There was a moment of thunderous applause at the January 2012 funeral for slain Chicago police Officer Clifton Lewis.
Former Chicago police Supterintendent Garry McCarthy vowed before crowds of police officers and other mourners at United Missionary Baptist Church to bring Lewis’ killers to justice. His promise drew loud claps at the otherwise solemn ceremony.
McCarthy’s pledge seemed to come true in short order. Two days later, two of the three men who would ultimately be charged were held without bail in the Dec. 29, 2011, fatal attack on Lewis during a botched robbery at a West Side convenience store. The third suspect was charged nearly two years later, in November 2013.
But after more than a decade, justice appears elusive.
The case has been dogged by allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct. Defense attorneys have accused police officers of coercing confessions and prosecutors of hiding evidence. The three men accused in the case, Alexander Villa, Tyrone Clay and Edgardo Colon, maintain their innocence.
“My heart goes out to the family,” said Lovetta Maxwell, Clay’s mother. “Justice is not being served.”
The case has grown more contentious in recent months amid a protracted fight over evidence production and calls from the defense to hold police and prosecutors in contempt of court. A judge overseeing two of the cases has increasingly voiced consternation as one of the defendants, Clay, has spent more than 10 years awaiting trial.
A spokesperson for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said the office does not comment on pending litigation.
But in a surprise move last month, Foxx’s office assigned new prosecutors to the case, removing Andrew Varga and Nancy Adduci, who is also tasked with screening cases for wrongful convictions as the head of the Conviction Integrity Unit. The office noted in a statement that “motions alleging prosecutorial misconduct are pending,” but said the court has not ruled on them.
Lewis, 41, was a towering figure at about 6-foot-6, described by a fellow officer as a “gentle giant.” He was kind and low-key, a homebody who loved his two pitbulls and a siamese cat, his fiancee said.
He was working a second job as a security guard at M & M Quick Foods, 1201 N. Austin Blvd., when he was shot by two masked men who charged into the store to rob it.
He had proposed to Tamara Tucker on Christmas, just days before he was killed. He also left behind his mother, three sisters, an 11-year-old daughter and Tucker’s son, who looked at Lewis like a father.
“He was the sweetest person ever,” Tucker told the Tribune.
Richie Driver walked into the M & M Quick Foods to buy a soda and a lottery ticket that evening, he testified at the 2019 trial for Villa. He watched as two masked men burst into the shop and brandished guns.
“The first gentleman … he pulls up this Uzi, starts just knocking stuff over on the front counter,” he testified. “He’s trying to hop over this counter, and I’m still looking at everything like this (has) got to be a joke.”
Shocked, he quickly left the store. Just outside, he heard four to six gunshots.
Later that night, swarms of officers showed up at Tucker’s home. The three who came to the door had tears in their eyes, Tucker said.
“You need to come with us,” she recalled the officers telling her. “Clifton has been shot.”
Within a few days, McCarthy, who was fired in 2015 after the release of video of the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, said detectives had “significant leads” in the case but pleaded with the public for help.
On Jan. 1, 2012, a CPD gang unit got a new directive.
“Gang Enforcement in Area 5 will work ONLY the Officer Lewis homicide until I direct otherwise,” according to a memo included in a defense exhibit. “We WILL get the offenders in this homicide. Thank you for all the hard work you have done so far on this case and the work you will be doing. Now let’s do what we do best. Go get these cowards!!!!!!”
Two days later, detectives seemingly had a break in the case when Colon was arrested on Jan. 3, 2012 for having an illegal gun, according to court documents. Police and prosecutors have said Colon told officers he had information about Lewis’ killing.
On the same day, police received a tip that alleged that the Spanish Cobras street gang was involved in the killing, a defense motion contended.
Clay was arrested Jan. 5, 2012, and like Colon, police and prosecutors have said, made incriminating statements about Lewis’ killing.
The matter spawned a sprawling, multiagency investigation into the Spanish Cobras street gang, called Operation Snake Doctor.
“Due to the involvement of the Spanish Cobras street gang in this murder, an all-out effort has been initiated against this gang for the purpose of generating witnesses or others who may have information that may lead to the arrest and conviction of the last offender,” according to a Jan. 25, 2012 police memo that referenced the arrest of Colon and Clay, but noted detectives still sought a third person.
Of the third person, a Jan. 27, 2012, email from a CPD officer included in court exhibits said: “Our main targets are the 6-7 guys on that small chart that surround Alexander Villa.”
Operation Snake Doctor resulted in 122 arrests, 99 confidential drug buys and a slew of informants, according to court documents.
Almost two years later, prosecutors charged Villa as the third defendant in the killing.
McCarthy called Tucker to deliver the news himself.
Colon went to trial first in 2017, with prosecutors alleging he was the getaway driver for Clay and Villa, who they said were the masked men who shot Lewis and robbed the convenience store.
Police testified that Colon implicated himself and his two co-defendants after he was arrested in the gun case.
“All of a sudden he starts crying,” Al Perez, then a Chicago police sergeant, testified at Colon’s trial. “He said, ‘Can I see my girlfriend one more time because I’m going to go to jail for life.’”
That exchange between Colon and Perez was not captured on interrogation video, according to Tribune coverage of the trial. But prosecutors showed footage of subsequent interviews with detectives in which Colon admitted to driving Villa and Clay to rob the store.
His defense attorney, during the trial, implied that Colon was coerced into the statement, and Colon has since recanted it.
A jury convicted Colon, and Cook County Judge Erica Reddick sentenced him to 84 years in prison.
Villa went to trial in 2019. Among witnesses, prosecutors put on the stand a woman who said she overheard Villa boast to her boyfriend that he killed a cop. She testified that she came forward more than a year later because she was afraid.
Prosecutors also read grand jury testimony from a fourth man who they said was in a car with Colon, Clay and Villa on the night of Lewis’ killing. The man, though, said authorities fed him the testimony he gave to a grand jury in 2012.
Prosecutors also sought testimony from Colon, who was already serving his 84-year sentence in the Lewis murder. They offered a grant of immunity that meant prosecutors couldn’t use anything he said in court against him.
“You are required to answer questions,” Cook County Judge James Linn told Colon, warning him he could be held in contempt and face another six to 30 years in prison. “Are you going to answer the questions?”
“No, your honor,” Colon said, according to Tribune archives.
Colon was held in contempt and sentenced to a six years in prison, to run concurrent with his 84-year term, court records show.
Villa was convicted in a late night verdict.
By 2020, the 10-year anniversary of Lewis’ death was looming. The officer’s daughter, 11 at the time, was a young adult. And the cases against the men charged in Lewis’ murder were unraveling, with serious questions raised about how police handled the investigation.
In September 2020, an Illinois appeals court reversed Colon’s conviction, sending the case back to the trial court to be retried.
The high court found that Colon made “two unequivocal requests for counsel” that police ignored during a more than 50-hour interrogation. His statements made to police should have been suppressed, the court ruled.
At one point, Colon told detectives, according to the appellate court order, “I’m implicating myself because I wanna get out of here.”
In a notarized affidavit given on July 27, 2022, Colon said police officers asked him about Lewis’ slaying when he was brought to the station on the gun case. He said the detectives fed him details, made him promises and threatened that his mother would lose her Section 8 housing and his child would be taken from her mother.
“I read an article in the paper about the case the morning I was arrested,” Colon said in the affidavit. “That was the only way I knew about the officer’s murder.”
The Illinois appeals court also in 2020 agreed with a trial judge that the incriminating statements made by Clay, who is the only defendant who hasn’t yet gone to trial, should also be suppressed. The court found that Clay did not “knowingly or intelligently” waive his Miranda rights when he was questioned for two days by police.
Clay’s attorneys had argued that he has “limited intelligence and verbal comprehension.”
Though Villa has been convicted, he has not been sentenced and has filed a motion for a new trial.
“In securing Alexander Villa’s conviction, the Chicago Police Department destroyed or secreted exculpatory evidence in street files, wrote false police reports, failed to document critical steps in their investigation, and coerced witnesses,” the motion alleged. “This misconduct has contaminated CPD’s entire investigation such that Villa’s convictions should be immediately vacated.”
The 11th anniversary of Lewis’ death came and went this past December while the cases stretch on.
Defense attorneys have alleged that police and prosecutors concealed evidence, leading to a court battle that has pulled in federal authorities who played a role in Operation Snake Doctor.
Attorneys filed a motion in December that accused the assistant state’s attorneys on the case of using personal email addresses in communications with the Chicago Police Department to withhold evidence and asked Judge Reddick to levy sanctions against the prosecutors.
They accused the prosecutors of sending two CPD detectives an email in August 2012 using a private email address that referenced an analysis of cell tower data, even though they said that analysis was not produced to the defense until 2022.
Colon’s attorneys have argued that the cellphone analysis shows that Colon’s phone was 3 miles from the shooting and that the alleged accomplices’ phones were not together on the day Lewis was killed, supporting Colon’s assertion that he is innocent.
The prosecutors, though, have said it is “disingenuous at best” to say that analysis prove anyone’s innocence, since a new examination performed this year indicates that the 2012 analysis stated the wrong times for Colon’s phone. They also have said that they previously supplied the underlying documentation for the cell analysis to Clay’s defense in 2013.
Clay’s attorneys also say that a video game console that could provide an alibi for Clay, who they say was home playing games during the shooting, is not currently working. Defense attorneys have accused prosecutors of “keeping and corrupting the machine.”
The defense attorneys have also accused prosecutors of withholding rafts of documents related to Operation Snake Doctor, which could aid in the defense of their clients.
Among the Snake Doctor documents they seek are records of conversations with informants that could point to different perpetrators, defense motions contend.
Colon’s attorneys learned about some of the documents when they were produced to Villa’s attorney — but not them, they argued. One of the documents included as an exhibit, an email, relayed that an informant told police that the Four Corner Hustlers street gang possibly were responsible, and had mistaken Lewis for a different target.
The informant reported to police a conversation they overheard: “Oh man, they got the wrong officer, that’s a new one working there, they was trying to get the officer that shot “Fo” in the neck three weeks ago … they shot the wrong officer.”
Prosecutors and city attorneys are sifting through the Operation Snake Doctor documents in order to hand over relevant material, slowed by federal prosecutors who entered the tussle to say the city can’t hand over some of the documentation related to federal investigations.
“Any documents that CPD officers obtained in that role (and that remain in CPD custody) are presumably covered by federal grand jury secrecy rules, and their unauthorized disclosure is prohibited by federal law, which can be punished by the federal court as contempt,” said a December letter to the city signed by Northern District U.S. Attorney John Lausch.
Reddick has expressed displeasure at the delays in turning over evidence, as city attorneys work to untangle the relevant evidence in the Lewis case from documents that may be prohibited from disclosure under federal law.
“The length of time this case has been going on is unconscionable,” Reddick said during a recent hearing.
At a hearing last month, Clay’s attorneys pressed for his release, pointing to what they said were problems in the case and arguing that he has been an exemplary prisoner.
Clay put his head down when Reddick denied bail, as his mother, from the gallery, tried to soothe him.
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“I haven’t touched my son in 11 years,” Maxwell told the Tribune.
Colon is free while he awaits his new trial, but Villa remains incarcerated.
Maxwell grieves for Lewis and his family, and believes the officer’s killer is still out there. If her son did kill him, she said, she would want him to face the consequences. She even once turned her son over to the police for stealing when he was younger.
“Everyone deserves to be punished for things that they do, but you don’t take innocent people and punish them for things they haven’t done, that’s not right” she said. “They are trying to protect their people to the point where they would throw a Black, poor man under the bus.”
Tucker, Lewis’ fiancee, also is in pain as she watches the case drag into its second decade, though she believes police nabbed the right people.
“We still have to endure over and over going to court. … It’s been 11 years,” she said.