The "Forrest Gump" of Chicago Crime | S1 E5
Henry Henderson was at his wit's end. The city was like a vacuum sucking in illegal dumping activities. This is clearly wrong. This is clearly illegal and they're clearly the authority to make the stop. The Commissioner of Chicago's department of the environment had spent the last several years fighting John Christopher's illegal dumps. And yet the mountains of debris remained in Northland. L Henderson had reasoned with John Christopher. He had threatened him with legal action. He'd eventually taken him to court, but even with a civil ruling against him, the courts had failed Henderson had even turned to the state Environmental Protection Agency. None of it had worked well. John Christopher, basically, disppeared. Henry Henderson had not been able to bring John Christopher to Justice or get Justice for the people of north Mondale. But Henry Henderson had one more card to play Scott's old. Friend and who he was. I assistant that the time Henderson called on Scott Lazar. I assistant US attorney in the northern district of Illinois. In other words, one of Chicago's top federal prosecutors Lazar is office had the power to bring federal criminal charges against John Christopher. So we think that this is a larger criminal endeavour here, and we really need some help. Henry was like inspector Javert going after Christopher, that's Scott Lazar, an inspector, John there is the police inspector from lame as rob, who relentlessly hunts down the main character over the course of the story. It's not a perfect comparison, but basically Lazar new Henderson was on a mission. He knew about Christopher and he'd been pursuing them for a long time. And even though they were friends, Lazar gives Henderson the brush off I have to rip off. Lazar basically says, sorry, Henry, we can't help you catch this. John Christopher guy. The DOJ doesn't work on municipal waste issues, but that wasn't the real reason. We couldn't tell Andrea Christopher was working undercover at the time not only to the federal government already know all about John Christopher. John Christopher was on its payroll even while he was dumping in north Lauderdale this was a sacred undercover investigation, which was one of the more successful on their cover investigations at our office. And so we weren't going to end at Chicago's most notorious illegal. Dumper was also working for the FBI. I'm Robin Aamer and from USA today, this is the city. If you like the city, you may like another show from USA today. The five things podcast covers the five most important stories of the day and why they matter in less than five minutes. New episodes are available every morning, Monday through Saturday, and you can subscribe to five things for free on apple podcasts or wherever you listen. So who was this guy who showed up to a vacant lot on Chicago's west side in a limousine who is John Christopher? Really to answer that question, we need to go back to January nineteen seventy nine and then mayor Michael Bowland epic. Million tons of snow over twenty four in the city of Chicago. Visit. Sierra by the federal government. Even in the pantheon of Chicago winters. This was one for the ages. People still talk about the blizzard of nineteen seventy nine and not just because of all the snow Blanda had to defend his administration's response to this record snowfall to an angry and skeptical city council. Here enough streets, four thousand miles of streets. That the business from Chicago Los Angeles and meteorologists had forecast just two to four inches of snow and social Kaga was completely unprepared. When the blizzard instead dumped more than twenty inches on the city, the storm collapsed roofs and trapped people in their homes, paralyzing the city for weeks and getting rid of all that snow would prove to be a monumental challenge for the city concerned about the getting equipment of people out the district. You're not doing an accounting at the same time. We'll have an opportunity to do that. A later pointing the ensuing cleanup and that lack of accounting presented a perfect opportunity for then twenty eight year old. John Christopher the city hired private contractors to help clear the streets and Christopher had a guy inside city government who paid him for snow removal work. He never did. I don't recall the exact facts of that case, but I can say that he was alleged to have been submitting false invoices. This is Jim Davis. He was an FBI agent from nineteen eighty five to two thousand eleven and this epic snowstorm would eventually cause his life to intersect with John Christopher's in a very big way. I talked to John every day multiple times every single day from July of nineteen ninety two until January of nineteen ninety. Six. I probably had a close relationship with him during that time than than anyone else in. It was a kind of a love hate relationship. If you Google, Jim Davis FBI. One of the first hits you get is a photo of a very tall man in a black shirt with dog tags around his neck. That's Jim Davis. He's standing in front of a white tiled wall, and he's looking straight at the camera. In one hand, he's holding a piece of paper that reads f. b. i. twelve December two thousand three. And his other hand is resting on the shoulder of Saddam Hussein. I arrested Saddam Hussein, you know, telling you man, life is like a box of chocolates. Man, I am the Forrest Gump, the FBI, Jim Davis calls himself the forest. Gump of the FBI because he has a tendency to show up in big moments in history like Saddam Hussein's, arrest. He and John Christopher were well matched in that way. A federal prosecutor gave John Christopher almost the same nickname Chicago's quote, Forrest Gump of crime in the many hours they later spent together. Jim Davis learned a lot about John Christopher's illegal schemes, including the one he pulled during the blizzard of seventy nine. You'd Goram to some corrupt folks at the driver's license bureau. You know, secretary state's office. He had had a previous relationship with. He got a driver's license in the name of Richard McCann in the chaos. After the blizzard, John Christopher was part of a group of people that conspired to defraud the city. They submitted fake invoices for snow removal work. They never did the company name. They used was McCann construction. So the city issued a check. Check in the name of Richard McCann. The name on John Christopher's fake ID. The check was for a hundred and twelve thousand dollars a decent hall for not having cleared so much as a teaspoon of snow. So check in hand. John Christopher walked into a Bank. He tried to cash the check, but something about him, raised a red flag with Bank employees who asked him for his. I d. These guys look to Jen who is Italian and said, you know, you don't look Irish John Christopher responded by saying he was adopted, but McCann the name on his fake ID had blown his cover. And so Jon Christopher handled these Bank employees the way he normally handled people who got in his way, he tried to bribe them. He offered to take the vice president of the Bank out to lunch. And when that didn't work, he offered him a Betamax an expensive precursor to the VHS, but the Bank manager didn't budge. She ended up calling the FBI. The city had paid John Christopher from a pool of money that came from federal disaster relief funds, which meant that John Christopher hadn't just defraud the city. He had also defrauded the federal government, the FBI arrested, John Christopher, and he now faced up to fifteen years in prison. Without knowing it, he'd also helped alter the course of Chicago history more than thirty. Other companies were also investigated for defrauding Chicago's snow disaster fund at least one city official was indicted for helping them and mayor ba- Landik was blamed for letting it all happen on his watch. In the next election, he'd lose to an upstart anti machine candidate named Jane Byrne who became the only woman ever to serve as Chicago's mayor. This is why people still talk about the blizzard of nineteen Seventy-nine. It wasn't just all the snow. It was the political fallout. John Christopher's entanglement with the law started long before the blizzard. He came up in a world or being the Forrest Gump of Chicago crime wasn't all that remarkable. John Christopher grew up just a few miles from north Lonsdale in an Italian neighborhood. Full of families descended from the old Taylor street crew. One of the original street crews of the Chicago outfit, which in Chicago is what we call the mob. His great uncle was a guy named fior who cherry. They called him fee, and he was kind of a notorious mob guy. And you know, in the fifties and sixties the press described Bucci berry as a west side overlord in charge of loansharking and other rackets. He was also suspected of having been involved in multiple murders. One of which was incredibly gruesome. I'll spare you the details, but I can tell you that it involved a blow torch and a cattle prod. Gutierrez was later caught on an f. b. i. wire laughing and bragging about it. He was never indicted for murder, but he was indicted late in life. For theft, soliciting others to commit theft and possession of two hundred thousand dollars worth of stolen construction equipment. John Christopher's crimes. At least the ones he told the FBI about started when he was a teenager, he was a tough streak kidding. You know, if you look at it some of the transcripts, he often refers to himself as you know, being on the corner. You know, this is the way I operate on the corner. Some guys go to college. I came from the corner. When he was a teenager in the mid to late sixties. John Christopher joined a neighborhood street gang called the jokers. He later tell Jim Davis that the jokers would quote protect their neighborhood from any quote, undesirable elements that meant mostly black families who were moving to the west side as it transitioned from white to Black John Christopher, and the jokers threatened and intimidated these newcomers and in some cases through molotov cocktails into their buildings. John Christopher was arrested at nineteen for breaking into cars. He tried to bribe both the arresting officer and the judge. He was sent to the army instead of prison was honorably discharged soon after he told the FBI that he thought his great uncle fee had something to do with getting him out a few years later, his father got him a job with the department of streets and sanitation John Christopher, and the other workers would often sit around the office playing cards. Instead of working one day, someone from the inspector general's office, caught them slacking off. The inspector threatened to report them. So John Christopher and his colleagues beep up the inspector and told him to write a good report on the unit which he did, but ultimately defrauding the federal government after the blizzard of nineteen seventy nine was what put him on the FBI's radar. John Christopher snow fraud case went to trial in nineteen eighty, but ended in a mistrial. And while he was waiting for a new trial to begin, he was looking for silencer to kill a witness against him. A silence are silencers. Are those devices you attached to the muzzle of a gun to muffle the sound of a shot? They were and still are illegal in Illinois. The FBI had gotten word from an informant that John Christopher was in the market for a silencer allegedly. So he could murder a federal witness. So the FBI coordinated with an undercover agent from the bureau of alcohol, tobacco and firearms in order to sell him. One minute was a by bus scenario rates which all have been once John Christopher was sentenced to four years in federal prison for possession of the silencer and another eight years for trying to cash the snow removal check, but behind bars. He stayed true to his roots. John didn't rat. In the parlance of the outfit. John was a stand up guy. He didn't snitch on anyone else who'd been involved in the snow fraud. Even though he could have parlayed that information for a lighter sentence. John's a us associated to the mafia in Chicago. There were other people that were involved in that scheme that John didn't give up. So he went to prison for them, didn't you know take anybody down in. I think that he expected that in return for that in return, Jim Davis says, John Christopher expected the mob to support his family since he would not be able to provide for them while he was locked up. I think that he expected that they would do a better job at taking care of his family while he was in prison and they hadn't done that. After roughly four years in federal prison, John Christopher was put on parole. He returned to his old ways, but he also came back with doubts about his loyalty to the mob. This is alternately how Jim Davis would become John Christopher's f. b. i. handler when the bureau exploited John Christopher's doubts about the mob and he crossed over and started wearing a wire. 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And that attracts the attention of the FBI's financial crime squad agent there named Tony Dangelo. He identified John Christopher as a subject in that investigation. Basically, what I did is I I looked at everything that was going on the Bank. This is Tony Dangelo. Cosmopolitan Bank had seemed like it was thriving with money in its vault and plenty of account holders, and I'm wondering how could a well capitalized Bank in the late nineteen eighties, all of a sudden go into receivership. So I looked at the bad loans and who turns out to be at the center of this Bank failure. Once I looked at the bad loans, the probably the biggest bad loan at the Bank was for an individual named John Christopher and his various entities. Mr. Christopher had a couple of trucking companies, some other businesses and he had borrowed. I can't remember the exact amount, but I believe the total deficit of the Bank was in the millions two point, five million. That's what John Christopher would later Saint in court. And he also overstated. The success of his companies is trucking businesses. So he basically made up income that was not there. It looked like John Christopher had used these bad loans to build up his business. It's easy to build up your business, especially when you're not paying loans back. So Tony Dangelo does a background check on John Christopher and finds he's already in the FBI's database. I was amazed because found out he was a convicted felon organized crime. Tony Dangelo learns all about the snow fraud. Case and the silencer and the alleged plan to murder a federal witness and about John Christopher's ties to the outfit or knew he was extremely bad news with his criminal background. It was highly unlikely that John Christopher would actually qualify for millions of dollars in Bank loans. So Tony Dangelo begins to suspect that the Bank president must be in on it de ngelo wanted to use John Christopher to get to the Bank president, but everybody told me, John Christopher will not talk to you. There's absolutely no, he's gonna cooperate. He's not going to talk to you. It's a waste of time. He decides to try anyway. He finds John Christopher's number and calls him and actually picked up the phone. I introduced myself. I take a low key approach, so I told them who I was, I looked at your your dealings with cosmopolitan Bank. I've got you dead to right on financial fraud with your loan application. You might think John Christopher would just hang up the phone. Point, but Tony Dangelo says, just meet with me. All you have to do is listen. And I found in my career that people are very curious. They wanna know what, what information you have about them? What evidence and also mentioned to him. I know you just to jail, you got a couple of kids maybe we can help each other. So ultimately he agreed to meet me. You wanna meet me alone. So I did meet him alone. We met at a Pizza Hut. Insist row, Illinois. Cicero is a suburb just west of Chicago. It's where Capone based a lot of his operations and this Pizza Hut was less than a ten minute drive from the north Lonsdale dumps. So when Henry Henderson, the environment Commissioner says John Chris rebate soclean dispirit John Christopher was just a mile or two away. Eating pizza with the FBI. Here's how Tony de ngelo describes that first meeting. John Christopher was out of central casting for the sopranos. I mean, if you wanna know a mobbed up guy, take a picture. John Christopher built like a bull about five, ten stocky no neck. Wearing a member's only jacket toxin, Dem's and does. So I laid out my case against him. You know, I said, I'm fellow talion while we meet a couple more times. You can just listen to me talk. You don't have to do anything. So we established a comfort level. So they meet again at the same Pizza Hut in Cicero, I knew he had, I think at one of his sons was about eight or ten in the during the first conversation, he mentioned that there's son like baseball. I brought him a a box of baseball cards for son. They talk again and again, and again, and pretty soon they're talking regularly, but they're not talking about the dumps or the people living near them with each meeting. You establish more of a report, more of a trust factor, get to know each other, and I'm doing analysis of him what's making him tick, Tony Dangelo learns. But John Christopher is still angry about the way his family was treated while he was in prison. The promises have been broken. Usually he wouldn't bring something like that up so that something you could tell he was harboring deep seated. Resentment or is family not being taken care of. I think he was really scared about serving another long stretch in prison in not seeing his kids knowing that they're going to be teenagers and not being there to Dabney influence over their lives slowly. But surely, John Christopher starts to give the FBI information. I about cosmopolitan national Bank. The Bank president would later be convicted for bribery Bank fraud and tax evasion. And pretty soon John Christopher would give the bureau much much more that's after the break. Before we get back to the story. I wanna tell you about another podcast you might enjoy if you like the city. You might also like future. Perfect. A new podcast from vox future perfect explores provocative ideas that could radically improve the world in time where the news has never felt more dire or distressing future. Perfect. Offers a window into a brighter more hopeful world. It's host. Dylan Matthews asks big questions. Like what career should I choose to do the most good? Or is it possible to make our prisons more humane? These questions don't have simple, yes or no answers, but they do kick off fascinating conversations. Listen to those conversations every Wednesday on future. Perfect. By vox you can find the show on apple podcasts or ever you're listening. Okay. Back to the story. FBI special agent. Tony Angelo had made himself a fixture in John Christopher's life. I would travel around with him, go to meetings with them, and I had a cover John, introduce me as his pin headed lawyer from down in Springfield, we what kind of meetings would you go to with? We had a meeting once in Greek town, and the owner of the restaurant came up and John, you know, he'd get a Cup of coffee and rather than us spoon, he'd stick his big fat finger in there and stirred up. And he looked at the owner of the restaurant. He goes, if you don't pay your milk money, you're gonna pineapple through the window. In other words, he's threatening to bomb the restaurant. And I guess this guy maybe fallen behind us. That's probably why John pick this restaurant for the meeting, the FBI was grooming John Christopher as an informant. And here he was making threats right in front of one of its agents, a kick them. Under the table. And he looked over and forgot. I was sitting there in moments like these John Christopher was inadvertently revealing that his crimes still went way beyond Bank fraud crimes. The FBI was willing to overlook like that six-storey dump in a certain Westside neighborhood. One day during one of these meetings, he goes, oh, are you interested in politicians? John Christopher saying this to an f. b. i. agents. This was a big deal. Remember John Christopher was a stand up guy. He never read it on anyone even when it could have meant less prison time, and he knew the stories about his great uncle fee about what the mob could do to anyone who crossed them. But John Christopher had done the math given all the evidence, Tony de ngelo had amassed against him. He was almost certainly facing prison time for the cosmopolitan Bank fraud and based on what had happened before he's expected that if he went back to prison, his family would not be taken care of. So when John Christopher asks, oh, are you interested in politicians? Absolutely. What do you have on politicians? Well, little note the time that John Christopher them bribing and paying off and doing what every new with aldermen and various city officials, Tony Dangelo. Had just landed a major informant one so big. He was now outside of his purview. So the FBI calls on its public corruption squad and special agent, Jim Davis. And at first, Jim Davis is skeptical about this new informants. Here I'm going to be skeptical everybody, you know, it just kinda sounded too good to be true from the perspective of guy doing a corruption investigation. You know, this guy walks in the door and basically says, I am a bribing machine in. I was trying to verify that. I wanted to make sure that he was telling me the truth. As they're sitting down for one of their first interviews, Jim Davis decides to give John Christopher a little test to see if he's really equipped to Brian elected official across the interview table. Jim Davis asks John Christopher how much money he has on him. And in response Jong Christopher stands up an empty his pockets, pulling out change and balls of Lind and gum wrappers choice would okay. John. If a bogus visual came by today and said, you know, I need five hundred dollars. What would you do. He says, oh, any reached into his back pocket and he pulled out five one hundred dollar bills that he kept in his back pocket specifically for paying bribes. And that's the way he walked around life. John Christopher tells Jim Davis that he's been bribing twenty fourth ward, alderman Bill Henry to the tune of five thousand dollars a month and not only Bill. Henry Johnson does the, he'd been paying public officials entire life. There's another alderman who's palm. He Greece in exchange for help setting up yet. Another rock crusher, their city inspectors who showed up at the dumps, their city workers. He bribed them even if he wasn't totally sure what they could do to help him. Just as a way of quote, keeping the heat off. He had grown up in Chicago doing business in Chicago committing gonna, petty crimes when he was a younger kid that that they resolved by rive in police officers or. Prosecutors to John Christopher. This was just the cost of doing business. So using tire life had been can ingrain with this idea that you paid public officials to get through life to people in north London. While the illegal dumping was the only one of John Christopher's climbs that mattered. But the FBI's interest was elsewhere to the bureau. The legal dumps just one chapter in John Christopher's long, criminal history. Why take him down for dumping on the west side when you could instead use him to catch corrupt city officials all over town because of John. Christopher really was this bribing machine. Then he presented the FBI with a unique opportunity if he could wear a wire and record his meetings with city officials record his bribes to city officials. There is no telling how many crooked politicians they catch because here's this guy, a standup guy who never ratted who's engaged in all kinds of illegal. Activity who's connected to the outfit. I mean, he's the great nephew of notorious mobster fee Bucci, airy. He's the Forrest Gump of Chicago crime. He's exactly the kind of guy you'd never suspect of working for the FBI which would make him the perfect f. b. i. mole. I don't think that we've ever had anybody who had his level of credibility who was working with her day, had a sense that this was going to be a big case. And so when Henry Henderson reaches out to his friend, Scott Lazar the federal prosecutor saying, we think that this is a larger criminal endeavour here and we really need some help. Scotland had to give Henderson the brush off. I had to rebuff him because John Christopher had already been recruited by the FBI we couldn't tell on about it. Christopher was working under governor at the time. The feds could have sent John Christopher to prison in nineteen Ninety-one. Federal prosecutors could have gone after him for legal, dumping the mountain, the dust, the asthma, cracked foundations. The feds could have ended at all, but letting continue was useful. This was a sacred undercover investigation was one of the more successful undercover investigations at our office acted and so we weren't going to end. I mean, we knew about the legal dumping going on very well because I was at the heart of the investigation. That's next time on the city. The city is a production of USA today and is distributed in partnership with wondering, you can subscribe to the show on apple podcasts, NPR one or ever. You're listening right now if you like the show please rate and review us and be sure to tell your friends about us. Our show is reported and produced by Wilson Sayer Jenny Koss and me, Robin, EMA, our editor Osam Greenspan, then Austin's our story consultant original music and mixing by Hans Brown additional production by Taylor making Isabelle cockerel and beyond. The media's Chris Davis is our VP investigations. Scott Stein is our VP of product. Our executive producer is Liz Nelson. The USA today, networks, president and publisher is Mira bell. Wadsworth thank you to our sponsors for supporting the show and special. Thanks to Michel Yussef and Daniel's cove. Additional support comes from the fund for investigative journalism and the social Justice news nexus at northwestern. In university archival audio, courtesy of WBZ NewsRadio seven eighty and one five point nine FM if you like this show, you may also like WBZ's new podcast on background, which takes you inside the smoke filled back rooms of Chicago, Illinois government to better understand the people places and forces shaping today's politics. I'm rob Aamer. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter at the city pod or visit our website where you can find photos of the blizzard of nineteen seventy nine and more. That's the city podcast dot com.