Publication date: 04/20/2002
Good cop-bad cop
A real-life 'Crime Story': From top Chicago cop to master jewel thief
By SHARON COHEN
AP National Writer
CHICAGO -- The jewelry salesman was ready for the thieves this time. He set out on a trip with $58,000 in luxury watches in the trunk of his Lincoln. He wanted to be followed.
From his suburban Chicago home, he headed south into Indiana as two cars -- a Buick Century and an Olds Cutlass -- trailed him 50 miles, all the way to the parking lot of a place called the Spa restaurant in Porter, Ind.
When the salesman went inside, one of the thieves pounced -- opening the trunk of the Lincoln with a key and lifting out two jewelry cases. Then he sped away.
This wasn't the first time the salesman had been targeted. Twelve years earlier, $310,000 in Baume & Mercier watches were snatched from his car -- by some of the same thieves watching him this day.
But this time, the salesman, a big catch before, was the bait. FBI agents sitting in a van were videotaping the scene. And those watches lifted from the trunk? They were provided by the feds.
Among the thieves that October day in 1996 was a lookout, a silver-haired man with an extraordinary resume for a criminal. He once was a deputy superintendent of the Chicago police.
As a cop, he had worked closely with the FBI, piling up commendations, including one from J. Edgar Hoover. He had a such a legendary police career that Hollywood modeled a hard-boiled TV character after him.
But on this day, William Hanhardt, a man who once commanded hundreds of police officers, was doing something far different:
He was running a multimillion-dollar jewel theft ring.
There was a time when Hanhardt was known as a cop's cop.
It was in the 1960s, an era when plainclothes police wore porkpie hats and reed-thin ties, that he began making his mark.
He once chased a vicious ring of home invaders down the street, guns blazing. His bravado made a front-page splash. A newspaper photo shows the young cop with wavy hair and a coolly arched eyebrow, proudly holding a Tommy gun.
"He was a real hard-core guy -- a guy who was really feared, even by his own squad," says veteran private eye Ernie Rizzo.
He waged war on burglary rings and cartage thieves who made off with televisions, cartons of cigarettes, boxes of razor blades, anything that could be lifted off a trailer and spirited away.
"He had no peers in terms of his police career," says Chuck Adamson, a former Chicago cop who wrote for the TV show "Crime Story" and a longtime Hanhardt friend. "He was the best, the best, without a doubt."
In his heyday, Hanhardt headed the Central Investigations Unit, a hand-picked team that targeted, among others, jewel thieves.
Adamson, who was in the unit, still marvels at Hanhardt's street smarts, saying, "He saved the day for us many, many times."
Even now, friends like to reminisce.
Richard Brzeczek, former Chicago police superintendent, says Hanhardt had an encyclopedic memory. Once, during a briefing about a bank robbery involving a 1967 blue Ford sedan, he interrupted, naming a suspect.
"That's how well he knew people," Brzeczek says. "He knew what they drove, where they hung out, who their girlfriends were."
Law enforcement lavished praise. Merchants did too. One 1972 letter thanked the police for the "professional and informative" seminar Hanhardt helped conduct. The authors: a group of retail jewelers.
Over the decades, Hanhardt was rewarded with powerful posts -- commander of the burglary section, chief of detectives, deputy superintendent, one of a few. He retired in 1986 as a captain.
As his 33-year career ended, Hanhardt turned his police savvy toward Hollywood. He became a consultant to "Crime Story," a film-noir TV series about an elite team of Chicago detectives that takes on the mob.
Art imitated life. There were stories about cartage heists, home invaders, even a jewel theft from a car trunk.
Adamson says there was a lot of Hanhardt in the show's hero, Lt. Mike Torello, a brawling, hard-living, make-his-own-rules guy played by actor Dennis Farina, a former Chicago cop himself.
The Torello character hailed from the near West Side neighborhood, "the Patch," where Hanhardt grew up -- alongside a number of mob bosses.
Hanhardt, who advised the show on police procedures, even had a cameo in one episode, playing a retired Kansas City hit man who travels to Las Vegas to urge that peace be made with a transplanted Chicago mob boss.
"I didn't come out here to whack nobody, kid," he says, delivering his lines with the same penetrating gaze and cool authority he had used on informants while on the police force.
It was a convincing performance. But it paled compared with the drama already unfolding in his secret life.
At some point in his glory years -- it's hard to tell when, but it was decades ago -- people started to whisper about Hanhardt.
"The rumors were, 'How can a cop be so be great unless he had the inside track at something?"' Rizzo says. "He would know who committed a score hours after it happened."
Bob Fuesel, a retired Internal Revenue Service agent who worked on organized crime cases during the 1960s and '70s, says he was told by members of the police intelligence unit "to stay away from that guy. ... He was bad news."
He claims it was "common knowledge" among organized crime prosecutors decades ago that Hanhardt was associated with the mob. Informants told the feds he'd been on the underworld payroll for decades.
A corrupt ex-cop claimed Hanhardt had shaken down bookies and burglars in the 1950s.
Bank robber Robert "Bobby the Beak" Siegel said several years ago that in the late 1960s, the word on the grapevine was mobsters were paying the master detective $1,200 a month and sweetening the deal with a new car every two years.
Court documents also claim that in 1979, Hanhardt might have leaked details of a major FBI investigation into Las Vegas casinos skimming to the mob.
It didn't help when Hanhardt showed up in places a good cop doesn't belong: in the little black book of a murdered labor racketeer, on the witness stand for the defense in the Las Vegas jewelry burglary trial of reputed mobster Anthony Spilotro.
Hanhardt's lawyers dismiss the accusations as the words of low-lifes who held grudges. Hanhardt also defends his own record.
"I was responsible, along with officers under my command, for the arrest of numerous members of Chicago organized crime during my tenure with the Chicago Police Department," he said last year in an affidavit.
Hanhardt has not spoken publicly since being charged, but in a 1995 interview with Richard Lindberg, author of several books on Chicago police and crime, he offered his perspective on life as a cop:
"You knew that you're going to get screwed over eventually, so you went into the game with that thought in mind and you weren't surprised when it happened. You got a wife. You got kids. So you got to think about the future, right? But I never liked thinking about the future. I liked to live for the moment."
To catch a thief
The FBI pursued Hanhardt with the same dogged detective work he might once have applauded. By 1996, a decade after he had retired, the government was wiretapping his home phone, recording hundreds of conversations.
The tapes revealed Hanhardt was calling police department contacts, who did database searches on jewelers.
The feds also got from an informant copies of index cards with information on jewelers used by Hanhardt and others to conduct surveillance. The FBI found several of those people were, in fact, theft victims.
Then the FBI did its own surveillance. It found Hanhardt and others attending a jewelry show in Tucson in 1996, using a false name to register and obtaining a safe deposit box at the hotel.
Hanhardt's doom may have been sealed in 1999 when an associate in the jewel theft ring got involved in a nasty divorce. The wife led Rizzo, the private eye, to a bank safe deposit box. It contained scores of uncut diamonds and jewels -- plus a phony ID her husband had used along with phone bugs and car tracing beepers.
Word of the stash soon spilled out. And the FBI swooped in with subpoenas.
Police contacts for nefarious ends
In the fall of 2000, the feds made their move.
Hanhardt and five other men -- including the one involved in the divorce -- were charged with operating a nationwide theft ring that stalked jewelry salespeople and stole more than $5 million in gems and watches. One heist occurred near the end of Hanhardt's career, the others after he retired.
The FBI said Hanhardt's know-how was critical to the ring's success. One example: His use of police contacts for computer searches gave the thieves critical information about jewelers and their cars.
"Hanhardt's organization surpasses, in duration and sophistication, just about any other jewelry theft ring we've seen," former U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar said in announcing the charges.
The first heist, slick and swift, set the pattern.
The year: 1984. The place: suburban Milwaukee. A jewelry salesman dashed into a hotel to make a phone call, then returned moments later to find his Mercedes gone.
It was found, but some $310,000 in watches were not.
Over 12 years, there were seven more thefts and two attempts, including that 1996 incident in Indiana, involving the same salesman as in the Milwaukee job.
Snatching platinum and diamonds, watches, earrings and bracelets -- most never recovered -- the thieves had successful scores in seven states: Arizona, California, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin.
Many thefts were from locked car trunks. But the biggest, a $1.5 million heist, came from safe-deposit boxes at the Columbus, Ohio, Hyatt Regency hotel.
Federal officials say the group stalked more than 100 jewelry salespeople handling more than $40 million in merchandise over 15 years.
The thieves' methods were elaborate. They used coded language, aliases and carried bulletproof vests and a fake mustache and beard. Their tools and equipment ranged from slim jims and lock picks to listening tools and a device with flash bulbs to temporarily blind victims.
They kept meticulous records on potential targets, obtaining their phone numbers (some unlisted), bank account information, frequent flyer numbers and travel itineraries.
They convinced auto manufacturers they were dealers to get access codes to cut new keys for cars.
And they bought luggage that matched bags carried by their targets, so they could make a quick switch.
The feds tracked Hanhardt around the country and collected 3,000 pieces of the ring's incriminating writings.
Last October, a day before Hanhardt was to plead guilty to transporting stolen property across state lines and racketeering conspiracy charges, he overdosed on pain pills in an apparent suicide attempt.
About a week later, the man who once wore a neatly pressed blue uniform, appeared in court in an orange jumpsuit:
"Are you pleading guilty because you are, in fact, guilty?" the judge asked.
"Yes, sir, I am," he said.
A change in uniforms?
Instead of spending his retirement with his wife, seven grown children and their families, William Hanhardt will likely spend his days in a cell.
He is set to be sentenced April 29, facing up to 25 years in prison, though attorneys have suggested federal guidelines could make it closer to 12 years. That could be a life sentence for Hanhardt, who at 73, has survived a bout with cancer and has other health problems.
In his plea, Hanhardt admitted to few specifics but acknowledged participating in some thefts. Four co-defendants, some with lengthy mob associations, also have pleaded guilty and all but one identified Hanhardt as the ringleader.
It is an ignominious ending to a once-celebrated career.
"He was so great. Why was he so bad?" asks Lindberg, the author who once interviewed Hanhardt. "He contradicted his entire career by embracing the people he was arresting."
Hanhardt's friends say they've never asked what possessed him to do what he did. But Lindberg has a theory: Not greed, but boredom.
"I think he did it because of the rush," he says. "People working inside the system believe that they're outside the rules of the game. ... I'm certain Hanhardt believes that he was never going to get caught. There's no other believable explanation. It's Chicago -- and as they say in Chicago, anything goes."