Police Scandal Rocks Indiana Steel Town as Officers Are Accused of Drug Thefts : Crime: Dealers say Gary vice unit members stole narcotics and money. Such corruption is not new to the city, which has seen the department shrivel in size.
It started with a pre-dawn murder at a drug house. Two men, both wearing masks and wielding pistols, forced their way into the house located 13 blocks from police headquarters.
Witnesses said one of the assailants threatened to shoot them all in the head as the other one robbed them of up to 30 bags of cocaine and $100 in cash.
Before fading back into the night, one of the men fatally shot Charles Black, 42, in the head.
Violent crime, especially involving drugs, is no stranger to Gary, a depressed steel town of 117,000 that hugs the southern lip of Lake Michigan, a few minutes drive from Chicago. What was different this time is that the witnesses said the assailants were police officers.
Although the two men wore masks, witnesses said they identified the officers by their voices from previous drug raids.
An investigation of the May 27 shooting has mushroomed to include the entire 17-member Public Morals Division, which investigates vice crimes. As many as eight former and present members of the division are expected to be indicted on robbery and drug charges, Police Chief Cobie Howard said Friday.
A number of drug dealers have come forward to tell of police officers robbing them of drugs and money. The allegations include charges that the 1990 Officer of the Year sold drugs from his police car. But Howard insisted in an interview Friday that 98% of his department is honest and is “going about business as usual.”
“The shaking of a tree does not necessarily mean all the apples will fall off,” he said, insisting that only a small number of his 210-member force will be indicted.
The beleaguered department had almost twice as many officers a dozen years ago. The previous city administration allowed the size to dwindle through attrition, Howard said, adding that low salaries prevent him from hiring more officers. Gary’s $19,300 annual starting salary lingers from $5,000 to $7,000 behind the salaries of comparably sized cities, he said.
Howard insisted, though, that low pay was not a factor in tempting police officers to break the law.
“The cure for temptation is a person’s own integrity and his own moral fiber in regard to what he will or won’t do,” he said. “It’s an individual choice. These people made an individual choice,” he said, referring to the officers he believes committed crimes.
In a strange twist, a supervisor in the division, Sgt. Thomas Jordan, disappeared shortly after the investigation began. Police combed Gary neighborhoods for several days because of reports that Jordan had been killed and his body dumped in a wooded area.
He later turned up unharmed in Arizona. Arresting officers said he was found beside his unmarked police car, depressed and contemplating the desert. He was returned to Gary earlier this week and was hospitalized for depression.
Jordan, who had not been under investigation, supervised the two men who were arrested July 23 on federal firearms charges in connection with the drug house robbery and shooting. In addition, most of the others expected to be indicted reported to him.
The two officers now in custody are Cpl. Derrick Earls and Patrolman Cory House. House was the department’s Officer of the Year in 1990.
A week after they were arrested, fellow officer Cpl. John Bauswell resigned and began cooperating with the FBI, which is leading the probe.
Lake County prosecutor Jon DeGuilio asked the FBI to spearhead the investigation.
“I have no problem with the prosecutor asking the FBI to be the lead agency,” Howard said. “I have very capable investigators, but I want to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest.”
This is not the first time Gary’s vice squad has been rocked by scandal.
The unit was reorganized and renamed in 1980 in the wake of charges that officers had been selling confiscated drugs and guns.
The allegations had been made by then-Police Chief Charles Boone while standing trial in 1979 on federal tax fraud charges. He claimed that his indictment was part of a frame-up by members of the police narcotics unit to keep him from ferreting out corruption.
The charges against Boone were dropped after two trials ended in hung juries. Nearly a dozen former Gary policemen and their associates later were indicted on charges of drug dealing and stealing guns. Three former policemen were convicted on drug charges.
Boone’s successor as chief, Frederick P. Kowski, created the new unit.
Howard said he expects one-third of the 17-member vice squad and perhaps “a few other officers” to be indicted in this latest scandal. The same men also are the focus of an internal investigation.
In an effort to restore public confidence, police officials announced a sweeping internal shuffle in the Police Department earlier this month in response to the scandal. Under the realignment, the public morals commander will report directly to the police chief’s office instead of to the investigative division commander. In addition, vice officers will be rotated from the unit after several years rather than serving long periods in the division.
At a detention hearing for the two arrested officers last month before a U.S. District Court magistrate, an FBI agent disclosed that the bureau is investigating allegations the two men were involved in a total of 28 offenses involving robbery, violence and drugs, including one allegation that House dealt drugs from his squad car.
Their attorney, James B. Meyer, argued at the hearing that the allegations were not credible because they were being made by drug dealers. “A half-dozen dopers are fingering two officers who have exemplary credentials,” he said.
He also said identifications were not reliable because the assailants wore masks.
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