Tracking one of Chicago's most public private eyes
By Carl Kozlowski
JULY 13, 1998: Carolyn Montalbano called Thomas Hampson in a panic. She had just heard from her ex-husband, Curt, and the clock was running. Curt had taken their two sons nearly four years back, and he was finally offering to return them. But he wasn't going to just drive them back home.
Instead, he gave Carolyn Montalbano twenty-four hours to get to an island off the coast of Honduras if she ever wanted to see her boys again. The one person she believed could help her was Hampson, an iconoclastic Illinois private investigator whose firm is called Search International.
Hampson had earned Montalbano's trust in 1991, when she turned to him after she realized her husband wasn't going to return nine-year-old Michael and seven-year-old Nicholas from their weekend visitation.
When she heard from her ex-husband again in January of 1995, she called Hampson at 4pm. "He was ready to leave with me on a flight at three in the morning," recalls Montalbano. "We didn't know where we would end up, because it was an island full of drug dealers and gun runners, without police protection." Even the FBI had refused to get involved in the case, recommending that Hampson avoid attempting the island rescue.
"Not only did Thomas come down to get the kids, he went to the embassy to get passports so they could return to the U.S.," Montalbano recalls. "We made the transfer safely, and he said it was the most rewarding case he'd ever worked on."
But the child-recovery mission wasn't Hampson's most high-profile case. Over the course of thirty years, the investigator has helped bring the Illinois Ku Klux Klan to its knees, infiltrated the Chicago mob and nurtured the informant whose testimony shattered the notorious El Rukn street gang. And while much of his attention is turned to the shadowy world of corporate espionage these days, Hampson says all the cases takes share one thing in common: "I don't work for the bad guys. I'd rather help a small company defend itself against an unwanted takeover than do the work that eases the takeover. And if you're looking to prove innocence in a criminal trial, you'd better be able to convince me first."
Hampson is 50 and speaks with laconic charm. His thick mustache, round glasses and suspenders bring to mind Teddy Roosevelt, as does his Rough Rider attitude. The walls of his lair in a nondescript Schaumburg office park bear three decorations: a letter from Oprah Winfrey thanking him for being a panelist on privacy issues, an autographed photo and letter from Republican senator Fred Thompson thanking him for his work last summer investigating the Chinese campaign-finance scandal, and a certificate from the Illinois Legislative Investigating Commission thanking him for ten years of service.
"Fifty percent of my cases nowadays are corporate competitive intelligence clients," Hampson says. "The rest can be anything from recovering kidnapping victims to tracking a stalker in Colorado." The challenge of handling 250 clients across that spectrum each year means seventy-hour work weeks for Hampson, who's already flown more than 40,000 miles this year. He also employs a staff of six - including one of his three sons, 23-year-old Eric - and a network of 6,000 investigators worldwide he can call on as needed.
Hampson's investigative style mirrors that of a hard-nosed journalist: "accept nothing on its face, and never take anyone's word on anything." Every case starts with a thorough background check of the players involved, including credit reports, criminal records, even medical histories. Hampson, a computer database and Internet wizard, was asked by Sen. Thompson to create the complex charts that finally made sense of the internecine Chinese-Indonesian money trail to the Democrats.
But his regular use of computerized investigations places Hampson at the center of a mounting debate over electronic privacy issues. As critics ask whether anyone can truly keep their private life private anymore, Hampson insists that investigative uses of technology haven't gone far enough.
"If there's bad information out there on a person, then either it's false or it's true, and if it's true, they did the damage to themselves," he says. "They're the ones who have abused other people, ripped them off and not paid their bills, so why should we protect their privacy? If you're gonna do business or hire somebody like that, why should you not know about their record with financial dealings? Or if they want to be a baseball coach for your son, or a soccer coach for your daughter? Why should they have more privacy? I don't think they should."
This attitude troubles people like David F. Linowes, a professor of public policy at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. In 1976, Linowes was appointed chairman of the Privacy Protection Commission established by President Ford to monitor the impending Information Age explosion.
Linowes and his commission colleagues established 160 recommendations for dealing with privacy issues in the public sector, and he estimates that half have been established as law. The commission initiatives tried to meet three basic aims: minimizing the intrusiveness one person or organization can have on another; maximizing fairness by letting the subject know what information is being collected and what purpose it will be used for; and creating an enforceable expectation of confidentiality by mandating a medical-style code of ethics for guardians of personal information.
"You may assume information will be confidential, but it's not - a banker or physician can do what they want with it," says Linowes. "The physician should follow his code of ethics, but a banker or computer database person doesn't even have that. If people abuse the information, they should be subject to penalty. This carries over into corporate investigations, because you have to recognize people form the substance of any organization."
Although he feels free to pry into people's private lives, Hampson follows the P.I.'s code of refusing to name clients or provide more than the barest details of current investigations. But in addition to the ongoing Colorado stalker case, Search International's recent case load includes a corporate case in Switzerland, helping a south suburban client check out a sales rep suspected of selling competitors' products in violation of a non-compete agreement, and going online to trace the complex network of mergers in one corporation's history as it attempted to disperse its liability in a wrongful death suit across various divisions. Search staffers have also been checking into a major Arkansas factory to determine which employee is sabotaging one of the product lines. And the company is setting up a network with FBI, FDA and Customs agents in southern Florida and Jamaica in an attempt to bring down a counterfeit-goods ring.
Hampson learned how to keep secrets - and pry them loose - in the U.S. Air Force Security Service, before being hired on as an investigator for the Illinois Crime Investigating Commission in 1973. It was while working for the commission that Hampson, under the supervision of then-Chief Investigator Howard Roos, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan just as the group was planning a new wave of recruitment and activity. Secretary of State George Ryan, then a state representative, drafted the resolution authorizing the commission's investigation. Ryan feared a re-run of the southern racial violence of the fifties and sixties in his Kankakee district.
"I was tagged to be their Klan guy, because I didn't look at all like a cop," Hampson recalls. "I was skinny, blond-haired and had a baby face. Plus, I had selected a cover that enabled me to have access to state records."
This access enabled Hampson to earn the trust of the secretive KKK. By ostensibly helping the group screen out undercover agents, as well as writing and publishing the Klan's Illinois newsletter, he was able to rise quickly through the ranks. Within eighteen months, Hampson was the state's No. 2 Klan official.
His position required a delicate balancing act. He had to attend "eerie, evil" ceremonial cross burnings where members and their families chanted "White power!" He also had to stomach racist jokes and discussions in order to learn the group's plans for expansion. Yet at the same time, the respect he earned from the Klansmen enabled him to prevent outright violence on several occasions.
"The standard I had set for myself was I would not foment any violence or promote it in any way. When I gave a speech, my only rhetoric was patriotic in nature, just anti-Soviet rather than anti-any American group," Hampson explains. "And if I was a witness to violence against anybody I would have broken my cover and arrested them."
One of Hampson's most bizarre moments in the Klan came when he was able to talk members out of launching fireworks mortars into a predominantly black Danville neighborhood. Lending credence to their traditional image as a bunch of bumpkins, the members assumed they would merely scare the residents out of their homes. Hampson impressed upon them that a mortar-size explosion could kill people.
Then there was the night the Klan inducted him into their Royal Order of the Yellow Dog. On December 7, 1975, Hampson says, he withstood incredible torture to prove his alleged loyalty. "We inductees had been taken to a lodge-style hall in Indianapolis, where a guy came in with a big box and told everyone to put their guns in it. So the box gets filled up, since they all carry guns. Then we had to strip to the waist, take off our shoes and socks and roll our pants up to our knees."
The fun was just beginning. Hampson found himself second in the initiation line, behind then-Illinois Grand Dragon Don Trosper, as both were blindfolded and led through a "surreal" obstacle course. The men had to push through barriers before standing on a chair and jumping onto hundreds of tacks scattered across the floor. They were shocked with cattle prods as they navigated the maze.
"They were zapping us on our nipples and underarms, as well as behind the ears, to see if we were tough," says Hampson. "I didn't want to give them the satisfaction of screaming like everyone else, but all I could think was, 'If I ever get out of this, you guys are going to pay.' I thought, 'If I'm scarred, I'm going to come back and kill these guys.'"
Once through the gauntlet, Hampson's blindfold was removed and he was forced to watch others endure the agony. The initiators continued to zap some of the men even after they passed out.
"The Klan very rarely carries out official, organization-directed violence. It mostly serves as a fraternity for angry white males who feel they've been shut out of society by affirmative action or their lack of education," Hampson says. "But at the same time, it's the individuals within the group that can pose a threat, and there was a small group of people in the Klan who were exceedingly dangerous and would have been so anywhere."
The night culminated with a dinner ceremony that included an even more elaborate scheme. Indiana Grand Dragon William Cheney stepped up to a podium and announced that there was a law enforcement infiltrator in their midst, and that it would serve the spy well to admit his status.
Hampson was seated on the dais directly between Cheney and Trosper, his heart racing. Surveying the room, he eyed the nearest exit doors and counted how many men he would have to break through to escape. Before he could decide whether to confess or run, he felt a shock in his arm and passed out.
"The whole announcement turned out to be a joke," says Hampson. "Cheney wanted to pull a prank on Trosper since he was the head of another state [Klan chapter], and it turned out his men had rigged Trosper's chair with 120 volts of electricity. So when he said it would be a good idea for the infiltrator to stand up, he juiced Don's chair and he leaped screaming out of his seat. Some of the sparks burned a hole in my shirt and I was out on the floor."
During his eighteen months under cover, Hampson was privy to the discussions that formed the basis of the nationwide militia movement. This information enabled law-enforcement agencies to better track the movements and organization of Klan chapters. And he confirmed enough criminal activity and planning to put Indiana Grand Dragon Cheney in prison.
Although he was able to break away to visit his wife regularly, Hampson struggled to maintain his sense of self while immersed in his KKK role. "There's a theory that once you begin playing the part, you become the part," says Hampson. "So I had to look myself in the mirror each day and say 'These people are not my friends. I don't believe what I'm saying.' These days, the situation has improved for agents because they're required to have a regular mentor keeping them in check."
Hampson rose to the rank of chief investigator at the state commission. There, he headed the team investigating organized crime's involvement in the state's off-track betting, porno and strip-club industries. However, he refused to infiltrate again, preferring to supervise others because of his "emotionally grueling" experience in the Klan.
He also searched for an informant to crack the powerful El Rukn street gang, which ruled inner-city Chicago in the early eighties. Hampson settled on longtime source Kenny Morrow, who had dropped out of gang life after his brother was murdered in a turf war. Morrow's eventual testimony revealed the hierarchical structure of the gang and led to the arrest of El Rukn leaders just as they had arranged a deal to serve as U.S. hitmen for Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddhafi.
"Thomas' willingness to share a source he'd developed for many years provided us a valuable insight into how the gang's key players worked," says Linda Brown, who worked the El Rukn case as a member of the FBI's Organized Crime Division. "His compassion made a big difference in building our source's trust, and he wasn't worried about who got the credit for it. To him, it was just a matter of getting the job done."
Hampson left the state commission to establish Search International in 1983. He had tired of the long daily commute into Chicago from his Schaumburg home, and wanted to pound the pavement again as an investigator.
While he doesn't have to infiltrate criminal organizations anymore, Hampson never knows when he might have to scramble to a Honduran island, or when a stalker in Colorado might have to be stopped from attacking his victim. And he's always got the hunger to take on another case.
"I've always had a passion for justice," Hampson says. "To me, it's a ministry in a way."
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