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Chicago's Gem of a Cop Opts for the Real Jewels

Law: Legendary career provided fodder for Hollywood, grist for the rumor mill, target for the FBI.

April 21, 2002|SHARON COHEN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

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 into Indiana as two cars--a Buick Century and an Olds Cutlass--trailed him for 50 miles, all the way to the parking lot of a place called the Spa restaurant.

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 was the bait. FBI agents in a van were videotaping the scene. And those watches lifted from the trunk? They were provided by the feds.

Among the thieves in Porter, Ind., 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 such a legendary police career that Hollywood modeled a hard-boiled TV character after him.

But on this day, William Hanhardt 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, his bravado making a front-page splash. A newspaper photo shows the young cop 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.

Hanhardt waged war on burglary rings and cartage thieves who made off with televisions, cigarettes, anything that could be lifted off a trailer.

"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.

In his heyday, Hanhardt headed the Central Investigations Unit, a handpicked team that targeted, among others, jewel thieves.

Over the decades, Hanhardt was rewarded with powerful posts: commander of the burglary section, chief of detectives, and one of a handful of deputy superintendents. He retired in 1986 as a captain.

As his 33-year career ended, Hanhardt became a consultant to "Crime Story," a film-noir TV series about an elite team of Chicago detectives that takes on the mob.

Adamson says there was a lot of Hanhardt in the show's hero, Lt. Mike Torello, a 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.

The show seemed a case of art imitating life: There were stories about cartage heists, home invaders--even a jewel theft from a car trunk.

At some point in his glory years--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."

One longtime con said several years ago that in the 1960s, the word on the grapevine was that mobsters were paying the master detective $1,200 a month.

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 "the Ant" Spilotro.

Hanhardt's lawyers dismiss the accusations as the words of lowlifes who held grudges.

Hanhardt defended his own record in an affidavit last year, saying he and others in his command arrested numerous mobsters.

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 [cheated] eventually, so you went into the game with that thought in mind. . . . 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."

*

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.

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