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Robin Amer of USA Today’s investigative podcast The City shares the story behind a massive illegal dump that appeared in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood in the ’90s. Local kids remember playing on the 21-acre, six-story mountain of debris, and adults recall the seemingly endless stream of dump trucks that rumbled down the street to the formerly vacant lot at all hours of the day and night. Wind blowing over the dump covered the neighborhood in thick dust, affecting the health of nearby residents. When community leaders confronted the man responsible for the dump, they found he was just one part of a larger operation. 

The FBI was using the North Lawndale dump and the man who created it as part of an investigation into political corruption called Operation Silver Shovel. The operation would bring down politicians and city officials who accepted bribes for allowing things like the illegal dump to happen in their districts. But after the indictments and the operation’s end, no one wanted to take responsibility for cleaning up the dump – not the FBI, not the City of Chicago and not the man who created it. The debris sat for years, leaving North Lawndale residents feeling angry and used. The civic neglect and institutional racism that allowed the dump to happen in the first place has continued, long after the last truck of debris was carted away.

This episode originally aired in 2018.

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Listen: The City, Season 1 (USA Today)

Credits

This episode is a collaboration with USA Today.

Produced by Anayansi Diaz-Cortes | Edited by Deborah George | Sound design by Hannis Brown | Reported by Robin Amer, Wilson Sayre and Jenny Casas | The City’s executive producer is Liz Nelson | Reveal host: Al Letson

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. When Dayke Nichols was a kid growing up in Chicago in the early ’90s, he knew that lurking near his home was an evil rabbit.
Dayke:It was an evil rabbit up there. It was a grown rabbit. It used to chase kids with red eyes. I still remember that. We went looking for it one day, but we never seen that evil rabbit.
Al Letson:This evil rabbit roamed the hills where Dayke and his friends liked to play.
Dayke:We played up there, everything, played hide and go seek. And when it snowed, we’d get sleds and slide down them. In the summertime here you’d ride your bikes up and down the hill because it was that big of a hill. That was fun.
Al Letson:They could look down onto the roof of their elementary school and see all the basketballs that had gotten stuck up there over the years, and they could look east towards the horizon and see all the skyscrapers downtown. Now, Chicago’s built on prairie land. It’s pretty flat, so you might be wondering about those hills and how they came to be just six miles from downtown in the west side neighborhood of North Lawndale. There’s an explanation. Dayke remembers one time in the fourth or fifth grade, he was running up the side of the tallest hills, a mountain almost, and his foot dislodged something, something big, a boulder or a piece of concrete. It rolled down the mountain towards his brother.
Dayke:Yeah, it rolled over his finger and it was hanging off. So I had to hold it together and I had to walk him holding his finger on until we got to the hospital.
Al Letson:See, the mountain was actually a giant illegal landfill. In a vacant lot besides grass and wildflowers and even trees, there were six stories of concrete and rebar plus rusted out cars and old mattresses the kids used for trampolines. The story we’re going to tell you today is about how that landfill came to be in North Lawndale and grew to be six stories tall, two whole city blocks wide and five city blocks long. Imagine living right next door to that. This is a story about the strange, complicated, and crooked ways that power flows in American cities. USA Today investigated this story in a new podcast series called The City. The show’s host and creator is Robin Amer, and today she’s going to bring us that story here on Reveal. Hey, Robin.
Robin:Hi, Al.
Al Letson:All right, so we’re talking about a dump that is six stories high in Chicago.
Robin:Yeah, that’s right. Six stories tall and it was on this huge lot, 21 acres, the size of 13 football fields. The story of how this huge dump came to be in the middle of a residential neighborhood is one of the most striking stories of corruption and institutional indifference that I’ve ever come across. There’s one man at the center of this story who sets everything into motion. Here he is.
John:Okay, listen. Well, no, all the boys at this table. Let’s put it on the table there. I was the first one basically that started all the dumps. The first. I made a lot of money over there. And I got no bones about saying I made a lot of money. And you want to know something? I started a can of worms in the city. That could haunt you for years to come.
Al Letson:This guy sounds like a character straight out of good fellas.
Robin:Yeah, he’s pretty unapologetic. The can of worms he opened, unleashed this chain of events that went way beyond Chicago. Eventually the FBI would be giving him cover as he built the dump.
Al Letson:He’s not at the very beginning of the story and we’re definitely going to get back to him later. But why don’t we rewind a little bit and take it from the very beginning.
Speaker 5:You’re listening to Richard M. Daley deliver his inaugural address, live on WBBM AM from Orchestra Hall. In the months to come…
Robin:Richard M. Daley was the son of the beloved and feared, mayor Richard J. Daley. He presided over Chicago’s political machine from the 1950s through the ’70s. His son was sworn into office in 1989.
Speaker 5:It’s time to leave behind old setbacks, disappointments, and battles. Because in the campaign for a better Chicago, we’re all allies.
Robin:Since the 1960s, steel mills and other factories had been shutting down all over the Midwest in Chicago. The city lost hundreds of thousands of jobs and nearly a million residents, and the new mayor Daley wanted Chicago to wake up from this post-industrial slumber and thrive.
Speaker 5:We either rise up as one city or we sit back and watch Chicago decline.
Robin:So Daley began a major push to revamp Chicago’s aging downtown, and he paid special attention to tourist friendly destinations in the loop, and along the lakefront. He set about rebuilding crucial parts of the city’s infrastructure, including its roads and highways. By the spring of 1990, the year after he took office, the city was full of workers and hardhats and orange vests, breaking down concrete, jackhammering asphalt, loading it into dump trucks and hauling it away. Law abiding trucking companies carted this debris to distant landfill, but some trucks headed west out of the loop, over the Chicago River, into the city’s neighborhoods, until they came to a vacant lot in North Lawndale. When I visited there, I met a woman named Gladys Woodson. She’d lived in the neighborhood since moving to Chicago from Mississippi in the 1960s, and she told me how one day in the spring of 1990, a neighbor knocked on her front door.
Gladys:My first memory was the president of the 4100 block came down and asked for Miss Woodson. And I told him, “What do you want with us?”
Robin:Miss Woodson was the president of the 4300 block. Together, these Block Clubs kept an eye on the street and made sure the community was safe.
Gladys:He said, “Did you not know that it’s a illegal dump over across the street?” And I say, “No.” He said, “Come on, let’s walk down there.” First of all, I saw a lot of trucks line up blocking the view, and behind the truck there was a pile of stuff that was accumulating.
Robin:And so when you saw this line of trucks and this pile of rubble, what did you think?
Gladys:I think, “Oh, no. We can’t have this over here. This is bad for our health, bad for our children, bad for our houses. It’s just going to take our neighborhood down.”
Robin:They couldn’t figure out who was responsible for all the trucks coming and unloading rubble in their neighborhood. So they held stakeouts and saw that the trucks kept coming by day, but also in the dead of night.
Gladys:We have come out here 1:00, 2:00 at night to watch the trucks, go in and take down license plates number.
Robin:1:00 and 2:00 in the morning?
Gladys:3:00, 4:00 in the morning. And we used to meet them up here because we figured if we can get the license plate number, we can turn them over to the police. So what we did, we would start getting the license plate number and what we found, he had one set of plate on the front and a different set of plate on the back.
Robin:It seemed really suspicious, and that was before they saw the man in charge.
Gladys:And any time you see anybody drive over in a vacant lot in a limo, you know it’s no good.
Robin:Oh, my gosh. What did you think was happening back there when you saw him drive up in a limo?
Gladys:I just thought he was a, I don’t know, gang banger or something or other. I didn’t know what to think.
Robin:The man in the limo was a heavy set white guy with a gruff voice and a receding hairline. Eventually, Ms. Woodson and her neighbors would learn the man’s name, John Christopher, and that he was connected to the mob. What in Chicago we call the Outfit. But that was later. In the meantime, over the next days and weeks, the piles of rubble kept getting taller and taller, and the dust blowing off them got worse and worse. So Ms. Woodson and her fellow Block Club captains organized a letter writing campaign.
Gladys:“We, the Southwest Lawndale United Block Club Councils are requesting that you intercede for us in protesting the installation…”
Robin:They sent the letter to the zoning board and the water department and the Department of Streets and Sanitation. They sent it to the mayor and a member of Congress.
Gladys:We wrote to everybody from who’s who to who’s that. I thought, once we contact all of these peoples and they found out what was going on, that somebody would stop it.
Robin:Ms. Woodson was right, at least at first. In June of 1990, about a month after receiving her letters, the city finally sent an inspector to check out the dump. By then, it was already taller than you or I, as the inspector put it, more than six feet tall. Henry Henderson was a lawyer for the city who specialized in environmental issues.
Henry:People who were working as inspectors in the city called me up and said, “We’ve got this huge amount of material building up in this particular site.” So we got in our cars and went out to visit it, and this is a gigantic issue.
Robin:Henry Henderson had learned that John Christopher, the guy Miss Woodson saw in the limo, was actually running the dumps. So he called Christopher into his office for a meeting. Was that the first time that you had met with him?
Henry:Yes.
Robin:What did he look like? How did he speak? What impression did he leave on you?
Henry:He’s a very, very large person. He had one of these incredibly colorful sweaters on.
Robin:What, like a dad sweater?
Henry:Kind like that. Yeah. And I was struck by the fact that it looked like he had his nails done.
Robin:Going into this meeting, Henderson thought that he could demand that John Christopher stop and that he would, but John Christopher had permits that he’d gotten from the city to operate a rock crusher, a giant machine that pulverizes concrete into gravel, which can then be sold back to construction companies to use in their building projects.
Henry:So that was his story about what he was doing is particularly aiming at, “This is construction debris that can be recycled and I want to crush it and the material has value. So I’m a recycler and I’m a beautifier.” That was his claim as to what his activities were about.
Robin:John Christopher was not going to stop dumping in North Lawndale, and every day the prairie wind would blow through the piles of debris and cover North Lawndale in a layer of thick gray dust.
Michelle:When the dust would fly, if you had lip gloss on, your lip gloss will be full of dirt. You could taste it on your lips and your mouth.
Robin:This is Michelle Ashford. In 1990, she was 19 years old.
Michelle:It would be just a big gust of wind. You would have to close your eyes, cover your mouth or whatever, because once we experienced it, we knew, “Oh, here come the wind.” And we would cover up so it wouldn’t go in our mouths.
Rita:And I’ll tell you something else that he did…
Robin:Michelle’s mother, Rita Ashford, says the dump made the neighborhood’s prostitution problems worse.
Rita:The guys, they could come and pull up on the side of the dump and that’s where they did their business at.
Robin:The dump had become a magnet. That’s actually a term in environmental circles. It was a magnet in that it had attracted other illegal and unsavory stuff.
Rita:And the rats. Girl, if it wasn’t 100 rats in one…
Michelle:… running and people were fighting those rats, they would get in their homes. Some of the finer houses on our block, everybody was dealing with the rats.
Robin:But worse than the rats, the dump was affecting people’s health. Several of Ms. Ashford’s grandchildren had severe asthma, and some of Ms. Woodson’s elderly neighbors relied on oxygen tanks. The dust from the dumps was making it harder for them to breathe. So Ms. Woodson and her neighbors decided to confront the dumper.
Gladys:So a group of us, we walked over there to talk to John Christopher, and we asked him could he stop whatever he was doing over there? He told us he could do whatever he pleased. And we told him, “Well, okay, we’ll go to court.” And he said, “If you do go to court, when I leave, I’m going to leave everything just like it is now.” He was very arrogant.
Robin:So how did you feel after that confrontation?
Gladys:“Let’s get him. Let’s go to court.”
Robin:And so they did. With Henry Henderson’s help, the city sued John Christopher in June of 1990.
Al Letson:The story of a mountain in a Chicago neighborhood converges with a federal probe.
Scott:This was a secret undercover investigation, and so we weren’t going to end it.
Al Letson:Coming up next Operation Silver Shovel. This is Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today we’ve been talking about a mountain of trouble in a Chicago neighborhood, a mountain made up of construction debris, greed, and deception, that’s six stories high and five blocks long. Robin Amer of USA Today’s new podcast called The City has been telling us the story. So Robin catch us up. We’ve got a neighborhood that’s getting tons of construction debris from all over Chicago dumped on them, and they’re having trouble getting their voices heard downtown. From what I know about Chicago politics, when you can’t get your trash picked up or your potholes filled, the person you call is your alderman, your neighborhood’s representative in city council. Was he able to help him?
Robin:Bill Henry was the alderman of the 24th Ward, which included North Lawndale and Gladys Woodson’s Block Club wrote to him when they were trying to get rid of the dump.
Gladys:I liked Bill Henry because he was a street person. He was raised up on the street. He would let us all know, “You can’t have everything you want. And if you want something really bad, you figure out how bad you want that and you’re going to have to give up something to get something.”
Robin:Bill Henry was first elected alderman in 1983, and he did what aldermen often did to build support. They handed out favors, like city jobs and contracts. But he was also known as a deal maker. In fact, he was reportedly the one who introduced John Christopher to the owner of the vacant lot where the dump was. And later people would learn that he had also taken bribes from John Christopher, like $5,000 a month to ensure that the city didn’t interfere with the dumping operation. So the dump took on a nickname. This is Bill Henry’s son, Conrad.
Conrad:We was in the car and we was driving past, and he said they called that Mount Henry. He was not smiling. He was quite subdued about it, quite sad about it in a lot of ways. And he was like, “Man, there’s nothing I can do about it.” He looked like he’d been duped, like he had been used to dump that there.
Robin:After the dumping started, Bill Henry was indicted on unrelated federal corruption charges. He lost his bid for reelection. He developed lung cancer and died the following year. His case never went to trial. By 1992, John Christopher had dumped more than 31,000 truckloads of stuff in North Lawndale. The city had taken him to court and the judge didn’t buy his claim that he was some kind of recycler. So John Christopher lost the case. The judge gave him 30 months to clean up the site, but that meant that North Lawndale residents would have to keep living next to the dump for at least two and a half more years. But rather than clean up the site, John Christopher disappeared. So the city appealed to the state and federal environmental protection agencies. Finally, in 1994, 4 years after the dumping started, they came out to North Lawndale, but they only removed about 150 truckloads of stuff, they determined were hazardous, like barrels of chemicals. They left the 31,000 truckloads of construction debris behind. The six story mountain was still there.
Al Letson:So that’s it then. End of story? They’re just stuck with this mountain.
Robin:Well, no, not exactly. This is where the story takes a really crazy turn.
Al Letson:What happened to John Christopher?
Robin:After John Christopher disappeared, Henry Henderson, who is now the city’s environmental commissioner, reached out to one other federal agency that he thought could help in this situation. See, because he had a personal connection at the US Justice Department.
Henry:Scott’s an old friend and he was first assistant at the time.
Robin:Henderson called on Scott Lazar, first assistant US attorney in the Northern District of Illinois. In other words, Lazar was one of the federal government’s top criminal prosecutors in Chicago. So Henry Henderson talks to Scott Lazar.
Henry:Saying, “We’re having a real hard time and we think that this is a larger criminal endeavor here and we really need some help.”
Robin:But Henderson says his old friend dismissed him, telling him this was a municipal waste problem. I asked Scott Lazar about this conversation.
Scott:We knew about the illegal dumping going on very well, but we couldn’t tell Henry that Christopher was working undercover at that time. This was a secret undercover investigation. And so we weren’t going to end it. So I had to rebuff him.
Al Letson:Wait, hold on, Robin, do you mean?
Robin:Yeah, John Christopher was working undercover for the FBI.
Al Letson:Wait a second. So John Christopher, who started this illegal dump, is actually working for the United States government.
Robin:Yeah, that’s right.
Al Letson:How did that happen?
Robin:All right, so it all started with this investigation into a bank failure. This local bank in Chicago went belly up in 1991 and an FBI special agent named Tony D’Angelo started looking at the bad loans the bank had made. He was an expert in white collar crime and organized crime, and he discovered that the biggest bad loan this bank had made gone to one man, John Christopher.
Tony: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 that the bank was in the millions.
Robin:2.5 million. That’s what John Christopher would later say in court.
Tony:Through these companies, he’d borrowed money and was not paying the loans back on time, and they had to ultimately be written off.
Robin:Tony D’Angelo looked up John Christopher in the FBI’s database and learned that he had a prison record and mob ties. So D’Angelo calls John Christopher, thinking he can help the FBI bust the higher ups at the bank.
Tony:So I told him who I was. “I looked at your dealings with Cosmopolitan Bank. I’ve got you dead to right on financial fraud with your loan application.” And I found in my career that people are very curious. They want to know what information you have about them, what evidence. And I also mentioned to him, “I know you just got out of jail. You got a couple kids, maybe we can help each other.”
Robin:They arranged to meet at a Pizza Hut.
Tony:If you want to know a mobbed up guy, take a picture of John Christopher. Built like a bull, about 5’10, stocky, wearing a members only jacket, talks in dems and does and just a funny guy. I laid out my case against him. “I’m a fellow Italian, you can just listen to me talk.”
Robin:They start meeting regularly.
Tony:And one day during one of these meetings, he goes, “Oh, are you interested in politicians?” I said, “Absolutely. What do you have on politicians?” Well, little did I know at the time that John Christopher had been bribing and paying off and doing whatever he needed to do with aldermen and various city officials.
Robin:John Christopher turned out to be a bribing machine. He told the FBI about bribing Bill Henry, the North Lawndale aldermen, and other Chicago aldermen and city inspectors. He’d been bribing public officials his whole adult life. The FBI knew about John Christopher’s mob connections and criminal past. Plus, he’s what the mob would call a standup guy. He went to prison once and didn’t give anyone up. And a guy like him actually talking to the FBI and telling them about his illegal activity was incredibly rare. So it occurred to the FBI that he would be the perfect mole. John Christopher was the kind of guy you’d never suspect of working with the FBI, but he’d also come out of prison feeling like the mob hadn’t taken good care of his family while he was away. And so John Christopher agreed to wear a wire, to cooperate with the FBI, to strap a tape recorder to his body and go looking for dirty politicians to bribe. The FBI called it Operation Silver Shovel, like the 30 pieces of silver Judas got for betraying Jesus. Like the bulldozers at John Christopher’s dump.
John:What do you say this sugar would be from here? Is it on here?
Robin:What you’re hearing are secret recordings John Christopher made while working for the FBI. I had to sue the FBI to get them. In this one, it’s January 1995 and John Christopher is sitting down to lunch with a Chicago alderman. They’re at a West Side Soul Food restaurant called Edna’s.
Percy:Well, I’ll have the short rib.
Robin:That’s alderman Percy Giles, ordering the short ribs. He’s really hard to hear in this tape because the tape recorder is across the table from him hidden somewhere on John Christopher’s body.
John:Okay. You know what I seen? I seen a hot dog that was burnt. What is that? A polish sausage?
Speaker 23:No, that’s a hot link.
John:Give me a hot link, burnt.
Robin:John Christopher tells the alderman that he has a construction firm.
John:Small work, couple million here, low key, real small.
Robin:And John Christopher explains that he wants a contract for a shopping center being built in Percy Giles’ ward.
John:Okay, I want the excavating work at a competitive number. Okay?
Percy:Okay.
Robin:And he offers Percy Giles $10,000 to guarantee that he gets it.
John:For that 10,000, what’s happen here is basically an effort to be given a commitment of trying to get some work. Is that what we’re saying here? Okay, fine. You know what I’m saying?
Percy:Yeah.
Robin:John Christopher needs to get the payment on tape. So a few days after that first lunch, John Christopher and Percy Giles meet at Edna’s again. And this time, John Christopher brings the money with him. The first of two payments of $5,000.
John:Here’s the 5,000. It’s all there. You want to count it?
Robin:He says to Percy Giles, “Here’s the 5,000. It’s all there.” And Giles takes the money.
John:Would you please hurry up and put that in your pocket? Jesus.
Robin:The FBI had recruited John Christopher to catch the kind of crooked politicians who let him dump in North Lawndale. John Christopher found many of them willing, but others less so. Here’s a tape he made of a conversation with an Illinois lawmaker named Ray Frias.
Ray:I’m a little…
John:What? Spit it out.
Ray:I’m a little tentative right now. Also, this is-
John:What are you talking about?
Ray:I’ve never made any kind of arrangement like this before, as a legislator.
Robin:John Christopher tries to put him at ease. He basically says, “All politicians take money.”
John:Well, what do you think you’re a legislator for?
Ray:Making money.
John:Thank you.
Ray:That’s what life’s about.
John:That’s right, making money.
Ray:That’s what life is about, making money. If we can’t make money-
John:You think the politicians… What do you think they get elected and they don’t take money?
Ray:Oh.
John:Huh? You just got to find the right roof.
Ray:Right.
Robin:Operation Silver Shovel lasted for three and a half years. Although it started with public corruption, it eventually broadened to include things that had nothing to do with politicians, let alone the North Lawndale dumps. John Christopher helped the FBI catch people laundering old mob cash. They even folded in a drug bust along the way. And so in January 1996, it was finally time for the feds to stage what they called the take down.
Jim:We set up kind of a command post.
Robin:Special agent Jim Davis was in charge.
Jim:And from that command post, we issued an execute order. We told them all to go at the same time. And then we just waited for results.
Robin:More than a hundred federal agents fanned out across the city. The command post was in the federal building downtown. Jim Davis was stationed there with four or five other agents to help him man the phones and manage the teams in the field.
Jim:We had teams that were out doing search warrants, but the most focus was on the actual interview teams, the guys that were going out and interviewing subjects.
Robin:The agents interrogated more than 40 targets, including seven Chicago aldermen, three officials from the water treatment agency and two city inspectors. They questioned everyone at the exact same time. That way, no one target could warn any other target to hush up or destroy evidence or get a lawyer. Percy Giles was in his West Side office when the FBI showed up. He’s the alderman who met John Christopher at Edna’s Soul Food restaurant.
Percy:And they asked me, did I know John Christopher? At first, I might have told him no because it didn’t dawn on me. And later I said, “Yeah, I do know him.”
Jim:By them lying about their relationship with John Christopher, it would show that they know that there’s some reason for them to lie about that relationship. It shows that they have some understanding that it is a corrupt relationship.
Percy:I remember asking them, “Do I need a lawyer?” And they told me, “You might.” When I went home that night, and I remember I was nervous, so nervous when I was telling my wife about it, I remember my knees just fell under me. I almost fell to the floor.
Robin:Percy Giles was afraid, but he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. But other alderman came clean.
Jim:We had multiple confessions that were being reported back to us in the command post, which was really surprising. We didn’t expect it. And I think that these guys were so stunned to learn that John was working with us, that they just figured they had nowhere to go.
Robin:An alderman named Ambrosio Madrano had taken $31,000 in bribes from John Christopher in exchange for helping him with his dumping operations. In interviews after the takedown, Madrano had trouble explaining to the press why he’d succumb to John Christopher’s charms.
Ambrosio:I don’t think that whenever anybody does anything wrong, they really know why. I don’t know, to be honest with you.
Speaker 25:This guy was a smooth operator, wasn’t he?
Ambrosio:Yes, he was. I can tell you, from the initial meeting that I had with him, and the first time that I actually met with him and accepted the money, had been several months. He had called me and badgered me and called me and asked me to meet with him, and I refused. Why I finally gave in, I don’t know. That was the mistake I made. I accept total responsibility for what I did.
Robin:Alderman Madrano pled guilty and went to prison for 30 months. When he got out, he ran for office again, but ended up going back to prison a second time on new corruption charges. Over three years, federal prosecutors indicted a dozen Chicago officials caught up in Operation Silver Shovel. Almost all pled guilty or were convicted of corruption. The only politician who was acquitted of all charges was Ray Frias, the reluctant sounding state legislator who’d never made an arrangement like that before. Alderman Percy Giles says he’s still bewildered as to why the FBI chose him as a target. He argues that the FBI turned an otherwise loyal public servant into a figure of corruption.
Percy:I’m just minding my business, running my ward. They sent somebody to me and give me some phony money just to manufacture a crime. Then they say, “Oh, we got him. He committed a crime.” To me, they can do that with anybody they want. I think that was totally unfair.
Al Letson:With Operation Silver Shovel over and done with, what happened to John Christopher’s vacant lot?
Jim:I don’t think that we had any obligation to clean up Mount Henry because, first of all, that’s not what we do and we didn’t create it.
Al Letson:That’s next, on Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. We’ve been hearing about a major FBI investigation in Chicago in the mid ’90s caused a stirred nationwide.
Speaker 17:In Chicago today, federal officials announced charges in what they call Operation Silver Shovel, a wide ranging probe of public corruption.
Al Letson:Operation Silver Shovel lasted three and a half years, and at the heart of it all was John Christopher, a man with an extensive criminal record. A man who while working as an FBI informant, dumped six stories of construction debris in the West side neighborhood of North Lawndale.
Speaker 18:Residents there call the large and unsightly dump site The Mountain, and they accuse the federal government of allowing Christopher to continue dumping and poor and minority neighborhoods while using him to target public officials. US Attorney Burns denies the charge.
Al Letson:Robin Amer’s been our guide telling this story. She’s the host of a new podcast from USA Today called The City, and it looks at how power is wielded in American cities. Hey, Robin.
Robin:Hey, Al.
Al Letson:So I guess the feds were happy with how Operation Silver Shovel went down?
Robin:Oh, yeah. Absolutely. By the time this wrapped up, the feds would refer to Operation Silver Shovel as one of the biggest and most successful corruption probes in Chicago history. They had investigated more than 40 targets, indicted a dozen politicians on corruption charges, most of whom went to prison. And they had also used John Christopher to launder millions of dollars in old mob cash, really hitting the Outfit, the Chicago Mafia, where it hurt. And they’d even folded in a drug bust along the way. So this investigation was, by their account, very successful.
Al Letson:What about the people of Chicago? Were they happy to see all these corrupt politicians get jail time?
Robin:Yes and no. The investigation did not play out in Chicago’s neighborhoods, the way it played out on the nightly news. First, almost all the targets of this investigation were Black or Latino. There was a lot of criticism of this, and the government justified their results by saying, “Well, look, this is just how the operation unfolded. One alderman would introduce us to another, to another, to another. It was all about their personal connections.” And a lot of other people felt betrayed, not just by their elected officials who’d taken bribes, but by the investigation itself.
Al Letson:How so?
Robin:Well, in North Lawndale, John Christopher’s mountain was still standing. By the time the takedown actually happened, this giant illegal construction debris dump had loomed over the neighborhood for almost six years. And the FBI and the US Attorney’s office had no intention of removing it. It wasn’t part of the investigation or part of the take down. This is what Jim Davis, who was the agent in charge of the investigation, told me about this.
Jim:I don’t think that we had any obligation to clean up Mount Henry because, first of all, that’s not what we do, and we didn’t create it. There are agencies that are responsible for cleaning up stuff like that. That’s not our business.
Al Letson:What about that? Couldn’t the EPA be brought in to help clean up the dump?
Robin:Well, in theory, but the EPA looked at the situation and said, “There’s no hazardous waste here. This is a municipal waste problem. It’s not our job to clean this up.” And so really the city was left holding the bill here. Of course, the city had already sued John Christopher and won, but instead of forcing him to clean it up, he had just declared bankruptcy and had effectively disappeared. And the FBI in giving John Christopher cover while he was an informant for them, made this problem worse for all the people who had been fighting him.
Rita:When they said about him being a mole, that’s something that we never even anticipated.
Robin:On one of my visits to North Lawndale, Rita and Michelle Ashford told me that they were shocked to suddenly learn that the man that they’d been fighting for six years was working for the FBI.
Michelle:What’d we say? Oh, “That’s why we couldn’t get any help.”
Rita:Right.
Michelle:This is why we couldn’t get any help with it. They knew all this was going on all along before we even began to fight for it. And the reason why we couldn’t get any justice for anything, because it was all the government. And they knew it from the very beginning.
Rita:We just figured that John Christopher had that concrete pal there. He was making money off of it. And that’s the purpose of it.
Gladys:“What’s Silver Shovel?” That was my first thing. “What is Silver Shovel?” And they said, “Oh, the dump site.” I said, “Chris John, John Christopher?”
Robin:Gladys Woodson, the Block Club president in North Lawndale told me that she and her neighbors were collateral damage. They’d been used. They were never able to get traction fighting John Christopher. And now they could see why.
Gladys:He had to have bagging. Because people that we were contacting seemed to… Was pushing it under the rug or not answering.
Robin:For everyone in North Lawndale whose children had been hurt, whose property had been damaged, whose neighborhood had been disrespected, this was a huge breach of trust.
Gladys:There’s people that done had asthma attacks, the people that own oxygen machines. And we have a few people just move out of the neighborhood, just moved because they could no longer stand the dust and stuff.
Robin:The news about Operation Silver Shovel seemed to confirm what they’d been saying for years about the government’s neglect of their neighborhood.
Rita:Because let’s face the fact, they wouldn’t have put that dump in the white community. Not at all. John didn’t have to be allowed to still have that dump because you had ammunition to use against him.
Al Letson:What about John Christopher? What happened to him when the whole thing broke, when Operation Silver Shovel was revealed?
Robin:Well, even though John Christopher had agreed to wear a wire for the FBI and had become the centerpiece of this major undercover investigation, his participation was not actually a get out of jail free card. He did not have a deal with the FBI for full immunity. So FBI agent Jim Davis told me that at the beginning of the investigation, he had warned John Christopher not to do anything illegal that wasn’t part of the investigation.
Jim:And I would just try and reassure him and say, “Look, if you’re straight with us, if you continue to do what we’re asking you to do, if you stay out of trouble, you’re going to be okay.”
Robin:But John Christopher did not hold up his end of the bargain. While the investigation was going on, while he was cooperating with the FBI, he was still committing other crimes. And he went behind the bureau’s back in other ways. So for example, at the same time, Operation Silver Shovel was going on, the FBI was also looking into this illegal gambling operation run by an alleged mob boss named Tony Centracchio.
Jim:John referred to him as his Uncle Tony. And that was a problem for me because we had a wire on Uncle Tony.
Robin:The wire was a video camera hidden in the ceiling of Tony Centracchio’s office.
Jim:And every time John went in to see him, we were recording John in primarily criminal conversations, which was adding to the mounting evidence that we were going to have to present against him at the end of this case.
Robin:It’s not totally clear what John Christopher was doing there, because he was never charged in this illegal gambling case. But him showing up on another investigation’s wire made things really complicated for Jim Davis and his fellow agents.
Jim:I would’ve liked to have said, “John, stay away from Uncle Tony’s office.” But I can’t tell John that we have a wire in Uncle Tony’s office.
Robin:John Christopher also neglected to file his federal income tax returns in 1992 and ’93. I know it seems so mundane, but ultimately, this is why he went to prison. John Christopher was sentenced to 39 months in prison, but he was never forced to clean up the dumps or provide restitution to anyone in North Lawndale. And then after he got out of prison, he disappeared again. Maybe for good this time.
Al Letson:You mean he’s been going for 20 years and nobody knows where he is? Did you try and track him down?
Robin:Yeah, I’ve been looking for John Christopher for almost three years, trying to figure out what happened to him after he got out of prison. Because he cooperated with the FBI, he could not safely return to his old life or even be in Chicago without FBI protection. So I looked for him everywhere I could think of and Al, I found nothing. Eventually, I learned the FBI had set him up with a new name and a new social security number and a new life, and that there was this FBI agent in St. Louis who might have all that information. So I asked if he would talk to me, and if not, if he would pass John Christopher a message for me. And this was the response I got from the FBI’s public information Officer.
Rebecca:Hi, Robin. It’s Rebecca Woo at the FBI in St. Louis. I spoke with the agent and he says that he appreciates that you have sympathy for the source, but not surprisingly, he declines to participate. Again, he says that it is his responsibility to protect his source and that he hopes that you understand that. So thank you very much and let know if you have any other questions. Bye.
Al Letson:Even after all this time, it appears that the FBI is still protecting John Christopher. What about all the trash he left behind, the dump itself? What happened to it?
Robin:Well, when the feds washed their hands of this problem and said, “Bye-bye, Chicago,” and with all the intense public scrutiny and the national media coverage that Operation Silver Shovel had garnered, the city finally stepped in and started awarding contracts to companies who could haul all this rubble away. Remember, the lot where Mount Henry once stood, spanned 21 acres and the mountain itself was six stories tall. So these cleanup contracts were going to be really big and really lucrative. The cleanup had just started in January 1996 when the Reverend Jesse Jackson stepped in.
Jesse:We just have the right to remove the debris in our own community because I was going to be a good lucrative job for someone to have the job.
Robin:So Reverend Jackson, the civil rights activist and two time candidate for president, had first come to Chicago in the 1960s. His Rainbow Push Coalition is headquartered here. And the way Jackson tells it, when he first learned about Operation Silver Shovel, he realized that this cleanup presented a unique opportunity. John Christopher had dumped in a Black neighborhood and he had helped take down Black politicians, but someone was going to get paid to clean up the dumps, and Jackson wanted the city to hire Black owned trucking firms to do it.
Jesse:At first, I think that was resistance because the insiders who usually get these kind of jobs were demanding their right to get them, and we demanded the right to circumvent that system.
Robin:So Reverend Jackson mounted a major protest to back up his demands.
Jesse:We organized the trucks and the land removers.
Robin:On this frigid Saturday, in early February 1996, dozens of diesel trucks and bulldozers plastered with signs that said things like, “We want our fair share,” and “Hire us to clean up the dumps.” All these trucks lined up in a convoy and headed for North Lawndale.
Jesse:And we did a full mile trip across the city, driving about 10 miles an hour with just trucks and tractors and trailers and dumpsters, and we lined up and drove across the city. It stopped traffic for two or three hours.
Robin:When the convoy arrived in North Lawndale, the company that had started the cleanup blocked the entrance to the site. But Jackson and the truckers eventually got into the site and he gave a speech from on top of a tractor. He threatened to continue the protests into the summer when the Democratic National Convention was going to be in Chicago in advance of the ’96 election. The Chicago Tribune characterized his threats this way: “Give us what we want or watch as we wreak havoc on your big important party this summer.” It was only then that the mayor agreed to hire Black owned firms to clean up the dump.
Jesse:But that was our nonviolent protest and it worked.
Robin:But the residents of North Lawndale were not impressed. When the dumping had first started in their neighborhood, Reverend Jackson was one of the people they’d written to asking for help. And Ms. Woodson says they never heard back from him, at least not until after Operation Silver Shovel was finished and the camera crews arrived.
Gladys:The Silver Shovel story broke. And then the next thing I saw was Jesse Jackson standing on top of the Powell saying, “Yeah, we did this.” And we were saying, “No, you didn’t.” Yeah, he stood there and took credit for a lot of the stuff that had been done, but that was way after the fight.
Robin:The cleanup continued through the spring of 1996. One by one, dump trucks filed onto the lot and backed up to the mountain. Bulldozers became slowly chipping away at the tightly packed mass of concrete and dirt, filling up truck after truck after truck. And residents like Gladys Woodson who’d watched in those early days as John Christopher set up shop, now watch the process slowly rewind.
Gladys:It felt of sort of good. Because I’m saying, “Wow, now it’s gone. It’s going to be gone.”
Robin:Can you tell us what that was like?
Gladys:Dusty. Bull dust with the trucks coming in to get the stuff. But at least they sprayed the street down, which Chris John never did, never did.
Robin:Eight years after John Christopher first showed up in North Lawndale, the cleanup was over.
Rita:And it was all like a puff of smoke and everything changed. That’s right.
Robin:Here are Rita Ashford’s daughters, Serena and Michelle.
Serena:… Disappeared. They just was there one day and gone the next.
Michelle:Because they were rolling all night long. They would be rolling all night long, getting it out of there once it broke. And when you looked up, the pile went from where the kids used to run up and they’d stand on the top. It went from being up there to you’re just, like, “Oh, it’s gone.”
Al Letson:So Robin, what happened to this vacant lot in the end? 21 acres located right there in the city. It must have been a pretty coveted piece of real estate.
Robin:Oh, yeah. It was basically a blank canvas just waiting for the right kind of development, the kind that could build community ties or bring jobs and money back into the neighborhood. And especially after the embarrassment of Operation Silver Shovel, this lot offered a chance for then Mayor Richard M. Daley’s so-called renaissance to finally touch down in North Lawndale. Not to offload unwanted trash, but to build something new. There have been several attempts to build on this lot over the past 20 years, but so far, none have been successful and the lot is still empty today. And for many of the North Lawndale residents I spoke to, a prime piece of real estate this big that has sat empty for this long indicates a larger problem.
Al Letson:What an incredible and frustrating story. Robin, thank you so much for bringing it to us.
Robin:Thanks for having me, Al.
Dayke:Oh, boy. Look at this. Woo-wee. I ain’t been over here forever. 20, 26 years. A lot of memories.
Al Letson:One day, not too long ago, Dayke Nichols took a walk in the lot where the mountain used to loom, the home to the evil rabbit that terrorized neighborhood kids. Dayke was in high school when the cleanup started.
Dayke:We was protective of it. “Don’t tears our hills down.” That was our go-to. That’s what we did.
Al Letson:Dayke left to go away to college out of state. And when he came back, the hills and the mountain had disappeared.
Dayke:I’m like, “Man, our hill’s gone.” So I’m going back to me being a kid, saying, “They took our hills away.” But me growing into the man I am now, really appreciate where it’s at now. It’s gorgeous, as far as what it used to look like beforehand.
Al Letson:Since it was cleared, there have been a number of proposals to redevelop the vacant Silver Shovel lot. The latest plan would turn those five blocks into a solar powered industrial complex with an almost $85 million price tag. The city has promised the new development will bring hundreds of jobs to the area. Some North Lawndale residents have complained that the city didn’t listen to or respect their input when deciding what would be built on Chicago’s largest piece of vacant land. Construction is set to begin in the spring of 2023.

Thanks to Robin Amer for bringing us today’s story and the rest of the crew that made season one of USA Today’s The City, Wilson Sayer, Jenny Costas, Sam Greenspan, Ben Austin, Amy Powell, Matt Doig, Taylor Maycan, Isabel Cockrell, Phil Corbit, and Bianca Madeas. The City’s executive producer is Liz Nelson. Reveal’s Anayansi Diaz-Cortez produced our hour. Deborah George was the editor. Nikki Frick is our fact checker. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy the Great Mostafa. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando My Man-uel Arruda.

Hannis Brown composed original music for The City. Our post production team is the Justice League, and this week it includes Catherine Steyer-Martinez. Our digital producer is Sarah Murk. Our Chief Operating Officer is Maria Feldman. Our Chief Executive Officer is Robert Rosenthal. Our interim executive producers are Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis. Our theme music is by Cam Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Riva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

Jenny Casas is a radio editor for Reveal. She was previously a narrative audio producer at The New York Times developing shows for the Opinion Department. She was in the inaugural cohort of AIR's Edit Mode: Story Editor Training. She has reported on the ways that cities systematically fail their people for WNYC, USA Today, City Bureau and St. Louis Public Radio. Casas is from California and is based in Chicago.

Anayansi Diaz-Cortes

Anayansi Diaz-Cortes is a reporter and producer for Reveal. Her work has been featured everywhere from All Things Considered to  Radio Ambulante and  This American Life. She is a recipient of the Overseas Press Club Award, the Edward R. Murrow Award, and the Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation award. She was the creator and lead producer for KCRW’s Sonic Trace, a storytelling project that was part of AIR’s Localore initiative. Previously, she produced for Radio Diaries and has done extensive reporting in both the U.S. and Mexico. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.