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The man who called me, a long-retired Chicago police officer, was alternately charming and curt. He insisted he had nothing to do with the murder.
“All the things you wrote in your letter to me are not true,” he said, speaking slowly, his voice occasionally shaky. “Everything in there is a fucking lie.”
In the letter, I had asked him about a murder I’d been examining: the unsolved killing of a prominent Black politician in Chicago. I had reason to think he knew something about it.
On Feb. 26, 1963, Ben Lewis, the first Black elected official from Chicago’s West Side, won what was set to be his second full term on the City Council. Lewis, 53, appeared to be climbing the political ladder. Newspapers were reporting talk — encouraged by the alderman himself — that his next stop would be Congress, a move that would have made him one of the highest-profile Black politicians in the country.
Two days later, Lewis was found shot to death in his ward office.
A maintenance worker found Lewis’s body, sprawled facedown behind his desk, wearing a business suit, arms extended beyond his head, his wrists handcuffed. The index and middle fingers of his right hand still held a cigarette, long burned out. A bloodstained couch cushion covered his head.
As police questioned Lewis’s wife and girlfriends, word leaked that he had been threatened by a jealous husband. Newspapers reported that, like other politicians, he had done business with gamblers and mobsters. Investigators soon concluded that a police sergeant was likely the last person who had talked to Lewis, fueling speculation that cops were involved. But the investigation soon went cold.
Nearly six decades later, no one has been brought to justice for executing Lewis, thought to be the last elected official murdered in Chicago. Officially, the case is still open, but Ben Lewis has faded from public memory.
Several years ago, after conversations with longtime West Side residents, I began to realise that the case was more than just a troubling episode from the past. For many, it remained an open wound. Lewis was killed at a time when white officials and gangsters worked to control and profit from Black communities in Chicago, often through violence. It isn’t hard to see a straight line to the neglect and disinvestment that continues to devastate those neighbourhoods. Though forgotten by many, the Ben Lewis murder case illustrates Chicago’s enduring legacy of political corruption, police misconduct and systemic racism.
To report this story, I interviewed dozens of people and examined thousands of pages of records from local and federal law enforcement agencies as well as court files, political archives and other historical documents. I’ve concluded it was no accident authorities never solved Lewis’ murder. Hampered by political pressures and racial stereotyping, authorities repeatedly passed up chances to investigate crime figures, politicians and police who likely had knowledge of the murder — and may have been involved in committing it.
Eventually, my search brought me to the retired officer. He confirmed that he had known Lewis. He said he had even been interviewed during the initial investigation. When I asked if he was involved, he denied it and said he passed two lie detector tests.
“I swear to God, on everything that’s holy, that I had nothing to do with the killing of Ben Lewis,” he told me.
But he said he knew why Lewis was murdered and who was behind it.
“I was — I don’t want to use the word fortunate, but I happened to be present and knowledgeable of certain circumstances where I know what transpired,” he said.
He wouldn’t say anything else. What he knew, he said, could only be revealed after he was dead.
After we hung up, I had the feeling that everything he said could be true — or that none of it was.
Symbol of hope
Looking back, it’s hard not to see Lewis’ rise in politics as a long, doomed fight for power.
Most of the stories about his political background came from reporters who heard them from either Lewis or other political operatives. These sources typically had an interest in portraying Lewis as a leader of his people, rooted in the community; or as a hustler and a player, claiming to advocate for young people and civil rights while looking for ways to profit from his position. The conflicting pictures were each grounded in truth but overstated. Lewis was both respected and manipulated. He projected strength even while forced to follow orders, and was well liked and gregarious though in the end a mystery even to many who spent time with him.
He was born Benjamin Franklin Lewis in 1909 in Macon, Georgia. When he was 4, his mother moved north with him and his brother, stopping in New Jersey before settling on Chicago’s South Side. In 1919, the neighbourhood exploded in a weeklong race riot that left 38 people dead. Soon after, Lewis’ mother packed up the family and moved to the predominantly Jewish and immigrant Maxwell Street area on the Near West Side.
Lewis later told the Chicago Defender, then one of the nation’s leading Black-owned newspapers, that he and his family were the first Black residents in the area. By some accounts, he had grown up around so many Jewish people that he could speak Yiddish. Years later, Lewis stressed his friendships with white kids as well as the threats he sometimes faced. “I learned to run before I learned to walk because I was the first Negro to live in my neighbourhood,” he said.
During the Depression, Lewis worked as a labourer for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration; later he had a shovel, which he said was from his first WPA job, mounted on his office wall. He served in the US Army during World War II, and after his discharge held a range of jobs including elevator operator, union organiser and bus driver.
According to newspaper stories, Lewis got started in politics by volunteering for the Republican organisation in what was then known as the “Bloody” 20th Ward. Encompassing much of the Near West Side, the ward had been controlled by the city’s crime syndicate since the days of Al Capone. Eventually, the area was redrawn as part of the 1st Ward, but it continued to be dominated by the Outfit, as the syndicate was called. People who knew Lewis said he maintained ties there the rest of his life.
Around 1950, Lewis moved farther west, to the 24th Ward. Based in the Lawndale neighbourhood, the ward was starting to lose its Jewish voters as they moved to less congested areas on the North Side and in the suburbs. At the same time, African-Americans looked for new opportunities in Lawndale after leaving the crowded South Side or the deep South.
Lewis was recruited to the ward, according to one story, by his former classmate Erwin “Izzy” Horwitz, a rising star in the local Democratic organisation. By other accounts, politicians tied to the Outfit engineered the move and essentially agreed to sponsor Lewis’ political career. The 24th Ward, like much of the city, was dominated by Democrats, and Lewis switched parties when given the chance to climb the ranks.
True power in the Democratic machine rested not with aldermen but with the committeemen, party officers who led the ward organisations and dispensed the patronage jobs that went with them. Many ran real estate and insurance firms; local business owners understood that if they wanted to stay open, it was wise to work with these ward bosses.
In the 24th Ward, Black voters were beginning to demand more representation. By 1951, committeeman Arthur X. Elrod, who was white, had picked Lewis as the ward’s first Black precinct captain. Six years later, when the ward’s seat on the City Council opened up, Elrod decided the time had come for the 24th to have a Black alderman. More than 80% of ward residents were Black by then, and it was widely known that Elrod no longer lived there himself, having moved to the North Side. Critics derisively called such absentee leadership “plantation politics.”
With the backing of the Democratic ward organisation, Lewis was elected alderman in a romp in 1958 and reelected to a full term a year later. In 1961, after Elrod and a white successor died, Mayor Richard J. Daley tapped Lewis to be the first Black committeeman on the West Side.
Many Black residents saw Lewis’ climb as a hopeful sign. “There was a sense that maybe change was in the air,” recalled US Representative Danny Davis, at the time a graduate student who was just learning about Chicago politics after migrating from Arkansas to the Lawndale neighbourhood. “We were moving into power. We’ve got our own guy who represents us.”
Lewis projected an air of cool confidence. At 6 feet, he was tall and thin, wearing expensive suits and driving a Buick Wildcat sport coupe. “Some folks say that he was cocky, that he was braggadocious, that he was kind of fast-moving,” Davis said.
Yet beneath his bravado, Lewis was fighting to gain control of the ward. Most of its precinct captains and patronage workers were still white; Lewis promised to start bringing on more Black workers who lived in the neighbourhood but offered no timetable. Horwitz, installed by Daley as the county’s building commissioner, oversaw his own patronage jobs and was viewed by many as the real ward boss. Meanwhile, Elrod’s old insurance firm was squeezing Lewis out of what was a lucrative side business.
Some of Lewis’ own ward workers wondered whether he had any real authority. “The Jewish people ran the 24th Ward organisation, and they picked Ben Lewis because they figured he could be worked with,” said Fred L. Mitchell, 91, a precinct captain who held a patronage position as a bailiff downtown.
Lewis also faced a host of deepening problems in the ward. Though the neighbourhood’s main commercial corridor along Roosevelt Road was still thriving, a growing number of homes and buildings in the ward had been neglected or divided up into crowded apartments. Troubled neighbourhood teenagers had formed street gangs. And Lewis, along with other aldermen, was under pressure to speak out about school segregation and overcrowding that forced thousands of Black students to attend classes in shifts.
But it was clear that Daley and his machine offered little room for independence. When Lewis finally called for new schools leadership, the mayor summoned him to a meeting. Afterward, reporters asked him again if the superintendent should go. He backed down.
“No comment,” Lewis said.
Still, Lewis crushed his challenger by a count of 12,422 votes to 931 during the first round of city elections on Feb. 26, 1963.
That evening, Lewis ran into a friend from childhood, police officer Eugene Belton, who joked about leaving the force to work as Lewis’ bodyguard. Lewis assured Belton, “I don’t need a bodyguard.”
Robert Shaw, one of the ward organisation’s precinct captains, said he talked with Lewis at a neighbourhood restaurant the next day. They discussed a recent Defender story in which Lewis all but declared his intention to run for the US House.
“I said, ‘It looks like you’re on your way to Congress,’” recalled Shaw, 83, who later served as a Chicago alderman. “And he said, ‘I’m sitting here whittling my sticks.’”
Shaw understood: Lewis was just waiting to make his move.
A lack of evidence
When Belton saw the suit, he knew. The dead man was Lewis.
Belton happened to be the first officer to arrive at Lewis’ office after a maintenance worker found the body on the morning of Feb. 28, 1963. Belton reported finding a few bullet casings on the floor, but otherwise the office was in order. Souvenirs from Lewis’ political career, including an autographed photo of President John F. Kennedy, decorated the room.
When the office phone rang, Belton picked it up. It was Lewis’ wife, Ella. She was surprised to hear Belton’s voice, according to testimony from her and Belton during a coroner’s inquest.
“Well, Mrs Lewis, we’ve had a little trouble here,” Belton said.
“What kind of trouble?”
“Ben — did he get hurt?” she asked. “Is he shot? Did you take him to the hospital?”
“No,” Belton said.
“Is he dead?”
Lewis had been shot three times in the back of the neck and head with what investigators determined was a .32-caliber revolver.
Police found small amounts of blood on an air conditioner and television in Lewis’ office, as well as on the right side of the stairs leading down from it. The evidence suggested that the killer or killers had probably entered the building through the back door, which had been found ajar.
Less than three hours after police started going over the crime scene, they allowed reporters to examine it. Photographers took close-up pictures of Lewis’ lifeless body before it was transported to the morgue, where he was identified by his only child, his adult daughter, Joan.
Lewis’s death became a national news story, with headlines proclaiming that Chicago was back to its old gangster ways — the kind of bad press that made Daley irate. As the news spread, people came up with their own theories to explain why Lewis had been slain. Mitchell, the 24th Ward precinct captain, remembered that he was at his job at City Hall when he heard about the murder.
“A guy came in and told me, ‘Ben Lewis got killed last night,’” Mitchell recalled. “And I said, ‘What? What happened?’ And he said, ‘The syndicate killed him.’”
People speculated that someone may have taken Lewis out in a dispute over gambling, possibly involving policy, the illegal lottery games that generated big money in many wards. Some Lewis allies suspected he was killed because he had started challenging the West Side’s plantation politics. Perhaps, they said, his increasing demands for patronage jobs and insurance business had alienated the last of the old white power brokers in the ward.
Many West Siders simply found it too frightening or unwise to discuss.
“I remember going to the barbershop, and I’m asking questions about this, and the barber said, ‘Shhhh! Don’t talk about that! We don’t talk about that in here,’” said Davis, a Democrat who represents much of the West Side in Congress. “And I was kind of dumbfounded by that, because in my mind, that’s all there is to talk about.”
A smear campaign
As police talked to reporters about the investigation, they let it be known that Lewis had a secret life: He was a womaniser and a con man. Though the killing looked more like a crime of precision than passion, police reports indicated that they were searching for a possible jilted lover or angry husband, or perhaps a client cheated out of money. Ella Lewis was questioned by police, as were several other women Lewis knew. Detectives noted that Lewis was “keeping company with white women.”
Police also released information suggesting Lewis was a shady and failed businessman. They uncovered evidence that he had dipped into his clients’ insurance premiums for his own uses and borrowed money to keep his real estate business afloat. Though he dressed impeccably, was often seen dining out and furnished an apartment where he met with a girlfriend, he died without enough money to pay for his funeral.
Within a day of finding Lewis dead, police leaked the names of two suspects. The newspapers reported that Thomas “Shaky Tom” Anderson and Jimmy “Kid Riviera” Williams were major players in the policy racket. Anderson, a 54-year-old accountant, was thought to report to Outfit leaders. Williams, 37, a former boxer, was Anderson’s enforcer.
The pair attracted police interest because Williams had reportedly threatened Lewis for hanging around Anderson’s wife. On another occasion, police were told, Anderson had loaned Lewis money. Like almost everyone else questioned in the case, both men were Black.
After a short stakeout, police nabbed Kid Riviera at a South Side apartment building. Anderson, hearing the authorities were looking for him, turned himself in. Police relied on lie detector tests to guide the investigation, and after both men passed, they were released.
Less than a month after Lewis was killed, the investigation hit a dead end. Police officials blamed Lewis: His life had been such a mess, they told the newspapers, that there were too many potential motives.
Some of the FBI’s sources in Chicago politics recognised that the police were fixated on Lewis’ personal and business problems. In a report a few weeks after the murder, one FBI agent summarised what an informant told him: “The stories concerning Lewis’ personal life are being manufactured to ‘dirty him up’ in order to make it appear the city didn’t lose too great an alderman.”
According to these sources, the agent wrote, “His death was strictly a political murder” because he wouldn’t follow orders.
Daley, fighting for reelection that April, tried to shake off criticism that the Lewis murder showed crime and corruption were out of control. He continued to express confidence in the police but said little about the investigation.
But the memos from the FBI agent suggest the police avoided looking closely at the powerful people who actually dominated the 24th Ward: the political machine, the Outfit and the police themselves.
As part of the Lewis case, detectives questioned a number of Black political workers in the 24th Ward. Yet the files don’t include any reports of interviews with Horwitz or other white party leaders.
Lewis had fought with the politically connected Elrod insurance company over control of ward business — a conflict some FBI sources cited as a reason for his murder. But the police records make no reference to interviews with any of the firm’s owners and managers.
The police also revealed little about what their own officers knew about the murder.
As detectives tried to piece together Lewis’ final hours, they learned that Sgt. James Gilbert had called the alderman around 7:30 p.m.
Gilbert, a nine-year veteran, worked in the Fillmore police district, which included much of the 24th Ward. Seven years earlier, he had been suspended after reportedly demanding a payoff from a driver he had pulled over.
When detectives asked him about his conversation with Lewis, Gilbert was cagey, saying it concerned a “personal matter.” If the detectives followed up and asked Gilbert what he meant, they didn’t mention it in their reports.
They did note that Gilbert said his call with Lewis had ended abruptly. After 10 or 15 minutes on the phone, Gilbert told them, he “heard a noise which sounded like someone entering the victim’s office. The phone conversation was immediately terminated for no reason.”
Gilbert offered shifting versions of the story to news reporters, telling one that Lewis had excused himself before hanging up. Yet Gilbert said he hadn’t called Lewis back or tried to find out what had happened. Police were sure that Gilbert was one of the last people to talk with the alderman, perhaps just a half-hour before he was killed.
Could the call from Gilbert have been a warning or a threat? Was it meant to make sure Lewis was there before someone came by to kill him? Gilbert was given a lie detector test along with another police officer, who considered himself a friend of Lewis’ — the same officer who would call me many years later. Neither was arrested. If detectives wrote a report on what Gilbert and the other officer told them, it was not included in the files released to me.
Pat Angelo, one of the first detectives on the Lewis investigation, told his son Dean Angelo Sr. that it was a “heater case” that he and his partners worked hard. Before the elder Angelo died in 2017, he expressed his frustration that the investigation had petered out. Dean Angelo recalled his father raising the possibility that law enforcement officials were involved in the murder.
“Back then, you literally had bagmen to collect and deliver” payoffs from Outfit gamblers, said Angelo, who also became a police officer and led the Chicago lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police. He retired in 2017. “The aldermen handpicked the captains and commanders of their districts so they could work with them,” he said.
Police and political leaders repeatedly dismissed the idea that the Outfit was involved in the murder. Yet investigators received tips that pointed to the syndicate. One such clue came from Lewis’ former personal secretary.
The aide told police that Lewis had grown up in the Outfit-run 1st Ward and still had ties there.
“Many of his boy-hood friends were now connected with people in the syndicate,” one of the police officers wrote in his report. Lewis would sometimes meet these old friends at a restaurant near City Hall, the aide said. But the files don’t include any reference to police following up on the information.
FBI officials in Chicago sent investigation updates to top bureau leaders in Washington, including director J. Edgar Hoover. Without clear evidence of organised crime involvement, they concluded the case should remain with local officials.
Yet behind the scenes, the FBI had been collecting fresh information about a suspected syndicate figure long tied to political corruption and violence in the 24th Ward. As recently as Feb. 27 — the day before Lewis was killed — the FBI and the Police Department’s organised crime division shared a tip that Lenny Patrick was running a horse race betting operation out of the Lawndale Restaurant, just down the street from Lewis’ ward office.
Patrick was well known to law enforcement. Among his many arrests, he had been charged with murder, though never convicted. Authorities had known for years that Patrick’s gambling operations were based at his Lawndale restaurant. In fact, the FBI had been told that Patrick and Lewis knew each other well.
But according to existing records, neither the police nor federal agents ever spoke to Patrick about Ben Lewis.
Lenny Patrick was born in Chicago in 1913, one of four sons of Morris and Ester Patrick, Jewish immigrants from England who ended up in the Lawndale neighbourhood.
Lenny’s mother died when he was 5, and with his father unable to care for the boys by himself, Lenny and one of his brothers were taken to an orphanage. After dropping out of seventh grade, Lenny learned to hustle. While still a teenager, he began running a regular dice game on the sidewalk at West Roosevelt Road and South Kedzie Avenue, in the heart of Lawndale.
Fights over territory and control of gambling profits often erupted into bombings and bloodshed. In April 1932, 21-year-old Herman Glick was shot in the neck outside a Lawndale synagogue. Glick “made a dying declaration that one Leonard Patrick was the man who shot him,” an officer wrote in his report.
Police issued an alert for Patrick, describing him as 5 feet, 6 inches tall, weighing 150 pounds, “dark comp[lexion], wears heavy rimmed glasses, brown suit, dark hat, has a slight limp in one leg, Jewish.”
When they finally tracked Patrick down a couple weeks later, he refused to open his apartment door, until officers fired shots through it. He was taken to Cook County Jail but wasn’t locked up long. After Glick died, a grand jury determined prosecutors didn’t have enough evidence to indict Patrick. The murder charges were dropped.
Patrick returned to Lawndale and went to work for a group of men who ran most of the neighbourhood’s gambling operations. He crossed paths with such powerful Outfit figures as Sam Giancana; they would become his mentors and employers.
By 1948, Patrick had served seven years in prison for a bank robbery and was a suspect in at least three unsolved murders. That September, after three more men tied to Lawndale gambling were killed, FBI agents asked Patrick to come in for an interview. He told them that he had been friends with the slain men but didn’t know anything about their deaths. He said he was the father of two girls, ages 6 and 3, and insisted his only political connection was his father, a 24th Ward precinct captain.
The conversation was the first documented contact between Patrick and federal authorities.
Over the next several years, FBI agents kept close tabs on Patrick. For a time, agents even logged Patrick’s phone calls and monitored his new home in West Rogers Park.
But Patrick still oversaw businesses in Lawndale, including illegal gambling rooms that were allowed to operate by police and political leaders on his payroll. In February 1956, a confidential informant told FBI agents that Patrick controlled all gambling in the 24th Ward with backing from Elrod, the ward boss; in return, Elrod received cash payments. A different FBI source said Patrick had “strong police protection.”
In 1960, after more than a decade of gathering information on Patrick and his operations, federal agents charged him with conspiracy to gamble. But the evidence was deemed too weak, and the charges were dropped. Once again, Patrick escaped trouble.
Patrick’s position grew even stronger once Lewis was named the 24th Ward committeeman in 1961. FBI sources said Outfit leaders had been working to ensure that someone they could trust would get the post. And an informant told agents that Patrick was close to Lewis — so much so that the alderman was considered Patrick’s “boy.” As an agent summed up the conversation in his report: “Lewis does not do anything without Patrick’s okay.”
In April 1964, a little more than a year after Lewis was killed, the FBI received a tip that, for the first time, explicitly linked Patrick to the unsolved case.
“Informant further stated that Leonard Patrick and Dave Yaras control the ward in which Alderman Ben Lewis was slain,” an agent wrote in a report. “Source heard that Alderman Lewis, before his assassination, was not cooperating with the criminal element in Chicago.”
In essence, the informant was telling the FBI that Patrick was involved in what happened to Lewis. At the very least, he had to know something about it.
The records released by the FBI offer no evidence that agents ever followed up.
Over the next 25 years, the FBI continued to keep an eye on Patrick as he ran Outfit-backed criminal enterprises on Chicago’s West Side and then North Side, according to bureau investigative records. In 1977, Patrick refused to testify before a federal grand jury about payoffs he’d allegedly made to a police officer. He served 18 months in prison for contempt of court. But even after the FBI and the Chicago Police Department repeatedly gathered evidence on Patrick, he continued to profit. By the 1980s, agents learned that he was supervising a street crew that specialised in extorting well-off business owners.
It was still dark on the morning of November 6, 1989, when two FBI agents stepped onto the front porch of a yellow-brick two-flat on the far Northwest Side. When Patrick came downstairs, they let him know he needed to start answering some questions. If he didn’t cooperate, they told him, they had enough on him to put him in prison for 20 years. The leader of Patrick’s street crew had already been talking. In case he didn’t believe it, they played him tapes.
Patrick was stunned. He was 76 years old and had a heart condition. The agents were telling him that they could lock him up for the rest of his life.
In addition to his extortion schemes, federal authorities had other reasons to try to get Patrick talking: Another wave of violence had left more people dead. In 1982, Allen Dorfman, an Outfit-connected insurance executive who worked with the Teamsters union, was convicted of attempted bribery. As he awaited sentencing the following January, Dorfman was shot and killed outside a hotel not far from Patrick’s turf. His murder was viewed as the Outfit’s way of making sure he didn’t talk. Two years later, Lenny Yaras, a longtime member of Patrick’s crew and the son of his late friend Dave Yaras, was murdered on the West Side.
By 1992, as the feds built cases against the Outfit’s top leaders, Patrick agreed to cooperate. Almost immediately, FBI agents and federal prosecutors began grilling him about his time in the Outfit.
“Some days you’d feel sorry for him, like he was your grandfather, walking with a cane, slumped over,” recalled Mark Vogel, a former federal prosecutor who questioned Patrick in preparation for his trial testimony. “And then other times he would look you in the eye, and if looks could kill, you’d be gone.”
And as other lawyers and law enforcement officials had found, Patrick was practiced at evasion. “You couldn’t get a direct answer out of this guy,” Vogel said.
Patrick was worried that other Outfit figures would kill him when word of his cooperation got out. He had good reason. On May 17, 1992, a bomb exploded outside the home of his daughter, Sharon, blowing a crater in her driveway, destroying her fiance’s BMW and shattering the windows of neighbouring homes.
Over the course of several weeks, Lenny Patrick confirmed what informants had told the FBI for years: His gambling operations in Lawndale were rarely disturbed because he paid off politicians and police, who did favours for him and top Outfit leaders.
Eventually, the federal officials started asking Patrick about old murders. Chris Gair, another former federal prosecutor who had convinced Patrick to cooperate, said they told Patrick “no one was going to believe he’d never killed anyone.”
“He would deny stuff and then I would dig up a 45- or 50-year-old FBI report, and he would be livid,” Gair said.
The federal officials went back to the first murder Patrick had been suspected of, the 1932 shooting of Herman Glick. Patrick confessed that he’d done it, just as Glick had said before he died.
By the end of the summer of 1992, Patrick had confessed to being involved in six murders and offered new information about another. Officials suspected there were likely other killings. But they said they went through all the files they could find that included evidence or witness testimony pointing to Patrick.
Gair and Vogel both said they don’t remember FBI officials or Patrick mentioning Lewis.
If Patrick had brought up the Lewis murder, “the FBI agents would have been on top of that like a duck on a junebug,” Vogel said. “When you have the mob go into city government, that is a big deal. That’s not just an ordinary mob murder.”
Vogel noted that, as much as he and other officials wanted Patrick to own up to his past, they had to stay focused on building cases against Outfit leaders who were still operating.
“The only way to do that is to go through the lower guys,” Vogel said. “Priests and ministers and rabbis are not going to be the ones involved in this. The ones who can tell you firsthand what happened are the criminals.”
In September 1992, Patrick testified in the trial of longtime Outfit leader Gus Alex and a former member of his own street crew on extortion and racketeering charges. To establish his credibility, Patrick discussed his criminal background. He described bribing police officers, the late 24th Ward boss Arthur X. Elrod and other “aldermen.” Asked which aldermen, Patrick claimed he couldn’t remember their names.
Patrick again admitted his involvement in six murders.
Sam Adam, a defence attorney for Alex, responded by portraying Patrick as a sociopath and noting he had admitted to lying under oath before.
“Who else did you kill?” Adam asked.
“That’s about it,” Patrick said.
“Well, anybody — anybody you can think of you haven’t told us about yet?”
“No, I haven’t,” Patrick told him. “I run out of cemeteries.”
But Adam wasn’t the only one who thought the government’s star witness was downplaying his history. Gair said an attorney who had represented other crime figures approached him following Patrick’s testimony about the six murders.
“He came up afterward and said, ‘I believe your witness misplaced a decimal point,’” Gair said.
Patrick’s cooperation helped prosecutors win convictions of Alex and other Outfit leaders. In return for his help, Patrick was given a seven-year sentence and sent to Sandstone federal prison in Minnesota.
In prison, Patrick hit it off with another inmate. Daniel Longoria Sr. was in his early 50s, and serving 16 years for dealing heroin and cocaine in Portland, Oregon. A former college psychology student, Longoria fancied himself a jailhouse lawyer.
There is no statute of limitations on murder, and some prosecutors and investigators in Chicago were outraged that Patrick might not be held to account for the murders he’d testified about in federal court. In February 1994, Cook County prosecutors secured indictments against Patrick for three of those killings, which occurred between 1947 and 1953.
Patrick turned to Longoria. In return for help with his case, Patrick signed a document promising to give Longoria “a portion” of the proceeds from a book about his life he was thinking about writing.
But Patrick likely didn’t know that Longoria was in the federal witness protection program, or that he had repeatedly served as an informant to get his sentence reduced.
In June 1995, Longoria got in touch with the organised crime division of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. He said he had collected statements from Patrick about the six murders he had discussed in federal court.
In addition, Longoria’s lawyer told county officials that his client could provide details of other killings he had learned about from Patrick.
The state’s attorney’s office was interested. Over the next few months, officials from the office spoke on the phone repeatedly with Longoria. In two calls, Longoria said Patrick had discussed the unsolved 1983 hit on Dorfman, the insurance agent who had worked closely with the Teamsters. Longoria said Patrick told him one of the killers was the former West Side police officer who had been questioned about the Lewis killing, according to a state’s attorney report summarising the call.
The information Longoria passed on was detailed and jarring — and if true, would offer fresh leads in some of the most notorious open murder cases in Chicago history. But he wasn’t done.
On October 4, 1995, Longoria recounted a conversation he said he’d had with Patrick about Ben Lewis. According to a report of the call, Longoria said the alderman had been killed because unauthorised horse race betting was run out of his office. Patrick had sent a Chicago police officer to kill Lewis, according to Longoria — and it was the same officer who had allegedly helped carry out the Dorfman hit. The officer and his partner “tied up, chained, tortured and killed Lewis,” Longoria told the officials.
Longoria’s account raised questions of its own. According to the original police and coroner’s reports, Lewis was found in handcuffs — not rope or chains. The reports did not mention signs of torture.
Investigators couldn’t know whether Patrick or Longoria had mixed up the details, or if one of them was lying.
Wayne A. Johnson, then a detective in the Chicago Police Department’s intelligence section, worked with the state’s attorney’s office on the Patrick investigation. After participating in a call with Longoria, Johnson found him credible.
“This guy’s talking a hundred miles an hour — you can tell he’s scared to death,” Johnson recalled.
But Johnson said his investigation was cut short. Longoria was transferred to another prison. The police brass weren’t interested in the old murders. And the state’s attorney’s office decided not to pursue any cases beyond the three that Patrick had already been charged with.
“It was a lost opportunity,” Johnson said. “Whatever Lenny gave up on the witness stand, there was a lot more to it.”
In 1996, after doctors concluded Patrick was showing signs of dementia, a Cook County judge found Patrick unfit for trial on the three decades-old murders of his former associates. The charges were dismissed.
After his release from prison, Patrick spent his last years living in the northern suburb of Morton Grove. He died in 2006 at the age of 92.
I was not the only person who heard that the retired West Side officer might be connected to the Lewis murder. Joe Kolman, a writer based in New York, was doing research for a possible novel seven years ago when he came across old news stories about Lewis. He was fascinated and outraged that the case had never been solved.
Kolman had his own connection to Chicago politics. His family has roots on the West Side, and his father and uncle were politically involved lawyers. When Kolman’s father died in 1967, Mayor Daley attended the funeral, making sure to shake Kolman’s hand before he left.
“I was 12 years old, and I couldn’t stop staring at the wattles on his chin,” Kolman said.
When Kolman started gathering information on Lewis, a former politician told him that the word was out that a cop was involved. Kolman’s contact even gave him a name. It was the retired West Side police officer who had been questioned in the early days of the investigation — the same officer whose name had been raised by Longoria.
Kolman called him. The retired officer said he had been friends with Lewis, but denied having anything to do with his murder. Almost six decades after the killing, the retired officer said it was unsafe for him to discuss it. Still, he made Kolman a promise: He would leave him a note revealing who did it — but Kolman wouldn’t get it until the officer died.
By the time the retired officer called me, I’d learned that Longoria, the jailhouse informant, had linked him to two notorious murders 20 years apart. In a series of phone conversations, he said that was “crazy” and “bullshit.” He said he knew nothing about the hit on Dorfman other than what he’d read in the newspapers. When I asked him about Lewis’ murder, he told me what he’d told Kolman: He and his family could be in danger if he discussed what he knew.
But the retired officer said he wanted me to know some background about Lewis and the West Side. He asked that I not use his name, noting he had never been charged in connection with the murder.
Lewis, he said, had been picked to take over the 24th Ward because its political and organised crime leaders knew they needed someone Black as a front. They paid for Lewis’ house, car and clothes, he said.
“They took care of him,” the former officer said. “He lived pretty good. He golfed a lot. They took him to country clubs.”
Because he had spent time with Lewis, the former officer said, he was taken to police headquarters for questioning hours after the body was found. He denied having anything to do with the murder, and a polygraph test found that he wasn’t lying, he said. News stories at the time offered a similar narrative, though they didn’t identify the officer by name.
“If I had flunked the test, they would have charged me,” he said.
He said his former colleague Gilbert, the sergeant who was also questioned in the case, had called Lewis the evening of the murder to talk about a tavern owner who had complained to the alderman about Gilbert demanding payoffs. But the retired officer said he didn’t think Gilbert was involved in killing Lewis.
The retired officer told me he had never met Patrick. And he was just as insistent that Patrick had no part in the murder.
He said he hoped he had been helpful.
Not everything he said added up. While he admitted he knew West Side underworld figures, he distanced himself from Patrick. Yet Patrick obviously knew the officer well enough to mention his name to Longoria. That is, if Longoria was telling the truth.
A possible clue
After Kolman first reached out to her, Sharon Patrick began sharing some of her recollections about her father. Eventually, she agreed to sit down with Kolman and me.
Now in her 70s, Sharon Patrick calls people “dear” and “hon,” and enjoys talking about the feral cats she feeds on the South Side. She often pauses, speaking carefully, when discussing her father. She said their relationship was sometimes rocky.
From an early age, she said, she understood “he was a big shot and he controlled certain areas of Chicago.”
Sharon Patrick also saw another side of her father, who often gave food or rent money to struggling neighbours. “A lot of people would call him if they needed help,” she said. “He had a lot of compassion.”
After her father went to prison in the 1990s, Sharon Patrick embraced the idea of working with him on his book project. They never finished, but she thought she still had notes from their conversations.
Soon after our interview, Kolman was helping Sharon Patrick dig through her old files when they found some of those notes. On a sheet of lined paper, she had scribbled two sentences about the slain alderman: “Lewis was killed by certain people all he knows. He was giving information to FBI.”
If Lewis was suspected of sharing information with federal agents, that could very well have gotten him killed. Still, there is no public evidence that Lewis talked to the FBI. In 40 pages of FBI reports on Lewis and more than 900 pages on Patrick that I obtained through open records requests, nothing suggests Lewis was an informant.
One thing was clear: Over the course of more than three decades, officials with the Police Department, the state’s attorney’s office and the FBI all gathered information that connected Patrick to the 24th Ward and to Lewis. Yet there is no evidence that those agencies ever talked to Patrick himself about the case.
At the time, Lewis’ murder was widely seen among Black Chicagoans as a message of what would happen to anyone who challenged the white political bosses, said Mitchell, the former precinct captain.
“He didn’t obey orders,” Mitchell said. “It was a power struggle.”
After spending years looking into the murder, Kolman reached the same conclusion. Patrick was almost certainly involved, he said, but the white politicians he worked with may have signed off on the murder.
“Maybe it was clear there would have been no consequences for doing this thing,” said Kolman, who has written a book manuscript and is finishing a documentary about the case.
After Lewis’ murder, the West Side remained under the grip of absentee political leadership. No West Side ward elected an alderman independent of the machine until 1979, when Danny Davis won the 29th Ward seat. In the 24th Ward, a succession of Black aldermen served at the pleasure of Horwitz, the de facto ward boss, through the 1970s.
Decades of failed government programs and private sector neglect have left North Lawndale and other West Side neighbourhoods reeling from disinvestment. Across the city, police solve only a fraction of homicides, most of which involve Black victims, and community leaders continue to demand greater police accountability.
About 20 detectives are currently assigned to the Chicago Police Department’s cold case unit. It doesn’t follow a strict protocol in deciding when to reexamine an old case, said department spokesperson Luis Agostini. But given its modest size, he said, “solvability” is a key consideration.
The last activity in the Lewis investigation came in 2000, Agostini said, when a detective made a request for case records.
“We encourage anyone who may have any information related to the murder of Alderman Benjamin Lewis to reach out to Area Detectives,” Agostini wrote in an email, noting police could also be contacted anonymously at CPDtip.com.
Most of the people who might have known what happened to Lewis are ailing or dead; both Gilbert and Horwitz are deceased. Others still don’t want to talk about it. But at a minimum, a new inquiry could reexamine the earlier investigation, laying out what was done and what wasn’t.
“I think it would be a revelation,” Davis said. “Not just in terms of looking at what may have happened, but also understanding that as things change, they also have a tendency to very much remain the same.”
Mick Dumke reports on politics at ProPublica Illinois, with particular interest in housing policies, criminal justice and city and state government.