The Watchdogs: Reputed drug kingpin played the City Hall game
By Frank Main January 16, 2011 10:56PM
Row houses developed by Saul Rodriguez
Updated: May 1, 2011 4:45AM
To one of Chicago’s most powerful politicians, Saul Rodriguez was just another young real-estate developer.
Rodriguez, then only 24, wanted to build five condominium buildings in Ald. Ed Burke’s 14th Ward in 1999. He hired Barbaro Construction, whose owner, William Barbaro, contributed to the campaign fund of then-Ald. William Banks (36th), head of the City Council’s zoning committee, after the project’s completion.
In July 1999, Rodriguez applied for the zoning change he needed for the project. City planners objected, questioning the proposed increase in residential density of the Southwest Side neighborhood.
But as the alderman for the ward, Burke all but had the final say, according to City Council tradition, and he gave the go-ahead. In early 2000, the City Council’s zoning committee and then the full council approved the project.
Rodriguez built five two-story buildings on the south side of the street in the 2700 block of West 37th Place in Brighton Park. He estimated each building would cost $190,000.
One factor Burke says he didn’t know at the time: Rodriguez was a reputed narcotics trafficker.
That allegation would come to light in 2009, when Rodriguez was charged in federal court with being a murderous drug kingpin.
Rodriguez’s indictment didn’t make a big splash then. It got more attention in November, when a Chicago cop was charged with taking part with Rodriguez’s alleged drug crew in robberies and kidnappings. Another law enforcement official still might be charged in the ongoing case, a source says.
“We had no way of knowing at the time — which was more than a decade ago — that Mr. Rodriguez was anything other than a developer,” says Burke. “I saw no reason to oppose this project because similar brand-new housing had just been built across the street, which did much to beautify and upgrade the neighborhood. Additionally, not one neighbor appeared to testify against this project, which also provided more options for new housing to local residents.”
According to federal authorities, Rodriguez, who as a teenager was a member of the La Raza street gang, for years managed to straddle two worlds. In one, prosecutors say, he bought and sold hundreds of pounds of cocaine and heroin with the help of Chicago Police Officer Glenn Lewellen, hatching drug deals at a strip club in Bridgeview. The crew allegedly engaged in kidnappings, robberies, torture including sodomizing victims with broom handles, and even murder.
In the other world, Rodriguez was a successful businessman, a real-estate developer with properties in the Chicago area and Nevada.
He also became a boxing manager, reaching a pinnacle when one of his fighters, David “El Torito” Torres, fought in a 2008 bout televised on ESPN2 at the Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills, Calif.
One boxing executive says he was shocked when federal agents came asking questions about Rodriguez.
“He came across as a real-estate guy with holdings in Nevada,” says the exec, asking not to be identified. “He didn’t come across as a gangster. He was a regular, knowledgeable boxing guy — one of those guys who doesn’t have the money to buy an NFL team but wants to play at a high end of sport.”
Among Rodriguez’s alleged partners in crime was Lewellen, 54, a Chicago police narcotics officer when he recruited Rodriguez as an informant, officials say. The city paid Rodriguez a total of more than $700,000 for information that led to the seizures of his rivals’ drugs and cash, according to a source.
While a cop and after retiring from the department in 2002, Lewellen took part in Rodriguez’s drug business, according to prosecutors, who say he “held himself out as a police officer when obtaining wholesale quantities of cocaine in the Chicago area.” He was involved in a 2003 kidnapping in which cash and 100 kilograms of cocaine were ripped off, according to his indictment. He also lied at the drug trial of an Aurora man who was convicted but later was freed after the charges were vacated because of his false testimony, prosecutors say.
According to property records, Lewellen also sold Rodriguez a home in Cicero in 2003. And Lewellen bought a home in the development across the street from Rodriguez’s on 37th Place, records show.
Lewellen, who became a home-builder and tournament poker player after he left the police department, has told authorities he owns $2.5 million in property in the southwest suburbs, in New Lenox.
Prosecutors say Lewellen has $800,000 in the bank, which he’s disputed, telling a judge he has only $100,000 in cash.
Rodriguez, who lived in a Countryside mansion, was arrested in 2009 after he allegedly plotted a daring ripoff of 600 kilograms of cocaine a Mexican drug cartel was supposedly storing at a warehouse in Channahon.
At a meeting at the Polekatz strip club in Bridgeview, authorities say, Rodriguez warned one of his crew members — who turned out to be a secret informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration — about how dangerous the mission was, writing on a napkin in Spanish: “Do you know what you’re getting into because it’s some serious s---.”
But the cocaine was fake, planted by the DEA in a sting. Rodriguez’s crew members were arrested, and soon after, he was busted, too.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Ald. Edward M. Burke received campaign donations from a contractor who built homes in Burke’s ward for a reputed drug kingpin. The contractor never made campaign contributions to Ald. Burke. Burke received campaign donations from a constituent and longtime family friend who had the same name as the contractor.