Martin Preib

Award-winning Writer





Journalist Ducks Evidence of Media Corruption In Mass Murder Case

“History is a set of lies agreed upon.” Napoleon

It had been a long, grueling day for the detectives investigating the Madison Hobley arson in January 1987. But finally, it seemed as if it were all over. Madison Hobley had confessed twice, once to the detective giving him a lie detector test and then again to detectives working the case. 

Throughout their interviews, the detectives had established a good rapport with Hobley. Originally, they met Hobley as a witness at his mother’s house earlier that day, the only member of his family to survive the fire that took, altogether, seven lives, injuring many more. One victim was left in the burn unit for weeks. But as the detectives heard Hobley’s story, then talked to the fire investigators and witnesses, they began to see his story didn’t hold up. 

They asked Hobley to take a lie detector test. He agreed. 

The detective administering the test confronted Hobley with the results, which indicated he had failed. Hobley broke down and admitted he set the fire because he had an affair with another woman and he wanted to remain with this woman, but he could not abide by another man being with his wife. 

The investigating detectives were summoned and advised of Hobley’s admission. They took him to an interview room where Hobley again confessed in detail, his account of purchasing the gas from a nearby gas station matching witness statements saying they saw him do so. 

The interview room where they spoke with Hobley had a one-way mirror, so that anyone outside could see inside without the detectives knowing they were being watched. After Hobley’s admission, the detectives suddenly heard a knock on the door. They went to see who it was.

It was an attorney named Steven Sterns, a relative of the Hobley family, who announced he was Hobley’s attorney. The detectives were surprised because attorneys are normally escorted back to their client after the detectives are notified, so having an attorney just pop up at the interview room caught the detectives off guard. 

In any case, they let him into the room to speak to Hobley after Hobley said Sterns was his attorney. When Sterns came out of his interview shortly thereafter, he announced that Hobley said he had been tortured. The detectives were furious and confronted Sterns with the fact that he had been standing outside the room and could see through the window that the two detectives and Hobley had been talking calmly. There was nothing to indicate they were or had been torturing Hobley a short time earlier. 

Given the contrast from Hobley’s behavior and statements before his attorney arrived and those just after, detectives wondered whether Hobley asserted the claim of torture on his own or if he was coaxed into doing so by his attorney. One minute Hobley is sitting at a table talking with the detectives, confessing to the crime, providing key details, and the next minute, after a brief interview with his attorney, he is claiming he was tortured. 

From that moment on, torture allegations against the detectives would become a mainstay of the legal crusade to free Hobley from death row after he was convicted of the seven murders. Ultimately, Hobley was set free not through the courts, but through a pardon from Governor George Ryan, shortly before Ryan was convicted on twenty-one counts of corruption. Throughout this crusade to free Hobley, the local media played a key role, pushing the torture narrative despite the total absence of any evidence that Hobley had been abused.

One publication that championed this narrative was the Chicago Reader. Despite the fact that Hobley’s torture claim never went anywhere in court, despite the fact that his attorneys could never sway any judge, jury, or prosecutor to buy into the claims that Hobley was innocent and that he had been forced to confess, the Reader pressed on with the narrative, pointing out in every article that the investigating detectives had once worked with Chicago Police Commander, Jon Burge, making them dreaded “Burge detectives.”

(Aside: If the detectives planned on framing Hobley for the murders, why would they offer a lie detector test? What if he passed? Where would there conspiracy be, then?)

In time, all that was required for the media to question the conviction of a killer, no matter how brutal the crime or how overwhelming the evidence, was to point out that at one time or another the investigating detectives worked with Jon Burge. 

The Reader did a lot more than that, though. In covering the Hobley saga, the paper ignored key evidence that showed Hobley’s guilt and key signs that the torture allegations were contrived. In ignoring all this evidence, the Reader denied its audience the opportunity to draw their own reasonable conclusions about the case and they helped pressure authorities into releasing Hobley, a common tactic in the wrongful conviction playbook. 

The wrongful conviction movement, after all, is less a legal review as it is an intense public relations campaign.   

One example of the Reader hiding evidence stands out above all others. 

In the course of their investigation, detectives received word from a patrolman who told them he had completed a case report several weeks before the arson. In this police report, the detectives learned that Hobley had been overheard in a phone conversation by this police officer and another witness making threats of arson against his wife. These threats were documented in a case report. 

This arson threat was crucial in convincing detectives and prosecutors that Hobley was guilty. Nevertheless, in their coverage of the Hobley saga, the Reader wholly ignored these arson threats witnessed by the police. There is no mention of them anywhere in their articles about the Hobley case. 

What are the chances that Hobley would make such threats against his wife weeks before she actually died in an arson, in a fire in which Hobley just happened to escape? What kind of newspaper ignores these threats in their lengthy “investigative” articles about the case? 

The Readers’ cover-up in the Hobley case is a chilling example of how media corruption led to the release of a man who burned seven people alive, two of them children. After Hobley got out, he got a settlement for $6 million. 

None of it would have taken place without the local media keeping the public in the dark about the real evidence in the arson and none of it would have taken place if the media wasn’t pounding their false claims about the case against the state’s already weak and corrupt politicians. 

And so all of this brings us to meeting in Chicago at a local bar on the North Side last Tuesday for a panel discussion by prominent journalists and their various guests. The meeting is called First Tuesdays and is run by former Chicago Reader journalist, Mick Dumke, now a reporter at the Sun Times. Also in attendance last Tuesday were journalists Carol Marin, Ben Joravsky and Mary Ann Ahern. Last Tuesday’s subject was a treasure trove by the Chicago media: police corruption. 


More an intellectual mob action than a civilized discussion—for there were no cops on the panel, no members of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), no members of the law enforcement at all—the rabid anti-police perspective of the Reader kicked in. 

The accusation of Chicago cops being racist thugs was on full display, particularly in light of recent police shootings. Carol Marin launched one false claim after another about police procedures, and the crowd, all clearly disciples of the Reader’s anti-police agenda, shouted down the few cops in attendance who tried to correct her. 

Marin then launched into the tired cliches about the police: the code of silence, their racism and brutality. 

But then came an unexpected question clearly no one on the panel, and certainly no one in the crowd, wanted to hear: What about corruption in the media? What about the code of silence in the media? Dumke was confronted with a question about the Reader’s failure to mention Hobley’s arson threats in all of their reporting on the case spanning decades. 

Wasn’t this a chilling sign of corruption? 

Dumke danced around the question, but never answered it. How could he? How could he admit to his devoted followers that his paper helped free a mass murderer by ignoring central facts in the case like Hobley’s arson threats weeks before the deadly fire? 

Pressed even further about the Hobley case, Dumke retreated to the Reader’s tired party-line about the detectives. Dumke pointed out that the detectives had been accused of torturing Hobley. 

It was a penetrating insight into the integrity of Dumke as a journalist that he would bring up these charges once again in an attempt to avoid discussing the corruption of his own journalist community in the Hobley case, as well as others cases. Having failed a lie detector test and confessing to the crime, what other defense could Hobley contrive other than that he was tortured into confessing? Dumke’s trotting out of torture allegations against the detectives—allegations that have been refuted time and time again—was a pathetic attempt to deflect attention away from the Reader’s own cover-up by continuing to make cops the fall guys. 

Here it is January of 2016 and Dumke is still repeating that there were torture allegations against the detectives, who caught and convicted a mass murderer after wading through one of the most horrible crimes scenes any of them had ever encountered. 

Dumke could not be pressed further to answer up about the corruption in the media. He was bailed out with the help of the crowd, a mob “educated” on police corruption for decades by papers like the Reader and journalists like Dumke. 

And all of this brings us back to Napoleon’s compelling claim that “history is a collection of lies agreed upon.” Was Napoleon from Chicago? For no city seems more adept at preserving a set of lies as its history the way Chicago does. 

Will it always be so? 

Perhaps, but new evidence arises every week that the Reader engaged in a vast cover-up in the Hobley case, and this evidence reveals itself not in some obscure artifact or a dubious statement from a witness with an agenda. This evidence arises right out in the open, in public documents like a case report revealing that arson was foremost in Hobley’s mind weeks before the actual fire. 

This record points to a truth most cops learn early on, that crooked journalism is a necessity in the most Crooked City. 

Martin Preib is a Chicago Police Officer and writer. His first book, The Wagon and Other Stories From the City, was published by the University of Chicago Press. His second book, Crooked City, is available on Amazon. His articles have appeared in Playboy, The Chicagoan, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, and New City. He is currently working on his third book about former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and the Hobley arson, titled Burn Patterns.