What's Past is Present

A town long linked to organized crime and racism fails a recent exercise in image rehabilitation

Cicero, a working-class Chicago suburb of narrow streets and small brick bungalows, has the feel of a town stuck in the 1950s, which is not entirely unintentional. Indeed, Betty Loren-Maltese, the town's president since 1993, said recently, "I want things how they used to be." Cicero, which was until this past decade an enclave for Lithuanians, Italians, and Czechs, has for a long time lived in a kind of bubble, wary of outsiders, protective of what it has—or, more precisely, what it had.

Most associate the town with Al Capone, who ran his operations from here and who in 1924 commandeered the local election with a brutal show of force. It's an association that irritates townspeople, especially because it's always the first thing the media have to say about the place (this dispatch further proving that dictum). In 1952 Cicero considered changing its name, because, according to the town's lawyer, "People everywhere think we're just a bunch of hoods. A kid from Cicero can't get into a college fraternity." As recently as 1993 the town, still hoping to divert reporters from the Capone link, raised banners calling itself the "Original birthplace of Ernest Hemingway." (Hemingway actually hailed from nearby Oak Park—which in 1899 was technically a part of Cicero.) Defensiveness about Capone is understandable, and yet over the years town leaders have retained connections to the mob—or at least to what's left of it. Betty Loren-Maltese was married to a bookmaker for the syndicate. Her husband, Frank Maltese, who was also the town assessor, died before he could be sent to prison. So the anti-Capone sentiment seems misplaced, not least because the other reason for Cicero's notoriety is, by most measures, even more embarrassing.

Cicero long had a policy of no blacks allowed, as strongly adhered to as anything in the Jim Crow South. For years the town was among the most adept in the nation at keeping out African-Americans. Old-time Lithuanians and Italians I've spoken with have told me that when they were kids, if a black person passed through town they'd run him out, at the behest of the police. In 1951 the governor of Illinois had to call in the National Guard when a mob threw rocks and chunks of metal into the second-floor apartment of a black bus driver and his family, who had just moved in. With town cops looking on, the mob eventually stormed the apartment and pushed the family's piano through a brick wall. In 1967 Martin Luther King Jr., who was leading his open-housing campaign in Chicago, rescinded his threat to march in Cicero after county officials told him they couldn't guarantee his safety there. King referred to the town as the Selma of the North.

With this dark history in mind I sat in on a recent civil trial that pitted a former police chief, David Niebur, and his deputy, Phillip Bue, against the town and its president. Despite its rather narrow legal implications (Niebur and Bue argued that they'd been wrongfully fired), this case offers an unusually intimate window onto this infamous community as its old guard struggles to preserve its way of life and to keep outsiders at bay.

Loren-Maltese personifies Cicero. She affects a look that harks back to the 1950s, making her perhaps the most easily recognizable politician in the state. A full-figured woman, she wears her black hair in a pompadour and applies thick black mascara and lengthy eyelashes. She is highly quotable (when she agrees to talk to the press), and also highly combustible—which is why her handlers often keep her away from reporters. A local columnist once wrote, "She's a headline." Loren-Maltese named the town's public-safety building after her late husband, a convicted felon. When the Ku Klux Klan announced plans to march through town, she raised $10,000 to pay them to cancel the rally. (She also offered to have town employees distribute Klan literature.) She responded to street gangs in Cicero with heavy-handed—illegal, according to the American Civil Liberties Union—tactics, which included impounding the cars of suspected gang members. Although Loren-Maltese is often a source of amusement for outsiders, her political skills shouldn't be underestimated. Over the past decade Cicero's ethnic character has changed dramatically. Hispanics moved in, slowly at first, and then in large numbers; according to a recent census, the town is now three-quarters Latino. ("Well, they're not black," one resident told me, explaining the lack of resistance to Hispanics.) And although this might suggest that Loren-Maltese's political base has eroded, she has been re-elected twice, most recently last April, when she defeated a Hispanic opponent by a two-to-one margin. She has included Hispanics in her administration, but her shrewdest move—or so it seemed at the time—was to hire an out-of-towner to reform the police department, which many Hispanics felt treated them unfairly.

In December of 1997 Niebur, a square-jawed and silver-haired thirty-five-year police veteran who was then the chief of police in Joplin, Missouri, became Cicero's police chief. Niebur, who is now fifty-eight, is a crime-history buff, so when he was first approached about the job, by an outside agency, he told the inquirer, "You've got to be stark raving mad." But then he got to thinking what a challenge Cicero would be—and with its population of 85,616, it was a larger community than Joplin. Moreover, Loren-Maltese personally assured Niebur that she wanted corruption in the department cleaned up. For a town long wary of outsiders, it seemed like an odd appointment, but Loren-Maltese believed it was the only way to rein in her police department.

Even before Niebur arrived, agents from the FBI were in touch with him. They suspected Cicero police officers of shaking down illegal immigrants, among other things. And Niebur soon learned that the anti-gang unit was arresting young Hispanics who were loitering on street corners. "There was an unchecked war on the Hispanic community," Niebur told me. So one of the first things he did was require forty-five of his officers to take Spanish lessons. And he suspended or fired some officers he suspected of illicit activity.

Niebur also confronted organized crime. In a sting operation he confiscated video-poker machines from allegedly mob-connected taverns and put them in a secured room. A few days later someone with a key entered the room, unlocked the machines, and made off with thousands of dollars.

All through this Loren-Maltese publicly praised Niebur. At one point she told a local reporter, "The new chief has literally turned the morale of the department around. There is a different atmosphere, a new beginning of sorts."

And then came his undoing. A couple of months into his stay Niebur began receiving complaints from residents about the town's unusually aggressive towing policy. The town tows roughly 18,000 vehicles a year; by comparison, the suburb of Evanston, which has nearly the same population as Cicero, tows a quarter of that number. Shortly before Niebur's arrival Cicero had awarded its sole towing contract—a lucrative deal at $500 a tow—to a newly incorporated company that Niebur began to suspect had ties to town officials. Then Bue, another out-of-towner, who was hired shortly after Niebur, caught one of the towing firm's owners riffling through the police department's towing records. The FBI soon subpoenaed Niebur and Bue to testify before a grand jury. Niebur turned the documents over to the state police and notified the FBI. Assisting the feds, the ultimate outsiders, didn't go down well with Cicero's old guard. Niebur testified that the town's attorney had said to him, "You're not cooperating with those fuck'n assholes, are you?" A few days later Loren-Maltese fired Niebur and Bue, publicly calling Niebur "stupid" and a "nitwit." When Niebur's belongings were sent to him after he returned to Joplin, among them was a gift from his nephew—a figurine of a police officer holding the hand of a lost boy. The head of the police officer had been twisted off and laid neatly in the Styrofoam packing.

Loren-Maltese made two appearances at the two-week trial, last May. On the second occasion she wore an electric-purple pantsuit. She testified that she had fired Niebur for mismanagement and because he had essentially disbanded the anti-gang unit. Loren-Maltese quickly assumed control of the proceedings from the witness stand and began sparring with Niebur and Bue's attorney. "Why do you only want the part of the answer that you think suits you?" she shot back at one point. The judge later chastised Loren-Maltese for a "really offensive" performance.

In the end the jury awarded Niebur and Bue $1.7 million, a judgment that Loren-Maltese and the town are appealing. But this saga is hardly over. In a town that has for decades tried to insulate itself from the world, the walls are finally crumbling. In June, not even a month after the verdict in Niebur and Bue's case, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois announced the indictment of Loren-Maltese, along with nine others, for allegedly looting Cicero of more than $10 million, funneling it through a mob-run insurance brokerage company. If convicted, Loren-Maltese faces up to forty-eight years in prison. The trial is scheduled for May.

One would think that this news, along with losing to Niebur and Bue, might quiet Loren-Maltese, but during her first public appearance after her arrest (she was presiding over a town-hall meeting), when confronted by a longtime critic, she snapped, "Why don't you shut up and let the people speak!" An elderly woman then rose and brought Loren-Maltese to tears by praising her for all she'd done for Cicero.