994. Joravsky says residents on the North Side—like those who lived near Lane Tech—have come to expect more from the city.

Ben Joravsky: When suddenly North Siders got a little taste of what it's like to live on the South or West Side, man. They didn't, they weren't happy. And notice the difference in how the city reacted on, we're not going to put up with that. That’s the difference between entitlement. You know, that's the difference between a city that responds to certain constituents and one end of town, and they don't respond to constituents on the other end of town.

Wilson Sayre: Joravsky says—and the record makes clear—that it wasn’t what residents did that made the difference. It was how city power brokers reacted.

When Lane Tech parents complained, city officials came out quickly. The TV news media took notice. When the police showed up, they were there to stop the dumping instead of protect the dumpers. Pressure from parents forced Alderman Schulter to take their side. When community meetings were called, national organizations showed up to support the cause.

And Mayor Daley himself stepped in to shut down the dump.

In other words, the Lane Tech community—mostly white, mostly well-off—had political power. What in Chicago, we call clout.

So now we need to revisit our “blame list.” Because some of the people on that list are power brokers who reacted very differently to the pleas from North Lawndale parents like Ms. Ashford, and those of Lane Tech parents, like Mr. Rankin.

And we should start with the press and reporters like Ben Joravsky. His piece for the Reader about Lane Tech back in 1994 was called “Crushing the Kennedy: The story of a really stupid idea.”

Wilson Sayre: You wrote about the Lane Tech stuff. Did you ever write about the dump in North Lawndale?
Ben Joravsky: I don't think so. Uh, no. I um, I never wrote it. I didn't follow it. Most of the stuff I did was, uh, like, people would call me with story ideas. If someone had called me, it would have been totally different. I would have liked plugged in. I would have been like, “Oh, yeah, I got a person there…”

Wilson Sayre: Some news outlets, namely black-owned ones like the Chicago Defender, did write about the North Lawndale dumps. But no TV crews made it out there. There wasn’t a TV station just across the street. And historically, the Chicago press corps has done a poor job of comprehensively covering the South and West Sides.

Robin Amer: So back to our blame list. Next up we have to go to Henry Henderson. In both North Lawndale and at Lane Tech, he personally drove out to inspect the dumps. But at Lane Tech, he brought the cops with him and shut down the dump immediately.

I asked him about it when we spoke.

Robin Amer: The thing that really jumped out at me was the picture of you showing up at Lane Tech, confronting the guys from Plote, and then bringing the cops in to say, “No, you have to stop this immediately.” And I have to ask you, did you ever do that in North Lawndale? Did you ever go to North Lawndale with the police escort to confront John Christopher and say, “You have to stop this now?”
Henry Henderson: You know, I did not bring the police. Because—I don't know why I didn't bring the police. But the fact is that those experiences informed what we needed to do subsequently. So it’s like, how do you prosecute these things better? And so you learn by doing.

Robin Amer: Henderson told me, essentially, that he learned his lesson the hard way. The court battle proved that if you did not stop the dumping right away before it got bad, then the dumps would get so big that you’d be facing a monumental problem that could not be stopped or fixed overnight. Four years later, he applied those lessons to Lane Tech.
Wilson Sayre: Well, except there’s no reason Henderson couldn’t have called the police to arrest John Christopher. Especially once he was in violation of the court order. At this point, the city’s response is basically, “Oh well, we just can’t find him.” To me, it feels like Henderson felt the pressure of Lane Tech parents more, and therefore he reacted more quickly.

And then there’s they guy Henderson reported to: the mayor.

Ben Joravsky: Where was Mayor Daley, Mr. I Love Trees?

Wilson Sayre: Again, Ben Joravsky.

Ben Joravsky: Leave Henderson alone. He’s just a bureaucrat. Daley was the guy. Where was Daley? Why wasn't Daley looking out for the interests of the kids?

Wilson Sayre: And although Henderson had a lot of power as a city commissioner, Mayor Daley had more. A lot more. You can go through the courts, plead with government agencies. Or you can get Daley's attention, and he can snap his fingers and get it done.

Take the story of Meigs Field. It’s almost Chicago lore at this point. It happened years later, but shows how Daley behaved when he cared about something.

Meigs Field was an airport runway built on an artificial peninsula that stuck into Lake Michigan. It was right next to Soldier Field, where the Chicago Bears play, and the natural history museum and the planetarium—prime real estate. And Daley wanted a park there instead of an airport.

So he sent construction workers out in the middle of the night and tore a big “X” in the runway.

Ben Joravsky: Mayor Daley went to Meigs Field in the middle of the night and tore up a runway, said “Fuck you” to the federal government, “I'll see you in court.” Made up an excuse for it, saying, “Oh, terrorists are gonna knock down our city.” And yet we can't get a dump off of land and our city? I don't think so.

Wilson Sayre: In other words, Ben says, if Daley wanted something done, it got done. If he had wanted the dumps in North Lawndale gone, they would have been gone.

People in Chicago government who could have come out in the middle of the night and dealt with the dumps in North Lawndale never showed up.

Ben Joravsky: They didn’t care about the people living in that neighborhood. They didn't care about that dump. They allowed that dump to exist for years. This dump got—one month it was gone on the North Side! So I don’t buy it.

Wilson Sayre: Mayor Daley simply said of Plote, the construction company, “They have to find another site. That’s their problem.”

Daley did not do the same for North Lawndale.

Robin Amer: We reached out to Daley for comment, but he never responded to our requests.

Although Henry Henderson had not been able to catch John Christopher, and despite the fact that Henderson’s boss seemed not to care enough to personally intervene, Henderson told us that during this time he had also been trying to get help from the state and federal governments to stop and then to clean up the North Lawndale dumps.

Eventually, in late 1994 and early 1995, the state and federal Environmental Protection Agencies finally came out to North Lawndale to clean up the dumps.

This could have been the end of our story. But it isn’t.

Over the years, John Christopher’s dumps had attracted more than just construction debris: fly-by-night dumpers had left behind these 50-gallon drums of silver goo and red enamel and other mystery chemicals. Plus, old roofing material, tires, carpet, window frames—even cars.

So when the Illinois and U.S. EPAs came to clean up the dumps, this was the stuff they were interested in.

The U.S. EPA declined to talk to us, but a representative from the Illinois EPA who was involved in the cleanup told us that the agency was more concerned about the hazardous material than what they called the “clean construction debris.”

So even these environmental protection agencies were not interested in the six stories of rubble.

They were not interested in removing the mountain—the mountain that the Ashfords believe gave their family and neighbors asthma, the mountain that Rosie Lee Brown had lain in the street to protest, the mountain that Deyki Nichols's little brother almost lost a finger to. The environmental agencies did not see the mountain as their problem.

They walked away, leaving almost all of John Christopher’s mess behind.

So Henry Henderson made one more call—to a friend of his who worked for the Department of Justice.

Henry Henderson: Saying, you know, “We're having a real hard time. This John Christopher is much larger than what we can do. And we think that this is a larger criminal endeavor here. And we really need some help.

It was clearly before I knew of John Christopher’s relationship with the federal government.

Robin Amer: The federal government. John Christopher wasn’t just a shady waste hauler. He was working for the federal government undercover.

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, NPR One, 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.

Sam Greenspan is our editor. Ben Austen is our story consultant. Original music and mixing is by Hannis Brown.

Jennifer Mudge, Chris Henry Coffey, David Deblinger, and Michael Cullen starred in our re-enactments.

Additional production by Taylor Maycan, Isobel Cockerell, and Bianca Medious.

Chris Davis is our VP for investigations. Our executive producer is Liz Nelson. USA TODAY NETWORK’s president and publisher is Maribel Wadsworth.

Special thanks to Misha Euceph and Danielle Svetcov, and to Gary Sigman for permission to use his film of the Lane Tech dump.

Additional support comes from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Social Justice News Nexus at Northwestern University.

If you like this show, you may also like WBEZ’s new podcast, 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 us on Facebook and Twitter @thecitypod. Or visit our website, where you can find a video of the Lane Tech dump and more. That’s

S1: Episode 3

‘Mount Henry’

The neighborhood turns to a beloved ward boss—but his own agenda comes first. A man in the know offers some valuable advice on power.

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‘Mount Henry’

Robin Amer: In the city of Chicago, when you can’t get your trash picked up, or your potholes filled, the person you call is your alderman—your neighborhood representative in City Council. And so, when Johnnie Baker started seeing construction debris piling up in a vacant lot not 500 feet from her home, she called Bill Henry.

Johnnie Baker: And I'm watching trucks come in dumping the stuff. So I called his office to find out you know, what was going on. And they told me that they were just dumping there for a couple of days, and they were going to be removing it out.

Robin Amer: She remembers that happening on a Monday.

Johnnie Baker: And by Thursday, it was a tall as that building over there almost. It just kept getting larger and larger.

Robin Amer: And responses from the alderman were getting fewer and farther between.

Johnnie Baker: You know, you couldn't get Bill Henry on the phone. They didn't want to talk about it or whatever.

Robin Amer: Mountains of construction debris can’t just appear in a neighborhood without the local alderman knowing about it. And because Bill Henry wouldn’t talk about it—and didn’t seem to do anything about it—and because the dump was already the size of a department store—people in North Lawndale figured Bill Henry must be involved.

Johnnie Baker: From his conversation and his speaking he seemed like you know, he was for the neighborhood. And then, after going to his meetings or whatever, you find out it's a selfish thing.

Robin Amer: Eventually, local journalists, the EPA, and the FBI would all give the dump a nickname: Mount Henry. Its namesake, Alderman Bill Henry, allegedly cut the deals that helped usher John Christopher into North Lawndale. But the bigger story of Bill Henry shows where a neighborhood like North Lawndale sits in Chicago’s political pecking order.

I’m Robin Amer. From USA TODAY, this is The City.


Robin Amer: It’s October 1979, and hundreds of people are rallying in downtown Chicago. They’re gathered to “Keep County Open”—to protest the possible closure of Cook County Hospital—what was then the only public hospital in the city that would treat anyone, regardless of their insurance coverage. At the time, 90 percent of Cook County’s patients were black.

The MC introduces Bill Henry, who was then a new state rep. He wouldn’t be an alderman for another four years.

MC: Our next speaker, Mr. Bill Henry, who’s a state representative from the 21st District. Here’s Mr. Henry.

Robin Amer: A fire engine blares past.

Bill Henry: Thank you very much!

Robin Amer: But Bill Henry doesn’t miss a beat.

Bill Henry: I guess that’s by design, but they’re not going to quiet me up. [Siren passes] We’ll allow the noise to pass, ‘cause I’ve got some noise I want to put out. The noise is this: Yes, my name is Bill Henry. I’m a state representative from the West Side of the city of Chicago. I represent the poor, the old, the unemployed, the underemployed. [Tape cuts out]

Robin Amer: The tape cuts out here, but it should give you some sense of what a commanding presence Bill Henry had.

Alright, when we began reporting this story, our producer Jenny Casas started “a blame list.” As in, who’s to blame for the dumps in North Lawndale? Jenny?

Jenny Casas: Of course it starts with John Christopher, number one, for starting the dumps in the first place. And then, number two is the construction companies who actually brought in the debris into North Lawndale. But then, the blame shifts to different tiers of responsibility, so people who helped it along in small ways, or who just didn’t step up to stop it—like the judge who denied the injunction to halt the dumping. And then, of course, there’s Bill Henry.

Robin Amer: Right, so this is the local alderman. And you’ve been spending a lot of time looking into Bill Henry. So what exactly was his role here
Jenny Casas: It’s just not an easy question to answer.

Bill Henry was alderman in North Lawndale when John Christopher arrived in 1990. At the time, The Chicago Tribune reported that Bill Henry introduced John Christopher to the owner of the lot across the street from the elementary school—apparently because John Christopher told him the operation would bring jobs to North Lawndale.

But John Christopher would later tell the FBI under questioning and testify under oath that he bribed Bill Henry in order to dump there—$5,000 a month.

Robin Amer: Right. So a source in the FBI told us that John Christopher called Bill Henry “a $5,000 guy.”

And when I heard about this, I was like, oh right, OK, that’s how John Christopher was able to get set up in North Lawndale and operate for as long as he did—he was bribing the alderman. It just made so much sense when I heard that.

Jenny Casas: Well, Bill Henry died in 1992, so we’ll never get to hear his side of the story. But it’s not as simple as a crooked guy bribes another crooked guy.

Robin Amer:  Alright, so Jenny’s going to pick up the story from here.

Jenny Casas: During Bill Henry’s first term as alderman, the Chicago Tribune turned its attention to the problems in North Lawndale in a whopping 36-part series.

That series would later be turned into a book called The American Millstone. The book used North Lawndale as an example of what its authors saw as a national problem: a permanent underclass they described as “mostly black and poor and hopelessly trapped.”

But North Lawndale residents and critics of the series called it “a judgment rather than a description” that stereotyped the community in harmful ways and ignored the good in the neighborhood. Here’s a representative quote:

“Today, in North Lawndale... there is no sense of community, nothing to unite them. ...They are caught up in the baseness of underclass living, casual sex, illegitimate  children, crime and violence—antithetical to the teachings of religion and repugnant to those who believe in God.”

Chicago’s mainstream white press also stereotyped Bill Henry. The Tribune described him as a man with “fists the size of pineapples,” who wore “bright pastel suits”and “a gun strapped to his ankle,” who “rode to work in a stretch limousine,” and “lived on a diet of red meat and iced whiskey.”

These are all direct quotes.

They wrote about the time he won a white stallion in a game of poker, and the time he was abducted at gunpoint outside of his fiancée’s bar and then talked his way to freedom.

But in North Lawndale, Bill Henry is remembered in more nuanced ways—as a real, if flawed, person.

Gladys Woodson: I liked Bill Henry because he wasn't that sophisticated businessman. He was a street person. He was raised up on the street.

Jenny Casas: That’s Gladys Woodson. Remember, her block club wrote to Bill Henry when they were trying to get rid of the dumps. But because he was their alderman, they went to him for a lot of other routine things too. This is how she described his political philosophy.

Gladys Woodson: He would let us all know, “You can't have everything you want, and if you want something really bad, you figure out how bad you want that, and you're gonna have to give up something to get something.” That was his model. He said nobody get something for free.

Conrad Henry: He used to say, “I graduated from Concrete University.”

Jenny Casas: This is Bill Henry's son, Conrad Henry. This notion of Bill Henry as a deal maker with street smarts is at the core of his identity.

Conrad grew up helping his dad in the ward office, talking politics over breakfast. They’re fond memories because Conrad looked up to his dad.

Conrad Henry: He look dignified in the as a representative of the ward. You didn't see many people that looked like him and other elected officials in the ward. They were they were examples of African-American success in a poverty-stricken neighborhood looking for hope.

Jenny Casas: Bill Henry had gotten his start in Chicago politics on the bottom rung—working as a foot soldier for the Democratic Party. Conrad remembers being five or six, following his father around the ward, knocking on doors, coaxing neighbors to the ballot box.

Conrad Henry: His job was to get the vote out, and help people in the ward, and make sure they voted Democratic—voted for the slate of candidates that ran. And the way he would do that, I seen him, was pass out money.

Jenny Casas: Paying people to vote for a specific candidate is so illegal. But in 1960s Chicago? Totally, totally routine.

Conrad Henry: I don't know where he got the money from. But the way things went, election time, he'd have a fist full of dollars and make sure that you would come to vote. That was their strategy, to go out getting the vote, no matter what. That's how all precinct captains did in the city of Chicago. That was the regular Democratic Machine’s order of things. That was their plan. That was their strategy.

Jenny Casas: The Democratic Machine.

You cannot tell Bill Henry’s story without talking about the Machine, because it’s through the Machine that he got his political education.

The Machine worked like this: You had the mayor—the big boss—on top. Then, below the mayor were 50 aldermen—little mini-bosses—who controlled their neighborhood areas, called wards.

The aldermen and the mayor were elected, removed or kept in office through the work of the precinct captains. Precinct captains were the even smaller bosses who looked after smaller sections of each ward.

They, in turn, oversaw the foot soldiers, who were tasked with getting out the vote every election season for the party’s chosen candidates.

And if you were good at pulling in votes, you could be rewarded with a city job. It didn’t really matter how qualified you were. If you were loyal to the Machine, the Machine could get you on the city payroll, or otherwise reward you with better access to city services—like getting a tree trimmed or having a parking ticket dismissed. Favors and jobs were the lifeblood of the Machine.

And this system is great if you’re in with someone powerful. But if not, you’re probably not getting everything you’re due from the city.

Bill Henry was really good at pulling in votes—so good that eventually he graduated from foot soldier to precinct captain and was later rewarded with jobs. Early on, he was a laborer for the Department of Streets and Sanitation. But he knew how to climb the ranks. Later, he became deputy chief in the Cook County Sheriff's Department.

And eventually, the Machine slated him for elected office.

One of Bill Henry’s political role models—someone who showed what was possible for young black men within the Democratic Party—was a rising star named Ben Lewis.

Conrad Henry: Ben Lewis. That's who he wanted to be like. He looked at the power he—I guess he visualized himself to being that way. That was his aspiration as I was a kid.

Jenny Casas: Ben Lewis was the first black alderman elected in the 24th Ward. In the all-black neighborhood, he started replacing white precinct captains with black ones. In late February 1963, he won a second term as alderman by a landslide 12-to-one margin.

But then, two days later, Ben Lewis was found handcuffed to a chair, face down, in a pool of his own blood. He’d been shot three times in the back of the head.

Some people believe the Machine killed him because he was planning to run for Congress against their wishes. But more than 50 years later, it’s still an open case.

Conrad heard the cautionary tale all through his childhood—and saw remnants of the murder around the ward office.

Conrad Henry: The same chair that he was handcuffed to was still there. The bloodstains were there. It was like he was still there, ‘cause they was like, they was always talking about him as if he was just around the corner, coming in. You know, “We getting in line. We doing what these people tell us to do, ‘cause we don't want to end up like Ben Lewis.” I assume that's what my father thought about.

Robin Amer:  Bill Henry learned that the Machine can build you up, but it can just as easily destroy you.

So he committed himself to the Machine and its political order.

But what are you supposed to do when that political order works against your constituents?

What should you do then?

That’s after the break.


Robin Amer: Alright, let’s go back to Jenny, who picks up the story of Alderman Bill Henry with a visit to one of his adversaries.

Richard Barnett: Hello? Oh yeah, what do you need?

Jenny Casas: When I met Richard Barnett in his home in North Lawndale, we were constantly interrupted by phone calls.

Richard Barnett: Could I do it later? ‘Cause I’m busy now. Thank you.

Jenny Casas: Popular guy.
Richard Barnett: Hm?
Jenny Casas: You’re a popular guy.
Richard Barnett: I’m sorry?
Jenny Casas: You’re a popular guy.
Richard Barnett: Oh, yeah! Ha.

Jenny Casas: Richard Barnett moved to North Lawndale around 1954, and lives in a two-flat with his pet parrot named Nia. He's in his 80s now, and he's been in the thick of North Lawndale's political scene since his 20s.

In his prime, Richard Barnett was a local kingmaker—but he didn’t work for the Machine.

Mr. Barnett was an independent Democrat, and an effective one, with a hand in nearly every successful aldermanic campaign in the 24th Ward after Bill Henry was out of office. He supported candidates who challenged the status quo. He hated the Regular Democratic Machine. And he hated Bill Henry.

Richard Barnett: He was Machine to the day he died.

Jenny Casas:  What does that mean?

Richard Barnett: That means he was an idiot. He was slimy. He was a crook. He was anything negative that you can say. Anything he could get money from, he used his position as alderman to get money.

Jenny Casas: In 1983 Bill Henry was elected to the position he had been working towards for more than two decades: 24th Ward alderman.

But just as he was settling into his new seat of power, the political game completely changed. A change that promised of a new kind of power for neighborhoods like North Lawndale.

Singing: Chicago, Chicago! That toddlin’ town! Chicago, Chicago. . . [music distorts and fades out]

Announcer: The Machine that ran Chicago doesn’t work anymore. Yet Jane Byrne and Richie Daley are still fighting over it. Harold Washington has a different plan.

Harold Washington: While they fight over that Machine, I shall fight for Chicago by getting jobs and money from the state and federal government.

Announcer: Harold Washington.

Harold Washington: We can all win.

Jenny Casas: In 1983 Chicago elected Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor. It was a turning point—a stunning victory for black Chicago and for independent, anti-Machine voters.

Like Bill Henry, Harold Washington had come up as a precinct captain working for the Democratic Machine. But at some point, he broke with the system. The way Harold Washington saw it, the Machine might help individual black politicians, but it would never serve black communities as a whole. He was also disgusted by the Machine’s use of patronage—the exchange of jobs for loyalty. Patronage that built careers like Bill Henry’s and his own. As mayor, he signed onto a ruling that made it illegal to hire or fire people for political gain.

Here he is talking about patronage in 1984.

Harold Washington: Well, I’m going to tell you about patronage. I went to the graveyard. I found its grave. I stomped on that grave. I jumped up and down and said, “Patronage, patronage, where are you?” And patronage didn’t answer. And you know why? It’s dead, dead, dead!

Jenny Casas: More than 99 percent of North Lawndale voted for Harold Washington in the 1983 general election. In the home of Richard Barnett, the local kingmaker, the first thing you see when you enter the foyer is a giant portrait of Harold Washington.

Jenny Casas: This is, this picture is in every living room in North Lawndale.
Richard Barnett: Oh, yeah?
Jenny Casas: Does that surprise you?
Richard Barnett: No. People came from out of town here to pick up Harold Washington buttons. I was I told you we had a thousand volunteers. Didn't pay anyone a penny.

Jenny Casas: Bill Henry had staked his entire political career on the Democratic Machine, but now the Machine was out. So, what does Bill Henry do? He flips to the other side.

Conrad Henry: My dad was a vocal supporter of Harold Washington.

Jenny Casas: Again, Bill Henry’s son, Conrad.

Conrad Henry: He dumped the regulars and went with the independents.

Jenny Casas: Arguably, given Harold Washington’s popularity in North Lawndale, Bill Henry had no choice but to support the new mayor. But citywide, there was the hope that a new black political block could make things more fair.

But that’s not exactly what happened.

The mostly white Machine politicos that had always run City Council were pissed about having a black independent mayor who challenged their power. They might have lost absolute power, but they still had the votes to block the new mayor’s agenda in City Council.

So, even with Harold Washington’s promises for a more fair Chicago, city services in lower income neighborhoods were still not as good as they were in wealthy neighborhoods. Bill Henry's ward, and many other black wards, were not getting basic city services regularly. Especially in comparison to their white counterparts.

Conrad Henry: He couldn't pull strings and get everything done instantaneous—the garbage pickup, the streets clean, the curbs done, the sidewalks repaired, you know. He couldn't do that in timely fashion like they could over there.

Jenny Casas: And so, Bill Henry took matters into his own hands. He spent $16,000 of his own money to buy a decommissioned street sweeper from the city.

Conrad Henry: It was this old city street sweeper. He painted it red, white, and blue. He put “Bill Henry,” like that, right there on it. “24th Ward alderman.”

Jenny Casas: Let me just say that again: 24th Ward residents weren’t getting the city services they paid for with their tax dollars. So Bill Henry bought a used street sweeper from the city that was failing them in the first place.

Black neighborhoods on the West Side like North Lawndale still weren’t getting their fair share.

Even with Harold Washington in office.

And four years later, just as Harold Washington was settling into his second term...

Newscast: At approximately 11 a.m. Wednesday morning, shortly following a press conference, Chicago mayor Harold Washington suffered a fatal heart attack at his desk in City Hall. The mayor was rushed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 1:36 p.m.

Jenny Casas: Harold Washington died, and with him, the promise of his administration.

Ben Joravsky: Black Chicago was devastated. People have been waiting all these years to finally have an expression of black political power and maybe have some fairness in the city, and it's like, are you kidding me? Harold Washington dies in office before it could be fully expressed?!

Jenny Casas: This is Ben Joravsky. He’s been a reporter in the city for almost 40 years, namely with the Chicago Reader. He now hosts a show on Chicago’s progressive talk radio station, WCPT.

Joravsky reported on the chaos in City Hall that followed Harold Washington’s death.

Ben Joravsky: Most white people didn't vote for Harold Washington. They said the meanest nastiest things about him. So, when Harold died in 1987, suddenly it was a whole new ballgame it was an opportunity for these white politicians who have been on the outs for four years to get back in the ins. And they were going to take advantage of it.

Jenny Casas: So, once again, the tides were turning. And Bill Henry made a calculation.

When a mayor dies in Chicago, the City Council gets to choose his or her temporary replacement.

And when Harold Washington died, white aldermen realized they didn’t have a chance at the mayor’s seat. Instead, they organized around a South Side alderman named Eugene Sawyer. Sawyer was the longest-serving black alderman at the time, and a regular Democrat like Bill Henry.

But many independent voters, and Harold Washington’s base, wanted a different candidate named Timothy Evans. Evans was Harold Washington’s heir apparent, and independents believed he would carry on Washington’s progressive agenda.

Bill Henry figured that if he could help the white political establishment back into power, they would be loyal to him.

Ben Joravsky: You know, he saw his opportunity to gain political power. If Gene Sawyer was the mayor, he would have entree to the highest office in city government, maybe get some more jobs to distribute. So he saw a chance for himself to consolidate his own power, at least in his ward, and he was going to take it.

Jenny Casas: And so in the high drama of Harold Washington’s death, Bill Henry cut the deals that guaranteed a win for Eugene Sawyer. Here he is on the City Council floor the night of the vote.

Bill Henry: We need somebody can bring us together. Gene Sawyer is that man! Gene Sawyer is that man! Now...

Ben Joravsky: Somebody made an accusation: “You're making deals.”

Bill Henry: I heard one of my colleagues that I personally admire, but he don't know what he's talking about when he talking about a deal. Let's talk about the deals! Let's talk about the deal!

Ben Joravsky: And he got up: “Making deals? We was all making deals!” And that is so right! Everyone in Chicago, and ever since then, I heard that I always say, “I cut a deal. I made a deal.” ‘Cause that's Chicago: You're cutting deals.

Bill Henry: If we are honest with the people, we all was trying to deal. Everybody had a hidden agenda. Let’s tell the truth. Not a person in this City Council have the right to accuse another for cutting a deal when they was busy cutting the deals! [Explosive applause]

Jenny Casas: This was the transactional nature of Chicago politics: I do something for you, you do something for me.

I give you a couple bucks, you vote for my candidate.

I get you into office, you give me a job.

You give me a job, I give you my loyalty.

This is how it had always been for Bill Henry and anyone else who came up under the Machine.

But in this case, Bill Henry’s calculation may have been bad math.

Ben Joravsky: What happens to Bill Henry? What happens to Bill Henry after the 1987 vote to elevate Eugene Sawyer—his greatest moment on the stage as a wheeler and dealer, the pinnacle of his power, if you will? It's all downhill.

Jenny Casas: For one thing, it put him in hot water with his constituents. Bill Henry’s choice to back Eugene Sawyer was not supported in North Lawndale. Voters wanted Evans.

But also, in Bill Henry’s deal for the establishment, any favors he may have cashed in didn’t come close to achieving equal power for his ward.

So the deal wasn’t a deal. It was a gift to white Chicago—a gift I’m not sure Bill Henry knew he was giving.

Ben Joravsky: I'll put it to you this way: It was a very short lived triumph. Oh my God. It all fell apart.

Robin Amer: That’s after the break.


Robin Amer: Bill Henry’s support for the establishment candidate and the backlash it spurred in North Lawndale left him politically weakened. By 1990, his longtime rival, Jesse Miller, was challenging him for re-election and seemed to have a good shot at winning.

Bill Henry’s silence about the dumps only angered residents more. And they remember Jesse Miller stepping in to help them organize against the dumps.

Jenny picks it back up from here.

Jenny Casas: As if all this weren’t bad enough, in November of 1990, Bill Henry was slapped with a 24-count federal indictment. The indictment lays out almost a decade of racketeering, bribery, and extortion totaling more than $30,000. Many of the allegations involved Bill Henry taking money in exchange for helping someone get city jobs or contracts.

To North Lawndale politico Richard Barnett, these charges show a pattern of behavior. Barnett believes Bill Henry was taking bribes for everything, including bribes from John Christopher to allow the dumps in North Lawndale.

Richard Barnett: He was the person that gave them permission and got paid for dumping on that property. It was a vacant lot, you know. So he gave them an OK to dump.
Jenny Casas:  How do you know it was Bill Henry?
Richard Barnett: If you own a firm, would you dump on a lot without someone to protect you? You know what you can get fined for dumping on a lot? That's a buck you wouldn't want to spend. So you had to have permission from somebody. That's what they did. They paid him.

Jenny Casas: Bill Henry would die of lung cancer before his case ever made it to trial. But he denied the allegations with his trademark bravado. Here he is on WBBM radio in December 1990, calling the federal corruption investigation racially motivated.

Bill Henry: Oh, of course, you know, I mean Jesus Christ, Ray Charles can see that. I mean, you can go into the neighborhood, you can't fool the people. The people are not stupid. They know what’s going on. They know the charges, the attack on me, was started just to, just before the election to try to smear me and smear my people, to stop progress.

Jenny Casas: Bill Henry’s son Conrad also denies the allegations of bribery, and the allegations that his dad helped John Christopher establish the dumps.

Conrad Henry: Whoever's idea was, it wasn't my father's idea.

Jenny Casas: That’s usually how our conversations go. I ask him if his father took bribes from John Christopher, and he starts with the hard denial. Then, he backs it up.

Conrad Henry: My thing is, my dad had no wealth. He lived off of a public servant’s salary. We didn't own the building we lived in. We was renting on the second floor.

Jenny Casas: And then, he speculates. If his father did cut a deal with John Christopher, there must’ve been a reason.

Conrad Henry: I know my dad wanted to do what he could, you know? And like I said, if he could—he probably, his hands were probably cut. He couldn't do anything. Nobody would help him.

Jenny Casas: He remembers his father being almost melancholy about the dumps. If he had made a deal, it wasn’t one he was proud of.

Jenny Casas: How did your dad feel about it being called Mount Henry?
Conrad Henry: He was not proud of it. The first time he said it, we was in the car, we was driving past, and he said, “They called that Mount Henry.”

And I'm like, “What?” That’s when I said, “What?”

He was like, “Yeah.”

He was not smiling. He was quite subdued, quite sad about it in a lot of ways. It was like he couldn't get nothing done about it. It was like he'd been duped. Like he’d been tricked. Like he had been used to dump that there.

Jenny Casas: If Bill Henry did cut a deal with John Christopher, thinking the “rock crushing operation” would bring jobs to North Lawndale, then in a way, it’s almost the same miscalculation Bill Henry made when he helped put Eugene Sawyer in office.

Both were deals intended to benefit him—but also, ones he might’ve thought would ultimately benefit the ward. And both times, he was wrong.

In 1991, Bill Henry was voted out of office. And he died a year later.

Still the mountains of rubble and dirt grew in North Lawndale. Even under Jessie Miller, Bill Henry’s successor.

Conrad Henry: I just thought everything would work out.
Jenny Casas: Why did you think that?
Conrad Henry: I always thought that downtown, City Hall, would do right by the people. And that they would help us with this mountain of debris. You know, I didn't understand what was going on. But in retrospect I understand now.
Jenny Casas: What do you mean? What do you understand now?
Conrad Henry: Well I mean, they didn't think of the ward. They thought of the people in 24th Ward as second-class citizens. Their priority was their wards. The people that drove the bus that ran the political machine in Chicago, they cared about their neighborhoods.

Jenny Casas: Harold Washington tried to transform this system—to evenly spread resources, and power, across the city. But after he died, the Loop had its Renaissance with shiny new buildings and parks and public art. And North Lawndale got the broken pieces of what used to be.

Again, reporter Ben Joravsky.

Ben Joravsky: And I can remember interviewing people as long ago as the ‘80s—black people from the West Side, saying, “This is all part of a larger plot to let our areas just fall apart so that they can sell the land to white people.” And at the time, I was like, that sounds pretty far stretched.

But at some point in the ‘90s, I said, you know what? It was like, he was right, and I was wrong, and even if it is not a systematic plot, it's sort of like what's happening. They're letting it happen, whether they intend to do it or not. They're letting it happen.

Jenny Casas: Even Bill Henry talked about this:

Bill Henry: Any black person in this country that will stand up to wrong, that would stand up to the people that’s trying to come in and take the land, and move the folks out of there, any time a black man stand up to that, he must expect to be attacked.

Jenny Casas: And so, after whom, or what, should this dump have been nicknamed, if not Mount Henry? Mount Chicago Democratic Machine? Mount Apathy? Mount Racism?

Conrad Henry: This ward? They didn’t care. The 24th Ward was like a dumping ground for them.
Jenny Casas: So you feel like if something like this happened in a different ward, it would have been cleaned up, or it would have been handled differently?
Conrad Henry: Yep, sure, would have. They wouldn't have dumped it in the 11th Ward...

Jenny Casas: Daley’s ward.

Conrad Henry: It definitely wouldn't have been dropped in the First Ward...

Jenny Casas: Where the Loop was.

Conrad Henry: …It wouldn't have been in the 14th either...

Jenny Casas: Home to one of Chicago's most powerful and longest-serving aldermen.

Conrad Henry: …Forty-Seventh Ward it would have been gone.

Jenny Casas: A predominantly white ward with strong ties to the Daleys.

Robin Amer: And also, in this case, not a hypothetical. Because the wealthy, white 47th Ward was exactly where the dumpers were heading next.

That’s next time on The City.


Robin Amer: 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.

Additional production by Taylor Maycan, Isobel Cockerell, and Bianca Medious.

Chris Davis is our vice president for investigations. Scott Stein is our vice president of product. Our executive producer is Liz Nelson. The USA TODAY NETWORK’s president and publisher is Maribel Wadsworth.

Thanks to our sponsors for supporting the show, and special thanks to Misha Euceph, Danielle Svetcov, and Bill Zimmerman.

Archival footage was provided by WBBM Newsradio 780 and 105 point 9 FM, Media Burn, Chicago Public Library, and the Bob Crawford Audio Archive at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Additional support comes from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Social Justice News Nexus at Northwestern University.

If you like this show, you may also like WBEZ’s new podcast 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.

You can find The City on Facebook or Twitter @thecitypod. Or go to our website, where you can see photos of Bill Henry in his youth, and more. That’s

S1: Episode 2

Life in the Shadow of the Mountain

Lawyers debate whether 31,000 truckloads of debris is or isn’t “waste.” Justice is delayed. A mountain rises and casts its long shadow.

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Episode | Transcript

Life in the Shadow of the Mountain

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.

Robin Amer: 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."

Robin Amer: 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.

Robin Amer: 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.

Robin Amer: 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 not going.

Robin Amer: 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.

Robin Amer: 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

Robin Amer: 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...

Robin Amer: 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?

Robin Amer: 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?

Robin Amer: 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.
James Graney: OK…
John Christopher: I don't want to get into—
James Graney: 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 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.

Robin Amer: 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.


Robin Amer: 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.

Robin Amer: 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 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.


Robin Amer: 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 to 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.

Robin Amer: That’s next time on The City.


Robin Amer: 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

S1: Episode 1

Six Stories

Chicago, 1990. A guy with a loud sweater, manicured nails and connections to some very powerful people idles in a limousine near a vacant lot. A fleet of dump trucks unloads literal tons of busted concrete—and keep coming back. Neighborhood residents take action. The mess becomes much bigger than a six-story pile of rubble.

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Six Stories

Robin Amer: There’s this vacant lot on the West Side of Chicago. It’s about a half-dozen miles from the city’s downtown—what we call the Loop. And this lot is huge.

Robin Amer: This lot looks to me like it's about a full city block. It's a big lot.
Gladys Woodson: Yes, it is.
Jacquelyn Rodney: It's a big lot.

Robin Amer: That’s Gladys Woodson and Jacquelyn Rodney, who live nearby.

Robin Amer: And now it's pretty overgrown. There's full-size trees. There's prairie grass. So what did it look like when he was operating?
Gladys Woodson: It was a mess. It was a mess. That's best I can say for it.

Robin Amer: I first started visiting this lot, which is in a neighborhood called North Lawndale, after hearing a story about that something that happened here.

Gladys Woodson: At first, he had big 18-wheelers lined up. You know, I just thought, "Well, somebody's just parking their trucks in there.” ’Til a guy say, "Ms. Woodson, come down, look at this. Do you know that somebody’s over there dumping in that lot?”

Robin Amer: I’ve been reporting on Chicago for more than a decade and I’ve reported all kinds of stories of the built environment—about secret tunnels hidden underneath the Loop, and about how you replace a train bridge while the train is still running. I’ve also reported on housing discrimination and predatory lending.

So, stories about all of the remarkable stuff that gets built in Chicago. But also about how it gets built—and all the foul and crooked things that people will do when they think nobody’s looking.

And so the story of what happened on this lot—the story I want to tell you—stunned me despite everything I already knew about Chicago. About how corrupt and ruthless it can be. About how stark the divisions are between black and white, rich and poor; between the people who hoard power and the people who will fight for their fair share.

Gladys Woodson: Any time you see anybody drive over in a vacant lot in a limo, you know it's no good.

Robin Amer: This story is about a giant illegal dump. Six stories high.

Jacquelyn Rodney: It was huge mountains...concrete, garbage...

Robin Amer: Built from the broken pieces of a city in the midst of a so-called Renaissance.

Conrad Henry: I thought that downtown, City Hall, would do right by the people. You know, I didn’t think they didn’t care less about us.

Robin Amer: Built not just by dump trucks and bulldozers and construction cranes, but also by corruption, apathy and greed.

Jim Davis: So, I said, "OK, if a public official came by today and said, 'I need $500,' what would you do?" And he reached into his back pocket and pulled out five $100 bills.

Robin Amer: The man who built this dump had deep ties to Chicago’s criminal underworld.

Tony D’Angelo: He looked at the owner of the restaurant, he goes, “If you don't pay your milk money, you're going to get a pineapple through the window.”

Robin Amer: He profited at the neighborhood's expense.

John Christopher: We’re no altar boys at this fucking table. Let’s put it on the table there. I made a lot of money over there.

Robin Amer: And before he was done, the FBI would be protecting him.

I’m Robin Amer. From USA TODAY, this is The City.


Robin Amer: Let’s start at the beginning.

Before the dump trucks came, before the lawsuits and the secret FBI tapes...before the arrests and the president’s executive order...before “the Mountain” appeared and then disappeared, along with the guy who put it there ...there was Daley.

Radio announcer: You're listening to Richard M. Daley deliver his inaugural address live on WBBM AM from Orchestra Hall.

Robin Amer: April 24, 1989. Chicago’s new mayor is sworn into office.

Richard M. Daley: It's time to leave behind old setbacks, disappointments and battles. Because in the campaign for a better Chicago, we're all allies.

Robin Amer: In the 40 years leading up to his inauguration, Chicago had lost nearly a million people, along with hundreds of thousands of jobs. The new Mayor Daley wanted to stem that tide. He wanted his Chicago to wake up from its post-industrial slumber and thrive.

Richard M. Daley: We either rise up as one city or we sit back and watch Chicago decline.

Robin Amer: So Daley began a major push to revamp Chicago’s aging downtown, paying special attention to the tourist-friendly destinations in the Loop and along the lakefront:

He’d go on to renovate Navy Pier—with its 150-foot-tall Ferris wheel.

Expand McCormick Place—the biggest convention center in North America.

And build Millennium Park—with its big silver Bean and Frank Gehry-designed amphitheater.

He also set about rebuilding crucial parts of the city’s infrastructure, including its roads and highways.

Chicago is ringed by highways named for dead politicians: the Kennedy, the Eisenhower, the Stevenson.

Millions of cars and 30 years of wear and tear, and ice and salt had worn down these aging roadways. By the spring of 1990, the city was full of workers in hard hats and orange vests, breaking down concrete, jackhammering asphalt, gathering up dirt, and gravel, loading it into dump trucks and hauling it away.

Law-abiding trucking companies carted this debris to distant landfills. But some trucks headed west. They left behind the skyscrapers of the Loop, and traveled over the Chicago River, into the city’s neighborhoods. They drove through Greektown, and what was left of Little Italy, past the University of Illinois, and the stadium where the Bulls and Blackhawks play, past the county hospital, to a vacant lot in North Lawndale, near the home of Gladys Woodson.

* * *

Gladys Woodson: My first memory was the president of the 4100 Block came down and asked for Ms. Woodson. And I told him, “What do you want with her?”

Robin Amer: Ms. Woodson was the president of the 4300 Block. Together, these block clubs kept eyes on the street, and made sure their community was safe.

Gladys Woodson: He said, “Well, I was told that she was the president of this block and if I want anything done to contact her, because she would fight with me.” And I say, “Well, what are we fighting about?”

Robin Amer: North Lawndale’s block clubs banded together to do things like get a new park, or keep drug dealers off the corner. That day, they would confront a new challenge.

Gladys Woodson: He said, “Did you not know, that it's a dump, an illegal dump, over ‘cross the street?” And I say, “No.” He said, “Come on. Let's walk down there.”

Robin Amer: He walked her to a vacant lot a block from her home.

Robin Amer: So what did you see when you went over there with him?
Gladys Woodson: Well first of all I saw a lot of trucks lined up blocking the view.  And behind the trucks there was a pile of stuff that was accumulating. And it looked like it was a place that they was going to grind up gravel or something.

Robin Amer: She watched the trucks roll down the street, belching diesel fumes and kicking up dust. And once the trucks made it to the corner, they would turn and head into the vacant lot, park, tip up their cargo and dump it.

Robin Amer: And so when you saw this line of trucks and this pile of rubble, what did you think?
Gladys Woodson: I think, “Oh no, we can’t have this over here. This is bad for health, bad for our children, bad for our houses.” You know, it's just going to take our neighborhood down.

Robin Amer: What Ms. Woodson didn’t know, was that just nine blocks away, there was an even bigger dump.

Back in the spring of 1990, if you’d walked out Ms. Woodson’s front door, past the vacant lot where she saw the dumping, past the train tracks, past convenience stores and gas stations and storefront churches, you’d get to Roosevelt Road and another vacant lot.

This one as big as 13 football fields … half the size of the Pentagon. And this one was across the street from Sumner Elementary School, where Delores Robinson taught eighth-grade math.

Delores Robinson: My classroom became Room 114, right next to the office. It was on ground level. So I would open the windows in the morning. And you can hear and see, I kept hearing these trucks, these dump trucks.

Robin Amer: They were the same trucks Ms. Woodson had seen, and they were dumping here, too.

Delores Robinson: There was bricks and stones and concrete, and, you know, iron, and just all kinds of construction debris.

Robin Amer: The average dump truck can haul up to 24 tons of stuff, and each new truck that came into the lot would add to the pile.

Delores Robinson: It started to grow, and sort of get like a little bump. And then a little hill. But I could see a mountain growing.

Ms. Robinson had been at Sumner Elementary for more than 20 years. She’d arrived in North Lawndale soon after it changed from a white neighborhood to an almost entirely black one. A hundred thousand people lived in North Lawndale then. Factory jobs were abundant, and people walked to work at Zenith and Sunbeam and Sears & Roebuck. Back then, there’d also been an enormous tobacco factory across the street from the school.

Delores Robinson: That building covered blocks. It was a monstrosity of a property.

Robin Amer: But during Ms. Robinson's first decade at Sumner, North Lawndale lost 80 percent of its manufacturing jobs and a third of its residents. Companies either closed up shop or moved out to the suburbs. And along with those departures, attention and resources from the city seem to disappear. In segregated Chicago, North Lawndale felt abandoned by the business community and the city. In 1973, the tobacco company moved to the suburbs, and left its building behind.

Delores Robinson: It was just left there. And within a matter of a few years, it became hollow, you know, the breaking out the windows and taking of fence or iron and scrap. And slowly but surely, it deteriorated to an eyesore. It was just, it was horrible.

Robin Amer: Neighborhood kids called it “Ghost Town.”

Delores Robinson: So, I'm a classroom teacher, and my kids now, I’m predominantly seventh and eighth grade. I said, "Guys, you're not going over—don't go across the street to the..."

"Oh, Miss Robinson, we go through there all the time."


"Yeah, we go over there all the time. It's fun going in and out the halls."

I said, "It's dangerous. You can be hurt."

"No, we're cool. We're okay."

Robin Amer: Ms. Robinson once described herself to me as “five feet tall in sandals”—smaller than many of her eighth grade students. But still, she saw herself as their protector.

Delores Robinson: I said, "I'm gonna be looking out this window. I better not see one of you, my students, come out of that building. If I see you going in and out that vacant building, you gonna be in trouble with me." I said, "And it's because I love you, because I care. I don't want you hurt."

Robin Amer: But she later heard a story about someone who did get hurt. Ms. Robinson remembers him as a boy, 12 or 13 years old, who fell three stories from a fire escape.

Delores Robinson: It was one of the ladders that you come down. He was on one of those rot—it had rotten and rusted. It swung, and it broke, and he fell. And he was seriously injured.

Robin Amer: Ms. Robinson thought of him when she looked out her classroom window that spring day and saw the trucks arrive.

She and others had pushed for years to have that factory torn down. And when it finally was in the mid-1980s, it was a victory. A threat to her students, neutralized.

But now a new threat—a new form of blight—was coming to take its place.

Delores Robinson: I started to worry about what is over there? And how is it affecting the environment of these kids over here? I said, "This is so dangerous for our babies."

Robin Amer: How could someone set up an illegal dump across the street from a school and houses and a church?

I want you to picture a dump truck pulling up outside your door, and dropping 24 tons of busted concrete and rusted rebar and bricks and dirt and sand, and then driving away. Then another truck comes, and then another. Imagine this pile growing taller than a child, then taller than you.

What would you do to stop it? Where would you go for help?

Ms. Woodson, the block club president, had lived in a historic greystone since 1970. She’d bought the house after moving to Chicago from her tiny, rural hometown of Vance, Mississippi.

And in some ways, Chicago couldn’t be more different from Vance, which didn’t even have electric lights. But for Ms. Woodson, her block in North Lawndale was also like a small town. She knew all of the neighborhood kids.

Gladys Woodson: I knew they mamas, and they mamas, and we sort of grew up together.

Ms. Woodson and her husband, LC, had raised their kids and grandkids there. And as president of her block, it was on her to protect it.

Gladys Woodson: You just don't let nobody come in and just take away your livelihood.

Robin Amer: So, she and her neighbors started staking out the lot, to see if they could figure out how to stop the dumping. And as they did, they saw that the trucks kept coming by day, and also, in the dead of night.

Gladys Woodson: We have come out here, like, one or two o’clock at night to watch the trucks go in and take down license plates number.
Robin Amer: One and two o’clock in the morning?
Gladys Woodson: Three, four in the morning. And we used to meet them up here because we figured that we can get the license plate number, we can turn them over to the police. So, what we did, we started getting license plate numbers, and what we found, he had one set of plates on the front and a different set of plates on the back.

Robin Amer: It seemed really suspicious. And that was before they saw the man in charge.

Gladys Woodson: Any time you see anybody drive over in a vacant lot in a limo you know it's no good.
Robin Amer: Oh my gosh. What did you think was happening back there, when you saw him drive up in a limo?
Gladys Woodson: I just thought he was a, I don't know, gang banger or something or other. You know, I didn't know what to think.

Robin Amer: The man in the limo was a heavy-set white guy, with a gruff voice and a receding hairline. His name was John Christopher. And he wasn’t just dumping debris in North Lawndale. He was laying bare the city’s ugliest divisions and its starkest divides.


Gladys Woodson: OK. This is a letter that the South West United Block Club Council wrote to a lot of peoples.

Robin Amer: Ms. Woodson and her neighbors didn’t know who John Christopher was yet. But their neighborhood had already been overrun by trucks and debris, and it seemed like the damage could soon be permanent.

So following their stakeout, Ms. Woodson and 20 of her fellow block club presidents crammed into her living room. Anyone who couldn’t fit on the cream-colored sofa spilled into the dining room or sat on the plush carpeted floor.

The presidents of the 1500 Block and the 4300 Block were there—representatives from around the neighborhood. Together, this coalition drafted a letter.

Gladys Woodson: We, the Southwest Lawndale United Block Club Council, are requesting that you intercede for us.

Robin Amer: They sent the letter to the zoning board. And the water department. And to the Department of Streets and Sanitation. They sent the letter to their alderman—which is what we call City Council members in Chicago. They sent it to the mayor and a member of Congress.

Gladys Woodson: We wrote everybody from who's who to who's that!
Robin Amer: And how optimistic were you in those first few weeks and months that you could that you could deal with this problem and make it go away?
Gladys Woodson: Well, I thought once we contact all of these peoples, and they found out what was going on, that somebody would stop it.

Robin Amer: Ms. Woodson was right, at least at first. In June 1990, about a month after receiving her letters, the city finally sent an inspector to check out the lots.

And when he got there, the inspector saw piles of debris he’d later describe as “taller than you and I”—more than six feet tall already.

So the inspector called his boss and said, “We’ve got a problem.”

Henry Henderson: People who were working as inspectors in the city called me up and said, "We've got this huge amount of material building up in this particular site."

This is the inspector’s boss: a city lawyer named Henry Henderson who specialized in environmental issues.

Henry Henderson: It was a huge mound, and it was across the street from a school. So we got in our cars and went out to visit it. And it was, this is a gigantic, gigantic issue.

Robin Amer: Henry Henderson had learned that John Christopher, the guy Ms. Woodson saw in the limo, was actually running the dumps. So Henderson called Christopher into his office for a meeting.

Robin Amer: Was that the first time that you had met with him?
Henry Henderson: Yes.
Robin Amer: What did he look like? How did he speak? What impression did he leave on you?
Henry Henderson: He's a very, very large person. He had one of these incredibly colorful sweaters on, you know.
Robin Amer: What, like a Bill Cosby dad sweater?
Henry Henderson: Kind of like that, yeah. And I was struck by the fact that it looked like he had his nails done.

Robin Amer: Going into this meeting, Henderson thought he could demand that John Christopher stop, and that he would.

But John Christopher had permits he’d gotten from the city to operate a rock crusher—a giant machine that pulverizes concrete into gravel, which can then be sold back to construction companies to use in their building projects.

Henry Henderson: That was his story about what he was doing. And he was particularly aiming at, "This is construction debris that can be recycled, and I want to crush it, and the material has value. So I'm a recycler and I'm a beautifier." That was his claim as to what his activities were about.

Robin Amer: John Christopher was dumping thousands of tons of construction waste across the street from a school, and people’s homes, and businesses. But the way he put it to Henderson, he was helping North Lawndale.

You’ll hear a lot about John Christopher in this story, but you won’t hear from him, at least not yet. I’ve spent years looking for him, and if he is still alive, he’s likely living under a new name. But I’ll get into that later.

We did talk to someone who did business with John Christopher during this time. This source worked for another local construction company that actually did recycle concrete as part of its business. He didn’t want to be named because he wasn’t authorized to talk to us and he was afraid of losing his job.

He told us that John Christopher owed people money.

And we didn’t hear this from just this guy. Not long after John Christopher started dumping in North Lawndale, another local construction company sued him in county court, alleging he owed them nearly $80,000.

Then, one day, around this same time, our source gets a call from John Christopher, who says, “Meet me in North Lawndale.”

So our source drives to the lot and sees the dump. At first, he’s confused. But then John Christopher explains. This was how he was going to pay the guy’s company back.

See, construction companies usually pay to dump in legal, permitted landfills. John Christopher was offering up his lots in North Lawndale as a cheaper alternative. A legal dump charges, say, $150 a load. John Christopher was asking for as little as $10 a load—a figure he later admitted to in court. He’d allow this guy to dump for cheaper than he would at a real landfill and gradually make up what he owed.

John Christopher pitched it as a win-win. He would repay his debts, and the source’s company would save a bunch of money by dumping on the sites—illegally. And the more all these companies dumped in North Lawndale, the more money John Christopher would make, and the more these construction companies would save.

But this guy wanted nothing to do with John Christopher. When he looked around, he saw piles of stuff everywhere—way more than anyone could reasonably crush. And, there was stuff that couldn’t be crushed—sand, dirt, rebar. Our source told us that guys like John Christopher give rock crushing a bad name.

* * *

As the spring of 1990 turned into summer, despite complaints from neighbors and the letter-writing campaign, and the visits from inspectors, and the meeting with city lawyers, it became clear that John Christopher was not going to stop dumping in North Lawndale.

The noise and the dust had gotten worse. Some of Ms. Woodson’s elderly neighbors relied on oxygen tanks, and the dust was making it harder for them to breathe.

Gladys Woodson: So a group of us, we walked over there to talk to John Christopher. And we asked him, could he stop grinding or whatever he was doing over there?

He told us he could do whatever he pleased. And we told him, “Well, OK, we'll go to court.”

And he said, “If you do go to court, when I leave, I'm gonna leave everything just like it is now.” He was very arrogant.

Robin Amer: When a city gets rebuilt, it puts its new skyscrapers and parks and monuments front and center.

It doesn’t always want you to see how these things got built. Or who got hurt in the process.

Robin Amer: And so you go over, you meet this guy for the first time. You tell him, “Hey, we have breathing problems. We have senior citizens. We've got kids.” And his response is basically—?
Gladys Woodson: “So?” That was his response, “so?”
Robin Amer: OK, so how did you feel after that confrontation?
Gladys Woodson: Let's get him. Let's go to court.

Robin Amer: That’s next time on The City.


Robin Amer: The City is a production of USA TODAY and is distributed in partnership with Wondery.

Our show was reported and produced by Wilson Sayre, and 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.

Additional production by Taylor Maycan, Isobel Cockerell, and Bianca Medious.

Chris Davis is our vice president for investigations. Scott Stein is our vice president of product. Our executive producer is Liz Nelson. The USA TODAY Network’s president and publisher is Maribel Wadsworth.

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.

Archival audio courtesy of WBBM Newsradio 780 and 105 point 9 FM.

If you like this show you may also like WBEZ’s new podcast, 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 or Twitter at the city pod, or visit our website, where you can see photos of our characters and an augmented reality version of John Christopher’s dumps. That’s


Introducing The City

The City tells true stories of how power works in urban America. This season’s story starts in Chicago, 1990.

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Episode | Transcript

Introducing The City

A reader/listener note: This story contains explicit language.

Robin Amer: There’s this vacant lot on the West Side of Chicago. It’s about a half-dozen miles from the city’s downtown—what we call the Loop. And this lot is huge.

Robin Amer: This lot looks to me like it's about a full city block. It's a big lot.

Gladys Woodson: Yes, it is.

Jacquelyn Rodney: It's a big lot.

Robin Amer: That’s Gladys Woodson and Jacquelyn Rodney, who live nearby.

Robin Amer: And now it's pretty overgrown. There's full-size trees. There's prairie grass. So what did it look like when he was operating?

Gladys Woodson: It was a mess. It was a mess. That's best I can say for it.

Robin Amer: I first started visiting this lot, which is in a neighborhood called North Lawndale, after hearing a story about that something that happened here.

Gladys Woodson: At first he had big 18-wheelers lined up. You know, I just thought, "Well, somebody's just parking their trucks in there.” ’Til a guy says, "Ms. Woodson, come down, look at this. Do you know that somebody’s over there dumping in that lot?”

Robin Amer: I’ve been reporting on Chicago for more than a decade and I’ve reported all kinds of stories of the built environment—about secret tunnels hidden underneath the Loop, and about how you replace a train bridge while the train is still running. I’ve also reported on housing discrimination and predatory lending.

So, stories about all of the remarkable stuff that gets built in Chicago. But also about how it gets built, and all the foul and crooked things that people will do when they think nobody’s looking.

And so the story of what happened on this lot—the story I want to tell you—stunned me despite everything I already knew about Chicago.

About how corrupt and ruthless it can be. About how stark the divisions are between black and white, rich and poor. Between the people who hoard power and the people who will fight for their fair share.

Gladys Woodson: Any time you see anybody drive over in a vacant lot in a limo, you know it's no good.

Robin Amer: This story is about a giant illegal dump. Six stories high.

Jacquelyn Rodney: It was huge mountains—concrete, garbage.

Robin Amer: Built from the broken pieces of a city in the midst of a so-called Renaissance.

Conrad Henry: I thought that downtown, City Hall, would do right by the people. You know, I didn’t think they didn’t care less about us.

Robin Amer: Built not just by dump trucks and bulldozers and construction cranes, but also by corruption, apathy, and greed.

Jim Davis: So, I said, “OK, if a public official came by today and said, ‘I need $500,’ what would you do?” And he reached into his back pocket, and pulled out five $100 bills.

Robin Amer: The man who built this dump had deep ties to Chicago’s criminal underworld.

Tony D’Angelo: He looked at the owner of the restaurant, he goes, “If you don't pay your milk money, you're going to get a pineapple through the window.”

Robin Amer: He profited at the neighborhood's expense.

John Christopher: We’re no altar boys at this fucking table. Let’s put it on the table there. I made a lot of money over there.

Robin Amer: And before he was done, the FBI would be protecting him.

I’m Robin Amer and this is The City, a new podcast from USA TODAY coming September 24. Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

The Mountain

A 3D interactive exploration

Explore the six-story pile of rubble for yourself and see the catastrophic effect it had on neighborhood residents and the environment, as we take you back to North Lawndale, 1992. For the full augmented reality experience (available exclusively on iOS devices), download the USA TODAY app for free by clicking the button below.

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