After being tortured by Chicago police into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit, Eric Caine spent 25 years in prison, but since his exoneration in 2011, he says his nightmare continues due to police harassment in River Forest where he lives.
Caine, 47, said police there have pulled him over repeatedly for traffic violations and once tried to search his home over a false domestic dispute call. He says one officer, Benjamin Laird of the River Forest Police Department, has targeted him for arrest, made racially-charged comments and falsely accused him of assaulting a police officer. Laird arrested Caine twice in July. Caine was arrested on July 15, for resisting a police officer and aggravated assault against Laird, and on July 30 for driving with a suspended license and an open container of alcohol. On the suspended license arrest, Caine was initially stopped for playing his stereo too loud.
James O’Shea, River Forest deputy chief of police, declined comment on the pending criminal cases against Caine, but he said in an email response to questions that River Forest police were not targeting him. He confirmed that Caine also was arrested by the Forest Park police in 2012 for driving under the influence, and by Oak Park police in 2013 for driving with a suspended license.
Caine went public with his charges of harassment on Aug. 1 to David Protess, president of the nonprofit Chicago Innocence Project and a former Medill journalism professor who helped free Caine. Protess wrote about the situation in a column for the Huffington Post. Caine also appeared on the television talk show Windy City Live on Aug. 6, telling host Val Warner, “[Laird] likes to harass me. Because I don’t commit crimes and don’t do anything, there’s nothing for them to really get me on, so he’d get me on traffic stuff.”
Caine was charged as an accessory to double murder in 1986, after he was tortured into confessing by detectives working under former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge — Burge is currently serving a four-and-a-half year sentence for perjury and obstruction of justice. The former commander is accused of torturing hundreds of criminal suspects in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. In July, the Chicago City Council agreed to pay Caine $10 million to settle his police torture lawsuit against the city.
Caine said he first came in contact with River Forest police in the summer of 2012, when he was returning to his apartment on the 1500 block of Bonnie Brae. A squad car pulled up behind him as he turned into the alley. As he walked to his back door, a female officer pulled up and asked, “Do I know you?”
He said the officer asked if he was Eric Caine because she had seen him on TV. “Burge made us all look bad,” she told Caine.
Caine said his trouble in River Forest began in early March, when he was returning home from court. As he turned down an alley to his apartment, he said he was boxed in by a black, unmarked police truck and a River Forest police squad car.
Laird emerged from the truck saying, “Eric Caine, you’re under arrest for driving on a suspended license,” according to Caine, who presented Laird with a restricted driving permit he received from the Illinois Secretary of State. Laird reviewed the permit and left without making an arrest, but Caine said the episode left him with flashbacks of his quarter-century behind bars.
“I was so shook up. After they left, all I did was sit in the car for about 20 minutes. I was crying,” he said. “It was bad. It was real, real bad. I was so, so scared.”
Targeted by police?
Caine said he felt targeted and threatened because Laird knew him by name before seeing his identification. Caine recalled that during the encounter Laird asked him how much he paid for his car, a 2011 Cadillac CTS.
O’Shea responding via email to questions concerning the incident, saying that “Officer Laird was not present and did not stop Mr. Caine in March,” but he did not elaborate.
About a week and a half later, Caine said he was returning to his home and had parked his car in the driveway when a police car pulled up behind him, lights flashing. Caine said he received a speeding ticket that day — from a different officer — but police records show he was cited for failure to signal and use of a lot to avoid a red light.
He said he now believes River Forest police monitor his home, waiting for him to leave or return, so they can pull him over.
“There was no police car with the lights on then when I turned into the alley,” he said.
Police notes on the traffic stop data sheet reveal that Caine had received a restricted driving permit for DUI and that his vehicle was equipped with a breath alcohol ignition interlock device, which tests a driver’s alcohol level before allowing the car the start.
Caine said he came in contact with Laird a second time on the night of March 25, when he appeared at Caine’s apartment on a domestic disturbance call. The police report for the incident notes that a neighbor had complained of arguing coming from the apartment, but Caine said there was no dispute and that he and his girlfriend were entertaining guests that night.
“[Laird] said, ‘I’m going to have to come in to see for myself anyway,'” Caine recalled, but his girlfriend assured Laird that no domestic violence had occurred. Satisfied with the explanation, Laird told them to keep the noise down and left.
Laird arrested Caine almost four months later, on the morning of July 15, when police questioned him and friend Marvin Reeves, 53, another exonerated Burge torture victim who spent 21 years in prison after being forced to confess to murdering five people.
Reeves said in an interview that he and Caine were sleeping in Reeves’ car in front of Caine’s apartment at roughly 3 a.m., when Laird approached and questioned the two. Reeves was the designated driver that evening and said that when they returned to Caine’s home, Caine had been drinking and was tired and needed to “rest up a few minutes” before going into the apartment.
Reeves, who was in the driver’s seat, passed a field sobriety test and was released. Caine said he insisted on calling his lawyer but that Laird took his cellphone and put him in handcuffs.
After speaking with Reeves, Laird returned “and starts screaming and hollering, ‘Sit down! Sit down!'” Caine recalled.
“I said, ‘Officer, can I call my attorney? I want to call my attorney,'” Caine said. “So I wind up on the ground sitting down on my back. My weight had tightened the cuffs around my wrists, so it was hurting me.”
Caine recalled, “If I didn’t stop screaming and hollering [he said] he was going to arrest Marvin.”
Caine was later charged with resisting arrest and aggravated assault of a police officer.
“They claim that I actually, literally swung at him and that’s absolutely not true,” Caine insists. The police report states that Caine was “interfering with a DUI investigation and acted in a manner that gave Officer Laird a reasonable fear of receiving a battery.”
At an Aug. 2 hearing, Caine’s attorney, Brian Barrido, requested police audio and video recordings of the arrest, but was told by police that the Laird’s dashboard video camera was not on during the incident. Deputy Police Chief O’Shea declined to comment on the pending case but said the officer “was within compliance of state law and department policy regarding [the] camera.”
“Mr. Caine has provided his version to the media,” O’Shea added.
Barrido said he also subpoenaed audio from the station the night Caine was arrested. Caine claims that Laird taunted him, asking, “Why aren’t you driving your pretty car?” and, “Why can’t you act like normal blacks?”
Barrido also has requested video of Caine’s arrest on July 30. Laird pulled Caine over on the 700 block of North Harlem for playing his stereo too loud. He was arrested and charged with noise violation, driving with a suspended license and carrying an open container of alcohol.
Caine declined to comment about the July 30 arrest, saying only that he is contesting the charge. He said he plans to leave River Forest as soon as possible and move back to Oak Park, where he said he feels safe from police.
O’Shea has said publicly that Caine has never filed a complaint against the River Forest police.
Asked why he felt he was being targeted by police, Caine said he could only speculate, “but, I have a strong belief that it’s a combination of solidarity with law enforcement as well as … the state’s need to purge the suburbs of who they consider undesirable.”