His criminal record dates to 1978 and includes more than a dozen convictions. He has been in the penitentiary four times and is wanted in four states. His parole officer once called him "a menace to society." A federal prosecutor wrote he was "a pathological liar . . . not worthy of this court's trust."
Indeed, Tommy Dye lies about almost everything, even his own name. He has a dozen aliases, court and police records show, and he uses them liberally, usually when he is arrested. William Zonka, Thomas O'Neil, Sean P. Kelly, Tommy Welch, Thomas Moriarty--Dye is the man behind each of the names. Selling cocaine, he used the moniker Big Daddy Woo Woo.
Even under oath, Dye lies. He once told a judge he was the valedictorian at St. Michael's High School in Chicago, but he did not even finish high school. He told a federal grand jury that he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. That, too, was a lie. He took some correspondence classes in prison and has worked as a waiter.
But when Dye testified at the 1993 murder trial of Steve Manning, a corrupt former Chicago police officer facing a possible death sentence, Cook County prosecutors Patrick J. Quinn and William Gamboney asked jurors to believe that Dye was telling the truth.
Dye's testimony was the centerpiece of an otherwise weak case, one in which no physical evidence tied Manning to the murder. His word, and little more, put Manning on Death Row.
According to Dye, he and Manning were in Cook County Jail when Manning confessed to him the 1990 murder of a suburban trucking firm owner whose body was found floating in the Des Plaines River.
Manning, Dye testified, admitted committing the execution-style killing during six hours of tape recordings that Dye secretly made using a tiny recorder an FBI agent strapped to the inside of his right thigh.
But when the tapes were played in court, there were no murder confessions. Dye's explanation: Manning's confessions were lost in two seconds-long gaps in the recordings, one caused by a malfunction, the other by Dye bending over and inadvertently covering the microphones tucked under the waistband of his underwear.
In return for testifying against Manning, Dye's 14-year prison sentence on theft and firearms charges was cut to 6 years, and, according to court documents, he and a girlfriend were placed in the federal Witness Protection Program. Other criminal charges against him were dropped.
Dye's pivotal role in the Manning conviction provides a troubling glimpse into the world of the jailhouse informant, or snitch, the prisoner who trades information for favors--most often giving prosecutors a confession he claims he heard in exchange for some type of favor or leniency.
The use of such untrustworthy witnesses carries considerable costs in death-penalty cases--and not only by undermining the foundation of cases where the stakes are the highest. The misuse of informants also adds financial costs to taxpayers when convictions based on their testimony are retried or exonerated defendants receive court settlements.
Even prosecutors acknowledge that jailhouse informants are among the least reliable of witnesses. Yet in Illinois, at least 46 inmates have been sent to Death Row in cases where prosecutors used a jailhouse informant, according to a Tribune investigation that examined the 285 death-penalty cases since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977.
In about half of those 46 cases, the informant played a significant role in the conviction. Often, prosecutors put jailhouse informants on the witness stand in cases where the evidence of guilt was flimsy or during sentencing to demonize a defendant with inflammatory accounts of the crime.
Prosecutors tried to use jailhouse informants in numerous other cases as well, according to the Tribune's investigation, but backed off after defense attorneys challenged their truthfulness and threatened to expose their backgrounds.
Snitch testimony helped convict or condemn 4 of the 12 Illinois Death Row inmates who were later exonerated. In two other cases, prosecutors had jailhouse informant testimony ready but did not use it.
Little to lose, much to gain
While prosecutors say jailhouse snitches can provide important--and truthful--testimony, informants have little to lose by lying on the witness stand. Rarely are they charged with perjury. Instead, they often have something very real to gain: time shaved off their sentence, creature comforts in jail or some other favor from prosecutors.
Informants who fabricate stories can glean details of a crime from newspapers or another inmate's legal papers and stitch them together into a compelling confession. In the most notorious cases, prosecutors and police have been accused of providing them with false stories to tell.
In Los Angeles, Leslie Vernon White was such a prolific jailhouse informant that in 1988 he demonstrated for jailers how simple it was to concoct a confession and convince prosecutors it was genuine.
Using a jail telephone, White--a convicted kidnapper, robber and car thief--posed as a police officer, prosecutor and bail bondsman to obtain information about a murder suspect he had never met, then falsified jail records to show he had shared a cell with the suspect.
White's demonstration, and his admission that he had lied in a dozen cases for prosecutors, sparked an uproar and a grand jury report assailing the Los Angeles County district attorney's office for habitually using informant testimony in murder cases, even when prosecutors had substantial reason to doubt the informant's truthfulness.
Stung by White's disclosures, the district attorney's office in 1989 set up a clearinghouse to monitor and centralize information about jailhouse informants and required prosecutors to corroborate informant statements.
California courts also responded to the White scandal, crafting a special instruction warning jurors to view a jailhouse informant's testimony with skepticism.
Oklahoma's highest criminal court went even further when faced with a death-penalty case that depended on dubious snitch testimony.
In July, the court overturned the double-murder conviction and death sentence of Rocky Eugene Dodd and, in an extraordinary move, set up a system to screen informants before they testify at trial.
Prosecutors in Oklahoma must disclose an informant's criminal background, any deal they have made with him, the alleged confession he obtained and all other cases in which the informant played a similar role--no matter how minor.
Moreover, judges now must conduct a separate pretrial hearing on the snitch's reliability to determine, for example, whether the snitch's testimony can be corroborated. Judges also must instruct jurors to be wary of these witnesses.
Illinois courts have never been moved to take such steps, although the Illinois Supreme Court may address the issue as part of a broader effort to reform the state's death-penalty system.
Northwestern University law professor Lawrence Marshall, whose work helped exonerate two of Illinois' Death Row inmates, suggests that prosecutors be barred from using jailhouse informants in death-penalty cases.
"If they're so desperate that they're going to use snitches," he said, "then death shouldn't be an option."
Mindful of how prosecutors use jailhouse testimony, many defense attorneys warn their clients not to talk to other prisoners. That is what Arlie Ray Davis' attorney instructed Davis to do when he was arrested in connection with the 1995 murder of Laurie Gwinn in Henry County in northwestern Illinois. The attorney was so fearful he even asked jail officials to put Davis in his own cell but was turned down.
Davis, according to jailers' testimony, took his attorney's advice to heart. They said he never talked to fellow inmates, even ignoring their questions.
But one day, Davis testified, he returned to his cell from the showers to find his cellmate, William Joe Tennison, rifling through his court papers. Tennison, who had convictions for forgery, burglary and domestic battery, later told prosecutors that Davis confessed to him.
Tennison also testified that Davis told him he wished he had killed his co-defendant and quoted him making disparaging remarks about Gwinn.
"There's no way Arlie Ray talked to this guy Tennison like he said he did," said Davis' attorney, Edward Waller. "I mean, he caught him going through his court papers. Then all of a sudden he's got a confession? Come on."
For all the criticism of the use of jailhouse informants, especially in death-penalty cases, prosecutors continue to put them on the witness stand, setting aside doubts about their credibility in an effort to win convictions.
Willie Williams, a three-time felon, testified he read newspaper accounts of the 1988 slayings of five people on Chicago's South Side before he contacted police to report that a friend, Ronald Kitchen, had confessed during a collect phone call.
Telephone company records showed no call from the prison where Williams was being held. When police moved Williams from Vandalia Correctional Center to the Cook County Jail's witness quarters, he made more than a half dozen tape-recorded calls to Kitchen. But Williams failed to elicit any information about the slayings.
Still, Williams was an important witness for prosecutors in convicting Kitchen, who remains on Death Row while he appeals his case.
Officials in the Cook County state's attorney's office say their policy for jailhouse informants is to begin with the assumption the informant is lying, vigorously test the claim and try to find corroboration.
"When we deal with snitches," said Bob Benjamin, a spokesman for State's Atty. Dick Devine, "we deal from this point: Most likely they're lying, so you have to double-prove and triple-prove everything they say."
A history of lies
The prolific Dye has been a favorite of Cook County prosecutors. In addition to his involvement in the Manning prosecution, Dye has relayed disputed confessions in at least two other cases--one of them a murder.
He also provided testimony or information to federal prosecutors against five other defendants, according to documents obtained by the Tribune.
Dye apparently told his first lie under oath when he was 18 years old and applying for a passport. He swore his name was Dave Street.
From there, according to court documents, he lied on everything from driver's license forms to job applications. He often lied to women. Good-looking and well-spoken, with an apartment at Presidential Towers on the Near West Side, Dye met women drinking at the bars on Rush Street, then went home with them.
When they went into the bathroom or fell asleep, Dye stole their jewelry or cash, according to Cook County court documents. This occurred so many times that the late Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko wrote about him in 1989 and 1990.
"He's handsome. He's witty. He's funny," said Michelle Keortgen, a victim of Dye's in the late 1980s. "It's easy to mistake him for a good person."
Dye lied to the police, prosecutors and judges as well. Even some of his attorneys feared that he might ensnare them in his fabrications.
"I'm always afraid to talk to him," said lawyer Kenneth Flaxman, who represented Dye in a 1990 lawsuit. "You never know if he's trying to set you up."
When Dye began to cooperate with authorities, he had to own up to the falsehoods. So whenever he testified, prosecutors began by asking about his lies, hoping to show jurors that, by acknowledging a less-than-truthful past, he had abandoned it.
Dye's formal cooperation with authorities began in 1990, when he was in Cook County Jail awaiting trial on three felony charges of robbery and theft, according to court records. At the same time, he was serving a 14-year sentence on separate theft and firearms charges.
That August, Manning also was in jail, awaiting extradition to Missouri to face charges of kidnapping two drug dealers. Manning, a former Chicago police officer who had been convicted of a car insurance fraud scheme, had a checkered history that included cooperating as an informant for federal authorities. According to documents, federal prosecutors suspected Manning in as many as a half-dozen murders.
Dye and Manning were in protective custody at the jail because of their particular security needs--Dye because he was an informant, Manning because as a former police officer he could be a target of other prisoners.
Manning would seem an unlikely person to be caught by a jailhouse informant. He once even filed a lawsuit alleging officials were using an informant to trap him, saying it was a violation of his civil rights. And as a former police officer, he knew how informants were used.
On Aug. 22, five days after Manning arrived, Dye met with the FBI and agreed to tape-record his conversations with Manning. He wore the recorder for the first time on Aug. 24, a Friday, and taped conversations through the weekend, according to court documents.
Their conversations, according to Dye, revolved around "anything two guys could talk about under those circumstances." What that meant, Dye explained at a pretrial hearing, was "primarily crime--crimes that we had done, crimes that we were aware of."
Dye made six hours of recordings, none of them flattering to Manning. Manning talked about the Missouri kidnapping charges--he was convicted and sentenced to two life terms plus 100 years in prison--and other illegal schemes since he resigned from the Police Department.
He even discussed ways they could provide alibis for each other.
But James Pellegrino, the trucking company owner whom Manning was alleged to have killed, is never mentioned, according to the transcripts.
"There's no confession . . . not a syllable. Nothing," Manning said during an interview with the Tribune in a high-security section of Cook County Jail.
In the debriefing reports written after the tapings by FBI agents--which were obtained by the Tribune--Dye is not quoted telling the federal agents that Manning had confessed to the Pellegrino homicide.
"You have to ask yourself why he doesn't mention that Manning confessed," Manning's attorney, Raymond J. Smith, who was appointed by the court to represent Manning on appeal, said in an interview. "I think the answer's obvious. It's because Manning never did confess."
There were plenty of reasons for prosecutors Quinn and Gamboney to doubt Dye's credibility.
In May 1991, more than two years before Manning went on trial, Dye testified in a federal drug case in which prosecutors tried to seize Chicago attorney Stuart Goldberg's black 1986 Porsche, saying he had used the car in drug deals.
Dye testified that he saw Goldberg drive the Porsche in 1984. But, according to trial testimony, Goldberg did not buy the car until 1986.
Federal prosecutors lost the case, in large part because of Dye.
"He's no better than a rent-a-witness," said Dennis Berkson, who represented Goldberg and conducted a withering cross-examination of Dye. "He just makes this stuff up. And the government doesn't care."
By the time Manning went to trial in October 1993, Quinn, now an Illinois Appellate Court judge, and Gamboney, who now is in private practice, offered Dye as the star witness. Gamboney's questioning began like so many others; he asked Dye's name and his age.
Then things took a turn.
"Is that the name that you're using now?" Gamboney asked.
"No, sir," responded Dye, who had an armed federal marshal at his side.
"Are you able to tell us what your name is now?" Gamboney asked.
By then, Dye was in the Witness Protection Program for his work on the Manning prosecution. He was getting a stipend from the federal government and cooperating in other cases.
He also had an explanation for why Manning's alleged confessions were not captured on the tapes. The first confession, Dye testified, occurred during a two-second gap on the tape. It could not be heard, Dye said, because he was bent over as Manning demonstrated how he shot Pellegrino and his body covered the microphone.
The second supposed confession, Dye said, was lost when the recorder malfunctioned.
"There's going to be times whenever you bend over," Dye told the jury, "whenever you move a certain way, where it stops the recording."
Dye declined to comment about his role in the Manning case. Quinn would not discuss the case in detail, saying that Gamboney was the lead prosecutor and that Dye was Gamboney's witness.
Gamboney told the Tribune that Dye was treated with "some skepticism" and that he and Quinn would not have used him as a witness had he not worn the tape recorder.
But he said Dye was able to provide prosecutors information from Manning that only the killer would have known--although none of it was on the tapes. And he offered an explanation prosecutors often use when their witnesses have criminal pasts.
"The old line is that we're not dealing with altar boys or Boy Scouts," he said in an interview. "I didn't have any problem with his credibility. The judge didn't, and neither did the 12 jurors. Yes, he is a scam artist. But in this particular case we checked, and what he said checked out."
Gamboney, however, wouldn't discuss how authorities corroborated Dye's testimony.
The rest of the testimony against Manning came from Pellegrino's wife, Joyce, and an associate. His wife said that when she last saw her husband, he told her that if he didn't return to tell the FBI that Manning had killed him.
The associate, a convicted felon named Ronald Tyrakowski, was serving a 10-year federal prison sentence when he testified as part of a deal with prosecutors. He said he last saw Pellegrino just before Pellegrino was supposed to meet Manning to buy more than $50,000 worth of cocaine.
A jury convicted Manning, and Judge Edward M. Fiala Jr. sentenced him to death.
One factor in the verdict was that jurors didn't like Manning's demeanor. "I just had this feeling Manning was laughing at the process, like he thought he was going to beat the system," said juror Carole Burval. "That really got to me."
Some jurors also said they didn't think prosecutors would rely on an untruthful witness. "I thought maybe the confession didn't really happen," said juror Donna Woodlock. "But who am I to say?"
Reversal of fortune
Early last year, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed Manning's conviction and death sentence, but not because of the tapes. The court ruled that Joyce Pellegrino's testimony was unreliable hearsay and should not have been admitted. It said the tape recordings that dealt with other alleged crimes also were inadmissible. Manning is awaiting a new trial.
Writing for the court, Chief Justice Charles Freeman called the evidence against Manning "minimally sufficient." He said that without Dye's testimony, a conviction would have been difficult.
The cooperation between prosecutors--especially Quinn--and Dye did not end with Manning's trial, according to court records, prosecutors' letters and other documents.
Dye told Quinn another inmate, Thomas O'Farrell, had confessed to the 1995 murder of his wife. Dye testified for prosecutors, and O'Farrell was found guilty and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Cook County Assistant State's Atty. Steven Krueger also threatened to use Dye in a 1995 sex case against Steven Ehrlich. According to Krueger, Quinn offered Dye as a witness, saying Dye heard Ehrlich's confession in jail. Ehrlich pleaded guilty to aggravated criminal sexual assault, so Krueger never had to use Dye.
With Dye, there always were questions about how he got his information. O'Farrell and Ehrlich filed grievances with the County Jail that alleged Dye read their court papers when they briefly were out of their cells.
"I didn't tell that guy a thing," O'Farrell said from the Joliet Correctional Center, where he was serving a 50-year sentence for murder.
Dye's cooperation benefited him immensely, and it was Quinn who often made that happen. Court records and correspondence among prosecutors show that he helped Dye get a placement in protective custody at the Illinois River Correctional Center, a medium-security prison in Canton.
He also urged DuPage County prosecutors to sweeten a plea deal in a theft case. In a March 1996 letter to prosecutor Jeff Kendall, Quinn asked that Kendall lower his plea offer for Dye to 4 years from 5, saying Dye was instrumental in the Manning case, as well as other murder investigations.
But Dye's goodwill was running out. Around this time, Dye was offering help in another case, but on this occasion against the government. Dye, according to court documents, offered testimony against a key government witness in a drug-related case in federal court, saying the man had made incriminating admissions to him.
Federal prosecutors responded by attacking Dye's credibility, arguing that he was not to be believed.
In 1996 court documents, they called Dye an "accomplished con artist" with a "nefarious background." Dye, the government wrote, is "an admitted perjurer," "an admitted drug dealer" and "a career criminal." He had been thrown out of the Witness Protection Program, according to court papers.
Dye returned to Chicago earlier this year. At the time, Cook County officials and the state Department of Corrections had fugitive warrants for him. Others were searching for him as well.
Dye is wanted in Miami, where he said his name was Sean P. Kelly when he was arrested in 1995 and charged with fraud and theft from a South Beach restaurant. He is wanted in Baltimore, where a July 1998 warrant charges him with auto theft.
Police in Denver are seeking Dye for a robbery and consider him armed and dangerous. Police in San Diego issued a warrant charging Dye with burglary, grand theft and auto theft and are seeking his extradition, according to officials.
Today, Dye is being held in Cook County Jail. On Aug. 25, he was arrested and charged with theft from The Fireplace Inn, a Near North Side restaurant where he worked for five days, according to police and court records. His new attorney: Gamboney, the former prosecutor who, with Dye's testimony, helped send Manning to Death Row.
But unlike most jail inmates, Dye is being held in special witness quarters, watched not by guards but by investigators for the state's attorney's office. The setting is more dormitory than jail, and Dye has more privileges than most inmates. He has not been extradited.
When Manning goes on trial for a second time, prosecutors again plan to put Dye on the witness stand. This time, his credibility will be strained further than at Manning's first trial--by both the government's blistering attack on his character and all the new criminal charges.
Again, prosecutors will likely begin Dye's testimony with a long recitation of his criminal history--the aliases, the arrests, the convictions.
And again, they will have to ask a jury to believe that, this time, Dye is telling the truth.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times