DuPage drug cops 'making a difference' in heroin fight
'Middle men' out at all hours to quash the drug supply
In his aviator sunglasses and button-down shirt, Denny King looks every bit the blue-collar guy he wants to be -- at least in the eyes of the people he deals with at work.
In reality, King is a middleman in the fight against heroin in the suburbs. A team leader for DUMEG, the DuPage Metropolitan Enforcement Group, he operates between the federal and local authorities, working drug cases up the supply chain to bring dealers to justice.
King supervises officers who are working undercover. And he has to be ready for action, no matter the time.
"Basically, we're living two different lives. We play a drug dealer/drug user life, and we play the family life," he says. "It's a lot of juggling around because we're on 24/7."
Agents at DUMEG, or any of the 22 metropolitan drug enforcement groups in the state, put in long hours in search of big cases, cases in which they bring down five, six or dozens of people at a time who are accused of dealing heroin.
Their work is taking on even greater importance as police and other officials across the region bolster efforts to fight the drug, which claimed 215 lives in 2012 and 2013 in DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties -- and even more in Cook.
DUMEG agents work to track down drug dealers by learning to look like them, talk like them, act like them and blend in with their world, even as the dealers are doing their best to change things up and avoid getting caught.
"For us, the problem is we don't want the users," King says. "We want the guys that are selling the drugs."
Finding those guys often requires information from users who have been arrested. It requires teamwork, surveillance and repeated undercover drug buys, forging a relationship with dealers and building evidence so airtight the agent doesn't even have to appear in court.
Running on an undisclosed budget with an unspecified number of agents (details that are kept "close to the vest," DUMEG Director Mark Piccoli says), the agency is putting more resources toward the heroin fight than toward any other drug operation.
It's worth the effort, Piccoli says, because drugs such as Ecstasy, cocaine and recreational marijuana are all illegal, but heroin is more likely to end lives.
"We're trying to eliminate the heroin supply as best we can in DuPage County," Piccoli says. "The reason we're hitting this harder than the other drugs is because this drug is a killer."
Fighting a killer
The work of tracking down drug dealers often brings DUMEG agents to the West Side of Chicago. It's not truly their territory, but it's not out of their jurisdiction, either, because metropolitan enforcement group officers can make arrests statewide.
At DUMEG, undercover cops roam the streets for no more than four years because of the high stress and constant vigilance that come with the job.
"Your head always has to be on a swivel, especially when you're off-duty, because you never know who's going to recognize you," King says. "Most of the time, they see you before you see them."
On the West Side, agents follow tips they've gotten from informants to street corners with signs promoting "dirt cheap life insurance" or "one-day divorce, $59" and to deteriorating two-flats with overgrown lawns where people frequently mill around.
Some are "spotters," hanging out on a corner on their cellphones, alerting the dealers to anyone who looks like a cop, or to the presence of white kids, usually suburbanites in search of dope, driving in circles.
Others milling around heroin hot spots can be seen riding bikes, scoping out anyone who doesn't belong in neighborhoods with such nicknames as Austin, West Austin, or "K-town" because of such streets as Karlov, Keeler and Kedvale.
Others simply sit on stoops or curbs near cars with hoods propped open.
Those who are dealing often will flag down the suburban kids to make a sale, Piccoli says. And DUMEG agents sometimes will work in teams to follow the suburban kids to new targets.
"We don't cowboy it. We don't go out there by ourselves. We have a full team," King says. "There is no amount of dope worth jeopardizing the safety of my team."
Agents sometimes conduct buys in the city. But they're usually looking to lure dealers back to DuPage, where Piccoli says the court system is conservative, dealing with a smaller caseload than Cook County and hungry to harshly prosecute anyone selling heroin.
Closing the case
Before it's time to make an arrest, DUMEG agents try to think of everything that could go wrong. They plan for contingencies because they know the people they'll be dealing with will do anything to avoid going to jail.
King and Piccoli both say the agency puts safety over any individual drug operation, so if something isn't right, they'll bail. Agents have their own code words to indicate it's time to go.
King says he's never been part of a failed undercover bust, but he's had to change course in seconds to take dealers by surprise.
In a big case, DUMEG might be looking to nail dealers with felony drug conspiracy charges or prosecute them under the state's new Street Gang and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law, which Piccoli says carries harsher penalties.
"We like to have the cases so tied up in a big bow for the state's attorneys that they (the defendants) don't even have a case," King says.
That's important because once the suspected dealers are in custody and agents have worked the defendants for any new leads, the case is out of DUMEG's hands.
Agents know when one dealer is busted, there's another ready to step up to his corner and continue peddling heroin. And they know outsmarting these dealers offers a rush they could find in no other job, a way to contribute to a vitally important mission of ending heroin deaths in the suburbs.
"We are a very close family and we share a bond that most people will never understand," King says. "I wouldn't give it up for anything because I feel like we are making a difference."
• This article is part of our "Heroin in the Suburbs: Through Their Eyes" series. For more see http://bit.ly/DailyHeraldHeroinSeries
PART FOUR IN A SERIESHeroin has taken hold in the suburbs and turning a blind eye to it isn't acceptable anymore. In an occasional series, the Daily Herald examines the heroin problem through the eyes of those it affects and those who are fighting it. Today, we profile Denny King, a team leader for the DuPage Metropolitan Enforcement Group, which works to arrest drug dealers to disrupt the heroin supply chain.