Fugitives enrich themselves from abroad

Eddie Hicks was accused of running a crew of rogue cops. He's believed to be in Brazil. (Handout photo)

Former Chicago police Sgt. Eddie Hicks vanished eight years ago on the eve of his high-profile corruption trial.

Federal authorities had charged him with running a crew of rogue cops who robbed drug dealers, pocketed the illicit cash and sold the stolen drugs to other pushers. It was a case that stunned Chicago's law enforcement community.

Once Hicks was on the lam — to Brazil, authorities suspect — he was just as brazen, repeatedly conducting financial transactions in Chicago to enrich himself and the people closest to him, a Tribune investigation found.

Two years after Hicks vanished, his signature appeared on land records giving his son the South Side property Hicks had used to secure his $150,000 bond. Federal officials did not move to block that property transfer or seek a bond forfeiture judgment and seize the building.

Hicks' son, active-duty Chicago police Officer Anthony Hicks, then used the building to secure a $217,500 mortgage that he did not repay, records show.

While a fugitive, Hicks also apparently signed paperwork directing the Chicago police pension fund to deposit benefit checks totaling more than $300,000 into a credit union account. And his signature separately appears on at least 23 monthly police pension checks totaling $79,000, most of which were cashed or deposited by his wife, other records show.

Hicks married former Chicago officer Carol Pierce six days before he disappeared in 2003, government records show.

The case of Eddie Hicks is one of at least five the Tribune identified in which Chicago-area fugitives accused of murder, rape and other serious felonies apparently reached back to Chicago to conduct lucrative financial deals while they were hiding in places ranging from Latin America to Africa and the Far East.

The fugitives include a reputed Chicago gang member and murder suspect who fled to Mexico, then transferred property to a girlfriend, and a businessman who deeded a suburban home to his family years after he fled to Nigeria while facing homicide charges. Such deals underscore how freely criminal suspects can live by simply crossing the U.S. border.

Federal and local law enforcement officials told the Tribune they were outraged at the blatant transactions. But some said they weren't sure if any laws were broken or whether there was anything they could have done to stop the deals.

A fugitive's transfer of a building to a relative may not constitute a crime, for example, because a homeowner has a right to deed property even if he or she faces serious felony charges.

Still, following Tribune inquiries, the retirement board of the Policemen's Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago in September suspended Hicks' monthly annuity payments. And one former federal prosecutor argued that authorities can force the return of a fugitive with significant assets by aggressively using the courts to financially squeeze the escapee and his supporters.

"You cut the fugitive off from the things that matter most: money and his family," said former assistant U.S. attorney Martin Weinstein, who with other prosecutors helped capture international fugitive and former defense company executive Suleiman Nassar.

Nassar fled to Syria in 1994 after federal prosecutors in Atlanta charged him with taking part in a bribery and corruption scheme. The U.S. had no extradition treaty with Syria, but federal prosecutors obtained court permission to freeze Nassar's assets — including pension funds totaling about $750,000 — and to block Nassar's family from selling two Washington, D.C., condos that had been bought with Nassar's money.

"We visited plagues on him, cutting off his pension, taking his house," said Weinstein, now a partner at a Washington law firm.

Nassar buckled and returned to the U.S. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to federal prison.

Officials in the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago declined to divulge what they knew about Hicks' financial dealings but said they consider his capture a high priority and "have followed numerous leads relating to financial transactions, as well as pursued other avenues of investigation."

"Certain legal impediments (and) tactical considerations also play a role in deciding whether to restrain pensions and other assets, because at times fugitives' efforts to access their assets can reveal their whereabouts," their statement added.

Money keeps flowing