Jeff Fort, cofounder of the South Side gang Black P Stones (formerly the Blackstone Rangers), is serving consecutive sentences totaling 168 years in prison for agreeing to commit domestic terrorism in return for $2.5 million from Libya, ordering his followers to kill a rival, and trafficking drugs. But in the ’60s, well before those ’80s convictions, he was a supposedly reformed gang leader entrusted with nearly $1 million in federal funds to oversee job training to get others like him out of the life. He was even invited to Richard Nixon’s 1969 inauguration. In his own community, he was hailed a hero, as Tom Brune and James Ylisela Jr. detailed in their 1988 Chicago story, “The Making of Jeff Fort.”
It was Fort’s charisma, and his amazing recruiting skills, that made him special. He traveled with an entourage, wearing snappy clothes that dictated neighborhood fashion, and when he walked by Woodlawn’s elementary schools, kids on the playground would pile up along the fence just to get a look at him. Fort was like a godfather, giving shoes to kids who needed them, finding homes for families who were evicted.
Fort’s descent began with his 1972 conviction for misusing those grant funds. Then he was sent back to prison in 1983 for drug trafficking, and set up the Libyan deal from there. These days, Fort is under a “no human contact” order at his supermax facility in Colorado. (One of the few exceptions was a visit by Bobby Rush in 2015, a much-criticized effort by the congressman to get Fort’s input on solutions to Chicago’s gun violence.) As Brune and Ylisela wrote, “the worst part of the nightmare of Jeff Fort is wondering if he could have turned out differently.”
Read the full story below.
The Making of Jeff Fort
The most feared man in Chicago was once a shining figure of hope. But the road to jail is paved with good intentions.
A dignified black woman in a dark dress walked slowly into the crowded funeral home, her pace slowing as she turned toward the room where her 39-year-old son lay in an open casket. As she caught sight of his body, she drew a quick breath and fainted. Three more times on that muggy June afternoon, she would collapse in cries of anguish and grief, screaming, “My Bennie’s gone, he’s gone away!”
After three decades of bloody street-gang wars, Annie Bacon is no stranger to violence. Her seven sons and three daughters were in the thick of those wars, but though hundreds lost their lives, they’d always been spared. Now, however, after a personal argument that ended with the flash of a knife, her third-oldest son, Bennie Fort, lay dead.
Well-wishers filed by the casket, paying their last respects. One member of the family was conspicuously absent: Annie Bacon’s second son, locked in Cook County Jail, awaiting trial for murder.
After about an hour, the Reverend Gregory Daniels approached a lectern. In a far-reaching preacher’s voice he began to speak, then stopped abruptly and turned to confer with three or four men in Islamic dress. Daniels stepped back, and a call went out. “All the mosaliques, please come forward.”
Men from their teens to their 50s, all wearing prayer caps and varying degrees of Islamic garb, gathered around the casket. Their backs to the room, they chanted in responsive chorus a series of Islamic prayers in Arabic. Ten minutes later they finished, saying in English, “Those who Allah causes to die, let them die in the faith.” Then without a further word, they left the room. The Christian service started again, as if nothing had happened.
Afterwards, the mourners mingled outside, watched by passersby and a few undercover policemen. A television crew — drawn not by Bennie, but by the men who chanted the Arabic prayers and by their leader, Bennie’s absent brother — scurried across Stony Island for a glimpse of Annie Bacon being helped into a limousine for the trip to the cemetery. As the cameras rolled, Jeff Fort’s mother climbed back out of the car, and promptly fainted.
A few hours later, Rich Kolovitz sat in a booth at a police hangout on the Southwest Side, setting the record straight about Jeff Fort. Kolovitz seemed reluctant at first, answering questions brusquely and in a monotone. But his interest was too keen, his emotional investment far too great for him to hold back for long. Soon, the stories flowed as easily as the Rolling Rock beer and he tales, and he tells quite a few himself. The conversation lasted as long as the bar stayed open, and then spilled out into the parking lot.
Nearly every cop who has worked the South Side boasts of arresting Jeff Fort, or beating the hell out of him. The stories can be even more outrageous: Fort jumped on his victims from trees, you’ll hear. He patterned himself after Hitler, threatened to kill Jesse Jackson, and made Richard Speck his “main squeeze” in prison. Most of the stories are unprovable, Kolovitz concedes. Like the murder estimate. “Jeff Fort is directly or indirectly responsible for 500 to 1,000 murders,” Kolovitz flatly states, though he knows Fort has yet to be convicted for a single slaying.
Still, nobody knows the El Rukns like Kolovitz and his partner, Sergeant Daniel Brannigan — known by gang members as “Blondie.” The two Irish cops (Kolovitz’s mother is Irish) have been fighting I eff Fort since they were students at Mount Carmel High School in Woodlawn and the Blackstone Rangers ruled the neighborhood. They’ve spent 12 years of their police careers pursuing the El Rukns.
The bar was emptying out, but Kolovitz was just getting started. Once, he recalled, the duo raided an El Rukn — owned apartment building in the middle of the night. In the confusion, several El Rukns rushed down the hall and pinned Brannigan in a corner, guns cocked and pointed at his head. Luckily, Kolovitz says, Fort came running down the hall, wearing only his underwear. Kolovitz, who had ducked into an empty apartment, says he grabbed Fort and stuck a gun in his armpit. “I told him, ‘Let him go or you’re dead.’
“Danny and I are the El Rukn personal policemen,” Kolovitz says with more than a little pride. Over the years, he and his partner got to know Fort so well that they would often stop to talk with him on the street outside the El Rukn mosque at 39th and Drexel. It was during one of those conversations, Kolovitz says, that putting Fort in jail became more than a job. “Fort told me, ‘Lumberjack, you ain’t never going to put me away,’ ” Kolovitz says. “More than anything else, that spurred us on.”
At 41, Jeff Fort is the nightmare of the 1960s that just won’t go away. He made his reputation in that tumultuous decade as one of the leaders of the Blackstone Rangers street gang and its successor, the Black P Stone Nation. Hated and harassed by the police, admired and feared by thousands of poor black kids, embraced and funded by well-intentioned idealists trying to end gang violence and attack poverty and racism, he played a role in the lives of some of the biggest names in town: Richard J. Daley and his son, Charles Percy, Jim Thompson, James Montgomery, Jane Byrne, and Jesse Jackson, to name a few.
Fort’s potential for good or bad was once hotly debated, but by 1970, his detractors had won. Since then, his story has been told almost exclusively by police and prosecutors. Law enforcement agencies have spent millions to destroy his group and imprison him forever. They may finally have succeeded. Last year, Fort was sentenced to 80 years in prison as the first man in the United States to be convicted of terrorism.
But police and prosecutors aren’t taking anything for granted. The Cook County state’s attorney is trying Fort on charges that he ordered the murder of reputed dope dealer Willie Bibbs. The El Rukns are tangled in an alleged murder-for-hire scheme that also resulted in the indictment of black businessman Noah Robinson. And sources say Federal prosecutors will likely bring new charges of heroin trafficking and racketeering against Fort any time now.
Many of Jeff Fort’s supporters from the old days are still around, but they are reluctant to talk about him. When they do, they sometimes slip into a reverie about an era in which every year seemed like a decade. They all describe him in the same way: charismatic, street smart, diplomatic, an organizational genius, a true leader.
For them, the worst part of the nightmare of Jeff Fort is wondering if he could have turned out differently.
Jeff Fort was born on February 20, 1947, in Aberdeen, Mississippi, the second of ten children born to Annie and John Lee Fort, who made their living by picking cotton. The Forts migrated to Chicago in 1955, and John Lee went to work for U.S. Steel.
Annie Bacon (who divorced and remarried 15 years ago) says her family first moved to 22nd Street and Cottage Grove, but soon relocated to Woodlawn. At some point the Forts moved into “Big Red,” a red brick building at 6536 South Blackstone Avenue, by the corner where the Blackstone Rangers gang was born.
Jeff enrolled at Scott Elementary School, 64th and Blackstone.
“The Forts were very attractive people,” says a former teacher at Scott. “Political and organizational sense must have run in the family. Jeff’s eyes had that brown-eyed commanding presence that drew you in. I liked Jeff. I don’t like what he did, but I liked him.”
Somehow, school officials never quite picked up on his abilities. One teacher recalls he had reading problems and may have been dyslexic. (He still is considered a functional illiterate.) Another teacher says Fort may have been put in a class for the educable mentally handicapped. He didn’t stay in school long.
Like so many ghetto kids, Fort hit the streets and found trouble. He was sent to the youth correctional center in St. Charles. In 1962, he was paroled. On September 23, 1964, Fort was arrested as an adult for robbery, the first of some 45 entries on a rap sheet that would grow to be four and a half pages long. (Fort has had a dozen convictions; only four of them — three for conspiracy, one for jumping bail — led to his serving prison terms.)
Former juvenile parole officer Ron Townsel remembers Fort as a quiet, unassuming 15-year-old who answered questions politely but never said more than was necessary. But there was another side to Jeff Fort. Teachers say the scrawny 140-pounder broke up fights “like a cyclone,” oblivious to physical harm. Violence was the norm in Woodlawn, and Fort was known to be ruthless. “Jeff had the reputation as someone who could kill a brick,” says attorney James Montgomery.
It was Fort’s charisma, and his amazing recruiting skills, that made him special. He traveled with an entourage, wearing snappy clothes that dictated neighborhood fashion, and when he walked by Woodlawn’s elementary schools, kids on the playground would pile up along the fence just to get a look at him. Fort was like a godfather, givng shoes to kids who needed them, finding homes for families who were evicted.
Fort’s unusual hold over hundreds of young boys attracted the attention of Ed Woods, a youth worker who arrived at the Woodlawn Boys Club in late 1963. Woods was trying to get the gangs off the streets and into the gymnasiums, but he heeded bodies, so he went to see Jeff Fort.
“It was around ’64 or he says. “I went to house and met his mother. I told them what I wanted to do. I had 20 guys. The next day I had 200.”
“Anyone who saw Jeff Fort handle the little kids got the impression that he was a substitute big brother,” says Dan Swope, director of the Boys Club at the time.
“He wasn’t much older than the kids who admired him, but he appeared to be older,” says Swope. “There are tough kids who have seen more of life than most of us ever see. They have middle-aged eyes but young faces. Jeff was one of those kids.”
Chicago’s West Side was in flames on April 5, 1968, the day after the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot. In Woodlawn, officials at Mount Carmel High School, 64th and Dante, ended classes early and ordered CTA buses to take the 700 white students out of the neighborhood. Without warning, a long line of Blackstone Rangers surrounded the buses and began rocking them.
“I thought they were going to tip them over,” recalls former Scott School principal Norman Silber, who watched the scene from his office window.” But then Fort raised his arm again and they stopped, did an about-face, and marched right back. He controlled them like a general in the army.”
After the buses were loaded, the Rangers lined 64th Street for two or three blocks. Fort was atop a mailbox. As each bus drove by, he held up a long stick and the Rangers roared a deafening “Blackstone!”
“It was incredible theatre,” says the Reverend Tracy O’Sullivan, pastor of St. Clara — St. Cyril Roman Catholic Church, at 64th and Woodlawn. “He decided right on the spot that it would be wrong to attack the school. He was reading the scene beyond the emotion of revenge and saying, ‘How can I use this to further my power?’ ”
“The guy was a genius. I never had a doubt about that from seeing him in operation,” says O’Sullivan.
Between 1958 and 1964, O’Sullivan explains, Woodlawn had changed from white to black and doubled in size, with 80,000 people crammed into houses and apartments that were meant for 40,000. Suddenly, there were seven times as many children as before, and turf, any turf, became their overriding passion. Block by block, Woodlawn’s gangs laid claim to their own patch of grass and cement.
Under Fort’s guidance, the Blackstone Rangers grew from a handful of kids on a street corner to an estimated 200 members in 1965, 1,500 in 1966, and 3,000 in 1967. The following year, Ranger president Eugene “Bull” Hairston went to prison, and Jeff Fort, his second in command, inherited a 5,000-member confederation of street gangs that stretched from 31st Street to South Shore. Fort renamed the gang the Black P Stone Nation. (According to the gang, the “P” stood for “peace, prosperity, people, and power.”)
The Rangers spent most of their time fighting their archrivals, the East Side Disciples, in bloody turf wars that claimed dozens of lives. Fort negotiated many peace treaties, but they never lasted.
In late 1964, a white minister named John Fry became the pastor of the historic First Presbyterian Church of Chicago, at 64th and Kimbark. To quell gang wars, Fry opened his church to the Blackstone Rangers. Soon foundations and not-for-profit organizations, such as the Kettering Foundation, the Community Renewal Society, and the W. Clement Stone Foundation, rushed in with grants to help channel the gang’s power into positive community action.
Charles LaPaglia, a youth worker at the church, held leadership training sessions with the Rangers. But LaPaglia says he and Fry wound up learning more from Jeff Fort than they could ever have taught him. One story seems especially to have struck him: When Fort was 13, LaPaglia says, he tried to take the area around 63rd and Stony Island and turn it into “the Enchanted City.”
“It was ironic,” LaPaglia says. “That area was really the lowest of the low, where all the prostitutes hung out. The Enchanted City had sort of magical powers. [Fort believed that] they could all organize around the idea and develop rules of interaction, like respecting the little kids, the Junebugs. They would all be part of the Enchanted City.”
But the Enchanted City never happened, and gang violence continued. Police raided First Presbyterian, and confiscated several guns the Rangers had turned over to Fry in a gang truce. But the damage was done, and the church was labeled “the arsenal for the Blackstone Rangers.”
In 1967, two radically different solutions to the gang violence were advanced. The police created a ten-man Gang Intelligence Unit to break up the gangs. And a fledgling black community group called The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) got a $927,341 Federal grant to start a gang-run job training program that would provide classes to 800 Rangers and Disciples.
James Montgomery vividly recalls the first time he met Jeff Fort. The year was 1971. Richard Nixon was in the White House and the U.S. attorney for northern Illinois was a young, ambitious Republican named James R. Thompson. The War on Poverty was over; the war on the Left was in full swing. Just two years earlier, Senator Charles Percy had praised Jeff Fort as a bright young man who should enter politics and had invited him to Nixon’s inauguration. (Fort sent two lieutenants in his place.) But by 1971, the party was over.
Montgomery would later serve as Mayor Harold Washington’s corporation counsel, but in 1971 he was a young lawyer in what he calls his “black rage” days, defending Black Panthers and civil rights leaders. One day, Montgomery recalls, he held an impromptu press conference on the courthouse steps, lashing out at the white Establishment. Afterwards, he was approached by two young black men.
“Jim, you hate those motherfuckers as much as we do,” Jeff Fort said. “Why don’t you represent us?”
Fort needed a good lawyer. The TWO job training program had turned into a scandal, and in March, Jim Thompson had indicted Fort and 23 Stones on conspiring to defraud the U.S. Government. Montgomery was intrigued by the government’s case. It read like a blueprint for a right-wing counterattack on the liberalism of the 1960s: Destroy one of the last vestiges of the War on Poverty and put away a young man who posed a threat to Mayor Daley’s tight rein on black Chicago — all in one neat, orderly showcase of a trial.
The TWO program was in trouble the start. Mayor Daley, reportedly furious that the Feds had bypassed City Hall and funded TWO directly, refused to approve the organization’s choice of a director.
“Daley knew how gangs operated. He had been in one himself,” says Kenneth Addison, an associate professor of education at Northeastern Illinois University and an expert on Chicago gangs. “Fort had circumvented the Machine. Daley knew the threat Fort and his followers represented, so he stayed on their asses.”
Daley’s strategy was to harass the gangs at every turn and jail their leaders. The Gang Intelligence Unit staged repeated raids on TWO’s training centers. Fort was arrested for murder and kept in jail for five months, until March 1968, when the charges against him were dropped.
More important, in December 1967, the Chicago Tribune, acting on a police tip, charged TWO with mismanagement and the Blackstone Rangers with extortion. The stories scared off corporations that had pledged to hire the program’s trainees, its supporters say.
In the summer of 1968, Senator John McClellan (D-Arkansas) held dramatic hearings on the TWO program. When Fort was called as a witness, his attorney, Marshall Patner, advised him not to testify. Fort rose, clenched his fist, and stalked out of the room. He was cited for contempt of Congress, and later convicted.
Criminal charges seemed imminent. But in fact it took nearly four years and a Republican administration to indict anybody. And then the grand jury brought charges only against Blackstone Rangers. Some of the East Side Disciples became key witnesses for the prosecution.
No one really disputed the allegation that the Rangers had been pocketing government money. That was the point of the program, Montgomery argued. Gang bangers were being paid to stay off the streets and to stop killing one another, he said at the trial. How can you charge the gangs with extortion when the program intended all along to transfer money from the Feds to the gang? Assistant U.S. attorney Samuel K. Skinner, a protégé of Jim Thompson, argued otherwise. He produced evidence that gang members had falsified attendance sheets and turned over stipend checks to their leaders. Little if any learning had taken place in TWO’s training centers, Skinner said.
In fact, many gang members were placed in decent jobs, and many more would have been helped if the city had not been so hellbent on discrediting TWO, says Anthony Gibbs who served as TWO’s acting director of the training program. (He is now an aide to Acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer.)
“We knew what we were dealing with,” Gibbs says. “This was no Sunday-school class. The way to destroy the gang was to wean the members away from the gang. That was my philosophy. And the way to do that was to provide them with another alternative. Not say, ‘Be a nice little boy and go back to high school and get your GED.’ No, we’re gonna get you a J-O-B, ’cause this little training stipend I’m giving you, $45 a week, ain’t shit. I’m going to get you a job that makes you $150 a week and will buy you a new pair of shoes, sweater, everything. You’l1 get used to that, and you won’t have time for no gang.”
Others say the flood of grant money overwhelmed the gang.
“The money was coming so fast and so rapidly, the Rangers couldn’t sort out the good offers from the bad,” says Dan Swope, the former Boys Club director. “Ultimately, by not having that kind of guidance, they began to make their own choices, and they obviously made bad ones.
“People were fighting over them for grants. Jeff Fort and his group became ‘tough guys’ for hire. People made all kinds of offers, and they learned how to get everything they wanted. That’s what corrupted them, so much money being available. Everyone wanted to save the poor. Everyone had the perfect answer.”
When the trial was over, Jeff Fort was found guilty of conspiring to misapply Federal funds and was sentenced to five years in Leavenworth. He had been paid a total of $1,467.79 as a center chief. TWO, for its part, never did spend all of its grant money, turning back an estimated $200,000 to the Federal Government. By conservative estimate, barely one-third of the $927,341 grant had gone to the Blackstone Rangers. But these details were quickly forgotten. Over time, whenever the jobs program was mentioned, all anyone could remember was that Jeff Fort had conned the U.S. Government out of a million bucks.
Montgomery had done his best, but one of Fort’s overzealous followers wasn’t satisfied and threatened the lawyer. Montgomery dismissed the threat. But after the trial, he was relaxing on his yacht in Jackson Harbor when he saw the young man staring menacingly at him from across the park. Alarmed, Montgomery went to see Jeff Fort in jail. “Jeff said, ‘Jim, I’m sorry. I’ll take care of that right away. It won’t happen again,’ ” Montgomery recalls.
A few weeks later, two muscular black youths showed up, the offender wedged uncomfortably between them. “We brought this guy here to apologize to you,” they told Montgomery. “And if he doesn’t, he won’t be walking any more.”
At the corner of 39th and Drexel stands an old movie theatre that has been renovated into the El Rukn mosque. Above a fortified steel door is painted “FORT.” The mosque is a scant five miles from the Loop, but it might as well be in a different world.
The mosque is all that remains of Jeff Fort’s dream of an Enchanted City. Federal prosecutors and Fort’s lawyers offer a glimpse of what goes on inside. El Rukns gather around a speaker phone; Fort, calling from jail as he has for more than five years, issues orders, directing even the most mundane details of their lives. Federal prosecutors once recorded Fort quietly reprimanding his followers like a father scolding his children.
“Y’all got to start thinking more economically,” Fort says on the recording. “You understand we ain’t to get strung, spread out with these bills and things. . . . In the daytime we don’t need no lights on. . . . Brothers is looking at the TV all night long. They just leaving it on.”
The El Rukns stand at attention, answering, “Yes sir, sir!” Some of them, Fort’s lawyers say, have never even seen their leader’s face.
Jeff Fort converted to Islam in prison, joining the Moorish Science Temple of America, a Black Muslim sect based in Baltimore. On March 12, 1976, he was released to Chuck LaPaglia, who had left First Presbyterian and was teaching community education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Fort’s wife, Diane, and his two children joined him there.
LaPaglia says Fort tried to enroll in classes but withdrew after the Milwaukee police chief raised a ruckus. Fort became very secretive, LaPaglia says, and made frequent trips to Chicago. He moved back to Chicago in the late 1970s and with some of his old followers created the El Rukns. (The name is Arabic for “The Black Stone”; Fort had discovered that his old street bore the name of the holiest shrine in Islam.) The El Rukns won tax-exempt status as a religious organization and Fort took the name Chief Malik, which means “the ruler.” Today, the El Rukns say, they are a separate, black Islamic nation, providing food and shelter to the poor in the service of their God. Fort, his siblings, and his wife and six children are members of the mosque.
Police have a much different view of the closed society.
The El Rukns, they say, have never paid taxes on eight tax-delinquent South Side properties they purchased in the 1970s through a maze of blind trusts. In 1983, they were paid $10,000 by then state representative Larry Bullock to campaign for Mayor Jane Byrne. Police say they kept the money but dropped their support for Byrne.
The El Rukns use their religion, police say, as a cover for one of the largest drug operations on the South Side. In the late 1970s, Kolovitz says, the El Rukns sold marijuana, cocaine, and “T’s and blues,” or Talwin and Pyribenzamine, which when combined and injected have an effect similar to that of heroin. Police raids on the mosque netted guns, marijuana, and cocaine, says Kolovitz. Fort himself was arrested twice for possession of marijuana in the 1980s. In 1983, his calls from Chicago to Mississippi to arrange a cocaine-for-marl juana dope deal ended in a l3-year sentence in a Bastrop, Texas, prison.
“If El Rukn is a religious group, its sacraments are narcotics trafficking, intimidation . . . and human sacrifice,” says Cook County state’s attorney Richard M. Daley.
Though Daley paints a black-and-white picture of Fort, Kolovitz and others describe a man in transition. Kolovitz says Fort had forbidden heroin trafficking for years, but finally relented in 1984 when the El Rukns became strapped for cash. Ernie DiBenedetto, former head of the gang crimes unit for the Cook County state’s attorney, says that Fort, in prison, may have been forced to give in on the heroin sales by El Rukns who were challenging his leadership.
Fort formed a society within his society to handle the business, Kolovitz says. Fort’s most trusted generals muscled in on the South Side heroin traffic, announcing their arrival in a rash of drug-related murders in early 1985. The Guerrilla Family was born, and with it, Kolovitz says, Jeff Fort assumed yet another new identity. His code name: King Kong.
Fort always prided himself on having an impregnable organization, police and prosecutors say. Before 1983, for example, the state’s attorney’s office had never convicted an El Rukn for murder. A few El Rukn generals turning state’s evidence changed that. With Fort in prison, the El Rukns sprang a leak.
“We spent a lot of time trying to penetrate that organization. A lot of people told us it couldn’t be done,” says Ernie DiBenedetto. “We put away an entire echelon of violent El Rukn hit men.
“I think they are decimated now. Basically, Fort didn’t have control. Hours and hours on the phone don’t amount to a physical presence. No matter how loyal Jeff Fort thinks they are, he’s wrong.”
The courtroom was tense — it always is when Jeff Fort stands trial — but it was more strained than usual on that cold November day last year. Fort was being tried for terrorism and the gallery was packed with El Rukns wearing Islamic garb and sunglasses. Security at the Dirksen Federal Building had never been tighter.
“Let’s go,” said a Federal marshal. Fort ignored him. The day’s proceedings had ended, and Fort, wearing a long white prayer shirt and skull cap, was speaking with his followers. “Let’s go,” the marshal repeated. Again, Fort ignored him.
The marshal put his hand on Fort. “Let’s go,” he said, “or do we have to do it the hard way?” Fort glared. His followers jumped up, and some yelled out, “Yeah, let’s do it the hard way.”
The defense lawyer who related the story doesn’t recall exactly how long the standoff lasted, but he says it was Fort’s nemesis. Sergeant Daniel Brannigan, who ended the stalemate. Brannigan rushed in and spoke to Fort. “Jeff, don’t do this,” he said. “If you do, a lot of people will get hurt.”
It was a classic psychological shootout from the old Blackstone Ranger days: The law had the guns; the gang had the guts. The object was to see who would back down first, to see who would lose face. In the end, Fort called it off. A man can’t be a leader without followers. And for the past 25 years, Jeff Fort has let nothing stand between him and his people.
Not even prison. The telephone, Fort’s main link to the El Rukns since 1983, also has been the instrument of his downfall. After his drug conviction in 1983, Fort’s lawyers begged him to stay off the phone. But he couldn’t, and the Feds could not have been happier. Using the alias Mr. Wood, Fort placed thousands of collect calls to Chicago, talking in a mixture of street slang and secret lingo designed to fool eavesdroppers.
In five years, Federal agents taped some 3,500 hours of conversations. Eventually, they heard what sounded like an extraordinary transaction: Fort was trying to cut a deal with Moammar Gadhafi. For $2.5 million (“two dinners and half a lunch” in El Rukn code), the El Rukns would bomb government buildings and commit other terrorist acts in the United States, the Feds believed.
But they needed proof. It came when an El Rukn bought a rocket launcher from an undercover agent. And the icing came when Trammel Davis, an El Rukn amir, agreed to turn state’s evidence in return for $10,000 for his family. A Federal grand jury returned indictments against Fort and five other El Rukns.
No one denies the El Rukns were trying to get $2.5 million from Libya. After all, Louis Farrakhan had coaxed a five-million dollar no-interest loan from Libya for his Nation of Islam. Why shouldn’t the El Rukns get some money, too? Fort told his followers to cut a deal, but some people, including Kolovitz, doubt he ever intended to carry out terrorist acts.
“It was bad timing on Jeff’s part,” says Kolovitz. “He’s an opportunist. He saw a chance to make some money. That was total capitalism, not ideology.”
Faced with a trial that would be hard to win, sources say, lawyers presented Fort with two possible defenses. They could argue that he was a devout Muslim trying to renovate his mosque, or a street-gang leader trying to con Gadhafi out of some bigtime cash. It didn’t take long for him to make up his mind: He was Iman Chief Malik, not Jeff “Angel” Fort.
Prosecutors painted Fort as a vicious, almost inhuman fiend. Adrienne Drell, who covered the terrorism trial for the Chicago Sun-Times, says she believes the prosecutors set up the elaborate, tight security in part to convince reporters that the El Rukns were dangerous terrorists.
The trial lasted two months. After five and a half days of deliberations, the jury found Fort and the other defendants guilty. In December 1987, Fort was sentenced to 80 years. (He has spent most of 1988 in Cook County Jail awaiting trial for murder.)
Defense attorney Rick Halprin says the U.S. Government moved against Fort to justify its aggressive policy against Libya. He notes that the trial came soon after the clashes in the Gulf of Sidra in 1986 between the United States and Libya. “This was a political trial,” says Halprin. He’s not the only one to believe that.
Annie Bacon tells a story about the time the El Rukns bought a side of beef for a barbecue. Chicago police surrounded the mosque, she said, because they had received a tip that Jeff Fort was transporting a dead body in his car. Mrs. Bacon laughs as she remembers her son’s reaction. “Jeff said to me, ‘Mama, if I had known that, I would of put a wig on that cow.’ ”
The story, Mrs. Bacon says, illustrates how Jeff Fort is used as a scapegoat by the police. She says her son is now blamed for virtually every murder and drug deal on the South Side. And the media, she says, report everything the police say.
In late February, Mrs. Bacon invited Jeff Fort’s friends and supporters to her modest South Side bungalow to tell their side of the story. Her small parlor was decorated with pictures of Jesus and Abraham Lincoln; photos of some of Mrs. Bacon’s 45 grandchildren adorned the front room.
“We know for a fact that the news media and the diabolical historians of this country did not want Jeff Fort to be seen as a leader,” said Theron X Washington, a burly Black Muslim and CTA bus driver. “They want to see Jeff Fort become one of theirs, such as Al Capone or someone like that, a corrupt image, not a positive image.”
Fort’s mother recited parables. “We lived on 63rd Street, and there was an alley you could go through. In those days, it wasn’t dope fiends, it was old men being wineheads. I would cook [for her ten children] and when I would go into the parlor and sit down and come back, all my food is gone. I’m thinking somebody’s coming in getting my food. I didn’t have no dream that it was Jeff taking the food out there and feeding those people.
“He was out there, giving all of them a plate. He just couldn’t stand seeing people hungry. I just sat there and tears ran down. I said, ‘This child is an unusual child.’ ”
An El Rukn named Amir Bantu El, once known as Bernard “Droop” Green, warlord of the Blackstone Rangers, began pacing the room. “Our Chief Malik they done frame, shackle up, tie him up, lock him up, as long as [South African activist] Nelson Mandela, locked up 25 years over there, and they not thinking about letting him go,” he said. “Now they trying to pull the same thing over here.”
Amir Rajah Abdul Aswad-el, an El Rukn better known as Thomas “Doc” Bates, has an impish, warm grin but can speak with rhetorical repetitions to get his point across. In the 1960s, he said, Fort was “the spiritual spearhead and the inspiration of the community, and through his efforts came the affirmative action program. . . . In the 1970s, he came into the enhancement of the political scene, to show the people the way to justice. . . . Now here we are in the 1980s. Everything he promoted to benefit society in the 1960s, everyone who he has contributed to uplifting in the 1970s, have got together to attempt to put him in a position of out of commission.”
Father O’Sullivan sits in a meeting room in his church in one of the poorest parishes in Chicago. Through the windows, the rubble that is Woodlawn is visible. The once-crowded ghetto that spawned Jeff Fort now looks desolate, bombed out, vacant. O’Sullivan grew up in Woodlawn when it was white in the 1950s, served as its associate pastor when it was black in the 1960s, and took a breather from it after it was burned out in the 1970s. Now he is back, still pondering the 1960s.
“It was an enormously draining experience of violence, of hope, of great things happening and then shattering,” he recalls. It was a decade of change. Everything was up for grabs; it was “a new bag.”
“The most immediate and urgent need was to stop the killings,” he says. “People romanticized that this was going on in the streets, but kids were really getting stung. When I was burying these kids, that was an incredibly powerful experience.
“From that time, that period of 1964 to 1970, Jeff was wavering which way to go,” O’Sullivan says. “I think it was a struggle between his genius and need to be in power, and his willingness to say, ‘We need to work some things out.’
“If the political system would have opened up at that time . . . that seems to be the key. Where that could have happened, how it could have happened, I don’t know.”
There are, of course, plenty of people who say that Fort would have turned out bad no matter what. Rich Kolovitz thinks Fort was born with larceny in his heart and a con game in his head.
But others are less harsh. Had Fort been born in a different neighborhood or in a different time, they say, he could have been the black W. Clement Stone, or at the very least, a black Ivan Boesky. Art Lindsay, a former police lieutenant in Woodlawn, blames “white radical” outsiders for turning Fort’s head. People who had hope for him still grope for answers to just what went wrong.
“It looked for a time as if the whole outfit would turn the right way,” said a former teacher at the Scott School. “But why would you? If you lived in the ghetto and what’s being offered is being righteous and good but with no payoff of being rich, what are you going to do? Virtue comes hard.”
Former Boys Club worker Ed Woods believes Fort and his group were confronted with too much too quickly.
“Here was a guy, in another day and time, if the War on Poverty had never come about, he would have made as much money legitimately,” Woods says. “Jeff never got past the eighth grade and yet he had everything he wanted. Too many things were made available to him. He could retain lawyers for $10,000. There was no other direction for him to go.”
Chicago Tribune editorial page editor Lois Wille wrote an early and influential series on the Blackstone Rangers in 1966 for The Chicago Daily News. The point, she says now, was to get someone to intervene and turn the Rangers’ energies to something more constructive.
The right kind of program just never came along, and the one that did — the gang-run jobs program — was a disaster. Perhaps it was too late, even in 1966, Wille says.
“I assume that the city has learned a lesson,” she says, “ — that if you don’t intervene with the kids early enough you are raising dangerous, hardened criminals.”
These days the city’s anti-gang program is something called the Chicago Intervention Network. Started in 1985 after the killing of Simeon High School sports star Ben Wilson, CIN attempts to divert kids away from gangs and strengthen communities to deal with them. Like its predecessors, CIN has been criticized for a variety of shortcomings and caught up in political disputes. Its effectiveness is open to debate, but its workers, some of them former gang bangers, do what they can.
CIN worker Maalik Shabazz, a bearded man who covers himself with homemade jewelry, focuses on schoolchildren and prison inmates. He is a powerful speaker, weaving a web of words that leaves the listener dizzy. He tells a story about Fort that, like many of the stories, is impossible to verify. The story is about a 16- or 17-year-old boy going to high school, who Shabazz says he has reason to believe is Jeff Fort’s son, a love child not born to Diane Fort.
(Police say a high-school boy once turned up at the mosque, claiming Fort was his father. After the boy talked with the imprisoned Fort on the telephone, Fort accepted him as his own.)
“He is extremely intelligent, but you can see in him that battle between going to school or going to the streets,” Shabazz says. “In five or six years from now, if he inherits the operation, people are going to sit back and say, ‘Well, why didn’t he go to school to become a lawyer, since that’s what he said he wanted to be?’ ”
If word gets out that the boy is Jeff Fort’s son, the boy will face tremendous pressure to live up to his father’s reputation, Shabazz says. The gangs, the police, and the media, in their own way, will create another Jeff Fort.
“It’s an instant replay. I mean, it’s painful. You can see the potential, but you can also see the danger. This boy, you see more potential than danger, but you know if someone don’t rescue him he could very easily become a victim of a system already in place.”