Filed 6:00 a.m. 11.02.2018
Who does such a thing?
Lee Harris had thought nothing of Robert Chattler’s commitment to him. There is no such thing as a jailhouse promise. Words are cheap. People lie. They lie to avoid conflict or awkward situations, to appease others or to gain an upper hand. Lee knew all about lying. Growing up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, he’d lied out of habit, believing that if you really needed something, your best bet was to try tricking someone out of it. He thought of himself as more of a con artist than a liar, though. He twisted words just enough to get results.
Many of those who’d known Lee in the Green knew he lied. He would inflate his score in a ball game. He’d tell one of his brothers he’d found a job for him at a nearby office when he hadn’t. His brothers told him it would get him in trouble someday, but for much of his life, no one had faulted him for it. His lies seemed harmless, easily exposed and without malicious intent, primarily designed to make himself seem important.
Robert’s promise didn’t really even strike him as a promise. He’d heard it before “thousands of times”—someone offering to help get him out, saying he definitely would and then disappearing. Lee had forgotten all about it.
Then, more than a year later, a letter from Lee’s former cellmate arrived. It said: I’m out. I’m free. What can I do to help? Where do I start? Astonished, all Lee could think was, “This dude gone crazy.”
Lee and Robert met in early 2001, after Robert stepped into cell 403 at Joliet Correctional Center. Lee was sitting on the lower bunk, sizing him up as he entered. A guard locked the door, and they were alone. Robert was terrified.
Joliet Correctional Center was a maximum-security prison about 50 miles southwest of Chicago. It was full of violent offenders. Robert’s crimes—burglary and possession of a controlled substance—hadn’t been marked by violence. Neither had his life.
Just shy of 24, he had grown up in a supportive though fractured Jewish family in the affluent northwest suburbs of Chicago. A gentle, animal-loving kid, he’d spent summers on a dude ranch, owned a horse, rescued strays and worked in a pet shop. He’d thrown exactly one punch in his life and had taken two without summoning the will to fight back. “In prison you’re either fish or you’re food,” one of Robert’s cousins, an attorney, had warned his mother, “and Bob ain’t fish.”
Lee was heavyset, bald, African-American and almost twice Robert’s age. In the decade that he’d been incarcerated for first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and armed robbery, he’d crossed paths with few scrawny suburban white guys. His previous cellmates had been either black or Latino. All, like him, had grown up in poverty, “clawing and scratching” to find their way out of it.
At first Lee found Robert’s presence amusing. He had a startled, lost expression on his face, a what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here kind of look. But Lee also detected fear, like the poor kid knew he was prey, and Lee couldn’t help but feel bad for him. He offered him a cigarette. Lee didn’t smoke but kept cigarettes as currency.
Robert—a chain-smoker—was grateful for it, and for the kindness. Eventually Lee gave him the whole pack.
Robert settled into the cramped space. If he sat up on the top bunk and leaned his back against the wall, he could touch the opposite wall with his feet. From this perch, or from any vantage point, really, he could take in the entirety of his new home—the bunk bed, an exposed metal toilet, a metal desk, a stool bolted to the floor.
Lee had a boom box and a small TV, but otherwise the cell was devoid of comforts. There was no privacy and no escape from unwelcome smells or noises. Guards passed through the cell house three times a day, running their batons along each cell’s bars. The metal-to-metal clanking reverberated loudly, growing in intensity as the guards approached 403. The particular ringing sound it made confirmed the integrity of the bars—that they hadn’t been sawed into. Robert found the noise unbearable.
What Lee found unbearable was Robert’s noise.
Robert liked to listen to “The Drive,” a classic rock and pop station out of Chicago. Every day he’d plant himself at the desk with Lee’s boom box, a cassette inside, his finger hovering over a jerry-rigged “Record” button, waiting for a Beatles song to start. Eventually he collected an entire tape of “them damn Beatles,” and he played it over and over until Lee, partial to jazz and R & B, felt like he was going out of his mind. It wasn’t long before he regretted giving Robert both the cassette and the cigarettes, which stank up the air.
But Lee didn’t complain. He wanted to be liked by everyone, even staff. As soon as Lee had opened his mouth, Robert had realized there was nothing intimidating about him. Lee was gregarious, with a giant smile and a gravelly but gentle voice that was capable of roping anyone into a conversation. Even guards sought him out, hanging their arms casually over the bars while chatting with him. The day Robert arrived, Lee had been deep into a game of chess with an older prisoner, a porter who would periodically reach into his cell to move a piece before shuffling off with his broom.
Whenever Lee held court at the front of the cell, Robert instinctively moved to the back. He didn’t care to talk to anyone but Lee. He’d respond vaguely when inmates asked how long he was in for, implying it was a long time—he didn’t want to flaunt his light sentence in a cell house full of lifers. Any one of them, he knew, might start a fight that could add time to his sentence. His dark eyes and black hair occasionally led others to assume he was Latino, an impression he did nothing to discourage—for his safety, he thought.
With Lee, Robert could drop his guard. But with such different backgrounds and experiences, the cellmates sometimes struggled to find common ground.
Robert had grown up around nature, in Morton Grove and unincorporated Deerfield, and he’d taken his love for it to an extreme. For birthday presents, he’d asked not for toys but for live traps, and he brought home wild animals to raise as pets. He’d had raccoons (Kimmy and Pammy), a fox (Hank), a monitor lizard and several turtles and snakes. He bought his sister a cockatoo.
His mother’s friends wondered aloud if she knew how to say no to her son—she couldn’t possibly want raccoons in her basement—but she figured saying no to animals would have been cruel, like forbidding an artistic child to draw or paint. Even more than a passion, though, caring for animals was an intrinsic part of Robert. His mother said it was almost like he absorbed them into his being, as if they were part of his DNA.
In other ways Robert had lived a typical suburban life. He attended Hebrew school. His parents got divorced. He and his sister tormented each other—he once removed the hinges from her bedroom door while she showered; she smeared toothpaste on his eyebrows while he slept. He played the trumpet. He went off to college.
But then his life took an unexpected turn. He tried cocaine in his first semester, and in the course of only a few months, getting high became pretty much all he cared about. He moved back home with his mother and dropped out of school. He kept himself high and binged until he passed out, often while smoking. Twice his pillow caught fire.
He started pawning family heirlooms for drug money—a fur coat, a diamond tennis bracelet, his great-grandmother’s set of silver. He rooted around in his neighborhood’s unlocked garages, helping himself to briefcases, wallets, Motorola phones or whatever else of value he could find. He stole checks from his mother and a checkbook from a friend. He even created fake business checks and cashed them at various banks around the northwest suburbs.
“I’m addicted to cocaine,” he confessed to his mother. She couldn’t imagine it. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. He had to tell her again, on a separate occasion, before she believed him.
Robert spent his 21st birthday in rehab, then promptly got kicked out for breaking a sink. He showed up at another program, this one in Texas, where his father had moved after the divorce. He barely gave it a chance. Just walked away.
Back in Illinois, the madness continued. He figured out how to steer his car with his knee while cooking cocaine, and one day, as he was pulling into his garage while getting high, he found himself surrounded by police.
Robert pleaded guilty to possession of controlled substances in Cook County and to five burglaries in Lake County, accepting five six-year prison sentences to run concurrently. With day-for-day good time, he was confident he could be out in three years. He met Lee after serving a little more than a year.
As a young man, Lee had sold, not used, drugs, and he had grown up as far from nature as you could get—in a densely populated housing project infamous for its deplorable living conditions and gang violence.
Lee had shared a four-bedroom apartment with his mother and five brothers, an environment he thought of as “controlled chaos.” His mother cleaned houses part-time, and he and his brothers helped her clean theirs; each had specific chores to do after school. Lee’s father, who worked as a mechanic for Yellow Cab, gave Lee money sometimes but wasn’t good for regular child support. The family relied on public assistance to supplement what Lee’s mother earned. As a boy, Lee went to church regularly and sang in the choir. As he grew, he preferred to spend time with girls.
Lee believed his options in life were limited. As he saw it, Cabrini-Green funneled its young men onto one of three paths: gangster, hustler or punk—someone worthy of no respect at all and who did the bidding of others. Lee identified with the hustlers. He was always looking for a way to “come up.”
In between acts of petty theft and selling drugs, Lee worked hard for Ronald Hollis, who owned a window-washing and maintenance company. Hollis kept Lee on his roster as a subcontractor for about 20 years, and sometimes they partnered on jobs. Hollis thought Lee had a good work ethic and a talent for washing high-rise windows. Lee loved being 60 floors off the ground, looking down at the city, finding rare moments of solitude.
Usually he surrounded himself with people. When he wasn’t hustling, he immersed himself in community work. He organized girls’ softball games and brought the Black Olympics to Cabrini-Green in coordination with a local YMCA. Through a program whose motto was “Socialization through Recreation,” Lee put rival gang members on the same sports team, hoping to vest them with interest in one another’s survival, at least temporarily.
Lee’s community work put him in close contact with political players and activists, who brought him to protests and occasionally put a bullhorn in his hand. There was something thrilling to him about both challenging the establishment and rubbing shoulders with people he considered important, like the future Illinois secretary of state Jesse White and community activist Marion Stamps.
Lee briefly considered running for alderman, but he knew hustling was incompatible with the job. Instead he volunteered on others’ campaigns, canvassing for Democrats who were running for mayor, alderman and even recorder of deeds.
Through his political efforts, Lee met Mayor Jane Byrne and her husband, Jay McMullen. In April 1981, after a particularly violent three-month stretch in Cabrini-Green (11 murders and 37 shootings), the mayor and her husband moved into the community to draw attention to its numerous problems.
McMullen began inviting Lee on walks. Often they would start at Division Street and walk three and a half miles north to Wrigley Field to catch Cubs games. The police officers assigned to the Cabrini beat noticed Lee with the mayor’s husband, and soon Lee got to know some of them. He came to think of two in particular as friends—James Ward and John McHugh.
Ward and McHugh were partners who drove an unmarked car and wore street clothes. They attended sporting events Lee organized, and sometimes they’d take Lee to lunch or have beers with him at the Stop & Drink, a bar behind the police station that attracted both Cabrini residents and cops.
Ward and McHugh gave Lee their pager numbers and told him to call if he ever needed anything. He used their numbers liberally. Sometimes he needed money, sometimes food. Once Ward gave him a loan for new window-washing equipment. Another time, after Lee got arrested for breaking a window, he says he told McHugh about it and the charge disappeared. In 1988, after Lee got caught stealing money and video equipment, McHugh visited him at the Cook County Jail, saying he’d see what he could do to help him.
Occasionally Ward and McHugh asked Lee about particular crimes in the neighborhood. If Lee had information, he provided it with the understanding that they didn’t get it from him and that he would never testify. Once he passed them something helpful he’d heard about a murder.
But Lee never sensed, as the officers would later claim, that theirs was a “working relationship.” Or that they considered him their informant. In Lee’s eyes, they were buddies—they’d gone to his wedding.
And so one surprising thing Lee had in common with his new cellie from the suburbs was that as young men, they’d both trusted the police: Robert because as a white kid in the suburbs he’d had no reason to doubt the intentions of law enforcement; and Lee because he had known friendly officers.
But that was about all they had in common, other than being in prison. Robert turned Lee on to stories in The Onion, and sometimes Lee asked Robert about his family. Lee’s own parents had died before he was incarcerated. His mother had committed suicide when he was about Robert’s age, and his father had died a few years later of cirrhosis.
Despite their differences, there was an easiness to their relationship, forged largely by Lee’s kindness. Robert was on C-grade status, which meant he lacked phone and commissary privileges. Lee made it possible for him to get both. Robert’s mother would send money to Lee, and Robert would fill out order forms that Lee would then submit to the commissary, giving Robert access to hygiene products, new shoes and underwear and a variety of snacks. Robert often offered to buy Lee something for his trouble, but Lee would decline, figuring that Robert, as a newcomer, needed to stock up on commissary items more than he did. Lee also added Robert’s family’s phone numbers to his own call list and then let Robert use his PIN to dial out, enabling Robert to talk with his parents and sister.
Robert felt as though he’d hit the cellmate jackpot. Not only was Lee nonthreatening, he went out of his way to be nice. There was no power dynamic at work. So when Lee asked Robert to clean the toilet one evening, Robert felt no urgency to act. He was lying on his bunk, watching Lee’s TV, and didn’t particularly feel like moving. He told Lee he’d get to it after the show was over. Lee remembers Robert refusing to do it outright. Whatever the case, the toilet wasn’t getting cleaned when Lee wanted it cleaned—and the cellmates began raising their voices at each other in frustration.
“I shouldn’t even be here to discuss this with you!” Lee said.
The comment melted the tension. “What are you talking about?” Robert asked. Lee said he hadn’t killed anyone—that he was serving a 90-year sentence for crimes someone else had committed. He reached under the bunk bed and pulled out a molded plastic bin. He sat on the bunk and removed the lid. Inside were court transcripts. Robert sat down beside him to get a better look.
Lee started talking about his trial. Something about a dog walker and a jailhouse snitch. He thumbed through the transcripts, pointing to their testimonies. It was too much to really take in, but Robert grasped the basic facts of the case: In 1989, on Chicago’s wealthy Gold Coast, a woman was robbed, forced into an alley and shot in the head. Four months later, Lee was charged with the crime.
Lee had lost his appeal, and his motion for post-conviction relief had been denied. He was looking for fresh ideas. He had tried talking to other prisoners, but it seemed no one wanted to hear about his case. Robert, it turned out, didn’t need to be coaxed into listening. He was stuck in a cell. A moth fluttering by would have held his attention.
They sat together on the bunk, poring over the documents until the early-morning hours. Robert didn’t know what to think about the case. But he tended to respond to vulnerability with compassion, and Lee—who had gone out of his way to help him, who had never asked him for anything other than a clean toilet and who wouldn’t even let Robert spend a few bucks on him at the commissary—seemed to be reaching out from a place of desperation. Robert knew there wasn’t anything he could do from prison. That’s when he made the promise: “I’ll look into this when I get out,” he said.
That was the only time they spoke of Lee’s case while Robert was in prison. A couple of weeks later, Lee quietly had Robert removed from their cell, urging staff to transfer him to cell 405—close enough for Lee to visit but far enough for a reprieve from Robert’s constant smoking and them damn Beatles.
Robert was furious when he found out Lee had orchestrated the move. Everybody was blowing smoke out onto the gallery anyway, so what did it matter? But Lee remained as friendly as ever, and he could be tenacious in his quest for friendship. He sought out Robert on the yard. He stopped by Robert’s cell for frequent visits. Robert found he couldn’t hold a grudge—even though it was Lee’s fault he now had to share a cell with a serial killer who seemed to laugh only when someone got pummeled on TV.
Lee’s friendship would soon become more important to Robert than he ever could have imagined. By making it possible for Robert to use the phone, Lee provided him with a lifeline to his family when he needed it most. In late May, Robert’s sister, Julie, suddenly fell ill. A little more than a week later she was dead at 27 from viral encephalitis.
Devastated, Robert teetered from one hopeless thought to the next: Should I kill somebody? Should I kill myself? He felt an urge to lash out; he didn’t know what else to do with himself. His family, though, kept him grounded during their phone calls—and he knew he was able to be a small comfort to them too.
Lee noticed right away that something was different. Robert wasn’t listening to his music, and he didn’t acknowledge Lee when Lee passed his cell. When Lee asked him what was wrong, Robert just stared at him blankly.
Lee kept stopping by and asking. Eventually Robert confided in him. Lee knew how isolating grief could be—one of Lee’s brothers and some of his close friends had died while he was in prison—so he made a point to visit Robert more than usual and to make sure he was eating and able to continue calling home.
A few weeks later, the Illinois Department of Corrections transferred Robert to a minimum-security prison to serve out the remaining year of his sentence. On the day of the move, the lock on his cell door popped open early in the morning, before the inmates working on the kitchen crew had even left their cells to begin preparing breakfast. Robert stepped beyond the bars and onto the gallery. He could see a guard at the other end of it, holding open the door for him. Robert could hardly wait to pass through it, but first he stopped outside Lee’s cell. Lee was awake. Robert said goodbye. And then he repeated his promise.
Robert left prison for good on Dec. 21, 2001. With a felony record and without a college degree, his prospects for reintegration might have been bleak, but he had strong family support. His mother took him in, and his father gave him a job in the sales office of his specialty advertising business, Ventura, Inc., which placed logos on promotional products.
Robert eased into the work, learning the product line and how to give simple sales quotes to prospective customers. Soon he was studying the competition and coming up with new products to offer. His mind was active, he was free and he enjoyed thinking of himself as someone with a future.
His father worked out of the company’s headquarters in Texas but owned a house in Skokie, Illinois. Robert moved into it after it became clear he wasn’t in danger of violating the terms of his parole.
Robert wasn’t even tempted to get high. He filled his time in productive ways, doing yard work, painting the house and making other small home improvements. He joined a local AA group and worked on rekindling relationships with friends whose trust he’d broken.
About a year after his release, when reflecting on how far he’d come, his thoughts turned to Lee—and to his promise.
It was a slow workday in early 2003, just after the holidays, and Robert was tired of sitting at the computer staring at products from China. He looked up Lee on the IDOC website and then wrote him a letter. I’m out. I’m free. What can I do to help? Where do I start?
Lee wrote back, boomerang fast, with a list of pro bono lawyers and prison-advocacy programs to contact. Defying Lee’s expectation, Robert followed through. But no one wanted to reopen a 13-year-old murder case.
The crime that landed Lee in prison occurred in the predawn hours of June 18, 1989. Around 2 a.m., a security guard on Chicago’s Gold Coast reported hearing a gunshot and seeing three men run out of an alley. A little while later, 24-year-old Dana Feitler was found in the alley, struggling to breathe and bleeding from her head. Receipts in her wallet from a nearby bank showed she’d recently withdrawn $400—half at 1:50 a.m. and the other half four minutes later.
The Milwaukee native had moved to Chicago after graduating from Colby College a couple of years earlier. She had planned to start an MBA program at the University of Chicago the following day.
She’d spent her last conscious hours with a friend who’d also enrolled in the graduate program. They looked for apartments for him near the university, visited his grandparents and saw the film "Chocolat." Then they ate dinner at a Mexican restaurant with another friend and went for a drink to celebrate getting into graduate school. Feitler’s friend dropped her off in front of her building around 1:30 a.m.
Police would find pieces of her mail strewn on the floor of her lobby, and five cassette tapes, some belonging to the friend who’d dropped her off, were stacked on a shelf below the mailboxes. From the looks of the scene, she’d been abducted while reading her mail and forced to go to a cash machine a few blocks away.
In 1989 the Gold Coast was the second-most-affluent neighborhood in the United States. Its tree-lined streets housed a mix of opulent and architecturally significant mansions in Georgian, Romanesque and Queen Anne styles. These properties sat among Italianate townhomes, midrise apartments and luxury high-rises, all within walking distance of Lake Michigan and the Magnificent Mile shopping district.
The shooting was an instant “heater” case, attracting intense media coverage. The 18th District police commander appeared on TV to assure alarmed residents that the area’s patrols were “the best in the city.” Feitler’s neurosurgeon spoke with reporters in granular detail about her treatment and condition. The Chicago City Council passed a resolution condemning the shooting and implored witnesses to come forward.
The police department assigned a team to work on the Feitler case around the clock, with 10 full-time detectives coming in even on their days off. The chief of the detectives division personally visited the crime scene, walked the route of the crime from abduction to shooting and later told a court he was briefed “constantly” on the investigation.
Feitler’s family offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. Toward the end of the month, as she lingered in a coma, they increased it to $25,000. During the second week of July, it became apparent that Feitler had suffered irreversible brain trauma. She died on July 9, after being taken off life support.
The police now had a murder case on their hands.
Area Six police detectives had started their investigation by grilling Feitler’s friends. An African-American man named Anthony Jackson, who’d had dinner with Feitler and a mutual friend at a restaurant just hours before she was shot, later testified that police kept him in a cold room for 13 hours, popping in every hour or so with questions he found “hostile” and “accusatory.” He said they wanted to know if he’d fantasized about Feitler and whether they’d “had orgies together.” One officer questioned his finances: “His exact wording,” Jackson testified, “was, ‘How does a nigger have $35,000 in his account?’”
A white woman who came forward as a witness in the days after the shooting received better treatment. “[S]he has to be treated gently,” an officer noted in a police report. The woman, Diana Sepielli, provided one of the first solid leads. She told police she’d been out walking her dog on the Gold Coast just before 2 a.m. when she encountered a white woman walking with three black men. Sepielli said the woman had locked eyes with her for about 20 seconds. It had struck her as unusually long and made her uncomfortable. She’d also noticed the woman holding one of the men’s hands.
Police showed Sepielli a photo of Feitler, and she confirmed that Feitler was the woman she’d seen. They then showed her a photo array of seven black men they had on file. She pointed to a photo of a man named Ronald Grant and told them he looked like one of the men who’d been walking with Feitler. When detectives asked her how sure she was, on a scale of one to 10, that she’d seen Grant with Feitler, Sepielli said nine and a half, but that she’d have to see him in person to know for sure.
Sepielli was called back to the police station the next day to view a lineup with Grant in it, and she picked him out again. A few days later she brought in some sketches she’d made of Feitler with the three suspects. Grant, she said, had been walking to Feitler’s right.
Grant denied being involved in the crime. He was given a lie-detector test, which indicated deception. But he had an alibi—his girlfriend—and she passed her polygraph exam. Still, police went to her apartment, and that of her cousin, and retrieved several pieces of clothing belonging to Grant, including a blood-spattered red sweatshirt. Serologic testing eventually would reveal the blood had a common subtype—it could have belonged to either Grant or Feitler.
Grant’s name came up again toward the end of July. After two 15-year-old boys from Cabrini-Green were arrested for trying to steal a bike, an officer mentioned the Feitler case and asked the boys if they knew anything about it. One said a man called Red had mentioned shooting a white woman on the Gold Coast. Police then showed the boys a photo of Ronald Grant. That was Red, they said.
It’s not clear what Area Six detectives did with the information, other than note it in a police report. Whatever the case, it’s clear that by then they were deep into conversation with Lee Harris, and he was steering them in a different direction.
Cabrini-Green and its 70 acres of poverty once sat about a mile from the Gold Coast. Despite the project’s proximity to the crime and the near-saturation news coverage, Lee told Robert he’d been unaware of the details of the shooting and that he’d learned of them at the same time he learned of the reward: when his friends Officers Ward and McHugh brought it to his attention more than a week after it had occurred.
Lee thought the officers seemed to be “almost begging for help” with the case, though neither had been assigned to it. They sat in their unmarked car with him, telling him about the crime. McHugh mentioned a large reward. “He said, ‘We will make sure you get this money if you help us,’” Lee recalls. Lee remembers hearing $20,000 bandied about. It was more money than he often made in a year from washing windows.
At Lee’s trial, McHugh also remembered the conversation. “I did state that I thought there was a reward,” he said. But he denied telling Lee an exact amount.
$20,000 would have been a game-changer for Lee. At the time, he was 34 and living in his mother-in-law’s apartment with his wife of four years and three stepchildren—a situation that could feel like a “madhouse” after a few days, so every now and then he’d stay with friends in a unit upstairs. His young son lived with his mother nearby.
Though Lee had always struggled financially, he was having a particularly rough time. He’d been out of prison less than a month and was still on parole for the burglary charge. He had no money.
Yet in some ways he felt fortunate. His burglary conviction had carried a three- to seven-year sentence, and he’d received the minimum. With credit for good time served, he’d spent only 18 months behind bars. He believed he had McHugh to thank for that—and he was likely right. McHugh admitted at Lee’s trial that he’d personally asked the state’s attorney to go easy on Lee.
So Lee says when McHugh and Ward approached him about the Feitler case, he was eager to get involved. He saw it as a win-win situation: his friends would get their suspect, and he’d get a payday. All he had to do was tell the Area Six detectives who were working the case that he had some information about the crime. “They told me, ‘Here’s what we think happened, and here’s who we think is involved,’” Lee recalls.
So off he went to Area Six headquarters, where Ward and McHugh introduced him to the main detective on the case, Richard Zuley.
“That’s the worst thing that could have happened to me in my life,” Lee says now.
Detective Zuley had a stern face and light, piercing eyes. He’d investigated more than 100 homicides and had been shot in the line of duty. He’d taken a leave from C.P.D. from 1982 to 1987 and done counterterrorism work for the U.S. Navy and had been back at the department for about two years when Lee walked into Area Six headquarters with Ward and McHugh.
Lee told the veteran detective an easily disprovable tale: that he’d been drinking coffee inside a Dunkin’ Donuts on Clark and Division Streets around the time of the shooting, and that he’d seen three black men running out of a nearby alley. He said he recognized two of them from Cabrini-Green: Little Ford and Cheese.
When Zuley went to the Dunkin’ Donuts to check out Lee’s story, he quickly realized that it would have been impossible for Lee to have seen what he’d described from inside the shop.
A polygraph test Lee took the next day revealed deception but also indicated that Lee had information about the crime. After Zuley confronted Lee about the flaws in his story, Lee changed it. He now said he’d actually been standing outside the Dunkin’ Donuts.
Detective Zuley took a leave from C.P.D. in late July to return to active military duty. Over the course of the next three months, as police chased down myriad false leads, Lee kept talking about the case with Area Six detectives, giving more than 20 statements. When they noticed that his statements contained falsehoods or were illogical, they pressed him for more, and different, information. He always complied.
“I was going to do just enough to get my 20 grand,” he says. “They kept assuring me, ‘We almost got this wrapped up.’” Police documents show that Lee’s statements evolved in a way that comported with the known facts of the crime. In one of them, he said the shooter had a .38. In a later statement, it was a .22—the type of weapon determined to have been used against Feitler. Two days after Feitler’s mother told police her daughter’s watch had been missing, a police report notes that Lee had previously mentioned that the killers had taken Feitler’s watch.
Lies didn’t feel funny on Lee’s tongue, and he had no qualms about passing on information he couldn’t vouch for to Area Six detectives. Once he started talking to them, he just kept on going, digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole he didn’t even know existed. He didn’t stop to think that he might destroy other people’s lives—let alone his own. He was focused on getting the reward money. He already had it spent: he was going to find an apartment, move his family out of Cabrini-Green, take care of his son and put money into the window-washing business. Everything was finally going to be okay.
On Aug. 5, Ward urged Lee to return to Area Six and talk about the Feitler case.
According to police reports, Lee now told detectives that a man called Chuck-a-luck had run out of the alley along with Little Ford and Cheese. Chuck-a-luck was from Cabrini-Green, and Ward’s colleagues from the Public Housing North unit had arrested him for an armed robbery two days earlier. Area Six police interviewed Cheese and Ford but couldn’t corroborate Lee’s story. Another month passed without progress on the case.
In early September, McHugh brought Lee to an empty lot to meet with Commander William Callaghan. In stipulated testimony at Lee’s trial, Callaghan said he had begun to suspect that Lee was a “closer witness” than he was letting on. Callaghan told Lee that if “you didn’t shoot,” Lee had nothing to worry about—the commander would do what he could to protect Lee and his family. “Just tell me what you saw.”
At the time, the Chicago Police Department trained its officers in the Reid Technique of interviewing and interrogating suspects. The technique was first developed in the late-‘40s by a former Chicago police officer who was also a polygraph expert and fine-tuned over the next four decades. The third edition of the Reid training manual, published in 1986, became the gold standard for police departments nationwide and was even used by the FBI, the CIA and the Secret Service.
The technique’s nine methods of interrogation include “minimization,” a process by which the interrogator might suggest the crime was an accident, provide moral justifications for it or offer that the suspect had played a secondary role. The goal is to downplay the moral implications of the crime and to steer the suspect’s focus away from the “pending consequences associated with it.”
After meeting with Callaghan, Lee agreed to return to Area Six to talk more about the Feitler case. The department recalled Zuley from furlough for the task, and by the end of their conversation, Lee had placed himself in the alley with Feitler right before she’d been shot. He didn’t worry about the implications of what he was saying. How much trouble could he get in by saying he was somewhere he wasn’t? He trusted that Ward and McHugh had his back—they’d pulled him out of jams before, and for things more serious than running his mouth.
According to police documents, Lee told Zuley he’d run into Cheese, Chuck-a-luck and a man he didn’t recognize as they were walking with a white woman on the Gold Coast. Chuck-a-luck told Lee that he was going to “knock the bitch,” which Lee thought meant rob. So he stuck around, following them to the alley, hoping for a cut. But when Chuck-a-luck pulled out a gun and held it to the victim’s head, Lee bolted.
Zuley claimed that after Lee spoke with him, they drove around the Gold Coast together, and Lee identified the exact spot in the alley where Feitler was shot. Zuley also claimed that at the start of their conversation, he told Lee the reward money had been withdrawn, hoping to remove it as an incentive for him to lie.
Lee maintains that Zuley did no such thing, that he did the opposite, using the promise of a reward to keep him talking. He claims that during the many conversations they’d had, the detective dangled the reward “like a carrot,” telling Lee he was getting closer and closer to it.
By now word had gotten out that Lee was a police informant, and he started to fear for his family’s safety. The state’s attorney’s office set up his family in a motel near Midway Airport, about 11 miles southwest of Cabrini-Green—but abruptly stopped paying for his housing after declining to charge anyone he’d implicated in the Feitler murder. The police department then picked up the tab, moving Lee and his family to a motel about 10 miles north of Cabrini-Green, where he became dependent on police for his family’s safety, housing and meals. After a few days, the department appealed to the Chicago Housing Authority for an emergency placement, and Lee and his family settled into LeClaire Courts on the southwest side of the city, far from Cabrini-Green.
Around this time, Zuley began to lean hard on Lee. Lee remembers Zuley helping refine his statements, rocking back and forth in his chair, staring at him through glasses perched on the end of his nose and calmly saying, “Well, I don’t think it happened like that.”
On Sept. 17, Zuley and Ward met Lee for breakfast at the Acres Motel. By the end of their conversation, which lasted roughly three hours, Lee’s participation in the crime had grown. According to Zuley’s report, Lee now placed himself outside the cash station as Feitler was withdrawing money from the ATM. Lee interpreted Chuck-a-luck’s “knock the bitch” comment to mean he was going to kill Feitler rather than rob her. And Lee claimed that another participant in the crime—someone he hadn’t yet mentioned—would be able to corroborate his story.
Zuley and Ward both testified at Lee’s trial that during this breakfast meeting, Zuley reminded Lee that the reward money had been withdrawn.
The police had no case—just Lee’s ever-changing stories, which they tried but failed to corroborate. They called Cheese back to the station and tracked down Chuck-a-luck and put them in a lineup that was viewed by the dog walker and the security guard who’d seen men fleeing the alley where Feitler was found. Neither was identified.
When detectives pressed Lee to reveal the mystery perpetrator, he dropped the name Dino. They scoured their files and turned up two mug shots of men called Dino. Lee told them neither was the right one.
During the hunt for Dino, Sgt. Thomas Keane talked with Lee on a daily basis. In retrospect, Lee says, there were signs of a shift in the detectives’ interest in him, signs that they had started to consider him a suspect.
Lee recalls a vague warning from Ward to be careful. And there was that time McHugh drove him to a house on the North Side and knocked on a door. The person who lived there wasn’t home. The person, McHugh said, was a lawyer, and you never knew when you might need a good one. Lee says he told McHugh that he was starting to feel uncomfortable about the conversations he was having with Zuley, but Lee says McHugh put him at ease by promising to look out for him.
But McHugh either couldn’t or wouldn’t protect him. On Oct. 13, Keane and Detective James Cradick picked Lee up at his home and brought him to Area Six for more questioning. According to Cradick’s report, they confronted Lee about Dino, suggesting “that no such person existed,” and encouraged him to “reconsider his account of the events which led to the homicide of Dana Feitler.”
Lee didn’t want to talk to them, and he later reported that he did so only because a detective threatened to charge him with the crime if he didn’t.
It was late at night, and Lee wanted to go home. He thought that talking would help him achieve that goal. “After taking a short break from interviewing,” Cradick wrote, “Harris requested to give a different account of his story.”
There was no Dino, he had to admit. In the new story, Lee had run into Cheese and Chuck-a-luck on the street and joined them as they walked to the cash station with the victim. Lee said he sat outside with them as she withdrew money. Chuck-a-luck made his “knock” comment, the woman emerged from the cash station, and they walked to the alley while Cheese and Chuck-a-luck argued loudly over what to do with her. Lee said he told Chuck-a-luck to let her go, and when Chuck-a-luck pulled out a gun, Lee turned to leave, breaking into a run after hearing a gunshot.
Police contacted the felony-review unit of the state’s attorney’s office, whose job it was to assess whether police had enough evidence to charge suspects with felonies. Lee called the Cabrini Legal Aid Clinic. When a lawyer, Charles Hogren, arrived, he was surprised to find Lee not in the usual windowless interrogation room for suspects, handcuffed to a ring on the wall, but in a conference room, able to walk around freely and having, as he would later testify, “the run of the floor.” It was obvious that Lee felt safe—he told Hogren the police “are my friends”—and in front of everyone, and against Hogren’s advice, Lee repeated his statement. But this time he added exculpatory details, saving himself from a felony murder charge by saying he went into the alley not to rob Feitler but to protect her.
Keane later testified that police still considered arresting Lee at that point but decided against it “in hopes that we would ultimately get all of the offenders and not only him.”
Thirteen days later the police returned for Lee. He waived his right to remain silent and then spent the next couple of hours talking with Zuley and another detective, going over his story. Lee would later argue in a motion to suppress his statement that Zuley kept him talking by saying Lee was “minutes away from being $20,000 richer”—a comment Zuley denied.
Around 11 p.m., police summoned the felony-review attorney. Lee told her essentially the same story he’d told her a couple of weeks earlier. But this time, Dino was back in it, and for the first time, he mentioned passing a woman walking her dog. And while Lee still claimed he tried to protect the victim in the end, he admitted going into the alley to rob her—which was enough to hold him accountable for her murder.
Around 4:40 a.m., Lee requested Hogren’s presence at the police station. After Hogren arrived, Lee refused to give a written statement. But the oral statement couldn’t be undone. “Lee told me the only reason he gave this statement is because [the detective] told him what to say,” Hogren later told Lee’s trial attorneys when they interviewed him about what had happened that day.
The next day the dog walker picked Lee out of a lineup, saying she was “pretty sure” he was one of the men she’d seen with Feitler. The detective who drove her home wrote a report saying that in the car she’d told him “she had given it some more thought and that now she was sure that Harris was the man she saw that evening.” At the trial Sepielli denied saying that. She said she was not, nor had she ever been, “absolutely certain” she’d seen Lee with Feitler.
Lee, however, was absolutely certain he’d seen Sepielli before.
Police records indicate that both Sepielli and Lee were interviewed by Area Six police on Oct. 13, two weeks before the lineup. Lee would later tell Robert that they’d been in a room together at the station on a few occasions during the investigation, and that once she had even shown him some sketches that she’d made of Feitler with the suspects. Of course he’d looked familiar to her, Lee said.
On March 6, 1992, Lee was convicted of killing Feitler largely on the basis of Sepielli’s identification and his own convoluted statements to the police. No physical evidence connected him to the crime.
Lee says that his friends Ward and McHugh could have saved him but instead they turned on him—a betrayal that was as perplexing to him as it was hurtful. He trusted them so thoroughly, he says, that when he saw their names on the witness list at his trial, he felt instantly relieved. He was sure, even at that late point, that they would get him out of the jam he was in.
Bolstering the state’s case was a witness in the Cook County Jail—someone Lee told Robert he’d never seen before. David Toles had been arrested on three burglary charges and was facing between nine and 21 years in prison. He testified that he met Lee in a dayroom at the Cook County Jail not long after Lee had been arrested and that over a game of blackjack, Lee told him about the Feitler murder—and confessed to being the triggerman himself.
The defense attorneys tried to cut away at Toles’s credibility, establishing that Toles had lied repeatedly to jail officials to get placed in the hospital unit at the jail because he considered it a safer, calmer place than the general population. He’d falsely claimed to be suicidal, addicted to PCP and cocaine and experiencing withdrawal. He also said he had back issues.
Lee’s attorney asked if it was “hard to remember, when you tell lies, what you have told?”
“Well, not really,” Toles responded, “if it’s for your own benefit.”
The state reduced two of Toles’s felony charges to misdemeanors after he came forward as a witness against Lee. A judge sentenced him to the minimum of three years for the burglary and 364 days in jail for each of the misdemeanors. Most of that time he’d already served. He was back on the street a few weeks after his sentencing.
Andrea Lyon, who represented Lee at trial, believes that Lee’s own incriminating statements, more than the testimony of Toles, were what did him in. “A substantial amount of the population does not think it’s possible for someone to confess to something they didn’t do,” she says. “That was our challenge.”
Yet the history of false confessions runs deep in Chicago. While Lee was implicating himself in the Feitler case, Commander Jon Burge and his men were regularly torturing confessions out of black suspects in another part of the city. And when police weren’t torturing suspects for confessions, they relied on the Reid Technique. In 2012, 60 Minutes dubbed Chicago the False Confession Capital, finding that it had twice as many documented false confessions as any other U.S. city. In recent years the Reid Technique has fallen out of favor, widely criticized for its role in eliciting false confessions through psychological coercion. In 2017 a leading police consulting agency announced that it would no longer train detectives in the technique, choosing instead methods that focus on “obtaining truthful information.”
Today Andrea Lyon is the dean of Valparaiso University Law School. She remembers Lee well—and the irony of the state’s position: asking the jury to “believe his word” even though “we didn’t believe him enough to arrest any of the other guys he named.”
During the closing arguments, she called the case a “desperate prosecution” and urged the jury not to place much stock in Lee’s statements. “Every single fact in those statements were known and public and were known to the police who were talking to Lee Harris all summer long,” she said.
The prosecutor dramatically invoked Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” imagining aloud that Lee had been hearing Feitler’s heartbeat getting louder each time he spoke with police—“boom, boom, boom”—until his guilty conscience became unbearable and made him confess to Toles.
Lee turned to Lyon at one point and asked, “Is he talking about me? That didn’t happen.”
He remembers her saying, “Well, that’s the picture he’s painting.”
In that moment, the world of well-paid professionals was as familiar to Lee as his own. Words were cheap. People lied. Sometimes they had to trick others to get what they wanted.
As Robert began making good on his promise to Lee, Illinois was coming to grips with the fallibility of its criminal justice system. It was early 2003, and Gov. George Ryan was in his waning days of office. He’d previously put a moratorium on the death penalty and was now taking the bold step of clearing out death row by commuting the sentences of 167 prisoners and outright pardoning four of the notorious Jon Burge torture victims. Ryan had also recently pardoned on the basis of innocence Rolando Cruz, who’d spent a decade on death row for the rape and murder of a child, in spite of another man—a serial rapist and killer—confessing to the crime. Even after that man’s DNA linked him to the child’s death, prosecutors maintained that Cruz was the killer. The case against Cruz finally collapsed at his third trial. Seven DuPage County law enforcement officials were tried, though acquitted, for railroading him. Like Lee, Cruz had been partly responsible for the mess he found himself in. He’d fabricated a story about the murder in the hope of getting a large reward.
The public fallout regarding wrongful convictions in Illinois did nothing to shake Robert’s belief in the criminal justice system. The news went right over him. He trusted the cops. It was how he was raised.
Though he’d never known Lee to be violent, he had no reason to doubt his conviction. It had been upheld on appeal. “I figured Lee did it, to be honest with you,” he says.
Robert decided to do what he considered “due diligence”—just enough to stay true to his word. Then Lee asked him to contact an investigative TV reporter who’d reached out to him for a story on cash-station safety, and Robert’s worldview took a blow.
Robert remembers the reporter, Larry Yellen, telling him that Andrea Lyon had believed in Lee’s innocence—and that Yellen, who also had a law degree, did too.
As the thought of Lee’s innocence sank in, Robert felt a deeper sense of responsibility toward his friend. He remembered the jailhouse snitch Toles—someone Lee had said he’d never seen before his trial. Robert tracked him down in a Wisconsin prison and sent him a letter, asking for the truth.
Robert says Toles replied with a two-page letter. It was typed, unsigned, and undated, but Robert insists it’s authentic. (Toles has admitted to prosecutors that he corresponded with Robert, and the Cook County Public Defender’s Office took an affidavit from Robert regarding their contact.) Certain parts of the letter are addressed to Robert, others directly to Lee.
“I was twenty-four when this happen,” the letter says, “and each year following it I’ve lived in pure hell. Don’t worry Mr. Harris I’m coming to get you my brother. I know you wont ever be able to forgive me for what happen but I want you to know I’m so very sorry for what you had to face all those years of your life . . .”
According to the letter, making things right would be a dangerous prospect, so Toles wanted to do it on his own terms. “This is not about me just signing some statement saying I made what Mr. Harris is incarcerated for up it’s more serious then that, and I’m not going to approach this like that and come up dead.”
Robert was floored. He wrote to Lee, “[H]ow are you buddy. I have some really bad news for you. David Toles died. No, I am just kidding . . .”
He enclosed a copy of Toles’s letter and told Lee, “[H]ang in there, and send me letters for David. I have no problem helping you, I think that we made a big breakthrough with this, but tell me what you think . . . Try not to let it keep you from sleeping.”
Then, Robert says, Toles sent more letters and even started calling him, asking questions about Lee and saying the state had put him up to testifying. Robert sent his correspondence with Toles to Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and urged Toles to contact the center too. For a while it looked like Toles was going to officially recant his testimony. Lee and Robert were full of hope. But then Toles fell silent.
Robert moved to Del Rio, Texas, to work closely with his father at Ventura’s headquarters in an expanded role. His promotion entailed buying products that could be adorned with a company’s logo—everything from key chains to atomic wall clocks—and he began traveling to Asia to find deals.
He leased a small farmhouse not far from the Mexican border. A girlfriend from Illinois moved in with him. As he settled into his new routine, he wasn’t as quick as usual to respond to Lee’s letters. Lee felt the distance.
“It is really good to hear from you,” Lee wrote after finally receiving a letter from Robert. “As you know when you are in my situation, friends don’t stay with you long. You are the best . . . it is so good to know that you are finally happy. Do I hear bells or the patter of little feet. So how do a midwest city boy turn into a farmer in the middle of the desert?”
Lee told Robert he’d been having health issues and was suffering from high blood pressure. “I think it was because I had gained so much weight,” Lee wrote. “I had turned into a real fat ass 247 pounds. I had problems walking. I was out of control but I’m back at 216 now.”
Lee also gave Robert an update on his case. Lee had filed a motion requesting DNA testing on Ronald Grant’s sweatshirt, which hadn’t been available at the time of his trial. “But the state is protesting,” he wrote, “real hard.”
For Lee, though, the bigger disappointment was Toles’s vanishing act. “I don’t know what to say about that dam Toles,” Lee wrote. “As you can understand he could have helped put a end to this mess long ago.”
Toles reemerged the following month. On May 5, 2004, he recanted his testimony to Cook County prosecutor Mary Lou Norwell and Celeste Stack, a supervisor in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
During an interview at the Rock County Jail that was recorded but not under oath, Toles revealed that two plainclothes cops had pulled him out of the receiving area of Cook County Jail in November 1989 and shown him a photo of Lee. Toles said they asked if he knew the man in the photo. After he said he didn’t, Toles told the prosecutors that one of the officers said, “Well, you about to get to know him.”
Toles said that the next day, Lee suddenly “popped up on the unit.”
“Did he have any discussion with you . . . relative to his case or anything?” Toles was asked.
“No,” he replied, contradicting his testimony at Lee’s trial.
At times Toles clammed up and said he needed to take a break. “I’m getting too nervous,” he said at one point. “I don’t want to screw nothing up. I’m already in enough hot water as it is.”
But he continued, saying, “I was instructed to call and to say that I had information about a murder—that Mr. Harris confessed the murder to me.”
Toles went on to say that his testimony had been scripted—“I was instructed for months”—and that his motive for coming forward now was pure. “I’m here to do the right thing,” he said.
When asked if he knew the names of the police who’d approached him, he said, “I remember the last name Keane and Zuley. They names I never forget.”
Toles didn’t provide the sole evidence against Lee, so his recantation wasn’t the slam dunk that Lee and Robert had hoped for. No efforts, as far as they knew, were under way to compel Toles to answer questions about his testimony under oath. But the day before Stack and Norwell went to Wisconsin to interview Toles, Norwell withdrew the state’s attorney’s previous motion to dismiss Lee’s request for DNA analysis on Ronald Grant’s clothing and submitted a motion requesting the analysis.
The state then paid $8,000 for a private lab to conduct the tests. When the results came back a few weeks later, they didn’t help Lee: Feitler’s DNA wasn’t found on Grant’s sweatshirt. The Public Defender’s Office represented Lee at this time, and it moved forward with a motion asking to preserve and inspect the evidence. Yet Lee rarely heard from the attorney assigned to his case. “[T]his case is about me and my freedom,” he wrote to Robert, “and yet I seem not to have any part in my defense, which I really want to have a voice in or at least an opinion.”
Lee had authorized his attorneys to speak with Robert. “Keep me kind of in the light on what’s going on,” Lee wrote. “Also can you suggest to them that they should at least contact me if to do nothing but touch bases.”
Around this time, Lee and Robert began talking on the phone every week. His calls would come on Wednesday evenings, interrupting Robert’s weekly dinners at Applebee’s with his father. Robert would always accept the charges and take the call, while his father waited patiently for it to end.
Curious to know more about the Feitler investigation, Robert began looking up old news reports. The accounts of the crime were horrifying, and some even said that Lee had confessed. Lee assured Robert that he’d had no part in the crime, that Officers McHugh and Ward had actually given him scenarios to relate to Zuley. Sometimes Robert wondered how Lee could reconcile the morally corrupt act of accusing others of a crime without direct knowledge of their guilt. Had he tried to do to others what had been done to him? Robert figured Lee must have trusted that he was getting good information from Ward and McHugh. One thing seemed clear: the very qualities that had drawn him to Lee—his friendliness, his strong desire to help people—qualities that in most situations had served Lee well, seemed to have worked against him with devastating consequences.
It wasn’t until 2015 that Robert’s doubt would finally be put to rest—when the Guardian connected Zuley to brutal interrogations at Guantánamo Bay prison. Zuley, it turned out, had been sent to Guantánamo as part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in 2002 to lead the team responsible for “enhanced interrogations.” One of the “enemy combatants” approved for such interrogations, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, later wrote a memoir claiming he’d been subjected to various forms of torture, including sleep deprivation, extreme temperatures, sexual humiliation and threats against his family. After Zuley took over his interrogations, Slahi had suddenly gushed incriminating statements. But those statements turned out to be inadmissible in military court. Defense Department investigators determined that Zuley’s interrogation of Slahi had violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman talked with Lee and a few other inmates in Illinois and drew a line between Zuley’s work as a detective in Chicago and his interrogations at Guantánamo, writing that Zuley had honed his coercive interrogation tactics for decades on minority suspects in Chicago—and that those tactics “would get supercharged at Guantánamo for the war on terrorism.”
Robert learned that Lee wasn’t alone. He read about Benita Johnson, who said that in 1995 Zuley had tricked her into signing a confession and threatened her with never seeing her children again, and Lathierial Boyd, whose conviction was overturned after he’d spent 23 years in prison and who claimed that Zuley had hidden exculpatory evidence.
Boyd and Johnson were represented by a top Chicago lawyer, Kathleen Zellner. She’d helped exonerate 16 people—more than any other private attorney in the country. The month after the Guardian stories came out, Chicago Magazine featured her on a list of the 100 most powerful Chicagoans.
Zellner agreed to take on Lee’s case for $1 plus a percentage of any future settlement or civil suit judgment and managed to get Lee’s case on the radar of the Conviction Integrity Unit, which the state’s attorney’s office had formed in 2012 to reinvestigate cases that might have resulted in wrongful convictions.
Robert’s efforts on Lee’s behalf now intensified. He enlisted his mother to pick up his trial transcripts from Lee’s sister-in-law, and he sat down and read thousands of pages of court transcripts. He created an online petition to pressure the state’s attorney’s office into granting Lee a new trial, made videos for a YouTube channel documenting Lee’s case and created a Facebook page in Lee’s name for public support, inadvertently getting Lee fired from his prison job as an office manager for the building engineer, despite Lee’s insistence that he hadn’t used the computer to log on to Facebook. Robert started talking incessantly about the case to whoever would listen. He told a waitress at the Del Rio Chili’s about Lee three times; he talked about Lee with a customer in California. Robert’s father says Robert sent him “probably 40,000 pages” of emails specifically about Lee. Robert put Lee in touch with a friend of his—a podiatrist also named Lee—and then watched as they struck up their own friendship, with the podiatrist accepting Lee’s collect calls and sending Lee money.
Robert even reached out to Lee’s son, now grown, one of Lee’s brothers and some of his old friends. “You’re going to hate this,” Robert told Lee on the phone one day before mentioning that an old friend of his had described Lee as the kind of guy who’d “rob one friend to help another.”
Lee laughed. “It depended on who was in the most need at the time,” he said.
With Zellner on the case, Robert expected things to happen quickly. He was impatient and therefore often disappointed. He wasn’t easily able to get Zellner on the phone, and he didn’t get the sense that her firm was doing its own investigation. In his opinion, the Conviction Integrity Unit wasn’t moving fast enough either. He floated the idea of actually spending some money on an attorney, someone who would take his calls and do an independent investigation. “It’s completely up to you,” he told Lee. “But if we go with a paid attorney, that means we’re getting rid of Zellner. That’s a pretty big name. I don’t think anybody’s ever fired Kathleen Zellner.”
By this point, Robert had been advocating for his friend for more than a decade, and deep down he felt that he’d failed Lee. He regretted not hiring a private attorney for him back in 2004 to work on the post-conviction petition. But back then he’d only been out of prison himself for a few years; his financial situation had greatly improved since then. Still, he didn’t have money to burn, so he asked if Lee would give him a cut of any large settlement Lee might receive if he were exonerated.
Lee offered him 20 percent and put it in writing, adding, “Thank you so much for being my friend I so much needed.”
Then Lee wrote to Zellner—what he thought of as “the hardest letter” he ever had to write—relieving her of their contract. And Robert emptied his savings account to hire Jennifer Blagg.
Early in Jennifer Blagg’s career, she had made a point of writing back to every prisoner who contacted her and including with her response two business cards. One had ended up in Lee’s hands—with an endorsement.
Robert spoke on the phone with her for about two hours and then flew to Chicago to meet in person.
Blagg often works from her home, but she rents a small office on the city’s North Side for appointments. On a wall near her uncluttered desk hang two framed front-page newspaper articles about former clients. One features the headline "Justice in the Dixmoor Five Case," the other a quote in huge font: "I thought to be charged with murder you had to kill somebody."
Blagg has a soft spot for wrongful-conviction cases, which usually come with destitute clients, so she ends up working on about half of her cases for free. In the nearly 10 years she’s been in private practice, four of her clients have been exonerated, and charges were dropped against another after she found evidence of police misconduct.
Robert says that after he met with her, he sent her a check for $5,000. She has yet to charge him anything else.
After a cursory review of Lee’s case, Blagg was unsure if she’d find compelling reasons for an exoneration. But after combing through thousands of pages of police records and court documents, she came to think of the case as “a classic example of tunnel vision and confirmation bias.”
Blagg believes Zuley zeroed in on Lee, “not giving a shit if he did it,” because the high-profile case remained unsolved after four months. “Nothing pointed to Lee,” she says. “Lee became a suspect because he just kept talking. First he said he saw people run away, then he saw it happen, then it evolves as he’s trying to give them what they need to solve the case.”
Lee was an obvious target, she says. “Lee is a people pleaser; he likes being a big shot, knowing the cops, and he’s desperate for money. Zuley was a mastermind at using all of Lee’s weaknesses to his advantage.”
Blagg believes that the point of no return for Lee occurred around two and a half months after the crime, when the state’s attorney’s office refused to charge Cheese on the basis of Lee’s statements. “That’s when things go downhill,” she says.
Blagg scoured the police reports detailing Lee’s statements, none of which Lee had signed, and found so many odd things about them that she color-coded them. She marked in yellow reports that were dated Oct. 24, 1990—a year after Lee was arrested—and were therefore unreliable as contemporaneous documents of the investigation. She marked in green instances where the detectives’ general progress reports differed from their official versions—where something got added to the report or left out of it. In some cases a new detail emerged with suspicious timing. For example, two days after Feitler’s mother called police to report that her daughter’s Tiffany watch was missing, a police report documented a conversation in which Lee had mentioned the watch to another sergeant two days before Feitler’s mother called, saying that Chuck-a-luck’s girlfriend “was wearing the watch taken from Dana Feitler at the time of her murder.” Police never found the watch, and it never comes up in any of the other statements attributed to Lee. “It’s the upper echelons of bullshit,” says Blagg. “I mean, I don’t think he said any of this.”
There was something strange about other reports too, including one regarding the dog walker who’d provided the first solid lead in the case. “She obviously called in June, the month Dana was killed, to say she thought she had seen her with three black men,” says Blagg. “But they don’t write the report detailing what she said until Oct. 13.”
In another report, Zuley describes Lee calling him at home sometime after their breakfast meeting at the Acres Motel. According to the report, he asked Lee if he was after the reward money. But if Zuley had, as he claimed under oath, reminded Lee twice by then that the reward was off the table, why would he wonder if it was still motivating Lee?
Blagg thought that there was something else wrong with the document. Zuley wrote that after he asked Lee if he was motivated by the reward, Lee “didn’t answer, just smiled.” How could Zuley have seen Lee’s face over the phone?
Blagg also dug into Toles’s background. Just months before coming forward in Lee’s case, he’d been paid $1,000 for work as a police informant on another case. But that payment hadn’t come out at Lee’s trial. “That’s a benefit that Lee was entitled to know,” Blagg says. “That’s a very important benefit. To people who aren’t lawyers, it might not be as glaringly apparent, but it affects one’s credibility dramatically if you’re being paid in some way to say what you’re saying.” Failing to disclose material that’s relevant to the defense is a violation of Brady v. Maryland. “This evidence alone entitles Lee to a new trial,” she says.
Blagg is working on a new post-conviction petition and challenging the 2004 DNA analysis on Ronald Grant’s sweatshirt. A recent DNA test done at her request came back as inconclusive, so Blagg plans to push the state for even more testing, this time on different parts of the sweatshirt—parts that the original forensic analyst identified as containing blood splatters but didn’t test. She believes that if a new test reveals that Feitler’s DNA is on the sweatshirt, Lee will be released. Lee never mentioned Grant in his statements, so she says a forensic connection between Grant and Feitler would expose Lee’s statements as lies.
In addition to seeing no credible evidence against Lee, she says, the case file offers a window into his mind-set at the time of his arrest, and it’s consistent with how he’s described his involvement in the investigation. Within a week of Lee’s being booked into the Cook County Jail, an inmate in the dining area directed Lee to put a particular cup of Kool-Aid on his dinner tray. It was cloudy, with a pungent odor, and when Lee took a sip, he spit it out immediately, thinking it tasted like disinfectant. An internal investigation confirmed that his drink had been tampered with. In an interview with jail officials about the incident, Lee claimed he was a state’s witness in a pending murder case.
“He still didn’t understand,” Blagg says. “He said he thinks he was poisoned because it may have been an attempt to discourage his testimony against others involved in the murder. Doesn’t it break your heart? He is still so clueless that he is in deep shit. He still thinks he’s helping out his friends.”
When Robert stopped outside cell 403 to say goodbye to Lee, the Twin Towers were still standing in New York and iPhones were years from being invented. That was 17 years ago, and they haven’t seen each other since.
Robert remembers a man in his 40s. Lee is now almost 63. When Robert looks at recent photos of his friend, he is struck by the passage of time. Lee’s face has more lines than it used to, his hands have more cracks, his belly has grown. Robert, of course, has aged too. They can now add being bald to the short list of things they have in common.
Lee calls Robert at least once a week from Pontiac Correctional Center, where he’s been incarcerated for the past 14 years. He passes on news about his case or vents about the frustrations with confinement: that young guards don’t seem to know how to inspire inmate cooperation without relying on displays of power; that you can get sent to a doctor’s appointment only to be accused, once there, of unauthorized movement. Sometimes the former cellmates attempt to reminisce, but their shared history was brief, and many of Robert’s prison memories have faded.
“I don’t know if you remember Ray Ray,” Lee said on a recent call. “Ray Ray asks me at least twice a month how you’re doing.”
“Who is he?” Robert asked.
“He’s a little short guy, walks with a limp,” Lee said. “He’s kind of old now.”
Robert’s mind was blank. Lee told him Ray Ray’s last name, then tried again to jog his memory. “He used to stop by, and he used to eat with us sometimes at night,” Lee said.
Robert still had no idea who Lee was talking about. “Man,” he said, “the people that I remember in that place are you, Bobby, Dawoud, Modesto. What’s his name—Randall? Frankenstein. And that’s it, man.”
“Wow, that’s a limited group,” Lee said.
“Yeah,” Robert replied, “it’s been a long time.”
Robert often thinks about how hard it must be for Lee, living out his life in a cell. Lee has been incarcerated now for 28 years—longer than Robert’s sister was alive. In that time, Lee’s wife died, and his son grew up without him. If Robert’s push for justice doesn’t work, Lee could die in prison. If he fails, Lee won’t be eligible for parole until November 2034. By then he’ll be nearly 80.
Lee sometimes admits to Robert that he feels worn down by the long wait for freedom. He tries to escape his reality by imagining himself living in a better place, like in the majestic homes he sees on HGTV programs such as "House Hunters" and "Million Dollar Listings" and while thumbing through his subscription to duPont REGISTRY’s “A Buyer’s Gallery of Fine Homes.”
Robert’s life, unlike Lee’s, has only improved since they last saw each other. Healthy and drug-free, though still a smoker, Robert has been able to travel, buy a house, fall in love.
Robert met his wife, Maricar, on a business trip to the Philippines in 2014. She learned about Lee’s place in Robert’s life early in their relationship. They were Skyping across continents when a call from Lee disconnected them, and Robert became unreachable for the next 30 minutes, immune to her text messages. “When Lee calls, I answer it,” he explained.
The next time Robert visited her in the Philippines, he brought with him a stack of stickers depicting prison bars superimposed over Lee’s mug shot and the words Innocent Inmate. The couple stuck them in every taxi they rode in and passed them out to backpackers, who promised to scatter them around the world.
In the years since, Maricar has formed her own friendship with Lee. “When you get out, you have a home waiting for you,” she tells him.
Robert and Maricar live in a low-slung brown stucco house on 10 acres of farmland near the US-Mexico border. It has an open-concept kitchen, two large aquariums in the living room, and a taste of Chicago—Lou Malnati’s pizza—in the freezer. Robert has spruced up the grounds with California palm trees, a cactus garden, a gazebo—and scores of wild rescue animals.
Seventeen years. Many people would have walked away from a short stint in prison and done whatever they could to distance themselves from it. But through his efforts to help Lee, Robert has kept that painful period at the forefront of his mind, even as the details of the experience recede from memory. He does this not out of a desire to mold his time in prison into something worthwhile but because of who he is and who he wants to be: a man who keeps promises.
Robert believes his time in prison was worthwhile, no matter what happens with Lee’s case. He believes that he was headed toward a fatal overdose when he got arrested and that the criminal justice system forced on him the necessary time and space for his body and brain to heal. If freedom is possible for Lee because fate threw them together in a cell, that would be “like icing on the cake,” he says, making his time behind bars extra worthwhile. It’s not lost on him that he and Lee have had wildly different experiences with the system.
Robert has put his own needs—a new roof, a new car—on hold and piled up debt trying to help Lee regain his freedom. Besides the $5,000 he’s paid Blagg, he adds $100 every month to a prepaid account so Lee can call him. He recently spent a few thousand dollars transferring Lee’s entire case file to searchable PDFs—14,959 pages of police files and court documents and news accounts—and occasionally sends money to Lee directly. When Lee mentioned recently that the prison was offering restaurant meals for $9.50 as a treat for Black History Month—a choice of fish, chicken or spareribs—Robert told him to get all three. “Do it up,” he said, promising to send him $50 that evening.
“This is the best money I ever spent in my life,” Robert told Lee recently, rendering Lee speechless.
When Lee collected himself, he said, “I don’t know whether to feel overwhelmed with joy, or sad that I cost you so much. I don’t know what to feel. I’m just grateful.”
Blagg has given them reason for hope. She has told them she believes it’s only a matter of time before the state realizes that Lee was wrongfully convicted. When the call comes, Robert plans to drop everything and make his way to Chicago. He will throw a huge exoneration party. It will be epic, he says.
When he thinks about what that day will be like, his mind starts churning and his thoughts take him beyond the celebration. He anticipates logistical snafus. Lee will need ID to board a plane, he’ll have no idea what the TSA is—Robert will need to guide him through all that.
And they plan. Lee can work on the farm or as a driver for their podiatrist friend while he gets his bearings and figures out where to settle. Robert is excited to take Lee fishing—but does he even fish? Robert doubts that Lee will want to stay in Del Rio for long. It’s a small town without much of a social scene, perhaps too sleepy for someone as gregarious as Lee.
But a sleepy little town in a state where he never imagined setting foot sounds pretty good to Lee right now. He’s eager to see a real wolf and a three-legged cat, drink a strawberry milkshake, feel the grease of a cheeseburger running down his chin.
A room in Robert’s house awaits him. It’s a cheerful space of about 450 square feet, with a stained-concrete floor and a half bathroom attached. You enter it through french doors. It has 12-foot ceilings, three windows and opposite walls painted in peach and light olive. Robert now uses the room to store boxes, animal crates and a collection of antique saddles. Soon he’ll start fixing it up. He plans to put in an exterior door, one that opens onto the farm. Lee will be able to come and go as he pleases.
AUTHOR’S NOTE — While reporting this story, I sought to speak with the police officers who’d had the most contact with Lee during the Feitler investigation. I reached Detective Zuley, now retired from the Chicago Police Department, at his home. He told me that he remembered Lee, but that he would not comment publicly on his investigation of the Feitler murder. Although I was able to corroborate some aspects of Lee’s relationship with Officers Ward and McHugh—both testified at his trial and in motions before the court—I was unable to speak with them personally to obtain their version of the events Lee described. I reached out to C.P.D.’s News Affairs for help locating them, but a spokesperson told me that the department was not even “able to verify whether they are alive.” I also contacted the Fraternal Order of Police and a retired Chicago police association, asking them to pass my request for an interview on to the officers. In addition, I searched databases and made cold calls to Illinois residents who shared Ward’s name and were approximately the same age. A letter, emails and several phone calls to a police officer who worked the Cabrini beat in the late 1980s and who knew Ward, McHugh and Lee all went unanswered.
Tori Marlan is an award-winning independent journalist whose stories expose abuses of power, illuminate subcultures and profile fascinating but unheralded people. Her work has been published by Pacific Standard, The Atavist Magazine, BuzzFeed News, the Texas Observer and The Walrus Magazine and has been featured on the Vox Tablet podcast and the CBC Radio program The Doc Project. She was previously a staff writer for the Chicago Reader.