'They looked like Isis': masked raid led to 'kidnapping' at Chicago police site
- Men recall incommunicado detention in caged room ‘like a dog’ for hours
- Nine victims have emerged from Homan Square despite police denials
Wednesday 4 March 2015 10.13 EST Last modified on Wednesday 4 March 2015 12.30 EST
When the group of armed masked men burst into Eddie’s Sandwiches in Chicago, John Vergara initially thought he had walked into a stickup. Their guns were drawn, and they told everyone at Eddie’s that afternoon to put their hands on the counter.
Vergara, an art teacher who had stopped in for a coffee, remembered: “At first I thought it was a robbery. I didn’t know it was the police until the sergeant walked in.”
The cops had “machine guns – I mean, I’m talking about rifles,” recalled Jose Garcia, then a cook at Eddie’s. “They all had masks, all of them. They looked like Isis – put it that way.”
It was September 29 2011, and it was just the beginning of an ordeal Vergara and Garcia say led to police holding them – along with the sandwich-shop owner and two others – for eight or nine hours, without any public notice of their whereabouts, without a visit from their lawyers, or without even a phone call.
The group’s place of confinement was Homan Square, the police warehouse complex on Chicago’s west side that is at the center of controversy for its incommunicado detentions and interrogations without the benefit of lawyers. Some have likened the building to the domestic police equivalent of a CIA black site. Garcia, reflecting on his time chained up inside Homan Square, compares it to Guantánamo Bay. Vergara, who drew pictures of it, grew scared upon his return to the site with a Guardian photographer on Tuesday afternoon.
Though the masked police demanded confessions, Vergara and Garcia told the Guardian, everything changed that night in 2011 once Vergara dropped the name of a prominent Chicago civil-rights attorney. Only then, they said, did the police let all but one of the Homan five go – on the condition that Vergara promise not to tell the attorney anything about what happened.
“We’re in an abandoned building, we’re freaking out, we’re seeing these guys with masks coming in and out, and John is telling them they’re bogus, ‘You guys are doing this illegally,’ and this and this and this,” Garcia said. “Then they came back and all of a sudden they seemed scared.”
“I pretty much was kidnapped,” said Vergara – who, until a Guardian investigation exposed allegations of police misconduct atHoman Square, kept his word not to talk publicly about what happened to him. “I did not have any idea where I was. I didn’t even know about that building until that day.”
One week after the Homan Square revelations began, the Chicago police department continues to deny in unspecific statements that there is anything untoward about the facility, emphasizing its role hosting an evidence locker and special unit headquarters, while insisting the Guardian’s reporting is inaccurate and that Homan Square “is not a secret facility”. The department did not respond to detailed questions for this story, consistent with its approach to the Guardian’s investigations into Chicago police abuse published over the last two weeks.
But now the Guardian has interviewed nine people, seven of them Chicagoans, who have told notably consistent stories about police holding them in Homan Square for hours – and, in one case, days – without providing any way to notify their families or their lawyers as to where they are. Like Deandre Hutcherson in 2005, Vergara and Garcia went through hours locked incommunicado in the building, only to be set free without any charge.
Backed by attorneys and local activists, these citizens point to Homan Square as the latest example of Chicago policing tactics run amok – and of American police officers growing over-militarized and threatening to the very communities, particularly black and brown ones, they are supposed to protect.
No ordinary cell: ‘We were cuffed to each other and to the bar’
Until he was taken to Homan Square, Vergara did not know about the compound – at least not under that name. Around the heavily Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park, the facility – a few miles southwest from Eddie’s, at the intersection of South Homan Street and West Fillmore Avenue – is more often known as the Fillmore Building.
“Everybody’s got a nickname for it. I know it as the Fillmore Building,” Vergara said.
Vergara, now 42, didn’t expect to see it firsthand. He had just started a job teaching art at a nearby Boys & Girls Club, and stopped in at Eddie’s for a caffeine boost. As fate would have it, the police were also interested in the shop’s owner, Eddie Calderon – not that anyone at Eddie’s knew why.
Garcia, now 45, was one of Calderon’s cooks, and had a hard time believing his employer was involved in anything illegal.
“This guy’s never been in trouble, and the next thing you know, they come out with drugs [charges]. We’re like: ‘What?’” Garcia said.
Eddie Calderon, the owner of Eddie’s Sandwiches, declined to comment to the Guardian.
Vergara and Garcia said that officers initially swooped up the two of them, Calderon and three others in a paddy wagon: one member of the group, a cook, the cops apparently let go; the others they took to Homan Square. Both Vergara and Garcia said police officers never read them their rights, meant to protect against self-implication and protected by the US constitution.
Unlike the seven other people held at Homan Square interviewed by the Guardian, Garcia and Vergara said all five of them were held in the same room. It was no ordinary cell: three sides of it were concrete and the fourth, containing a door, was metal-link fencing – reminiscent of the “cages” described by Homan Square arrestees Brock Terry and David Smith, as well as former police superintendent Richard Brzeczek. Vergara, the artist, later drew pictures of the room.
The cage-like area had neither a toilet nor a sink, only a bench with a metal bar behind it. Officers cuffed Vergara – “like a dog,” he said – by one wrist to the bar and by the other to an elderly customer who, he remembered, was wearing a hospital bracelet.
“We were cuffed to each other and to the bar,” Garcia said. “They thought I was a threat because of my size. I was like, ‘Dude, you don’t have to put me like I’m an animal.’”
Like the other seven people whose stories from inside Homan Square have been detailed in the Guardian, Vergara and Garcia said they were not booked, not charged there and not given a phone call. Vergara said he was denied when he asked for an attorney. Both men said police did not inform them why they would be in Homan Square for what they both estimated was the next eight to nine hours.
Instead, officers told the five, Vergara remembered: “If you guys don’t fess up, we’re gonna put all of this on you, we’re gonna split this up that we found, and we’re gonna put each and every one of you with a piece of this if you guys don’t talk.”
The deal and the police report: ‘Eight, nine hours my family doesn’t know where I’m at’
Hours into their confinement, Vergara said, he thought of something: he mentioned that he wanted to speak to Blake Horwitz, a well-known civil rights attorney who has pursued cases against Chicago police.
“When I mentioned his name, the whole game changed,” Vergara said.
“Humboldt Park, everybody could be a paralegal there. That’s how much they fuck with you, the police. We know the ins and outs,” Garcia.
He continued: “They probably thought we was some dumbass Ricans or whatever, we don’t know shit. So when we start spitting out some of this paralegal stuff we know – oh, shit, damn.”
The duo remember a bare-faced and seemingly middle-aged sergeant saying he wanted to work out a deal: “’You don’t say nothing and we’ll leave it at that.’ And I’m like, well, no – if I don’t say nothing, that means you guys uncuff us, take us back to the restaurant, and I won’t say nothing to the attorney,” Vergara said.
“I said, ‘John, look, bro, just tell them anything so we can get the fuck out of here,’” Garcia said.
The deal was struck. “About an hour later, he came back and they uncuffed us all,” Vergara said. Police drove them back to Eddie’s Sandwiches – all, that is, except Calderon, who was taken to Central Male Lockup on 26th Street and California Avenue and charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine.
Calderon would later accept a plea deal and serve probation. Vergara, Garcia and the other two went free.
Chicago’s police insist in their statements that full documentation exists for people detained at Homan Square: “There are always records of anyone who is arrested by CPD, and this is no different at Homan Square,” the department said in a “factsheet” distributed Sunday. But the police report of Calderon’s arrest appears to leave out their time at the warehouse.
Phillip Oliver, an attorney for Calderon, described Calderon’s official arrest report to the Guardian. It reads in part: “The arrestee as well as all the above noted subjects were taken to Unit 189 for further investigation. All the other subjects were name-checked and released.” According to a Chicago police directive, Unit 189 is Narcotics.
Asked if the report specified either the Homan Square facility or how long the men were detained there, Oliver replied: “No.”
Before driving Vergara, Garcia and the two other customers back to Eddie’s Sandwiches, police apologized to them.
“They pretty much, after all that, all the aggression – we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that – then it became, ‘Oh, it’s probably a misunderstanding.’ Well, wait a minute: eight, nine hours my family doesn’t know where I’m at. You guys kidnapped us,” Vergara said.
Police denials and political protest: ‘Not much happens in Chicago without making the mayor move’
Vergara ultimately quit his job at the Boys & Girls Club a few weeks later. It felt awkward, he said, after one of his students and another employee had seen police marching them out the back of the restaurant. Vergara didn’t want to tempt fate – or any police who might grow concerned he hadn’t kept his bargain.
“Vergara has shown the public that the Chicago police department can kidnap and secretly interrogate people for having done nothing more than get a cup of coffee at the wrong restaurant at the wrong time,” said local attorney Billy Joe Mills.
Horwitz did not want to comment beyond saying that he had indeed not heard of the incident. But he added that he did not find the police’s willingness to free a man in exchange for his silence surprising.
“That kind of stuff is not uncommon,” Horwitz said. “I would say in some venues, it’s just the way things are done. I’ve seen so much, you have no idea. So honestly, I don’t get disturbed by these things anymore. I’ve seen torture, I’ve seen death.”
Chicago police and politicians, like Mayor Rahm Emanuel, continue to deny accounts like those from nine first-hand descriptions of people detained at Homan Square. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the candidate who forced Emanuel into an April runoff election last week, has yet to address them.
“You’re going to have to deal with this,” Darrell Cannon, a man who identifies as a survivor of torture under the notorious Chicago police commander Jon Burge, said at a demonstration on Monday night, pointing to Emanuel’s office at Chicago city hall.
The protest, dubbed ‘Reparations Not Black Sites: Rally for the Run Off’, represented the latest effort from activists pushing Emanuel and the city to take up an ordinance that would include further payments to victims under Burge as well as a formal apology from the city, community centers and a requirement for Chicago public schools to teach the history of police abuse in the city.
“Not much happens in Chicago without making the mayor move,” said Kelly Hayes, an organizer of the event.
Page May, a co-organizer of the event and of We Charge Genocide, which recently presented a report on Chicago police abuse to the United Nations Committee Against Torture, said: “People have been talking about this facility and people weren’t paying attention – the police have historically done exactly this.”
The Guardian’s Homan Square exposé emerged from its February investigation of Richard Zuley, the Chicago police detective turned Guantánamo Bay torturer. While there is no evidence Zuley was involved with Homan Square, when Jose Garcia saw an MSNBC segment on Zuley, he immediately drew a parallel to his own experience.
“I seen that, and I’m saying to myself, Chicago police officer? Wait a minute, those sons of bitches – that’s how they did us,” Garcia said. “I said to myself, that’s how those fuckers did us, that same shit, that Guantánamo Bay shit.”Garcia continued: “It was like we were terrorists, you know what I’m saying? Off some petty shit.”