Badge of honor
Veteran trooper Michale Callahan believed that the Illinois State Police would always do right. He was wrong.
Mike Callahan was sitting inside a giant piece of fruit on a carnival ride called the Berry-Go-Round when he heard somebody yell, “There’s the narc!”
Looking around, he recognized a crack-cocaine-dealing gangster — a man then awaiting sentencing on a drug charge, thanks to Callahan’s undercover work.
As a master sergeant with the Illinois State Police, Callahan was, for the most part, past participating personally in drug buys. But as supervisor of a narcotics task force in north-central Illinois, he had accompanied a tentative young cop working a sting in a biker bar, which is where he had crossed paths with this particular specimen of humanity.
“There’s his kid. That’s his wife,” the drug dealer was growling as his buddies gathered around. “Make sure you get a good look at ’em, ’cause we’re gonna get ’em.”
Callahan realized that they had spied his spouse, Lily, waiting at the ride’s exit. And he knew that his 3-year-old son, Tanner, might also be in danger, trapped next to him inside a metal strawberry that was starting to whirl. Callahan shouted to the attendant to stop the ride, unbuckled his son’s seat belt and handed Tanner to Lily. Then he phoned the local prosecutor, to let him hear the drug dealer’s threats. The prosecutor told Callahan to arrest the man, but there were about 10 bikers and Callahan was unarmed. Finally, local cops arrived and took the drug dealer to jail.
With an intimidation conviction added to his Class X narcotics felony, the man drew a substantial prison sentence. But the damage to the Callahan family couldn’t be undone. News accounts of the trial included the scary carnival scene, and the Callahans’ neighbors in the Crystal Lake area suddenly became leery. Tanner was no longer asked to play dates; the family felt ostracized. Callahan asked ISP for a transfer, took a substantial loss on the sale of his home, and moved his family 200 miles south to Champaign.
This story is one of the first things Callahan tells a reporter, and it’s an illuminating capsule history. Not only does it explain why Callahan left the more intense crime-fighting environment of Chicago for a job downstate, but the nonchalance of his tone also demonstrates the depth of his dedication to the Illinois State Police. He doesn’t tell it to show how tough things can get; it’s more like an anecdote proving that things can always get worse.
To Callahan, the thug’s threats at the carnival were nothing next to what he has endured over the past five years from his own colleagues at ISP. In April, a federal jury in Urbana agreed, awarding Callahan almost $700,000 in damages as a result of his lawsuit against three officers in his chain of command.
ISP Director Larry Trent reacted by sending his commanders an e-mail describing the verdict as “a blatant miscarriage of justice.”
State police attorneys have filed post-trial motions seeking a new trial or at least a significant reduction in financial penalties. While these pleadings are pending, these attorneys say they can’t speak on the record about this case.
Callahan’s case began in 2000, soon after he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in charge of investigations in a nine-county area of eastern Illinois known as District 10. On April 14, a few weeks after landing this position, Callahan was handed a two-page letter with a stack of documents.
The letter was addressed to the ISP’s then-director, Sam Nolen. It began with a statement from a witness who had information concerning two Diablo gang members who disappeared in 1984, as well as information about the 1986 double homicide of Dyke and Karen Rhoads, newlyweds who were stabbed to death in their Paris, Ill., home.
This letter presented ISP with a problem: If the information proved true, it meant that at least one and perhaps both of the men already convicted of the Rhoads murders should probably not be kept in prison. Furthermore, the letter needed to be answered because the CBS TV show 48 Hours was about to air an episode devoted to the Rhoads case.
Callahan’s first clue about what kind of hot potato had just landed in his lap came a few days later, when the three state-police investigators originally assigned to the case started calling. One by one, they asked Callahan not to make them look bad, not to ruin their reputations. But when he pulled the file and began sorting through the evidence, he found too many inconsistencies to ignore.
The murders took place in the early-morning hours of July 6, 1986, and were discovered when the Rhoads’ house burned, around 4:30 a.m. The crime went unsolved for several months, until a pair of supposed eyewitnesses suddenly came forward.
Debbie Reinbolt and Darrell Herrington were both admitted alcoholics who between them had seven DUI convictions. They approached Paris police, separately and voluntarily — Herrington in September, Reinbolt the following February — with stories that had a common theme: Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock as the Rhoads’ killers.
Herrington’s version had him hitching a ride home from a tavern with Steidl and Whitlock around midnight. Herrington said that he passed out in the car (he had been drinking since noon) and awoke to discover that he was at the Rhoads residence. Hearing a commotion, he ran to the back door and used a credit card to jimmy the lock. Once inside, he saw Steidl coming down the stairs, carrying a bloody knife. Steidl took him upstairs, forced him to view the dead bodies, and threatened to kill Herrington and his family if he told anyone.
Reinbolt’s account had her drinking around noon and adding codeine and marijuana to the mix by evening. She claimed to have skipped going to work at the nursing home where she was employed as a certified nurse’s aide, instead having someone punch in for her. She borrowed a car and went bar-hopping, landing at either noon or 3:45 p.m. (her accounts varied) at a tavern named Jeanie’s Place, where she overheard Whitlock making ominous remarks to Dyke Rhoads. She was concerned enough that, on her way home, she drove by the Rhoads home and happened to see Whitlock outside.
In one version, she parked her car, entered the residence through the back door, and went upstairs in time to hold Karen Rhoads down while Steidl and Whitlock stabbed her. In another version, Reinbolt kept driving, but Whitlock came to her house the next morning, still wearing bloody clothes, to tell her to keep quiet.
Though both Herrington and Reinbolt claimed to have been present at the crime scene, neither saw the other. Later, both recanted their statements and then recanted the recantations.
Yet, as tenuous as their stories seem, they held up well enough to get both Steidl and Whitlock convicted in separate trials. Whitlock was sentenced to life in prison. Steidl drew the death penalty, but his sentence was reduced to life when the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that he had been inadequately represented at his sentencing hearing.
Though Callahan had never run a homicide investigation (his specialty was in narcotics), he was troubled by the inexplicable holes in this case file. On May 2, 2000, he produced what ISP personnel call a “dot-point memo,” outlining contradictions in the case. Carefully sticking to the highlights and resisting the urge to point out major gaffes (“They don’t arrest Reinbolt, even though she testified that she held Karen down!” he says now), his single-spaced memo was 10 pages long.
But his report did more than suggest that the wrong guys were in prison. Callahan also indicated that a wealthy Paris businessman should be investigated in connection with the murders.
Two weeks later, in the second-floor conference room of the ISP Armory in Springfield, Callahan presented his findings to a half-dozen officers ranging from intelligence analysts up to a deputy director. The reaction was enthusiastic, Callahan says. Everybody applauded his research and supported his contention that the investigation should be reopened.
As the meeting concluded, though, someone asked why the attorney general had recused himself. Callahan explained that it was probably because the Paris businessman had made campaign contributions to then-Attorney General Jim Ryan.
“Not George?” a high-ranking officer asked. Callahan said no, just Jim Ryan.
Back at his office, Callahan checked to make sure that he was right. He logged on to the state’s campaign-disclosure Web site, typed in the businessman’s name, and discovered contributions to then-Gov. George Ryan 10 times greater than the few thousand he had donated to Jim Ryan.
Wanting to correct the misstatement he had made at the meeting, Callahan immediately called Lt. Col. Diane Carper, who was in charge of six patrol districts and two investigative zones in central Illinois.
A few days later, Carper summoned Callahan and his supervisor, Capt. John Strohl, to her office. In a meeting that lasted less than an hour, she told Callahan that he could not investigate the Rhoads case or any possible connection to the Paris businessman. It was “too politically sensitive,” she told him, adding that the order came “from above me.”
Carper would later testify in Callahan’s federal lawsuit that she was talking not about campaign contributions but, rather, about the sensitive nature of reopening any investigation, especially one in which men had already been convicted and sentenced, in an era when the governor was considering a moratorium on the death penalty.
But Callahan disputes Carper’s explanation. He knows exactly what she meant, he says, because it shocked him when she said it.
“I literally couldn’t catch my breath,” he recalls. “I felt like somebody hit me in the stomach.”
Michale Callahan is the kind of cop who never wanted to be anything but a cop. Inspired by his uncle, an FBI agent, Callahan applied for jobs with law-enforcement agencies that offered quick entry into investigations (as opposed to street patrol) and was hired in 1980 by ISP.
After three years as a road trooper in Chicago, he worked about 18 months in Medicaid fraud, then became a special agent assigned to northern Cook County, also known as Zone 3.
There, he worked a variety of undercover assignments — everything from a storefront sting in Waukegan to street gangs in Schaumburg, buying bombs, weapons, narcotics, stolen vehicles, and burglary proceeds, even negotiating a murder for hire.
“There wasn’t one day I didn’t go out there and learn something new,” he says. “It was a constant learning experience. That’s why I like it so much. It’s you against the bad guy. . . . This was the type of job you could never say you’re the best. There’s always room to learn.”
He was so obsessed with his work that he had almost given up on having a family when he met Lily, a flight attendant. They married in 1988, and Callahan shifted his career goals slightly.
“Before, I did a lot of undercover work, and it never bothered me. Once I got married, I started thinking about the repercussions,” he says. “I don’t think it slowed me down, except I stopped going undercover and started taking the promotional tests seriously.”
By the time Tanner was born, in 1991, Callahan was a master sergeant, no longer eligible to earn overtime. Yet he would rush home after an eight-hour shift of administrative work to feed Tanner, then pay a caregiver to stay with the child while he supervised narcotics officers making controlled buys and executing search warrants.
“I actually paid a babysitter so I could go work for free,” he says.
And though he occasionally heard about corrupt law-enforcement agencies, he knew that ISP would never be one of them.
“I always felt that with the ISP, nobody was beyond reproach or above the law,” he says. “It didn’t matter if you were the governor or [famous Chicago mobster] Tony Accardo; we’d always do the right thing, and we wouldn’t bow to anybody.”
Then again, maybe they would.
When Carper told Callahan that he couldn’t reopen the Rhoads case or investigate the Paris businessman, she left one door open. He could “gather intelligence” on the businessman; he just couldn’t “go operational.”
The distinction can be confusing to civilians. Gathering intelligence meant that Callahan could keep track of who showed up at the man’s business and could even use the FDIC to track his bank accounts. But he couldn’t send an undercover officer in to make a drug buy or have a confidential source wear a wire to record a conversation. He could involve other agencies, such as the FBI, but he had to notify Carper if an outside agency took operational action.
Over the next few months, Callahan concentrated on running local narcotics task forces. But in the background, always, he was gathering evidence on the Rhoads case and the Paris businessman. Occasionally he would type memos detailing new information and send them up the chain of command hoping to get approval to revisit the case.
In 2001, after Maj. Edie Casella took charge of Zone 5, Callahan tried again to get permission to pursue the case. Not only did Casella agree, but she also had the intelligence division conduct a computer-assisted analysis of the evidence — resulting in a report that said there was no way that the murders could have happened the way Reinbolt and Herrington described. She presented the report on Oct. 10; two weeks later, she learned that she was being transferred out of Zone 5.
Capt. Steve Fermon took Casella’s place. Already familiar with Callahan’s views on the Rhoads homicides, Fermon announced that he was transferring Callahan’s trusted sergeant, Greg Dixon, to a narcotics task force and assigning a younger officer to gather info on the Paris businessman. Fermon told Callahan to focus on running the task forces.
These two officers had worked together years earlier with little conflict. As the superior officer, Fermon had the duty to “rate” his underlings on an annual basis, and he had given Callahan high marks. This time, however, they couldn’t get along. In September 2002, Fermon’s rating gave Callahan the lowest score of his career. Fermon also used a minor incident to file a complaint against Callahan with ISP’s Division of Internal Investigations. The first and only DII complaint of Callahan’s 25-year tenure, it was closed as unsustained.
Sometime, after 10 on the night of Jan. 8 2003, Callahan got a call from someone in the governor’s office. Steidl and Whitlock had each filed clemency petitions, and this aide wanted Callahan’s personal opinion of whether the men were guilty or innocent.
Callahan refused to answer the question, saying that he had to check with his chain of command. When he contacted Carper, she told him to show up at the armory the next morning at 6.
She had invited a handful of the most experienced investigators at ISP, along with her supervisor, deputy director Chuck Brueggemann, and Callahan’s supervisor, Fermon. Carper had Callahan brief the group on the Rhoads case, then asked him to leave the room. Her selected investigators discussed the case among themselves, and when they had a question, they called Callahan back in. This went on for 12 hours.
As far as Callahan could tell, no decision on how to answer the question from the governor’s aide was ever reached at that meeting. However, he was given permission to revive his informal work group of federal agents interested in the investigation.
The U.S. attorney’s office participated, as did agents from the FBI, the IRS, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Callahan got his old sergeant, Dixon, back on board, and they began holding occasional meetings.
Callahan claims this team came up with a way to intercept phone calls between a restaurant that originally neighbored the Paris businessman’s property and a group of known felons based in Italy. ISPofficials vehemently dispute this notion; their witness on that point was not allowed to testify in Callahan’s case.
This restaurant was owned by a convicted organized-crime figure, and Fermon stunned the other agents at a work group meeting by mentioning that he had just taken a relative to dinner at that restaurant. About the same time, Callahan says, the information the group had been monitoring ceased.
Meanwhile, another investigation was launched inside the office where Fermon and Callahan worked. In mid-April, Equal Employment Opportunity investigator Suzanne Yokley Bond spent two days interviewing employees about the work environment in Zone 5. When she questioned Callahan, he admitted that he had problems with Fermon and said that he believed the captain was impeding his investigation and had violated policy by patronizing a business owned by a known felon.
It was a serious accusation, and Callahan knew it. At the urging of an FBI agent, Callahan called Harold “Skip” Nelson, director of DII, to discuss his suspicions. Nelson arranged for Callahan to meet with DII investigators on May 8, 2003. Somehow news of this meeting reached Fermon that same night.
Fermon was outraged that Callahan would suggest he had any ties to organized crime. His first reaction was to transfer Callahan’s sergeant, Dixon, off the new task force and back into narcotics. Then Fermon drafted two scathing memos accusing Callahan of insubordination and requesting his transfer out of Zone 5.
On June 16, Carper called both Fermon and Callahan to her Springfield office and, in separate meetings, told them that they were being reassigned. She put Fermon in charge of the Springfield-based Medicaid-fraud unit and moved Callahan into a job supervising road troopers. Both transfers were effective immediately.
For Fermon, the new job required a two-hour commute from his home outside Danville. For Callahan, the commute differed not so much in mileage as in mindset. For the first time in more than 20 years, he was working in patrol.
Wearing a uniform instead of business attire went along with duties that were more routine, less creative. Instead of strategizing with undercover narcotics agents, he kept data on seat-belt violations and handled calls from citizens upset about getting traffic tickets. Although he lost no rank and his pay remained the same, Callahan knew he was being punished. But when he consulted an employment lawyer, she told him that he didn’t have a discrimination case.
“I was all the sudden the bad guy, just for trying to do the right thing. That devastated me,” Callahan says.
He had trouble sleeping, and when he did sleep, he had nightmares. His blood pressure went up, and he felt himself sinking into a deep depression. He tried to keep his anger and anguish in check but failed, especially with Lily and Tanner.
“You always try to hide stuff from kids, but you’d be surprised what they hear when you don’t think they’re listening. I lost a lot with my son because I fought so hard with this case,” Callahan says. “I guess I didn’t realize that I’d become quite a prick. I’d snap at him at a moment’s notice.”
One day, Tanner broke down and cried: “I just wish I had my old dad back.”
Callahan says his son’s comment hit him right between the eyes.
“I went upstairs and got in bed, under the covers,” he recalls. It was the middle of a Saturday afternoon.
Lily convinced him he needed help. The family doctor gave Callahan prescriptions for sleeping pills and antidepressants, along with a referral for counseling with a psychotherapist.
That same month, Callahan talked to Bill Clutter, a Springfield investigator who was working for Michael Metnick, the attorney representing Randy Steidl. Clutter, in fact, had written the letter to ISP that first got Callahan assigned to reviewing the Rhoads homicides. Realizing the toll that plum assignment took on the cop, Clutter told him to call John Baker.
“He said, ‘I know a guy who’s very good in First Amendment law,’” Callahan recalls.
Still, on the day he was supposed to meet the lawyer, Callahan canceled the appointment.
“I knew it was going to be expensive,” he says.
Lily, however, insisted that he reschedule. “She told me she didn’t care if we end up living in an apartment. She said, ‘You’re gonna let this eat you apart until it kills you’ — and she was probably right,” Callahan says.
He took out a second mortgage on his house and made another appointment with Baker.
Callahan wasn’t the first ISP employee John Baker had represented. Years earlier, he had won a settlement for ISP crime-scene investigator Alva Busch, who claimed ISP had retaliated against him for his efforts to get a wrongfully convicted man out of prison. That man, Keith Harris, was recently exonerated by Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
For Callahan, Baker filed a lawsuit in federal court in Urbana claiming that his client had been retaliated against for speaking out about a perceived breach of public trust by law-enforcement officials. Fermon, Carper, and Brueggemann were named as defendants.
The trial started April 15 and lasted nine days. State police officials say they were severely handicapped by the attorney general’s 11th-hour realization that there was a conflict of interest and the court’s refusal to give newly appointed attorneys an extension of time. The defense attorneys had less than two weeks to prepare.
Jurors deliberated a little more than five hours before deciding to award Callahan $210,000 in compensatory damages, plus punitive damages in the amount of $276,700 against Fermon and $195,600 against Carper.
One juror contacted by Illinois Times says that much of the deliberation time was spent trying to find evidence to include Brueggemann, the deputy director, in their verdict. “There was no doubt in our minds that Brueggemann was also guilty. We just didn’t have the proof,” she says. “He’s obviously a diplomat who knows how to cover his ass.”
The jurors also didn’t believe ISP’s argument that the transfers of Callahan and Fermon were based on that EEO investigation, which documented the fact they couldn’t get along.
As for Fermon’s extended commute, she had no sympathy. “So he has to drive farther,” she says. “Boo-hoo.”
But ISP is standing firm behind Fermon and Carper, as the director’s April e-mail demonstrated:
“Let me make it perfectly clear that I fully support Captain Fermon and Lt. Colonel Carper,” Trent wrote. “The Illinois State Police will never abandon those who have been falsely accused.”
On March 19, the first day Callahan became eligible to retire, he left the Illinois State Police. If he had stayed a little longer, he would have gotten a 7 percent pay increase and, consequently, a heftier pension. But, he says, he couldn’t make himself do it.
These days, Callahan spends his time doing home-improvement projects and fielding calls from reporters following his story. The producers of the CBS news show 48 Hours are in constant contact as they plan a follow-up to their 2000 episode on the Paris homicides, and the Chicago Tribune is planning a major project.
ISP attorneys have appealed the judgment, claiming that it’s more than Fermon and Carper can afford to pay. The court gave the parties 28 days to agree on a settlement, but the deadline passed without an offer by ISP. Fermon’s attorney declined to comment for this story, citing pending motions. The parties will meet in court again in October.
Callahan takes comfort in the knowledge that he’s not the only person who believes that the Rhoads case was bungled. On June 17, 2003 — the day after Callahan was transferred from investigations to patrol — U.S. District Judge Michael McCuskey ruled that Randy Steidl would probably not have been convicted if the jury had heard all the evidence.
McCuskey gave the state 120 days to give Steidl a new trial or release him from prison. Attorney General Lisa Madigan elected not to appeal the court’s ruling, effectively clearing the way for Steidl’s release.
Steidl has been free since May 24, 2004, and recently amended his clemency petition to ask for a pardon on the basis of innocence. He has also filed a lawsuit claiming that he and Whitlock were framed and seeking unspecified monetary damages.