Former Chicago police Sgt. Eddie Hicks vanished eight years ago on the eve of his high-profile corruption trial.
Federal authorities had charged him with running a crew of rogue cops who robbed drug dealers, pocketed the illicit cash and sold the stolen drugs to other pushers. It was a case that stunned Chicago's law enforcement community.
Once Hicks was on the lam — to Brazil, authorities suspect — he was just as brazen, repeatedly conducting financial transactions in Chicago to enrich himself and the people closest to him, a Tribune investigation found.
Two years after Hicks vanished, his signature appeared on land records giving his son the South Side property Hicks had used to secure his $150,000 bond. Federal officials did not move to block that property transfer or seek a bond forfeiture judgment and seize the building.
Hicks' son, active-duty Chicago police Officer Anthony Hicks, then used the building to secure a $217,500 mortgage that he did not repay, records show.
While a fugitive, Hicks also apparently signed paperwork directing the Chicago police pension fund to deposit benefit checks totaling more than $300,000 into a credit union account. And his signature separately appears on at least 23 monthly police pension checks totaling $79,000, most of which were cashed or deposited by his wife, other records show.
Hicks married former Chicago officer Carol Pierce six days before he disappeared in 2003, government records show.
The case of Eddie Hicks is one of at least five the Tribune identified in which Chicago-area fugitives accused of murder, rape and other serious felonies apparently reached back to Chicago to conduct lucrative financial deals while they were hiding in places ranging from Latin America to Africa and the Far East.
The fugitives include a reputed Chicago gang member and murder suspect who fled to Mexico, then transferred property to a girlfriend, and a businessman who deeded a suburban home to his family years after he fled to Nigeria while facing homicide charges. Such deals underscore how freely criminal suspects can live by simply crossing the U.S. border.
Federal and local law enforcement officials told the Tribune they were outraged at the blatant transactions. But some said they weren't sure if any laws were broken or whether there was anything they could have done to stop the deals.
A fugitive's transfer of a building to a relative may not constitute a crime, for example, because a homeowner has a right to deed property even if he or she faces serious felony charges.
Still, following Tribune inquiries, the retirement board of the Policemen's Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago in September suspended Hicks' monthly annuity payments. And one former federal prosecutor argued that authorities can force the return of a fugitive with significant assets by aggressively using the courts to financially squeeze the escapee and his supporters.
"You cut the fugitive off from the things that matter most: money and his family," said former assistant U.S. attorney Martin Weinstein, who with other prosecutors helped capture international fugitive and former defense company executive Suleiman Nassar.
Nassar fled to Syria in 1994 after federal prosecutors in Atlanta charged him with taking part in a bribery and corruption scheme. The U.S. had no extradition treaty with Syria, but federal prosecutors obtained court permission to freeze Nassar's assets — including pension funds totaling about $750,000 — and to block Nassar's family from selling two Washington, D.C., condos that had been bought with Nassar's money.
"We visited plagues on him, cutting off his pension, taking his house," said Weinstein, now a partner at a Washington law firm.
Nassar buckled and returned to the U.S. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to federal prison.
Officials in the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago declined to divulge what they knew about Hicks' financial dealings but said they consider his capture a high priority and "have followed numerous leads relating to financial transactions, as well as pursued other avenues of investigation."
"Certain legal impediments (and) tactical considerations also play a role in deciding whether to restrain pensions and other assets, because at times fugitives' efforts to access their assets can reveal their whereabouts," their statement added.
Money keeps flowing
Until he retired from the Chicago Police Department while under federal investigation in March 2000, Eddie Hicks seemed to have had a charmed career.
Wired through personal and professional friendships to top commanders, he enjoyed plush assignments such as providing security at Chicago Bulls games, and he was chosen for training in command-level law enforcement tactics at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. He began working in the police narcotics unit in 1992.
While there, he led a crew that used fake search warrants to rip off drug stash houses and also stole drugs and cash from dealers during illegal traffic stops, according to court papers filed by federal prosecutors and interviews.
By the time Hicks' trial was scheduled to begin in June 2003, three of his four co-defendants had pleaded guilty to their roles in the scheme. But Hicks, who had been out on bail, didn't show up on his trial's opening day.
Federal court officials had allowed Hicks to secure his $150,000 bond by posting as collateral a gated three-story brick apartment building at 7840 S. Phillips Ave. that Hicks owned with his son Anthony.
But authorities didn't seize that building after Eddie Hicks became a fugitive. Two years later, in 2005, Eddie Hicks' signature appeared on a property deed transferring ownership of the building solely to his son, land and court records examined by the Tribune show.
Eddie Hicks' land deed was filed publicly with the Cook County recorder of deeds, and his signature was verified by two Illinois notaries, who attested that Hicks appeared before them and signed the papers.
Anthony Hicks told Tribune reporters that he did not know how he and his father came to sign the 2005 land deed. "It baffles me," Anthony Hicks told the Tribune as he stared at a copy of the deed during a recent interview. "We didn't sign it together, I know that. It's been so long ago, it's like I totally forgot about everything."
Anthony Hicks said he hasn't seen his father, now 62, since shortly before he disappeared. Asked what happened to the $217,500 in mortgage funds, Anthony Hicks said: "I'm not going to answer any more questions. ... Have a nice day, gentlemen." He then walked away.
The day after Eddie Hicks failed to appear in court in June 2003, the fugitive signed paperwork directing the police pension fund to mail his annuity checks of more than $3,000 per month to a South Side home where he had lived with his wife, Carol Pierce.
Pierce immediately began cashing the checks, which bore Hicks' apparent signature and endorsement on the back. She declined to comment for this story.
By June 2004, federal authorities had learned that the Hicks pension checks were being cashed, and subpoenaed the fund for copies of several recent checks.
Still, Hicks' signature kept appearing on more pension checks, and Pierce kept cashing them, pension records show. Authorities made no move to stop the flow of money — perhaps because they were hoping the trail might lead them to Hicks.
Then in 2005, Hicks' signature appeared on a form directing the fund to wire his monthly benefit payments into his account with the Chicago Patrolman's Federal Credit Union, the Tribune found. Chicago pension officials said they examined the signature on the electronic deposit request and it appeared to be Hicks'.
Pension officials initially told the Tribune that they were powerless to do much more than process the paperwork and start wiring the checks into Hicks' account. State laws and court decisions bar them from terminating benefit payments of a police officer accused of a crime until he or she is convicted and sentenced, pension officials said.
But in September, the pension board suspended Hicks' pension. Shortly after that, Hicks' wife contested the move and sent the fund a power of attorney document — purportedly handwritten and signed by Hicks in June of last year — stating that he had appointed her to handle all of his financial affairs, including his pension transactions.
The board plans to offer her a hearing in the coming weeks to listen to her arguments for reinstating the benefits and to determine whether the document Pierce presented is valid.
Unless the board is convinced, fund Executive Director John Gallagher Jr. told the newspaper in an email that "this suspension will remain in effect until such time as (Hicks) presents himself or is found, one way or another."
Few safeguards exist
Hicks is accused of federal crimes, but suspects wanted in county courthouses on charges of murder and other crimes also have conducted financial deals in the Chicago area after they fled the U.S.
Charged in 1990 with gunning down a bystander as he shot wildly into a crowd during a Chicago street argument, Humboldt Park store owner Abdulrafiu Shokunbi posted a cash bond of just $3,000, then fled to his native Nigeria, government records show.
Shokunbi was convicted in absentia in 1993 of first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison. By then, authorities appear to have lost track of him.
Yet in 1999, the Tribune found, Shokunbi apparently signed a Cook County deed transferring his two-story south suburban Matteson home to his wife, whose family continues to live there.
Those public land papers list a legal contact for Shokunbi in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city.
Despite a $30,000 judgment against him for violating his bond, local and U.S. authorities never challenged Shokunbi's financial transaction or moved to seize his home or any other assets. It's unclear if they were even aware of the deal.
Family members of the murder victim said they were surprised to learn of the property transfer from reporters and still want the fugitive to serve his time. "I just feel this individual should pay," said Juan Rios, the younger brother of slain carwash owner Felix Ralph Bergollo.
In a more recent case, murder suspect Luis Mejia had been a fugitive in Mexico for more than a year when he signed Cook County legal papers transferring a Streamwood rowhouse to his longtime companion, land and court records show.
That 2003 deed helped the woman sell the home for $30,000 more than the couple paid for it and to resolve debts, records show.
Mejia, then a 29-year-old reputed Chicago street gang member, chased a man into a West Side stereo installation shop and opened fire, fatally shooting bystander Alexis Martinez, police and court records allege. Mejia immediately fled across the border, according to a warrant.
With law enforcement authorities paying little attention, there are few other safeguards against the transactions found in these fugitive cases — even when signatures are required on documents in Chicago.
Juan Alvarez was wanted on a murder charge and believed to be living in Mexico when his signature appeared on Cook County land records that transferred a two-story brick walk-up on the Southwest Side to his wife. The property transfer enabled her to keep the home and raise their children there.
Alvarez was accused in 2002 of agreeing to pay $3,000 to three men who gunned down a man who dated his wife while they were estranged. But while awaiting a 2003 court appearance after allegedly confessing to police, he got lucky — he was let out of the Cook County Jail by mistake and handed over to federal immigration officials, who deported him to Mexico.
Two years later, attorney and notary Elina Golod handled the paperwork for Alvarez's property transfer. She said there was little she could have done when Alvarez — or someone posing as him — came before her and presented identification before signing a land deed in 2005.
Golod told the Tribune she had worked on numerous real estate closings and had no recollection of this deal.
Alvarez, she said, "must have been there, unless — fraud happens all the time. Since he was on the run at the time, maybe he did find somebody else who looked like him and sent that person."
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