In this city, Linda Taylor is known as the welfare Queen, for she is credited with taking in more than $150,000 a year in welfare benefits. Officials of the Illinois Department of Public Aid say that if the total isn't a record, the rightful claimant has yet to step forward - or be caught.
But Chutzpa Queen may be a more apt title for the 49-year-old Taylor, judging from the tale that has been unfolding in Cook County Circuit Court here for more than a week. According to testimony from state witnesses, all Taylor had to do was ask for the money and it started rolling in, courtesy of an anesthetized bureaucracy.
Details of Taylor's escapades have been reported with great relish by Chicago newspapers, providing some tongue-clucking reading for the citizenry. She was a favorite target for Ronald Reagan during his presidential campaign, dredged up whenever he wanted to cite abuses in the public welfare system. Many Illinois politicians found her a convenient symbol in their campaign against the administration of former Gov. Dan Walker, who was defeated in the 1976 Democratic primary.
The way Taylor came to the attention of Illinois authorities is characteristic of the elan with which she built her reputation.
In August, 1974, two Chicago police detectives, Jack Sherwin and Jerry Kush, went to a grimy Southside address to take a burglary report. An attractive middle-aged woman there told them that $14,000 in cash, furs and jewelry had been stolen and a police report would be necessary for the insurance claim.
Sherwin and Kush took the report, but there was something familiar about the incident. It reminded them of a 1972 burglary that turned out to be phony.
The woman in that case claimed that $10,000 in cash and valuables had been stolen, and the woman herself was familiar, too - once she took off her wig.
They later charged Taylor with making a false report to police - a minor crime with a light penalty - but they were intrigued with something else found in the apartment: welfare checks made out to different people at different Chicago addresses and food stamps and rent receipts and Social Security cards as well as other identification.
Sherwin and Kush spent more than two weeks attempting to trace Taylor's lifestyle from the Southside slums to Loop banks to travel bureaus and through the labyrinth of the Illinois Public Aid Department.
They allege that the evidence they turned up showed that Taylor:
Had at least 26 aliases, with identifications to match.
Was listed at more than a score of telephone numbers.
Could show her address at more than 30 locations in and around Chicago.
Owned a portfolio of stocks and bonds under various names and a garage full of autos, including a Cadillac, Lincoln and a Chevy wagon.
Had three Social Security cards.
Was wed to several husbands who had died, had recently wed a 21-year-old sailor at a nearby naval training center and,
Was about to leave on a Hawaiian vacation.
The two detectives say the Excessive Assistance Service investigative arm of the Public Aid Department indicated to them that it didn't have the time to investigate, and that in any event the state's attorney rarely approve any felony charges stemming from welfare fraud.
The state's attorney's office said it no longer handled welfare fraud cases, and the U.S. attorney's office added to the frustration by saying "it was a matter of several federal agencies that would be involved but not something that (the U.S. attorney) handled."
But the detectives found willing listeners in the Chicago media and, enticed by the accompanying public outrage, the state legislature joined the fray in hopes of discrediting then-Gov. Walker through his Public Aid Department. At various times, the legislature's ad hoc Advisory Committee on Public Aid estimated the state was losing $150 million to $400 million a year to welfare cheats, and if anyone wanted proof there was always the haples and silent Taylor.
A Cook County grand jury finally indicted Taylor in March, 1976, but the charges fell far short of the fraud figures that had been bandied about. She was charged with theft of $8,000 from public welfare and with perjury.
The current trial has illuminated the apparent ease with which Taylor garnered the welfare income.
According to the testimony, in one period from 1969 to 1974 she collected welfare payments, food stamps and medical aid under the alias of Connie Walker.
In 1973, wearing one of her 30 wigs and with the identification of Linda Bennett, she applied for more aid, claiming "utter need" of support. A Public Aid Department employee "took pity" and approved her application, producing total monthly welfare checks under the two identities of more than $600.
In April of 1974 she allegedly returned to the public trough as Sandra Brownlee, mother of seven preschool children, "a set of triplets and two sets of twins."
Prosecutors say there is no category of public aid - welfare payments, rent subsidies, medical reimbursement, food stamps, transportation allowances, child care expenses, survivors' benefits - that Taylor had neglected to apply for under her own name and dozens of aliases.
Throughout the trial and frequent newspaper revelations, Taylor has remained cool, fashionably dressed, unflappable and uncommunicative.
Her attorney, Isaiah Gant, says: "The term 'Welfare Queen' gives the image of a cunning, slick woman who could dupe the all-massive politically job-laden department of Public Aid. This 'Welfare Queen' syndrome was an effort of the state of Illinois and the Department of Public aid to cover up their own frailties. This woman is the fall guy."